Nick Francis takes a look at the cut-throat semi-final featuring Hawthorn vs Western Bulldogs. Can the Dogs continue their incredible form from last week and send the Hawks out in straight sets, or will Hawthorn prove too strong once again in a tight match? We answer all the crucial questions in our latest AFL Predictions.
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It’s hard to say whether the Hawks were unlucky or not in last week’s match, with both sides having equal opportunities to win the match. It just so happened the Cats were in front when it mattered most. A shot after the siren to win it fell to Isaac Smith, but the streaking defender wasn’t able to rely on his massive left boot to send them through to a Preliminary Final. We raised questions about Hawthorn coming into this finals series and it really did show on Friday night. In tight moments in previous years and even earlier this season, they were able to find a way to win. In the finals against quality opponents for up to four weeks, they may struggle to continuously rely on clutch play late in the match.
The Dogs sent a real message to the rest of the teams remaining in the finals – they’re a legitimate chance of causing big upsets in September. Their swarming presence around the drop of the ball makes it incredibly difficult for any opponent to get their hands on the ball, let alone get enough opportunities moving forward. Questions over Tom Boyd’s relevance in the team were answered in convincing fashion with the big man playing a massive role not just in the forward 50, but in his rucking role across the ground. With a great balance in all areas on the field, they’re going to be very hard to match up as the finals continue.
Head to Head this Year
Round 3: Etihad Stadium – Hawthorn by 3
One of Hawthorn’s close encounters early in the season, it was their experience in tight matches that got them over the line once again. After leading by 32 points early in the second quarter, the Hawks basically shut up shop, allowing the free flowing possession play of the Bulldogs to run all over them, kicking 10 goals to just two before three-quarter time. Behind by 19 points at this point, it was Hawthorn’s James Sicily who sparked their comeback, finishing with the winning goal with a minute to spare.
The Bulldogs dominated possession for the majority of this match, having close to 90 more disposals, 16 more clearances and five more inside 50s. Not surprisingly, the also smashed the Hawks in contested possession, giving them first use of the ball in the tight situations. Luke Dahlhaus was best on ground for the Dogs with 33 touches (21 contested), seven clearances, five tackles and two goals, while alongside the sensational efforts from James Sicily, midfielder Sam Mitchell proved elusive once again with 29 disposals and eight tackles.
This match was largely reflective of a finals-type style of play giving hope to the underdog Western Bulldogs side heading into Friday night. If they can heap on this contested pressure early in this match, the momentum they’re carrying from last week’s stirring win could hold true in the tight moments in this cut-throat final.
Sam Mitchell vs Liam Picken
Sam Mitchell still had a strong game on Friday night, but his usual efficient distribution certainly wasn’t at its peak. The work that Scott Selwood put into him certainly paid dividends, limiting him to just three clearances for the match, down from his average of 5.5 per game this season. As the clearance leader for the Hawks, Mitchell’s precision distribution is key to the success of his team. Picken has a tough job on Friday night, but must put in a similar effort to Selwood last week.
Marcus Bontempelli vs Luke Hodge
Both men are the premier contested ball players for their team, and with Bontempelli having a quiet match in Round 3 he’ll be looking to stamp his authority on this match early. His size makes him incredibly difficult to match up on, so leave it to contested ball veteran Hodge to take care of him. There is no doubt he’ll be giving up a bit of size and weight, but his tenacity at the ball will see him play very close to the Bont in these clearance situations. To make things more interesting, Hodge’s absence from their match earlier in the year will give the Hawks that extra midfielder to rotate through.
Where the Match will be Won
Both sides like having a seventh defender behind the ball for a number of reasons. Not only does it make the task of scoring against them much more difficult, it allows the transition from defence to come at a much faster rate. For the Hawks, this job falls to Josh Gibson who has arguably reinvented this style of player. His third man up role in defensive marking contests plus his strong marking in pressure situations is crucial to the Hawks holding on defensively. With a poorer defensive effort this year, he’ll need a big game to hold out a fast moving Bulldogs attack. For the Dogs, their seventh defender will be Matthew Boyd who has played this new role in 2016 with great success. Again, this is used to set up the defensive run for his side, which when linked up with players like Jason Johannisen and other running midfielders, makes his side lethal from defence.
Momentum from Last Week
The matchup of the losing top four side against a winning bottom four side makes for an interesting matchup in week two of the finals. While it always is incredibly difficult to win against a top four side, of the past four semi-finals, the lower ranked side has won on three occasions. Before this, the last time a top four side went out in straight sets was in 2007. Based on this, you could argue momentum is starting to play a bigger role in the finals series, and with how close the season was this year, there is every chance of an upset. If the Bulldogs can play the style they played last week they will be very tough to beat.
The Bulldogs have their work cut out in dethroning the three-time champs, but they certainly have the tools to do it. Whether they can bring this game for two weeks in a row presents another challenge. On the other side, it’s hard to see Hawthorn playing a level higher than last week, being fairly representative of their 2016 season. They were beaten in clearances by a side that has historically struggled and lost contested possessions 170-118. While a lot has been made about Hawthorn’s numbers in this area throughout the season, losing this battle by that much is a recipe for failure. If the Bulldogs bring anything close to last week’s effort, they will win on Friday night.
Western Bulldogs by 14