Now that the AFL top four is set, who is best placed to win the premiership?
Since the current finals system was introduced in the AFL, only two teams, yes two teams, have made a preliminary final from outside the top 4. Given the noticeable gap between the 2013 top 4 and the rest of the competition, this trend will most likely continue. Let’s take a look at the top four teams and their chances of glory in September.
Top of the ladder, and will most likely stay there going into the finals. Since their loss to Richmond in Round 19, they’re back to their best, especially against Collingwood last weekend. For these guys, it was never really a question of whether they’d make the top four – they’re the best home and away team and have been for the past 2 years.
Boasting probably the league’s best forward line, the Hawks really stretch the defence of their opposition. Lance Franklin is close to the most valuable player in the AFL, while Jarryd Roughead shares the lead in the Coleman Medal. Chuck David Hale down there, Cyril Rioli and Jack Gunston and it becomes quite a challenge to stop them. This forward line is fed by an incredible midfield, comprising of some of the best midfielders in the league. Second in the Brownlow Medal last year, Sam Mitchell is alongside Luke Hodge and Brad Sewell, as well as Roughead on occasion. I think this may be a move by the Hawks coaching staff to see how he matches against the bigger midfielders in the game such as Josh Kennedy for the Swans.
The main question I have regarding Hawthorn is their ability to back up matches against highly fancied opponents. Given the finals series will feature bruising encounters and highly contested ball, can their high paced game take out the top sides? Hawthorn has long been tainted as the most brutal attacking skills in the league, but this doesn’t have the same impact when you’re facing the top teams. This was demonstrated perfectly in the Grand Final last year where the Hawks kept peppering the Swans defence, but was not broken down. They must ensure their inside 50 entries are effective, rather than just bombing it deep inside.
Next Two Weeks
North Melbourne (Etihad Stadium), Sydney (ANZ Stadium)
A tough two weeks ahead for the Hawks, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Against North Melbourne they’ll be exposed to a hard running outfit that scores highly. This will test their defensive capabilities to their fullest, and if they can restrict the Roos to under 80 points, then their ability to shut down impressive attacking teams. The following week against Sydney will be a true indicator of where both teams sit. For Hawthorn, shutting down the Swans midfield will be the biggest challenge, and with a potential meeting in the first week of the finals, and even a Grand Final, winning individual matchups will be key to overcoming their opponents
Sitting second on the ladder, Geelong has been an impressive unit this year, without really dominating their opponents. Getting the job done is what good teams do, and impressive wins over Hawthorn, Sydney, Fremantle and West Coast last week shows how much they can step it up come the big matches.
Their midfield can completely blow apart any side in the league. Joel Selwood may well take away the Brownlow Medal at the end of the year, and contributions from Steve Johnson, Jimmy Bartlel, James Kelly and Joel Corey make them very hard to stop. What they bring into a finals series is experience. All of these players have three premierships to their name, something that no other team in the finals can come close to matching.
Boasting the depth which only Sydney can match, their youngsters have given a great boost to an already impressive side. Steve Motlop, Mitch Duncan and Mark Blicavs have really stepped up throughout the year to a point where their place in the side is never questioned. Having this depth will give the Geelong coaches plenty of options for the final six weeks of the season.
Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of talk regarding Tom Hawkins and his fitness. Rested last week from playing against West Coast, Hawkins’ back has apparently healed enough to play this week against Sydney. Realistically, this won’t be the case, and Hawkins will be carrying a back injury right the way through the finals. Can they really afford to play him in this condition? I think it’s really pushing it.
Some strange losses over the past month should not be discounted either. Losing to Adelaide and North Melbourne in games where they were completely out-worked indicates there may be some inconsistency in their performances. An off game or even a quarter in the finals against the best teams in the competition will come back to hurt. Consistency is key.
Next Two Weeks
Sydney (Simonds Stadium), Brisbane (Simonds Stadium)
Geelong has copped an amazing last month of scheduling, where they only have to travel from their home base once. With their next two games at Simonds Stadium, routine and familiarity will hold them well over the next fortnight. Against Sydney will be a real test however. The last team to beat them at their home ground, Sydney has the potential to deny any run to the Geelong midfield. Against Brisbane, they will be subject to a dip in intensity from the Swans match and should win easily. Not the easiest of matches however.
Like in their premiership year last year, the Swans face Geelong and Hawthorn in the final two weeks. Some may think this is a rough fortnight, but it worked wonders last year, with the Swans playing finals’ intensity footy two weeks before everyone else. Similarly this year, the Swans having secured the top four spot last week, will look to switch on their finals mentality against two of the heavyweights of the competition.
Jack, Hannebery, Kennedy, O’Keefe, Parker. All big, strong, ferocious, courageous and masterful around the stoppages. Leading the clearances in the league is no coincidence. Put Mumford and Pyke in the ruck and they get first use of the ball more often than not. The addition of Tippett to the forward line, as well as the emergence of Jesse White as another big and the forward line then becomes hard to stop. Defensively, losing Alex Johnson has unveiled a sensation in Dean Rampe, and with McVeigh and Malceski having career best years, there is a pretty even contribution across the board.
All this success and top four secured without the services of Goodes, Reid, Jetta and Roberts-Thompson shows just how deep the Swans run. With all four of these guys expected back for finals, John Longmire is blessed with having so much to choose from. Goodes and Roberts-Thompson are probably the only certain selections, while Reid and Jetta will have to force their way back in.
The addition of Kurt Tippett has given the Swans a definite target heading into the forward line this year. However, look at last week’s match against St Kilda and there were three guys at times going up to contest the mark against the big man. Given, he still kicked five goals in three quarters, but it means their predictability going forward has taken a hit. Jesse White and Mike Pyke up forward as talls may also be a little one-dimensional, and will depend on individual matchups if they are to succeed in the big games.
Next Two Weeks
Geelong (Simonds Stadium), Hawthorn (ANZ Stadium)
With a top four spot secured, the attention will now turn to matchups against Geelong and Hawthorn. With a matchup against at least one of these two throughout the finals, John Longmire will be focused on implementing his finals brand of football that served so well last year. Not having beaten either of these sides this year will not worry him. If anything, it shows what needs to be improved in these next two weeks. Tagging roles will be crucial, where Selwood, Mitchell and Hodge have to be shut down. Josh Kennedy has stepped up his game impressively over the past two weeks, so look to him to come into his own in these next two matches.
The new guys in town, Fremantle can consider themselves to be legitimate finals contenders now, after often being said to be just that little bit behind the top three teams. Their brand of footy it suited perfectly for finals, and will look to make a charge towards the top two with quite a favourable draw.
Ross Lyon’s style of play is tailor-made for September. Highly pressured contested footy, impenetrable defence leads to a low scoring tight affair. They exhibit an eerily similar style to the Sydney team of 2005 and 2006, where funnily enough, Lyon was an assistant coach. So this style could win premierships back then, and it looks like it can be very competitive again eight years later.
An impressive and even team all over the field means opposition teams will find it very hard to break down Fremantle. Tagger Ryan Crowley will take down the best midfielders in the competition, as Michael Barlow, Nathan Fyfe and Danyle Pearce are impressive in all areas, and will float forward for the occasional goal.
Is it a year too soon for Fremantle? This seems to be the main question being asked. They haven’t had any Preliminary Final experience, yet alone a Grand Final. They are up against three teams with plenty of this, meaning the situation may be too much for them come crunch time.
Sitting 11th in scoring for the year, does Freo have enough offense to beat these three teams? To win a Prelim against one of these three surely has to involve scoring at least 100 points. Averaging only 93 this year, including matches against GWS and two against Melbourne where they scored in excess of 130, outscoring their opponents may be a lot to ask.
Injuries are playing a major role in Fremantle’s season. Losing Sandilands and Ballantyne last week isn’t great for their team stability over the next few weeks. Can they keep their team together?
Next Two Weeks
Port Adelaide (Patersons Stadium), St Kilda (Etihad Stadium)
Not much will really come out of their upcoming matches. They will win both, but the finals intensity the other three teams will be exposed to certainly won’t be there. Port Adelaide will show up and give them a run for their money, but won’t be able to bring such a high intensity as the top three. St Kilda will put up next to no fight. The only thing that can come out of that game is injuries and exposure to lower intensity footy. Not great for Freo.
Fremantle will look to secure a top two position in these two weeks. Given their massive home ground advantage over in Perth, the possibility of two home finals will give them something to strive for in the next two weeks. I definitely wouldn’t want to be travelling to Perth at any stage of the finals.