Finals Week 1 Preview
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
After a polarising bye week, we finally reach the finals series.
No doubt the week off is an absolute momentum-killer for the year itself, and potentially the sides that have earned their spot in the top four. Winning your first final could result in playing 1 game in 25 days in preparation for a do-or-die preliminary final. Hardly ideal.
What's the solution though? Probably just going back to the finals starting the week after the last round. A wildcard round on the bye week isn't a bad idea either, but it doesn't solve the issue of the top teams not having the continuity of matches at the most important time of the season.
Could be an interesting watch to see what the AFL decides to do for season 2021 and beyond.
Anyway, onto the four matches this weekend...
Port Adelaide v Geelong
Definitely the match of the finals - the old heads of Geelong, desperate to atone for a long stretch of poor finals performances, against the up and coming minor Premiers, desperate to prove they shouldn't be as underrated as they are.
The case for Port Adelaide
There are in a fascinating position, Port. Rightly on top of the ladder after a very consistent campaign, but ideally they would have have liked to have played a few more quality opponents in the run home - since the Cats demolished them in Round 12, the Power have played only 8th placed Collingwood out of the eventual finalists.
It's too easy to point to the loss to the Cats as a reason why they might be beaten again. Circumstance matters.
One of the biggest things we learned from this compressed season was that the days break between games mattered a hell of a lot, generally once the cumulative effect of several weeks or short turnarounds started to take their toll.
Port Adelaide's month prior to playing Geelong went as follows:
Round 7 (off a 7 Day Break): THAT game against the Blues where they pinched it after the siren. Expected score of 77-53 very telling
Round 8 (6 day break): A reality check delivered by the Saints, basically in a poor final term alone
Round 9 (5 day break): Responded to the loss by embarrassing the Demons, who just failed to turn up. Margin probably flattered them
Round 10 (4 day break): An impressive second half despite the quick backup from Round 9 to take care of the Bulldogs
Round 11 (5 day break): An epic battle with Richmond that looked exactly like a final. The moment everyone realised that Port could play to that sort of level and beat quality teams (the Tigers were missing a few, but still had enough firepower to be considered dangerous)
Round 12 (6 day break): Their clash with the Cats. A huge let down after being "up" for so long. They weren't the first side to put in a flat performance this year, and certainly weren't the last
So while the Cats might be buoyed by their Round 12 win, Port Adelaide will be well aware there are far different circumstances this time around.
While they haven't played any red-hot teams since, the saving grace might be from a pressure perspective, Port are still playing a brand that will stand up in finals football - the highest pressure applied in Rounds 13-18, and the third-highest against. They will surely come up against a 190+ pressure factor this Thursday night, and they definitely have the game style to absorb it.
The case for Geelong
There's an argument to suggest Geelong actually peaked on their season in that Round 12 match.
They came out flat against a hopeless Crows outfit that absolutely piled on the pressure and managed to get within 9 points at 3/4 time
Absolutely got jumped against the Bulldogs who somehow couldn't hold onto a six-goal lead
Recorded a 66-point win over Essendon in perhaps the most flattering scoreline of the season (expected score 81-63)
Lost to the Tigers, scoring 1.5 in three quarters
Played their lowest pressure game for the whole season (both for and against), yet only just snuck over the line against Sydney because their only good forward, Tom Papley, kicked 2.5...
After looking like flag favourites for a fair while, the Cats now look like the jury is out again.
They do have another gear. And it has probably been more important to manage one of the oldest lists through this condensed season than any other side. They have clinched the critical top four spot, likely to welcome back Rhys Stanley among others, and have enough weapons all over the field to trouble anyone.
Our Round 12 Preview pointed towards the forwards of either side holding the key to that game. Both of them were crying out for a solid contribution from their forward group, outside of Dixon/Hawkins. Gary Rohan was that one that night, slotting three goals. The Cats would love the same here, given Rohan's finals record is pretty poor.
This time around, the midfield battle is crucial. We have the top two clearance differential sides going head to head, wound up to absolutely smash in after perhaps coasting to the finals from a long way out.
The gut feel is that if Port Adelaide can neutralise the clearance differential, particularly at Centre Bounce, then the edge they have with a home crowd behind them might end up being enough.
This could easily go either way. Hard to see anything other than an absolute arm wrestle.
Pick: Port Adelaide by 6
Brisbane v Richmond
There are times in professional sport when the media narrative can actually contribute to a team's form, or lack thereof. If the high-profile football shows and the big name columnists think a team is travelling poorly, it matters little if they are right or wrong - the constant discussion can force a narrative so much that teams become convinced of their own standing in the competition.
In the case of Richmond, the opposite is just as true. Most media personalities and analysts have the Tigers as their top seed this finals series. Clearly they have had so much success recently and deserve to be considered as premership favourites, but the "aura" (as some have put it) around the side seems to transcend their actual dominance.
The easiest example is the Lions' recent record against Richmond: 0-15 is a fairly lopsided tally to defend. The streak includes last year's infamous final featuring the peak of Brisbane's goalkicking woes, and this year's encounter, where Brisbane again shot themselves in the footy by failing to find a way through the big sticks.
How relevant are the rest of the matches, though? About as relevant as comparing any teams from three seasons ago. History matters at times, but trying to highlight Richmond's dominance over Brisbane by pointing to a 110-17 flogging by the Tigers in a year where they charged into another preliminary and the Lions languished in 15th is ridiculous.
So Brisbane need to believe their recent form, and realise that effectively they are 0-2 in games that have any bearing on this weekend, both of which could have been wildly different with a bit more scoreboard pressure and a bit of luck going their way.
The case for Brisbane
Belief is critical. As is kick goals, to state the bleeding obvious. The midfield battle is the pivotal element in this game, and not only in stoppage situations.
Last time they met, Brisbane kicked 1.9 from midfield turnovers. Richmond kicked 6.5. One team took their opportunities, the other didn't. But it confirmed that this Lions outfit is now better equipped with a set of midfielders to really match it with Richmond on a ground that rewards the team who can get control between the arcs.
Of Brisbane's 9 games at the Gabba this season, they have never lost the midfield turnover differential. They broke even with Port Adelaide yet still had 7 more scoring shots in that area and won the game by 37 points. A really good sign that they have the weapons to trouble Richmond in the most important part of this game.
So if (or when?) they get on top through the middle for what might be a long period of the match, it could all come down to choosing the right option up forward. Brisbane are the 2nd best team for forward 50 marks in the competition (ironically behind Richmond) but against the Tigers defence the best form of attack might be simply getting the ball in quickly to dangerous areas and letting their forwards get to work.
The case for Richmond
Clearly they know how to win, have the experience to know what's required, and the class all over the field to get the job done.
The method hasn't changed all that much since the Tigers' dominant 2017 Premiership season, but the shorter quarters might have masked their best asset a little. Way back in 2017 (yes, we just said that history is only relevant in certain situations - it's relevant here) Richmond won 56 quarters for the season - 23 first half, 33 second half.
This "grind them down" game style has been proven to work longer than a lot of other methods which end up being copied by the also-rans so much that it doesn't become an edge anymore. In 2020, even with the shorter quarters, the Tigers have had success at simply staying in touch in first halves before putting their opponent to the sword in the second.
They did it to the two Perth teams recently, and come up against the Lions who have won only two of their past eight final terms. Add to that, the only time Brisbane have won a third term by more than 1.5 goals was against the Suns in Round 16. Look out if Richmond are anywhere within striking distance at half time.
It would take a brave person to go against Richmond in this one. There's an argument that the Lions midfield is actually superior to the Tigers, but Richmond haven't seemed worried about losing a stoppage battle for quite some time - they were -112 at clearance in a Premiership year, leaving them 16th, believe it or not.
It's the midfield turnover game that (winning the ball back between the arcs in general play) which becomes the pivotal contest. The Lions have the highest midfield turnover differential in the competition, and they come up against the second best for the season in Richmond.
So when that scenario presents itself you generally end up siding with the more potent forward line. Richmond have the runs on the board, the belief that they can perform away from home (their first final outside of the MCG since the last time they played the Lions) and the versatility to cover the absence of Tom Lynch (look for Dusty to terrorise the Brisbane defenders for long periods).
It will take a mighty effort from the likes of Cameron, Hipwood and a few of their other offensive soldiers for the Lions to triumph, particularly against that Richmond defence. Can't wait to see how they go.
Pick: Richmond by 15
St Kilda v Western Bulldogs
Genuine coin flip, this one. And a tale of two game styles...
The Bulldogs, with arguably the superior midfield that runs seriously deep, will be looking to share it around by hand and find the open space - will that be harder to do in a final? We've seen two reasonably high pressure finals already, and there's nothing to suggest this one will be any different.
The Saints, on the other hand, will look to move the ball by foot a lot more and shift the ball off the line as much as possible. Their territory game might be better suited to a fierce finals contest.
So it all comes down to execution - if the Bulldogs enjoy more of the footy and manage to break out into space and go with speed, then their deficiencies up forward can be overcome.
For St Kilda, it's a great test for their midfield. While they haven't lost a clearance differential since Round 12, this will be a serious challenge against the Bulldogs' biggest asset. With the tandem combination of Ryder and Marshall and the threat of either of them up forward, there is a narrative to suggest it could be the difference when everything else seems so even.
Siding with St Kilda, but only just.
Pick: St Kilda by 2
West Coast v Collingwood
Never seen a team that has won 11 of their past 13 travelling worse. That's the case with the Eagles, who are probably fortunate to find themselves in a strange home final against the best of also-rans in Collingwood.
The Pies have been dealt a poor hand having to quarantine far differently to the Eagles. In any other year that sort of inequity would draw a fair bit of criticism, but we've become used to things being unfair at various stages for most teams.
There are a fair few hot-takes saying the Pies are making up the numbers. You could mount a case that the Eagles are as well, so this contest might not be the foregone conclusion some may think.
Injuries to the Eagles, their issues with winning the ground ball and facing a side that has had their scoring issues but averages basically the same score as West Coast over the last six weeks of the season. It's hard to be confident in either side, but the Eagles just aren't going as well as some may think and would need to find another gear to be any sort of threat this finals series.
Having said that, if the first two finals are anything to go by, the home crowd can play a pretty big role here. Great to see stadiums at least semi-full, and they've been vocal enough to help their team over the line. Expect the lunatic WA crowd to lift West Coast as much as they can.
Collingwood definitely have the weapons to trouble West Coast, so the first quarter will tell us a lot about what sort of chance they might have. Fast start interstate is critical to get the confidence up and the crowd a little flat - can the Pies at least keep the scoreboard ticking over to put some pressure on the Eagles?
Sticking the neck out and picking Collingwood. Could easily end up with egg on the face though...
Pick: Collingwood by 3
Finals Week 1 Burning Question:
Which game will end up as the best of the weekend?
In theory it's the Saints v Bulldogs - two teams who love to run and attack, with serious question marks over their defence. Finals are usually defensive struggles (at least for a quarter or two), so those two might play a little more conservatively for a while, but we could be treated to something quite exciting.
Any of the other three matches could easily provide us with a classic. We are most looking forward to Port v Geelong, and intrigued as to how the Lions can fare against nearly everyone's Premiership favourites.
Can't bloody wait.