AFL Finals Week 1: Winners and Losers

What a round of football! Three great games, three big upsets, and really only Sydney failed to come to the party. The difference between finals football and home and away football is like the difference between the first two Godfather films and the third. The third has its moments, but the other two are in a different class.

Winners

Fremantle

Wow. The Dockers were dealt an extremely tough card in having to trek down to Simonds to face the Cats. Geelong’s formidable record at home is well known, and the football community figured Fremantle had little hope of tasting success. Instead they head back to Perth with a home Preliminary Final on the near horizon, and a first Grand Final appearance looming large.

The game was the antithesis of Friday night’s came in terms of how it was won. The Hawks often gave up the first possession at stoppages, but won the game on pressure and deadly efficiency with ball in hand. Fremantle’s stunning victory was built upon stoppage dominance. Geelong’s clearance struggles have been well documented, but usually it matters for naught, as they back their pressure and work rate to force turnovers, their preferred method of ball winning. This didn’t pay off on Saturday afternoon. The Dockers slaughtered the Cats in the middle, winning 43 clearances to Geelong’s 22. They controlled the ruck, winning 53 taps to a paltry 16. Winning the taps can be grossly overrated, but taps to advantage are most certainly not. You could make an impressive montage of ruck work from this game alone. The work of Sandilands to feed his team mates, particularly around goal, was first class, and directly resulted in several goals.

Fremantle’s game was also a glowing endorsement for mature age recruits. The two clear standouts on the field were Michael Barlow and Lee Spurr, who both had delayed entries to AFL football. Barlow combined his workman like nature with some class in front of goal, kicking three from his 32 disposals. Spurr meanwhile controlled the game from the back-half for the Dockers. The team anointed him as the man to bring the ball out of defence, and he excelled, leading all players for kicks, with 22, and rebound fifties, with eight.

I also want to note the performance of Matthew Pavlich. The Docker’s captain has seen some rough times at Fremantle, and has repeatedly turned down the allure of returning to South Australia. It’s fitting he should lead the Dockers to their first home Prelim and potentially first Grand Final. On Saturday though there was a key passage of play toward the end of the game. With the margin still within Geelong’s reach, and the ball heading forward, Pavlich dropped back into defence and provided a truly glorious goal saving spoil. This is one of the best things about the game of football. The simple act of a man working back and punching a ball away from his opponent can receive as much attention and applause as an improbable goal. It was a key moment, and I’m willing to bet anyone watching the game who has witnessed football more than three times would have clapped or uttered a “well done Pavlich’ for that particular piece of play.

Hawthorn

The Hawks smashed the Swans, and there is no other way to describe it.

Hawks Swans Difference
Disposals 407 315 92
Uncontested Possessions 271 172 99
Marks 114 43 71
Inside 50s 54 38 16
Marks Inside 50 20 8 12
Scoring shots 30 16 14

 

It was a case of Hawthorn playing their game on their terms. They like to dominate possession of the football, and prevent the opposition from having the supply necessary to do the things they want to do. The only area the Swans managed to beat the Hawks in were clearances, but getting hands on the football first isn’t beneficial if you don’t have any time or space to utilise it. They had no time to string together possessions, or create uncontested ones after winning the first contest, meaning the ball was often won and shoved on the boot, allowing Hawthorn’s defenders to swarm Sydney’s tall brigade as they waited for the ball to drop.

The Hawks controlled possession, and their supreme skills were on full display. They didn’t win the stoppages, yet still had sixteen more forward entries, and their forward entries were lethal, hitting a target twenty times. With Franklin and Rioli both to return to the side over the coming weeks, Hawthorn are looking every bit the team to beat this September.

Carlton

The Blues managed one of those rare “upset victories that was in no way surprising”. Lets be honest. During the week chances are you talked football with someone who said “you know, I think Carlton might beat Richmond this week”, and you probably responded “yeah I could see that”. You might have thought Richmond were the better side, and you probably thought they would win, but you could definitely conceive of a scenario that ended with Carlton victory, and it probably went exactly as the game actually did.

First, a general comment on the game as an experience. It was phenomenal. Over 94,000 folks piled into the G, and the atmosphere, combined with the game itself, created an experience worthy of the Grand Final title. In the very least, Richmond’s long wait for the occasion gave it an air of importance never before seen in a week one Elimination Final. The ebbs and flows were dramatic, and every passage felt critical. Some games are close, but don’t feel close.

The first quarter belonged to the Tigers, and their inability to take advantage on the scoreboard will be rightfully listed as a reason for their eventual demise. They tripled the Blues’ inside fifty entries, yet could only manage one more goal than them. Indeed Carlton scored something nearly every time they went in. The Tigers would get some reward in the second, kicking seven goals to four, including one after the siren to Cotchin, to grant themselves a more than handy 26 point lead at the long break.

From there it fell apart for Richmond, as the Blues controlled nearly everything throughout the second half. The big reason behind their resurgence was centre clearance dominance. Chris Judd, who looked severely underdone during the first half, won several clearances in a row, most of which resulted in goals. In fact, five of Carlton’s six goals in the third term came from stoppage wins. The Tigers were a sieve in the middle, with Judd, Robinson, Murphy and Gibbs winning the ball with alarming ease. The story was much the same in the final term, with four more goals coming from the stoppages. Carlton would kick twelve goals in the half to Richmond’s four, and the Blues simply translated their control to the scoreboard better than the Tigers had managed earlier.

There were several standout performances for the Navy Blues. Judd’s second half bordered on herculean. Murphy was influential, while Gibbs won clearance after clearance, finishing with 12, five more than anyone else on the ground. Their much maligned forward line gelled better than they had in any previous game this season. Betts and Garlett wrecked Havoc, and Waite was the instrumental figurehead they’ve been crying out for (his injury concerns throughout his career have really hurt the club, as they are far more effective up forward when he is there). He kicked four goals, but more importantly laid six tackles, and his pressure was very reminiscent of that of the Eagles’ Josh Kennedy. Nick Duigan, who was a late replacement for Brock McLean, did his best Shane Ellen impression, kicking four straight as a makeshift forward and making himself the runaway winner for the round one fairytale performance. Mitch Robinson, who made a massive error in the final term and conceded a cheap goal for it, received well deserved praise for getting back on the horse and playing an integral part in the final result. He kicked a goal shortly afterward, and while his disposal leaves much to be desired at times, his attack on the ball is relentless, and he popped up in the right places at the right time with increasing frequency in the final ten minutes.

Port Adelaide

The Power were probably the team offered the least chance of advancing past week one of the finals, with a Collingwood victory widely assumed. Port Adelaide continued to do what they do best however, surprise others, and win final quarters. Port Adelaide maintained a one or two goal lead throughout much of the game, and even then there was this prevailing sense that eventually Collingwood would simply turn it on and overcome them. Well the Pies did hang around, and they did nudge themselves in front, but they never kicked on with it, and it was Port instead who elevated to the level required.

Port Adelaide trailed the Pies in many of the broad statistical areas, but they seized their chances more often than the Pies, and that was the big difference. Wingard and Wines were exceptional in their first finals, kicking five goals between them. They handled the occasion like seasoned veterans, and are two impressive cornerstones the club can build around over the coming years. I’ve shouted Wingard’s praises repetitively this year, and last night he offered more evidence that stardom is very much on the cards. His instincts and decision making are reminiscent of the very best. He does all the little things that seem so obvious, yet few players do. Simple things like positioning yourself correctly to best beat out a taller opponent, or judge the ball drop. His marking for a player his size is incredible. He rarely gets beaten in a contest. He is quick, he has very good skills. I can’t think of an obvious deficiency, and he is only twenty years old.

Clearly I love him, so I’ll stop now.

Ross Lyon 

The public opinion around Ross Lyon has always been mixed, with many declaring him a stain on football for defence first, second and third approach. Put me in the “fan” category. The man gets results. This ridiculous assertion put forth by some that a Lyon coached team can never win the flag because he offends the footy gods, or because of “their style”, makes my brain hurt.  Besides, aren’t finals high pressure, highly contested games with little space more often than not? It seems to me his style would be conducive to the finals format. Part of me hopes they win it just so I don’t have to listen to such claims again.

You know what my favourite style is? Winning. They don’t hand out trophies for being pretty (well, they do, but those are horrible competitions). I’d be over the moon if Lyon was the coach of my side, because I know my side is going to have an identity. I know they are going to work both ways. I know every single player will be accountable. I know beyond any doubt they will be one of the best defensive sides in the league, and I know chances are we will be playing finals more often than not. His sides have made the finals six out of his seven years as an AFL head coach. Not many teams have made the finals with that sort of consistency.

I’d go as far as to say I think he is the best coach in the competition. By doing what he has done at Fremantle he has successfully implemented his style at two clubs. He’s proven his St Kilda success wasn’t due to inheriting a great list. This Fremantle team has improved dramatically under his tenure, without a significant shift in personnel, but with all the traits of a Lyon side. The thing is none of this changes if they don’t win the flag. Capturing one is obviously the number one goal and the defining measure of greatness, but realistically making the finals every year is quite the achievement in its own right (look at Richmond’s recently ended plight, and Melbourne’s current one, as evidence. Look at how frequently teams drop in and out.). That sort of consistency is extremely hard to come by. When you factor in that Lyon’s sides are rarely finals fodder, he has quite the record to stand on. To me the one issue is not whether his style can stand up in the finals, but whether he can integrate younger players successfully into the side over the coming years. His efforts in this regard left a little to be desired in the latter part of his St Kilda days.

Losers

Sydney

Laid a colossal egg on Friday night. They were second rate in nearly every facet, and appeared woefully over-matched in the fitness stakes.

The Swans beat the Hawks at the stoppages, at least in terms of sheer amount of times they won the ball first, but they did nothing with it. If you win the clearances you should win the inside fifty count, but the Hawks trounced them in this regard, with sixteen more entries. An even more sizeable gap existed in terms of the quality of those entries. Hawthorn lowered their eyes and hit targets on the lead, taking twenty marks inside the arc, while the Swans resorted to bombing it on Tippett and the rest of their tall timber’s heads. Chances are if you let the opposition take twenty marks within sight of goal, you’re going to lose. They had eight players, basically a third of the side, register less than ten disposals. They just couldn’t get their hands on it in space.

Geelong

Handed a golden opportunity, a home final in Geelong, and blew it.

We covered the differences between the Hawks and Dockers methods of victory earlier, but a big similarity between the two losing sides was their efforts going forward. Specifically, their insistence on bombing it long toward the square. Now a fair portion of this comes down to the pressure their opposition placed on the ball carriers, but you do reach a point where you’re only helping your opposition by doing this. At least the Swans had the likes of Tippett, Pyke, White, and Mumford to bomb it to. With Hawkins out the Cats had James Podsiadly as the sole genuine tall up there. The J-Pod had one mark inside fifty. Geelong had only eight in total, with most of them being spread among smalls like Corey, Stokes, Duncan and Christensen. In short, taking eight marks, and kicking nine goals, from 55 inside fifty entries, is not going to win you games.

Collingwood

The third losers of the week, and the third side to suffer from horrendous return from the forwards. Collingwood beat the Power narrowly in most areas of the game, and comprehensively beat them for forward entries, but the quality of their entries was far inferior. Port Adelaide smothered Cloke, making him a non factor, and forcing the Pies to turn their attention to Dane Swan. The Brownlow Medallist did his part, kicking three goals and taking a remarkable eight marks inside fifty, but nobody else came to help him out.

Richmond

Beaten by ninth. You can’t escape destiny.

We covered the dramatic changes that occurred after half time in the Carlton section, so it won’t be rehashed here. Instead the focus will be on individual players. First the positives. Vlastuin showed plenty to suggest he will be a big game player for the Tigers over the coming years. Maric’s effort was immense throughout. His goal in the last was something special, and the subsequent celebration even better. I could watch it again and again. Cotchin was also fantastic, and I’m sure we will see some incredible finals performances from the Tiger’s captain over the journey.

Unfortunately for Richmond, several of their players dropped off significantly once Carlton gained the ascendancy. Dustin Martin had a fine first half, but was barely sighted in the second. This isn’t good enough from a player hoping to fetch as much moolah as he is, but what’s worse is the frequency with which it occurs. There are numerous games where Martin just goes missing for long periods of time. I can’t think of many other midfielders of his quality that you don’t see on your television screen for extended periods of time. You almost forget he is playing.

Riewoldt had a dirty game. He was rarely targeted by his team mates, and struggled to get into the game as a result. Morris, who has had a spectacular season as a small defender, had perhaps his worst game of the year, with both Betts and Garlett getting the better of him. Richmond’s drive off the back half was severely limited, with Ellis, Deledio and Houli largely prevented from running and carrying.

It was a disappointing end for a promising season from the Tigers, and while getting bested by Carlton will sting for the next six months, there really are more positives than negatives to take away from 2013. They’ve ended their finals appearance drought. Next year they’ll aim to end their finals win draught.

About Adam Ritchie

My name is Adam. I started watching football with two fellow parapsychologists in an abandoned firehouse. When we’re not watching footy, we’re running our own pest control business. What do you mean I stole that from Ghostbusters?

Comments

  1. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Great Summary Adam it was a win for Mature aged Recruits in Barlow Spurr and Duigan
    As a SANFL Person it is a a Disgrace that Spurr and Duigan were ignored for so long undoubtablly the same would apply re Barlow his effort to get drafted so late then dominate the Comp and break his leg and come back and dominate a Final is remarkable . I concur re Lyon as a Norwood Person who is lucky enough to no the Nwd Game Plan under Nathan Bassett a defensive Game Plan is interesting if you really understand it
    How Wingard was not drafted by GWS having seen him play as a junior is 1 of the Greatest Draft Cock ups ever
    Sandilands Game was a victory for Ruckman a dominant Performance in Goals from Ruck Taps to Advantage is a skill to often ignored as I Predict a lot of clubs will regret not picking Grundy
    In conclusion I am wrapped that Nick Duigan is the winner of the fairytale of the 1st week of the Finals Nick is a outstanding person who has a good balance re Life
    and is a good player who’s treatment at the Carlton selection table has been mystifying but it is outside of Footy where Nick has enormous Respect well done Duigs
    Go the Redlegs

  2. Adam, great wrap, and cheers for the the Pavs mention; out of a game of brilliant moments for this Freo fan that stands out as typical of this Freo side and of the man himself. He is an absolute colossus that carried the club on his immense shoulders for years. It was brilliant to see the ball in his hand at the end and I just hope that that scene can be repeated at the end of the GF in three weeks. No one deserves a flag more than him.

  3. Adam – great stuff. Don’t ever write these magnum opuses again on a Monday. Monday is venting day in footy, and insightful analysis is lost in all the spleen and joyful revenge.
    Fremantle’s rucks got a strong mention in the media, but Lobbe was brilliant for Port at taps and around the ground.
    I always thought Monfries was a show pony at Essendon, but he has become very disciplined and effective under Kenny.
    Trade HShaw for Collingwood’s and his own sake. Rhys never looked back once he stopped thinking he was a ‘legend’. Brown, Cloke and Reid – look like Tarzan, play like …….
    I thought SMotlop was the next star of the game. The next few weeks on the MCG will tell if he is flashy or great.
    Can my Eagles have Brad Ebert back??
    You are spot on about RL and team discipline and belief. Whenever there was biffo, Ballantyne had his hands taped to his thighs. Chested people and ran off to play team footy.
    Zac Dawson was the designated aggressor. With MJohnson and McPharlin back they could afford to lose him. Mayne and StevieJ both had brain fades (SJ for the 27th time). Spectators at finals time could cause a lot of pain as both are critical to team structure.
    Hawks the best kicking team of all time. Better without Buddy???? Their leadups and precision were brilliant. Can anyone put enough pressure on their ball carriers, or will internal expectations be enough to make them crack? Best team on their day by a mile, but an off day and……………..

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