AFL finals were absorbing in week one, but premiership picture still remains blurry

The opening round of the AFL finals was one of the most absorbing in recent memory.

Port Adelaide and Brisbane put paid to doubts about their premiership-winning potential, Collingwood produced an inspired performance in a true classic with West Coast, and St Kilda clung on to record its first finals win in 10 years.

Not a bad way to kick things off.

On Saturday, I was swept up in the excitement of Saints fans as they made their return to finals for the first time since 2011. Max from Wynyard in north-west Tasmania sent our Grandstand commentary team a text message that captured the sense of anticipation.

“When the Saints won in 1966, as a dairyman I listened on scratchy radio in a dairy when that famous point was kicked,” Max wrote.

“The noise I made nearly [led to] a stampede of cows!

“As [an] 82-year-old fan, could this be the year?”

Tim Membrey helped give Saints something to cheer about in the epic win over the Bulldogs.(AAP: Dave Hunt)

It genuinely seems this year could be anyone’s.

Despite two teams falling out of contention, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions from the first four finals. If anything, the premiership picture only became greyer and my mind more misty than a dairy full of hard-breathing cows on a crisp Wynyard morning.

Port Adelaide and Brisbane have put themselves in prime positions with home preliminary finals to come after a couple of high-intensity and hard-nosed wins over Geelong and Richmond respectively.

Without wanting to discredit those performances — as the Power and Lions were superb — the Cats and Tigers were well below their best.

It’s too simplistic too suggest Geelong would have beaten Port Adelaide if not for inaccurate kicking, but it was certainly a factor.

More concerning for Chris Scott’s side was the disappointing showing of several players, such as Gary Ablett, Tom Stewart, Jack Henry, Gary Rohan and Jake Kolodjashnij. All-Australian Cam Guthrie also had one of his quietest games of the year.

A Richmond AFL player holds the jersey of a Brisbane Lions opponent while they stand facing each other.
The Lions were able to get under the skin of the Tigers in their qualifying final.(AAP: Darren England)

By two-time premiership coach Damien Hardwick’s own admission, his Richmond side was “bumbly, fumbly” and “ill disciplined”.

He conceded Brisbane’s system beat Richmond’s system, which is quite the admission given the Tigers’ typically bullet-proof method.

But despite the week one results, only the brave would be prepared to put a line through Richmond despite what’s been a bit of a “bumbly, fumbly” season in lots of ways.

Former Tiger and ABC Grandstand expert Brett Deledio said Richmond’s premiership defence was far from over.

“They’ve [Richmond] been there before, they know what it’s going to take,” Deledio said.

“So, it’s going to be hard but I certainly think that Dimma [Hardwick] can turn them around.”

Cats still in the hunt

Geelong shouldn’t be discounted either, given the number of players that underperformed in what was only a 16-point loss to the Power at Adelaide Oval on Thursday night.

Scott labelled references to Geelong’s poor finals record — now 12 losses from 16 finals since the 2011 premiership — as lazy. But it’s also fact.

Encouragingly, the Cats have a proven history of bouncing back the week after losing a qualifying final, winning on four out of five occasions since 2011.

A dejected group of AFL players come from the ground after losing their first final.
The Cats are not a spent force in this year’s finals series.(AAP: David Mariuz)

In this week’s semi-finals, Richmond will face St Kilda — a side it lost to in round four — while the Cats also lost to their next opponent, Collingwood, in round seven of the regular season.

The Magpies’ win over West Coast was an enormous upset and the match itself was another epic encounter between two sides who rival Sophocles for producing classics.

Collingwood, having already overcome an arduous 13-day stretch of four matches within the season, had the toughest task of any finals side, as they faced an in-form West Coast at its Perth Stadium fortress.

The Pies had to quarantine in the lead-up and were dismissed as merely making up the numbers in the finals, but Nathan Buckley’s side embraced the challenge and delivered a performance that fans will long remember.

Collingwood played with greater conviction, moving the ball quickly, and had an array of contributors. Taylor Adams’s desperate smother on Tom Cole with 30 seconds to go typified the side’s commitment and desperation to extend its season.

Four Collingwood AFL players embrace in a circle as they celebrate beating the West Coast Eagles.
The Magpies were written off before the finals but their campaign is still alive.(AAP: Richard Wainwright)

The Magpies never felt they were making up the numbers and Saturday night will only fuel their belief a premiership is still attainable despite finishing eighth on the ladder.

St Kilda will also be thinking anything’s possible after claiming a first finals victory since 2010.

Before Collingwood and West Coast traded blows in their one-point thriller, the Saints clung on grimly against a fast-finishing Western Bulldogs at the Gabba.

Brett Ratten’s side appeared home with a lead of 22 points when captain Jarryn Geary goaled at the 12-minute mark of the last quarter. But St Kilda fans have the emotional scars to prove you should never make early proclamations of victory.

The Bulldogs thrust the ball forward in wave after wave but could ultimately never find a go-ahead-goal. When asked on ABC Grandstand what had been the key to getting over the line, St Kilda defender Callum Wilkie quipped: “The clock.”

But again, Max, the Wynyard dairyman, summed things up best: “For an 82 years old fan, that was bit hard on the heart,” he said.

It’s too early to be setting off stampedes, but for Saints fans — both young and old — it was a finals win to cherish.

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