Geelong v St Kilda
Friday 3 September, 7:45pm AEST at MCG, Melbourne (Channel 7)
Recent Form: If anyone doubted Geelong’s hunger to win a third flag in four years, they were wrong. Since losing to Collingwood by 22 points in Round 19 earlier this season, the Cats have been in ominous form and seem more determined than ever to win a premiership. They won their final three matches against the Western Bulldogs, Carlton and West Coast by an average of 62 points.
The Saints played it safe last weekend – and who could blame them? They trailed Adelaide by just one point at quarter time after which coach Ross Lyon ordered his team to back off in intensity and play with a lot more caution to avoid any serious injuries before the finals series. As a consequence they lost to the Crows by 29 points, but now have a full-strength line-up for tonight’s match.
Key Players: You’ve got to love the way Joel Selwood goes about his business on the field. He’s a tough, nuggetty and inspirational midfielder who personifies on-field leadership. But stats show that Selwood has struggled slightly in his few finals appearances so far. If he can rectify that problem and perform anywhere near his best tonight, he could singlehandedly win the game for the Cats.
Brendon Goddard is a class player and has enjoyed an outstanding season so far. He’s a great mark, has the ability to play virtually anywhere on the ground, but, most importantly, is a long, accurate and direct kick of the footy. If Goddard can use that kick to his advantage in the wet conditions, St Kilda will already be halfway to winning the game.
Who wins?: Who could forget last year’s Grand Final between these two teams? It was one of the most brutal games in recent history, setting records for the highest amount of contested possessions and tackles in a game. It was wet and cold, but the Cats emerged victorious in the end. However, Saints small forwards Stephen Milne and Adam Schneider exposed the Geelong defence in Round 13 earlier this year by using their elusive speed and sneaky goal sense to help their team to a 26-point win.
But Geelong coach Mark Thompson said earlier this week that his team has never been in better shape before a finals series, despite its unbelievable success over the past three years. Even without key forward James Podsiadly, the Cats’ team chemistry and belief in their own ability should see them advance straight through to a preliminary final.
Prediction: Geelong by 12 points
Fremantle v Hawthorn
Saturday 4 September, 3:20pm AEST at Subiaco Oval, Perth (Channel 10 LIVE)
Recent Form: Fremantle had close to its full-strength team back last weekend and produced a tough six-point win over Carlton. While it was a far from convincing victory, there were still plenty of good signs for the Dockers. Most notable was the performance of ruckman Aaron Sandilands, who returned for his first game in three weeks and dominated the Blues’ ruck division with 20 possessions, 40 hitouts and 13 clearances.
As I said in last week’s preview, we would get a real sense of where Hawthorn stood after its match against Collingwood. And after defeating the Pies by three points, we now know that the Hawks are more than capable of matching it with the best. They pounced on Collingwood’s missed opportunities and stood up when the game needed to be won. Lance Franklin exposed the Magpies’ defence, playing deep in the forward line and booting through six goals in his best haul for the year so far.
Key Players: For such a talented player, Matthew Pavlich probably doesn’t receive the respect he deserves, mainly because he doesn’t play for a Victorian club. But the Fremantle skipper has a golden opportunity to make a name for himself against the Hawks on Saturday with a big finals performance. If Pavlich gets his hands on the ball early, not only will he lift, but the whole side will grow in confidence as well.
He may not be their best player, but Clinton Young might just be the Hawks’ most important player. If it wasn’t for a hamstring injury after halftime in the 2008 Grand Final, Young might well have won the Norm Smith Medal for the best player on the ground that day. His pace around the ground is deceptive and his long kicking inside the forward 50 exposes defenders matched up on Franklin and Jarryd Roughead, forcing them to panic and make crucial mistakes.
Who wins?: Before this season began, very few predicted the Dockers would play in the finals. But they have defied the critics and now find themselves hosting a home final. Full credit must go to the Fremantle board for persisting with coach Mark Harvey and for believing in his ability. However, the fairytale run ends here.
Hawthorn has been there and done it before, while the Dockers are young and uncertain of what to expect in a finals match. The Hawks regain inspirational leader Luke Hodge, a man that many believe can win this year’s Brownlow medal. If they can curb Sandilands’s influence in the ruck, use Young’s run to their advantage on the wide open spaces of Subiaco Oval and shut the home crowd up quickly and early, the Hawks will be heading to a semi-final match in Melbourne.
Prediction: Hawthorn by 18 points
Collingwood v Western Bulldogs
Saturday 4 September, 7:20pm AEST at MCG, Melbourne (Channel 10)
Recent Form: It’s fair to say that the Magpies have been ordinary over the last two weeks compared with the high standard they have set themselves throughout this year. They had an unconvincing three-point victory over Adelaide in Round 21 and narrowly lost to Hawthorn last weekend by three points as well. However the Pies had little to play for, knowing that the top spot on the ladder couldn’t be stolen from them. Still, it will be a tough task to bounce back after those below par performances.
The Bulldogs regained a little bit of momentum last weekend with a 29-point win over Essendon at Etihad Stadium. They looked a little more confident in their own ability and seemed to rediscover their run and carry game style. However, it must be said that they were playing a dismal opposition who looked disinterested.
Key Players: Heath Shaw has endured an inconsistent season to date, but it is no secret that he loves playing against the Western Bulldogs. In his last five matches against the Dogs, the rebounding defender has dominated, averaging 28 disposals a game. If Shaw matches up on the underdone Brad Johnson like he usually does and is able to find plenty of the footy off half-back, he could easily be the difference between the two teams.
In his short career, Ryan Griffen has already shown how damaging he can be during a finals match. His individual performance against St Kilda in last year’s preliminary final was simply outstanding, restricting Brendon Goddard to 21 possessions while gathering 28 possessions himself along with seven inside 50s and three goal assists. If Griffen can overcome a niggling knee injury, his explosive pace and goalkicking ability will be crucial to the Dogs’ chances of victory.
Who wins?: Many – including yours truly – tipped the Dogs to win this year’s premiership before this season started. However, injuries to key players in the past month have seriously hindered their chances. Brownlow medallist Adam Cooney and key defender Dale Morris will both miss the rest of the season, while Shaun Higgins, Griffen and Johnson go into Saturday night’s match seemingly less than 100 per cent fit.
The Magpies regain star forward Alan Didak as well as Leigh Brown and Ben Johnson, but will be even more confident knowing they have already beaten the Bulldogs twice this year – by 36 points in Round one and 10 points in Round 11. Their depth and balance across the field is unquestionable and, despite a few errant performances in the last two weeks, they should be too classy for the injury riddled Dogs.
Prediction: Collingwood by 30 points
Sydney v Carlton
Sunday 5 September, 2:40pm AEST at ANZ Stadium, Sydney (Channel 7 LIVE)
Recent Form: Sydney has been one of the form teams of the competition over the past month, with four consecutive victories, including three of those against top-eight sides. While the current team is made up of players who have plenty of experience, it has been the Swans’ younger players who have really stood out over the past few weeks, particularly Daniel Hannebery, who recently won this year’s NAB AFL Rising Star award.
Despite a six-point loss to Fremantle last Friday night, Carlton still showed a few positive signs. The Blues applied great pressure when they didn’t have the ball, clearly winning the tackle count 90-64. Also skipper Chris Judd and fellow midfielder Marc Murphy gathered 30 possessions each. However their bottom six or seven players are the ones who need to lift in order to keep their premiership aspirations alive.
Key Players: In full flight, there aren’t many better players to watch in the competition than Adam Goodes. The dual Brownlow medallist spent a large percentage of game time in the forward line earlier in the season. But Goodes has been rotating frequently through the midfield over the past two months and has produced some breathtaking performances. The Blues can’t afford to give him any freedom and let him get into a rhythm.
Jarrad Waite is the ultimate enigma, and the difference between his best and worst form is far too great at the moment. But the positive for the Blues is that when he’s at his best he is close to unstoppable. Waite is at his most dangerous when playing up in the forward line. He has kicked 13 goals in the last four weeks and must continue that form if the Blues want any chance of advancing to the semi-finals.
Who wins?: This game will be played at ANZ Stadium, not the SCG. If this game was at the SCG, the Swans would be the best bet of the round because they play that ground better than any other team. But because Sunday’s clash is at a different venue – a significantly larger playing surface than the SCG – the Blues have every right to feel confident.
But the Swans’ form is far too good to ignore. In addition, they regain key players in Tadgh Kennelly, Hannebery and Shane Mumford this weekend. Carlton will be weary and will find it difficult to travel interstate two weeks in a row. The Swans’ backline will also be too quick for the Blues and should win quite comfortably on Sunday.
Prediction: Sydney by 25 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. This article also appears on Sportingbet Australia’s website.