AFL: The Finals – Week 1

1st Qualifying Final – Hawthorn vs Sydney (Friday, September 6)This match grabbed much attention during the week leading up, as it was the second rematch of last year’s Grand Final in as many weeks. Though Hawthorn had the home ground advantage of the MCG, which they didn’t last time, Sydney had just as much to gain with Hawks’ Lance Franklin missing through suspension and their own power forward Kurt Tippett returning.From the first bounce it was clear we were in September: desperate one-on-one footy, no easy possessions, bone-crunching tackles and goals hard to come by. The lead changed half a dozen times in the first half as both teams missed opportunities, and fittingly the scores were level by half-time.The second half could not have been more different. With Hodge playing his quarterback-style role out of defence, Hawthorn hit up targets everywhere in the forward line. They scored five goals to one in the third term, and another six goals to two in the final term, while at the other end Sydney’s tall forwards floundered what little opportunities they had.The final margin was a decisive nine goals, the top team of the season showing why they’re there with a spirited and all-round brilliant performance.The moment: Five minutes into the third term, a goal had yet to be scored and all 36 players were in Hawthorn’s forward half. But a sweetly-timed pass from Guerra hit Lake on the chest 40 metres out from goal. When the full back kicked truly from 50 metres, it set off a chain of four more Hawks goals that broke the first half deadlock and gave Hawthorn a winning margin.The upshot: Hawthorn gets a home preliminary final and a week break before facing the winner of one of the semi-finals, and still have their dynamic forward duo of Rioli and Franklin to come back in. It’s a scary concept, but on Friday night we saw Hawthorn’s best, and they can still get better!Sydney will head in to Week Two of the finals with some major question marks over their tall forward structure—it was methodically picked apart by the Hawks defence, even though the Swans midfielders won more ball out of the centre.Score:Hawthorn        3.4       4.7       9.9       15.15   (105)Sydney             3.3       4.7       5.8       7.9       (51)Best players: Hawthorn—Hale (16 touches, two goals), Hodge (24 touches, eight marks), Lake (kept Tippet goalless after quarter time); Sydney—Jack (32 touches, 11 tackles), Kennedy (29 touches) 2nd Qualifying Final – Geelong vs Fremantle (Saturday, September 7)It was a tough match from the get go, with Fremantle having to withstand the enormous pressure Geelong heaped on them in the opening term.But withstand they did, and though 13 points down at quarter time they found their feet in the second term, scoring five consecutive goals in a display rarely seen against Geelong on their home turf. It did nothing to keep Geelong out of the contest, however, and one of the roughest, most exciting matches of the year only got better after half-time. The lead changed four times during the third term as each team fought to be the master of the contests. By three-quarter time, neither was, and Fremantle still led by only five points.Against the odds, Fremantle won. A combination of winning the stoppages, ruckman Sandilands at his best and Geelong’s inaccuracy, gave the Dockers one of their greatest wins in one of the best games of the season. Pundits argued during the week whether playing this match in Geelong was too great an advantage, but that had little impact on the final result. Fremantle were ultimately the team that were better at negotiating the toughness and pressure around the contests, and pulled off only the third win by an away team at Simonds Stadium in 46 matches.The moment: With 90 seconds left to play, people still hadn’t written off Geelong kicking two goals to win the match. But then, a ball off-hands of a throw-in looked destined for the boundary before Fremantle’s Hill snatched it as he came off the bench. With no opponents for company he whizzed 75 metres along the wing, before landing a goal that put his side 16 points up with 1:15 left on the clock. It was arguably the best interchange in the game’s history, and it guaranteed Fremantle the win.The upshot: Fremantle will host their first ever home preliminary final in two weeks’ time, and must now surely be considered a chance to win their first premiership after 19 years of AFL.Geelong will face the winner of the match between Port and Collingwood, licking their wounds after losing their first finals match at home, to the same side that bundled them out of the finals last year.Score:Geelong           4.6       6.11     9.13     9.18     (72)Fremantle        2.5       7.9       10.12   12.15   (87)Best players: Geelong—Corey (22 touches, 11 tackles), Mackie (25 touches, seven marks); Fremantle—Barlow (32 touches, three goals), Spurr (29 touches, 10 marks), Sandilands (31 hit outs, three marks) 2nd Elimination Final – Collingwood vs Port Adelaide (Saturday, September 7)From the first quarter, it looked like Collingwood would throw everything at Port, bombarding them with tackles and relentless forward 50 entries. But Port were impressive, as they have been all year, absorbing the enormous pressure put on them with hard running and hurting Collingwood on the rebound.They held on by six points at quarter time, and had doubled this margin by half-time after scoring the first three goals in three minutes of the second term.Collingwood refused to back down, slamming on three goals to start the third term and two to start the last term, taking the lead and the momentum on both occasions.But each time, Port repelled these comebacks with their trademark strong finishes, pulling off an incredible finals upset with four last quarter goals.With the gritty win, Port showed why they deserve to be in September, and their first-year stars-to-be, Wingard and Wines, proved they weren’t daunted by finals football, one of the best qualities you can have as an AFL Footballer today.The moment: Within a minute of play resuming in the second term, Westhoff released captain Boak to kick a goal for Port. As the ball was being moved back to the middle Collingwood defender Shaw had a brain fade, grabbing Monfries’ throat and wrestling him to the ground. The subsequent free kick in the goal square gave Port an 18-point lead, setting the tone for the game where Port was able to withstand Collingwood’s attacking plays to come out on top.The upshot: Port continue their rise to the top, having gone from winning only five games last year to taking out Collingwood at the ‘G and playing Geelong in a semi this year.Collingwood have gone the way of Labor at the election and are out of the finals, having been tipped to go a long way this September after an impressive last month.Score:Collingwood    1.4       4.6       7.7       9.9       (63)Port Adelaide  2.4       6.6       8.9       12.15   (87)Best players: Collingwood—Swan (22 touches, 11 hit outs, three goals), Beams (29 touches, eight tackles); Port Adelaide—Ebert (24 touches, nine tackles), Cornes (28 touches), Schulz (three goals, eight marks) 1st Elimination Final – Richmond vs Carlton (Sunday, September 8)94,690 people congregated at the footy Mecca that is the MCG, on a beautiful sunny day in the first week of the finals, to watch a tale of two halves.In the first half, Richmond dominated the possessions (contested and uncontested alike), clearances, Inside 50s and free kicks, and after early inaccuracy made it count on the scoreboard, leading an undisciplined Carlton by 26 points at half-time.Their lead was beyond five goals after scoring the first goal of the third term, but then everything that went Richmond’s way in the first half went Carlton’s in the second—the Blues had all the run and momentum, slamming on the next five goals to get within a point of Richmond and still be within four at the final break.In the last quarter, Carlton found that little bit extra that turns players into legends. Back from injury, Judd racked up crucial disposals, while Duigan landed another two goals, Waite piled on the tackles in the forward 50 and Garlett ran like hell to bang home a goal to seal the win for Carlton by 20 points.The game and the tribal atmosphere capped off a truly brilliant first round of the finals, where three upsets turned the competition on its head. The last three days were a much needed reminder of why we love the national game, and how the finals are the antidote to any off-field scandal no matter how much they tarnish a season.As the AFL motto runs, “This Is Greatness”.The moment: In this case it was two moments, and how they contrasted. Three minutes into the first term, Carlton’s Robinson smacked the ball through the Richmond goals from a goal square ball up, unaware this constituted a deliberate rushed behind and a free kick to the other team. The resulting goal by Maric put Richmond nine points up and had Carlton down for the count.But two minutes later, after Carlton had replied with a goal of their own, Robinson marked a snap from Tuohy 20 metres from goal. His straight kick put Carlton up for the first time in three quarters of football, and there they remained.It only goes to show, it’s never too late to make up for your mistakes on the footy field, and that you’re remembered for winning games, not losing them.The upshot: Carlton head to Sydney to play the reigning premiers next week, the win an emphatic answer to critics who say they’re only in September because Essendon aren’t allowed to be.Richmond is out of the finals and comes crashing down to earth following the romance around their first finals series in 12 years; it’s the third time they’ve surrendered a big lead to Carlton this year and the second time they’ve lost the match because of it. The loss particularly stings for a team who chronically finishes 9th each year, being bailed out by the team that would have finished 9th were it not for the Essendon scandal.Score:Richmond        3.5       10.7     12.10   14.12   (96)Carlton           2.3       6.5       12.7     18.8     (116)Best Players: Richmond—Cotchin (26 touches, two goals), Houli (20 touches, nine marks), Maric (26 hit outs, two goals); Carlton—Judd (25 touches, 14 in the second half), Waite (six marks, six tackles, four goals), Duigan (seven marks, four goals), Murphy (26 touches, eight marks) The Losers7th – Richmond TigersIt’s a cliché, but Richmond showed how far they’ve come and how far they’ve got left to go in 2013. After years of promising fans “we’re gonna get there this year”, Richmond finally did, thanks to the rise of youngsters Vlaustin, Ellis and Edwards, while Martin, Cotchin and Deledio were as brilliant as ever. They won games they should have against St. Kilda and Gold Coast, and surprisingly smashed Hawthorn and Fremantle late in the year at the ‘G. However, Richmond’s finish toward the bottom of the eight highlights how they’re a good side but not a great side. They were thumped by Geelong and North Melbourne, and surrendered match-winning leads to Carlton no less than three times this year. Inconsistency of form is one of the few areas Richmond still can’t shake from their dark days of the last decade, and I believe it’s this that stops them from being a better than middle-of-the-ladder side. 8th – Collingwood MagpiesAt the press conference following Collingwood’s season ending loss to Port Adelaide, Nathan Buckley began to sum up his side’s season with two words: “Not Positive”. While Collingwood seemingly had all the skill and promise to return to their premiership glory of 2010 this year, they generally proved unable to match it with the big boys of the competition. Though they were the first side to beat Geelong in round eight this year, Collingwood was disappointing against a host of other sides. Twice they lost to Hawthorn, while also succumbing to Sydney, Fremantle, Gold Coast and now Port Adelaide after dispirited performances. The loss of premiership midfielders Beams, Thomas and O’Brien for much of the year didn’t help, but you can’t help thinking Collingwood could have gone much further this finals series given they had Cloke, Swan and Pendlebury at the peak of their powers.by Alexander Darling

September 9th 2013
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