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'Twice the ecstasy and twice the heartbreak': Preliminary finals have their own place in history

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Expert
7th September, 2021
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Preliminary finals have a long and storied history.

I was seven years old and in attendance at VFL Park when Melbourne’s Jim Stynes infamously ran over the mark in the 1987 prelim. A 15-metre penalty was the result and Gary Buckenara won Hawthorn the game with a goal after the siren.

The ’90s saw a series of classics, more memorable than any of the grand finals that decade.

Who can forget the Baby Bombers coming back from 42 points down at halftime of the 1993 prelim, then winning the premiership the next week? A year later, Leigh Tudor’s pass lives on, floating over the outstretched hand of Mick Martyn into the lap of Gary Ablett. Another after-the-siren finish, as Ablett slotted it from the top of the goal-square.

Tony Lockett kicked a post-siren behind in 1996 that was arguably more famous than any of his 1360 goals, to elevate the Swans into their first grand final since South Melbourne moved to Sydney.

Tony Liberatore’s goal that wasn’t in 1997 denied the Dogs a grand final berth, which Adelaide was good enough to convert to their first flag.

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The close of the decade saw the ’99 prelim, Fraser Brown stopping Dean Wallis dead in his tracks in the most famous finals tackle of them all. Desperate underdogs, Carlton exacted revenge over Essendon for their 1993 grand final defeat by a solitary point.

The 2000s has not seen as many famous one-off moments, but still produced some memorable matches.

In 2004, Fraser Gehrig kicked his 100th goal amid an epic prelim against eventual premiers Port. Geelong took all before them in 2007, but froze up against Collingwood in the penultimate game. Enter a Brad Ottens tap, a Gary Ablett Jr shrug and snapped goal to seal victory.

A classic finish was delivered in 2011, Collingwood peeling off five goals in the last quarter despite only five to three-quarter time. Buddy Franklin put the Hawks in front in the dying minutes before Luke Ball responded with a piece of stoppage brilliance.

Hawthorn certainly learned their lesson from that three-point loss – in each of the next three years, they won their preliminary final by less than a goal, beating Adelaide, Geelong and Port, each one playing out in very different ways.

Jarryd Roughead and Lance Franklin of the Hawks celebrates with the Premiership Cup after the hawks won the 2013 AFL Grand Final match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the Fremantle Dockers at Melbourne Cricket Ground on September 28, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia.

(Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Some say the 2016 prelim between Greater Western Sydney and the Western Bulldogs, a pulsating match of high drama and momentum swings, is the best final, if not the best match, ever played. What a part it played in the Dogs’ dream premiership.

2017 saw a memorable prelim, not necessarily for the game, but for the most one-sided stadium in football history, with 90,000 rabid Richmond fans screaming for their own fairytale. 2019 saw the incredibly undermanned GWS park the bus in the last quarter against Collingwood at the MCG, prevailing in an epic as the Pies peppered away.

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And last year, in an extraordinary season marred by COVID, six goals was enough to secure Richmond a win in the rain over Port at Adelaide Oval. What an arm-wrestle it was, every score like gold.

A grand final is a celebration of both teams, and yes, there is a winner and a loser. But preliminary finals under the final-eight system give us twice the ecstasy and twice the heartbreak.

Each of the games above is remembered in different ways – the euphoria of victory, but with more of the story to come, is matched up against the agony of defeat. But for a stray kick, the bounce of a ball, maybe an umpiring decision, history could be so different.

This week, we have four teams looking to land on the right side of the ledger. The winners will be met with great acclaim, and we’ll get into them next week. But what do they all have to lose?

Melbourne are the strong premiership favourite, which comes with its own pressure. They have spent most of the year in the top two, much of it atop the ladder. They have looked the most complete of all the contenders, and the gap between their best and worst is the lowest.

The Demons carry the weight of their own history, which they eventually crumbled under in 2018, having not won a flag since 1964. They must also defy recent trends, given only one team finishing on top of the ladder has won the premiership in the last ten years.

But the Dees are in the zone. They have the belief, and there is a quiet air of confidence about everything they are doing right now. It’s a long way back if they don’t get it done from here.

Christian Petracca celebrates a goal

(Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Geelong are the perennial preliminary finalists, reaching their fifth in the last six years – all coinciding with the Patrick Dangerfield era. They only have one grand final to show for it so far, and they just keep coming up short the same way – they can not match the intensity and pressure of their opposition, who eventually dismantle their composed possession game.

The Cats should be applauded for continually putting themselves in the frame. They don’t back down and they don’t shy away from the chase for a flag. But each time they don’t deliver one brings them one step closer to their next fall. They’ll once again be branded old and slow… because they’re old and slow.

Port Adelaide are heavily favoured to progress. They face an uncannily similar set of circumstances to 2020, at home, tackling a Victorian team coming off two finals and a win in Queensland. For the second year in a row, in seasons that have compromised the Victorian clubs, the South Australian teams have been advantaged by having a largely COVID-free environment.

The Power had a sense of destiny about them last season, finishing on top of the ladder in their 150th year of celebration. They’ve been a slower burn this year and all credit to them for being able to respond after the emotional lows they suffered.

Travis Boak, Robbie Gray, Charlie Dixon and Tom Jonas – all key players – will be between 31 and 33 years old when they kick a footy in 2022. They can’t take anything for granted.

The Western Bulldogs are aiming to replicate their 2016 finals series in trying to win the grand final from outside the top four. They’ve been looked after the umpires once again in their two finals so far, just as they were in 2016, and why wouldn’t you ride your luck when it is handed to you on a platter.

Like Melbourne, they also sat atop the ladder for long stretches this season, often swapping top two positions with the Dees. Dropping out of the top four in the last round hasn’t cost them given they are now in a preliminary final.

They probably don’t have the baggage of the other three teams, so arguably have slightly less on the line, as silly as that may sound when playing for a grand final berth.

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We can only hope that we’re going to get two storied classics out of this weekend, but history says it won’t be so. One will be a comfortable win, and your money at this stage would suggest that will be Port over the Dogs, and one may be an all-timer. Melbourne and Geelong have certainly given us their share of classics in recent seasons, so hopefully they can deliver one more.

We’ll celebrate the winners, sure. But the little devils on our shoulders will also be drinking in the pain and misery of the vanquished. When it comes to great drama, tragedy and triumph go hand in hand.

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