And then there were four—and they aren’t a surprise.
The top four teams of the 23 Round Australian Football League home and away season—Hawthorn Hawks, Geelong Cats, Fremantle Dockers, Sydney Swans respectively—will play off in the Preliminary Finals this weekend.
After four teams were eliminated in Week 1 and 2 of the 2013 AFL Final Series, the trend of the season’s top four reaching this stage continuing is not really a surprise—they were far and away the best four sides in the season. It has almost become a given that if a team finishes in the top four that they will reach the last step before playing off for the Grand Final.
While Week 1 threw up some anomalies, which cast some doubt over the outcome of matches prior to Week 2, the Semi-finals last weekend turned out to be all but costly formalities for the winners.
Sydney were comfortable 24 point winners over Carlton: 13 goals. 8 behinds (86) to 9.14 (62). Geelong’s inaccuracy was the only thing that stood in the way of a cruising victory over Port Adelaide: 13.18 (96) to 12.8 (80).
AFL Finals—Week 3
Sydney will enter their Preliminary Final without Kurt Tippet (knee) and Sam Mitchell (ankle), who both suffered injuries in the first quarter of their match. Meanwhile, Adam Goodes, the Swan’s captain, has not played for most of the season and was ruled out of participating in the Final Series last week. Sam Reid and Rhyce Shaw are also notable players that they will be without. Lewis Roberts-Thomson is an outside chance of returning for his first game since round four and playing in the reserves last weekend, but this is unlikely. Ben McGlynn is also a chance to come back from injury.
Geelong will be without Paul Chapman who was suspended for one week for a high bump on Robbie Gray. Jared Rivers was substituted out of the game with an ankle injury and will struggle to recover, while Tom Hawkins’s back injury continues to niggle and needs management. The Cats are hoping Corey Enright will recover, from a knee injury incurred in the first week of the finals series, to be fit to play this weekend. However, 20-year-old Josh Caddy is also in the mix for a recall to the side.
After a weekend off by virtue of their ladder position and winning in Week 1, Hawthorn will regain key-forward Lance “Buddy” Franklin from suspension and playmaker/forward Cyril Rioli, whose ankle complaint forced him to be withdrawn before their last match. Unfortunately, two players from the team, that thrashed Sydney by 54 points, will have to make way for the duo who both have the X-factor.
Fremantle, who similarly has a week’s rest after beating Geelong by 15 points at the Cats’ home ground, will be refreshed. Freo seem the most-settled of the team’s left in the finals race, however they have ruled out Garrick Ibbotson (Achilles), but are confident that Michael Johnson’s calf injury will have recovered for him to play, despite being unfit for Week 1’s win.
Hawthorn vs Geelong
The widely documented “Kennet Curse” may well be lifted as the Hawks go into the match well-rested against a battered Cats side.
Following Hawthorn’s shock defeat of Geelong in the 2008 Grand Final, the then president of Hawthorn, Jeff Kennet publicly questioned the Cats’ mental drive. The Cats made a pact to never lose to the Hawks again.
Geelong has won each of the 11 matches they have since played: 2 have been won by kicks after the final siren; 9 by 10 points or less; 3 by 2 points; and 1 by 1 point.
If the time was right for Hawthorn to snap the run it is now.
However, Geelong always find a way to lift over and above expectations for these encounters, and they may well again.
The Cats are formidable. They have won three of the last seven Grand Finals (2007, 2009 and 2011) and could continue their odd-year titles if they can get past Hawthorn this week.
For many neutral fans the interest in this clash will be bigger than the Grand Final with their remarkable rivalry ensuring a colossal game. The AFL will ensure that the pomp and flash of the Grand Final will make a huge spectacle, however the Hawks-Cats match is likely to be a better one.
The First Preliminary Final between the Hawks and the Cats will be at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Friday night (Sept 20).
Fremantle vs Sydney
Like the Hawthorn-Geelong final, the Fremantle-Sydney one will not be easy for either team this week.
Sydney, last year’s AFL Grand Final winners were convincing against the Carlton Blues last week.
But Fremantle are not Carlton.
The gap between the top four and the next four is typically wide—this year it was a gulf. And the Blues snuck into the final eight on the back of Essendon’s well-documented disqualification from the finals series.
It’s also remarkable that Sydney have reached a Preliminary Final with many key players missing this year due to injury. It’s a testament to the reigning premiers’ spirit and list.
But, Fremantle under coach Ross Lyon have become a dominant defensive force that changes up to potent attack instantly.
Lyon says that “It is going to be won and lost in the midfield”. Probably true, but the undermanned Swans will struggle on the wide open expanses of the venue and Lyon is typically underselling his side to maintain composure.
The Second Preliminary Final between the Dockers and the Swans will be at Patersons Stadium in Perth on Saturday night (Sept 21)
The heart and head say that Fremantle will beat the injury-plagued Sydney, but will still come up short on the last Saturday in September. While it would be terrific for the game of Australian football if the hungry Dockers won the 2013 Premiership in their first Grand Final appearance in their 19-year existence, they will struggle on the biggest stage regardless of it’s the Cats or the Hawks.
The heart says Geelong will beat Hawthorn and progress to the 2013 Grand Final on Sept 28, but the head says Hawthorn will be victorious – Hawthorn will then go one further than last year when they lost to an unheralded Sydney in the 2012 Grand Final.