It’s the best footy weekend of the year.
Sure, the grand final is great, but it’s also where the AFL transforms from a league into a showpiece event – where everything from the parade, to the pre-match entertainment, to the heavy corporate presence in the stands, all carries with it an atmosphere of a different sort, but not the tradition fervour associated with the game we love.
No, preliminary final weekend is where footy is at its most gripping: the best four teams of the season, desperately vying to take their places on the last Saturday in September.
This year, the final four are a unique mix. We’ve got the two best sides of the season in Collingwood and Brisbane, one a season-long staple at or near the top of the ladder, the other having surged into the top two and peaked at the perfect time; while standing in their way are the most in-form sides going around, Carlton and GWS both recovering from ordinary starts to the season to pile up a truckload of wins in the second half to carry a wave of momentum that not even the lack of a top-four finish has been enough to stop them so far.
Can the craziest season of our lifetimes spring any more twists?
Here are five burning questions ahead of the AFL preliminary finals.
The general feeling at the close of Carlton’s epic, death-defying semi final win over Melbourne was one of jubilation rarely seen at this stage of the season.
Usually, semi finals are the meekest affairs in September, clashes between qualifying final loses with bigger fish to fry and elimination final victors for whom any wins are nothing more than a bonus.
For the Blues, though, their victory was the club’s most significant in more than two decades, as much for the desperate performance from a wounded but supremely gutsy bunch of players in those fateful final minutes as for the booking of a preliminary final berth for the first time since 2000.
You could tell it from the explosion of joy from the MCG stands – those there have claimed it was the loudest the colosseum has ever been. You could tell it from the tribal, guttural reaction of Andy Maher on SEN’s ‘Blues Radio’ commentary feed. And most of all, you could tell it from the reaction of the Blues players: Patrick Cripps looked a man whose footy dream had just come true.
All of it begs the question, though: was that the Blues’ grand final?
On paper, you couldn’t blame Carlton for having nothing left in the tank. Their two finals wins to date, both nail-biters against first Sydney and then the Dees, left them needing to scrap and scrounge and hang on by their fingernails right to the final seconds – an eight-day break helps, but it’s still little tonic for such a bruising fortnight so far.
Speaking of bruising, the Blues’ list of walking wounded grows by the week: Blake Acres’ shoulder is barely holding together and he’d surely be on the sidelines were it a less crucial time of the season, while Sam Docherty’s shoulder dislocation would likely land him in a similar boat.
Marc Pittonet and Tom De Koning carry with them a recurring knee problem that while manageable can’t be comfortable; Jacob Weitering and Patrick Cripps copped heavy knocks against the Dees, and whether it’s injury or form-based, Charlie Curnow just hasn’t looked his usual destructive self this September.
Most of all, though, you have to wonder how much the Blues’ scintillating run since mid-June has taken out of them. Nine wins in a row turned them from a bottom-four candidate to eventual preliminary finalist, but they haven’t had the luxury of managing banged-up players in the run home – though most of their key pillars have missed time with one injury or another – and the impact of having played 11 virtual knockout matches in 12 weeks has to have taken some sort of toll.
Sydney famously hit September in top form in 2017 after recovering from a 0-6 start to lose just two more home-and-away games; yet we didn’t realise how much that necessary run of wins and good form had drained the tank until they were unexpectedly slaughtered in a semi final by Geelong. The Blues this year have made it one week further than even that team.
At their best, the Blues have the weapons, in particular in midfield, to challenge a Brisbane team that seems primed for at least a grand final berth. You can bank on them giving everything they’ve got at the Gabba on Saturday: but just how much is left?
Just in case there was any doubt at all, Collingwood confirmed on Sunday that Nick Daicos will be back in business for the Magpies’ Friday night preliminary final.
“We’re not expecting any hiccups with Nick and he’s been responding to each session better every time we’ve given him more load,” was club head of high performance Jarrod Wade’s assessment of the younger Daicos’ progress from that nasty knee injury sustained against Hawthorn back in Round 21.
Still, there’s always been a difference between being fit for a final, and being passed fit. The history of players at less than 100 per cent featuring in September is a storied one, with as many examples of its success – think Dale Morris soldiering on in the Western Bulldogs’ fairytale 2016 finals campaign with a fractured back, or Adam Goodes impacting the 2012 grand final after tearing his PCL in the opening minutes – as its failure – you only need look at the reaction to Port Adelaide unsuccessfully playing an underdone Charlie Dixon in their semi final.
Daicos’ strengths as a player are his agility, his speed, his elite kicking skills and his almost unmatched footy smarts – any of the first three could be hampered by lingering effects from that fractured knee. And for all he’s achieved so far in an already glittering career, one thing we’re yet to learn about Daicos is whether he can handle playing hurt.
The Giants have surged into the preliminary final off the back of brutal stoppage work this September, and a counterattacking game as pacy as what the Magpies themselves were doing earlier in the season before pulling back their aggression incrementally as the year has worn on.
Especially in midfield, where Daicos will certainly spend much of his time given Taylor Adams’ unavailability, there is undoubted danger if the young superstar is hampered even slightly – especially if you think the Pies’ premiership chances rest on Daicos returning to the brilliant football that has made him a Brownlow Medal favourite for much of the year.
As much for their off-field work as what they have done on it, GWS’ resurgence in 2023 has been among this season’s most compelling stories.
A 4-8 start to the year following a bottom-four finish in 2022 was as low as the Giants have sunk since their throwaway first four seasons as an expansion franchise: yet a mere three months later, they aren’t just among the best four teams in the land, but are seen as a definite chance to knock over the minor premiers, on the road, at the same venue that same team smashed them to smithereens back in Round 9.
I wrote on Saturday following their superb semi final win about the Giants’ many, many strengths, but their off-field stability has been just as crucial. This is among the most professionally, sensibly run clubs in the AFL, and they deserve more credit than they get for that.
The Giants didn’t draw out the suffering in mid-2022 when it became clear Leon Cameron’s time as coach was up, allowing their 2019 grand final helmsman as dignified an exit as could be afforded while also giving themselves ample time to find a replacement.
Then, when the lure of a famous name could have tempted another team – you only need look at Carlton’s recent history for a case study on how coaching Messiahs rarely work – they gunned for Adam Kingsley, a man with a reputation as a stellar assistant coach who had time and again been passed over for top jobs for nearly a decade. The results of that are plain to see.
Yes, the Giants were blessed with a stack of top draft picks in their formative years – though given some of those names include the likes of Jonathon Patton, Jono O’Rourke Kristian Jaksch and Lachie Plowman, it’s debatable whether those picks helped them all that much – but they have also had to endure being the target of heavy raids from bigger, more established clubs for their entire existence, an occupational hazard for a team in a non-footy heartland.
Jacob Hopper and Tim Taranto’s departure last year was meant to blow another hole in the Giants’ stocks; yet instead, Kingsley has returned Callan Ward and Stephen Coniglio to full time midfield roles in their stead and got them thriving, while the arrival of Toby Bedford from Melbourne has proved one of the shrewdest decisions of last year’s trade period.
Amid all of it, the Giants’ off-field staff barely get a mention in the media – I reckon a good chunk of the people reading this would probably not know who their club CEO is – and more acclaim has been directed at Carlton for not sacking Michael Voss mid-season during the Blues’ bad patch, a decision that might well have been the most reckless and brain dead call of a long and grisly history of doing both by that club, than for the Giants somehow totally rebuilding themselves into a force again in basically six months.
Kingsley is surely a Coach of the Year certainty now, though Craig McRae will likely receive that honour should Collingwood reach the grand final in their stead; yet the Giants’ success this year is about more than the man in charge, and the electrifying talent he has at his disposal.
There are plenty of clubs – and one in particular one state to the north that has played one extra year for infinitely less success – that could do well to emulate everything the Giants have done from a footy operations perspective in the last 12 months.
Now that depends on who you ask.
Normally, a team rising from 11th to the top four, even if the season did end with a straight-sets finals exit, would be spoken about with a positive glow.
But that’s unlikely to be the case for Port Adelaide, given that horror 2022 season was largely seen as an aberration after twice botching home preliminary finals in 2020 and 2021, as well as the well-documented and growing fan unrest over Ken Hinkley’s coaching tenure.
With two more humbling finals losses – the margin against GWS, if anything, flattered them, given the Giants’ inaccurate kicking in the second quarter prevented the match being blown to smithereens – as black marks against his name, the pressure that a 13-match mid-season winning streak had seemingly alleviated is now right back on Hinkley’s shoulders, and it’s doubtful his two-year contract extension signed in August will offer much protection without some significant September success in 2024.
It’s hard to get a gauge on Port’s season: their best was electrifying, but they clearly peaked in July, as from the moment that winning streak snapped against Carlton in Round 18, they looked a long way short of peak performance for the remainder of the year.
Their backline issues are substantial, and while recruiting Esava Ratugolea might help, it also might offer nothing more than another B-grade key defensive option and minor upgrade from the constantly injured Trent McKenzie. Jordon Sweet, too, is hardly likely to be the superstar ruckman they’d love and have been sorely lacking since Paddy Ryder’s departure four years ago.
The Power remain a fickle bunch precisely because their strengths – a dynamic midfield with two bona fide superstars in Connor Rozee and Zak Butters, plus elite foot skills from half-back and a multi-pronged forward line – are in constant flux with their many deficiencies, both from a structural and personnel standpoint. Which one outweighs the other can vary from month to month, week to week, and sometimes quarter to quarter.
The result is a season that you couldn’t possibly describe as a success – that’s unthinkable considering they were on top of the ladder and second-premiership favourite during the bye rounds.
I don’t think you could call it a total failure, either, considering the Power did last longer than 13 other clubs: but you couldn’t exactly blame Port Adelaide fans for feeling intensely frustrated that after 11 years under Hinkley, they’re still yet to make a single grand final, with significant problems in adjusting to the intensity of finals that just seem to grow worse with every passing season.
If I needed to give it a grade, I’d give Port’s 2023 a solid B-. The signs are encouraging enough, but we’ve reached the point with Hinkley that nothing less than winning a final in 2024, and maybe not even that, will ensure he can safely see out a contract that already feels perilously short.
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Naturally, the prospect of a Carlton and Collingwood grand final has captivated the Victorian-centric elements of the media and footy discourse, and led to joking comments that the league would be bitterly disappointed if the last Saturday in September featured Brisbane and GWS instead.
But I can’t help but feel that’s based on sketchy reasoning, with more regard to a maximum attendance at the MCG on grand final day than giving the game a nationwide appeal in traditional rugby league heartlands. And the AFL has shown repeatedly in recent years that it is far keener on the latter than the former.
Really, a Lions-Giants granny would be absolutely fine for the league: in fact, it might actually be better in the minds of the powers that be than a Blues-Pies decider that, while undoubtedly a monstrous occasion, would mostly be preaching to the converted.
Record grand final TV ratings, notwithstanding the two COVID years where every Victorian was confined to their own house, have come when Sydney have participated, bringing with them a NSW supporter base that would otherwise be pretty ambivalent about the game.
GWS don’t have anywhere near the pull of the Swans, and nor do the Lions: but the latter’s attendances at the Gabba during the last few years have rivalled and even outperformed those of the Brisbane Broncos, and no doubt a grand final would give rugby league fans an incentive to support the AFL as well.
As an aside, imagine how mental that city would be if both the Lions AND Broncos won premierships on consecutive days!
As for the Giants, as it was with the Swans, the league knows that there is one way to break into the NRL-dominated market: sustained success and premierships.
So yes, a Lions-Giants grand final might see the MCG’s attendance drop below 100,000, and maybe even to 98,000. So what? It’s a grand final, and the mere presence of corporates and MCC members to fill the stand is still going to make every seat a highly sought-after one.
And having, for the first time ever, a grand final fought out by TWO teams entrenched in the heartland of the AFL’s rival code would be a huge symbolic win for the league, and the surest sign yet that the battle to gain a foothold in Sydney especially is slowly but surely turning in their favour.