And within the space of a week, everything has changed. For the first time in years, there is belief amongst the underdogs.
There’s a churning feeling that hits the bodies of players the moments they enter the ground. Every kick, handball, mark, hitout, quarter, minute and second will shape a team that will forever live in history when it’s all said and done.
Those who are great found a way to rise to the occasion, regardless of finishing first or eighth. To win a flag, a team has to play three extraordinary (and against history, sometimes four) games of football on end.
September is here. The grass has been cut, and the northerly winds blow through every major Australian city. The sun hangs in the sky longer in the afternoon, and eight coaches will walk out over the weekend from their homes or hotel rooms with one thing on their mind: victory.
This is how each team will look to achieve that result.
First Qualifying Final: Collingwood vs. Hawthorn
Isolate Travis Cloke
Collingwood’s key to victory relies on getting as many one on ones between Travis Cloke and Ryan Shoenmakers as possible. Cloke’s five goals last week against an out-of-sorts Essendon does not mean he’s back to peak form, but indicates this tide has begun to turn. Schoenmakers has improved over the year, but is still susceptible to body on body contests. Tom Hawkins’ bag of six goals and Gumbleton’s dominant display against him suggests when left isolated against a stronger body, he can be beaten. Chris Dawes and Jackson Paine must ensure they draw Josh Gibson away from the contest, where he can’t go third man up and impact the contest. Dawes and Paine must lead wide, or body Gibson into a position where he cannot be able to spoil.
Pressure the half-backs
Grant Birchall, Matt Suckling, Shaun Burgoyne & Xavier Ellis must not be given time and space. These rebounding ball users with little pressure will find Hawthorn team mates in space forward of center, and in a position to head inside 50 with little Pies able to drop back in numbers. The Pies forwards must check and pressure the Hawks disposal when rebounding at every opportunity.
Push Collingwood wide
The two Hawthorn victories over Collingwood this season have had a common factor. In both encounters, the Pies had more disposals and Hawks had more marks. The Magpies must be made to work to cover their opponents. Forcing Collingwood wide stretches the space they can cover, allowing Hawthorn’s elite kicks to hit targets further up the ground.
Remove and negate Nick Maxwell
Round 17’s clash had Nick Maxwell clamped by a heavy, forward tag. In a year in which his role as a floating, rebounding defender has been considered a success, Thomas Murphy was sent to him and shut him out completely. Maxwell was not allowed to start rebounds nor kill the ball when pumped in long to a contest. There’s no coincidence Thomas Murphy has been selected back in the side for such a vital task.
Prediction: Hawthorn by 10.
Second Qualifying Final: Adelaide vs. Sydney
Win contested ball
The previous game between these two sides gives a greater indicator of how Adelaide stole the points in the nail biter up in Sydney earlier in the year. Scott Thompson and Patrick Dangerfield won 31 and 30 disposals respectively, with more than half of both tallies being contested. Sydney will look to prevent Adelaide finding space by putting numbers around the ball. Thompson and Dangerfield must produce similar performances if they are to triumph against the Swans.
Exploit Sydney’s defence
In the absence of Heath Grundy, the Crows talls need to find a way to stretch the Swans. With the players getting back in numbers more during finals, contested marks inside 50 become worth their weight in gold. Since Taylor Walker will most likely line up on Ted Richards, Kurt Tippett’s extra eight centimetres on Alex Johnson may be enough to see him having a game-defining edge. Naturally, Lewis Roberts-Thompson could do the job, but switching from a forward to a defensive role isn’t that easy. Roberts-Thompson has spent most of his time this year playing with an offensive mindset, and it doesn’t exactly take just one week to get back into the groove of being the negating player.
Keep it in close
Regardless of huge games from Thompson and Dangerfield looming, Sydney must keep the game tight. Regardless of the Crows’ contested strengths, adjusting the game in such a manner plays to the Swans’ greatest strength (strong, powerful midfielders) and prevents the Crows from unleashing one of their secret weapons. The outside skills of players such as Rory Sloane, David McKay, Matthew Wright and Jared Petrenko allow the Crows to move the ball down the line in a quick and neat manner. The Swans must prevent this by keeping numbers around the ball and preventing pacey and wide ball movement from such damaging players.
Protect Lewis Jetta
Lewis Jetta has ended the year on an average note. One of the most dangerous offensive players this season has begun to feel the bite of opposition taggers. The Swans need Jetta in space, where his daring dash and pinpoint passing is critical to their ‘slingshot’ offensive plays. At contests, Jetta’s tagger or opponent must be blocked out by his teammates. With a mass of numbers around the ball, if the Swans create enough room for him, vital victories at the stoppages await.
Prediction: Adelaide by 4.
First Elimination Final: Geelong vs. Fremantle
Break even with Aaron Sandilands
There’s no way Geelong can single-handedly beat the juggernaut. After missing 10 games this season, Aaron Sandilands is averaging 39 hitouts in his last 3 outings. The Cats must do everything in their power to prevent him from serving the Dockers’ midfield the footy on a platter. They must try getting the third man up at stoppages around the ground, having midfields ready to shark from his hitouts and superhuman efforts from Nathan Vardy and Trent West to curtail his influence around the ground and when drifting forward.
Lower the eyes
Fremantle’s numbers behind the ball will make it hard for Geelong to get an easy one on one inside 50. Geelong must not bomb away long, and instead lower the eyes to find shorter targets to have shots on goal. Paul Duffield, Adam McPhee and Garrick Ibbotson will both have numerous opportunities to kill the ball, and able to take possession to launch rebounding attacks if the Cats are unable to execute forward entries wisely.
Win contested ball
The loss of Steve Johnson will be felt structurally by the Cats. Not only is he a playmaker, but he’s spent a lot of his time in the middle of the ground winning vital centre clearances. Compound that with Sandilands’ presence in the ruck and a hardened midfield trio of Matthew De Boer, Michael Barlow and Ryan Crowley, the Dockers could have midfield dominance if things go their way. The Cats’ record at the start of the season saw then lose the contested ball count for the first 13 games of the season, to then turn that around and play themselves into relative form by ramping up their efforts around such contests. A slight drop off could be disastrous from a Geelong stand point, as it’s an area the Dockers have dominated all year.
Tag Paul Chapman
Another flow on effect of Steve Johnson not being able to play is that the other half-forward playmaker will be dragged into the centre in his absence. Not only is Paul Chapman able to win the ball in close, he is creative enough to make scoring opportunities happen. Ryan Crowley must stick all his attention on Chapman, preventing him from creating and winning the footy in tight. Close him down and that’s one less hard body winning the ball in what’s predicted to be a very physical contest.
Prediction: Geelong by 15.
Second Elimination Final: West Coast Eagles vs. North Melbourne
Hit targets forward of centre
The Eagles must rely on giving their forwards the best chance to kick a winning score. Many subpar forward entries from last week saw the Eagles present poor finishing skills after extracting a clearance. If they can hit the chest of their Eagles teammates, not only will it help them on the scoreboard, it will also lower the amount of chances the Kangaroos get. The interception skills of Scott Thompson, Scott McMahon and Nathan Grima start most of North Melbourne’s attacks from a half-back, so if the midfield can win the majority of ball and hit targets, it negates their effect on the flow of the game.
Play Dean Cox as a roaming tall
Cox managed 15 marks last time these two squared off down in Hobart, as well as one of the best individual quarters of the season. Cox’s coverage around the ground sees him rack up disposals and mark the ball at both ends of the ground. With Nathan Grima in doubt and the Roos already lacking the height, another big game is on the cards for Cox, which will most likely be the difference again between the two sides.
Stop Dean Cox
It is a zero sum game for North. Stop Dean Cox, the door opens a little wider for a stab at victory. Todd Goldstein will need to overcome form issues, as well as be assisted by one of the tall forwards in a resting ruck role. The Kangaroos must also have third men up at contests to prevent Cox from having effective disposals all over the ground and from going forward and hitting the scoreboard.
Negate Darren Glass
Another issue of concern is the zone work of Darren Glass. Glass may not get the best forward every week, but his work to get to another contest and kill the ball is first rate. North Melbourne must use Drew Petrie as a decoy forward once more, which will allow Lachlan Hansen and Robbie Tarrant to go deep and draw one on one contests inside 50. Petrie must not allow Glass to wander, therefore making him accountable by playing up the ground and winning marking contests.
Prediction: West Coast by 22.