Having had our appetites successfully whetted by the bye weekend and the arrival of the AFLW season, all roads lead to the MCG on Thursday night for the beginning of what promises to be a memorable AFL finals series.
After an even season, just six teams remain, of which five are seen as genuine, gilt-edged chances at securing a flag – as many bona fide contenders as we’ve seen in many a year. It means fascinating side-stories, twists at every turn and the odd shock to the system are all just things we’ll have to get used to over the next month.
From selection dilemmas to how the finals will be shaped by its opening weekend, there’s lots to discuss and even more to quietly ponder to oneself.
Here are five burning questions ahead of Finals Week One.
Well… no, not technically.
Still, it seems highly likely that whoever out of Collingwood and Melbourne books a home preliminary final on Thursday night will head into that match in a fortnight’s time as premiership favourites. While par for the course for a minor premier, it’s not too often a fourth-placed team like the Demons also has that distinction to gain from the first week of September, but then again this is far from a normal eason.
The 2021 premiers have, essentially, booked themselves a home qualifying final regardless of their ladder position, and with a first-choice 23 to pick from save for Jake Melksham’s heartbreaking ACL injury, might not be favourites yet against the more banged-up Magpies who have officially ruled Nick Daicos out, but are surely as close as any fourth-placed qualifying finalist has ever been to it.
A win for them would rubber-stamp their hot streak of form to end the home-and-away series, and while there would still be plenty of water under the bridge before the grand final, it would be hard to dispel the notion that unlike 2022, they’ve peaked at the right time.
Similarly, for the Magpies, it’s a chance to demonstrate that their patchy form to end the home-and-away season was out of nothing more than a few injury concerns and some adaptations made, so to speak, on the fly by coach Craig McRae. It has been a good two months since the Pies’ status as ladder-leaders and flag favourites was under threat, after all: if the challenge of a significant rise in stakes brings out the best in them once more, the premiership will again be theirs to lose.
The conundrum, though, is that while the victor may well be premiership favourites, the loser would have the most treacherous route to the grand final in many a year. Not only would it require an away preliminary final against either Brisbane or Port Adelaide, at home venues where they have lost a combined one game all season to interstate teams (Port’s thrilling loss to the Pies themselves in the game of the season the one exception); but first, in all likelihood, they’d need to confront a Carlton team that burned through both of them in their surge into the finals late in the season.
So for all intents and purposes, this might as well be a grand final writ small: the victor will have the inside running on at least a spot on the last Saturday in September, and most likely status as favourites for that game should they make it; while the loser faces an all but insurmountable pair of challenges to get back into the hunt.
Few in the AFL divide opinion quite as much as the American Pie. For some, he’s a limited but lethal behemoth at his best; for others, he’s the most overrated player of his generation.
That both opinions hold weight is set to be the major selection dilemma for Craig McRae ahead of Thursday night’s qualifying final against Melbourne, especially with Darcy Moore, Nathan Murphy and Beau McCreery’s returns from injury and suspension creating a squeeze for spots. Cox only returned to the team in Round 23 as a substitute following a fortnight in the VFL, so his place in the line-up is far from secure – especially given rain is forecast to make the opening match of the finals series a sodden affair.
Factors against his selection include those conditions, his limitations as an around-the-ground marking option compared to the game’s best talls – his 11 disposals against Essendon in Round 24 were his most since Round 12, while he has just 23 marks in nine games since then – and continued scepticism of whether he is AFL standard.
“I just can’t cop guys not touching the footy in my side,” was Kane Cornes’ take on Footy Classified.
However, marks in his favour include an excellent record against Melbourne and Max Gawn – most famously five goals in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday clash with the Dees and a 21-disposal, eight-mark effort in 2022’s fixture; as well as some brilliant tapwork against Brisbane in Round 23 rucking for the majority of the second half after being subbed on and, despite Cornes’ belief that he is overrated as a big-time performer, a pair of three-goal quarters in finals that are part of September folklore.
With Darcy Cameron’s form middling at best in the second half of the year and Gawn in dominant touch as a solo ruck following the demotion of former Pie Brodie Grundy, there’s every chance Cox will be deemed necessary for nothing else than as the substitute, to allow a fresh big man to tackle the Demons captain after half time, the role he provided against the Lions and Oscar McInerney to good effect.
Whether that forces the Pies to rethink the spot of Daniel McStay in the forward line given the extra height Cox would provide, especially on a rainy night, will open up another series of conundrums for McRae and company.
An inevitable consequence of the pre-finals bye since its arrival in 2016 has been the separation of the home-and-away season and September as almost separate campaigns.
It makes form heading into the finals as irrelevant as it has ever been, with the week off regularly proving a momentum-killer in the past seven years: West Coast hit the finals in red-hot form in 2016 only to be stunned on their own turf by the Western Bulldogs, who themselves recovered from losing three of their last six home-and-away games to claim four finals on the trot and a remarkable flag. Then in 2019, it was the Bulldogs themselves to fall victim, going from winning their last three regular-season games by a combined 199 points to getting soundly thrashed by GWS, a 58-point elimination final loss a turnaround of 119 from the thumping they’d given the Giants at the same round just three weeks prior.
That Carlton finished 2023 as the form team in the competition is undisputed: a nine-game winning streak, broken only by the Giants in the last round when their fifth place was already set in stone, producing not just an AFL equal record five straight wins by 50 points or more, but triumphs over four of their fellow top-six teams in Collingwood, Port Adelaide, Melbourne and St Kilda.
That’s despite a chunk of missed action from Sam Walsh, Harry McKay, Mitch McGovern and Adam Cerra, all of whom will suit up again on Friday night having featured against the Giants, albeit with another group of stars led by Sam Docherty and Patrick Cripps being unavailable. For almost the first time this season, the Blues will likely have an optimum 22 to choose from.
But if recent finals series are any guide, neither that form nor the strength of their team may matter, especially against a battle-hardened reigning grand finalist in Sydney who fought off an equally rough patch to the Blues in 2023 to reach the last eight.
Momentum is a funny thing in sport, and often it doesn’t take much for it to turn against your team. Carlton’s irresistible, brilliant best has been too good for a vast chunk of the cream of the crop this season, but they wouldn’t be the first team to have the bye round serve as an inopportune interruption to their perfectly purring machine.
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No Giant right now will be looming larger in Ross Lyon’s mind than Toby Greene heading into Saturday afternoon’s clash at the MCG. The GWS captain has run riot at times this year en route to another All-Australian blazer, with a career-high 60 goals and a swathe of match-winning performances to drag his team into the finals once more.
The Saints were able to restrict Greene to ‘only’ two goals in their only encounter all season, a 12-point St Kilda win back in Round 10. But this is a different GWS to the one that started the year 3-7, and the Giants will surely earn themselves more than just 49 inside 50s as they did 15 weeks ago.
It was Jimmy Webster who got the job on the megastar back then, one of a series of major head-to-head tussles with the game’s elite small forwards including Charlie Cameron twice, Luke Breust and more. Rarely beaten this season, Greene’s one-on-one strength and superb reading of the play nevertheless makes him as toug a match-up as it gets for the underrated Saint.
Webster will surely once again get the role, but should Greene start hot, Lyon may consider Callum Wilkie as a fall-back. The All-Australian full back has played both tall and small roles covering everyone from Charlie Curnow and Taylor Walker to Paul Curtis and Jake Stringer, and like Webster has seldom had his colours lowered.
With Dougal Howard a chance to return to give the Saints another key defensive option, freeing up Wilkie to zone off a Lachie Keeffe-type third tall and intercept, there’s a chance the Saints’ backline anchor won’t be too occupied with Jesse Hogan to take on the Greene challenge.
Of Port Adelaide’s trio of injured veterans all racing the clock to be fit for Saturday night’s qualifying final date with Brisbane, the diagnosis is in for two of them: Charlie Dixon, according to Kane Cornes, won’t play as he continues to recover from a foot injury, while Trent McKenzie in all likelihood will return to bolster the defence.
The third question was most likely answered on Sunday afternoon in the SANFL: not only did Scott Lycett dominate in the ruck with 36 hitouts in Port Adelaide’s loss to Central District, but was put on ice for the last quarter, the surest indication that Ken Hinkley had seen enough.
Nevertheless, while he now has miles in the legs having managed just two AFL games since the Power’s mid-season bye, Lycett’s injury history makes his selection a risk.
But the cupboard is bare for quality ruck options elsewhere – Dante Visentini, who replaced Lycett for his debut after a last-minute withdrawal before their clash with Essendon, is still raw, while Sam Hayes was comprehensively beaten by Richmond’s Toby Nankervis-Ivan Soldo pairing in their last home-and-away game, to the point he was subbed out during the second half for Jeremy Finlayson to finish the game as the first-choice ruckman.
They simply can’t afford an inexperienced big man like Hayes or Visentini, or an athletic part-timer like Finlayson, to ruck against an imposing specimen in the Lions’ Oscar McInerney.
Whether an injury-prone Lycett is the optimum option (and based on their pursuit of Brodie Grundy, it seems the Power aren’t overly confident in his future either), or not, Port have got no other choice.