After a week off, players and fans are raring to go for the much-anticipated 2019 AFL finals series.
Just one win separated the top five sides at the end of the home-and-away season and, as a result, there is no clear premiership favourite. Hawthorn’s surprise Round 23 win in Perth saw the reigning premiers, West Coast, drop out of the top four and lose a double chance, a result that could have major ramifications on the chances of Adam Simpson’s side.
Collingwood snuck into fourth at West Coast’s expense, while only percentage kept Geelong, the vastly improved Brisbane and 2017 premiers Richmond apart. All three of those sides will feel they have a genuine chance of winning this year’s premiership and the Tigers enter September on the back of nine straight wins.
At the other end of the top eight, the seventh-placed Western Bulldogs also have a great run of form behind them and their finish to the season is reminiscent of how they entered the finals in 2016, when, of course, they went on to win the grand final. Sides like Greater Western Sydney and Essendon will have appreciated the pre-finals bye, too, given the lengthy injury lists both clubs have.
The first week of a finals series is widely regarded as the best football weekend of the year, with the competition’s top sides playing each other in two qualifying finals, while others fight it out in two cut-throat elimination finals.
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Thursday, September 5, 2019
West Coast Eagles v Essendon
Venue: Optus Stadium | Start: 8:10pm AEST
No team has a longer finals victory drought than Essendon, Bombers fans last enjoying a post-season triumph way back in 2004. They have lost their last five finals by an average of 49 points, too, and this elimination final looms as a very difficult task on the road against the Eagles. The two sides met just once in the home-and-away season, West Coast winning a home match by 35 points back in June. Essendon have won at the new Perth Stadium, though, claiming a 28-point victory in Round 14 last year.
Ruckman Nic Naitanui is set to return for the Eagles and will give his side a major boost but queries over West Coast have lingered in the build-up after that shock loss to the Hawks. That should shock the Eagles into action, here, and expect big performances from midfield stars Andrew Gaff, Luke Shuey and Elliot Yeo to fire the hosts to victory. Essendon should be able to call on the likes of Dyson Heppell, Cale Hooker, Orazio Fantasia and Jake Stringer but Michael Hurley is touch and go. Essendon have broken the 100-point mark just once – against lowly Gold Coast – since Round 6 and it is hard to see them being able to stop the Eagles, even if they have won five of their past nine against West Coast.
Friday, September 6, 2019
Geelong Cats v Collingwood
Venue: MCG | Start: 7:50pm AEST
With four wins in a row and a host of big-name stars set to return, Collingwood have their tails up ahead of a fascinating qualifying final against ladder-leaders Geelong. Jaidyn Stephenson will come straight back in and the Magpies are also hopeful Steele Sidebottom and Jordan De Goey will play. A spot in the preliminary final and a week off is up for grabs for the winners of this match as the Cats aim for two wins in a row for the first time since June. Geelong have endured a funny season since the bye, winning just five of 10 matches.
It is hardly the sort of form that would see you finish on top of the ladder but Geelong did their damage in the first half of the season, particularly with an eye-catching eight-match winning streak. You have to go back to March for the last time the sides met, Geelong edging a Round 1 thriller by just seven points. Both sides were level at three-quarter time of that clash and another close contest is expected in front of a huge MCG crowd. Jake Kolodjashnij should return for the Cats, who have won their last three against Collingwood by an average margin of 13 points. Geelong have lost nine of their past 12 finals and that might just give the Magpies the edge here.
Saturday, September 7, 2019
Greater Western Sydney v Western Bulldogs
Venue: Giants Stadium | Start: 3:20pm AEST
Seven wins from nine matches has seen the Bulldogs storm into the finals full of confidence. Key to their form has been the midfield quartet of Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae, Josh Dunkley and Lachie Hunter, while a forward line brimming with options has seen the Bulldogs kick at least 16 goals in four of their last five matches. That form makes it very tough to tip against Luke Beveridge’s side, even if they are on the road against a Giants outfit who should welcome back Toby Greene and Jacob Hopper.
Nick Haynes could feature, too, but Stephen Coniglio is unlikely to play – a major blow for the Giants. The two sides met in August at the same venue this final will be played at, the Bulldogs running away in the second half to post a 61-point victory. These two sides also played each other in the 2016 preliminary final, a thriller the Bulldogs won by six points before they went on to claim a drought-breaking premiership. And while another 10-goal win seems unlikely for the Dogs, you cannot ignore their form and it would not surprise to see them triumph and end Greater Western Sydney’s season.
Brisbane Lions v Richmond
Venue: Gabba | Start: 7:25pm AEST
These two sides meet for the second match in a row after Richmond finally ended Brisbane’s nine-match winning streak at the MCG in Round 23. The Tigers won that clash by 27 points and now have nine wins in a row of their own. Dustin Martin is back in great form and Dylan Grimes is leading a stingy defence that has not conceded more than 82 points in that winning run. Brisbane kicked 8.7 in that defeat to the Tigers, their lowest score of the season, and must be sharper in attack if they are to triumph here. Allen Christensen should return from a hamstring injury for Brisbane, who have won 10 of their 11 matches at the ‘Gabba this season.
It is easy to forget given the Lions’ 2019 form but Brisbane won just five games in 2018. And while they have home ground advantage this might just be a bridge too far against a battle-hardened and experienced Tigers outfit. Defeat would not be disastrous for Brisbane, given this is a qualifying final, and they would still have a home semi-final to look forward to. It seems the most likely prospect.