Into the Great Unknown by John Butler
The most gloriously uncertain finals series of the recent times beckons.
After a regular season where only one win and percentage eventually separated the top six sides, the task of picking winners this week has never been harder. Further complicating the picture is the introduction of this past week’s bye. Theories abound at its potential effect. Will it favour the older teams? Will it quash the momentum of the late chargers? So much speculation now, so much hindsight wisdom to come.
Festivities begin Thursday evening with the Eagles hosting the Western Bulldogs in an elimination final. Last year’s runners-up left their best form until the final three rounds of the regular season, only narrowly failing to snatch the double chance. Having finally built momentum, they would seem the team least favoured by the week off, but Subiaco has been a dependable September fortress for them. The Bulldogs have been one of the most spirited and dynamic teams of the season, but a constant plague of injuries to key personnel has taken a toll. Recent form and the home advantage suggests the Eagles, but it would surprise if the Dogs go quietly.
As Hawthorn attempts to create history by winning a fourth consecutive premiership, it seems hilariously fated that the football gods should pit them against Geelong, in a Friday night MCG cauldron. Since the Hawks upset the Cats in the 2008 grand finale, these two have been the Hatfields and McCoys of the AFL. This feels like Geelong’s now-or-never moment. A loss here would seem terminal to Cat morale, whereas Hawthorn showed last year that they can recover from losing in week one. Can Dangerfield and Selwood tilt the balance in the midfield? Can the Cats small defenders handle Cyril, Poppy and Breust? In a street fight, you should probably always back the old, mean dog, so it’s Hawks by the toss of the coin.
The AFL’s vast investment in empire building pays a big dividend on Saturday afternoon, when the first all-Sydney finals derby takes place. The Swans have been the most consistent team this year – three of their five losses being by less than the margin of a straight kick – yet the vagaries of stadium contracts sees them playing at a neutral venue against an upstart foe. The Giants are perhaps the greatest imponderable of all this September. Precedence says their lack of finals experience should tell against them, yet there is no real precedence for such a concentration of one football generation’s talent in one team. Sydney are my tip to win here, and to go on to eventually claim the flag. It may be their last shot at local bragging rights for a while. If the Giants win, we may have to start calling them the Frankensteins. Whatever the result, AFL eyes will more likely be focused on the Sydney TV ratings.
Saturday night rounds out proceedings with Adelaide hosting North Melbourne at the Adelaide Oval. Having let slip a top-two spot with a round 23 loss, the Crows might be shaken to find themselves suddenly in an elimination final. There is a suspicion opponents may have unpicked their game style, but it remains an open question whether North could currently unpick a lock even if gifted the key. Two games clear on top after nine rounds, the Roos have staggered through the second half of the season to flop into eight place. Then, on the eve of the finals, they announced they were calling time on the careers of four veteran stalwarts. It hardly seems a strategy calculated to boost morale. Yet they have surprised in the last two finals series. I harbour my suspicions, but on form, this should be Adelaide’s to lose. Should they manage to fall from second to eighth in successive weeks, the locals will likely demand a Royal Commission.
Prospective punters should be warned these predictions are offered with little confidence. Tea leaves or chicken bones may well prove as reliable. The only real certainty is that, come Sunday morning, two teams will be stowing away the footy boots and preparing their Mad Monday frocks.
And then there will be six.
Until next time… Butler on the Ball