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Tips and thoughts: AFL preliminary finals

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20th September, 2019
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Our run at tipping a perfect finals series ended at five-in-a-row with the Lions going down in a heartbreaker. Oh well, time to move on to the preliminary finals. It’s getting real now.

Richmond vs Geelong

Form
First thing’s first, the Cats flogged the Tigers to the tune of 67 points in Round 12 this year at the MCG. However, that match took place with Richmond pretty much at the peak of their mid-season injury wasteland.

It’s hard to consider it a meaningful result when thinking about this upcoming final. Let’s cast a wider net then, shall we?

Richmond’s record in the past three seasons at the MCG is 38-5. Pretty amazing. Of course, one of those losses was the aforementioned Round 12 match, and another was last year’s infamous preliminary final against Collingwood, so it’s not as if the Cats will consider them completely unbeatable.

Over that same time frame though, Chris Scott’s men are only 11-11 at the home of football, and 15-13 if we extend the sample to include 2016, which was the first season Patrick Dangerfield spent with the Cats.

All of that is to say that this venue clearly favours one team, and it ain’t the one that’s spent the past few months complaining about having to play home finals there.

Health/suspensions
Yes, we’ve had to add suspensions to this category, as both matches feature a huge one. In this case, Geelong’s All Australian full-forward Tom Hawkins won’t suit up, leaving a gaping hole in the Cats’ forward set up.

We’ll get to how Geelong should try to fill that hole in the following section, but for now the only other bad news for the Cats is Mitch Duncan remains injured.

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The Tigers have nothing new to worry about, so instead, let’s go over just how different this team is from a health standpoint compared to the one that got embarrassed by Geelong earlier this season.

Jack Riewoldt, Kane Lambert, Jayden Short, David Astbury, Toby Nankervis, Nathan Broad, Brandon Ellis, Shai Bolton. Those are the names that didn’t play in Round 12 but will take the field tonight.

That’s half a defence, a chunk of a midfield, one-third of a forward line, and a starting ruckman. Not to mention the positive ripple effects for every other player in the team who now won’t be forced to play out of position or take on more responsibility than they can handle. Another plus in the Punt Road column.

Jack Riewoldt

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Gameplan
Alright, let’s talk Tomahawk replacements.

Of all the names that I’ve seen thrown out there this week, there’s one that clearly stands out above the rest. Patrick Dangerfield coming out of the goal square has the highest ceiling of any of Chris Scott’s options by far.

Whenever Dangerfield has dominated as a deep forward in the past few years, I inevitably start thinking about how many goals he could kick playing a full season in that role. 50 or 60 doesn’t seem that unrealistic. That’s only an average of between 2.3-2.7 goals a game.

For context, Jeremy Cameron won the Coleman with 67 goals this year, with Ben Brown, the only other player to crack 60, finishing on 64.

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So yeah, full-forward Danger would give the Coleman a shake. Hey, he did already kick 45 goals in 2017! I’m not crazy, I swear! Anyway, there it is – replace your suspended 50+ goal forward with another, easy.

But they need Dangerfield in the midfield, I can hear them whining. Look, do you wanna win this game or not?

Because I’m telling you right now: Harry Taylor isn’t the answer; Lachie Henderson isn’t the answer; Gary Rohan is definitely not the answer. The Cats are decently sized underdogs in this game and they need to up their risk profile in order to have a chance.

Plus, Geelong should back their midfield in without needing to deploy their superstar in the centre full-time. They were the best contested ball differential team in the home and away season, whereas Richmond were the third-worst.

We know the Tigers don’t really care about winning contested possession, but it’s been Geelong’s MO all season, so at the very least they should be well within their comfort zone in this facet of the game. We’ll see if they can translate that into field position and scoring, although avoiding turnovers is crucial.

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The Cats have had the stingiest defence all season, conceding 66.3 points per game including finals. But the Tigers have an argument that they are, in fact, the better defensive group, having given up only 63.1 points per game over their current ten-game winning streak.

Not to be outdone, Richmond have their own midfielder who could conceivably lead the league in goalkicking if he played forward more often. Dustin Martin, fresh off six goals in the qualifying final against Brisbane, looms over this finals series like the Mind Flayer from Stranger Things.

He’s become borderline unstoppable once again, the challenge for Geelong (among many others) is to simply endure him.

Verdict
This is Richmond’s game to lose. They’re playing at a ground they’ve dominated for the past three years, their team is stronger and more settled, and they’ve been playing better football than anyone over the second half of this season.

The Cats can usually hang their hat on at least having the best defensive line-up on the field but that won’t be the case this time. To give this a crack, they’ll have to make full use of their likely contested possession edge and be far more efficient with their offensive ball-use than they have recently.

And for the love of god, please send Dangerfield straight to the goal square before the opening bounce.

Tip: Richmond

Dustin Martin

(Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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Collingwood v GWS

Form
We’ve all heard about the Giants’ dismal record at this ground, but let me defend them. If we take just the past four seasons (2016 was the first year GWS made a preliminary final), the Giants are 2-7 at the ‘G.

Not great, but not as woeful as it would be if you included all the years GWS were a fledgling expansion side. What no one ever seems to mention, though, is the quality of opposition the Giants are coming up against in these matches.

Four of those losses were against an eventual premier or grand finalist, and two were against eventual preliminary finalists (one of whom is this year’s Tigers, who may still progress further).

These are good squads playing at their home ground where they get double-digit matches each season. Take this Collingwood team, for example. The Pies have won ten games at the MCG in each of the past two seasons; the Giants have only played there nine times in four years!

Still, the Pies’ greater experience at the venue matters. Once again, we can’t read too much into GWS’ 47-point win over Collingwood in Round 18 due to the fact it was played at Giants Stadium.

However, it is worth noting that with that win, the Leon Cameron’s squad have now won three of their last four against the Pies, including at the ‘G in Round 2 last season.

Taylor Adams

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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Health/suspensions
Hoo boy. Following the Toby Greene case has been like living on the fringes of some bizarro Law & Order episode where the known criminal gets put away for the one crime they didn’t actually commit.

There can be no overstating just how great Greene has been for GWS in the finals and how much they will miss him during this game. His averages of 25 disposals, 2.5 goals and ten score involvements per game don’t paint a full picture of his influence over the past two games.

Making matters worse for the Giants was the news that Lachie Whitfield will also miss the prelim thanks to an unfortunate bout of appendicitis. The midfielder was well negated by Brisbane in last week’s semi-final but he had a case for being best on ground against the Bulldogs the week before.

So for those playing at home, GWS have just lost two of their top three or four most important players in the space of a week while another, Stephen Coniglio, remains on the sidelines.

It’s not all roses and sunshine for Collingwood though.

Jordan de Goey is back from the German hamstring doctor but won’t be back on the field yet, and Levi Greenwood did an ACL two weeks ago. James Aish should be a good enough approximation of Greenwood, but replacing de Goey is a taller task.

He wasn’t much of a factor before going down in the qualifying final, but at his best he gives the Pies their own version of Greene; capable of turning a game on its head from the forward line or in the middle. Even at less than full capacity he would still occupy a lot of attention from the defence and allow other players more freedom.

I don’t love Collingwood’s decision to get bigger and slower by bringing in Ben Reid. Even so, it’s far less concerning than the top-end talent the Giants will have to do without.

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Gameplan
It’s hard to predict how this match is going to shape up. GWS and Collingwood were the second and third best teams for contested possession differential over the season, so we know that will be their preferred method of winning.

But we also know that both teams can win in multiple ways. They’ve each picked up victories in their most recent matches despite losing the contested ball battle by at least 20.

The Pies have shown on more than one occasion this year that they’re capable of controlling possession and depriving their opposition of the ball, while simultaneously keeping their defence set up in prime position to deal with any turnovers that occur further up the field.

Just quietly, Collingwood had the second best defence behind Geelong this season, giving up 72.7 ppg and 1.41 points per inside 50. A lot of that is due to the excellent work done by Jeremy Howe, Darcy Moore, Brayden Maynard and co., but just as important is the discipline of the entire squad to maintain the structural integrity put in place by Nathan Buckley and the coaching staff.

For the Giants, outlasting the Lions last week required some huge plays from their gun forward line, resolute defence from Phil Davis and the long-underrated Nick Haynes, and more than a little bit of luck.

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It does feel like GWS can’t afford to put up the same differentials that they did against Brisbane (-17 inside 50s, -24 contested possessions) and escape with a win again. Especially with no Greene or Whitfield around to create goals out of thin air.

Don’t get me wrong though, the Giants still have some serious weapons in the forward line, they were top four in the league in scoring despite having a negative inside 50 differential for the year. But in a preliminary final against a strong defensive unit like the Pies, getting belted in the field position battle is a death sentence.

And even without de Goey, Collingwood’s forward line is similarly dynamic. The Giants defence is stout, but Jaidyn Stephenson and Jamie Elliott will give them problems.

For the visitors, the most likely road to victory is to replicate their dominant midfield performance against the Bulldogs (+39 inside 50s, +42 contested possessions), which will be tough against a loaded Magpies on-ball brigade.

Collingwood can back themselves to go toe-to-toe with the Giants and beat them at their own game, or they can go back to the spread it out, heavy kick-mark style that has been effective against good teams like Richmond and Geelong this season.

Or they can do a bit of both; Buckley has proven himself to be an upper-echelon coach over the past two seasons. He won’t be putting all his eggs in one basket.

Verdict
All signs are pointing me towards the Pies in this one. They have the MCG factor and they have the less impactful personnel changes.

But the real advantage they possess is the multitude of scenarios where Collingwood come out on top, while the Giants probably need everything to go absolutely perfect if they want to break through to their first grand final.

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Tip: Collingwood

Last week: 1-1
Overall record: 137-67