We’ve had 18 gruelling rounds of home-and-away action. We’ve had a totally pointless bye week. Now it’s time for finals to finally get underway.
With a wide-open top four and some teams in the lower bracket who fancy themselves, we’ve got a finals series to salivate over.
I know I can’t pick a winner just yet, but I can come up with something for each top-eight side to worry about beforehand.
What did those heavy losses to the big guns mean?
Port Adelaide made a dramatic return to the finals as minor premiers in a year many thought Ken Hinkley would be struggling to retain his job.
They sat in first place at the end of each and every home-and-away round and finished with a very healthy percentage of 136.4, so they’re clearly up there with the best.
However, two of their three losses were self-described “uppercuts” – a 37-point trouncing at the hands of Brisbane a 60-point shocker against Geelong, who were on a very short break.
They’ve got a woeful recent record against the Cats – two wins from their last 17 meetings – to go with three straight losses against the Lions, although they’ve held their own against the Tigers of late.
With the least recent finals experience of any of this year’s top four, the Power could’ve finished 17-0 and still had something to prove. But their meek showings against some fellow top four sides, especially the Cats, is of particular concern.
Can we crack the Richmond hoodoo?
It’s the longest current losing streak one side has to another in the AFL. The last time Brisbane defeated Richmond, Terry Wallace was coaching the Tigers.
The time before that, Leigh Matthews was at Brisbane’s helm.
Richmond are 15-0 over the Lions since Damien Hardwick took over and, for the most part, it hasn’t been close. The 47-point margin in last year’s qualifying final flattered the Tigers a bit, but the home side were found wanting when it counted.
Poor kicking doomed Brisbane in their 41-point loss earlier this year too, and you have to wonder whether the biggest advantage Richmond have over their opponents is between the ears.
There’s little separating the midfield of the two clubs, while you’d imagine a back six led by Harris Andrews is of one of the better equipped against the tall duo of Tom Lynch of Jack Riewoldt, but the forwards just can’t seem to get it done.
Will we get our team balance right?
Richmond have precious little to worry about coming into the finals. They come into October with a six-game winning streak, including convincing wins over West Coast and Geelong.
But with the injury list shrinking, Damien Hardwick has an enviable selection headache to deal with.
Shai Bolton and Dion Prestia come back, but who drops out at their expense? Did Josh Caddy do enough to hold his spot in a burgeoning small forward line? Does Jack Higgins have a spot if he recovers from his calf injury in time? What happens when Tom Lynch comes back – are they too tall if they persist with Mabior Chol as a second ruckman?
The Tigers are firming nicely and have probably done enough to slip into favouritism over the last few weeks, but they’ll need to get the 22 just right as they look to claim a third flag in four seasons.
Is our last fortnight cause for concern?
I had the Cats as premiership favourites coming into the final stretch of the home-and-away season, but they didn’t exactly impress over their last five matches.
They made Essendon look like a VFL team, but their other matches saw them do just enough to see off the Crows, turn up 20 minutes late against the Bulldogs, get outclassed by Richmond and need a Patrick Dangerfield special in the last quarter to see off a dogged challenge from Sydney.
They’ve had the week off to reset and refresh, but given their finals record is already maligned, their wobbly finish to the home-and-away season is very much a cause for concern.
Has no top-four finish cost us again?
Last year’s shock loss to Hawthorn in the final home-and-away round saw the high-flying Eagles dumped from top four and, as we all know, the move to the lower bracket doomed them to a disappoint semi-finals exit.
This year that costly upset appears to be Round 2’s all-timer against Gold Coast, a match Adam Simpson blasted his side for, according to GPS data, running softer than a training match they’d held midweek.
They’ll start hot favourites against Collingwood in their elimination final, just as they did against Essendon in 2019, but it’s the week after I’d be worried about if I were an Eagles fan.
They’ve had famous wins against the Power in Adelaide over the journey, but their last two meetings have seen them decisively towelled up. They defeated Geelong by nine points at home this season but haven’t tasted success against the Cats away from Perth since way back in 2006.
West Coast may have put their reputation as tragic travellers to bed over the last month, but they’ll be up against it should they progress to Week 2 and will be left to ponder what might have been if they’re tripped up again.
Are we just making up the numbers?
Saints fans should be ecstatic with a return to finals after a nine-year absence and the assertion by a certain AFL.com.au columnist whose name rhymes with ‘cranium carrot’ that a first-week exit would mean 2020 is a failure is complete nonsense.
But despite their sixth-place finish, you have to wonder whether St Kilda are the easy pick to bow out this weekend. They did knock off the Power in Adelaide, but they got towelled up by both Geelong and Collingwood and also dropped matches against Brisbane and West Coast.
You’d also have to say they caught the Bulldogs and Tigers at a good time when they claimed their scalps at the start of the season.
I’m all for fresh sides making a splash in finals, so I hope I’m wrong, but an iffy record against the top eight and wobbly form coming into October (three wins from seven matches) makes them the logical choice for being one-and-done.
Which Bulldogs side will turn up?
It’s the same story as 2019 for the Bulldogs: their best is clearly good enough to trouble the very best of sides but their worst is bad enough to give the Frankston Dolphins a sniff.
This is a side that put Greater Western Sydney and an in-form Melbourne to the sword before snatching a win off West Coast while also copping a 52-point hammering at the hands of Carlton.
They’ve pushed Port Adelaide all the way and been pushed all the way by the Suns. They wiped the floor with the Cats for one quarter and slowly watched that lead disappear.
Last season they came storming into September with three huge wins over finals sides or finals hopefuls before getting obliterated by the Giants in the first week.
For now I’m backing them to get past the Saints, but a second straight elimination final loss would be a huge disappointment for a side that was clearly recruiting to improve last year.
Can our forward line get it done?
Collingwood’s scoring prowess has never been their coup de grace, but it’s fallen to worrying levels in 2020.
It’s little wonder just about every trade rumour involving a key forward links them with the Magpies.
Coming into finals they’re ranked 13th in the AFL for scoring, below the likes of Gold Coast, Hawthorn and Carlton. The other seven finalists are the competition’s seven best scoring teams.
Essendon came into last year’s finals series ranked 13th for scoring and got blown off the park by West Coast, while the year before saw Sydney finish sixth despite being 12th for scoring and they got embarrassed by the Giants.
The simple version is Collingwood need to score a lot more points if they want to make anything of this finals campaign. On paper, with Brody Mihocek, Jordan de Goey and Jaidyn Stephenson, they should be doing better than they are; the big question will be whether they actually do.