The home-and-away season has been run and won. The dust has settled. Unlike the last five seasons, we don’t have long to take a breath. It’s about to be all the way on.
Week 1 of finals always tantalises with its prospects. It vies only with Round 1 as the best football weekend of the year.
The top four squaring off to see who has the strongest claim to the flag. The bottom half of the eight trying to create a magic we seldom see and make a storied run for glory.
Melbourne are the number one seed after claiming top spot on the ladder in thrilling, after-the-siren fashion in Round 23. They were one of two clubs setting the standard in the first half of the season, went through a mid-year lull at what felt like just the right time, and have now won four games on end coming into finals. It feels like they’re peaking at the right time.
The Dees are more of a defensive powerhouse than they are an attacking force. They haven’t conceded 100 points in a game and five times they kept top-eight rivals to 60 or less.
They’re going to be a tough nut to crack if teams try and attack through the air with Steven May and Jake Lever cutting off everything. Max Gawn and Clayton Oliver sent up a flare in the last round to show the midfield is ready to go.
But can they kick a winning score in three finals? Ben Brown has had an underrated season but his last month has been strong. He’ll give them what they need.
After painfully losing to Richmond in last year’s preliminary final, Port have a bit of the recent Tigers about them this time around as they’ve charged to September with eight wins from their last nine matches.
Fifth on the ladder after Round 17, the Power haven’t lost since, and booked themselves a top-two berth and home final after a come-from-behind win over the Dogs that was symbolic of their season. They just keep coming.
Travis Boak, Robbie Gray, Tom Jonas and Charlie Dixon aren’t getting any younger, and there is a sense that they need to strike now. For the second consecutive year, COVID has given them the chance to have a home grand advantage denied to others. Still, there is a flakiness about them that sounds a warning siren.
Geelong snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Round 23, costing them top spot and condemning them to a qualifying final in Adelaide against Port. A few weeks ago they were the team to beat but have now lost two of their last three, with the win against St Kilda after being down at halftime.
Another concern is that since Round 15, the Cats played three fellow top-seven sides (Brisbane, GWS, Melbourne) and lost them all.
But then you look at that second quarter against Melbourne where they kicked 8.1 to 1.2 and realise there is no team in September that can match them for firepower when they click.
Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood feeding Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron? Yeah, that will just about do it. While they have enough versatility in their defensive options to cover Tom Stewart, would they have conceded six last quarter goals against Melbourne if he was back there?
The Cats are perennial. We know that. But they don’t win. They are surely due.
Brisbane claimed the final top-four spot after having been there for most of the year but fallen out in the last month. And they hit September firing on all cylinders – the opposition may have been questionable, but they have averaged 126 points per game in their last four wins.
Joe Daniher and Charlie Cameron couldn’t be any more in sync in recent times, Dan McStay is in career best form, Lincoln McCarthy probably is too, and Zac Bailey is the x-factor that can go to another level in finals. That’s a lot of confidence that is sky high at the pointy end of the year, and they’ll take some stopping.
Through a quirk of the draw, the Lions have only played one fellow finalist in almost three months, so the case can be made that they are not exactly battle-hardened. Is their backline ready for finals-calibre forward-lines? Has their midfield developed a bit of downhill skiing against easy opposition, through no fault of their own? It’s a niggle.
After looking a million dollars through the first half of the year, the Western Bulldogs hit finals with 15 cents in their pocket. They’ve finished the regular season losing three in a row, which historians tells us has never been done by an eventual premier.
The loss to Hawthorn in Round 22 was the most abject failure, but Round 23 against Port wasn’t much better, despite the closeness of the score. The standard of the match was poor given what were two top-four teams, but the Dogs never fired a shot from halfway through the first quarter, apart from a five-minute patch in the third term.
We know what the Dogs can do if they put it together, and Luke Beveridge has proven he can win a flag against all odds from outside the top four, but it feels like it’s over for them.
What a joy it’s been to see Sydney play some great footy this year. They are as easy on the eye as any team in the league, fast and skillful, and can cut opposition to ribbons. They score freely when allowed to play on their terms, but have shown grit when the time has come too.
The Swans are probably seen as a year or two away, but why not them? They’ve beaten Geelong, Brisbane, the Bulldogs, GWS and Essendon (twice) this year, and in their only matches against Melbourne and Port, at the MCG and Adelaide Oval respectively, they lost by under two goals. They are strong credentials.
And of course, what does Buddy Franklin have in store for us? Let’s savour him while we still can, and never forget what a generational talent he truly is.
The Giants have shown alligator blood to hang around through a challenging year, going through ups and downs as they tend to do. They’ve peeled off three wins in a row to make a statement on the way in, and have claimed the scalps of Geelong, Essendon and Melbourne in the last two months.
If they can beat the Swans, Greater Western Sydney can put the frights up a couple with a midfield that’s really humming and a defence that is led by a young star in Sam Taylor. It’s Jesse Hogan’s first final too, and he’s played some sneaky great football this season.
Essendon doesn’t play many finals anymore, but when they do, they lose, and mostly in humiliating style. They’ve played five elimination finals in the last 15 years, with an average losing margin of 58 points. It’s an ugly modern history.
But the Bombers are certainly a team on the rise, and face an opponent in the Dogs that have the staggers. Will they pass each other like ships in the night, and the Dons continue their run? However far they go, entertaining football will come with them.
It’s all in front of us now. For what it’s worth, I’ve got Melbourne and Geelong as the top seeds, and think they’ll be meeting in the grand final after winning through to the prelims this weekend.
Port and Brisbane are a gap behind them, neither having done enough to suggest they’re ready to win three matches against the best teams in the next month.