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A Collingwood v St Kilda Grand Final?

Four great sides, but only two can make it through to that last Saturday in September. Ben Waterworth previews this weekend's do or die AFL preliminary finals.

Before you read this week-old prelimary finals preview, please check out Ben Waterworth’s preview of tomorrow’s Grand Final game.

Collingwood v Geelong

Friday 17 September, 7.45pm AEST at the MCG, Melbourne (Channel 7)

Last Time They Met: Collingwood 14.23 (107) defeated Geelong 12.13 (85), Round 19, 2010 at the MCG

Recent Form: The Magpies earned and enjoyed a weekend off after easily defeating the Western Bulldogs by 62 points in the first qualifying final. Geelong, on the other hand, easily accounted for an inexperienced Fremantle outfit last Friday night, running out comfortable 69-point winners at the MCG. Despite playing a little unconvincingly during parts of the game, the Cats still managed to send an ominous warning to the Pies with an eight goal to one opening quarter. One of the most encouraging aspects to come out of the game for the Cats was the form of David Wojcinski. He kicked two great goals from 23 possessions, five inside 50’s, and six running bounces. When Wojcinski is playing with the confidence he had last Friday night, his run and carry is just as damaging then a miraculous Steve Johnson goal.

Key Players: You either love or hate Dale Thomas. But no matter what you think of him, you can’t question his rapid improvement this season. The 23-year-old has gone from averaging 17 disposals in 2009 to 24 in 2010 and he is a big reason why Collingwood has risen to another level this season. Thomas has played more in the midfield this season and his dramatic disposal increase means he has been working harder around the ground to receive the ball. His speed and ability to break a game open will be crucial in trying to expose the Cats’ lack of pace tonight.

There aren’t too many more passionate players in the competition than Cameron Mooney. The big full-forward wears his heart on his sleeve for the Geelong Football Club and there is no doubt that his teammates grow in confidence when he asserts himself on a game. The 30-year-old has struggled for form this season with only 35 goals to his name, but he is an experienced campaigner. If Mooney can take some strong marks and kick a few goals early on in the game, he and the Cats will be up and about.

Who Wins?: Throughout the home-and-away season, it seemed inevitable that these two teams would meet in the grand final. But that plan came unstuck when St Kilda upset Geelong and Collingwood accounted for the Western Bulldogs in the first week of the finals. When Collingwood and Geelong last met in Round 19 this season, the Magpies seemed in control for the majority of the game, and that will give them plenty of confidence going into the match. But what’s even scarier is that they are probably a better side now than what they were then.

What Geelong must do tonight is be intelligent with the ball. When the Cats kick it inside 50, they must lower their eyes because the Collingwood backline is so disciplined and have a fantastic understanding of where each other is on the field. The Cats also need to win more contested possessions than the Pies, because the last time these two teams met, Collingwood had 40 more than Geelong. That’s a thumping.

At the All-Australian awards on Monday night, Collingwood’s Dane Swan said that he would love to go head-to-head with Gary Ablett in the midfield. It would be a fascinating battle, but it also means it’s probably going to be a win for Geelong. Both players will likely notch up 30 or more disposals, but Ablett’s explosiveness and ability to get forward means his touches are more likely to do damage. That’s why the Pies need to send Sharrod Wellingham to the Geelong champion and keep him accountable.

The Cats should be full of confidence after last week’s hammering of Fremantle. But they’re playing the best team of the year so far and the formidable flag favourites. Collingwood have cleared every hurdle placed before them so far this season. Unless the ‘Collywobbles’ ghost is hovering over them, they should be able to avoid one more hurdle and make this year’s grand final in a classic contest.

Prediction: Collingwood by 20 points


St Kilda v Western Bulldogs

Saturday 18 September, 7.20pm AEST at the MCG, Melbourne (Channel 10)

Last Time They Met: St Kilda 7.7 (49) defeated Western Bulldogs 6.10 (46), round six, 2010 at Etihad Stadium

Recent Form: While the Saints enjoyed some well-earned rest last weekend after defeating Geelong by three points the week before, the Western Bulldogs produced one of the gutsiest wins of the season so far. The Bulldogs trailed by 30 points midway through the second quarter and it seemed as if Sydney were heading towards a preliminary final. But against the odds, the Dogs fought right to the very end of the match and ran out eventual five-point winners. They managed to claw their way back into the contest through some wonderful individual performances. Jarrod Harbrow found space off the half-back line, Daniel Giansiracusa got himself involved in the game to finish with three goals and the unheralded Daniel Cross produced a special 17-possession second half.

Key Players: How did Lenny Hayes miss selection in the All-Australian team? That’s been the question asked throughout the football media over the past few days after the inspirational Saint missed out on a place in the prestigious side. Hayes has had a phenomenal season to date, averaging 28 disposals and seven tackles a game. But it is his work in the packs around stoppages that make him one of St Kilda’s most important players. Even though he won’t admit it publicly, Hayes might be out to prove a point to the All-Australian selectors tomorrow night. Watch for him to play a blinder.

Robert Murphy was another big reason why the Dogs were able to get back into the game against Sydney last weekend. The 28-year-old was moved from the back line to centre half-forward after halftime and made his presence felt, finishing the game with 20 touches, 10 marks and a crucial last-quarter goal. Murphy’s polished performance was just what the Bulldogs needed at that stage of the game and his versatility will make him close to the most important player on the ground come Saturday night.

Who Wins?: Bulldogs defender Dale Morris has recovered from a back problem and comes into the side for Mitch Hahn. Morris will look to have an immediate impact on the game too, because he will be given the difficult task of standing Saints skipper Nick Riewoldt. St Kilda go into the game unchanged, meaning valuable back-pocket Steven Baker misses out on playing. However, he has been named as an emergency, so there is still some hope for the nuggetty Saint.

The last two games between these teams have resulted in close, low-scoring results. While the matches have certainly been far more ugly than exciting, they have produced tough contests where it has been anyone’s game right up until the final siren. Tomorrow night should be no different.

It’s pretty simple for the Dogs – run. They need to get their run and flow game going in order to counteract the Saints’ defensive game style. Players such as Harbrow, Ryan Hargrave and Tom Williams need to give plenty of drive off the half-back line if they want to keep their grand final aspirations alive.

Dogs full-forward Barry Hall will also be crucial to the Bulldogs’ chances of winning. The All-Australian is his team’s main avenue to goal and he got back to some solid form against Sydney with four goals. What will be interesting to see is how St Kilda’s creative half-back line tries to minimise Hall’s influence. Players such as Sam Fisher, Sam Gilbert, Jason Gram and Brendon Goddard need to block Hall’s space in the forward line and make it is as difficult as possible for him to get his hands on the ball.

But the Saints are rested and primed for this match. With the Dogs missing Adam Cooney and Shaun Higgins – two players who possess great leg speed – it will be tough for them to stop St Kilda’s defensive style of football. Pardon the pun, but the Saints should go ‘marching in’ to their second consecutive grand final.

Prediction: St Kilda by 24 points

Ben Waterworth is a regular contributor to upstart and a Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can read more of his work at his blog, A Short Sport Thought.

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