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  • Pete Roberts

Preliminary Final Preview

Here it is. Arguably the most fun finals weekend for the neutral observers.


For Melbourne fans, it's probably more like organised torture. Not sure how some will cope if it's close. Geelong fans are used to witnessing preliminary finals: 12 of the past 18 seasons in a prelim is seriously good going.


Port have peaked at exactly the right time, poised to make their first grand final since being obliterated by Geelong in 2007. The Dogs are channeling their Premiership heist of 2016, following quite a similar path so far.


Two big previews. Let's try and make a case for both sides, even with two very strong favourites in the box seat.


Best Matchup:


Clayton Oliver v Geelong's midfield. Unsure of the specific matchup for him - On The Couch and Footy Classified both suggested Joel Selwood in a tagging role, which would be good to see. He completely torched the Cats in Round 23 (37 disposals and 2 goals). No Mark O'Connor in the side but you'd think Geelong have some sort of plan for Oliver at stoppages. The pivotal matchup in this game.


Player Under Pressure: Rhys Stanley - Player rankings had him bottom six against Port in the Qualifying Final, including the subs. Bounced back a week later to be the 7th-ranked player on the ground against GWS. Which Rhys Stanley do we get on Friday night? Against the best ruckman in the competition and with *that* final contest of Round 23 still etched in his memory, Cats fans will be hoping for the good one.


Player To Watch:


Aaron Naughton - absolutely the key to the Dogs chances on Saturday night. Naughton has kicked multiple goals only once in the past six games, after going ten games in a row to start the season.


Five marks and four goals in their win against Port Adelaide in Round 9. Five marks but only a single goal in their losing return bout in Round 23. The Dogs will need closer to the first performance to get over the line on Saturday night.



Two big games below. Let's take a look...

Melbourne v Geelong


This could be one for the ages.


Melbourne have come up heavy favourites. Not so sure these two teams should be that far apart, but comfortable that the Dees are in the box seat. Well-rested, relatively injury free and with a game style that should challenge Geelong again.


There is an argument to suggest the Cats haven't played anywhere near their best in either of the two finals. Against Port they were slow and sloppy, clearly exposed by their lack of leg speed. Against GWS they found a better match for their strengths, winning the stoppage war by five goals. Yet in a lot of ways they were still unconvincing.


In terms of playing style, the Demons are much closer to Port than they are the Giants. Kings of the turnover game, supremely set up in defence, with an air of unpredictability up forward. Their lack of genuine star power in the front six should be seen as a massive strength rather than a weakness.


Beware of using their Round 23 clash as a definitive guide as to how this one might play out. Both sides had secured a top four spot and were consigned to a neutral ground for their first final at best. Knowing the likelihood of meeting again in the finals series, did they play all their cards that night? Doubtful.


Team Selection

  • The unlucky Joel Smith misses with injury, paving the way for Michael Hibberd to return. Handy replacement! Another big body down back will be helpful, even if the nearly 32 year-old Hibbo doesn't have the same pace as Smith these days.

  • Brandon Parfitt out with a hamstring injury from the Cats' semi-final. Important out for Geelong given his tackling and ball-winning ability at stoppage.


The Case for Melbourne


The way the Demons completely dismantled Brisbane in the first final, you have to think the step up to Geelong won't worry them. And the beauty about this side is they can beat you different ways.


If the regular season is any guide, Melbourne would prefer this game to become a turnover/ball movement battle. On a dry deck at Optus Stadium they probably get their wish. That's where the Demons level of pressure could decide their fate.


When they fell 44-points to Geelong in Round 23, their pressure rating was 177 in the first half. At least that's one of the easier things to fix. Expecting them to lift to around 195 on Friday night, a mark achieved by Port in the first final (and we know how that game turned out).


If the game becomes more of a stoppage grind, the Demons can still get the job done. Geelong got hold of them early in their last encounter, but ultimately the game ended up 7.6 to 6.3 at stoppage in Melbourne's favour. They've won the stoppage scoring differential in six of their past eight matches, including two against top eight sides. The suggestion that Melbourne aren't great at clearance and rely on just winning the ball back in their defensive half is a bit of a myth.


So the real test will be their ability to contain Geelong's tall forwards and make the most of their opportunities up the other end. It wouldn't shock to see Hawkins, Cameron and co cause them trouble at times, but defensively they have such a disciplined setup that they would have to rate down on their usual performance for it to get out of control.


Offensively they have the right mix to challenge Geelong's defence. Enough potency in the air to make the Cats defenders accountable, combined with a bunch of smalls that are clean, willing to tackle and hit the scoreboard often. They can exploit Geelong's weakness at ground level as long as they get enough supply. Big game for the likes of Pickett, Spargo and Neal-Bullen, no doubt.


The Case for Geelong


As we said earlier, the Cats have another level to go to. We saw how lethal they can be in Round 23 against the Demons - an eight-goal second term piercing the best defence in the league. Yes, Melbourne's pressure was right down in that quarter but Geelong made them pay. The key part was their ability to lower their eyes and find a target, even if it meant over-possessing the ball a little bit on offence.


Importantly, against Melbourne you have to adjust your launch zone when getting the ball inside 50. Long kicks from backward of centre are easy pickings for the Dees, even with Hawkins occupying Steven May. Can Esava Ratugolea take care of Jake Lever? The key might be Jeremy Cameron (presumably against Harry Petty) - the Cats could use him a little further up the ground as a link man then use his speed and agility running back to goal. Watch for the quality of entries from Geelong, because if they can nail it they are a serious chance of causing the upset.


Even without Tom Stewart, the Cats are still rock solid defensively themselves. No scores against of 90 or above since Round 15, and seven scores below 80 points. Breaking even at ground level will be paramount. If they can keep Melbourne to a manageable total it will ensure they are within striking distance, and we know what their offence can do.


While no certainty, it's an angle you can see playing out. Both defences on top in a low-scoring game, the Cats with the sort of firepower up forward to match it with Melbourne. Whoever makes the most of their opportunities (or makes their own luck in some respects) will end up winning. Hence why it's hard to see why the two teams are so far apart in the market.


The Verdict


Don't think any result is off the table in this one. It's easy to side with the team that has enjoyed the week off and comes into this one relatively injury free. But they face a Geelong side still yet to peak, which is a scary proposition. Geelong will have roughly three years and 50 more games experience on Friday night. In a preliminary final that surely counts for something.


Speed on the ball beats most sides, but it's definitely the key to beating Geelong. As one of the best ball movement teams in it, the Demons have the game plan to get it done. We saw Geelong dismantled by manic pressure and fearless ball movement against Port. That's the blueprint for Melbourne here.


Be brave, Demons.


Pick: Melbourne by 5

Port Adelaide v Western Bulldogs


Port Adelaide players got to kick back in their own home and watch the semi final in comfort. The Bulldogs had to endure hotel quarantine, where the best part of their day was being allowed to have lunch together. They somehow still won a brutal contest against Brisbane but have a fair few battle scars to prove it.


This would be an absolute heist if the Dogs could get over the line in this one. Only their last month of footy in the regular season soured what probably would have been a minor premiership. Instead they have to do it the hard way, with injuries mounting up. It doesn't get much harder than Port at Adelaide Oval.


Team Selection

  • A lot to unpack here. Alex Keath with a hamstring issue out of nowhere. In comes Zaine Cordy. You can hear Charlie Dixon's big, hearty laugh from here...

  • Cody Weightman is also out under concussion protocol. Can Mitch Hannan graduate from "nearly" player to matchwinner?

  • Stefan Martin comes in to try and rescue their ruck woes. Huge gamble. Especially with the Bont named with a questionable knee injury. They aren't left with much choice, but taking unfit players into a prelim can backfire spectacularly at times.

  • No change for Port. The contrast is stark.


The Case for Port Adelaide


Four consecutive pressure ratings of over 190 is a super starting point for a preliminary final. As long as the Power don't come out flat after a week off, that sort of intensity more than makes up for any shortcomings in terms of class.


Port played at a ridiculous speed against Geelong and pulled it off, knowing early that the Cats were unlikely to burn them back the other way given their game style. This is a different setup here - commit too many numbers forward of the ball at your peril against the Dogs, who love a bit of chaos themselves.


Just feel like Port have found the balance on offence - they don't need to dominate in the air with Dixon, Ladhams and Georgiades, they just have to compete. That ground level brigade is equal to anyone in the comp, so if the ball hits the deck the Port forwards are incredibly dangerous. Ten goals from their smaller players against the Cats.


The added bonus is the absence of Alex Keath to contain Charlie Dixon, paving the way for all the Port talls to get their opportunity against a Dogs side challenged for quality tall defenders. Radar looks fine for Saturday night, so they won't have any excuses.


Containing the Dogs' endless supply of midfielders will be Port's greatest challenge. But if their last meeting is anything to go by, the Dogs won't find it easy either. The super honest Wines and Boak were the top two ranked players on the ground. The fourth-highest was Scott Lycett, who gets a golden opportunity to bully whoever he faces in the ruck. Game on.


The Case for Western Bulldogs


The Bulldogs have to get this as far away from a stoppage battle as they can. Turn it into a ball movement battle - all the density up Port Adelaide's end, all the space in their forward line. Give Aaron Naughton as much room as possible to fly for everything, hope he marks it, and pray he converts at better than 50%.


In all seriousness, the Dogs have a window of opportunity to beat Port. Follow the usual upset game script - bring a 200+ pressure rating in the first quarter, hit the scoreboard early to feel good about themselves away from home, and get creative to avoid exposing their lack of quality talls. There should be very few occasions where they choose to go long down the line, or bomb it into their forward line. They must choose another way.


The heavy load will again fall to their midfield. The likes of Smith, Treloar, Liberatore, Macrae and Dunkley have to at least break even at clearance, and somehow also hit the scoreboard. Six goals between them last week. Does a repeat of that effort get them close?


How do they generate forward 50 marks, though? They posted under double-digit marks inside 50 up until Round 17 (amazing), yet haven't managed above 9 in their last four games. Three games in a row they have had only six marks inside 50 for the day. Fewer than two per quarter. That wouldn't be enough to challenge Port, so Bevo might have to get creative. Trying to look on the bright side - they are due.


With Martin taking the ruck duties, Tim English becomes pivotal. Doesn't exactly pop off the page as a serious challenge for the settled Port defence though. Looks like Aaron Naughton or bust.


The Verdict


The Dogs are totally up against it here. Keath, Bruce, Weightman and a fit Bontempelli would change a lot, but are they in the right sort of form regardless?


We have waited for Port Adelaide to lift a notch all season. If the Cats game is anything to go by they definitely have, on the back of getting their best 22 on the field and working out their preferred forward setup. That should be enough in this one.


Pick: Port Adelaide by 26

Best Matchup:


Clayton Oliver v Geelong's midfield. Unsure of the specific matchup for him - On The Couch and Footy Classified both suggested Joel Selwood in a tagging role, which would be good to see. He completely torched the Cats in Round 23 (37 disposals and 2 goals). No Mark O'Connor in the side but you'd think Geelong have some sort of plan for him at stoppages. The pivotal matchup in this game.


Player Under Pressure: Rhys Stanley - Player rankings had him bottom six against Port in the Qualifying Final, including the subs. Bounced back a week later to be the 7th-ranked player on the ground against GWS. Which Rhys Stanley do we get on Friday night? Against the best ruckman in the competition and with *that* final contest of Round 23 still etched in his memory, Cats fans will be hoping for the good one.


Player To Watch:


Aaron Naughton - absolutely the key to the Dogs chances on Saturday night. Naughton has kicked multiple goals only once in the past six games, after going ten games in a row to start the season.


Five marks and four goals in their win against Port Adelaide in Round 9. Five marks but only a single goal in their losing return bout in Round 23. The Dogs will need closer to the first performance to get over the line on Saturday night.