Two MCG blockbusters will take place this weekend, with the prize on the line being the prestige of playing on a day steeped in Australian cultural lore, the last Saturday in September, otherwise known as the AFL grand final.
Richmond, Geelong, Collingwood and Greater Western Sydney all each now stand two wins away from lifting the AFL’s premiership cup.
Conventional wisdom states that Richmond will beat Geelong and Collingwoood will take out the GWS Giants. However, when it comes to September footy finals, conventional wisdom and conventional fact can be mutually exclusive entities at times, especially when even the most astute of fans have the caper all figured out.
Granted, both Richmond and Collingwood – by virtue to having won their first-week finals with wins over Brisbane and Geelong, respectively – indeed have the advantage of having the week’s rest heading into these clashes. But will that serve to be an advantage in their preparations, or has the week off interrupted their momentum to serve as a great equaliser in those games?
An intriguing pair of matches will answer those questions, and many others.
Richmond vs Geelong
An unusual event is occurring here: Geelong – who finished the 23-round home-and-away season as minor premiers – come into this match as an underdog, as a rampaging Richmond side that beat Brisbane by 47 points a fortnight ago awaits.
With Tom Hawkins suspended, coach Chris Scott has plenty of options, both already at his disposal in his best 22, as well as others who have been fighting for senior places.
Both Patrick Dangerfield and Harry Taylor have had experience in spots taking places in the Cats’ forward line over the years, Gary Rohan – an excitement package at times since coming over from Sydney this season – will have to work hard in training this week to pass a fitness test to play against the Tigers, while the likes of Darcy Fort, Wylie Buzza or Ryan Abbott would be asked to make the jump from the Cats’ VFL side to rise to the occasion.
The tactical transfer of Dangerfield up forward – where he has had a bit of success in the past – seems like the most likely option, but perhaps showing the faith in Taylor might prove to be more prudent.
Taylor, a three-time premiership winner with Geelong but a veteran who’s had a quiet season, is still a great mark with a reliable set of hands and is a good kick. Plus it keeps Dangerfield firing in the midfield.
Whereas flux and adjustments characterise Geelong’s preparations, continuity remains a hallmark of Damien Hardwick’s Richmond flag challenge. Superstars Dustin Martin and Jack Riewoldt entered September in season-best form, with Tom Lynch, Trent Cochin, Dylan Grimes, Josh Caddy, Shane Edwards and Bachar Houli all providing excellent support all over the ground, wherever and whenever required.
And with the Tigers’ premiership success of two years ago combined with the heartbreak of not repeating that feat last year still burning in the players’ bellies, Hardwick will not put up with his players mistaking continuity for complacency.
But one intangible quality Geelong has going for them is that when adversity strikes, they possess a team of veteran players – premiership-winners like captain Joel Selwood and Gary Ablett, and otherwise – who can rally the younger players to the cause and play the hard-nosed, down-to-business, contested footy that is required to come out ahead in tight finals.
That was the case in the final quarter against West Coast, and now that Hawkins – who booted four goals against the Tigers when the teams last met in Round 12 – is missing through suspension, they’ll have to display those bunker-mate qualities again.
Collingwood vs Greater Western Sydney
Leon Cameron’s charges pulled off the impossible on Saturday night, with Brent Daniels’ late goal proving the difference to eliminate Brisbane in a three-point win, but the Giants face a much tougher challenge against Collingwood.
The week’s rest would have done Nathan Buckley’s team some favours, and they will come out as the fresher side against a GWS side that was physically tested against the Lions. The Giants’ win was a deserved reward for coming out ahead in a match of tough contested footy, but they may not have the pace to keep up with the Magpies should they succeed in getting out to play their preferred style of run-and-carry footy from the opening bounce.
No doubt that Cameron and influential skipper Phil Davis will instruct their team to continue with the hard-nosed tactics of close contests, hard tackling, and getting the physical edge of one-percenters whenever possible. Another visit by Toby Greene to the AFL Tribunal – wasn’t this the midweek sideshow last week? – will not derail the Giants in these tactics, which they have been successful with all season, and gives them their best chance to win.
The Giants will also possess a bit of self-belief in their chances against Collingwood, having won three of their last four meetings with the Magpies. However, that one loss occurred in last September’s semi-final stage, so there’s that hoodoo hanging over their collective heads – the context to the occasion remains as all-important.
If superstar midfielder Steven Coniglio passes a fitness test from a knee injury, that bolsters the Giants’ attacking stocks even more, and enhances opportunities to maintain their good form over Collingwood. Coniglio has not played since a Round 17 loss to Richmond. Meanwhile, the Giants have been used to playing well without him, winning six out of eight games in that time, including some very close games that they have won.
Going back to the Giants’ 47-point win over the Magpies in Round 18, Jeremy Cameron kicked six goals and Tim Tarranto, Lachie Whitfield and former Magpie favourite Heath Shaw all played major roles in what was deemed an unexpected result against each teams’ form guides.
However, Collingwood still possess a bevy of volatile weapons in attack to counter the Giants’ tight physical play. Captain Scott Pendlebury will be leading from the front, Steele Sidebottom runs through opposition midfields with pace and class, Adam Treloar and Taylor Adams are threats around the stoppages, and Jamie Elliott is always a chance to kick goals from set shots or on the run.
All Australian ruckman Brodie Grundy amassed an overwhelming 48-11 advantage in hit-outs over opposite number Shane Mumford in the teams’ July encounter.
But whether tagging expert Matt de Boer and other Giants’ followers around Mumford can contain the likes of Treloar, Adams and others around the stoppages – like they did against Brisbane’s Lachie Neale last week – will be where this match is won and lost with a grand final berth on the line.