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Tips and thoughts: AFL finals Week 1

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4th September, 2019
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It feels like it’s been a while since we closed out the regular season with a nice eight out of nine.

Count me as one of the people against the pre-finals bye; I get the benefits of getting everyone back from injury – and of course the AFL getting better ratings thanks to being able to schedule a Thursday night final – but from a fan perspective it really kills the momentum of the season.

Anyway, we’re going to try something slightly different for finals – we’ll split each game into three categories and go through our thoughts on each one in order to get a better grasp on what we think will happen.

The categories will be:

  1. Form. This will encompass recent form for season 2019 as well as any notable trends for the teams against one another or at the match venue.
  2. Health. Who’s coming back from injury? Who’s playing hurt? Who’s still out?
  3. Game plan. This is the broadest of the three categories. We’ll look into how each team likes to play, notable stats from the regular season, possible match-ups and likely strategies before making our final tip.

Let’s get to it.

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Thursday, 5 September

West Coast Eagles vs Essendon Bombers
8.10pm at Optus Stadium

Form
It’s fair to say both these teams limped to the finish line. Essendon lost three of their last four, dropping 8.9 percentage points, with the sole win coming against an imploding Fremantle team. West Coast somehow managed to squander a two-game lead and drop out of the top four by losing their final two games.

The big factor here is obviously the location. The Eagles are historically 20-6 at Optus Stadium, but three of those losses have come this season, with two of them in their past four games there. The Bombers actually have a decent record here at 2-2, including the aforementioned win over Fremantle and an upset over West Coast last season.

However, as we mentioned ahead of their Round 14 encounter this year, that Eagles team was missing Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling. Subsequently, with both those guys in the line-up this June, West Coast handled Essendon by 35 points, a margin that should have been larger as the Eagles kicked an uncharacteristically woeful 14.22 to the Bombers 11.5.

Health
Some huge and potentially very important inclusions loom for both teams. Essendon will welcome back captain Dyson Heppell, Jake Stringer, Cale Hooker and Orazio Fantasia. Michael Hurley and whatever is left of his shoulders also seems set to suit up, although just how effective he and most of the other big returning names can be is a huge question mark.

West Coast, on the other hand, are far more settled, with only a minor hamstring-shaped cloud hanging over skipper Shannon Hurn, plus there’s the return of game-wrecker Nic Naitanui. I’m not usually a big proponent of ruckmen making a massive difference – hit-outs and clearances just don’t matter as much as the media make them out to – but Naitanui is capable of things no other ruckman and even not many other players are capable of.

The only issue, similar to Essendon’s returnees, is whether he is healthy enough to have 75 to 80 per cent of his usual impact and whether he can get through the game. In his most recent appearance, the Round 17 one-point home loss to Collingwood, Naitanui spent huge chunks of the fourth quarter on the bench, a contributing factor to the Pies overrunning the Eagles. If Nic Nat gets hurt again or is simply gassed late in the game, his selection could come back to bite West Coast at some point in the finals.

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(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Game plan
I’ve talked a lot about how I don’t believe in West Coast this season, and I’ve gotta say I feel a small measure of vindication now that they’ve fallen out of the top four. The rest will come when they get knocked out of the finals, but I’ve been trying to tell everyone that a team with a turnover differential better than only Gold Coast and Melbourne ain’t winning a premiership.

On the plus side for Eagles fans, though, the team with the next worst turnover differential of the season is – you guessed it – Essendon. Similarly, West Coast’s inside-50 differential of -2.1 is only ahead of the Bombers’ -3.7 among finalists, and while the Eagles are the worst contested ball side of the final eight (-9.2 differential), Essendon aren’t much better (third-worst at -4.2). Basically, Essendon are weak in all the areas where West Coast are weak.

The big problem for the Bombers, though, is that the Eagles have one huge strength they can’t match: the forward line. West Coast may be only fifth overall for total points scored this season, but they are tied as the most efficient scoring team at 1.73 points per inside 50. When the ball goes forward, the Eagles cadre of goal kickers generally make something good happen.

We can’t say the same about Essendon. Injuries and a lack of continuity in the forward line have contributed to the Bombers finishing bottom-six for points scored and tied 11th in efficiency (1.53 points per inside 50). We’ve already talked about how Essendon’s two best key defenders, Hurley and Hooker, likely aren’t 100 per cent, so it doesn’t seem like the Bombers are well equipped to stop this Eagles attack, particularly when you think about all the smaller, speedier weapons West Coast can deploy around Darling and Kennedy.

Verdict
The Eagles will win each of our three categories fairly convincingly. On paper, this is the easiest call of the four.

The tip: West Coast

(Will Russell/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

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Friday, 6 September
Geelong Cats vs Collingwood Magpies
7.50pm at the MCG

Form
I’ll spare you the spiel about Geelong’s record after byes and their recent finals struggles, because I’m sure you’ve read about that every day for the past two weeks. Instead let’s talk about more recent events. If you zoom out, both Collingwood (6-4 record, +4.6 point differential) and Geelong (5-5, +11.8 point differential) have had a similar back half of the season. But of course we know that those records were composed in very contrasting manners, with the Pies on a four-game win streak heading into finals, while the Cats have gone win-loss-win-loss since the bye.

So would you rather be Geelong, who, despite their recent inconsistency, are the only team in the league this season yet to suffer any sort of losing streak? Or do you feel better about Collingwood, who had lost four out of five before their current streak, during which they’ve knocked off some less-than-impressive opposition (the two bottom sides, the trash-fire that is Adelaide and an injury-depleted Essendon)?

For what it’s worth, the Cats won the Round 1 match-up between these two by seven points and, despite their moaning about having to host a final there, actually have a better winning percentage than the Pies at the MCG this year (4-1 vs 9-6).

Health
Collingwood should enter this game with as healthy a list as they’ve had in a while. Steele Sidebottom and Jordan de Goey will return from their respective injuries, Darcy Moore is apparently good to go – although you’d have to be concerned about his hamstrings despite what Nathan Buckley says – and while not technically an injury, the much-anticipated return of Jaidyn Stephenson needs to be mentioned in this category. That’s some serious quality that the Pies can inject into their line-up, and it leaves Collingwood with only the one major hole of a second key forward to team with Brody Mihocek (sorry, Jordan Roughead; you don’t count).

Geelong, on the other hand, have had a pretty great run with injury all year and will be able to pick their first-choice 22 less first-year halfback turned winger Jordan Clark, who re-injured his elbow trying to come back through the VFL.

Adam Treloar tackles Joel Selwood.

(Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Game plan
If you’ve been reading this column the past few months, this is going to sound familiar, but it remains true and is worth repeating: this season, when Geelong win contested possession they win the game. When they lose contested ball they lose the game. Simple. So what are the Cats’ chances of winning that stat in this match? Well, as you might expect given they finished top of the ladder, Geelong had the best contested possession differential of any team in the league this year at +10.8. However, Collingwood were no slouches either, finishing third in the league at +8.3.

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If we take the numbers of each team just post-bye, though, it starts to get a bit concerning for Geelong supporters. The Cats’ average contested possession differential was more than halved over the last ten games of the year, coming in at just +5.0. Meanwhile, the Pies upped their rate to +9.7 since the bye and are going at +13.0 over their current four-game winning run.

It really does seem like the match will be determined by this battle, because the two sides profile fairly evenly all over the ground. Geelong’s defence is probably the outstanding unit but they will be sorely tested by the De Goey-Stephenson-Jamie Elliott trio.

Verdict
This is maybe the hardest match to pick this weekend, with not much separating either team in any category. I’m giving the slight edge to Collingwood due to their better recent contested ball form.

The tip: Collingwood

Steele Sidebottom celebrates.

(Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Saturday, 7 September

Greater Western Sydney Gians vs Western Bulldogs
3.20pm at Giants Stadium

Form
This is one of the easiest categories to crown a winner. The Bulldogs stormed into the finals on the back of an 8-3 finish to the season, including averaging 115.4 points over their last five matches. Conversely, the Giants sputtered to the line, failing to kick a goal in two consecutive second halves before a formality win over easybeats Gold Coast. Of course one of those second-half fadeouts came against this exact opponent and at this exact venue almost exactly three weeks ago. Advantage Bulldogs.

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Health
Here’s where the case starts to build for GWS, though. Toby Greene, Nick Haynes and Jacob Hopper are back for the Giants, with Hopper one of four hugely important players – Jeremy Cameron, Jeremy Finlayson and Shane Mumford are the others – who didn’t take to the field in the previous game against the Dogs. Seems like adding two of your best three key forwards – one of whom just won the Coleman Medal while playing only 20 games – your No .1 ruckman and your best pure inside midfielder (not counting one of my very favourites, Callan Ward, because he hasn’t been playing all year) is going to matter in this rematch.

Unlike in 2016, there won’t be any big names returning in the nick of time for the Bulldogs, with Caleb Daniel and Tom Liberatore still on the shelf. Neither has played since Round 20, though, and it’s fair to say the Dogs have fared just fine without them so far. Giants win this category thanks to the upgrades they’ve been able to make since the Round 22 clash.

Marcus Bontempelli Western Bulldogs AFL 2017

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Game plan
Both teams are beautiful to watch on offence when they’re in full flight, but both can look equally as bad when things aren’t going their way. Fingers crossed for an end-to-end free-flowing goal-fest, but it’s not often we see that in a final.

Interestingly, the two much-vaunted midfields go about their business in different manners. GWS were the second-best contested ball side in the league this year (+9.2 differential) but are one of only two finals sides (Essendon are the other) to finish with a negative inside-50 differential (-0.8). On the flip side, Marcus Bontempelli and co. ended the season second for inside-50 differential (+7.1) but only a middling ninth in contested possession (+1.8). If the Giants can keep the inside-50 battle close, they can win this game off the back of their far superior forward line.

Despite a lot of improvement over the back half of the season, the Dogs still own the most vulnerable defence of all the finalists, giving up 1.67 points per inside-50 conceded, the fourth-worst of all 18 teams. Given enough opportunity, Cameron and the other Giants forwards should put up a big score. The formula for the Bulldogs is the same as it was for Round 22: beat GWS at their own game (the Dogs smashed the Giants by +21 in contested ball) and don’t give them the chance to get those forward opportunities (GWS lost inside-50s by 24 and scored only 65 points).

Verdict
Another very hard game to call. The Dogs are riding a wave of momentum and confidence, but the Giants will field a much more talented squad than the last time they met. Something about this game makes me want to take the contrarian route, GWS to win at home as an underdog.

The tip: GWS

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GWS Giants fans cheer at an AFL match.

(Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Brisbane Lions vs Richmond Tigers
7.25pm at the Gabba

Form
I don’t have to go too deep here – you know how hot these teams have been. Richmond haven’t lost since the bye, winning nine in a row. Similarly, Brisbane won nine straight following their own bye before finally suffering a loss to Richmond in the last week of the season.

There’s obviously a big difference for this match, though – the Gabba. Brisbane are 10-1 at their home fortress this season, averaging 96.5 points per game, whereas Richmond haven’t played a game that wasn’t at the MCG since 6 July. Of course you’ve also likely heard that Richmond have won their last 13 contests with Brisbane, including eight in a row at the Gabba, but obviously this Lions team is not the same as the struggling units of the past few years, so let’s not read too much into that stat.

Health
It’s unbelievable how clean these two injury lists are, but for different reasons. Brisbane have been the least injured team all season, with seemingly never more than a couple of fringe players unavailable each week. You’d think that this late in the year pure randomness or attrition would’ve caused the injury list to grow just a bit, right? Wrong. The only player the Lions won’t be able to call on for the first week of finals is last year’s second-round draft pick, Tom Joyce, who’s played a grand total of zero career games.

On the completely opposite end of the spectrum, Richmond’s injury problems earlier in the year approached genuine crisis levels. But as of now, the only no-doubt-about-it member of their best 22 who remains out is Alex Rance. I’d include Sydney Stack in this, but he was dropped before getting injured, so I guess Damien Hardwick doesn’t feel the same. To sum it up, neither team has any excuse not to bring their absolute best to this match.

Charlie Cameron

(Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Game plan
So the big one here is obviously the Tigers’ lack of interest in contested possession as the must-win stat that all commentators proclaim it to be. Richmond finished as the third-worst contested ball team in the league (-8.2 differential) and won a league-high nine games in which they lost the contested possession count. The Tigers will pressure you until you turn it over and then they’ll burn you on the other end. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but it’s extremely effective.

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Brisbane were the fourth-best contested team (+5.0 differential) but, to their credit, also found multiple ways to pick up victories this year managing to win five games in which they lost contested ball, the fourth-most in the league. The Lions have recent firsthand experience that simply being harder at the contest won’t cut it against Richmond, as they won contested possession by 14 in Round 23’s 27-point loss.

One of the less talked about keys to Brisbane’s amazing season is their league-best +4.7 average turnover differential. But in that Round 23 match the Lions turned the ball over ten more times than Richmond. That’s a recipe for disaster against the Tigers. For Brisbane to win, they’ll need to play a bit smarter and try to reverse that differential.

Richmond just held Brisbane, the highest-scoring team in the league, to their lowest score of the season. The Lions need to win that turnover battle, not only to limit Richmond’s offensive forays but to also give themselves more chances to attack the Tigers defence before they’re set up.

That second point is just as important as the first, because we’ve seen how Dylan Grimes can shut down Charlie Cameron as well as how Eric Hipwood, Dan McStay, Cam Rayner and Lincoln McCarthy combined for only a single goal against the Richmond defence.

Verdict
We’ve laid out the game plan for the young Lions to beat the powerhouse of the last three years, but can they do it? Playing at home helps, as does a fully healthy list, but Richmond won’t fear the Gabba and they’re not missing much through injury either.

The one deciding factor that keeps sticking in my mind, though, is experience. The Tigers have been there before. They’ve won it all. The majority of this Brisbane team hasn’t sniffed a final before now. I think that’s going to matter.

The tip: Richmond

Kane Lambert

(Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Tipping record

Last week: 8-1
Overall record: 132-66

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