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RoCo’s Wrap: Only a little finals drama, but a lot of anxiety

Who’s your baby? Luke Shuey about to be swamped by jubilant teammates after kicking the match-winner against Port Adelaide. Photo: AFL MEDIA

RoCo’s Wrap: Only a little finals drama, but a lot of anxiety

Rohan Connolly    

Gary Buckeneara. Billy Brownless. Gary Ablett. Tony Lockett. And now Luke Shuey. The list of players to win a final after the siren is very select company. But the West Coast little man isn’t out of place after his ice-cool finish to Saturday night’s elimination final.

The first round of the 2017 finals series needed something special by then, too. Because, if we’re honest, what has so often been the best weekend of the season had until that finale come up pretty short on the entertainment front.

Sure, there were great stories and great atmosphere, the roar from 95,000 people around the MCG on Friday night as Richmond marched towards a preliminary final as loud as has been heard at the ground.

But as contests, it was only the Port Adelaide-West Coast epic that kept us on the edge of our seats. The other two finals in history to go to extra time had become one-way traffic by the end. This one just kept twisting and turning until the most dramatic conclusion imaginable.

And overall, the qualifying and elimination finals were games that said as much about the inadequacies of the losers as they were statements of intent from the victors.

It’s always easy to cast a pall of gloom over the beaten qualifying finalists, but Geelong and GWS look as vulnerable as any to the prospect of straight sets exits. And while Port Adelaide will curse its own inaccuracy all summer, Essendon, the other side banished from September, looked completely out of its league against Sydney.

But let’s start with the positives. What did we learn about the winners? Firstly, that Richmond is as close to a premiership as it has been at any time since it lost the 1982 grand final to Carlton. This was an emphatic win by the Tigers, who one by one banished any various doubts about how they’d cope with this pressure or that.

Their start was far more switched on than that of their more finals-experienced opponent. Their pressure not only locked the ball in their scoring zone but held Geelong goalless until a couple of minutes before half-time.

Those two late goals to Steven Motlop and Patrick Dangerfield just before the break could have knocked the stuffing out of Richmond, relatively unrewarded for a solid half of toil. Indeed, by the time Zach Guthrie lined up for goal midway through the third term, the Cats were starting to look irrepressible.

Instead, the Tigers steeled themselves again via goals from Nick Vlastuin, Shane Edwards and Dion Prestia. And the last quarter was a yellow-and-black tidal wave, with Dustin Martin supreme. His 28 disposals, seven tackles and six score assists (the equal most this season) represented one of the great recent individual performances in a final.

Richmond is so close to grand final day it can taste it. The Tigers will take on either a GWS or West Coast line-up carrying considerable question marks, and having already beaten both this season at the same MCG venue. The Tiger army will be in full voice. For the visitors, it’s going to be an intimidating experience indeed.

The Tigers certainly have the momentum. But so do their two most likely flag challengers, Adelaide and Sydney.

Thursday night seems a long time ago now, but the Crows’ emphatic win over GWS was a beauty, tough and slick in equal measures, and surely the final proof that no Rory Sloane is far from a fatal blow to their cause.

The support cast has lifted considerably since that mid-season period when Sloane was tagged out of three games in which Adelaide visibly wilted as a result. Indeed, the brothers Crouch are so hot (and Matt a newly-crowned All-Australian) that calling them support cast is a bit of an insult.

Richard Douglas has been consistently good all year, Hugh Greenwood a significant plus, Rory Atkins and Riley Knight important, and the dash of Paul Seedsman a timely addition to the mix.

GWS has been by some margin the best clearance team in the competition this season. Adelaide not only matched them, but was far more productive with the hard ball it won, Eddie Betts again the dynamo and deliverer on the scoreboard but the hard running of even key position cohorts like Tom Lynch and Taylor Walker no less important.

The loss of Brodie Smith off half-back hurts, but it’s not like he’s the sole source of rebound for the Crows, Rory Laird rarely quelled these days.

There’s some sizeable obstacles still in the way of Adelaide’s path to a premiership, though, with Sydney’s win away against the Crows in round 22 now looking like it could provide some valuable reconnaissance for either team.

The Swans blew Essendon off the park late on Saturday afternoon, seven goals in just 16-and-a-half minutes ending the contest before half-time. How good was that second term 10.3? Good enough to be the highest scoring second quarter among the 635 finals league football has seen.

The form line is becoming as well-known as maths times tables, 15 wins from 17 games now, the two losses by just a goal each, their 19.7 against the Bombers their third tally of 120 points or more in their past four games.

And when it comes to recent history, no team will be as painfully aware of Sydney’s credentials as next Friday night’s opponent.

The Swans did a number on Geelong again in round 20, their fifth win in the past six meetings with the Cats, not one of those victories by any less than 37 points, and the last three of which Geelong has been held to eight, eight and nine goals.

That’s not going to win you many games, even a tough final, and it’s of particular concern for the Cats given they are coming off their lowest score of the season.

The dropping of Daniel Menzel robbed the Cats of their second-best goalkicker, and it’s not like Geelong gained much defensively, either, with just four tackles landed inside their forward 50 for the entire game compared to Richmond’s 21.

Midfield, the loss of Cam Guthrie, who’d been important in Geelong’s recent form spike, hurts big time up against the AFL’s most reliable on-ball combination. So does Jake Kolodjashnij in defence.

Coach Chris Scott has no magic wand to wave. He simply needs more, a lot more, from a number of keys, his big men and (not for the first time) a potential game-breaker in Motlop.

GWS, meanwhile, lurch on waiting for the various disparate parts of the engine to tick over in unison. We’ve waited all season for that to happen, and apart from a couple of outings against Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs, it hasn’t.

Jeremy Cameron’s injury means a slightly different look for the Giants on Saturday. As capable as he is, that could conceivably do them a favour, too, because Leon Cameron’s team certainly looked top-heavy against the Crows.

At the very least, Steve Johnson has to be at unbackable odds to return to the mix, though Ryan Griffen’s inclusion would present a sizeable gamble given he hasn’t played at senior level since round three.

The Giants will start favourite against West Coast, but the Eagles’ performance against Port has certainly provided some think music. And it’s hard to remember an elimination final winner which has gone into its semi-final as short a favourite as Sydney will against the Cats.

Even recent history is on their side. Until three years ago, under the current final eight system 26 of 28 qualifying final losers had rebounded the following week to win their semi. But over the past three seasons, four out of six (Geelong and Fremantle in 2014, Sydney in 2015 and Hawthorn last year) have ended up going out of September in straight sets.

That’s not what the Cats or Giants needed to hear. And what they’ll need to do next weekend to avoid a repeat is produce something a lot potent than their first outings this finals series.

  1. Two words to say about Richmond: Neil. Balme.

    In the last decade or so, success follows almost everywhere he goes. Was it two flags at the Cats, 1 at the Pies? As well as numerous other grand final appearance.

    Would love to see some numbers for his whole career from player to coach to administration/management.

    Not a Tiges fan (tho if Swans go out before the the grannie, will jump on their wagon) but whatever he gets paid, isn’t enough.

  2. At least the argument that the pre-finals bye means better games lost a lot of force.

    Finals are usually about the winners, but I thought the story was Cats, Giants and Bombers all very disappointing.

  3. I’m not surprised what happened to Geelong their finishing position really exaggerated their level. You can’t rely on 2 players to get you through a finals series.

  4. Hi Rohan,

    I put a comment up on The Age website a few years back about the risk of goal umpires being overruled (or overwhlemed) by more demonstrative officials. It came from a nondescript regular season game between the Swans and Fremantle and had no bearing on the game. I said at the time that it wasn’t a big deal, but that it could be one day.

    Well, in the frantic finish to the regulation time of the West Coast – Port Adelaide game, it could have been the difference.

    Vardy of West Coast kicked one forward that might or might not have been touched by either Pittard or Kennedy.

    The goal umpire didn’t immediately signal that the ball was touched and was going to pay it as a goal. But field umpire Justin Schmidt came in and suggested that the ball was touched. The goal umpire was closest to the incident but a field umpire effectively overruled him, so he signalled a touched behind. When the score review was inconclusive, they signalled “Umpires Call”. That would have been a goal if he was left to his own devices, but a more confident, or senior, or demonstrative official changed that.

    Unless they are unsighted or further away from the play, I’m not a big fan of goal umpires being overruled.

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