Once your footy team exits the finals, as mine now has, it’s amazing how quickly the interest and energy levels wane. It was hard to imagine last weekend as I was jovially sipping my mid-strength beer at Paterson’s Stadium at halftime with the Dockers four goals up, that I’d be trudging back to the car an hour later with that horrible, helpless, empty feeling, knowing that this year wasn’t the year (again).
Is there still footy on? For the fans of the four teams remaining, there certainly is: its preliminary finals weekend. Whether Australian Football is the only sport in the world where the winners of the semi-finals don’t make it to the grand final, I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s yet another quirk of our game that sets it apart from the rest. But the preliminary finals are often cracking games, and making it to a prelim pretty much equates to having a successful season.
This year, two of the prelim final teams finished outside of the top four after the home and away season. For Port Adelaide and North Melbourne, finishing as far back as fifth and sixth respectively after the regular season may actually be enough to win the whole thing. The last time this happened was in 1998, when Adelaide won from fifth place (although the final eight system was different to what it is now, and the Crows finished only a game behind fourth spot).
So can one of these teams snatch a flag from that far back?
Sydney v North Melbourne
It doesn’t seem that long ago that Sydney coach John Longmire was lining up for goal at full forward in the blue and white stripes of the Kangaroos. “Horse” finished his playing career in 1998. Fast forward a few years, and North was struggling for its mere existence, having rejected significant financial inducements to relocate to the Gold Coast. They even became just the “Kangaroos” for a while, before reconnecting with their small but passionate supporter base in Melbourne.
To now be playing off in a prelim against the Swans is a credit to coach Brad Scott, who seems to have finally made the most inconsistent team in the league, well, slightly more consistent.
They beat the Swans early in the home and away season, so they’ll go in with confidence. They’ve got an inspirational, tough-nut captain in Andrew Swallow, some silky midfielders in Nick Dal Santo and Daniel Wells, some pretty good key position players, and a dominant ruckman in Todd Goldstein.
All very nice, but is it enough to beat the Swans? In a word, no. Although they’ll put up a better fight than Geelong would have, the Swans are almost a sure thing to make it through to another grand final. And this week I won’t even mention anything about the uneven playing field created by their inflated salary cap.
Prediction: Sydney by 33 points.
Hawthorn v Port Adelaide
There’s no worse omen than when you find yourself humming the opposition team’s club song the morning before a game. I tried to ignore it, but as I was repeatedly singing, “We’ll never stop stop stop ‘til we’re top top top”, the news came through that Freo defender Alex Silvagni was a late withdrawal with a hamstring injury, and I had a sneaky suspicion it was going to be Port’s day.
To see the running power, if you pardon the pun, and skill of Port Adelaide first hand was quite an impressive sight, admittedly. Where the Dockers sprayed kicks and fumbled handballs, Port’s effort in the second half was a master class in how to take the game on. Port coach Ken Hinkley said to his charges at halftime that if they were going down, they were going down on their terms, and this was obvious from the first few seconds of the third quarter, as Port booted the first two goals and then went on with it.
The general perception is that Port is the better chance of the two underdogs this weekend, and I would have to agree. It will be close, but Hawthorn should still get through. Hinkley has done an amazing job (as has club president, ‘Kochy’) of bringing a club that was on its knees only three years ago back to the brink of success. Next year could be their year.
Prediction: Hawthorn by 15 points.
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