Original photos: Flickerd/Wikimedia Commons

AFL finals: a series like no other

The AFL season hits the home stretch this weekend in the long-awaited finals series. Under COVID-19 restrictions, no matches can be played in the game’s home state of Victoria, and the Grand Final will go ahead at the Gabba in front of up to 30,000 supporters. Hatch’s James Thompson previews the first week of the 2020 AFL Finals Series.

All games are available to watch live and free on Channel 7. All times are in AEST.

Port Adelaide v Geelong Cats – Oct 1, 7:40pm (Adelaide Oval)

The finals kick off this Thursday with the first Qualifying Final, as the minor premiers prepare to host the highest-scoring club of the season.

Port Adelaide has been impressive from start to finish, keeping hold of top spot at the end of every round in the season. With a loud home crowd behind them and the motivation that comes with the upcoming retirement of veteran Justin Westhoff, there’s no reason they can’t keep the momentum going when it matters most.

But momentum alone won’t be enough against Geelong, who have built their success this year on goal-kicking prowess. The Cats boast a season-high percentage (136.8%) and have Tom Hawkins in their arsenal, who won this year’s Coleman Medal with 42 goals. The next-best kicker, with just 32, was Port’s Charlie Dixon.

The Tomahawk was the star player the last time these two sides met, contributing six goals to the Cats’ 60-point flogging of Power. Geelong’s champion trio of Hawkins, Dangerfield and Selwood should be the standout players in this one, so Port Adelaide need to shut the three of them down early.

Thomo predicts: We have an interesting first game on our hands, especially if Port keep the star Cats tied up. It will be close, but Port will win it by eight and make their passionate home crowd happy.

Brisbane Lions v Richmond – Oct 2, 7:50pm (Gabba)

Same clubs, same positions, same venue. The surprise packet of 2019 and the minor premiers face off in their second consecutive 2v3 qualifier.

Although they fell short of their first minor premiership on percentage, the Lions proved that last year was no fluke and can now consider themselves among the favourites for the flag. Their strength lies in the midfield with the likes of McCluggage, Robinson and, of course, Lachie Neale, rated the AFL’s 2020 MVP by both his peers and the coaches.

Then there’s Richmond, who took home the premiership two out of the past three years, and the minor in the other. The Tigers’ standout squad is chock-a-block full of heavy artillery, with the performances of Dustin Martin and Jack Riewoldt a deciding factor in the team’s performance on Friday night.

History favours the Tiges, who haven’t lost to Brisbane since 2009. But the Lions boast a perfect record at the Gabba and have the added advantage of not having left Queensland since mid-July.

Thomo predicts: This is the game of the round, and I look forward to comparing the performances of Neale and Martin. Richmond will keep their streak against the Lions going with just three points in it. Either way, the winner of this match-up is my tip for the flag.

St Kilda v Western Bulldogs – Oct 3, 4:40pm (Gabba)

Elimination Saturday starts with St Kilda and the Bulldogs, nearly 1,700km away from both clubs’ home city.

The Saints head into their first finals series since 2011, with their recruit spending spree appearing to have paid off. Their return to finals came at least partially off the back of top goalkickers Dan Butler, a transfer from the Tigers, and Max King in his maiden AFL season. They also lay claim to the fourth-best points-scoring haul of the season.

The Bulldogs have had a more interesting recent history, having won a premiership from the same position they held in 2019 and hold again now. Last year, they appeared to crumble under unwarranted expectation against GWS. The onus will be on their leaders to help the team keep cool heads if they want to advance past this week.

Curiously, the last two times these two faced in finals were in 2009 and 2010 preliminaries, where the Saints won both clashes and went on to lose consecutive grand finals. This time, they’re fighting to avoid being the first top-eight club knocked out. The Bulldogs will be most effective in the midfield with players such as Liberatore and Bontempelli, but St Kilda can control the game with their ruckmen and forwards.

Thomo predicts: The high stakes of elimination will make for two desperate sides, but St Kilda’s goal-kickers will be the difference. Saints by 20.

West Coast v Collingwood – Oct 3, 8:10pm (Optus Stadium)

Week 1 concludes in the West, with the Eagles hosting Collingwood at Optus Stadium.

West Coast, despite falling short of the second chance, have had another impressive season noted for seeing Nic Naitanui hit his peak ability after undergoing knee surgery in 2018. In his first full year back from that reconstruction, Naitanui has been a high-impact star, and his efforts see him selected as this year’s best ruckman. The Eagles also have in their arsenal Josh Kennedy, the season’s third most prolific goal-scorer.

The Pies’ failure to secure a home final in the last game sums up their season, leaving them almost literally limping into finals. What should have been a highly successful year for them soon turned into one soured by players going missing, either through injury, suspension, or in the case of Steele Sidebottom, personal choice.

It’s hard to see Collingwood putting in a strong performance in Perth, where the Eagles have won all their home games, including handing the Pies their worst defeat of the season.

Thomo predicts: This is the only one I’m absolutely certain on. I can only see West Coast winning this, with a 30-point margin at least.

Original photos by Flickerd/Wikimedia Commons: (L-R) Justin Westhoff, Dayne Zorko, Dustin Martin, Mark Blicavs, Nic Naitanui, Jake Carlisle, Lachie Hunter, Steele Sidebottom