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Rounds Of Our Lives: The greatest preliminary finals


With scores level in the 1994 preliminary final and the siren set to sound, Gary Ablett marks behind a despairing Mick Martyn. Picture: CHANNEL 7

Rounds Of Our Lives: The greatest preliminary finals

Luke Michael    

With the third week of AFL finals upon us, what better than reminiscing on some of the greatest preliminary finals from years gone by to get in the mood before this weekend’s action?

There have been some memorable preliminary final moments over the years, from Gary Ablett’s match-winner after the siren in 1994, to Jim Stynes running over the mark and costing Melbourne a grand final appearance in 1987.

Because, like a Wayne Carey clinic at the MCG, or a desperate Gavin Wanganeen tackle, so are the Rounds of our Lives.

GEELONG 16.13 (109) d NORTH MELBOURNE 14.19 (103) (MCG, preliminary final 1994)

This may be a match famous for Gary Ablett senior’s after-the-siren goal which sent Geelong into the grand final, but the game as a whole also ranks up there with the greatest VFL/AFL matches of all time.

Geelong and North Melbourne entered the match as the highest scoring sides in the league, so a high-scoring, entertaining match was to be expected.

On both those fronts it certainly delivered, with the ball whipped from end-to-end at a relentless pace throughout the game.

While North took control of the game in the first quarter, leading by 18 points at the main break, the Cats would not be subdued for long.

In a devastating burst to start the second term, Geelong slammed on seven unanswered goals in 20 minutes, as Paul Couch put on a dominant display in the middle.

With Ablett, Billy Brownless and David Mensch kicking five goals for the quarter between them, Geelong went into half-time leading by 24 points.

The game was far from over though, as North legend Wayne Carey delivered one the best performances of his career. He kicked four goals in the third term, but a goal-for-goal quarter meant North only reduced the margin to 18 points heading into the three-quarter time huddle.

In a tense last quarter, only four goals were kicked, but the first three went to North through Adrian McAdam, Brett Allison and John Longmire.

In fact, when Longmire marked in the goal square from a centre clearance and converted for his third goal, North Melbourne regained the lead with just over five minutes left.

Minutes later, Geelong’s Andrew Wills missed a running shot from just inside 50 to tie the game, which made both sides desperate to score any way they could.

The final 90 seconds of the game were incredible. John Barnes took a towering mark on the last line of defence from a Glenn Archer kick to save a goal.

But neither side wanted to slow things down, resulting in end-to-end footy which finished with a boundary throw-in in the Cats’ forward pocket with 25 seconds left.

North full-back Mick Martyn grabbed the ball and tried to clear it, but it landed in Leigh Colbert’s hands, who kicked inside 50 with 10 seconds left.

After Barnes dropped a sitter, Leigh Tudor pounced on the ball and kicked a floater towards the goal square, which went above Martyn’s head and into the outstretched hand of a nonchalant Ablett.

Seconds later the siren went, and Ablett coolly converted to kick Geelong into the grand final. Until that point, Ablett had been held to only two goals and four possessions by Martyn, making it all the more frustrating that he proved the hero.

It was absolute heartbreak for the Roos, who had reason to be aggrieved by a shockingly one-sided free kick count of 33-12 in Geelong’s favour.

Despite that point of controversy, the match itself ranks not only as probably the greatest preliminary final of all time, but possibly even the greatest VFL/AFL game ever played.

CARLTON 16.8 (104) d ESSENDON 14.19 (103) (MCG, preliminary final 1999)

Carlton recorded a stunning upset victory in the 1999 preliminary final, knocking off the highly fancied Bombers by a point.

Essendon finished the season top of the ladder and smashed Sydney by 69 points in the qualifying final.

Carlton, on the other hand, had finished the season only sixth and lost its qualifying final against Brisbane by 73 points, before bouncing back to win their semi-final against West Coast and setting up a preliminary final against its arch rival.

In front of 80,519 at the MCG, Carlton started strongly to lead by 24 points at half-time. But Essendon hit back with a dominant seven-goal third quarter to lead by 11 heading into the final break.

When Steven Alessio kicked the opening goal of the last quarter to extend the lead to 17 points, Essendon looked well on its way to victory, but Carlton replied by kicking the next four goals.

This included two from Anthony Koutoufides, who sparked Carlton’s revival with a legendary final term roaming the midfield.

A monster goal from Lance Whitnall looked to have sealed it for the Blues. But a reply from Mark Johnson made the difference only two points again with just over two minutes to play.

In the frantic final moments, Bomber Mark Mercuri’s hurried snap missed, before a famous tackle from Carlton’s Fraser Brown on Dean Wallis, attempting to charge closer to goal, stopped Essendon’s final forward foray, and ensured a rousing Blues victory.

ESSENDON 17.9 (111) d ADELAIDE 14.16 (100) (MCG, preliminary final 1993)

The “Baby Bombers” secured a remarkable grand final appearance in 1993 after Adelaide blew a 42-point half-time lead in the preliminary final.

Looking to make their first grand final appearance in just their third AFL season, the Crows got off to the hottest of starts, building an imposing lead thanks to a five-goal first half from Tony Modra.

The Bombers soon kicked into gear though, beginning took control of the midfield battle, while Darren Bewick caused chaos up forward.

Reducing the margin to 12 points at three-quarter time, Essendon continued to press and was finally able to hit the front through a goal to Gary O’Donnell.

With just over a minute left and Essendon leading by six points, the Crows led one final charge, breaking through the middle of the ground towards goal. But Gavin Wanganeen made a desperate tackle on David Brown to stop the Crows in their tracks.

Essendon then took the ball forward, where Tim Watson chased after his own errant kick, gathered the ball again and burst through a pack to kick a miraculous goal, sealing an incredible comeback win.

HAWTHORN 11.14 (80) d MELBOURNE 10.18 (78) (Waverley, preliminary final 1987)

Melbourne legend Robbie Flower was denied a fairytale finish to his career in a game which finished in infamous circumstances.

Taking part in their first finals series since 1964 – the year of their last premiership – the Demons took no time adjusting to the heat of September, first defeating North Melbourne by 118 points, followed by a 76-point thumping of Sydney.

Coming up against Hawthorn for a spot in the grand final, the Demons were desperate to give their captain Flower a perfect send-off in his final season.

And leading by 22 points heading into the final quarter, a Melbourne win looked likely, with Sean Wight, Todd Viney and Ricky Jackson all prominent.

But an imposing final quarter from the Hawks saw them claw back the margin, reducing the Demons lead to just three points with under a minute left.

Graeme Yeats and Simon Eishold both missed chances to seal victory for Melbourne. Tony Campbell was presented with another easy running shot at goal, but he also missed.

Hawk skipper Michael Tuck took the resultant kick-in and went straight down the middle, where Peter Schwab marked and handballed to Chris Langford. His pass to Gary Buckenara saw the Hawk forward awarded a free kick for a push in the back by Melbourne’s Rod Grinter right on the 50-metre line just as the siren sounded.

It was a tough shot, but tragically for the Demons, inexperienced Irishman Jim Stynes, in his 13th game of league football, accidently ran through the mark, causing a 15-metre penalty.

And from his improved position Buckenara kicked truly, condemning Melbourne to a heartbreaking two-point defeat.

ADELAIDE 12.21 (93) d WESTERN BULLDOGS 13.13 (91) (MCG, preliminary final 1997)

Even though Western Bulldogs supporters have suffered their fair share of preliminary final heartbreak over the years, it’s their 1997 loss against the Crows which sticks out most painfully for fans as the one that got away.

The Bulldogs were shaping as the fairytale story of the season, coming from 15th in 1996 to be just a win away from an elusive grand final appearance – their first since 1961.

Taking on Adelaide at the MCG, the Dogs were in control for most of the day, leading by 22 points at three-quarter time. And with the Coleman medallist Tony Modra off the ground injured, the planets seemed to be aligning for the success-starved Dogs.

But the Crows had other ideas. Led by Darren Jarman, who kicked two pivotal final term goals, Adelaide ran over the top of the Dogs to kick four unanswered goals.

The Dogs had plenty of chances, but could only muster six behinds during the quarter. Although to this day, Bulldogs fans swear a Tony Liberatore snap that was ruled a behind was actually a goal.

Alas, the Bulldogs went down by two points and suffered their third preliminary final defeat since 1985.

They would go on to lose another prelim to Adelaide the next year, and three consecutively from 2008 to 2010, before finally broke the curse with a famous preliminary final victory over GWS in 2016.

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