It was mid-2017 – that strange jumbled year when no one really wanted to win the premiership – when Chris Scott decided to play a hobbled Patrick Dangerfield up front against Alastair ‘System’ Clarkson’s Hawthorn.
At last. After 153 matches across 18 rounds and a long season suspension of nearly three months we have finally reached the first week of the finals.
Six of the eight teams that qualified for last year’s finals series return for another crack at the flag this year, with Port Adelaide and St Kilda returning to the finals for the first time since 2017 and 2011 respectively.
They replace Essendon and the GWS Giants, with the former having not reached consecutive finals series since 2003-04 and the latter’s record of having won at least one final in each of the last four years coming to an end.
As was the case last year, the Brisbane Lions, Richmond and Geelong Cats have finished in the top four, with the fixture between the Lions and Tigers the exact same as it was last year, the second qualifying final at the Gabba.
The Cats, after finishing minor premiers last year, have had to settle for fourth spot and will be up against it when they travel to the City of Churches to face Port Adelaide, who finished in top spot for the first time since 2004.
The two elimination finals bring together two of the least successful clubs in the AFL in St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs, who have won only three flags between them, plus 2018 grand final combatants the West Coast Eagles and Collingwood.
Due to coronavirus restrictions only three venues – Optus Stadium, Adelaide Oval and the Gabba – will be used for this year’s finals series, with the last-named venue to host this year’s AFL grand final.
Here’s your guide to week one of the 2020 AFL finals series.
Thursday, 1 October, at 7:40pm (AEST) at Adelaide Oval
This season: Geelong 14.7 (91) defeated Port Adelaide 4.7 (31) at Metricon Stadium, Round 12.
Last meeting in a final: Geelong 13.18 (96) defeated Port Adelaide 12.8 (80) at the MCG, second semi-final, 2013.
It all begins on Thursday night with the first qualifying final between Port Adelaide and Geelong at Adelaide Oval.
The Power have been the most consistent team all year, finishing every round on top of the ladder and being the first team to do so since Essendon in 2000.
Ken Hinkley’s side were challenged all the way by Collingwood at the Gabba in their most recent outing but still did enough to win by 16 points and secure their first minor premiership since 2004.
In a good omen for Power supporters, the Bombers went on to win the flag in 2000, so there is no reason for them not to be confident that they can go all the way for the first time since 2004.
But this Thursday night the Power will come up against one of three teams that beat them this season – the Geelong Cats, who also handed them their worst defeat of the season with a ten-goal thrashing at Metricon Stadium in Round 12.
In their most recent match the Cats survived a major scare from the Sydney Swans before emerging with a six-point victory, which would’ve given coach Chris Scott a huge sigh of relief.
In his 14th AFL season and at the age of 31 Tom Hawkins claimed his first Coleman Medal after kicking 42 majors, which is the lowest tally for a Coleman medallist in over a century.
For the winner: a week off and a likely Friday night preliminary final.
For the loser: await the winner of the West Coast vs Collingwood elimination final and face them next Friday night.
Prediction: Geelong Cats by 18 points.
Friday, 2 October, at 7:50pm (AEST) at the Gabba
This season: Richmond 12.10 (82) defeated Brisbane 4.17 (41) at Metricon Stadium, Round 10.
Last meeting in a final: Richmond 18.4 (112) defeated Brisbane 8.17 (65) at the Gabba, second qualifying final, 2019.
On Friday night we’ll see if Brisbane have learnt any lessons from last year’s brief finals foray.
After finishing second last year, the Lions’ lack of finals experience was severely exposed when they exited in straight sets with defeats at the hands of both eventual grand finalists – Richmond in the qualifying final and GWS in the semi-final.
They thus became the first team since Geelong in 1997 to finish in the top two but fail to win a final.
More than 12 months on they will relish a rematch against Richmond after finishing undefeated at the Gabba this season while also winning 13 of their 14 matches in their home state (with a 41-point loss to the Tigers in Round 10 the only blemish).
They go in having not lost a match since that aforementioned loss to the Tigers, in which inaccurate kicking proved to be their downfall. In their most recent match they comfortably accounted for Carlton at home, winning by 17 points in front of a crowd of more than 14,500.
But they do have a massive hoodoo hanging over their heads. They haven’t beaten the Tigers anywhere since Round 7, 2009, and not at home since Round 14, 2004. Additionally, neither Dustin Martin nor Trent Cotchin has been beaten by the men from the Gabba.
Chris Fagan’s side will also be without fullback Harris Andrews, but the absence of Tigers forward Tom Lynch will cancel that out.
The Tigers have defied some off-field issues, including mammoth ten-match suspensions handed to Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones for their roles in a fight outside a Surfers Paradise kebab shop, to finish in the top three for the third time in four years.
Damien Hardwick’s men have won 11 of their last 13 matches and haven’t been beaten since they lost to Port Adelaide by 21 points at the Oval in Round 11.
Their last outing saw them overcome a determined challenge from the Adelaide Crows, winning by 44 points to sew up the double chance.
But while the Tigers might have the finals experience, the home-ground advantage the Brisbane Lions will enjoy will be hard to ignore, and they have the potential to cause an upset.
For the winner: a week off and a preliminary final likely to be played at the Gabba irrespective of whichever team wins. This preliminary final is likely to be played in the Saturday twilight timeslot.
For the loser: await the winner of the St Kilda vs Western Bulldogs elimination final and face them next Saturday night.
Prediction: Brisbane by 20 points.
Saturday, October 3, at 4:40pm (AEST) at the Gabba
This season: St Kilda 14.4 (88) defeated Western Bulldogs 7.7 (49) at Marvel Stadium, Round 2.
Last meeting in a final: St Kilda 13.10 (88) def Western Bulldogs 8.16 (64) at the MCG, second preliminary final, 2010.
Nearly a decade since their last finals appearance, St Kilda are back in the big time.
Under reinvented coach Brett Ratten and having entered this season on the back of its most productive off-season in years, the Saints put several years of underachieving behind them to qualify for their first finals series since 2011.
This Saturday afternoon they come up against a team against whom they registered their most recent finals win, the Western Bulldogs. They’ll do so at the Gabba, where the Saints had requested to play their match despite the AFL’s desire to stage it at Adelaide Oval.
St Kilda’s most recent outing saw them keep last year’s grand finalists, GWS, goalless in the second half as they romped to a 52-point victory.
It was their most complete performance of the season besides their Round 8 win over Port Adelaide and has made their opponents take notice.
Meantime, the Bulldogs snatched the final place in the top eight from Melbourne’s grasp, defeating Fremantle by five goals to qualify for the finals for the fourth time in six seasons and finish seventh for the third time in five years.
Yes, we all know and remember the Dogs’ magical run to the flag from seventh place in 2016, but it’s also worth noting they also finished seventh last year only to be bundled out in the first week of the finals by the Giants by way of a 58-point defeat.
This will be the first time the Saints and Bulldogs meet in a finals match in over a decade. The two teams last contested consecutive preliminary finals in 2009 and 2010, both won by the Saints.
The Saints also claimed their only regular-season meeting this year, winning by 39 points at Marvel Stadium in Round 2, well before all ten Victorian clubs were forced to evacuate the state.
For much of the St Kilda line-up this will be their first final, with Dan Hannebery the most seasoned player having played over 20 finals for the Sydney Swans, including featuring in their 2012 premiership team.
Captain Jarryn Geary remains their only survivor from their most recent finals match, an elimination final loss to Hannebery’s Swans at Marvel Stadium in 2011.
By contrast, the Bulldogs are only four years removed from their memorable 2016 premiership, but despite that the Saints will be too strong here.
For the winner: face the loser of the previous night’s Brisbane vs Richmond qualifying final and play them at the Gabba (likely) next Saturday night.
For the loser: season over and a long trip back home to Melbourne.
Prediction: St Kilda by six points.
Saturday, October 3, at 8:10pm (AEST) at Optus Stadium
This season: West Coast 18.3 (111) def Collingwood 6.9 (45) at Optus Stadium, Round 8.
Last meeting in a final: West Coast 11.13 (79) defeated Collingwood 11.8 (74) at the MCG, 2018 grand final.
It has been two years since black and white hearts were broken by the West Coast Eagles in the 2018 grand final. Now the Eagles have the chance to repeat the dose, but this time in an elimination final on their home deck, Optus Stadium.
While Adam Simpson’s men were naturally disappointed not to finish in the top four, hence they earn an elimination final, they were still happy enough to finish fifth, which meant hosting a knockout final against the Pies.
Due to the pre-finals bye it was possible for Optus Stadium to host a finals match, but only in the first week due to the hard border and strict quarantine protocols that remain in place in Western Australia.
This meant that the Eagles, after defeating North Melbourne on Thursday night in Round 18, flew straight home the following morning to begin their fortnight in home quarantine, which will expire by the time they take to the field on Saturday night.
On the other hand, the Pies pushed Port Adelaide all the way before losing by 16 points, which meant they had to settle for eighth place and their second trip west this season after they spent three weeks in a Western Australia hub between Rounds 7 and 9.
It was during that period the club copped a $50,000 fine (half suspended) after coach Nathan Buckley and assistant coach Brenton Sanderson engaged in an illegal tennis match with former Australian top ten women’s player Alicia Molik.
On the field they lost to both the Western Australia clubs, including a loss to the Eagles by 66 points, but they did beat the Geelong Cats while in quarantine in Round 7.
It will be the first time the Pies have faced the Eagles in a final since the 2018 grand final, in which the Eagles wiped out an early 29-point deficit to win by five points thanks to that famous goal by Dom Sheed in the pocket with less than two minutes remaining.
At home for the final time this year, I think the Eagles will take the points.
For the winner: face the loser of Thursday night’s Port Adelaide vs Geelong qualifying final and play them in either Adelaide (if Port loses) or Brisbane (if the Cats lose) next Friday night.
For the loser: season over, and if Collingwood are beaten, a long trip back home to Melbourne.
Prediction: West Coast by 18 points.