Preliminary finals
Bulldogs full forward Aaron Naughton celebrates a goal. (Photo: Getty Images)

2021 AFL Roundup: Preliminary Finals

The AFL script writers certainly know what they are doing. In the final home-and-away round this year, the fixtures pitted the Cats and Demons – who proceeded to play out a modern classic – whilst the Bulldogs hosted the Power, who themselves fought out a fierce encounter. This year’s preliminary finals? None other than the Demons against the Cats and the Power versus the Bulldogs! Kudos, AFL script writers. Kudos.

For the vanquished preliminary finalists, their season would be over. For the victors? A place in the 2021 AFL Grand Final.

Geelong Cats vs Melbourne Demons

In recent years, Melbourne and Geelong – the two oldest clubs in the competition – have fought out some absolute nail biters. Their past four home and away matches have all resulted in margins of four points or less. Each club has an after-the-siren win to their credit, with the Demons missing late chances to steal the win in the other two meetings.

This game was very much not like those others.

From the opening bounce, this was all Red and Blue as the Demons pounced on the Cats, their younger legs chasing an ageing cats outfit (11 of their 22 players were the wrong side of 30) off the park.

Coming into the game, the only changes to last week’s line-ups were hamstring enforced: the Demons introduced veteran defender Michael Hibberd for Joel Smith, the Cats elevating Shaun Higgins for the injured Brandon Parfitt.

The Demons dominated the opening few minutes for little reward. Burgeoning star Kysaiah Pickett was everywhere, producing a fine pair of plays to give the Demons the first two shots at goal: Ben Brown hitting the post, Tom McDonald hitting Zac Guthrie, the man standing the mark.

Geelong successfully rode that early Melbourne wave to respond with the opening goal. The prolific Sam Menegola roved well on the wing, slamming the ball forward. The Demons defenders converged on the high ball but only managed to spoil the ball to Jeremy Cameron, who had stayed behind the contest. He skilfully dribbled the ball through from around 40 meters out.

Melbourne quickly responded through a break from a stoppage – a harbinger for the rest of the game. On this occasion Christian Petracca drove the ball deep into the Dees forward line where Brown outmanoeuvred Mark Blicavs to mark and goal.

Melbourne again scored from a stoppage, this time James Harmes collecting a Max Gawn hit out to steer the ball home from 45 metres out. Melbourne had their 3rd and 4th majors in short order, both

coming from being quicker to the ground ball. Firstly the unheralded Alex Neal-Bullen gathered the ball and slotted home a goal before the very much heralded Petracca ripped the ball out of Esava Ratugolea’s hands, danced by a despairing Henderson and dribbled the ball home.

A concern for the Demons came through a hamstring strain for All Australian fullback Steven May. His opponent Tom Hawkins got away with a push in the back to take a mark. Whilst the Tomahawk’s kick was unusually woeful, sailing out of bounds, the Dees star defender felt for his hamstring. He left the ground with ‘tears in his eyes’ according to the Channel 7 sideline reporter Abbie Holmes. With Hawkins able to win a final from his own boot, this could have been catastrophic for Melbourne.

At the other end, a hacked clearance from Blicavs fell to Charlie Spargo and the diminutive Demons forward calmly converted his set shot.

The Demons ran riot in the opening term to lead 33 points to six. Their pressure and speed causing havoc amongst the Cats, creating either rushed kicks that lead to turnovers or seeing the Cats forced to slow the play down, playing into the Demons defensive hands.

Concerningly for Melbourne, Jake Lever joined fellow star backman May in receiving treatment after hyper extending his knee. Fortunately, though, Lever started the 2nd term on the field and May returned to the bench, hamstring cleverly strapped.

Throughout the year, the Cats 2nd quarters were their best and they started the term in that manner.

They finally were able to string a series of passes together, importantly finding their best ball users in Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood. The latter speared a beautiful ball to a leading Rhys Stanley, the ruckman making no mistake with his set shot.

The Demons replied almost instantly, again through being first to the ground ball. Jack Viney – playing a brilliant half of football – released Clayton Oliver and his long ball came to ground. This time Spargo was able to collect and snap home another goal.

The teams then traded goals from free kicks to small forwards. Firstly Gryan Miers goaled for the Cats before Tom Sparrow answered for Melbourne.

Dees skipper Gawn then provided the first of what would be a series of personal highlights in this match. As he led out for the ball, he heard the umpire call that the ball was touched. Thinking quickly, he wheeled with all the agility of a cruise liner around onto his right foot as he seemingly forgot for a moment that he was 6’10”, snapping a wonderful goal.

Melbourne kicked another goal in short order as Pickett easily shrugged off Zach Guthrie to score from the pocket.

The Demons missed three very gettable chances to put the game beyond doubt inside a half as Petracca, Bayley Fritsch and then Brown all missed shots that they would have liked back.

The Cats made Melbourne pay for their wastefulness with late goals to Hawkins and Isaac Smith reducing the lead to 29 points at the half.

Despite Melbourne’s dominance of the opening half, that lead was somewhat smaller than it could, perhaps should have been. With the rollercoaster round 23 game surely on the minds of both teams, the 3rd term would prove make or break for both teams.

As it happened, Melbourne made; Geelong broke.

A devastating 50 point to one 3rd term blew this game apart as a contest, with Gawn taking centre stage.

Melbourne started strongly as Brown marked and goaled inside the opening minute. Fritsch then benefited from a debateable 50 metre penalty against Selwood. Then it was the Big Max Show.

Melbourne’s midfield is built on Gawn’s ruck dominance and the clearance work of Oliver and Petracca. All three combined as Gawn galloped away to bomb home from outside the 50 metre arc.

McDonald rudely interjected himself into Gawn’s showpiece, snapping a beauty from distance, to cap a three goal in as many minutes run for Melbourne. Gawn then went on his own personal run of three goals in just four minutes.

Gawn and Oliver were simultaneously collared by Ratugolea and Jed Bews, respectively. The umpires awarded Gawn the free kick, which he duly converted. Just 90 seconds later, the ball was thrown in from the Demons forward pocket, Gawn plucked the ball out of the air, slamming it on his boot as he was being tackled, the football somehow finding the goals from an acute angle. Another minute – another Gawn goal. This time the big man marking in a pack before kicking truly.

Gawn’s career high was three goals – here he had three in four minutes, four in the quarter, and five for the match!

With the match all but wrapped up with well over a quarter to play, the Dees finally pulled May, giving his hamstring a chance to recuperate before the Grand Final – and make no mistake, the Demons were on their way to the Big Dance.

Pickett rubbed salt into Cat wounds with his 2nd of the night, maintaining his feet in a marking contest to rove and dink through another Demons goal.

For the Cats, Dangerfield was fighting against the fading of the light with everything he had. The former Brownlow Medallist was at the heart of the few good things that the Cats were able to produce. He led hard and ran harder, trying to increase the Cats tempo. The shame is that very few of his teammates stepped up to his level. Further pain for the Cats came when the anonymous Gary Rohan was substituted after a hamstring strain.

With the Demons holding a commanding 78 point lead at the final change, the Demons entered self-preservation mode. For Geelong, there was only pride left to play for.

Despite that, the Demons defense was still proving just about impenetrable as multiple Geelong attacks were wither shot down or embarrassingly squandered.

At the other end, Harmes climbed high to give the match the one thing it was missing: a big hanger.

Harmes’ kick was poor which was somewhat representative of a final term where both teams just wanted to get off the park, though form completely differing reasons.

It took close to 20 minutes before Pickett and Fritsch added to Melbourne’s tally, whilst the Cats finally got their opening goal of the 2nd half through Cameron after a nice feed from Higgins, with just over a minute remaining.

The Demons were able to relax, resting their five All Australians in the bench for the last eight minutes, as coach Simon Goodwin even found the time to express his apparent love of Ronnie James Dio.

As ridiculous as it sounds, the final margin of 83 points may have flattered the Cats who, Dangerfield aside, were ponderous all night.

With 30 possessions, Dangerfield was the Cats best by a considerable margin. Isaac Smith was influential at times and Cam Guthrie worked hard, but it was ultimately a one man show for the Cats.

The winners for the Demons were too numerous to mention, but you can’t help but start with the skipper. Gawn’s five goals – many of them genuine highlights – will rightfully steal the headlines, but his general play was to its usual high standards. He owned the ruck contests against Stanley, setting up Petracca, Oliver and Viney to do their stellar work out of the middle.

Viney had 22 possessions at the half, dominating the game when it was at its hottest, finishing with 34. Petracca gathered 32 as he continually broke away from the packs with power and pace. Oliver, usually the most prolific of the three, had 27 in this one, though many of those disposals were key.

With May hobbled, Lever and the vastly underrated Harry Petty held up superbly against the Powerful Cats forward line, though the complete no show from Rohan certainly helped their cause. Christian Salem was prolific across half back with 29 disposals.

Up front, Ben Brown played perhaps his best game in red and blue, both as a long target and leading up the field. At ground level the Demons dominated around goal. Spargo and especially Pickett were a puzzle the Cats failed to solve all night.

For the Cats, one can’t help but wonder if this is the end of an era. When next season begins, Selwood will be 34 years old; Hawkins and Smith 33; Zach Tuohy, Lachie Henderson and Dangerfield will be 32. Stanley and Blicavs 31. Those eight are all in the Cats 12 to 14 best players. Some may now hang up the boots, others may see their form drop away. In any case, the 2021 Cats were on the whole outstanding. The 2022 version could both look and perform far differently.

So, it’s onto the Grand Final for the Demons; their first since 2000. The will play the winner of the Power and Dogs matchup, though no matter who they face they will enter as favourites to claim the clubs 13th premiership and first since 1964.

Melbourne Demons 19 Goals, 11 Behinds (125)

Geelong Cats 6 Goals, 6 Behinds (42)

Goals

Melbourne: Gawn 5, Pickett 3, Spargo 2, Fritsch 2, Brown 2, Petracca, Harmes, Neal-Bullen, McDonald, Sparrow

Geelong: Cameron 2, Hawkins, Stanley, Miers, Smith

Best

Melbourne: Gawn, Viney, Petracca, Lever, Oliver, Salem, Pickett, Brown

Geelong: Dangerfield, Selwood, Smith, Duncan

Port Adelaide Power vs Western Bulldogs

The general consensus is that preliminary finals are often better games of football than the Grand Final itself, given making the Last Saturday in September can be almost as big a reward to some clubs as winning all the chocolates. Given the Demons eviscerated the Cats in Friday night, the percentages dictated that the Power and Dogs game should be a doozy.

The Dogs, though, had other ideas.

As they always do, the Power faithful heartily sang the INXS classic Never Tear Us Apart before the bounce. The Dogs took that as a personal challenge, summarily tearing the Power apart from the opening seconds of this ‘contest’ on their way to a thumping 71 point win.

The Power were well rested after taking care of the Cats a fortnight ago. By contrast, the Dogs played out a genuine thriller against the Lions. In addition, they had travelled all over the nation in the last month, playing in Victoria, then Tasmania, Queensland and now South Australia – and of course hoping to play in Western Australia in a fortnight. Their preparations were thrown into further chaos after a South Australian Health official seemingly arbitrarily banned the team from training upon landing in South Australia due to COVID restrictions.

With the deck somewhat stacked against them, a hot start could prove vital to the Dogs. A hot start was exactly what they got.

Power coach Ken Hinkley chose to start with ace tagger Willem Drew on the bench. His expected mark, Tom Liberatore, made him immediately regret that decision by getting the first two clearances of the match, both resulting in Bulldogs goals. Firstly Bailey Smith got on the end of a handball to snap home the opener inside a minute. A couple of minutes later Laitham Vandemeer marked well on the goal line, snapping home his shot as the dogs led 12 to zero less than three minutes in.

The Dogs piled on the pain as another clearance saw Aaron Naughton take a strong mark steaming out from full forward, converting the resulting set shot.

The Dogs took only six marks inside forward 50 last week against the Lions. Mitch Hannan gave them their fourth inside the opening seven minutes, steering home his shot from the boundary line for the Dogs fourth unanswered major.

In their round 23 matchup, the Bulldogs also managed to kick the opening four goals but, of course, ended up getting overran in the 2nd half. The Power were surely hoping that history would repeat.

Bulldogs captain Marcus Bontompelli quickly put that thought to bed, keeping a ground ball in front of him before finding space to collect and snap home yet another goal.

Port Adelaide finally got on the board at the 20 minute mark. Aliir Aliir was able to take his first interception of the night, launching a counter attack that saw Brownlow Medal favourite Ollie Wines snap home from close range.

With their drought broken, the Power started to find a foothold in the match as the next 10 minutes descended into somewhat of an arm wrestle, the Power’s favoured style of play.

Port Adelaide missed a trio of gilt edged chances to close the gap when Travis Boak kicked a behind, Charlie Dixon not able to score with a tough kick from the boundary and then the usually reliable Robbie Gray missed the lot with his shot at goal.

The Bulldogs made them pay as Adam Treloar drove the ball forward. Vandemeer read the fall of the ball better than those around him, feeding Bailey Smith for another goal. The proverbial cut above the Power’s eye was opened further when Hannan ran into an open goal to extend the lead to 37 points at the quarter time break.

The Power came out looking far better early in the 2nd term. Charlie Dixon marked well but wasn’t able to convert his set shot. Then Dan Houston was the beneficiary of a 50 metre penalty. He didn’t hit his kick cleanly but it had just enough on it to float home for a much needed Power goal.

The Bulldogs response was swift.

Hannan found Naughton for a quick response as the Dogs spent the next period peppering the Power goal. Josh Schache hit the post before missing another shot. Lachlan Hunter also missed before Treloar struck a post. Veteran Jason Johannisen finally broke the run of outs, slamming through a close range goal.

The Dogs then produced a wonderful team goal. Bontompelli won a contested ball on half back, spinning out of a tackle, dodging another before dishing to Treloar. The former Magpie raced down the wing with help from a Bailey Smith shepherd. His kick forward found Naughton, who found Johannisen who, in turn, fed Hannan who snapped a brilliant goal from the boundary line. You could almost physically see Power hearts breaking, by this point.

A rare foray forward saw the Power win a free kick. The ball was fed wide to Riley Bonner who goaled well on the run from 45 metres.

The Dogs were again dominating possession, but the Power were defending grimly. They forced a pair of tough misses before Roarke Smith was well fed by Schache for an easy finish.

Bontompelli piled on the pain with a long bomb just before half time to extend his clubs lead out to an astonishing 58 points at half time.

For the Power to have any chance at pulling off a miraculous comeback, they needed to start the 3rd term on fire.

Encouragingly, the Power were moving the ball noticeably faster to start the half. Orazio Fantasia – invisible in the opening half – found Charlie Dixon on the lead. The big full forward kicking truly. Not more than two minutes later Todd Marshall marked on the lead, steering through his set shot.

Marshall again marked well, this time outstretching Bontompelli. His kick bent late but stayed true enough to add another six points – the Power comeback was on. Except…it wasn’t. The goal was called back upon video review. Standing the mark, Bontompelli jumped, stretching every sinew and got barely a fingertip to the ball, turning a momentum gathering goal into a deflating behind.

Steven Motlop had another kick fall just short, rushed through by Ryan Gardner. The Power were playing much better football but unable to land any major blows. That Bontompelli fingertip proving telling.

Once again, the Dogs finished the 3rd term with the upper hand.

Schache, playing a wonderful game as a defensive forward tasked with nullifying Aliir’s influence, was rewarded with a goal. Me marked well on the lead but missed his set shot, before being found deep in the pocket by a lovely Liberatore pass, this time making no mistake.

Treloar capped the quarter with a goal on the run. He was set free by another gorgeous Liberatore kick, running unchecked into the forward line to steer through an easy shot from 35 metres.

Like the Demons, the Dogs went into preservation mode for the final term, resting their stars as much as possible.

Further salt was rubbed into Power wounds when Anthony Scott – subbed in at three quarter time – goaled with his first kick of the evening.

Bailey Smith continued his stellar finals campaign, the 20 year old effortlessly drilling home a long wonder goal from the boundary.

With the Power fans pouring out of Adelaide Oval, Dixon kicked his 2nd goal from a downfield free kick. The muted response from the crowd told its own story.

Smith kicked his 4th with a soccered goal from the top of the goal square as the lead pushed out to 70. A further behind to Johannisen saw the margin at 71 as the final siren put Port Adelaide out of their misery.

Wines was superb for Port Adelaide with 38 disposals, seven clearances and a goal. He had precious few mates alongside him. Houston and Bonner (32 possessions) worked hard and Scott Lycett was very good in the ruck, but too many of the Power’s prime movers failed to show up in this one.

Conversely, the Dogs winners were too numerous to mention. Jack Macrae gathered another 36 possessions as he claimed the record for the most possessions in a season. Bontompelli didn’t have

the ball as much as usual but was impactful when he did, involved in many of the big moments. The Dogs forward line of Naughton, Hannan and Bailey Smith was just about flawless, dovetailing perfectly. Schache did a great job of keeping Aliir out of the play.

Bailey Dale and Caleb Daniel were influential at half back, playin important defensive roles as well as quarterbacking the Bulldogs attacks.

The Dogs move through to just their 4th grand final in their history and the first since their own drought breaking 2016 Premiership win.

For the Power, losers of consecutive home preliminary finals, questions need to be asked.

Whilst they’re not as old a list as the Cats, there are still so many veterans at the top end of this list. Tom Rockliff has already retired and Hamish Hartlett and Robbie Gray are widely expected to follow. Travis Boak will turn 33 next season. Dixon, Motlop and skipper Tom Jonas will be 31 by the time the 2022 season begins.

Perhaps the biggest questions surround Ken Hinkley. The veteran coach has shown that he’s able to construct a solid game plan that ensures regular season success, but he has been found wanting at the pointy end of the season. When the Power are taken out of their regular Plan A, Hinkley has to this point proven unwilling or unable to adapt. This writer doesn’t expect the Power to make any changes at the top, but should the Power suffer a similar meltdown in 2022 then expect the board to take action.

Port Adelaide Power 6 goals, 9 behinds (45)

Western Bulldogs 17 goals, 14 behinds (116)

Goals

Port Adelaide: Dixon 2, Bonner, Houston, Marshall, Wines

Western Bulldogs: B. Smith 4, Hannan 3, Bontompelli 2, Naughton 2, Johannisen, Schache, R. Smith, Scott, Treloar, Vandermeer

Best

Port Adelaide: Wines, Bonner, Houston, Lycett (bold)

Western Bulldogs: B. Smith, Macrae, Bontompelli, Treloar, Liberatore, Naughton, Hunter

Image

And then there were two.

Despite finishing the home-and-away season in 5th place, the Dogs spent a league best 18 weeks inside the top two before their late season slump. The team that comes 2nd in that tally? The Demons with 17 weeks inside the top two spots. So it has to be said that, despite taking the long way around, the 2021 AFL Grand Final will be contested by the two best teams.