Finish the story. It’s extraordinary the Giants and Blues have made it to preliminary final weekend. After the byes they were 14th and 15th respectively. Both clubs were still outside the top eight after Round 18.
That’s been touched upon during the week a bit but in the fast-paced nature of the AFL and moving onto the next thing, how truly remarkable it is for both these teams to be playing in the second-last week of September probably won’t be reflected upon properly outside of their supporter bases, unless they reach the league’s pinnacle.
But here we are, two clubs that have had successful seasons, two supporter bases that in their bleak June dreams, could never have possibly seen such heights reached, have an opportunity to achieve something special.
Jack Buckley and Lachie Whitfield celebrate the Giants’ semi final win. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)
Finish the story.
Admittedly, that’s a phrase that’s been borrowed at the moment from, ahem, sports entertainment (WWE for the uninitiated), regarding an individual’s unlikely, and yet unfinished, pursuit for the world title.
Now while we know the AFL isn’t scripted and meticulously planned out results-wise, the runs of GWS and Carlton are as close as we’ve been to a bunch of writers in Stamford, Connecticut storyboarding a special story.
Let’s preface this with the idea that it’s entirely possible for one, or both of these teams to pull off another upset and make it to the Grand Final.
Sure, it’s not the most likely scenario, but to flippantly brush aside either team is to ignore what has brought them this far in the first place.
The Giants are a true team and arguably one of the very best pure teams in the competition. Certainly there was scepticism in some corners about Adam Kingsley’s appointment, if not only for the fact it had taken so long and so many clubs had overlooked him.
By the end of his first season in charge, he’s probably the coach of the year and has GWS playing scintillating football whose underlying tactic may be based on the successful Richmond era, but has developed further along to suits his own players.
Like the Tigers though, more than any one individual’s talent is the camaraderie and commitment to the cause, that drives the Giants forward.
There are no two more fitting players that encapsulate what GWS has been about under Kingsley and perhaps a couple of the most important structural pieces than Toby Bedford and Brent Daniels.
The former Demon has been the best pressure forward in the game in 2023 bar none, averaging 2.1 tackles inside 50 a game and 24 pressure acts. He’s also rated elite for clearances, averaging two a game as a player who approaches stoppages in the forward half and has the breakaway speed to create scores.
Toby Bedford. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)
Daniels’ comeback after missing last season through injury has been superb. He has matched Bedford for clearances, although he plays higher up the ground, but as well as the tackling pressure, he has added 26 goals and 18 goal assists in his 19 games. Career highs in disposals, inside 50s, scoreboard impact, tackles and being rated above average for his ball use, the 24-year-old is a vital piece to the puzzle.
More than anything, it’s the work rate of these high half-forwards that really gives the Giants an added edge – it’s exactly what we’ve lauded Fremantle’s duo of Lachie Schultz and Sam Switkowski for, turned up a couple of notches.
Of course Toby Greene, Josh Kelly, Sam Taylor, Tom Green, Stephen Coniglio and the other stars are vitally important, but the avenue to winning for GWS will be all about the pressure and the ball use inside 50.
We can trust the defence to stand up, they’ve shown it time and time again. But the restriction of Collingwood’s ball movement and slingshot ability is so crucial to giving GWS the opportunity to set up behind the ball and not get overwhelmed.
Bedford and Daniels have spent all season pressuring half-backs and then working up the ground to be involved in linking play upon winning the ball back. The Magpies can easily win if Oleg Markov, Isaac Quaynor and Brayden Maynard can move the ball as quickly as the usually do. Even Darcy Moore’s long-range kicking can dice the opposition up.
This GWS duo encapsulates what the club is all about and have their own hard luck stories that can turn into fairy-tales in 2023. They’re the ones that can help finish the story.
Toby Greene. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)
For Carlton, it’s been over two decades since they’ve featured at this time of the season.
Perhaps they were fortunate to have come up against a Melbourne team that played more like picking the best players in a schoolyard rather than as a group, but it doesn’t take away from the last three months for the Blues.
Like the Giants, there seems to have been a turning of the corner at the Blues, who are playing much more fluidly and together, after a stagnant, uninspiring approach to the game in the first half of the season.
Sure, they still like to possess the ball and control at times, but ball movement felt meaningless initially and now, it feels purposeful.
The star-studded midfield feels a lot more balanced when the focus isn’t on the reigning Brownlow Medalist. It’s a good mix – Sam Walsh’s combination of speed and endurance was on full display against the Demons, Adam Cerra is finally getting his flowers for being an elite inside/outside midfielder, then Cripps and Hewett do their own thing.
Defensively, there are roles and they’re played well. Everyone in the back half is at least above average in terms of intercept marking and reading of the play and the key backs can handle their own business.
There are some question marks on the smalls at times, but Sam Docherty’s tendency to drop back when needed is helpful.
Yet the most encouraging part of Carlton is their offensive line and particularly, its functioning in two winning finals without an impact from the Coleman Medalist, and without Harry McKay by and large.
Jesse Motlop celebrates a goal. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
Yes, they’re naturally focused on Curnow, but the likes of Jack Martin, Tom De Koning, Jesse Motlop and Lachie Fogarty have stood up in different ways to help cover.
Blake Acres and Sam Docherty might be playing with only two functioning shoulders between them, but their work rate at both ends of the ground has been influential.
Carlton is faced with the tougher of the two tasks this weekend in trying to beat a Brisbane team that’s flying.
The Lions’ speed in ball movement and direct play through the corridor is super dangerous, and their forward line is simply unstoppable at full force, with too many good players to stop.
But in finals, it’s not always about the team with the highest upside that wins. The Blues have faced adversity over the past two decades, most of it self-inflicted.
They’ve been the laughing stock of the competition, their players have copped it from all angles for years and their fans, well, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
Harry McKay is the single most important player to help both Carlton and himself, finish the story. This isn’t Coleman Medalist, must kick a bag of goals McKay – this is the hard working centre half-forward, drag the defenders out of position because you can’t afford to have him finishing with 17 disposals and 12 marks McKay.
The Lions don’t want Harris Andrews as the chief defensive player, so they’ll have a decision to make if McKay is up and about, particularly given injury concerns during the week for the team’s defence.
Brisbane should win this weekend, but they’re susceptible under immense midfield pressure and can be overwhelmed defensively. Carlton must win the midfield battle and McKay must work hard up the ground.
Carlton players celebrate after eliminating Melbourne. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
More than anything overall though, GWS and Carlton have belief. It’s not to say the Magpies and Lions don’t, but there have been countless occasions where a flag contender has been crippled by expectation and the underdogs on an incredible run, have been buoyed by freedom.
The Giants and Blues have been unshackled from the cuffs of expectation and have been able to self-reflect on the run with an internal focus – ‘inside the four walls’ if you will.
At one point, GWS was the seen as the AFL’s child, to be forced into success early for a return on investment.
Carlton was seen as a tanking team amassing top draft picks in a questionable way for prolonged success.
We’re far enough removed from these narratives for the teams to have created their own, new chapters. They’ve both been scrutinised, they’ve both had their players criticised with legacies questioned, and both been an off-field mess.
Now, GWS and Carlton are one step away from the unlikeliest of Grand Final appearances with a chance at the ultimate glory no one saw coming in 2023.
You can’t write any of what has happened this year for either club – the scriptwriters would’ve deemed it too unrealistic.
Adam Kingsley and Michael Voss have led their men to this point and won’t go down without a fight to overcome their own adversities.
There’s no more fitting way for either club to finish their story.