In Australia, right now, temperatures are rising as the country moves out of the winter months into spring. And just as the air is warming up so is their footy as the AFL – the Premier Aussie Rules Football league – enters its Finals Series.
The Adelaide Crows – the team that finished top of the league after the 23-week home and away season and won the McClelland Trophy for doing so – are joined by the seven teams who finished directly behind them in a set of play-offs the Aussies call the Finals Series. The ultimate winner of the series being known as the Premiers. That title currently belongs to the Etihad Stadium based Western Bulldogs but they won’t be able to retain their title having finished two places and four points short of qualifying for the play-offs; three successive defeats at the end of the season costing them their place. Fellow Melburnian side Melbourne Demons also missed out, to Perth’s West Coast Eagles by 0.5 of a percentage point.
Instead of, say, goal difference the AFL uses the percentage difference between overall points scored against those conceded to separate teams tied on the points awarded for wins (4) and draws (2). The Eagles beat the Crows 100-71 in their last game of the season to pip the Dees 105.7% to 105.2%. The WACA based side’s reward was a Saturday match up with Adelaide’s other team – fifth placed Port Adelaide Power. The Power went into the game in good form winning four of their last five matches in the regular season including a massive 135-20 victory over second-bottom Gold Coast Suns in their last match. They would have been pleased to be facing the Eagles as other than an opening day win over the Sydney Swans the Perth side were the only one out of the top eight The Power beat in the regular season out of nine meetings against the other play-off teams. The Eagles would’ve been equally confident going into the game at the Adelaide Oval having won five of their last six visits to the ground.
As it was it was the Eagles who came out triumphant in what was unarguably the closest of the four Qualifying Finals. They led for most of the tie only to fall behind midway through the fourth quarter but came back to take the game into extra-time with the scores tied at 60-60. Two five minute periods of additional time followed and the match was only decided with the last kick of the game, Luke Shuey scoring a goal to send his side through to the Semi-Finals next week with a 78-76 victory.
In Saturday’s other clash seventh placed Essendon Bombers visited last year’s beaten finalists Sydney Swans who had recovered from a horrendous 0-6 start to the season – that Grand Final defeat clearly affecting them – to lose just two more of their remaining fixtures and finish sixth. The Bombers, who sneaked seventh spot by just another 0.8% from the Eagles, jointly hold the record for the number of Premiers won – 16 – with Carlton Blues, winning the very first title back in 1897 when the league was known as the Victoria Football League. Their last Premier came in 2000 but this season’s appearance in the Finals Series is a massive turnaround from last season where a very young Bombers side, due to the club being involved in a doping scandal dating back to 2012, finished bottom of the pile.
It will be another year before Essendon get the chance to add to that record haul of Premiers though after they were thoroughly thumped by the Swans. It was a very one sided contest with Sydney taking the game away from their visitors in the second quarter. They led 20-9 at quarter time but by the mid-point of the match they had extended that lead to 61 points with the score at 83-22. It was an advantage they would, unsurprisingly, not lose in the second half ultimately winning with ease, 121-56.
For the four teams playing on Saturday it was win or bust, meaning the losers – Essendon and Port Adelaide – are now out of the Finals no second chances, unlike some. The Swans and The Eagles now to the Semi-Final stage where they will face the losing teams from the other two Qualifying Finals, with those two matches being contested between the top four from the regular season. The reward for being one of those top four is you get a second chance of reaching the Preliminary Finals, the genuine semi-finals before the Grand Final – which takes place on 30th September this year.
The first of those matches between the top four took place last Thursday night, Aussie time, around 11 a.m. our time on Thursday morning. That match saw Minor Premiers, the title given to the side top of the league at the end of the regular season, the Adelaide Crows take on the GWS Giants. The Sydney based Giants went into the game in good form having won four of their last five regular season games but, crucially, went into the Finals having not beaten one of the top eight sides since their week 11 win over the Bombers. The Crows only took the Minor Premier due to a higher percentage (136% to 117.4%) from second placed Geelong Cats, but had led the league for the last 18 weeks going into the Finals so were deserving of top spot despite losing their last two regular season games. In Thursday’s game, it was the Crows who, ultimately, took their place in the Preliminary Final round as they comfortably beat the Giants 84-48, with the damage really being done in the first two quarters as they led 55-11 at half-time. As stated earlier it’s not the end of the road for the Giants as they now face the West Coast Eagles for the chance to join the Crows in the Preliminaries.
The remaining game took place on Friday evening Melbourne time as the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) saw third placed Geelong host fellow MCG residents Richmond Tigers. The Tigers are arguably the form team coming into the finals having lost just once in their last seven regular season games. Unfortunately, that defeat came against Geelong, a team they have often struggled to beat particularly at Geelong’s spiritual home at Simmonds Stadium, where the week 21 win was played; Richmond have only won there four times in the last 40 years. To be fair their record hardly improves when you include games at the MCG, with the Tigers only beating their fellow felines once in the last 21 attempts, prior to Friday, that coming over 10 years ago, in 2006. If that wasn’t enough to depress the Tiger Army, the name for Richmond’s fans, the fact they hadn’t beaten the Cats at the MCG this century – their last win over them there coming in 1999 – and the fact they hadn’t won a Finals game of any sort since 2001 should do it! In that same period Geelong had played 28 Finals matches (to Richmond’s three) winning 15 that included three Premiers in 2007, 2009 and 2011. History looked to be stacked against the Tigers, but anyone who knows sport knows runs are there to be ended, and end it they did.
The Tigers dominated the game for long periods leading all match, save for a short spell midway through the third quarter where the scores were level, but only made their dominance count in the final quarter. They took the game away from the Cats in that period scoring seven goals to Geelong’s one to win comfortably 91-40, with their iconic midfielder – and Brownlow Medal contender, the award for the fairest and best player in the regular season – Dustin Martin leading the way. It was Richmond’s first Finals win of any kind since 2001, and their first in the opening week of the Finals since 1982! They now move onto their first Preliminary Final in 16 years where they await the winners of the Giants/ Eagles match-up in the Semis. For Geelong, they must re-group and get themselves up for the tie against the Swans for the chance to face the Crows in the other Prelim.
There’s still plenty to play for in this Final Series and we’ll be back to review the Semi and Preliminary Finals and preview what is sure to be a thrilling Grand Final at the end of the month.