With two rounds remaining before the AFL finals series gets underway, Friday night’s clash between the GWS Giants and Richmond in Melbourne shapes as a virtual elimination final, with a lot at stake for both clubs.
Originally fixtured to be played at Giants Stadium in Sydney, it will instead be played at Marvel Stadium in Melbourne, making this the second time this year that the sides have played at the venue, after the Tigers claimed a comeback four-point victory back in Round 9.
The fact that it was played at Docklands earned the ire of Damien Hardwick, who slammed the fixturing department for the low turn-out (less than 20,000 fans turned out for the match), saying that he “hated coming here” in his post-match press conference.
In that match, the Tigers trailed by nearly five goals in the third quarter before Dustin Martin inspired their fourth-quarter comeback, kicking a goal right on the line before Daniel Rioli kicked the match-winning major with less than five minutes remaining.
Nearly three months on from that titanic match, the side’s finals hopes remain on life support, but they did keep their faint September chances alive after coming from behind to beat North Melbourne by 33 points at the MCG.
They trailed by 20 points at halftime and stared down the barrel of a potentially embarrassing defeat, which would’ve all but ended their premiership defence, before a seven-goal third quarter saw them run down the Roos and beat them at the G for the first time since 2006.
Maurice Rioli Jr, the son of his late namesake who passed away in 2010, had an impressive debut, kicking a goal and becoming the sixth player with the famous surname to win on his AFL debut in as many attempts.
It was just the Tigers’ second win since the mid-season bye, having also beaten the Brisbane Lions on the Gold Coast in the match where Martin suffered a season-ending kidney injury.
Now they face a GWS side which, despite being decimated by injury and with eight changes made to the side that lost to Port Adelaide in Round 20, is buzzing after they defeated the Geelong Cats by 19 points at Kardinia Park last Friday night.
Leon Cameron’s side appeared set for a long night in the office when they conceded the first goal after 30 seconds, but, seemingly inspired by the United States’ upset win over the Soviet Union in an ice hockey match at the 1980 Winter Olympics, managed to pull off the upset of the season.
That explains why the Giants chanted “USA” before singing their team song after their win over the Cats in the sheds.
Sam Taylor, who had only recently returned from injury, played the match of his life shutting down reigning Coleman Medallist Tom Hawkins, while Toby Greene again led from the front kicking a goal in the third quarter.
Greene, however, could be sidelined from this Friday night’s clash pending the outcome of his judiciary hearing arising from a first-quarter rough conduct charge involving Patrick Dangerfield, which resulted in the ex-Brownlow Medallist being sent to hospital.
The fact that the 27-year-old was charged earnt the ire of several AFL legends, including ex-North Melbourne champion Wayne Carey and former Brisbane Lions forward Jonathan Brown, who both slammed the treatment of the Giants forward by MRO Michael Christian.
During the match they also lost forward Brent Daniels to a hamstring injury in the second half, adding to an injury list that would be enough to even field a side.
The Giants’ win, their ninth of the season, lifted them into the top eight for now, but the fact of the matter is that they are only half a game ahead of a bunch of four teams, including the Tigers, in the race for a finals berth.
They surely could have had a finals berth sewn up by now but in recent weeks have suffered inexcusable losses to Hawthorn and the Gold Coast Suns, as well as drawing against North Melbourne in Round 13.
But we have also seen them score some notable victories this year, including defeating Collingwood at the MCG and the Sydney Swans at the SCG in consecutive weeks, as well as upsetting then-ladder leading Melbourne by nine points in Round 16.
Even if they win on Friday night, their place in the eight won’t be safe unless Essendon, Fremantle and St Kilda all suffer defeats later in the round; of these three clubs, only the Bombers are certain favourites to beat the Gold Coast Suns on the holiday strip.
Leon Cameron’s side also still have to beat Carlton in the final round; if they can do that, then they will seal the unlikeliest of finals berths, with David King going as far to suggest that they could potentially cause some damage in September.
???? "He's doing a fantastic job, Leon"
David King has praised the coaching performance of Leon Cameron following Friday's win over Geelong ????️ pic.twitter.com/Vw6embO7O0
— GWS GIANTS (@GWSGIANTS) August 9, 2021
We saw what they were capable of doing in 2019, when they finished sixth and won three consecutive sudden death finals, including thrashing the Western Bulldogs in the elimination final, before they capitulated against a machine called Richmond on grand final day.
A return to September this year would also be a remarkable result considering they started the season poorly and were, along with the finals-bound Sydney Swans, forced out of New South Wales after Round 14 when a wave of COVID-19 cases smothered the Harbour City.
It is also possible that the two Sydney clubs could face each other once again in September, in which case the Giants would have a psychological edge given they are two-from-two against their cross-town rivals in finals matches.
But first thing’s first – the Giants must first beat Richmond this Friday night to defend their place in the eight; not only that, they can almost certainly deliver the last rites to the Tigers’ premiership era and potentially sentence them to the sidelines this September.
Whether the Homebush-based club play finals or not in 2021 will then come down to a final round clash against Carlton at Marvel Stadium next week.
As for the Tigers – well, they just need to win, and hope that other results this weekend fall their way, if they are to remain alive in the finals race ahead of their final round clash against Hawthorn at the MCG.