The conventional wisdom come finals time is only the top four teams are a chance to win the premiership at the conclusion of September. Yet with some question marks hanging over the teams in the top four and with the bottom four finals teams looking ominous, this may be about to change.
No team screams obvious premiership favouritism, with Hawthorn the betting agencies’ choice more for their proven track record than for any outstanding form. While they did manage to put together an eight-match winning streak and torch some premiership rivals along the way, uncharacteristic losses to Richmond and Port Adelaide in recent weeks sees them sitting in third, with a tough trip west for their first final.
Their opponent for that match is West Coast, who some saw as the rightful premiership favourite after their demolition of the Bulldogs. A big loss to Adelaide however indicates just how even the top eight is, and shows what happens when a good team is even five per cent off. Their decimated defence is definitely their biggest concern come September, especially when they come against the power forwards of the competition.
Fremantle wrapped up the minor premiership, yet have inspired little confidence to go all the way, due largely to their perceived lack of scoring power. Their drubbing at the hands of Hawthorn earlier in the year, where they managed just 43 points, is a testament to this. Again, a recent loss to North Melbourne demonstrates their fallibility against teams in the bottom half of the eight.
Fourth spot was an arm wrestle for a few weeks, but Sydney was able to eventually secure it. The Swans are an interesting team, as they ooze quality across every line, yet still look to be a rung below premiership standard at times. Recent drubbings against West Coast and Hawthorn attest to this, and they really need an unavailable Lance Franklin to stand up for them to be a legitimate contender.
Then we come to the bottom four finals teams. These wildcards have each shown impressive form at times, coupled with poor performances that frustrate supporters and punters alike. The epitome of this is Richmond, who have taken the scalps of Hawthorn, Fremantle and Sydney after some poor early season form. They will seriously contend for the premiership this year, though they would be sweating on the fitness of Brett Deledio, who has become their most important player and the key to their success.
The Western Bulldogs are the fairytale story of the year, putting an acrimonious off-season behind them to launch unexpectedly into finals. Their mix of precocious youth and wily veterans have adopted a run-and-gun style of play, which has captured the hearts of many fans across the league. Quality wins early in the season against West Coast, Richmond, Adelaide and Sydney set up their season and they proved they are still in good enough form to compete in September with a solid win over North Melbourne recently.
For the Bulldogs, their question mark remains their undersized defence, which was taken apart by West Coast in Perth and also their ability to win away from the fast, indoor surface at Etihad Stadium. Away from Etihad, their record is three wins from nine matches, though two of those wins came against Richmond at the MCG and Sydney at the SCG. If they can replicate their Etihad game style at the MCG and interstate, they can give the finals a serious shake-up.
North Melbourne was no doubt aiming for a flag this season with the recruitment of Jarrad Waite and Shaun Higgins, and they have recovered from a slow start to entrench themselves in the top eight. Their wins against Fremantle, West Coast and early-season win over Richmond prove them to be a substantial threat come September, but they need to show this form consistently in finals if they wish to go deep again like last season. They have the unbridled talent to match any team, but getting the best out of enigmatic players such as Waite, Petrie, Dal Santo, Ziebell and Cunnington will be their challenge.
As for Adelaide, one only has to look at the quality of some of their players to know how dangerous they can be in finals. Betts and Walker, Dangerfield and Sloane and Smith and Talia form potent two-man combos in the forward line, midfield and defence that are difficult to combat. They have recovered inspirationally well from the passing of their coach Phil Walsh and many neutral fans will be cheering for them during finals. Similar to the Bulldogs, they have been exceptionally hard to beat at home, with Richmond and West Coast their latest scalps there. If they can replicate this form elsewhere, they will also be a massive threat for the premiership.
The double chance given by the top four is extremely beneficial in September, highlighted by the fact no team has won the flag without it since the current finals system was put in place in 2000. Could this year be different though? Last September saw Geelong and Fremantle exit in straight sets and Port Adelaide came within a kick of an unlikely grand final berth.
Richmond, Western Bulldogs, North Melbourne and Adelaide have all shown glimpses of brilliance, suggesting they can go even further this year. Whether they actually do will be dependent on if they can bring their A-game to the furnace of finals football. If this happens, all it takes is a slight stumble from the top four teams for these finals wildcards to pounce and seize September glory.