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Why every team will win their AFL preliminary final... and why they'll lose

20th September, 2023
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20th September, 2023
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We’re in the endgame now.

Just three matches are left to be played in the AFL men’s season – and is it fair to say that it’s been a long time since a season has felt so open this far in?

The two top teams in Collingwood and Brisbane each face a rival from outside the top four – just the second time that has happened in more than two decades under the current finals system – but having roared into September, and then through it, on a vein of form richer than anything they have produced in that time.

Carlton, and perhaps especially GWS, will be far from content with just making it this far, too.

Here’s why each team will win their preliminary final… and why they will lose.

1st preliminary final: Collingwood vs GWS

Why Collingwood will win

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It’s their season. The Magpies have been top of the ladder for all weeks bar one since Round 7 – and even that one second-placed finish was due to their bye. Put simply, they’ve been the best team all year, premiership favourites or near enough to it since dismantling Port Adelaide in Round 2, and constantly finding their best whenever their mantle as the best team in it has been challenged – their gutsy qualifying final win over Melbourne the latest and proudest example.

Add to that the return of Nick Daicos, the Pies’ best and most dynamic weapon, to a side already with the minor premiership and a home preliminary final, and it’s an advantage few top teams at this stage of the year have been able to boast of. With the younger Daicos fit and firing in the 22 for an entire game, the Pies have lost just three times all season, their heaviest defeat a 33-point margin against a souped-up Brisbane on their home turf back in Round 4.

Then there’s the 65-point blitz they dealt to the Giants in their only other meeting of the season – yes, that was all the way back in Round 9, but given it’s one of only two GWS losses for the season by more than 21 points, it’s clear the Pies did something that day that unravelled their opponents… and if it can happen once, it can happen again.

This has been a season dominated by the black and white, and while the rest of the league – particularly in Victoria – would undoubtedly be delighted by a classic Collingwood choke, the reality is that there would be a sense of injustice around the Pies not even making a grand final after the year they’ve had.

From knocking over the reigning champions in Geelong, to asserting themselves as the team to beat in the Cats’ stead, to time and again turning back any challenges to their reign on top, and surely this remarkable journey under Craig McRae isn’t done yet… right?

Why GWS will win

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Form.

It’s almost impossible to quantify but unmissable to the eye; and right now, the Giants are brimming with it.

Wins in 11 of their past 13 matches, including streaks of seven and four on the run, first powered GWS into September, and now have them hurtling into the last four for the first time since their grand final run in 2019. From 4-8 to a preliminary final, this has been a turnaround for the ages, one just as remarkable if slightly less attention-grabbing than Carlton’s similar surge, who also find themselves here having risen from 15th at one point or another.

As for that Magpies thrashing back in Round 9? Well, the Giants’ only other heavy loss this year was at the hands of Port Adelaide, at the Adelaide Oval, in Round 22 – which they only went and reversed handsomely in last week’s semi final, to officially prove that their worst home-and-away performances are no longer consequential in the slightest.

Premierships of late have often been one by the team in fiercest form come September, regardless of ladder positions or the wins under their belts: think the Western Bulldogs in 2016, or Richmond in 2017, 2019 or 2020.

In the form they’re in, and with the Magpies having teetered ever so slightly in their own run home – they went 2-3 in their last five home-and-away games and squeaked past a wayward Melbourne in the qualifying final, after all – the Giants might actually be the best team left in it.

Who would have thought it?

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Prediction: Collingwood by 13 points

2nd semi final: Brisbane vs Carlton

Why Brisbane will win

Because they have to. No team left standing in season 2023, not even Collingwood, have more to lose this weekend than the Lions. Where Carlton have injury issues, the Magpies a recent dip in form, and the Giants an already brilliant September run to justify, to some degree or another, preliminary final heartbreak, the Lions have no such excuses.

Their form is superb, with five straight wins including a dominant qualifying final triumph and a Marvel Stadium dispatching of the Pies to close out the home-and-away season and book a top-two finish. With the Gabba an impregnable fortress for more than 12 months now, the location couldn’t be better either. And with Jack Payne, who is expected to play, the only best 22 player even so much as under an injury cloud, the Lions could scarcely be in better shape at this time of the season.

Add to that the desperation the likes of Dayne Zorko, Lachie Neale, Hugh McCluggage and co. must be feeling to at last break through for what has felt inevitable since their surge up the ladder in 2019: a grand final berth. Having twice gone out in straight sets from a top-four finish in the intervening four years, plus two more preliminary final butcherings at the hands of Geelong, one even at their beloved Gabba, another finals disappointment as a heavy favourite would turn the pressure up on Chris Fagan in a way surely no coach with as many recent wins under his belt has ever had to endure.

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More than the other three teams featuring this weekend, the Lions just have to find a way on Saturday. And the only possible reason you could have to back against them is… well… their own recent history remaining to haunt them.

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Why Carlton will win

Destiny. Many other preliminary finalists have headed in at longer odds than the Blues are at the moment, but surely few, at least in recent memory, have ever felt unlikelier victors.

Two of their semi final heroes in Blake Acres and Sam Docherty can barely move their arms at the moment, while countless others are surely feeling the effects of a brutal finals run to date. Add to that the need to face a red-hot, well-rested and ferocious Brisbane at the venue where they haven’t lost for more than a year, and victory might be Michael Voss’ finest ever at the Gabba, the place he ruled as king undisputed as Lions captain through their golden run 20 years ago.

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All the same… more than any other team since the 2016 Bulldogs, there is a feeling that something undefinable is driving the Blues on this September. Down and out and in despair mid-season, their nine-game winning streak, plus two thrilling finals wins since, have been the stuff of football folklore. And while a tame or even doughty exit at the Lions’ hands this weekend sure seems like the likeliest option, winning form is a priceless commodity, especially come finals time, and that the Blues have in spades.

In all honesty, it’s hard to give a better reason to be optimistic if you’re a Blues fan. The Lions have superior cattle across the ground, with their weaker team defensive structure allayed by their brutal forward line and electric ball movement towards it, both of them perfectly suited to expose a team short on petrol tickets. They have had a week to rest weary bones and prepare for this challenge, will have a packed Gabba baying for blood from the opening bounce, and must surely be fuelled by the desperation that they may never get a better chance to claim the premiership that has thus far eluded them under Chris Fagan.

But the Blues have dealt with longer odds before: they had to defy them to even make it this far, after all. It’s a tough ask, to be sure… then again, so was turning their season around to begin with. Why not one more miracle for the road – hell, why not two?

Prediction: Brisbane by 35 points

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