Walking into the 2018 grand final, a surreal optimism filled me.
There are just ten sleeps to go before the AFL grand final, but before that, this weekend we will know the identities of the two teams that will take part in the big dance.
Fresh off a week’s break, Richmond and Collingwood will start the prohibitive favourites to win their respective preliminary finals on Friday and Saturday, but both will face teams that defeated them comfortably during the regular season.
While the Pies and Tigers rested, the Geelong Cats put an end to the West Coast Eagles’ premiership defence with a 20-point win at the MCG, while the GWS Giants won a heart-stopper against the Brisbane Lions with a three-point win at the Gabba.
On Friday night, the Tigers will tackle the Cats, who handed them a 67-point thrashing back in Round 12, while on Saturday afternoon, the Pies will come up against a Giants side that put them to the sword by 47 points in round 18.
But both the Cats and Giants will be without Tom Hawkins and Toby Greene after both lost their bids to have their one-match suspensions at the judiciary overturned during the week.
This has multiplied the chances of Richmond and Collingwood facing off in the grand final for the first time since 1980, and would almost certainly guarantee a crowd of over 100,000 for the first all-Victorian decider since 2011.
Here is your preview to the two preliminary finals.
Richmond vs Geelong Cats
This season: Geelong Cats 16.8 (104) defeated Richmond 5.7 (37) at the MCG, Round 12
Last meeting in a final: Richmond 13.13 (91) defeated Geelong Cats 5.10 (40) at the MCG, second qualifying final, 2017
The first preliminary final sees Richmond, fresh off a week’s break after thrashing the Brisbane Lions in their qualifying final at the Gabba, face the minor premiers Geelong, who will be bidding to reach their first grand final since 2011, and second under Chris Scott.
Unbeaten since the Round 14 bye, before which they lost quite convincingly to North Melbourne, the Cats and Adelaide Crows in consecutive weeks, the Tigers have picked up steam, winning their last ten matches in a row.
This included winning their final seven matches of the regular season, all of which were played at the MCG. The GWS Giants, Collingwood, the West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Lions were among the teams they beat.
After two months without having to travel, Damien Hardwick’s side were supposed to be seriously challenged by the Lions when they travelled up to Bris Vegas to face a side which was playing in its first finals series for a decade.
However, the Tigers’ class, led by Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin, Jack Riewoldt and Dylan Grimes, who has excelled at fullback in the absence of Alex Rance, proved to be the telling story as the yellow and black left the sunshine capital with a 47-point win.
This gave them the week off, during which they would’ve seen the Geelong Cats bounce back from a vengeance by beating the West Coast Eagles by 20 points at the MCG last Friday night.
The Cats came under heavy criticism and ridicule for their ten-point loss to Collingwood in the qualifying final, in which they again started slowly and trailed all night, but while they kept the Pies scoreless in the final quarter, they were unable to reel the margin in.
However, Chris Scott’s men were able to hit back hard, putting an end to the Eagles’ premiership defence and keeping alive their chances of winning a fourth flag in the past 13 years.
But their bid to reach their first grand final since 2011 has struck a hurdle, with Tom Hawkins to sit out after being suspended for one match by the judiciary for his off-the-ball whack to the head of Will Schofield.
This will see Richmond’s odds of reaching their second grand final in three years shorten, however they will face to overcome a Cats side that thrashed them by 67 points back in Round 12, as well as restrict them to their lowest score of the season with a return of just 5.7 (37).
That night, the Tigers were without Jack Riewoldt and Toby Nankervis, but both would be expected to feature in their preliminary final side this Friday night, with a crowd of over 90,000 expected.
For the winner: A berth, and favouritism, in the grand final.
For the loser: Lights out for 2019, and questions to be asked about what could’ve been.
Prediction: Richmond by 25 points.
Collingwood vs GWS Giants
This season: GWS Giants 19.8 (122) defeated Collingwood 11.9 (75) at Giants Stadium, Round 18
Last meeting in a final: Collingwood 9.15 (69) defeated GWS Giants 9.5 (59) at the MCG, second semi-final, 2018
The second preliminary final sees Collingwood and the GWS Giants face off in a final at the MCG for the second consecutive year, but this time, with a grand final berth at stake.
The Pies thought they were only a chance of finishing fifth at the end of the regular season, but were able to sneak into fourth position after seeing the West Coast Eagles go down to Hawthorn at home the night following their win over Essendon at the MCG.
This saw them handed what appeared to be on paper a daunting qualifying final task against the Geelong Cats at the MCG, which geographically is closer to Collingwood than it is to Geelong.
Thus, Nathan Buckley’s side used the home-ground advantage to full effect and executed the perfect game plan to knock off the minor premiers by ten points and win their way through to the preliminary final, which will be their ninth since 2002.
There, they will face the GWS Giants, who are the only side to have won at least one final in each of the past four years (including this) and will be playing in their third preliminary final in the same time period.
In one of the matches of the year, Leon Cameron’s men came from behind to knock off the second-placed Brisbane Lions in a heart-stopper at the Gabba, with the shortest player on the field, Brent Daniels, kicking the match-winning goal with less than three minutes remaining.
But their perceived aggression towards the contest came at a massive cost, with Toby Greene, who was one of their best against the Lions, to miss the preliminary final after being suspended for one match over his treatment of Lachie Neale.
His absence will be a major blow to the eighth-year side, which also fell at the penultimate stage in 2016 and 2017 when they lost to the Western Bulldogs and Richmond by six and 36 points respectively.
The GWS will be primed for another shot at the Pies and the reward that is at stake.
For the winner: A berth in the Grand Final, but with 24 hours’ less preparation than the winner of the preliminary final the evening before.
For the loser: Season over.
Prediction: Collingwood by 18 points.