Preliminary Final Preview
Perhaps we had to endure a small amount of pain with two pretty underwhelming semi-finals in order to get an absolute treat this weekend. The four best teams of the year have made it, the two host stadiums will at least be semi-full, and we get some incredibly even matchups that should produce two incredible contests.
Surprisingly, there hasn't been a lot said about the cumulative effect of the pre-finals bye on the preliminary finalists who qualified in week 1.
Port Adelaide will have played one game in 25 days by the time the ball is bounced tomorrow night. Brisbane one game in 28 days. Both teams are very lucky they are in their home states - imagine that scenario for a team in a hub. Boredom would be nearly the biggest enemy you'd face for the whole season.
Their opponents are filled with experienced players who have climbed the mountain before - Richmond had an average of 130 games of experience against St Kilda last weekend, and 20 premiership players to go with it. Geelong fronted up against Collingwood with one of the most experienced teams to ever take the field, including plenty who have been to Preliminary Finals and beyond.
Both games set up for a first quarter that is absolutely critical - Port Adelaide and Brisbane wouldn't want to get off to a slow start or it could be curtains before they've even switched on.
One thing is for sure, that angle will be talked about constantly if one (or both) of the home teams get rolled this weekend. Or if the huge break between regular games looks like it has contributed to a tardy start from the top two sides.
Also, for a far more nuanced look at this weekend's matchups, I'd encourage everyone to take a look at this article from the ABC crew - some great insights for those looking for a really sharp assessment of all four teams and their styles, plus a whole bunch of great visualisations.
Let's take a look at both games. Incredibly hard to pick a winner, but we'll give it our best shot...
Port Adelaide v Richmond
Two different game styles meet head on in this one - Port Adelaide's pressure against Richmond's ball movement game.
As the highest pressure side in the competition, you know Port Adelaide will be absolutely wound up to go after the Tigers - if they don't start flat off such a long break.
Richmond have been on the end of the lowest pressure count for the season, including the Saints posting their lowest pressure factor for the year in last week's final. Does that ultimately count against the Tigers given they will likely be hit by something they haven't seen for quite some time?
The challenge for Port Adelaide will be not overdoing it - the "swarm" mentality can work against you in an adrenaline-charged final if you end up just charging at the contest and don't have enough balance on the outside. The Tigers are good enough to win the ball and find the clear man in space if Port commit too many players to the contest.
We also know that the Tigers can be lethal from their back half - the best in the comp at going "coast to coast" for a score. If the pressure is off from Port Adelaide or the Tigers can find a way to generate intercept marks and quickly find an outlet, there should be no problem getting up the other end.
So how do we figure out who wins? Well, we can't. This is legitimately a toss of the coin.
On the one side you've got the key defensive frailties of Port Adelaide which could easily come back to bite them this week - remembering Hawkins had six shots at goal and the Cats did get the ball in there with a fair bit of speed (something Richmond could easily do).
On the other side, the pressure and territory game of Port Adelaide is perfectly suited to counteracting Richmond's strengths - if they execute it well. Port have enough threats up forward to keep the Richmond defenders guessing. Hard to see big Charlie dominating, but all he needs to do is create a contest. Their midfield kicks goals and is seriously underrated at generating clearances.
As long as Port Adelaide can find enough genuine scoring opportunities and convert their chances, the gut feel is they might just get over the line in this one. But you could never write off a team like Richmond. Can't wait to see how it plays out.
Pick: Port Adelaide by 2
Brisbane v Geelong
Surprised to see such a difference in the odds for this game. Geelong outsiders makes sense, but the price suggests they are going to find it tough to get over the line.
Another fascinating scenario with Brisbane coming off another break as they waited for their preliminary final opponents, while Geelong beat the living hell out of Collingwood in one of the easiest semi final wins you'll ever see.
Both teams have a nearly identical first quarter record this season in terms of wins and total scores. If one team can find a way to make a fast start, that could give them all the confidence they need to finish the job.
There will be an enormous weight on the shoulders of the Brisbane small forwards on Saturday night. Geelong have conceded only 9 marks inside 50 across both their finals so far, and Brisbane don't exactly possess the kind of key forward weapons to suggest they can change that.
We saw Collingwood basically apply no pressure on the Geelong defenders coming out of their back 50 last week, allowing the Cats to move the ball however they liked. If the Lions forwards can't keep the ball in there, we might see a similar scenario play out.
Up the other end, the spectre of Hawkins and Dangerfield is pretty large. We are treated to the All-Australian full back matched up against the All-Australian full forward here, and it could go a long way to deciding the game. You just get the feeling that it's not enough for the Brisbane defenders to simply neutralise the aerial ball - they need to win it themselves to generate some sort of offence from their back half.
With the Andrews v Hawkins match-up the main event, it feels like this is Dangerfield's time to stamp himself even further as one of the very best. Last week was a good indication that the Cats coaching staff are comfortable enough with their midfield mix to allow Dangerfield to play a lot more forward. And given the Pies and Lions midfields are arguably just as potent as each other, we should see Dangerfield unleashed in attack for a lot of this game.
Both sides possess the goalkicking midfielders that become so crucial in a finals series, and the midfield battle will be a critical part of the game. The Gabba is so often geared towards teams who can win the centre bounce clearance differential. But when you stack up the Geelong defence against the Brisbane forwards, then look up the other end and see the likes of Hawkins and Dangerfield up against a gallant but perhaps outclassed Brisbane back six, then it's hard not to see how Geelong doesn't come close at least.
How much is the home crowd worth? One goal? Two goals? More? Clearly the Lions side enjoys the passion generated by the fans (didn't they ride the wave so well in the first final!), so if they do get on a roll they might be incredibly hard to stop.
Another evenly matched game with a fast start crucial to each team's hopes. But siding with the Cats here.
Pick: Geelong by 10
Preliminary Finals Burning Question:
Why has a piece of the MCG turf created so much controversy?
For those who missed it... (article here for context)
Judging by the reaction on Twitter, it seems the general sentiment is that the league shouldn't be "wasting" money given all the staff and spending cutbacks occurring right around the industry.
It's interesting to see so many people take this angle. Even though in this instance the whole exercise seems to be sponsored by Rebel Sport, it could be an indication that any move by the league or the clubs that seems a little extravagant will be an absolute magnet for criticism, especially given so many dedicated people have lost their jobs as a result of financial pressure (or misbehaving players being fined nearly a staff member's entire salary).
Women's football, second-tier competitions and recruiting all seem to be the low-lying fruit that will suffer as much as anything when costs-cutting is involved, but it definitely won't stop there. So if the above sentiment is anything to go by, get ready for a lot of spending to be put under the microscope for at least the next year to come.
It's all part of a football eco-system that has been upturned by the Covid situation, along with a very steady industry growth that favoured a lot of specialists rather than those who could absorb a lot of work in a range of roles. This was the exact point we were trying to make here when we spoke about the "race to the bottom" for the clubs and the league.
Fair to say we haven't reached the bottom just yet...