AFL Preliminary Finals Preview
Collingwood v Hawthorn: Friday 23/9 – 7.45pm at MCG.
Two of the proudest, strongest and most heavily supported clubs in the AFL will go head-to-head in a final for the first time since 1978 on Friday night.
Phew – the only word that was on the lips of Collingwood supporters after the first week of the finals.
Despite having 113 more disposals, 22 more clearances and 22 more marks, the Magpies only defeated West Coast by 20 points. However they can thank their two best midfielders in Dane Swan and Scott Pendlebury for the victory. Swan didn’t stop working all game, finishing with 43 touches, nine clearances, nine inside 50’s and a goal, while Pendlebury had 38 touches and six tackles. Harry O’Brien was also instrumental off half-back, keeping Mark LeCras quiet while also repeatedly driving his team forward with penetrating kicks. Heath Shaw gathered 30 touches and 10 marks in his first game back from an eight-week suspension.
Hawthorn saved itself from the ultimate embarrassment last weekend with a solid victory over Sydney.
The Hawks avoided a straight sets exit with a 36-point victory over a gallant Swans outfit. It was the Hawks’ first finals victory since they beat Geelong in the 2008 Grand Final. Josh Gibson played the game of his life, recording an AFL-record 21 spoils and was domineering in shutting down all six opponents he played on throughout the night – including Adam Goodes. Star forward Lance Franklin, who went into the game under an injury cloud, kicked three goals in the final term to seal the game and, most importantly, laid six tackles. The Hawks’ two gun leaders in Luke Hodge (27 touches and one goal) and Sam Mitchell (29 touches) were also influential.
When these two sides last met in Round 15 this season, Collingwood won by 41 points. But things have changed dramatically since then – for both teams.
Over their past two games, the Pies have shown they are a tad vulnerable. Before their unconvincing loss to West Coast, they copped a 98-point thumping from Geelong in Round 22. Perhaps they’re not as invincible as we originally thought.
And it’s clear the Hawks have improved dramatically too. Since Round 15, they have won nine of their past 10 games. They’ve returned to their unsociable best, while also perfecting their short kick game plan at the same time.
The recent statistics between these two sides are fascinating. Hawthorn has defeated Collingwood in five of the past seven matches. However the Pies’ loss in Round 22, 2010 was a dead rubber – and it may have been a win if Dayne Beams had kicked straight late in the game.
The Pies certainly needed the week off to recover, because several players have been carrying injuries during the latter stages of the season. Nick Maxwell (thumb), Leon Davis (hamstring), Ben Reid (groin) and Chris Tarrant (ankle) are among the players to have struggled and all will benefit from the rest. And Dale Thomas will come back into the side after a two-week suspension.
But there’s no doubt the Hawks will give this one a red-hot crack. In 2008, they proved they have no fear against the top sides when they beat the Cats in the Grand Final.
Tactically, it’ll be a fascinating battle: Collingwood’s fearsome forward press against Hawthorn’s keepings off.
For the Hawks to win, they must control the tempo of the game and deny the Pies’ runners, such as Swan, Thomas, Shaw and O’Brien, the chance to move the ball quickly into Travis Cloke and Chris Dawes up forward. They must also win the clearances and contested ball in the midfield, which will allow them to pump the footy deep inside forward 50 to Franklin and Cyril Rioli.
However, you simply can’t tip against Collingwood, who has clearly been the best team all season.
The Magpies have the Hawks covered in the most important area of the ground – down back. Against the Cats, Gibson, Ryan Schoenmakers and company looked susceptible to the high ball. But the likes of Ben Reid, Chris Tarrant and Maxwell work so well as a group that they never look vulnerable in defence. Between them, they’ll be able to curtail Franklin’s influence.
And the Pies should be too good in the midfield. Swan, Pendlebury and Luke Ball are all in their best form of the season. Add Thomas back into the mix on Friday night, and you’ve got a damn good centreline.
Hawthorn will challenge Collingwood, but expect the latter to have a little too much class.
Collingwood by 1-24 ($3.30)
Geelong v West Coast Eagles: Saturday 24/9 – 2.20pm at MCG.
The AFL’s finals stalwart over recent seasons has the chance to progress through to their fourth grand final in five years. It won’t be easy though.
Great teams seem to find another gear when challenged. Geelong found that gear in the first week of the finals.
The Cats mounted a stunning four-goal burst in a five-minute period in the third term to help them seal a 31-point victory over the Hawks. They wound back the clock to the glory days of 2007-09, moving the ball quickly through the corridor and showing off tremendous skills by hand and foot. Steve Johnson starred in the finals spotlight, booting 1.4 from 27 touches and seven marks, while big forwards James Podsiadly, Tom Hawkins and Brad Ottens booted seven goals between them on a night that didn’t suit big boys. The only negative to come out of the game was the knee injury to young gun forward Daniel Menzel, who ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in the third term and will miss a fair chunk of 2012.
West Coast’s remarkable ‘Cinderella story’ will have another enthralling chapter.
The Eagles snatched their first finals victory since 2006, defeating Carlton by three points in a classic and thrilling semi-final at Patersons Stadium. With his side desperately needing a spark, Daniel Kerr ignited the Eagles’ fightback with a brilliant second term, showing the poise that once made him an elite midfielder. He looked a class above the other players on the ground and finished with 27 possessions and eight clearances. Mark Nicoski caused the Blues the most headaches up forward, restricting the dangerous Chris Yarran to five first-half touches, while booting three clever goals himself. Dean Cox was also important, spending the majority of the night in the ruck and amassing 35 hit-outs, 19 touches and a goal to comprehensively outplay opponent Robbie Warnock. Scott Selwood significantly restricted Chris Judd’s output, while Matty Priddis was influential at the stoppages with 27 touches.
These two teams played off in two Grand Finals (1992 and 1994), which the Eagles won both. When they last met this season the Eagles got the jump and led by six goals at half-time before the 2007 and 2009 premiers roared home but fell just short. What will this finals instalment have?
The older and wiser Geelong players would’ve really enjoyed the weekend off. However, sometimes a lack of game time and fitness can be a disadvantage.
No doubt the Eagles would be better off for their qualifying final run against Collingwood at the MCG in the opening week of the finals. Their younger players would’ve learned plenty that day and will be keen to replicate their attack on the footy.
It must be great to be a West Coast player at the moment. The vibe around the club seems to be extremely positive, while supporters are excited and optimistic about their chances. There is a genuine belief about this team.
However, the Eagles know the job is far from done.
What will be interesting to see is if the two Selwoods – West Coast’s Scott and Geelong’s Joel – clash in the midfield. As mentioned previously, Scott, the best tackler in the competition this season, is in stellar form at the moment after restricting Carlton superstar Chris Judd to an uncharacteristic 17 touches. Joel, the Cats’ best midfielder, could be feeling some unique brotherly love come Saturday afternoon.
Overall, the Cats and the Eagles teams match up well. They both boast elite midfields, mobile ruckmen, strong marking forwards and All Australian defenders.
But Geelong has earned the right to play off in the Grand Final and seem the more logical tip here.
The Cats are primed. They are fresh, fit and have genuine competition for spots. Joel Corey will replace the unlucky Menzel, while there are a number of other players knocking on match committee’s door.
We mustn’t forget Eagles stars Kerr, Cox, Nic Naitanui and Josh Kennedy are all under injury clouds too, while the rest of the team could still be feeling the effects of the brutal encounter with Carlton. And also the fact they haven’t won at the MCG for a couple of years makes it tougher to tip the West Australians.
The Eagles obviously have a chance but the Cats are a more complete team. Even if the Eagles can stick with them for the first half, the week’s rest should mean the Cats will wear them down in the end.
Geelong is in sensational shape and is back to its best. Coach Chris Scott has his boys trained to the minute and they should win reasonably easily.
Geelong line -29.5 ($2.00)