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Five talking points from the AFL semi-finals

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10th October, 2020
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After a remarkably entertaining first week of finals, it’d be fair to say the semis didn’t quite hold up their end of the bargain. Here are my talking points from the weekend.

Tom Lynch’s reputation cops another blow
It’s telling of the ultimately underwhelming quality of Friday’s semi-final between Richmond and St Kilda that the biggest talking point to come out of the match was another controversial incident involving Tom Lynch.

Lynch appeared to drop his knee into opponent Dougal Howard during the third quarter of the match, and on Saturday he was handed a $750 fine by the MRO for doing so – the incident labelled as “misconduct”, Lynch’s second charge of that nature this year.

It’s the sort of incident that was never going to attract a serious penalty, the kind you could find occurring half a dozen times or more if you were to scrutinise the tape of any AFL match. It wouldn’t get a ban in the home-and-away season and certainly not in finals.

Some might make the argument that it’s time that changed, time more scrutiny was applied to these incidents, and real penalties handed down whenever they are spotted – even if that means an initial period of MRO carnage before players start to change their ways.

I could see myself supporting that line of thinking, but it’s not the sort of initiative we should want or expect to see suddenly taken up halfway through a finals series.

Lynch’s action may not have put his chances of playing in a preliminary final in jeopardy. But his on-field conduct this season has put at risk something much less tangible and far more enduring: his reputation.

What’s baffling is that Lynch has no lack of talent, no need to compensate for deficiencies with cheap tricks and low blows. And yet he does it anyway – and it’s hurting the opinion that fans, particularly neutral fans, hold of him.

Maybe that’s not something that bothers Tom Lynch. But suffice to say he is providing plenty of ammunition to those who’d like to think of him the way Mitch Robinson does – as a bit of w*nker.

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Tom Lynch

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Tom Hawkins, Patrick Dangerfield rise to the occasion
There was nervousness among Geelong fans going into Saturday night’s semi-final, centred about the fact that the club was going up against a potentially dangerous Collingwood side, and that their generally disappointing record in finals since 2011 might be made worse by a straight-sets exit.

As it turned out they needn’t really have worried, and the final we probably expected to be a closer and more unpredictable contest wound up being the genuine blowout of the week, the Cats entering halftime with an incredible 54-point advantage on the scoreboard.

Two Cats who would’ve been feeling the heat in particular were Tom Hawkins and Patrick Dangerfield, both having been criticised for their performances in finals either recently in the case of Hawkins, or at varying times across their career in the case of Dangerfield.

Hawkins had ample opportunities against Port Adelaide but misfired, kicking 0.5, and there was much talk during the week around whether he could bounce back with a strong showing and redeem that disappointing performance. He missed an early shot but then kicked four goals, doing exactly that.

Dangerfield on the other hand has never really been a poor finals player but perhaps has been accused of not willing his side over the line in a finals match the way some genuine greats of the game do – but you would find it hard to fault his 19-disposal, four-goal effort on Saturday night.

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Of course, there’s some debate to have about Hawkins, Dangerfield and more accurately Geelong itself about whether one can truly redeem a missed opportunity such as last week’s qualifying final. They are into a prelim either way, but as the outsiders now.

If they can get the Cats through to a grand final next week the critics will be silenced in a far more lasting manner. If not, they’ll find themselves quickly back in the firing line.

At least one more game for Gary Ablett
Gary Ablett’s 354th career AFL game could easily have been his last, as the two-time Brownlow winner announced at the end of 2019 that the 2020 season would be his last, and Geelong’s season hovered on the brink of being extinguished if they exited the finals series with a loss to Collingwood.

That did not come to pass, not even close, but the week saw many grapple with the reality that now any game of Ablett’s career might be his last, and certainly he doesn’t have any more than two left to go before he walks off the field for the last time.

Gary Ablett lines up a kick

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

It’s a sobering thought to have about a player who is completing his 19th season of AFL football and for so very many of us is undoubtedly the best we’ve ever seen play the game. Comparing players across eras is a fool’s game, but he has an argument to make for being the best of all time.

He has acquired more Brownlow votes across his career than any other player in the history of the game (though it must be noted that his teammate Patrick Dangerfield stands a real chance at taking that record off him sometime in the next couple of years).

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Ablett’s stats on the night don’t necessarily stand out from the crowd – ten disposals, no goals, one behind. But he had some influential touches particularly early when the game was still ostensibly alive to help Geelong get out to an early advantage, finishing with seven score involvements and two goal assists.

The ever-growing army of neutral finals observers will likely lend most of their romantic support to the causes of Port Adelaide and Brisbane in what’s left of the finals series, as we do many of us like to see a new team climb to the top and enjoy their moment in the sun.

But for the season to end in the likes of Ablett and Joel Selwood lifting the cup, writing one last rapturous chapter into the history of Geelong’s remarkable dynasty, well, that possesses a certain romantic appeal also.

Who can say right now whether or not it will end that way. But if you’d like a stroll down memory lane before the great man’s career finishes up, I’d recommend this thread of great Gary Ablett gifs posted on twitter during the week by Rudi Edsall.

What’s next for St Kilda and Collingwood?
Recent trends have seen some surprises pop up, but history says that the sides from the lower half of the eight rarely make it beyond the first two weeks of the finals series, and that has proven true once again in 2020.

Neither St Kilda or Collingwood will exit season 2020 without some level of satisfaction with their accomplishments – the Saints knowing that they took a big step forward in their development this year, Collingwood disappointed but able to take some pride in last week’s stirring upset win.

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But, both know also that when put up against the teams at the top of the competition, they were found wanting – they have a gap to make up if they are to go further next year.

Collingwood could well argue that (once again) injuries hurt their premiership chances more than anything else. They missed some of their most important players like Jeremy Howe and Jordan de Goey for lengthy patches of the year, and if they get full seasons out of them in 2021 that might be all they need to contend.

Still, one can’t help but think that recruiting a genuine key forward would make so much of a difference for this team – but before they even begin to consider that, they must determine where the futures of De Goey, Darcy Moore, Josh Daicos and Brody Mihocek lie.

Brody Mihocek and Jordan De Goey of the Magpies celebrate a goal

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

As for the Saints, this offseason looks like it could be one of real optimism. Their success will have caught the eye of many, and footballers looking to return home to Victoria from interstate will be rating highly as a potential destination.

Top-quality midfielders is their clearest target and young Giant Jye Caldwell looks to be their biggest target, though they’ve also been linked to Tim Taranto and Ben Brown, and no doubt a host of other names will be thrown up before November is through.

Prelim finals promise plenty
Usually prelim final weekend has at least one (or even two) matches that look relatively clear cut – but not so in 2020, with both fixtures looking like they could genuinely go either way.

Port Adelaide vs Richmond on Friday night is as mouth-watering a match-up as you could really imagine. The minor premiers vs the reigning premiers, and a pair of sides who played out one of the best home-and-away matches of the season at this same venue not that long ago.

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Meanwhile, Brisbane vs Geelong is an encounter drenched in drama too. In one corner is a young and upcoming side that we expect to be a contender on a regular basis over the next years to come, in the other a powerhouse of yore who seem perennially able to rise for one last run at glory.

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The new vs the old is a tale as old as time and both of this week’s prelims offer us just that – two home favourites, neither of whom has featured in a grand final in the last 16 years, versus a pair of opponents who’ve played in six and won five in that same time period.

I wrote in a column this time last year that the results of semi-finals rarely matter – as we’ve noted already, those teams finishing fifth through eighth are typically just making up numbers in the post-season, and this second weekend of the finals-series is regularly, almost ritualistically a seperating of the wheat from the chaff.

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Not so in prelim final weekend, the penultimate footballing weekend, in which destinies are decided and some of the most remarkable and storied upsets in the game’s history have occurred. These matches are always must-watch, and 2020’s looks to be just as mouthwatering as ever, if not more so.