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Rested and raring to go, can any team ‘do a Dogs’ in 2018?


The Western Bulldogs became the first team to win the premiership from the lower half of the eight under the current finals system. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Rested and raring to go, can any team ‘do a Dogs’ in 2018?

Rohan Connolly    

Once virtually a guaranteed passage through to a grand final, finishing top four on the AFL ladder ain’t what it used to be for a number of reasons.

Now in its third year, the merits or otherwise of the pre-finals bye remain hotly contested. Whether it leaves top four teams who win their qualifying final without enough game time under their belts heading into a prelim is debatable.

What isn’t is that the bottom half of the eight, with an extra week to prepare for their finals campaign, are now in much better physical shape to tackle the task of winning four cut-throat finals in four weeks if they’re good enough.

There’s a fair argument, too, that in recent times, even before the introduction of the break in 2016, more bottom-half finalists have been genuine contenders than the “finals filler” of old, North Melbourne, for example, in 2014 and 2015, reaching preliminary finals despite having finished the regular season sixth and eighth.

If that signalled a re-writing of the rule book, it was one torn up altogether by the Western Bulldogs’ famous flag two years ago, coming from seventh (albeit with 15 wins) after the home and away rounds.

So which of this season’s bottom half of the eight is best-placed to “do a Dogs”? Let’s take a look at their chances in order of probability.

MELBOURNE

This is the Demons’ first finals appearance for 12 years, so there are valid concerns about the potential for a September blowout. But Melbourne has an upside the other bottom-half contenders don’t. Explosive scoring power.

The Demons averaged 104.5 points per game this year, easily the most of any team, and topped the 100-point mark in 14 of their 22 games.

Even with key forward Jesse Hogan sidelined for the rest of the year, there’s an array of medium-sized and small goalkickers hard for opponents to combat. And ranked No.1 in the competition for inside 50s, Melbourne certainly creates enough scoring opportunities.

The Demons’ inside game is also sound, ranked No.1 in the AFL for contested possession. And to that end, the return from injury this week of skipper Jack Viney is perfectly-timed.

Melbourne’s last two outings produced good wins over fellow finalists and its only two defeats in the past two months have been by nine points and two points. There’s also the prospect of a second final at home on the MCG should the Dees overcome Geelong in Friday night’s elimination final.

All of which makes their chances of getting on a sizeable September roll not too hard to envisage.

GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY

Injuries have again played a huge factor in the Giants’ season. But that has also helped increase the suspicion we haven’t seen anything like their best in 2018.

Are they still capable of producing it? Losses in the last two games against Sydney and Melbourne don’t suggest so. But GWS could have a handful of important players back for the elimination final against the Swans, the week off significantly boosting the chances of forward pair Toby Greene and Matt de Boer, defender Aidan Corr and veterans Brett Deledio and Ryan Griffen being available.

That would make a considerable difference to their prospects against Sydney in Saturday’s knock-out final, the Swans having come over the top of the Giants in round 22 and also having beaten them in round three.

GWS are an effective stoppage team, but have lost some of their outside run and attack this season, the early-season loss of Tom Scully a huge blow.

Yet you can’t help but feel that it could still click for the Giants. Which means, perhaps, perversely, while Sydney will start favourite on Saturday, it might be their opponent which has the better chance of going deeper into September.

GEELONG

Geelong has certainly flexed its muscles in the finals lead-in with two 100-point-plus thrashings of Fremantle and Gold Coast at home. Whether that proves a perfect tune-up or leaves them under-prepared for the rigors of a finals series is the fascinating question.

There’s been a certain reliability about the Cats in 2018, with only one of their nine losses for the season by any more than 18 points. It’s who those defeats have come against that is perhaps the concern, raising the possibility that even Geelong’s best isn’t quite good enough.

As close as they’ve got, the Cats have lost to Richmond twice, Hawthorn twice, West Coast, Sydney, and twice got over the line against Melbourne either on or after the final siren.

Patrick Dangerfield, Gary Ablett and Joel Selwood are a sensational midfield trio, and Mitch Duncan and recruit Tim Kelly very capable support, while Tom Hawkins has had a terrific season up forward and Tom Stewart likewise down back.

The doubts remain at the lower end of their best 22, the lesser capabilities or inconsistency of the younger or less-heralded part of the team having found Geelong out a few times this season. Getting the most out of that group four weeks in a row seems a pretty big “if”.

SYDNEY

The old reliables of September are there yet again, but there’s sizeable doubts over the Swans this time about for how long.

Three straight wins over Collingwood, Melbourne and GWS and a narrow lose to Hawthorn indicate Sydney can still mix it with the best. But it’s starting to look like the Swans need to reduce games to a bit of a scrap in order to do so.

Never a high-scoring team, Sydney has fallen away further in 2018, ranked only 12th for points scored compared to last year’s fifth. Always reliable defensively, that measure has also dropped right away, the Swans in 2017 No.1 for fewest points conceded, and this season only seventh.

There’s been a greater dependence on Lance Franklin to carry the day, and “Buddy” has been getting banged around plenty. He’s not the only one, Luke Parker sitting out the final round, and Dan Hannebery, who’s had his struggles anyway, copping a battering the last game against Hawthorn.

Pulling out a performance for the ages with their backs firmly to the wall has been a speciality of the Swans for longer than most of us can remember. Doing it four times in four weeks is another matter altogether. For that reason alone, were Sydney to pull off another flag from here, it would be the Swans’ best.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS.

1 Comment
  1. ‪There is no team in bottom half of 8 this year with the Bulldogs record in 2016 – 15 wins, only 2 games off top spot and that has already beaten 4 of the other 7 teams in the top 8 including the top team at their home ground….‬but saying that maybe Melbourne really have nothing to lose though a fitter GWS would have been biggest threat.

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