After 18 unconventional rounds of football in this extraordinary 2020 season, the competition structure now assumes more of a typical format with four highly anticipated clashes to kick off this year’s finals.
The Grandstand commentary team was joined by AFL experts Cameron Ling, Adam Ramanauskas and Mark Maclure — who boast seven premiership medals between them — for a round-table preview of the upcoming matches.
Port Adelaide vs Geelong
This year’s finals series begins with a truly mouth-watering clash between minor premier Port Adelaide and perennial finalist Geelong.
The two teams met back in round 12 at Carrara with the Cats dismantling the Power by 10 goals.
Geelong’s Coleman medallist Tom Hawkins kicked six majors, while Port Adelaide’s spearhead Charlie Dixon was completely blanketed, held scoreless and to only three disposals for the night.
Our Grandstand AFL experts believe Port Adelaide will be wiser for the experience but must devise a plan to nullify Hawkins.
“That Hawkins match-up will be giving Ken Hinkley sleepless nights at the moment,” Ramanauskas said.
“Hawkins is in career-best form. Whether he’s leading at the football or whether he is in a one-on-one contest, if they can’t defend Hawkins two-on-one in a few of those contests, Hawkins will have a night out.”
Maclure was most bullish about the Power’s chances.
He heaped praise on the performance of their midfield this season and questioned why Hinkley’s side was being discounted in some quarters.
“You don’t finish on top for practice, you actually have to beat most other sides in the competition,” Maclure said.
Maclure said the key to beating Hawkins would be his opponents’ positioning.
“You’ve got to play him from behind, you can’t play him from in front because he’s so strong he just pushes you out of the way, it’s so powerful,” he said.
The decisive nature of Geelong’s round-12 win led Ling — the Cats’ most recent premiership captain in 2011 — to doubt the Power’s legitimacy as a premiership contender.
But Ling said there was an opportunity for Port Adelaide to exploit Geelong’s well-organised defence if it became too focused on Dixon.
“All those other players, whether it is Zak Butters, Connor Rozee, Karl Amon … if they’re smart and get to some good positions, then a lot of those Geelong talls will get caught out.”
Ramanauskas agreed Port Adelaide could test Geelong’s defence if Hinkley was willing to adjust his forward-line structure.
“I would start Robbie Gray in the goal square … have Dixon higher up so it doesn’t allow Geelong defenders to get deep,” he said.
“Geelong love to defend as a group, when you start to separate Geelong’s defenders that’s when they start to have a little trouble.”
TIPS: Maclure — Power; Ling — Cats; Ramanauskas — Cats
Brisbane vs Richmond
For the second year in a row, the Brisbane Lions completed the home-and-away season in second spot on the ladder and face the daunting prospect of playing an in-form Richmond in a qualifying final at the Gabba.
Dustin Martin’s six-goal haul was pivotal in Richmond’s commanding 47-point win last year, while inaccurate kicking at goal — an ongoing problem for the Lions — proved costly for the home side, who bowed out of the finals the following week with a narrow lost to the Giants.
Inaccuracy also cruelled Brisbane when the two sides met in round 10 this season, with Chris Fagan’s side posting a woeful four goals and 17 behinds to be beaten by 41 points.
Ling said the Tigers were peaking at just the right time again this season.
“Richmond are coming into this in red-hot form with a massive chip on their shoulder about the season — all of their own doing by the way — everyone has come at them,” he said.
The almost certain return of star fullback Harris Andrews, two weeks ahead of schedule, from a hamstring injury bolsters a Brisbane defence that will have to combat Jack Riewoldt — whose form has built throughout the season — and Tom Lynch, should he also successfully return from a hamstring strain.
If Hawkins is giving Hinkley sleepless nights, Martin must also be doing similar for Fagan.
“We keep talking about Harris Andrews but Jarrod Berry [shoulder injury] needs to play, he just adds another layer to their midfield, otherwise they are quite a small midfield,” Ramanauskas said.
Ramanauskas, who won a premiership with Essendon in 2000, put the onus on Lions’ captain Dayne Zorko to have a major impact.
“You need a big game out of Dayne Zorko; Dayne Zorko needs to hit the scoreboard,” Ramanauskas said.
“If Dylan Grimes goes to Charlie Cameron, that’s a tough night for Charlie.”
Maclure agreed Brisbane would need significant performances from a host of players and could not solely rely on ABC Footballer of the Year, Lachie Neale.
“He’s a star, the Brownlow medallist coming up, Lachie Neale, but he can’t carry it on his own,” Maclure said.
Richmond’s recent demolition of fellow premiership contender Geelong left a strong impression on Maclure, who won three premierships with Carlton.
“The Tigers took the Cats to the cleaners,” Maclure said.
“Made them look like novices, complete novices. The coaches’ box, the lot.”
TIPS: Maclure — Tigers; Ramanauskas — Tigers; Ling — Tigers
St Kilda v Western Bulldogs
St Kilda’s return to finals for the first time since 2011 has been one of the most joyful stories of the season.
The Saints, with the exuberant Brett Ratten in his first year as coach of the club, have played some captivating and high-energy football.
Equally, the Western Bulldogs at their best are one of the competition’s most compelling sides to watch and our experts found splitting the two extremely difficult.
All agreed the midfield battle would be crucial to determining who progressed to week two of the finals.
“I’m worried about the Bulldogs’ midfield cleaning them up around the contest, getting a hold of the contested footy,” Ling said.
“They play with some boldness and I think St Kilda are at risk of being opened up with that sort of ball movement.”
The Bulldogs are confident emerging key forward Aaron Naughton will play, despite having surgery to repair a fractured cheekbone early last week.
Ling said Naughton’s inclusion for the Bulldogs was pivotal.
“He’s such a threat in the air, whether he marks it or he just takes out an entire pack when he flies for it and the little blokes go to work at ground level,” he said.
Ramanauskas singled out the competition’s smallest player, All-Australian Caleb Daniel, as a weapon the Saints must nullify, given his accurate kicking and ability to set up play from the half backline.
“The Caleb Daniel match-up is really fascinating for me,” Ramanauskas said.
“I would use Jarryn Geary on Caleb Daniel.”
Geary, the Saints captain, has been deployed as a defensive forward on several occasions this season. He is the only remaining player from the Saints’ last finals appearance nine years ago.
Ramanauskas said he felt St Kilda’s game style was one that can trouble the Bulldogs.
“When the Bulldogs have struggled this year, teams have been able to move the ball quickly and pierce through quickly,” he said.
“St Kilda have got that capacity.”
TIPS: Maclure — Bulldogs; Ramanauskas — Saints; Ling — Bulldogs
West Coast vs Collingwood
Of this week’s four finals, Saturday night’s sudden-death clash between West Coast and Collingwood looks the most predictable.
After seven rounds, the Magpies were third on the ladder, had just beaten Geelong and looked a serious premiership chance.
But injury, off-field turbulence and inconsistent form have jeopardised their prospects.
The Eagles only missed the top four on percentage and have proven formidable on their home ground at Perth Stadium, where they thrashed the Magpies by 11 goals in round eight.
Josh Kennedy booted seven in that match but is in some doubt for the final due to an ankle injury.
West Coast captain Luke Shuey has been cleared to return from a hamstring injury, while Jeremy McGovern [hamstring] and Jack Redden [finger] also look set to play.
“It’s not a great place to go to if you’re not in great form, West Coast play that place really well,” Maclure said.
“To go over there in the cauldron with the crowd that’s going to be in there and the two tall forwards [Jack Darling and Kennedy], I don’t know how they’re going to handle those, and Liam Ryan is a star, I love the way he plays.
Ramanauskas disagrees, as he sees the potential for Grundy to dominate Naitanui with his ball-winning ability around the ground.
But the absence of vice-captain Steele Sidebottom — who is missing the Magpies’ finals campaign due to the birth of his first child — is significant.
“Sidebottom in finals is a very good player, a very, very good player,” Ramanauskas said.
“You need your best players and I just think that might be a bridge too far.”
Ling agreed with Maclure that West Coast’s tall forward line — which also includes impressive youngster Oscar Allen — would stretch a Collingwood defence missing key interceptor Jeremy Howe, whose season ended prematurely because of a knee injury.
The consensus is that All-Australian centre-half-back Darcy Moore would be given the job on Darling.
“If he plays on Darling, he has to really play on him,” Ling said.
“That takes out a big strength of Collingwood with Darcy Moore’s intercept marking.”
TIPS: Maclure — Eagles; Ramanauskas — Eagles; Ling — Eagles
ABC Grandstand will be broadcasting all finals matches via ABC Radio, Grandstand Digital and streaming on the AFL app.