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Ball Up! – It’s AFL Grand Final Weekend in Australia

The weekend before last the AFL Finals series hit the semi-final stage with the previous week’s losers from the top four sides taking on the winners of the other two Qualifying Finals. Those two losers from the week before – Geelong Cats and GWS Giants – had a point to prove after disappointing performances in their previous matches but were up against two sides on the up. That was especially the case with the Sydney Swans who went into their match with the Cats having not lost to anyone in the league, other than Hawthorn Hawks – who they lost to twice, after their horrendous 0-6 start to the season.

 

The match-up between the regular season’s second and sixth-placed sides was first up that weekend, on Friday night in Melbourne at the MCG. The Swans had won the last two meetings between the sides, including the Preliminary Final match-up between the two sides last season where they had been the top two in the regular season. In those two defeats, the Cats had allowed the Swans seven goals in each of the first quarters but were quicker out of the traps this time themselves ensuring the scores were tight, 19-14 at quarter time. They then obliterated the Swans in the second period to lead 58-22 at half-time. They didn’t let up in the second half restricting the Sydney side to just two goals, scoring six of their own, as they ran out comfortable winners 98-39. The Swans score was the lowest for the Sydney side in a finals match since 1924, with Geelong keeping key midfielder and captain Josh Kennedy quiet. For Geelong, their star man, Patrick Dangerfield, was the one to make the difference. The former Adelaide Crows man normally lines up in the Cats midfield but he was pushed up to full forward in this match to devastating effect, scoring four goals and three behinds (27 points).  The win sees Geelong into their eighth Preliminary Final in the last 11 seasons.

 

Giants rise up

Saturday saw the GWS Giants host the West Coast Eagles at their Spotless Stadium situated within the Sydney Olympic Park. The Perth based Eagles are one of two Western Australia sides in the AFL, Fremantle Dockers the other, and have been one of the most successful sides in the league since joining as an expansion side in 1986. They have finished in the top eight 24 times out of the 31 seasons they have been in the AFL, being Premiers three times – the first side outside of Victoria to do so in 1992 – the last one coming in 2006.

 

It will be another year before the Eagles get the chance to add to that record after the Giants took out their frustrations at the limp defeat to the Adelaide Crows in their Qualifying Final with a dominant 125-58 win. The key spell in the game came either side of the quarter time siren, with the Giants scoring seven goals to the Eagles one during that period.

 

They turned the screw in the second half with returning forward Steve Johnson, dropped for the previous week’s Qualifying Final, scoring six goals. The win for the Giants, the side that represents Greater Western Sydney (hence the GWS in their name) and nearby Australian capital city Canberra – where they play four games a season – means the Prelims will see the top four sides from the regular season face each other for the first time since 2013.

 

Crows rampant

The weekend just gone saw the Preliminary Finals take place and first up on Friday was the clash between the Adelaide Crows and the revived Geelong Cats. Last week, of course, the Cats avenged defeat in last season’s Prelims with that win over the Swans. In that defeat last season, a slow start saw them trail the Sydney side 44-5 at quarter time and sadly, for Geelong, it was a similar tale this time. In front of a record crowd for a footy match at the Adelaide Oval – 53,827 – the Cats were preyed upon by a rampant Crows side who lead 39-8 at the sounding of the quarter-time siren. They maintained that lead through half-time and then pushed on in the second half ultimately running out very comfortable winners by 136-75, with 21 goals in that total to Geelong’s 10. For the Crows, who were the season’s minor Premiers having finished top of the league ladder for the regular season, it sets up their first Grand Final this century having last competed for a Premier back in 1998. They won that year to make it back-to-back Premiers, the only two they have won in their relatively short history.

 

The Adelaide side first entered the AFL in 1991 as an expansion team representing the South Australian National Football League (SANFL). Originally Port Adelaide had reached an agreement with the AFL to be that side but due to opposition from other member clubs of the SANFL the move was blocked and was instead agreed that a completely new club – the Adelaide Crows – would be entered to represent the area instead. It was clearly a good move given the two Premiers won within seven years of joining but since 1998 there has been a lot of heartache on – and off – the pitch.

 

Murder and Finals disappointment

Between 2001 and 2009 the club made the Finals eight times, and even made the Prelims on three occasions, but never quite had enough to reach the Grand Final, missing out by just five points to Collingwood Blues in 2009. The Prelims were made again in 2012, where another five-point loss – this time to Hawthorn – ensued before, in 2015, real tragedy struck. That season the club had appointed former Collingwood, Richmond and Brisbane player Phil Walsh as their head coach. Twelve games into the season, just two days before their next match, he was found dead at home due to multiple stab-wounds having been murdered by his son who was ultimately found not guilty on grounds of mental incompetence. The club amazingly still made the Finals that season but fell to Hawthorn once again, this time at the Semi-Final stage – but a slightly less close outcome this time as they went down 135-61. So, for Adelaide, there will be a lot of emotion as they go into this Grand Final for various reasons, but similar can be said for the side they will be facing.

 

Tigers Roar

Saturday’s Prelim was a closer affair, especially in the first half as the Richmond Tigers took on the GWS Giants. The game followed a familiar pattern to recent Richmond games with the scores tight early, the Tigers leading by just a point – 37-36 – at half-time. The secret of Richmond’s recent success has been to turn the screw in the second half and up the pace, just as they did at the weekend. An explosive third quarter saw them score six goals to the Giants’ one to establish a 77-46 lead at three-quarter time, one they didn’t relinquish to eventually win 103-67. It was a result to send a partisan crowd of 94,258 into raptures, with very few Giants fans to be seen in the MCG crowd.

 

The Tiger Army were at their vociferous best and little wonder given their Grand Final appearance is the first the club has made in 35 years! It was two years before that when the Tigers won the last of their ten Premiers, with their golden spell in that respect coming between 1967 and 1974 when they featured in five Grand Finals winning four of them. Their last success, in 1980, came at a high financial cost and as the game modernised with the introduction of the salary cap and the draft system, Richmond struggled. After their last Grand Final in 1982, they have only made the Finals Series six times in the intervening years – including this year – with the three appearances prior to this year ending at the first stage.

 

It hasn’t exactly been an easy time to be a Tigers fan during that period, understandably, but the Tiger Army has remained loyal throughout and what a season they have been rewarded with. As well as reaching the Grand Final with the first team, their reserve side, Richmond VFL, made the Grand Final of the VFL, a competition that sees some of the reserve sides of the AFL compete with the more minor Victorian clubs. The young Tigers agonisingly lost 74-70 to Port Melbourne after a last-second kick at goal by the Tigers drifted wide of the goal posts to only give them a behind. The first team will hope that won’t be an omen for Saturday’s game, but go into flowing with personal awards.

 

Awards galore

Star midfielder Dustin Martin leads the way having this week been awarded the Brownlow Medal, the award for the Fairest & Best player of the regular season as voted by the umpires in each game. Each umpire gets six votes per game with the player they consider best on ground getting three votes. Martin received a record 11 best on ground votes to amass 36 votes in total, another record, surpassing the 35 scored by Geelong’s Patrick Dangerfield in 2016. The Brownlow Medal, or Charlie as it is known after the former VFL president it’s named after, followed Martin also being awarded the AFL Players’ Association MVP for the season and the same award from the AFL Coaches’ Association. This all came after the 26-year-old ended speculation about his future with the Tigers having signed a new seven-year contract with them recently.

 

It wasn’t all about Martin though; Jacob Townsend won the J.J. Liston Trophy, the VFL equivalent of the Brownlow Medal, and has since made his mark in the AFL side too. Daniel Rioli won goal of the season for his strike against the West Coast Eagles in round three and coach Damien Hardwick pipped his rival on Saturday, Don Pyke, to coach of the year, from the AFL Coaches’ Association, too. The Tigers also had the boost of captain Trent Cotchin being cleared by the Match Review Panel on Monday to play in the Grand Final after a clash with Giants’ Dylan Shield in the Prelim had cast some doubt. The same panel clearing team-mate Brandon Ellis and Crow Rory Sloane too.

 

Let battle commence

All the personal awards will count for little once the siren goes to signal the start of the 2017 Grand Final with the Crows starting as clear favourites, and rightly so given their form over the regular season and in the Finals Series. They also have the confidence of having beaten the Tigers already this season, a crushing 140-64 victory in round six. That was a different Tigers side to the one that has been seen in recent weeks though, plus it was played in Adelaide. The Grand Final takes place at the MCG, as it always does, but just so happens to be Richmond’s home ground too so there are sure to be plenty of the Tiger Army there compared to those from Adelaide and that could swing things the Tigers’ way. If they need any more encouragement they need only look at neighbours, and 2016 Premiers, Western Bulldogs. They went into last years’ Finals Series having finished seventh in the regular season but with a similar momentum to that shown by Richmond this year beat minor Premiers, Sydney Swans, in the Grand Final.

 

Whether history repeats itself will remain to be seen but there’s sure to be plenty of excitement in and around the MCG on Saturday, whoever wins. If you want to catch the action though you’ll have to be up early with the game starting at 5.30 our time on Saturday morning, with the coverage on BT Sport 1 starting two hours before.

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