The first week of the 2020 AFL finals is complete and two teams have seen their season end while the rest move on to prelims and semi-finals. Here are my talking points from the weekend.
How good are finals?
Apologies for borrowing a Scott Morrison-ism, but I think we can all agree: they are bloody good. And the finals matches we saw played this weekend were better than most.
We’ve seen a few uncompetitive finals played in the last few years but the fixtures this week all looked like they could be close contests, and proved to be so.
We’ll talk more about the rest later but the best of them, and probably the match of the year, has to have been last night’s one-point thriller between Collingwood and West Coast.
These teams have met in finals a few times recently, and every time it’s been thrilling must-watch viewing. This was their third final in three years and they’ve been collectively decided by only 22 points.
Neither time had ideal preparation, but it was Collingwood who came in as underdogs and held out for a famous win – and you feel they just might have more shots to fire in this finals series.
Power and Lions prove they are contenders, not pretenders
Port Adelaide and Brisbane have occupied the top two spots on the ladder for most of the year, but they’ve rarely been talked about as genuine premiership contenders – until now.
That’s not necessarily a surprise when you consider that both came into this week suffering from length finals droughts – Port not having tasted a postseason win in five years, Brisbane ten.
But for both of these sides, one could sense from early in the game that they were on. Port conceded the first goal of their match against the Cats, but when they kicked two quick ones to take a quarter-time lead, it was hard not to believe.
Brisbane’s shining moment came even earlier and was more emphatic, as Daniel Rich booted a long goal from outside the 50m arc in the first minute – the perfect start that the Lions needed.
Both of these teams went up against opponents who were older, more experienced, and have a better recent history of finals success. But they knew they were good enough to win, and win they did.
Now all of a sudden they are the first two teams into the prelims and in the box seat to qualify for the grand final. Could we see a report of the 2004 decider? That would be a brilliant spectacle.
Saints recruits vindicated with ten-year drought broken
No club was more daring when it came to the trade table at the end of 2019 than St Kilda, who traded for five new players after having landed Dan Hannebery from Sydney the year prior.
These decisions were questioned by many. Hannebery’s value has come under constant question ever since he moved to the club, and the broad consensus was that the Saints’ new names would not be enough to make them a finals side in 2020.
But all the doubters, including myself, have been proven wrong. St Kilda have a finals win in 2020, breaking a ten-year drought, and so many of those recruits were crucial to the result.
Hannebery and Dougal Howard shared the equal-most touches of any player for St Kilda, with 20 disposals apiece. Hannebery’s touches were often crucial and he finished with five score involvements while Howard recorded eight intercepts and 604 metres gained.
Zak Jones had five clearances, Dan Butler booted a crucial goal in the third quarter and Brad Hill didn’t start but had five score involvements.
But arguably the most influential, and the one I was most sceptical of 12 months ago, was Paddy Ryder, who wound back the clock to dominate in the ruck and kicked two important goals. As if to prove there is no triumph without tragedy, he finished the match in tears on the bench, nursing a hamstring injury.
Hawkins’ inaccuracy costs Cats
Lachie Neale was named the MVP by the AFLPA and AFLCA last week, but after his brilliant Coleman Medal-winning season, Tom Hawkins would’ve been just as deserving – and he loomed as Geelong’s most dangerous weapon on Thursday night.
It was the definition of an “almost” game. Hawkins towelled up his opponent Trent McKenzie and had half a dozen shots on the goal, but finished the night with a scoreline of 0.5 and one out on the full.
In a match lost by 16 points that’s simply a devastating return from the man who is not just Geelong’s best forward, but arguably the best forward in the comp. With just a little more luck he could have completely changed the game for Geelong.
It could be called something of a pattern too after Hawkins kicked 0.4 in last year’s qualifying final against Collingwood, a match Geelong lost by only ten points.
He bounced back the next week with an accurate 4.1 to guide Geelong to victory over West Coast, and will now hope to do the same against Collingwood in what shapes as the more interesting of two semi-finals.
Neale delivers after slow start
Speaking of Neale and delivering match-winning performances in finals, the Brownlow-Medallist-in-waiting looked like he was going to fall woefully short of one just a quarter into Brisbane’s match against the Tigers, failing to register a disposal in the first quarter.
The Lions, luckily, were still firmly in the game at that point despite the lack of influence from their superstar midfielder – and after playing one poor quarter to start the match, Neale was never going to back it up with a second.
He picked up eight touches in the second quarter, but perhaps most importantly kicked a crucial goal in the final minute before halftime to give Brisbane a 13-point advantage at the main break. That second quarter was where the game turned for Brisbane, and he was crucial to it.
It was a performance that just might be the making of the Lions as a premiership contender for years to come. And if so, this will certainly be remembered as one of the amusing quirks of what was an engaging, entertaining game of footy.
Max King makes his mark in finals debut
There was no shortage of St Kilda players playing the first finals game of their careers on Saturday, but the one we all love to follow and watch, Max King, stood figuratively and literally head and shoulders above the rest.
We have already seen over the last two seasons what immense talents he and his twin brother Ben are. They could both be all-time greats. But you never know for sure until you see them in finals, and King proved he has what it takes.
He wasn’t so prominent in the second half but kicked two impressive goals in the second quarter and helped to set up others throughout the game, recording four score involvements in total. The Saints spread the load well, as they have all year, but he was one of their most crucial contributors.
Can he – and the Saints – repeat the same heroics against Richmond next week? You’d have to be sceptical as we all expect the Tigers to bounce back. But regardless of how that turns out, King has confirmed his status as a future superstar, and St Kilda have done the same for theirs as a team to watch.
Taylor Adams is a finals specialist
Someone I haven’t given enough credit to throughout talking points and other columns in the year is Collingwood’s Taylor Adams, who has had a career-best year in 2020.
One of the competition’s best inside midfielders, he’s taken a step forward this year and was last week rewarded for that with his first All-Australian selection.
In particular though, Adams is someone who lifts in finals. He was one of Collingwood’s best in their 2018 campaign and probably would’ve taken home the Norm Smith had they gotten over the line.
On Saturday night he had 24 touches, eight tackles and seven score involvements as a key figure in the Magpies’ remarkable upset victory.
Having players with the ability to lift in big games like that is simply invaluable. It’s the kind of leadership that could someday make him captain of the club.
Oh, and on the topic of finals specialists, how about Mason Cox’s first quarter? If you’re only going to blow ’em away every now and then, this guy certainly picks good times to do it.
Innacurate Lions find their kicking boots
The biggest question mark over Brisbane coming into finals was their inaccuracy in front of goal, and whether it might cost them a crucial victory – just as it did (to some degree) in this same fixture last year.
The Lions have generated more shots on goal than any other team in the home-and-away season this year (389 total), but were ranked 17th before finals for converting those shots – scoring a goal just 42.4 per cent of the time, better only than the Adelaide Crows.
It was one of the most crucial factors in their 41-point loss to Richmond earlier this year, in which they had just one less scoring shot but kicked a heartbreaking 4.17 to 12.10.
Given that, you could forgive them for being nervous on Friday night – but if anything it seemed to make the more determined not to let the opportunity slip. When the likes of Rich, Oscar McInerney and Daniel McStay nailed their early chances, it built crucial confidence.
That’s not saying there weren’t still some shaky moments. Hugh McCluggage summed it up well – missing an easy chance that could’ve been crucial earlier in the game, only to boot the sealer later in the match. Here’s hoping Brisbane’s demons are now finally behind them.
Chris Scott’s finals record cops another blow
Chris Scott has coached the Geelong Cats through 214 home-and-away matches for 153 wins and two draws – a 72 per cent success rate, the best of anyone in VFL/AFL history to have coached at least 100 games.
But Thursday night’s qualifying final loss has seen his record in finals matches slip to seven wins from 19 attempts. If you count it from 2012, after his first-up premiership win, it’s four from 16.
For this reason, Scott – and the Cats – cop a lot of flack. They’ve consistently been thereabouts but just seem to fall short with clockwork-like reliability.
Ironically, we’d probably view him more favourably as a coach if he was less successful in the regular season – but because he so often takes his team most of the way, criticism comes his way.
Rightly or wrongly that will be the case if Geelong allow Thursday night’s win to set them up for another prelim loss, or worse, a straight-sets exit. Can they rewrite history and turn it around?
Bevo’s Bulldogs need a change of mindset
2020 was Luke Beveridge’s fourth finals campaign in six years at the Western Bulldogs, but for the third time, it has ended with an exit in the first week.
We all, of course, know how things ended the one time it didn’t – but if you imagine how his CV would look without that one incredible September, it is a history of frustration.
We know the Dogs have A-grade talent, more so than their opponents this week. But they aren’t as complete a team as St Kilda, and that’s where the Saints beat them.
Beveridge loves versatility and throwing players into unorthodox positions. Sometimes it’s brilliant, but just as often it leaves them open to get belted.
We’ve seen that Beveridge can coach young and inexperienced sides to play maverick footy and punch above their weight. But how about instead turn 22 into one that’s mature and consistent? That’s what I’d like to see.