It seems that for many years now, preliminary finals have been more exciting games than grand finals.
The chance to play off in a grand final brings out the best, most combative elements of teams. Perhaps there is a feeling of inner contentment once a grand final is reached but playing for the right to be in a grand final is a battle to the death.
With this in mind, I have put forward in chronological order, my opinion of the best, and usually the closest, ten preliminary finals over the last 30 years.
1993: Essendon 17.9.111 defeated Adelaide 14.16.100
Inspired by Kevin Sheedy oratory and some major positional moves, Essendon came from seven goals down at halftime to win a pulsating final by 11 points. The game was reminiscent in many ways of Carlton’s famous come-from-far-behind win in the 1970 grand final. In the end Essendon had far too much run for an Adelaide team that simply ran out of legs after a stellar first half. Darren Bewick for Essendon and Tony Modra for the Crows were in the goals. The momentum from this win continued into the next week as Essendon won the grand final against Carlton. The ‘Baby Bombers’ were born.
1994: Geelong 16.13.109 defeated North Melbourne 14.19.103
For the most part, this hectic game was in the balance but North tried valiantly to get their noses in front unfortunately with a string of behinds. Finally, when the scores were deadlocked, it was a floating kick from Leigh Tudor that found its way over the back of Mick Martyn, and fell into the arms of Gary Ablett Senior, who was for the most part held quiet. With any score counting towards victory, Ablett kicked the sealer after the siren, proving that this game is literally a game of inches.
1996: Sydney 10.10.70 defeated Essendon 10.9.69
This see-sawing game saw Essendon in front by two goals with precious few minutes left on the clock. Replies from the Swans had scores level with seconds to play. Enter Tony ‘Plugger’ Lockett’s severe groin injury and all. With less than 15 seconds to play Lockett marked on his chest more than 50 metres out from goal, and with any score needed, after the bell he scored a point to win amid scenes of jubilation and despair respectively. James Hird and Paul Kelly were enormous for Essendon and the Swans respectively. The following week however, the Swans were no match for the Kangaroos in the grand final.
1997: Adelaide 12.21.93 defeated Western Bulldogs 13.13.91
When Tony Liberatore was in full embrace mode with his teammates after believing he had kicked the decisive winning goal in the last quarter of this hectic final, it was a shock when it was not to be. The umpire signalled a point. Yet this was a game that the Western Bulldogs had in their grasp at various stages, at one point leading by 31 points. Adelaide were plucky and unrelenting, aided by some innovative coaching moves by Malcolm Blight. After conceding a significant lead to St Kilda the next week, Adelaide went onto win the flag led by Darren Jarman magic and Andrew McLeod wizardry. For the Bulldogs there was no immediate atonement, also losing to Adelaide comfortably in the corresponding preliminary final the next year.
1999: Carlton 16.8.104 defeated Essendon 14.19.103
This was the day of upsets – not only on the field but on election day in Victorian politics, when rank outsiders were victorious. For Essendon, with its star-studded line-up, this game was expected to be a cakewalk, and the start of a dynasty. For Carlton, the underdogs, this was a chance to show their wares. Anthony Koutoufides was everywhere in a stellar performance for Carlton. The match came down to a last-ditch tackle by Fraser Brown on Dean Wallis, as the latter was streaming forward. That was enough to provide a one-point victory. Carlton were comfortably beaten the next week by North Melbourne in the grand final while for Essendon, although winning the flag the next year, this was the one that got away and probably ensured that the period of Essendon dominance was shorter than it could have been.
2004: Port Adelaide 14.10.94 defeated St Kilda 13.10.88
When Port Adelaide skipped out to an 11-point lead in the final quarter and with the baying crowd fully behind them, it looked like the Power would prevail with some comfort, even though there was never more than two goals difference for the entire game. However, the Saints responded with two goals of their own to tie up the game. It took a miraculous snap from close to 50 metres out by Gavin Wanganeen to give the Power a six-point lead, and a desperate lunge by Shaun Burgoyne to prevent St Kilda from scoring a near certain goal that finally gave the Power the victory. Port went on to win the flag next week and deny Brisbane the four-peat.
2009: St Kilda 9.6.60 defeated Western Bulldogs 7.11.53
It took an inspired Nick Riewoldt to get St Kilda over the line in this titanic struggle. With just five minutes to go the Saints trailed and the Bulldogs through their fleet of runners appeared to have the upper hand. The absence of power forwards, however, meant that the Bulldogs were always going to struggle to convert midfield opportunities. First, it was a Nick Riewoldt mark inside the 50 to give St Kilda the lead, then it was a toe poke for his fourth goal, and to finally secure the breathing space and victory. The Saints could not replicate their winning performance the following week, going down to Geelong in a similarly tight, tough grand final.
2011: Collingwood 10.8.68 defeated Hawthorn 9.11.65
When Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin kicked a miracle goal, turning Chris Tarrant inside out, it looked like the end of the back-to-back premiership dream for the Magpies. Enter Luke Ball. A dropped mark by Hawthorn deep in their back pocket found its way to Luke Ball, who snapped the critical six points over his head, which just bounced through to ensure that the Magpies hit the front. Then in the dying seconds, a desperate lunging tackle from Dale Thomas on Cyril Rioli as he was streaming forward for the Hawks put an end to the game. For Collingwood, the dream of back-to-back flags was not to be, however.
2013: Hawthorn 14.18.102 defeated Geelong 15.7.97
This was the match that ended the infamous Kennett curse. Hawthorn prevailed in the end by the slender margin of five points but not without heart palpitations along the way. Travis Varcoe from Geelong missed the opportunity to tie the game with just over 30 seconds on the clock but his running shot was astray. For the Hawks, coming from behind by 20 points at three-quarter time, this was an even performance across the entire team led by Sam Mitchell, and Jack Gunston with four goals. It was the start of the Hawks’ three-peat premiership successes while the Cats missed out on their odd-year grand final appearances (2007, 2009, 2011).
2016: Western Bulldogs 13.11.89 defeated Greater Western Sydney 12.11.83
Both teams were trying to prove things. For GWS it was their first ever preliminary final. For the Bulldogs it was the weight of history upon them, having lost seven preliminary finals since their previous win more than five decades earlier. In a thrilling game of punch and counterpunch, the Giants led by 14 points early in the final quarter. A fightback was required and with less than four minutes left the scores were level. Enter the prolific Jack McCrae with only his second goal of the season, followed by a point after the siren by Tory Dickson and the Dogs had prevailed. Not only was the preliminary final hoodoo buried but the grand final drought of 62 years was buried the following week.