Semi-final round is always a bit strange. One team coming off a win, the other a loss. The higher-ranked side playing host on the back of defeat.
The Cats were part of a bit of unwanted history last weekend. With them and the second-placed Lions going down, it was the first time since the current top-eight format was introduced in 2000 that both of the higher-ranked qualifying finalists lost.
Geelong’s lame showing was almost exactly as Cats naysayers had predicted. Their dull, dour, uninspiring form of the second half of the season rang true in a dull, dour, uninspiring loss.
The Eagles, on the other hand, had the game on their terms against Essendon. Their beautiful, precise, flowing terms.
Jeremy McGovern and co picked things off, Lewis Jetta and Shannon Hurn drilled passes, Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling led straight and hard and Liam Ryan, Jamie Cripps and Willie Rioli (oh Willie, why?) hoovered up ground balls and punished the Dons on the scoreboard.
There isn’t a more aesthetically pleasing team in the competition than these Eagles when they’re humming.
Geelong will no doubt be doing all they can do turn that hum into a grind.
The Eagles have done a little self-sabotaging to lend the Cats a hand, with Rioli out of tonight’s contest for allegedly taking the… mickey with drug testers.
There have been enough words written about Rioli both here on The Roar and elsewhere, so let’s move on.
Speedster Jack Petruccelle comes in for the Eagles, while the Cats have brought in Cameron Guthrie and Rhys Stanley for injured pair Mitch Duncan and Gary Rohan.
Duncan is a significant blow. Rohan’s injury might have spared him the embarrassment of being dropped after a qualifying final to forget.
Rohan wasn’t alone against the Pies. Geelong had plenty of passengers, the most notable being Tom Hawkins, Gary Ablett and Tim Kelly.
A glance at the box score would suggest Kelly (28 touches, seven tackles, seven inside-50s and a goal) played a fine game, but his influence was negligible when the whips were cracking. With Duncan out, it’s tough to see the Cats winning tonight without a meaningful contribution from the 25-year-old.
Just as he was in last year’s elimination final against the Demons, Ablett was again poor – far out, remember when Melbourne were good?
The little master will play his 20th final tonight, and he and the Cats would love it to be a good one. If not, it could be his last.
Hawkins needs to not only hit the scoreboard, but also limit the impact of whichever West Coast defender comes his way.
The Eagles’ midfield stars found the footy by accident last week. Mr September Luke Shuey had 35 touches, 23 kicks, ten inside-50s and eight clearances, Andrew Gaff 34 touches and 22 kicks, Jack Redden 29 disposals, and Elliot Yeo and Dom Sheed combined for 45 touches and 17 inside-50s.
With Nic Naitanui palming it down their throats, it’s an impressive on-ball brigade.
Patrick Dangerfield was a colossus last week, but as great as he is – and he is great – he couldn’t do it alone then and won’t be able to do it alone tonight.
Duncan’s omission makes life tougher so they’ll need strong contributions from Kelly and skipper Joel Selwood and at least a couple of the second-tier guys like Brandan Parfitt, Sam Menegola, Luke Dahlhaus and Guthrie.
Rhys Stanley should have a sizeable chip on his shoulder after being dumped late last week. He’ll need it to combat Naitanui.
For so long the second week of finals was among the most predictable of the season, with the losing qualifying finalists turning their form around to reach preliminary final weekend.
But that’s no longer the case. It’s easy to point to the pre-finals bye as the reason for the change, but in actuality it began before that. As we get told on a seemingly weekly basis, the competition is incredibly even, and in the past ten semi-finals, teams from the bottom half of the eight are 5-5.
These teams are tough to split, and the venue holds no more fears for the Eagles than it does the Cats.
My head tells me the reigning premiers are a marginally better team in much better form, but playing a so-so Essendon side in Perth is a much easier task than playing the Magpies at the G. And my gut tells me this year’s minor premiers will be up for the fight, and come with a plan to choke the visitors.
A tight one could be on the cards and would be most welcome after a lopsided first round of finals.
With no confidence whatsoever I’m tipping Geelong by a goal.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?