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Should the Blues be... favourites? Five burning questions ahead of AFL semi finals

10th September, 2023
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10th September, 2023
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Four doesn’t go into two.

That’s the mathematical conundrum facing the teams getting set to duke it out in this week’s two semi finals, with Melbourne and Carlton vying for the right to make a perilous trip north to face Brisbane, while Port Adelaide look to bounce back from their qualifying final collapse against a resurgent GWS.

And whether it’s selection dilemmas, controversial finals fixtures or the issue of who takes underdog status into their matches, each team’s coaching staff – and supporter base – as well as the AFL itself will need to find answers to a lot of major issues before Friday night’s Dees-Blues blockbuster at the MCG.

Here are five burning questions ahead of the second week of the AFL finals series.

1. Should Carlton be… favourites?

At the time of writing, according to PlayUp’s semi final odds, Carlton are in the usual position occupied by elimination final victors against qualifying final losers: comfortable outsiders to beat Melbourne.

And honestly, I’m not convinced they should be.

Yes, every year we fall into the trap of thinking too much of elimination final victories over lower-ranked opponents compared to those exercising the double chance, usually after losing to the biggest powerhouses going around. And normally, the Demons losing by just seven points to minor premiers Collingwood while the Blues face an almighty struggle to hold off Sydney by six would be the sort of result that predates a comfortable victory for the former – especially with the latter certainly without one and maybe two of its forwards in Harry McKay and Jack Martin.

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But the Demons were properly awful on Thursday night, and in the way they’ve been awful for the bulk of the last 18 months. Their forward line cohesion, against a Magpies back six that seems on paper more vulnerable than the watertight machine the Blues have been for much of the season, collapsed to the point of managing just seven goals from 69 inside 50s.

The Dees have proved excellent this year at running out games, and so it proved in the final term of their qualifying final; but being 25 points in arrears at three quarter time proved too much for them to overcome even with 19 inside 50s to four.

The Blues, meanwhile, have not just a week’s worth of winning form to go off, but nine of its kind in their last ten home-and-away games, including – crucially – a victory over the Dees themselves. And while Clayton Oliver will be a notable in from that Round 22 clash, so too will Sam Walsh and Adam Cerra, two of the Blues’ leading disposal winners against the Swans.

That night the Dees could only muster eight goals, so it’s unlikely their forward line will fare any better than against the Pies without substantial change from Simon Goodwin and the brains trust. And having seen their small forwards, Matt Cottrell especially, wreak havoc against the Swans to set up a match-winning first half lead even with Charlie Curnow down, the Blues have the options to kick a winning score even without McKay and Martin – while also boasting a midfield likely to give the Dees more trouble than Collingwood did.

Recent form, their last fixture, positive match-ups and – and this is key for Carlton – the removing of a finals monkey on their backs all give the Blues a decisive edge in this match. I wrote after that Round 22 triumph over the Demons that they were the best team in it: it’s time now for that theory to be put to the test.

The last time an elimination final victor was the semi-final favourite was in 2019, when West Coast took on a flagging Geelong with the odds on their side… and lost. Will the Blues face the same fate?

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The Blues celebrate.

The Blues celebrate. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

2. …and should the Giants be too?

For the first 14 years of the current final-eight system, just two teams – Port Adelaide in 2002 and West Coast in 2007 – suffered the dreaded ‘straight sets’ exit of losing a qualifying final and then a semi. The success rate was 92.86 per cent, and few were even close – THAT Nick Davis game in 2005 an obvious exception.

Since then, though, finals have got weird. The year after that 14-year stretch, both qualifying final losers – Fremantle and Geelong – lost the week after, and in nine completed Septembers since only two have not featured at least one straight sets departure (and technically one of them, in 2020, wasn’t an actual September…)

That fact should give GWS plenty of confidence heading into their clash with Port Adelaide; after all, they’re familiar with this route through the finals, having stunned Brisbane at the Gabba this time four years ago. And bookmakers only have them at slightly longer odds than the Blues to best Melbourne.

But for all I’ve said about the Blues being a live chance and about how qualifying final losers are no longer safe to bank on, I can’t shake the feeling that this is the final that runs according to the script.

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It has all the makings of a trap game for people to jump on a winning team’s bandwagon: Port were humbled by Brisbane in their qualifying final, have key back Trent McKenzie under an injury cloud and look certain to lose youngster Dylan Williams to a hamstring injury of his own. This is a banged-up team that were ripped apart defensively and at stoppages by a brutal Lions outfit – both those areas happen to be GWS strengths.

Add to that the Giants’ remarkable turnaround from a 3-7 start to reach the final six, and the Power’s stumble since a 13-match winning streak saw them seemingly entrenched in the top two mid-season, and there’s no denying which team heads to the Adelaide Oval in better form.

All the same, the Power utterly blitzed the Giants by 51 points in Round 22, their only meeting for the season. That match featured Port at its devastating best: speedy from the middle, menacing in the air and on the ground in attack and dominating territory enough to protect its backline from Toby Greene. That game should still be fresh in the memory of every Port player of how lethal their best is against even their fellow elite teams.

So while the Blues’ underdog status might be overselling Melbourne, the Giants are in a different boat. They’re deserved outsiders for Saturday night’s clash – it doesn’t mean they’ll lose, far from it, but anyone thinking of backing them in should be wary that plenty of teams in recent history have looked world beaters in week one of the finals, only to collapse days later to a side that most everyone thought was cooked.

GEELONG, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 05: Dejected Port Adelaide players walk from the ground after the round 21 AFL match between Geelong Cats and Port Adelaide Power at GMHBA Stadium, on August 05, 2023, in Geelong, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Dejected Port Adelaide players walk from the ground after their Round 21 loss to Geelong. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

3. Did GWS get stitched up?

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Honestly… yes.

The Giants were always going to have to brave a second straight road trip to make it past week two of the finals – that’s what you get when you finish seventh on the ladder, after all.

All the same, the AFL’s decision to schedule their clash with Port Adelaide for Saturday evening – a 7:40pm (AEST) first bounce, to be exact – will give them a distinct disadvantage compared to Collingwood should they indeed cause an upset and set up a preliminary final showdown with the Pies.

Assuming the league keeps with tradition and affords the minor premier – the Magpies in this instance – a Friday night preliminary final for an extra day’s rest leading to the big show – the Giants will have only a six-day turnaround before needing to go again, once more on the road.

It’s the first time since 2018 that the victorious Saturday semi-finalist would need to play on the following Friday; and guess who the travelling elimination final winner was that time as well? Yep, GWS.

It would be foolish to blame the AFL for a lot of this – it’s the first time the minor premier hasn’t played their Week 1 final on a Saturday since 2020, so the re-jigging caused by Collingwood beginning the finals series was always going to require whoever lost out of they and Melbourne to play their home semi on the Friday.

All the same, it seems to me like the logical option was to do what the AFL does as a rule for preliminary finals these days: play the match as a twilight fixture. A 4:05pm local time start in Adelaide would enable the Giants to return to Sydney at a reasonable hour, therefore giving them the chance to begin their prelim preparations on Sunday with no need to delay to accommodate tired players.

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This will, of course, be irrelevant if the Power, as expected, win, given they’ll be able to return that night to their own beds and not need a multi-hour cross-country plane flight. But expect there to be conjecture if – and they’re very much a live chance – the Giants spring an upset.

Especially given the team advantaged is the one everyone loves to hate.

Jake Riccardi celebrates a goal.

Jake Riccardi celebrates a goal. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

4. Do the Dees go back to Brodie?

As if things weren’t already grim enough for Melbourne’s forward line, Jacob van Rooyen’s one-match suspension for an elbow to the face of Dan McStay is set to deplete the Dees’ attack even further heading into their clash with Carlton.

With Harrison Petty injured and given a dodgy knee has hampered Ben Brown throughout the season, and doubts remain over his fitness even now, the Demons seem to have two options to replace their young spearhead to take on the Blues.

Number one is to make a structural change rather than a like-for-like swap: go smaller in attack, make a radical change to their delivery heading inside 50, and hope to beat the Blues for pace and tenacity around the ball.

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That could mean a recall for the out of favour Charlie Spargo, or more likely an upgrade for their qualifying final sub Bailey Laurie. Or – and hear me out on this one – they could roll the dice on the neat-kicking but woefully out of form Christian Salem and swing him from half-back into attack (did you know he kicked two goals in Sandringham’s TAC Cup grand final win in 2012?)

Number two is that like-for-like swap, for which the Dees have three options: an underdone Brown if he’s even fit, Josh Schache, who has played all of two games this season with one a one-disposal effort as a bizarre sub in Round 23, and… Brodie Grundy.

Grundy’s most recent AFL game was against the Blues in Round 22, and playing primarily in attack, his night wasn’t great. Just nine disposals, one mark and no score suggested to the world that the bold gambit to turn him into a forward was doomed to failure, and with opposition clubs including Sydney and Port Adelaide now highly likely to lure him out of Melbourne as a full time ruckman, he might never need to learn that craft.

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Personally? I’d be going with the small solution: Joel Smith and Tom McDonald to give it a crack as mobile talls, one to occupy Jacob Weitering as Luke Parker did for the Swans in the second half of the elimination final, and defuse the Blues’ intercepting backs from Weitering to Mitch McGovern with more chaotic entries.

Because as much as it would be funny for the Dees to need to turn back to Grundy at this point, he’s not fixing their issues. In fact, he’s every chance of just making them worse.

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Brodie Grundy of the Demons handballs.

Brodie Grundy of the Demons handballs. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

5. Do we have a new flag frontrunner?

Collingwood are still premiership favourites, but there was a clear dominant performance out of finals week 1, and it came a few thousand kilometres to the north.

If, like me, you had doubts on Brisbane heading into this finals series based on September scars past, then their thumping 48-point win over Port Adelaide should put those to bed. Yes, it wasn’t a sudden death final, but with a Gabba prelim on their hands there was plenty to lose and plenty to gain for the Lions, and in a situation they’ve often found impossible to deal with in the past they passed with flying colours.

They didn’t even need starring performances from their three biggest stars: Charlie Cameron was restricted to two goals in one whirlwind 40-second burst and nothing for the rest of the night, Harris Andrews was comprehensively beaten by young Ollie Lord, and Lachie Neale was heavily restricted by Willem Drew’s run-with role.

Beating the third-placed team so convincingly with good to average efforts from players of that calibre, while seeing second-stringers in Cam Rayner, Joe Daniher and Hugh McCluggage – and even a third-stringer like Jaspa Fletcher – all star shows the Lions didn’t even reach their ceiling on qualifying final night.

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And that’s terrifying enough for me to instil them as my flag fancy right now.

The Pies, the official favourites, won’t be feared – the Lions beat them in Round 23 in Melbourne (though not at the MCG), and have done so six times in a row, with Collingwood’s last win over them coming back in 2019. That’s a long time to be a potential grand final opponent’s bunny.

So often in the past the Lions have looked world-beaters in the home-and-away season, and come right back to the pack in finals – a 3-6 record in finals under Chris Fagan attests to that. And even those three finals had a largest winning margin of 15 points.

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Now that they’ve proven they can be just as damaging in September as at any other time, the final hurdle – their own insecurities – has surely just been removed. If that’s the case, then maybe not even the Magpies at a sold-out MCG on the last Saturday in September can stop them.

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