The first week of the 2018 AFL finals were good for football. Well, perhaps not if you happen to be a Hawthorn, Geelong, Sydney or Collingwood fan. But for those interested in seeing the most competitive AFL finals series possible, the right results were produced.
Gone is a Sydney side that was looking increasingly banged up and lacking in inspiration heading into the finals, and played accordingly in a thrashing at the hands of its crosstown rival.
Gone is a Geelong team that was competitive all season, but about which doubts always lingered over its capacity to find a higher gear, and the ability of the bottom few in the 22 to hold the line at critical moments.
Headed into week two with a win under the belt, confidence rising and a very real prospect of still more improvement are Melbourne and Greater Western Sydney.
Beaten but not bowed and with a strength of character to leave them anything but lame duck finalists are Hawthorn and Collingwood.
And in pole position, sitting back waiting to host home preliminary finals are Richmond and West Coast, the two best-performed teams of 2018 who have occupied spots one and two on the AFL ladder for the past two months of the season.
If anyone needed any reminding of how imposing the Tigers at their best have become, they got it on Thursday night at the MCG in a thoroughly efficient dispatching of Hawthorn’s challenge.
West Coast did it a lot tougher against a plucky Collingwood on Saturday night, but now has the home preliminary final it craved.
Right now, you’d like the odds of the Tigers and Eagles meeting on the grand final stage. But at least their four challengers have enough going for them to make that prospect far from a fait accompli.
And week one’s fallout has thrown up a very tasty menu for next weekend.
We’ve been presented with two semi-finals in which the elimination final winners have the momentum and arguably the more naturally talented line-ups, but come up against opponents who have made a habit of turning on their best in backs-to-the-wall situations.
Hawthorn has been doing that arguably for 30-odd years. And Collingwood has made a specialty of it this season in overcoming at times a ridiculously long catalogue of injuries to key players.
Finals history is certainly on the side of the Pies and Hawks this week, too.
Of 36 semi-finals played since the current final-eight system came into operation in 2000, 30 have been won by a top-four team coming off a qualifying final loss.
Indeed, it was 26 of 28 until 2014, four of those six elimination final winners going on to win semis coming since then. Of course one of them, Western Bulldogs, famously took it all the way to a premiership.
That’s a sign of how much tighter the competition has become. And both Melbourne and GWS have as good a claim as those recent knockout final winners on Friday and Saturday, important inclusions for the Demons and Giants already having made a difference.
Melbourne has been great around the contest all season, but the return of skipper Jack Viney made the Demons an even tougher nut to crack against Geelong on Friday night.
The captain was a bull for his team, laying a game-high 11 tackles, his five clearance wins as many as any teammate, three at the all-important centre bounces.
If ruckman Max Gawn is Melbourne’s most potent weapon, Viney at his feet is clearly a huge plus in helping exploit that edge.
They’ll want all hands on deck, however. While Hawthorn might ultimately have lacked the necessary tools to deal with Richmond, there’s a number of less-seasoned Hawks, James Worpel and Harry Morrison most obviously, who will be better for their finals debut.
There’s also the confidence that comes with having already smashed Melbourne once this season, a 67-point Round 4 thumping in which the Hawks piled on 11 goals to just one after half-time.
Like Melbourne with Viney, GWS coach Leon Cameron couldn’t have hoped for any more from his quartet of experienced inclusions, Toby Greene, Brett Deledio, Zac Williams and Matt de Boer, in the Giants’ thumping win over the Swans.
Greene was exactly the sharper edge the Giants had been crying out for up forward, with 3.3 and 27 disposals, not to mention eight inside-50 entries as he covered plenty of territory.
Williams’ presence allowed Lachie Whitfield to get off the chain more coming off half-back, de Boer helped trap the ball in the scoring zone, and Deledio added just a little more class with his 22 touches.
The Giants, battling injuries all year, have lacked their usual polish for much of the regular season, and in the sort of trench warfare that games against Sydney usually represent, had to do their share of scrapping on Saturday.
They were by far the superior team on the outside, though, and by the end the gap in skills between the teams yawned. But for some profligacy in front of goal, this might have been a margin closer to 100 points than 50.
Either way, Collingwood will have its work cut out at the MCG on Saturday night, despite the support of close to 100,000 fans, a 19th man the likes of which Richmond enjoyed against the Giants in last year’s preliminary final.
This weekend’s semi-final match-ups are intriguing to say the least. And whichever sides emerge triumphant, they’ll at least be capable of providing Richmond and West Coast with some thinking music.