West Coast and Fremantle learned the hard way last week; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Both jumped out of the gate in sensational fashion, teasing us into believing that the modern trend of ‘all top four teams make Preliminary Finals’ was about to be bucked. It wasn’t to be, with Adelaide and Collingwood muscling themselves back into the contest.

Now, we’re nearly there. The line for the big dance is growing, but not everyone is getting a ticket.


First Preliminary Final: Sydney vs. Collingwood


Prolong the chokehold
The last game the Swans played against the Magpies, the immense pressure they put around the ball and Collingwood’s ball carriers was nearly enough to get the job done. Now, it’s about prolonging those efforts. Errant kicking cost the Swans from definitively putting Collingwood away. The whole night, the Swans dominated around the contests and tackled like men possessed. Josh Kennedy racked up 40 plus disposals (over 20 being contested) and tried to drag the Swans over the line. Keeping the Collingwood players such as Alex Fasolo, Andrew Krakouer and Dale Thomas quiet (the x-factors who don’t need a lot of the ball to utilise their skills) is a key area in the Swans’ plans for victory. The Swans have done this brilliantly all year, averaging 6.5 more tackles a game compared to their opposition, the second-best differential of any other team. If Sydney can find a way after an extra week off to keep the pressure on Pies for longer than three and a half quarters, it should be enough to get the job done.

Settle the team
The Swans have had a relatively settled line-up this season, with eight players featuring in every game and another four missing just once. Compare that with Collingwood, which only has the one man to feature in every outing, Travis Cloke. But Swans coach John Longmire could still have some tinkering to do this week. Heath Grundy will return from suspension and Ben McGlynn will be missing after a hamstring injury ruled him out. Replacing McGlynn, who combines fierce tackling with valuable goalkicking, won’t be easy. Settled sides tend to stick to rehearsed structures better in the heat of battle, with Collingwood’s unsettled line-up playing erratic footy at times and failing to have any consistency during the year. Come finals, ingrained routine is the best preparation possible.


Tackling pressure from midfielders
Collingwood’s manic pressure is well and truly back. It has been building for weeks, and was on display at its finest against West Coast on Saturday night. The Magpies had 25 more disposals than the Eagles and 20 more tackles, with the midfield brigade supported by excellent pressure from players such as Tyson Goldsack, Sharrod Wellingham and Jarryd Blair. The Pies are working as one, hunting in packs and putting intense tackling pressure on the opposition. Last week they strangled the Eagles, limiting a team that usually kicks 15 goals a game to just 9. On the offensive, those midfielders, most notably Dayne Beams, Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan and Wellingham, also won the stoppage battle with a combined clearance total of 28 between them, despite the Eagles winning the brunt of the hitouts.

Kill the rebound
The Magpie forwards have their work cut out in the wide spaces of ANZ Stadium. They must be prepared to cut off any switching or run the Swans are so good at generating out of defence. Last week, Tyson Goldsack picked up eight tackles, with Jaryd Blair following that effort with seven of his own. There were over 170 tackles in the meeting between the last two sides, with Blair picking up 9 playing inside the Pies’ attacking half. If Collingwood apply the stops to the likes of Nick Smith, Lewis Jetta and Martin Mattner, the Swans will find it difficult to set up its offensive slingshot, where they go over the top of the numbers and uses run and carry to move the football forward.

Prediction: Swans by 8.


Second Preliminary Final: Hawthorn vs. Adelaide


Contested ball
For the Hawks, it’s time to get down and dirty. If Brad Sewell and Sam Mitchell play big games, the Hawks are halfway to Grand Final day. The Hawks have looked to these two as players in a big way all year, with them leading disposals, clearances, tackles, contested possessions and goal assists in 2012. With Jordan Lewis playing the negating role on one of those Crows midfielders, it allows one of Sewell and Mitchell to go head to head with Patrick Dangerfield or Scott Thompson, (Nathan van Berlo will likely go to Mitchell), it will allow one of them to go to contests unchecked.  Dangerfield looks the most likely, in which he will most likely have to do some defensive body work on Sewell at contests, which will limit his usual offensive output.

Stretching the Crows
Considering the Crows’ brand of football that doesn’t result in many numbers behind the ball, the Hawks put themselves in a prime position to take advantage of height up forward. With a game style which offensively uses a set kicking switch across the ground with run and carry, turnovers will end up costly for the Crows with a lack of numbers to help out against the Hawk talls. The omission of Rising Star Daniel Talia sees further inexperience thrown back to curtail David Hale, Jarryd Roughead and Lance Franklin. Andy Otten and Luke Thompson will be caught in many one-out contests in the defensive arch, unless the Crows can work hard enough defensively and minimise turnovers.


Flexible forward line
In the last few weeks, the stark differences between Kurt Tippett and Taylor Walker’s performances have been profound. Walker has looked calm, confident and composed, whereas Kurt Tippett isn’t imposing his body on contests or creating opportunities at ground level either. With Ryan Schoenmakers again the unsettled pin in the Hawks’ defence, the Crows can use this to their advantage. If Kurt Tippett can successful take Josh Gibson out of the game by leading him away from the contests between Walker and Schoenmakers, Gibson cannot spoil or affect the contest in anyway.

Half-back shutdown
Rory Sloane, Ian Callinan and Jared Petrenko must at all times keep aware of their opponents’ movements. Tracking and neutralising the multitude of Hawthorn half-backs, who create damaging rebounds, has been a bridge too far for most teams this year. Grant Birchall, Matt Suckling and Shaun Burgoyne will look to find space in all different manners, using their sharp skills to catch the Crows on the counterattack. Expect Crows coach Brenton Sanderson to enlist Graham Johncock to play a forward tag on Suckling or Birchall, a task he has delivered on in the past. Take the counterattack out of the Hawks’ game and it leaves them with a slower build-up that has more numbers to navigate.

Prediction: Hawks by 36.