Brisbane were undoubtedly the darlings of the AFL in 2019, enjoying a meteoric rise from 15th to 2nd after nine seasons out of the top eight.
Well that worked out well! I nailed all four finals last week, although not always for the exact reasons I speculated.
The new format for laying out my thoughts worked though, so let’s go back to it this week. It’s semi-finals time, baby.
Geelong vs West Coast
7.50pm at MCG
It’s getting late in the game now, win-or-go-home stakes, all it takes is one bad game and you’re done for season 2019.
Once you get this far, end-of-season form takes on slightly less significance – just ask the Bulldogs. Anyone can beat anyone. Plus, we’re all well aware how each team remaining has made it this far, so this category takes a bit of a back seat from here on out.
That said, it’s worth noting that both Geelong and West Coast have been great at the MCG lately – four of five and five of six wins respectively – despite copping a loss there in their most recent outings, Geelong against Collingwood last week and West Coast against Richmond in Round 22.
Perhaps what’s less worth noting (although we will anyway) is that the Cats crushed the Eagles by 58 points at GMHBA Stadium in Round 6 this year. But that was a long time ago, at a completely different venue, hence I don’t put a lot of stock into that particular result when thinking about this game.
Worse than last week for Geelong, better (technically the same, but no setbacks for the likes of Shannon Hurn and Nic Naitanui is a definite win) for West Coast.
Mitch Duncan is out for the Cats. That’s bad. But Gary Rohan will also miss. That’s good. Sorry Gary. Cam Guthrie replaces Duncan and Zach Tuohy could switch from defence to attack in place of Rohan, two scenarios that don’t excite me all that much.
Meanwhile, from a West Coast perspective, we can’t be 100% confident in Naitanui and his knees/ankle yet, but we’re getting closer.
Willie Rioli will also be serving a drug test ban.
Let’s just get straight to what is somehow the only media talking point about actual football-related stuff to the Cats right now – Rhys Stanley’s absence was not the reason Geelong lost last week.
The Cats were +7 for centre clearances and +1 for clearances overall despite losing hit-outs by 21. Can’t ask for much more than that.
Yes, they gave up a few goals from stoppages, but they were mostly the result of some uncharacteristic miscommunication and misjudgment in the back line rather than any damning mismatch in the ruck contest.
The Cats’ problems stemmed mainly from stagnant and uncreative ball movement combined with some truly awful missed shots at goal.
Having said that, it makes sense for them to bring Stanley back in this week. No one has the combination of size and athleticism that Naitanui possesses, but Stanley has enough of it to at least try and negate some of Nic Nat’s influence.
In addition to that, Stanley covering the bulk of the ruck duties will enable the Cats’ best key defender, Mark Blicavs, to concentrate full time on the Eagles’ tall forward combination of Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling (six combined goals last week).
Therein lies the hardest part of matching up with West Coast though. It’s not just Kennedy and Darling you have to cover. Jamie Cripps was best on ground in the elimination final and the always dangerous Liam Ryan kicked three goals.
Losing Willie Rioli (who kicked a goal and set up two more) to a provisional ASADA suspension is an unexpected blow on the eve of the game, but Jack Petruccelle has speed that no one in the league can match.
Geelong had the best defence in the league this year (66.5 points per game conceded, and let’s not forget that Collingwood didn’t score a single point after the 21:54 mark of the third quarter last week), we’re about to see just how good they are against the competition’s most diverse set of offensive weapons.
Blicavs’ return to that back line group should also help to clean up the type of mistakes Geelong made against the Pies.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to talk about the failure of the Cats’ previously can’t-miss key statistic in last week’s defeat. Geelong won contested possession, and they lost the game!
It’s the first time that’s happened all season and maybe goes to show why the Cats have struggled in the finals recently against smarter teams who have put plenty of hours into countering Geelong’s biggest strength and know how to win in different ways.
I’d wager the Cats are going to handily win the contested ball again this week (West Coast were the second worst team in the regular season by contested possession differential, while Geelong were the best) and they’ll turn that into a territory advantage. The question is can they be efficient enough when they do have the ball in attack?
After putting up a truly woeful 1.02 points per inside 50 against the Pies, the Cats must boost that figure back towards the equal league-best 1.73 they sported throughout the season. If they can do that, and the defence can slow down the Eagles, then they should win this game.
However, if West Coast dominate general play like they did against Essendon (+26 inside 50s, +22 contested possession) or just break even, then the Cats are in serious trouble.
Extremely tough. The venue is pretty much a non-factor. The Eagles have a slight edge in player availability.
It comes down to which team’s strength (or weakness) wins out (or lets them down).
I’m going to give it to the Cats, just barely. They have the better defence and should have the better midfield.
In the words of renowned grand final entertainer Meat Loaf, two out of three ain’t bad.
The tip: Geelong
Brisbane vs GWS
7.25pm at Gabba
Again, it’s tough to draw too many concrete conclusions here, mainly because Brisbane have been cellar-dwelling for so long that most of their recent records against other teams are extremely skewed.
The Lions did knock off GWS (the Giants’ first loss at their home ground this year) by 20 points as part of their torrid run over the second half of the season though, and they are 10-2 at the Gabba this season, with the only losses coming against the scorching Tigers last week and to Collingwood all the way back in Round 5 before these young Lions really found themselves.
GWS have won their last four contests at the Gabba, so they won’t fear the ground. But again, those matches came against some far weaker Brisbane teams.
The injury regression is finally coming for Brisbane. Well, not really, but the loss of Mitch Robinson isn’t nothing.
The Lions have a plethora of AFL-listed options that they could have promoted from their dominant NEAFL team, but none of them can fully replicate the intangibles that Robinson brings to the team.
In the end, they decided on Nick Robertson, who brings the closest approximation of Robinson’s hardness, but doesn’t provide much more than that. Losing one half of the league’s best wing combination (with Hugh McCluggage) might affect Brisbane’s ability to play to their full capacity.
For the Giants, Brett Deledio has likely played his last game and Stephen Coniglio is still at least a week away, but they should have no qualms bringing in Adam Tomlinson, who played all 22 regular season games before being dropped for last week’s final.
Brisbane had three more scoring shots than Richmond last week and lost by 47 points. That’s hard to fathom.
I’m not saying the Lions should’ve won of course, and indeed, Champion Data’s expected score metric says that while the game should’ve been far closer, Brisbane still would’ve lost by three points if both teams’ shots at goal had been converted at a perfectly average rate.
But that says we shouldn’t write off the Lions just because they’ve lost two games in a row to the best team of the last three years. Despite the overall -74 point differential over their past two matches, Brisbane haven’t been that far off the Tigers who have been better than everyone else since 2017, with the single exception being the Mason Cox game in last year’s preliminary final.
GWS’ midfield thrives off winning the contested ball, and boy, did they ever against the Bulldogs – the +42 differential was their highest of the season. The Lions are a top-four contested possession side (+5.0 average differential over the season), whereas the Dogs were middle of the pack (+1.8 differential), so it’s unlikely the Giants will put up such a lopsided figure this week, especially as Brisbane haven’t lost the stat in seven games, putting up an immense +14.0 figure in that span.
Then again, who knows what this GWS team is capable of. The contested domination of the Bulldogs was a 63-possession swing from the last time they met, a mere three weeks earlier.
Both sides are loaded with game-breakers – GWS have Toby Greene, Jeremy Cameron, Lachie Whitfield and Jeremy Finlayson, while Brisbane can counter with Charlie Cameron, Eric Hipwood and Dayne Zorko.
The big difference is that the Lions’ stars are currently in a bit of a rut, whereas the Giants’ men are scorching. That tends to be the case after one team is coming off a big win and the other just got whacked. It only takes one game to turn it around.
This game will come down to how much the Lions have learnt from last week at the business ends of the ground. The team with almost no finals experience was the least efficient team in the first round of finals for both scoring (1.00 point per inside 50) and defending (2.07 points conceded per opponent inside 50).
Similar to the above recipe for Geelong, if Brisbane can get those numbers closer to their season-long figures (1.64 and 1.48 respectively), then the Lachie Neale-led midfield should be good enough to ensure the ball-winning and territory battles stay well in control. For the Giants, if they can somehow bottle that energy and ferocity they were infused with against the Dogs, then they can absolutely cause another upset.
No result in either of the games this weekend would surprise me, and this one is the more uncertain. The Gabba will obviously favour the Lions and the injury report is probably a draw.
I’m basing my tip off the fact that, even in their last two losses, Brisbane have been able to play pretty much the way they want to and – if not for some extreme inaccuracy and the great misfortune to have both games come against an absolutely lethal opponent in Richmond – could still be undefeated since their mid-season bye.
It’s unlikely that the Lions will kick so poorly at goal again while their opponents turn into world-class snipers. Their forwards are too talented to let that happen, and so are their defenders.
The midfield will get it done, and with a week of finals under their belts, the rest of the squad has the juice to complete the job.
The tip: Brisbane
Last week: 4-0
Overall record: 136-66