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Historic firsts and only one 'home' advantage: AFL finals Week 1 preview

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Roar Guru
24th August, 2021
16

Five months after the season started, only eight teams remain alive in the race for this year’s AFL premiership, following a thrilling final round of football.

The City of Churches will play host to both qualifying finals, including Port Adelaide’s against the Geelong Cats, meaning the club from Alberton will be the only club that has a true home ground advantage this weekend.

The other pits Melbourne up against the Brisbane Lions in what will be the first finals clash between the two sides. The winners of these two matches will then enjoy a week off before ‘hosting’ preliminary finals, likely at Optus Stadium in Perth.

Tasmania will play host to its first two finals matches, both elimination finals, including the all-Sydney showdown between the Sydney Swans and Greater Western Sydney Giants, both of whom return to the elite eight after failing to make the finals last year.

The other sudden death clash is between the Western Bulldogs and Essendon, with both sides desperate to end finals-winning droughts dating back to the Olympic years of 2016 and 2004, respectively.

Port Adelaide vs Geelong Cats
Friday, August 27
7:50pm (AEST)
Adelaide Oval

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This season: Geelong Cats 17.10 (112) defeated Port Adelaide 14.7 (91) at Adelaide Oval in Round 13.
Last meeting in a final: Port Adelaide 9.4 (58) defeated Geelong Cats 5.12 (42) at Adelaide Oval, first qualifying final, 2020.

For the second year in a row, Port Adelaide and the Geelong Cats will kick off the finals series with a heavyweight qualifying clash.

Since their 21-point loss to the Cats at home in Round 13, Ken Hinkley’s men have enjoyed a strong second half of the season, winning nine of their final ten matches to finish second on the ladder, with the only loss in that period being against top-placed Melbourne in Round 17.

Their come-from-behind win over the Western Bulldogs last Friday night saw them move up to second on the ladder, and also saw them win their sixth match at Marvel Stadium from as many attempts this season, after not playing a single match in Victoria last year.

It is the second consecutive year they have finished in the top-two, and going into this year’s finals series they will have learnt plenty from their heartbreaking preliminary final loss to Richmond last year, which denied them a shot at a second premiership, and first since 2004.

Last month, Travis Boak brought up his 300th AFL game against Collingwood in Round 19, then the following week became the club’s most-capped player, surpassing Kane Cornes who ended his career on 300 games in mid-2015.

Travis Boak of the Power celebrates after kicking a goal

Travis Boak (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

The lure of being part of the club’s second premiership side, 14 years after they suffered humiliation at the hands of the Cats in the 2007 grand final, will drive Boak and the Power to go all the way this year.

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It would also come nearly a decade after he nearly walked away from a club that lurched from one crisis to another, until David Koch and Ken Hinkley were brought in to resuscitate the Power, taking them to a preliminary final in 2014.

Geelong go into the finals series on the back of some indifferent form at home, having lost two of their last three matches to give away the minor premiership.

Last Saturday night against Melbourne they appeared in cruise control when they led by 44 points in the third quarter, only to then concede six final-quarter goals as they were forced to settle for third place on the ladder.

Chris Scott’s side will be spending this week wondering how it has all gone wrong for his side, before he and the Cats travel to Adelaide for the third time this year.

In addition to beating the Power by 21 points in Round 13, the Cats also suffered a shock 12-point loss to the previous year’s wooden-spooners, the Adelaide Crows, in Round 1.

Results aside, Jeremy Cameron has proven his worth to the club despite being plagued by a hamstring injury for most of this season, while Patrick Dangerfield has performed solidly after being suspended for three weeks for a bump on Crow Jake Kelly in the opening round.

There will be an incentive for the Cats to win on Friday night, as not only would they love to silence the Power faithful, but they will also toast Tom Hawkins in his 300th AFL game.

It will be the third time the Cats have faced Port in a qualifying final in Adelaide, after last year’s 16-point loss in the corresponding final last year as well as a 55-point loss at AAMI Stadium in 2004.

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While they have beaten the Power in two other finals, most notably the 2007 grand final which they won by a record 119 points, they will be shooting for their first win against them in a finals match in the South Australian capital, as well as what would be just their third interstate finals win since the turn of the century.

For the winner: direct passage to the preliminary final likely to be played at Optus Stadium in Perth, under WA’s strict quarantine conditions.
For the loser: await the winner of the Sydney derby elimination final and play them in a semi-final, likely next Friday night.

Prediction: Geelong Cats by eight points.

Sydney Swans vs GWS Giants
Saturday, August 28
3:20pm (AEST)
University of Tasmania Stadium, Launceston

This season: GWS Giants 9.17 (71) defeated Sydney Swans 10.9 (69) at the SCG in Round 5; Sydney Swans 15.8 (98) defeated GWS Giants 11.6 (72) at Metricon Stadium in Round 18.
Last meeting in a final: GWS Giants 10.19 (79) defeated Sydney Swans 4.6 (30) at the SCG, second elimination final, 2018.

The return of Lance Franklin and the acquisition of former Adelaide Crows coach Don Pyke played key roles in the Swans’ rise back up the ladder this year, after they’d finished in the bottom four in the previous two seasons.

Early wins over the Brisbane Lions, Richmond and Geelong were among the highlights as the club qualified for its 21st finals series in the past 26 years.

Their return to September completes a full circle of sorts, nearly three years after they suffered a humiliating 49-point loss to the Giants at the SCG in the corresponding elimination final in 2018.

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Coupled with a stunning qualifying final win at the Olympic stadium in 2016, GWS can make it a hat-trick of finals wins over the Swans, and their 2-0 record against their bigger brothers could give them the edge.

After a dismal start to the season, which cast some doubt over Leon Cameron’s coaching credentials, as well as a crippling injury toll which threatened to derail proceedings, the Giants have done extraordinarily well to finish seventh after winning four of their final five matches.

Included was a 19-point win over the Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park when the odds were stacked against them, as well as a crushing victory over Richmond that not only delivered the last rites to the Tigers’ premiership era, but was also their 100th ever win in the AFL.

In the absence of captain Stephen Coniglio, Toby Greene has led from the front, and was one of two players from the Giants, the other being Jacob Hopper, to be named in the All Australian squad of 40 this week.

Toby Greene of the Giants

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Their two meetings this season were split, with the Giants inflicting the Swans’ first defeat of the year with a two-point win at the SCG in Round 5, before the Swans returned serve with a 26-point win on the Gold Coast in Round 18.

The 22nd Sydney derby will be the third in the past four to be played on neutral territory, after their clash on the holiday strip last month as well as the 2020 edition played behind Western Australia’s hard borders in August last year.

While the Giants have won both finals against the Swans, the red and white are undefeated in the Apple Isle, including defeating Hawthorn in their only previous visit to Launceston in Round 5, 2012, in what was Adam Goodes’ record-breaking 304th match.

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For the winner: the chance to continue flying the flag for locked-down New South Wales for the rest of the finals series, and a likely Friday night clash with the loser of the Port Adelaide vs Geelong Cats qualifying final from the previous evening.

For the loser: season over.

Prediction: Sydney Swans by 18 points.

Melbourne vs Brisbane Lions
Saturday, August 28
7:30pm (AEST)
Adelaide Oval

This season: Melbourne 14.13 (97) defeated Brisbane Lions 11.9 (75) at Giants Stadium in Round 12.
Last meeting in a final: Never

The competition’s best defence comes up against the best attack when top-placed Melbourne faces off against the Brisbane Lions, after both clubs set up their qualifying final showdown following what could only be described as super Saturday last week.

First, the Lions snatched a double chance from the Western Bulldogs by beating the West Coast Eagles by enough points at the Gabba, before the Dees came from 44 points down to overrun the Cats and claim top spot thanks to Max Gawn’s after-the-siren heroics at Kardinia Park.

After narrowly missing the finals last year, and finishing second-last in the previous year, the Dees started season 2021 on fire, winning their first nine matches before suffering a narrow and controversial one-point loss to the Adelaide Crows at the Oval in Round 10.

During that period, veteran Nathan Jones brought up his 300th game against Richmond on Anzac eve in Round 6, but has since lost his place in the club’s best 22, being the medical sub in matches against North Melbourne and Essendon in Rounds 7 and 15 respectively.

But should the club advance to the grand final for the first time since 2000, then he would have to come under consideration for selection, as the lure of a premiership medal in potentially his final game would be the ultimate reward given the tough times he’s endured at the club.

The club go into just its second finals series since 2006 having won their past four games, including the aforementioned last gasp win over the Cats last Saturday night, as well as a 98-point thrashing of the Gold Coast Suns in Round 20.

It is the first time since 1964 that the club finished on top of the ladder, which also happened to be the only other year Tokyo hosted a Summer Olympics, as they did this year.

On both occasions, the Dees won the flag, so their fans will be hoping that is a good omen.

There were also some disappointing losses too, most notably against a Collingwood side that eventually finished second-last in the Queen’s Birthday clash that was relocated to the SCG in Round 13.

Max Gawn of the Demons celebrates a goal

Max Gawn (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Brisbane come into their third consecutive finals campaign on the back of another consistent season of strong football which saw them become the only side to score more than 2000 points across the regular season, repeating their feat from 2019.

The 2131 points they scored is 137 more than the second-best attacking side, the Western Bulldogs, could manage.

By contrast, bottom-placed North were the only side to concede more than 2000 points during the regular season, coughing up 2075 points – 103 points more than the second-worst defensive side, Carlton (1972).

This came despite losing two players to season-ending ACL injuries during the season: Cameron Rayner, who went down on the eve of the season, and Eric Hipwood, who joined him on the sidelines in their Round 17 loss to St Kilda.

Reigning Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale has missed a considerable portion of the year too, but the Lions were able to win every match they played without him, including thrashings of Port Adelaide, Richmond and GWS in the first half of the season.

Off-season import Joe Daniher has more than proven his worth to the side, kicking at least one goal in every match and becoming the first man since himself (when he was at Essendon) in 2017 to achieve that feat.

Their fourth-place finish came after they had started the season poorly, losing three of their first four matches, including their only regular-season loss at the Gabba in Round 1 when the Sydney Swans, who had finished 16th last year, embarrassed them on their home deck.

The only regular season meeting between the Dees and Lions went the way of Simon Goodwin’s men, who came from behind at halftime to win by 22 points at Giants Stadium in Sydney.

Given the impressive form of both sides this year, it could go either way, and whoever wins will have their best chance to advance to a grand final for the first time since 2000 or 2004, respectively.

For the winner: direct passage to the preliminary final.

For the loser: await the loser of the Western Bulldogs vs Essendon elimination final and play them in a semi-final, likely next Saturday night.

Prediction: Brisbane Lions by 20 points.

Western Bulldogs vs Essendon
Sunday, August 29
3:20pm (AEST)
University of Tasmania Stadium, Launceston

This season: Essendon 15.7 (97) defeated Western Bulldogs 12.12 (84) at Marvel Stadium in Round 21.
Last meeting in a final: Western Bulldogs 6.13 (49) defeated Essendon 5.11 (41) at the MCG, first semi-final, 1953.

Luke Beveridge will be wondering where it has gone wrong for his side in recent weeks. Having sat atop the ladder in Round 20, the Dogs proceeded to lose their final three matches to drop to fifth, leaving them to play sudden-death football.

The losing streak started against the Bombers in the Round 21 match where they lost their leading goalkicker, Josh Bruce, to the dreaded ACL injury that will see him sidelined until just before next year’s finals.

They also became the final victim of the Alastair Clarkson era at Hawthorn, while after a strong start against Port last Friday night they capitulated in the final quarter to lose by just two points.

Instead of the double chance, the Dogs will now have to repeat their 2016 feat of winning four consecutive finals if they are to salute for the second time in six years, and it starts against the side to whom they lost over two weeks ago.

Stefan Martin

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

After a poor start to the season, winning just two of their first eight matches, the Dons have rebuilt on the run, with Darcy Parish enjoying a breakout season as evidenced by best-on-ground performances on Anzac Day and in the Dreamtime match played at Optus Stadium.

Under first-year coach Ben Rutten, the club made gradual inroads throughout the rest of the season and briefly entered the top eight in Round 17 before winning their final three matches to finish eighth on the ladder.

They go in having won their past three matches, including against the Western Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium in Round 21, while they dominated Collingwood from start to finish to win by 38 points at the MCG last Sunday.

It will be just the sixth time the Bombers have played finals football since 2004, but it is also the eighth time they have finished either seventh or eighth since 2002.

A lot has been spoken about of their recent poor finals record, but another alarming stat that stands out is that the club hasn’t won a final under the coaching of anyone other than Kevin Sheedy in over half a century.

Given their recent good form, which contrasts with the Bulldogs’ slump, Sunday might see an end to the club’s winning drought in finals.

This clash will be the first time the Western Bulldogs and Essendon have met in a finals match since 1953, the second of two finals played in Tasmania this weekend, and the second time the Bombers have played in the Apple Isle this year after beating Hawthorn in Round 14.

For the winner: a likely Saturday night clash with the loser of the Melbourne vs Brisbane Lions qualifying final from the previous evening.

For the loser: season over.

Prediction: Essendon by 12 points.

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