The first Qualifying Final on Friday night sees first placed Hawthorn up against fourth placed Sydney at the MCG in what should be an absolute belter of a game. Playing just last week gave us a taste of what’s to come, with a tight fought 12 point win to the Hawks. Despite the result, the Swans announced they were still a legitimate premiership contender after having to deal with many people questioning their chances of going back to back.
This game will hinge on individual matchups and the ability of both teams to play out a full four quarters of finals’ intensity football. So what areas should we look out for?
Key Individual Matchups
Josh Kennedy v Brad Sewell
Probably the two best contested ball players in the AFL will surely go head to head. Very few players can match up physically with either of them, and few can match in intensity. Josh Kennedy has really picked up his game in the past three weeks, averaging over 34 disposals per game, up from his 26 from the previous 19 games. Most of these are contested as well. Brad Sewell hasn’t had his best year, after being dropped midway through the year. Since then though, he has lifted his performance, being his team’s go to man for contested possessions. Always impressive in big games, he’ll look to get one up over Josh Kennedy in this week’s final.
Ryan O’Keefe v Sam Mitchell
Head to head last week, both had very impressive games tallying 53 disposals between the two. The spoils went to O’Keefe however with an impressive game-high 11 tackles. These are two classy players, both with impeccable disposal and a knack for being in the right place. O’Keefe had been quiet in the previous two weeks with only 21 touches over 2 games, but order was restored with an impressive display on Friday. Mitchell provides much of the clearance work for the Hawks as well as a lot of outside run with high efficiency possessions.
Shane Mumford/Mike Pyke v David Hale
The Hawks were slaughtered in the ruck last week. Losing hitouts 56-30 didn’t really impact the clearance numbers, with the Hawks getting up 44-40 in that department. However, Kieran Jack, one of the Swans’ best clearance players played forward for much of the match – no doubt an effort to give him a rest before the finals. Put him in the midfield for the entire match and this clearance count will probably be closer. Shane Mumford has hit season best form, and with Mike Pyke on relieving duties the Swans clearly have the better ruck combination. Jarryd Roughead for the Hawks may play a ruck role on the odd occasion, but expect him to play up forward more often with the Buddy suspension. Advantage Swans.
Five tags to keep an eye on in Friday night’s match aren’t necessarily your typical shutdown role through the midfield. We’ll start with the tags on Grant Birchall, Jarrad McVeigh and Nick Malceski. Expect the tag on Grant Birchall to be a team effort. The Swans pride themselves on locking down the ball in their forward line and preventing any quick exit into the midfield. This is where Birchall is at his most devastating, so expect the likes of Craig Bird and Jude Bolton to be rotated through defensive roles to stop his run. For the Swans, the run off the half-back line through Nick Malceski must be stopped if the Hawks are to stop Sydney. Under an injury cloud heading into the match, the Swans will be hoping Malceski can provide similar services to his team as Birchall does for the Hawks. Shane Savage went to him in last week’s match, which was largely ineffective. If Malceski plays, they’ll need a much better shutdown role. The one thing the Swans can boast over the Hawks is a second running defenseman in Jarrad McVeigh. Quarterbacking many of the forward thrusts for Sydney, McVeigh is amongst the league’s most efficient disposers of the ball. Brendan Whitecross took on the job of stopping McVeigh, but like the Malceski tag, it didn’t really have the desired effect with McVeigh racking up 23 disposals and 5 tackles.
With Cyril Rioli expected back in the lineup, John Longmire will be hoping a similar performance from Nick Smith will see him kept quiet. Rioli actually hasn’t played the Swans since the Grand Final, so Alistair Clarkson may look to change things up. He runs through the midfield on the odd occasion mainly as an X factor player, so this may be implemented right from the start. Either way, a joint effort from Nick Smith and other shut down players in the midfield will look to keep him quiet. The only Swans player to be really tagged this year has been Dan Hannebery. Not playing in the Round 23 match either, who will go to him is a bit of a mystery. Hawthorn tagger Liam Shiels will be back this week as well, so there’s every chance he’ll take on Hannebery.
Areas to Watch
An ill-disciplined bump on Swans defender Nick Malceski has seen Buddy accept a one match ban, leaving a massive hole in the Hawthorn forward line. Will this have much of an impact though? You can’t replace a player of Lance Franklin’s calibre very easily, but with Jarryd Roughead taking out the Coleman Medal, there is still plenty of fire-power up front. In the matches this year that Franklin has missed, the Hawks had no problem in kicking winning scores, albeit against mediocre opposition in Port Adelaide, Western Bulldogs and St Kilda. Roughead kicked 13 goals in these 3 games, with Jack Gunston chipping in with 7. Buddy hasn’t been overly dominant over the Swans this year, kicking only 5 in the two matches. With him out though, Ted Richards will be freed up to take either Roughead or Gunston, or Hale when he heads forward. Not a disaster for the Hawks, but Buddy is certainly key to their chances of winning.
Returning Players for Both Teams
Some massive names will be back for this match, none more so than Kurt Tippett and Cyril Rioli. Tippett has been on fire since coming back to AFL midway through the year, bagging 33 goals in only 10 games. Crucially, he hasn’t featured in any Swans v Hawks matches, which will give the Hawthorn defenders something extra to worry about. Against Geelong he struggled with double teams and loose men in defence disrupting forward entries by the Swans. Gibson took White last week, so expect Lake to line up alongside big Tippett.
Rioli back in the team is huge for the Hawks. Simply one of the most influential players in the AFL, he is extremely hard to match up on. The Swans completely nullified his attack in the Grand Final, something which they’ll need to do again.
Probably the most likely of all the injured Swans players to return this week is Lewis Jetta. Playing reserves last week went well, getting through injury free. Possibly the fastest player in the AFL, his outside run is something to be feared. His best is almost as good as Rioli’s, so a return to the team would be massive for the Swans.
Nick Smith, Liam Shiels and Brent Guerra should all return for this match as well.
This is almost too close to call. After last week’s match that saw both teams playing great finals footy, the stage is set for another classic between the two. Some commentators thought that the Hawks were nowhere near their best, but here’s something to think about. Maybe the Swans were the reason they weren’t playing well. Offensive capabilities in ALL sports are at their most impressive when playing against weaker opposition. The real crunch comes when playing someone capable of disrupting this rhythm, something the Swans are extremely capable of doing.
This match will come down to individual matchups, most likely those in the midfield. Both are exceptional clearance teams and can break the game right open. Both the Swans and Hawks will try to prevent any lead getting out of hand, shown perfectly by Round 23’s match. The Swans were 1 or 2 goals away from breaking open the game in the second quarter, but the Hawks clawed their way back through a four quarter effort, largely through their effort in the middle.
Losing Buddy is huge for the match, which may swing the odds slightly more towards the Swans, but still too close to call. Inside 50’s don’t seem to count for much when these two teams play, with the Swans getting thumped in the Grand Final and winning, and the Hawks getting beaten last week and getting over the line. Both teams are too defensively solid to allow easy goals.
Prediction: Could go either way, and there can’t be a draw. Hawks by 1