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It's do or die for AFL’s top-two finishers

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6 days ago
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Geelong and Brisbane, the clubs that finished in the top two places during the AFL’s home-and-away season, face the prospect of dreaded early exits from the premiership chase following first-week defeats last weekend.

Minor premiers Geelong’s task is arguably the harder between the two clubs, having to face defending premiers West Coast, while Brisbane takes on a revitalised Greater Western Sydney side.

All of these teams will go into next weekend’s matches seeking to prove that they belong with the likes of Collingwood and Richmond, who are laying in wait with a week to go before the preliminary finals.

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West Coast Eagles vs Geelong Cats
Melbourne Cricket Ground, 7:50pm AEST

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First of all, let’s call out the proverbial white elephant in the room: Geelong’s abysmal September record since capturing the 2011 flag:

  • a 3-10 record in finals from 2012 to present;
  • the straight-sets exit of 2014; and
  • three preliminary finals losses, all occurring following securing top-two home-and-away season finishes, in 2013, 2016 and 2017.

That 2011 premiership seems like an eternity to Cats fans, exacerbated by the annual September shortcomings since then. So this upcoming match – against the AFL’s reigning premiers, no less – understandably has the club’s supporters very nervous.

To reverse those fortunes and thereby capture a mouth-watering preliminary final date against Richmond, a four-quarter outcome must be achieved, and one in which they cannot afford another characteristic slow start.

If anything, in the fallout from the Cats’ loss to Collingwood, Geelong coach Chris Scott would be left to rue the omission of ruckman Rhys Stanley from his first 22. In short, it changed the spine of his team – taking Mark Blicavs out of his full back position and Esava Ratugolea from the forward line into the ruck in lieu of Stanley – and thereby allowed the Magpies every opportunity to start strong by kicking straight and dictate the tempo of the match.

Stanley is likely to return to the starting ruckman’s position to give the Cats a chance in stoppages against Nic Naitanui. Stanley’s imminent return also gifts the Cats a chance to avoid a slow start, which is an immense key to this match.

Tom Hawkins

(Will Russell/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

The club’s stars must also deliver in spades. Captain Joel Selwood must do whatever it takes to usher in victory, even if it means taking more possessions than usual to take the heat off of Patrick Dangerfield, Tim Kelly and Gary Ablett in the midfield. Full forward Tom Hawkins, now without a single major score in three games on the trot, must lead from the front and show a bit of selfishness and accuracy in front of goal. And, in general, the numbers of passengers must be kept to a minimum.

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Moreover, if there’s any perception of pressure on the team’s efforts, Scott must deflect it. And speaking of Scott – and the subject of pressure on him – he may not be able to deflect much criticism if Geelong loses this match. He has already been facing the slings and arrows during the latter part of the season from the club’s supporters. Disregarding the fact that Scott only just last year signed a contract extension to 2022, they’ll increase those calls for his sacking if an unsatisfactory outcome were achieved.

Meanwhile, West Coast got off to an outstanding start to launch its finals campaign with a one-sided win over Essendon. In that 55-point win over the Bombers the Eagles got off to a strong start, with seven goals by the main break, and the likes of Josh Kennedy, Jamie Cripps, Luke Shuey and Andrew Gaff were outstanding throughout the match. Those players and their supporting cast showed little signs that anything else would be likely.

While Geelong cannot afford to fall behind quickly again like they did last weekend against Collingwood, Scott’s charges do possess a unified determination and a never-say-die attitude to assure that they’re never out of any game where they fall behind. However, with everything to play for and the cost of failure so great, it’s a trait they would be wise not to risk showing.

(Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Brisbane Lions vs Greater Western Sydney Giants
The Gabba, 7:25pm AEST

Regardless of the outcome, one can expect a tight, low-scoring contest. As much as both teams would love to play an open game showcasing a contrast in strengths of style, this one could be decided in ‘down and dirty’ circumstances.

Not that Brisbane would want it that way. Granted, the Lions were belted by 47 points by Richmond, but their brightest moments came when they were able to get out and run, dictate the pace and play quickly and directly downfield. The likes of Lachie Neale, Allen Christensen, Dayne Zorko and Lincoln McCarthy were the instigators and beneficiaries of such tactics and did well at executing them. Problem was, for coach Chris Fagan, moments and passages of play such as those were few and far between.

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GWS, meanwhile, pulled off a massive 58-point win to end the Western Bulldogs’ late-season revival by going hard at the football and dominating contests around the ground. Of course there were moments of overzealous aggression that may cost the Giants the grit and work rate of star Toby Greene, whose actions have sent him straight to the tribunal for multiple infractions over the course of that match.

Nonetheless, Giants coach Leon Cameron has to stick with those tactics. He knows that going with instructions of hard, contested footy gives his team its best chance of winning the match and clinching a preliminary final berth against Collingwood. Conversely, as much as he’d like to take the game on and play fast and direct to give Coleman Medal winner Jeremy Cameron as many chances as possible to pile on the goals, getting into a wide-open shootout with the Lions may be a battle that they may come off as second-best – not ideal in a cutthroat knockout final.

The key to this match will be whoever starts stronger by applying the strength of their game to the contest. As such, entertaining Lions lynchpin Charlie Cameron didn’t get many opportunities to display his magic in front of the big sticks and may not again if GWS remains successful at playing contested footy. Cameron’s style benefits from fast football, and if he gets a couple of goals early, that could easily spur the Lions on in front of a raucous home pro-Queensland crowd.