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A preliminary final preview from an historic perspective

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Roar Guru
18th September, 2019
6

Geelong
First place during the regular season at 16-6, 136 per cent.
Won semi-final 88-68 over West Coast, lost qualifying final 61-51 to Collingwood.

By winning last week, Geelong extended a remarkable streak for all AFL minor premiers. Over the 26 years of eight-team finals, the top seed has always won at least one game and always made it to at least the preliminary finals. In fact, only six of the previous 25 have failed to make the grand final and eight of them have won the title.

The Cats themselves are in year 16 of a remarkable string of consistency, having only a pair of tenth place finishes in 2006 and 2015 interrupting their 14 finals appearances in those 16 years.

Included in those appearances are three premierships in 2007, 2009, and 2011, three minor premierships in 2007, 2008, and 2019, a string of eight consecutive finals appearances from 2007 to 2014 and the second most win-heavy team in league history – the 21-1 team of 2008 which lost an epic grand final to Hawthorn.

That defeat prevented the second 24-1 team in history – after the Essendon Bombers of 2000 – and a three-peat in 2007-08-09 that had 77 home-and-away wins to its name.

Luke Dahlhaus

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Not coincidentally, that stretch roughly coincides with the tenure of arguably the greatest player to play the game. Gary Ablett Jr is 344 games into a legendary career and the ‘little master’ has once again adapted his game into that of a wingman-small-forward as the needs of both his team and his age demanded.

Now with Tom Hawkins out for the prelim final, Gazza may need to transform again – this time into a ball-marking full-forward who takes the pressure off Esava Ratugolea up front and gives that strong Richmond defence someone else to think about as they repel the Geelong attacks.

By letting Patrick Dangerfield, Tim Kelly and the rest of the stunning Geelong midfield take care of themselves this weekend while giving them a new target inside the fifty, Ablett may end up making the biggest contribution possible to the most positive outcome for the Cats – another grand final berth, the very thing he says he left the Gold Coast for.

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Richmond
Third place during the regular season at 16-6, 114 per cent.
Won qualifying final 112-65 over Brisbane, earned the right to host prelim final.

This is the step on which the Tigers stumbled last season – despite being the top seeded team they were overwhelmed by the third seed and their dominant marking tall forward, losing what their six months of championship form had been leading to.

Now, the tables have turned. This time the top seed is Geelong – and their dominant tall forward has been suspended from this game. This time Richmond is the third seed, ready to dominate the Cats with Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch in the forward fifty. And this time there’s a chip on the yellow-and-black shoulders of a Tiger roster that’s gone through three years of injuries in the span of a few months.

When Alex Rance and Riewoldt went down in the first game of the season on that fateful Thursday night in March against Carlton, I wrote a piece comparing the Tigers of 2019 to the Bob Murphy Bulldogs of 2016 – pointing out how that Footscray team rallied around their captain to drive through September with a performance level well above what they’d otherwise been capable of.

Well, I didn’t foresee all the other injuries coming for the Tigers – nor how low it would get for them – even by the fifty-point losses to the Pies and Giants the next two weeks. Nor did I foresee how well it would blood all those back-ups who never had the chance to see the field with the stars in front of them, or how that experience would bond the players and put the team’s focus squarely on their take.

Jack Riewoldt

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

And now they get their shot at the team they must feel was the placeholder for them all season – the Geelong team which held the number one slot warm for Richmond while they gathered their strength throughout the year. They got West Coast and Brisbane at the ‘G and won decisively – now they’ve got their shot at Geelong. Look out, Cats.

Prediction: Richmond defeats Geelong by 18 points.

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Collingwood
Fourth place during the regular season at 15-7, 118 per cent.
Won qualifying final 61-51 over Geelong, earned the right to host prelim final.

It was ninety years ago to the year that the Collingwood Magpies put together what is the only undefeated season in league history, going 18-0 with a percentage of 172. It was that same year when Gordon Coventry became the first VFL player to kick 100 goals in a season, far surpassing that target to reach 124.

Carlton was second at 15-3 and no other team came within 5½ games of the Pies. The first time Collinwood lost was in the semi-final against Richmond – but without knowing any more than I do about the 1929 season, I suspect it must have been some weird dead-rubber game because Richmond had to play Carlton for the right to play Collingwood in the grand final. Why were the Magpies plopped straight into the grand final after losing to Richmond? I don’t know, other than that’s what an 18-0 home-and-away season will do for you.

Collingwood won what is universally described as a brutal grand final – for example, 11 of the Magpies received handwritten death threats before the game and players had arms broken during the game and kept playing. Insert your own Toby Greene or Hawkins joke here.

A more modern Collingwood team set the record for the largest leap from the previous season into the minor premiership. In 1976 the Magpies had finished a lowly 12th, 6-16 for the year and holding the wooden spoon with a last-place performance. Suddenly in 1977 they leapt from the basement to the penthouse, going 18-4 and coming a single point away from converting their minor premier title into a grand final victory – their first battle against a wasteful North Melbourne was a 76-76 draw and the Kangaroos won big in the rematch a week later.

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The Magpies celebrate

(AAP Image/Scott Barbour)

To this day, they are the only club in VFL/AFL history to go from the wooden spoon one season to a home-and-away season title the next. We’ve told the story before about how Fitzroy famously earned both a wooden spoon and a grand final title the same year in 1916, thanks to a four-team season caused by World War One and a finals series that invited all four teams.

It’s worth noting that Brisbane came within percentage points of obliterating the record for the size of the jump from one year to the next, having placed 15th last season and missing out on the minor premiership by the 27 points Richmond defeated them by in Round 23.

Greater Western Sydney
Sixth place during the regular season at 13-9, 115 per cent.
Won semi-final 83-80 over Brisbane, won elimination final 113-55 over the Bulldogs.

By knocking the Lions out before the final four, GWS broke the league’s six-year streak of having a new finals participant in the prelim finals each year. Not since 2013 had the final four been devoid of new competitors, but the Giants, Magpies, Tigers and Cats all made finals last year as well.

Despite the continual leaking of talent “from the west of the town”, the fundamentally “mighty Giants” have come within two goals of making four straight prelim finals in four straight years – thanks to a ten-point loss to Collingwood last year in the semis.

While both Richmond and Geelong have matched GWS’ three out of four top-four finishes, they weren’t expansion teams in their very first finals experiences losing two or three key players every single year. Besides, neither Richmond nor Geelong came nearly as close to making that fourth prelim as the Giants did.

As an expansion team, GWS set several records of a negative nature before this string of finals appearances. While they never finished a season completely winless – there has never been an 0-22 club, the last winless season came from the 1964 Fitzroy Lions at 0-18 – they did set a modern record for the lowest percentage.

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In 2012 during their maiden voyage through the AFL, the Giants somehow managed two wins – over Gold Coast in Round 7 and Port Adelaide in Round 19 – yet produced the only season since Hawthorn in 1950 to finish with a scoring percentage below 50. GWS averaged under 58 points per game that year while surrendering over 125, for a percentage of 46.2 per cent – the lowest in the last hundred years. Losing games by margins like 128, 120 and 162 points – against St Kilda, Collingwood and Hawthorn respectively – will do that for a team.

Jeremy Finlayson

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The following season saw a regression to just one win, but the 1-21 Giants did improve their competitiveness by raising their percentage to 51.0 per cent – still the second lowest of the last 60 years. Coincidentally, the third lowest of the last 60 years also came in 2013 from the 2-20 Melbourne Demons, at 54.1 per cent – the worst percentage from a team not to receive the wooden spoon.

From 2013 forward however, the GWS plan of building from the ground up produced six wins in 2014, an 11-11 season in 2015, and now four straight final-winning teams. So many clubs – Essendon comes to mind – would kill for that record. The Giants simply want to get over the glass wall keeping them from the biggest day in the sport.

Well, that day won’t be Saturday. With their most aggressive player on the sidelines, the Giants won’t be able to muster sufficient firepower against the black-and-white back wall that defends the goal.

Prediction: Collingwood defeats Greater Western Sydney by eight points.