It’s finals time in the 2021 AFL season.
For those unfamiliar with the AFL finals program – it can look complicated to the uninitiated – the top eight is split into two sections. The bottom four will play off (5th vs 8th, 6th vs 7th) in a win-or-go-home match up. The top four will meet (1st vs 4th, 2nd vs 3rd) with the winners moving through to a preliminary final and getting a weeks rest, the losers playing the winners of the elimination finals.
A slight change to our AFL roundup format for the finals, too. Instead of focusing on a single match and providing a brief recap of the other matches, we’ll give you detailed analysis of each and every match in the AFL finals series.
Qualifying Final: Port Adelaide Power vs Geelong Cats
The Power’s form leading into this finals series has been exemplary, winning their last six games of the home and away season. That said, their record against fellow finalists, a decidedly average 4-4,
combined with their finals flame out in 2020 had some questioning if the Power were simply talented flat track bullies. In this game, you could forget the flat track – they flat out bullied Geelong.
That said, the Cats came out strong in the early going. Tom Hawkins, playing his 300th match, marked well under pressure from Trent McKenzie but missed the ensuing set shot as the Cats failed to turn early ascendancy into goals. For Hawkins, who has kicked a cumulative nine behinds and zero goals in his previous two qualifying finals, it was a concerning sign.
Former Cat Steven Motlop got the Power on the board as they capitalised on a Geelong turnover – a fore bearer of things to come. Geelong continued to push forward but continually ran headlong into the Great Wall of Aliir. The newly minted All Australian defender single handedly stopped an incredible eight Cats attacks in the opening quarter alone.
Jeremy Cameron eventually answered for the Cats before an Aliir interception stared a counter that saw veteran sharp shooter Robbie Gray snap a goal for Port Adelaide. Hawkins got himself on the scoreboard through a Cats counterattack before Aliir again created goals from centre half back. His intercept marks launching attacks that saw Peter Ladhams and then Orazio Fantasia kick truly. The Power lead by 10 points at the break.
The Power turned up the intensity in the 2nd term, physically dominating the Cats at the stoppages and on the rare occasions that Geelong managed to clear the ball, the Power launched themselves at the Geelong ball carriers ferociously and in numbers. Causing panic amongst the Cats, the Power were able to, at worst, halve just about every one-on-one battle and more often than not lock the ball in their forward half. Goals to Motlop – from a bizarre defensive miscommunication – and Fantasia – from a pressure act creating another turnover – before the Cats had opened their 2nd quarter account saw the Power extend their lead to 25 points as they threatened to blow the game apart.
The Cats started to steer their attacks towards the wings in an effort to nullify Aliir’s aerial influence. It did succeed in keeping Aliir away from the contest but also served to stifle Geelong’s usually potent attack.
A pair of free kicks saw the Cats move the ball to Sam Simpson who kicked a much needed steadier for Geelong, though Port Adelaide quickly answered through Todd Marshall, marking after yet another counterattack stemming from a Cats turnover and Zak Butters found himself wide open when his marker Jake Kolodjashnij slipped at the crucial moment.
Butters goal saw the half time margin sit at 29 points. By no mean insurmountable – as the Cats witnessed just last week – but a worrying deficit, all the same. The Cats predicament was compounded by Mark O’Connor leaving the game with a hamstring strain, further wreaking a Cats back line already suffering though Tom Stewart’s continued absence.
The cheers of the Power fans as their team walked off the field at half time were interspersed with boos, presumably over a free kick count that read 18-5 in the Cats favour. However, that tally was a direct result of the feverish pressure the Power were applying – sometimes stepping into illegal territory. The fans might not have been happy with impact that pressure was having on the whistle, but must have been thrilled with the consequence it had on the scoreboard.
The 3rd quarter opened with another with another Port Adelaide goal stemming from a Cats mistake. This time the usually sure handed Patrick Dangerfield let an easy mark slip through his fingers as Gray ran onto the loose ball and fed Fantasia who steered a long shot through the big sticks.
Cats coach Chris Scott swung forward Gary Rohan (only two possessions at half time) into defense and his pace and physical presence seemed to solidify Geelong’s defense, as they held the Power goalless for the remainder of the 3rd term. Unfortunately for Geelong, they themselves went goalless, as the Power won the quarter nine points to three.
Geelong had successfully slowed the game down, and with it Port Adelaide’s potent attack. Could their own misfiring forward line find something in the last term?
It was an inauspicious start for the Cats as they watched Fantasia kick his 4th goal just 21 seconds into the quarter. Geelong answered through a goal by captain Joel Selwood, typically accurate when presented with a set shot opportunity.
The Power were pressing but were unable to make it count, Travis Boak and then Gray both missing presentable chances. Hawkins kicked his 2nd at the other end and suddenly there were some vague similarities between this match and the Cats loss last week.
Port Adelaide must have been thinking along similar lines as they proceeded to shut the game down, slowing the tempo and not giving the Cats any opportunity to move the ball at speed.
Fantasia’s fantastic night came to an unfortunate end, substituted out with a knee complaint. However, his replacement, Sam Powell-Pepper, iced the game for his side with a pair of late goals as the Power ran out 43 point winners.
Aliir’s dominance in the air and on the ground was prevalent early. The Cats made sure to direct their attacks away from him in the 2nd half. Whilst he didn’t directly impact the match as much as a result of that tactical switch, his influence was still felt as the Cats couldn’t get their potent forward line firing. Travis Boak (32 possessions) and Ollie Wines (26) were magnificent in the middle of the ground. Fantasia’s four goals will get the headlines, though Charlie Dixon’s contribution shouldn’t go unnoticed. The big full forward went goalless, but was directly involved in eight scores for the Power as he crashed packs and happily cleared space for his fellow forwards.
Mitch Duncan (32 disposals – 14 in the opening term) was prolific for Geelong and Isaac Smith’s 23 possessions along the wing were telling, though little else fell in the Cats favour. The loss marks the Cats 8th loss in their past nine qualifying finals. Their one win coming when Smith, then a Hawk, missed a potential game winning set shot after the siren in 2016. That record is concerning, but does demonstrate the Cats’ ability to bounce back from a finals loss.
For the Power, they earn themselves a week’s rest. Given their red hot form, it’s something that they may quietly be dreading.
Port Adelaide Power 12 Goals 14 Behinds (86)
Geelong Cats 5 Goals 13 Behinds (43)
Port Adelaide: Fantasia 4, Motlop 2, Powell-Pepper 2, Butters, Ladhams, Marshall
Geelong: Hawkins 2, Cameron, Simpson, Selwood
Port Adelaide: Aliir, Boak, Fantasia, Wines, Duursma, Byrne-Jones
Geelong: Duncan, Dangerfield, Smith, Parfitt, Henry
Elimination Final: Sydney Swans vs Greater Western Sydney Giants
Cross town rivals the Swans and Giants, playing in their, uh, traditional home of Launceston (thanks COVID) served up an absolute finals classic.
The Swans came into the game with a slightly better record, though the Giants were considered marginal favourites, given their more experienced lineup.
All Australian small forward/agitator extraordinaire Tom Papley kicked the opener, profiting from an undisciplined 50 metre penalty as not one, but two Giants ran through the protected zone after Papley marked in the centre of the ground.
Fellow All Australian small forward – and undisputed King of the Agitators – Toby Greene answered for GWS, capitalising from an error from veteran Swans defender Dane Rampe, before adding another with a snap out of a forward stoppage.
A sweeping end-to-end move from the Swans saw James Bell standing unattended in the goal square for the easiest of goals, as they started to take control of the game. The Giants, to their credit, were fighting tooth and nail to defend their goal. Jake Stein, in particular, was a pillar, taking five interceptions in the opening term.
Sydney, needing a touch of class to break through the resolute Giants back line, found it from a familiar source. Lance Franklin took a handball over the top, delayed his shot just long enough to draw a defender, who the champ daintily stepped inside of, before bending a checkside through.
A sharp goal from Tim Taranto saw the Giants with their noses briefly in front, before a late behind leveled the match at quarter time, 20 points apiece
Franklin opened the 2nd quarter with a lovely piece of improvisation, turning quickly after dropping a pack mark to soccer the ball through from an acute angle. A goal that could have spurred Sydney on did quite the opposite, as the Giants moved through the gears.
Green set up Zach Sproule who’s set shot tied the game once again, before he himself kicked his 3rd of the afternoon to give his Giants a lead. Harry Himmelberg kicked another goal from a stoppage – the Giants flexing their muscles in the clinches – to extend the lead further, before Daniel Lloyd cleverly volleyed another one from close range after a long Callan Ward kick hit the deck. Jesse Hogan was proving a handful up forward as he kicked his 1st from a tight angle to push the lead out to 24 points.
That man Franklin stepped up to steer home a long set shot, halting the Giants run at five goals. Himmelberg answered right on the half time siren, however, as GWS held a solid 23 point lead at the half.
In general play, the game was far more even than that. The difference was mostly down to the Giants’ accuracy in front of goal, and some desperate GWS defensive acts. GWS were also controlling the stoppages, as the absence of veteran Swans ball winner Josh Kennedy became telling.
Swans coach John Longmire made a risky tactical switch at the half. Franklin was far and away the Swans most potent forward threat in the opening half, yet Longmire chose to move him further up the ground – perhaps in an effort to create a marking option around the centre of the ground and take a key defender away from their comfort zone – with Isaac Heeney switching to a deep forward role.
Sproule opened the 3rd quarter with a textbook set shot major, before Papley found a pocket of space to mark and goal.
Hogan was the Giants focal point up forward, but was unable to make the most of his opportunities, hitting one post, then the other on consecutive set shots.
At the other end, Longmire’s tactical gamble began to pay dividends as Franklin started a possession chain that ended up with Heeney kicking his 1st of the match. A few minutes later he threaded the needle from the pocket to cut the margin to 13 points.
Again the Giants were able to claim the last goal of a quarter, this time through Hogan; the margin at the final break standing at 19 points.
With their season on the line, the Swans ran all over the Giants in the final term. The Heeney switch continued to look like a genius move when he kicked his 3rd and 4th goals of the half, cutting the Giants lead seven points with close to 20 minutes still to play.
Sydney were dominating. They had to ball where they wanted it and the Giants were hanging on for dear life.
That pressure started to tell as the Swans had a series of set shots at goal. Tom Hickey barely missed his attempt before Sam Wicks and Bell both had consecutive posters. Rampe found himself at half forward, taking a rare shot at goal that was just about through but for the aware Harry Perryman, who rushed it through for a behind. Franklin missed a long set shot of his own, before another rushed behind off Perryman’s hands saw the margin sit at a solitary point with just over a minute left in the match.
The Swans couldn’t quite get over the line, though must be kicking themselves – they probably would have missed, in fairness – given the plethora of chances they had to steal this game from their bitter rivals.
Tim Taranto and Josh Kelly (25 and 28 possessions, respectively) were the driving force from midfield for the Giants, whilst veteran Swan Luke Parker led all players with 33 disposals. The ruck duel between veteran GWS hard man Shane Mumford and Swan Tom Hickey was fascinating, with both men throwing themselves into the contest, running hard and taking strong pack marks.
Greene shaded the battle of the All Australian small forwards against Papley. Whilst Franklin was the best big forward on the ground, Giants coach Leon Cameron will be thrilled with Hogan’s contributions.
The Giants will face the Cats next week. The Swans will be disappointed at the manner of their exit, but should take heart given that they’re supposed to be a rebuilding side.
The focus post match was on Greene’s encounter with umpire Matt Stevic at three quarter time. There is a very real chance that Greene will once again find himself suspended for a final. For all of his brilliance, there is a disturbing self destructive side to Toby Greene.
Sydney Swans: 10 Goals 13 Behinds (73)
GWS Giants: 11 Goals 8 Behinds (74)
Sydney: Heeney 4, Franklin 3, Papley 2, Bell
GWS: Greene 3, Sproule 2, Himmelberg 2, Hogan 2, Taranto, Lloyd
Sydney: Heeney, Parker, Franklin, Dawson, Papley, Hewitt, Hickey
GWS: Greene, Taranto, Perryman, Kelly, Mumford, Hogan, Taylor, Sproule
Qualifying Final: Melbourne Demons vs Brisbane Lions
The Immovable Object hosted the Irresistible Force on neutral territory in Adelaide as the Demons looked to defend their 1st placed finish after the home and away season against a very much in form Brisbane Lions.
Melbourne got off to a flyer when Ben Brown found himself in the unfamiliar role of rover, kicking a checkside from 40 metres out with less than 30 seconds played.
Brisbane responded through Charlie Cameron, who took a clever over-the-shoulder handball from Lincoln McCarthy, running into an open goal. Cameron kicked his 2nd shortly after. Demons defender Trent Rivers looked for Joel Smith by hand, but Smith, not expecting the ball, turned his head. Cameron was awake to the opportunity, stealing the ball and racing away to put Brisbane ahead.
Cameron getting off the chain was a worrying sign for Melbourne. In the Lions’ seven losses this campaign, Cameron has kicked just seven goals. He’s scored 40 in their 15 victories.
Already missing Eric Hipwood – out for the season with a knee injury – the Lions forward line was further depleted when Dan McStay took a knee to the face from teammate Nakia Cockatoo, leaving him bloodied and groggy. He was immediately substituted for Rhys Mathieson.
At the other end of the ground, exciting Demon Kysaiah Pickett produced a little bit of magic, pouncing on a loose ball and steering the football through the tightest of gaps for a wonder goal.
Zac Bailey kicked a beauty up the other end before the Demons almost produced a wonderful team goal. A quick break from defense looked to be petering out as the ball almost ran out of bounds at centre wing. Bayley Fritsch had other ideas, paddling the ball along the boundary line to gain another 50 metres. The ball found it to Charlie Spargo, who missed a snapped finish. Shortly after, the prolific Clayton Oliver kicked a goal across his body.
Brisbane, controlling the centre clearances, broke from the centre resulting in Cameron slotting through his 3rd of the quarter, as the 27 year old looked set for a huge night.
Typically hard running from Dees winger Ed Langdon saw him take an open mark in the forward line. His snap proving the final goal of a high scoring opening term, Melbourne leading 34 points to 26.
Despite the lead, Melbourne coach Simon Goodwin cannot have been happy with the shootout that was developing before him. His team’s success this year has been built on slowing the opposition down, forcing them to kick long towards their trio of elite tall defenders.
Melbourne opened the 2nd term well with Oliver cleverly kicking into space, leading Fritsch onto the ball and into an open goal. The Lions were gifted a response when Jake Lever lost concentration, moving off the mark and conceding a 50 meter penalty. The penalty brought Jarrod Berry to just 15 metres out directly in front – he made no mistake with the kick.
Melbourne started to turn the screws, limiting the Lions’ ability to move the ball with speed. As a result, they were able to create their own chances but, as can happen to the Demons, they failed to convert. Luke Jackson – otherwise playing a great half of football – narrowly missed set shots from either pocket in the space of 90 seconds, before Langdon missed another gettable shot at goal.
Pickett broke the streak of behinds with his 2nd goal. Spargo followed up with another and, when Fritsch kicked his 2nd – after another three behinds – the lead was out to 29 points, though Melbourne will perhaps feel it should have been higher.
The Demons started the 3rd term as they finished the 2nd: controlling territory but unable to convert chances. Brown hit the post before Alex Neal-Bullen also missed a straightforward opportunity.
Brisbane started to play Melbourne at their own game, slowing the Demons down at half back and making them kick long, where Harris Andrews and Marcus Adams were able to kill Melbourne’s momentum.
Charlie Cameron torched Christian Salem early, but had been well held after Joel Smith had moved onto him. He finally got a step on Smith, turning him around and running into an open goal for his 4th major.
When Hugh McCluggage converted a simple set shot a few minutes later, the Lions had cut the lead back to 19 points. The Demons still felt in control, but where the Lions are involved, a 19 point lead can be eradicated in a matter of minutes.
Fritsch had the opportunity to extend Melbourne’s lead with a shot after the 3rd term siren but sprayed his kick across the face of goal, the Demons held goalless for the quarter.
The Demons leading scorer made up for that miss with a goal to open the final term, stemming from a free kick given away by Andrews. McCarthy responded for Brisbane before Fritsch took a powerful one-against-three pack mark, steering the resulting shot through for his 4th goal.
Charlie Cameron cannily bought a free kick deep in the forward pocket, bending his shot around the corner on his left foot to kick a cracking 5th goal and keep the Lions alive.
Melbourne continued to own the bulk of possession, controlling territory with it. They had chances through Angus Brayshaw and Max Gawn to kill off the game, but both missed reasonably difficult shots. Finally, Christian Petracca – brilliant all night – got his reward with a pair of late goals to put the result to bed.
Melbourne’s on-ball triumvirate of Oliver, Petracca and Gawn were imperious. Oliver had 33 touches, Petracca 30, as they continuously won the 50/50 battles. Gawn had a slow start against Lion ruck Oscar McInerney, but by the 2nd term had full control both in the ruck contests and around the ground. Lever was a wall in defense: 15 of his 18 possessions came from interceptions.
The Demons dominated the aerial battles, but Cameron owned the ground ball. He led Salem a merry dance in the opening term, before a combination of Smith’s speed and his midfield supply drying up saw his chances became scarce. It’s a testament to his quality that he was still able to end up with a game high five goals. Lachie Neale had his own footy with 46 disposals, however, the Demons pressure saw his efficiency fall below his usual stellar levels. Likewise Daniel Rich, who had 27 possessions but was unusually wasteful with ball in hand.
Melbourne earn themselves a week off, leaving them just two victories away from breaking a 57 year premiership drought – the longest in the AFL.
Melbourne Demons: 13 Goals 15 Behinds 93
Brisbane Lions: 9 Goals 6 Behinds 60
Melbourne: Fritsch 4, Pickett 2, Petracca 2, Brown, Sparrow, Oliver, Langdon, Spargo
Brisbane: Cameron 5, Bailey, Berry, McCluggage, McCarthy
Melbourne: Oliver, Petracca, Viney, Gawn, Lever, Neal-Bullen, Fritsch
Brisbane: Cameron, Neale, Rich, McCluggage, Bailey, Coleman
Elimination Final: Western Bulldogs vs Essendon Bombers
The final match of the opening week of the AFL finals pitted two teams with contrasting recent fortunes. The Bombers sneaked into the top eight on the back of some excellent late season form. As a rebuilding team with a rookie head coach, to even make the finals could be seen as an achievement. A win would be gravy – and a chance to put this Twitter account to bed.
For the Bulldogs, a poor close the the season saw them go from an almost locked in double chance – they spent more time than any other team inside the top two, this year – to slipping to 5th. Playing an elimination final in week one was most certainly not on their radar. Concerningly for the Dogs, the first game of their current losing streak cam against these very same Baby Bombers, on a day they also lost leading goal scorer Josh Bruce to a knee injury. #omens
Speaking of omens, former Bulldog Premiership hero Jake Stinger kicked the opening goal for Essendon with a beautiful left foot snap as the Bombers dominated the early stages of the match. Their forward pressure saw a series of rushed clearances from the usually precise Dogs half backs, Essendon recycling the ball well. The Dogs back line, however, stood up well to the barrage.
It took until the 19th minute of the match for the Bulldogs to get their goal, Cody Weightman converting after a contentious high tackle call went his way. Wouldn’t you know it, they then kicked another just over a minute later through Mitch Hannan to claim an unlikely lead.
As the Bulldogs stole a lead, the heavens opened, making the ball tough to handle. With the intensity at its peak, it made for difficult – and difficult to watch – football as the Dogs took a narrow three point lead into the first change.
Tim English squandered a very gettable goal to open the 2nd term and the Bombers almost immediately made him pay. Devon Smith converted a set shot stemming from a 50 metre penalty, whilst the ever impressive Darcy Parish followed up with a goal from point blank range.
Another debatable call went against Essendon – this time a deliberate out of bounds whistle against Dylan Shiel. Aaron Naughton didn’t waste the gift, snapping a lovely goal from the pocket.
The Dogs had gained a foothold in the match and were increasingly forcing the Bombers onto the back foot. Another goal to Weightman, then just the 2nd goal of the year to former 2nd overall pick Josh Schache (controversially in the side ahead of Jason Johannisen) saw the Bulldogs lead get out to 11.
Essendon responded with a solid period of play to close the half but were unable to capitalise in their ascendancy with Parish, Aaron Francis and Will Snelling all wasting good chances before Stringer kicked his 2nd of the half. The quarter was tied; the Dogs maintaining their three point lead at the main break.
Against a balanced Bulldogs effort, the Bombers were lead brilliantly by Darcy Parish who amassed 16 first half disposals, with six clearances.
Despite the wet conditions wreaking havoc on ball movement, the Bulldogs came out snarling in the 3rd quarter. Weightman snared a quick pair of goals from free kicks. The first was a reasonable call but the 2nd was at best questionable, only feeding into the anger of Essendon fans, no strangers to a good conspiracy theory at the best of times. When Schache kicked another to put the Bulldogs up by 20, the Bombers were looking shaky.
Neither side was able to create any clear cut opportunities in the slippery conditions until Sam Draper had a set shot after the three quarter time siren that he duly pushed wide. A scuffle broke out as the quarter finished as both sides were pumped and ready to go for the final quarter.
With the margin at 19 points going into the final term, the Bombers were not out of it. The weather started to clear towards the end of the 3rd term and a comeback was not beyond the imagination, despite giving up a three goal to three behind 3rd term.
Whatever dreams the Dons had, though, the Bulldogs set about ruining them.
Stringer missed a gilt edged chance to get the Bombers comeback started. By contrast, the Dogs were lethal. Laitham Vandermeer kicked truly before Mitch Hannan was the beneficiary of some good work by Aaron Naughton and Bailey Smith further up the ground.
Naughton then kicked a pair of goals as the margin started to get ugly for Essendon, Smith applying the final nail to the Bombers 2021 coffin.
The Bulldogs’ prolific midfield were at their best in this match. Tom Liberatore (35 possessions, 7 clearances), Jack Macrae (36 and eight) and – after a slow start – Marcus Bontompelli (23 possessions, eight forward entries) were all at the forefront of the Bulldogs fightback and eventual overwhelming of the young Bombers.
Essendon’s own midfield maestros in Parish (35 disposals, 10 clearances) and Zach Merrett (31 and four) were magnificent.
The Bulldogs move on to play the Lions next week having rediscovered something close to their best in this match.
For The Bombers, the disappointment of losing should be tempered by the huge strides made by their young list in 2021.
Western Bulldogs: 13 Goals 7 Behinds (85)
Essendon Bombers: 4 Goals 12 Behinds (36)
Bulldogs: Weightman 4, Naughton 3, Schache 2, Hannan 2, Vandermeer, Smith
Essendon: Stringer 2, Smith, Parish
Bulldogs: Macrae, Liberatore, Weightman, Naughton, Smith, Bontompelli
Essendon: Parish, Draper, Merrett, Heppell, Ridley
In week two of the 2021 AFL Finals, the Giants and Cats match up with the winner to take on the Demons in one preliminary final. On the other side of the draw, the Lions and Bulldogs will play off for the right to meet the Power in the other preliminary final.