Blindside Sport kicks of its AFL Predictions for the 2016 finals series with West Coast vs Western Bulldogs. Will the injury depleted Bulldogs pull off a massive upset or will West Coast’s late season run hold true in the first week of finals?
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West Coast comes into the finals series in arguably the best form of the competition. In the past three weeks they have defeated GWS, Hawthorn and Adelaide, and if not for a strange match against Collingwood in Round 19, they would be undefeated since Round 12. The Eagles certainly struggled earlier in the year away from home, but wins at Spotless Stadium and Adelaide Oval against two hot teams will have no doubt given them the confidence that they can win the premiership from outside the top four.
The Western Bulldogs had a minor slipup in their last match of the season against Fremantle, but with a top four spot no longer a possibility, they could be forgiven for just trying to get through this match. Overall, their form has been reasonable, winning six of their last eight matches, defeating finals teams in Sydney and North Melbourne in the second half of the season. Their two convincing losses to Geelong shows there are still inconsistencies in this team, suggesting there is a little left in the development of this team into a potential powerhouse.
Head to Head this Year
Round 11: Etihad Stadium – Western Bulldogs by 8
If Thursday night’s match plays out anything like their Round 11 clash, we’ll certainly be starting the 2016 finals series in fine fashion. In one of the matches of the year the Dogs almost blew a 21 point lead with just eight minutes to go. Before this though, a tight battle raged between West Coast’s defence against a Bulldogs team with over 120 more disposals. This great pressure across the field kept the inside 50 very close (53-49), and was reflected overall in a lower scoring match. Quite simply, this was a finals-type match with both teams having a legitimate chance of winning throughout the contest.
The biggest thing to come out of this match was the disposal difference. While the Dogs are always a high possession team (414.1, 1st in the AFL), the difference wasn’t overly surprising when looking closely at West Coast’s numbers. At just 353.1 per game for the season (17th), they naturally possess the ball far less, preferring for free flowing movement and long kicking based on their home game style at Domain Stadium.
As for individual performances in this match the entire Bulldogs midfield was prevalent throughout the contest, but Marcus Bontempelli lead the way with 21 contested possessions, outplaying West Coast’s contested ball machine Matt Priddis who still managed a respectable 20 for the game. For the Eagles, Josh Kennedy was kept very quiet with just one goal, but support from his other forwards and goalkicking midfielders kept the score quite close.
Matt Priddis vs Marcus Bontempelli
The battle of two of the premier ball winners in the AFL will be one to watch. Finals footy is all about dominance in the middle, and with Priddis and Bontempelli both leading their team’s in contested ball for the season, look no further to get an indication of who is taking control in the middle. At a slightly larger 192cm, 85kg build, Bontempelli’s role can be extended to playing a role up forward, leading to his 22 goals this season. Priddis certainly doesn’t have this trick up his sleeve (4 goals in 2016), but the potent West Coast forward line quite simply doesn’t need him. His main job will be to follow the contest to impress his clearance game on the match.
Josh Kennedy vs Joel Hamling/Fletcher Roberts
With his conqueror Marcus Adams out due to injury, Josh Kennedy can come into this contest with almost a clean slate. His efforts in Round 11 were well below the level his side needs him at, so look for him to play a big role in Thursday’s match. Joel Hamling should get what will end up being arguably the toughest job on the field. At just 80kg to Kennedy’s 99kg there really isn’t any hope for him in one on one contests. Fletcher Roberts is the other slightly heavier so don’t be surprised to see a rotation if either defender isn’t having the desired impact. Like most heavy duty jobs like this, team defence is key to minimising impact, but with defensive stalwart Easton Wood battling injury concerns their back six might not all be on the same page.
Where the Match will be Won
Home Ground Advantage
This is arguably the biggest factor in this match which is only further enhanced by the Bulldogs having to double up with two Perth trips in three weeks. While most of the AFL community despised the week off, the Western Bulldogs will at least be thankful they don’t have to make the biggest trip in footy twice in seven days. Either way, the home ground advantage is going to give the Eagles a real chance of spreading this match out. Where the Eagles are comfortable moving forward with kicking, the Dogs are looking to set up their running games with handballs from defence. With the West Coast defence setting up to deny the follow up kick, these extra possessions aren’t going to give them the space they need to break through the Eagle’s defence. Advantage West Coast.
Western Bulldogs injury list
The Dogs have performed exceptionally well throughout the season given the horror run of injuries sustained over the 23 rounds. They head into this match without certainties Robert Murphy and Jack Redpath, while Tom Liberatore, Jack Macrae, Easton Wood, Jake Stringer and Jordan Roughead will all be looking to prove their fitness as the week progresses. Even if all of these players take the field on Thursday night, it’s likely the instability over the past month will hurt them. Never underestimate the value of team stability heading into the finals. With Eagles firing on all cylinders barring Nic Naitanui’s season ending injury, it’s hard to see how what could be a team featuring a few spare parts will compete with the juggernaut that is West Coast at home.
It’s hard to see the Western Bulldogs coming away with the win here with such a depleted list. At best, they will have injured players coming back in without any real continuity, making it tough to defeat a home team riding on a massive wave of confidence. The Bulldogs only hope is to spread the Eagles out with quick ball movement that involves quick and precise kicking from defensive 50. If they can’t manage to do this, the Eagles’ defensive setup has too much time to get back to their spots and will likely swarm on any contest. While not a huge departure from their game style, this might be too much for the Bulldogs to turn on with such a depleted team.
West Coast by 21