After a weekend spent twiddling thumbs courtesy of the AFL’s pre-finals bye, it’s famine to feast for football fans with the first four of nine finals to be played over three days and nights from Thursday to Saturday.
For the footy connoisseur, it’s close to the best weekend of the season as eight finalists become six, and two of those survivors march directly to preliminary finals.
High stakes indeed. And this year’s match-ups are particularly appetising with some rivalries reignited and even a little slice of September history created.
Let’s take a look at the menu course by course.
Richmond v Hawthorn
(First qualifying final, MCG, Thursday, 7.20pm)
There’s a fair argument this could well be the Tigers’ toughest test of the entire finals series in, incredibly, the first finals clash ever between these clubs.
Richmond finished three wins above the Hawks, but hasn’t played them since Round 3. The Tigers won that game by only 13 points after leading by as much as 39 early in the last term, and their opponent is looking a lot more dangerous now.
Not that Richmond’s form is too shabby, either. The Tigers have won their past six games, and nine of their past 10. And despite some debate about whether their pressure game has fallen away a little, getting the job done without being at 100 per cent could be as much a vindication of their professionalism.
Richmond has some big selection decisions to make on Kane Lambert and Dan Butler, while the Hawks will be tempted to throw key defender James Sicily straight back into the fray despite not having played since Round 17.
Sicily was absent from that Round 3 meeting, as was another critical part of the Hawthorn set-up in Shaun Burgoyne. Their class this time will be more than handy. And the Hawks’ coolness in the clutch moments and their ability to use the ball precisely are big assets against the Tigers in a match that has potential epic written all over it.
Melbourne v Geelong
(First elimination final, MCG, Friday, 7.50pm)
On a terrific finals bill, this game could perhaps be the best of the lot, pitting the Demons, part of September for the first time in 12 years, against finals perennials Geelong, competing in their 13th campaign of the past 15 years.
The Dees and Cats present an interesting contrast, Melbourne easily the highest-scoring team of 2018, averaging 104.5 points per game (the Cats are ranked fourth), and Geelong No.1 for defence (Melbourne ranked only ninth).
They’ve also played out two of the most thrilling finishes of 2018, the Cats winning by three points in Round 1 after Melbourne ruckman Max Gawn missed a shot to win the game seconds before the final siren, and getting out of jail again in Round 18 when Zac Tuohy kicked a goal after the siren to get his team over the line by two points.
What happens this time? Well, even the recent form is hard to read. Melbourne had a disappointing if narrow loss to Sydney but then a huge win in Perth against West Coast and a dominant display against Greater Western Sydney last outing. Geelong lost two close ones to Richmond and Hawthorn before beating up on Fremantle and Gold Coast at home, both by more than 100 points.
The only certainty is that whether those beltings either prove a perfect tune-up or haven’t given the Cats sufficiently tough a lead-in is a question that will be answered authoritatively only in hindsight.
Sydney v GWS
(Second elimination final, SCG, Saturday, 4.20pm)
While there’s continued debate about the pre-finals bye, you’d think the two Sydney teams would be as much fans as any club right now. Both the Swans and Giants have looked pretty banged up of late, indeed, GWS for much of this season.
The week off has significantly boosted the chances of Giants’ forward pair Toby Greene and Matt de Boer, defender Aidan Corr and veteran pair Brett Deledio and Ryan Griffen being available for selection.
Sydney superstar Lance Franklin, meanwhile, might have appreciated the spell more than anyone given the battering he’s taken all season, ditto Luke Parker and Dan Hannebery, who got knocked from pillar to post in the final round against the Hawks.
Both sides are coming off losses, and last clashed only the week prior to them at the SCG, when the Swans trailed all game before a powerful six-goals-to-one final term. Sydney also won a tight struggle at Spotless Stadium by 16 points in Round 3.
That was a freer-scoring encounter than the more recent joust was, or this one is likely to be, control of the midfield battle most likely pivotal to the result. Sydney has now won three on end against the Giants, but GWS won the three previous clashes. Who can say with any confidence which way this one will go?
West Coast v Collingwood
(Second qualifying final, Perth Stadium, Saturday, 8.10pm)
The last game of the bumper finals weekend features arguably the two teams least expected to be featuring only a few months back.
West Coast was a very popular tip to slide down the ladder this season, while Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley hadn’t taken his side to September since 2013. But both the Eagles and Pies have defied not only critical scorn, but in Collingwood’s case particularly, a lengthy injury list to get there.
The Magpies’ last outing was at this very venue, against Fremantle, and will have proved handy reconnaissance indeed. But the Eagles have taken a particular shine to their new home, having won nine of 12 games there to date.
They’ll get more confidence still from having knocked over Collingwood at the MCG in Round 17, and the return this week of spearhead Josh Kennedy who, along with Jack Darling and pocket dynamo Willie Rioli, caused the Pies plenty of match-up problems in that recent win.
Collingwood has some big decisions to make at the selection table, none the least on the fitness of star midfielder Adam Treloar, who hasn’t played since Round 14. But if the Pies have proved one thing this season, it’s that they can be very competitive even without their brightest lights.