September is upon us and 18 have become eight. Matt Murnane runs the rule over the week-one contenders and what each must do to taste finals glory.
First qualifying final
Hawthorn v Collingwood
Friday, MCG, 7.50pm
HOW HAWTHORN WINS ...
With confidence. The minor premier is in top gear at the moment and, if it stays there, it will be hard for everyone else to keep pace. The Hawks have lost Brent Guerra, probably for the season, and the only other minor concerns are Cyril Rioli's shoulder and maybe Lance Franklin's hamstring/thigh. Everything else is clicking. Luke Hodge is back, Shaun Burgoyne has lifted, Franklin means business and they are spoilt for choice up forward and in the ruck. The Hawks sliced up Collingwood in round 17 by backing their unmatched kicking skills. That day Alastair Clarkson's men pulled the trigger on even the most dangerous kicks to hit the most unlikely of targets and move the ball with frightening pace and efficiency. The Pies had no answer. It will be important for Hawthorn to hold its nerve and play to its strengths.
HOW COLLINGWOOD WINS ...
Chris Tarrant said it best yesterday. The Pies don't expect to go far unless Travis Cloke plays the way he did on Saturday night - 16 marks, five goals, 13 score involvements. It wasn't ideal timing - he had been due for a while - but better late than never. The bigger picture, of course, is whether he can back it up in a final. To that end, Hawthorn isn't exactly the worst team to play when you are a monster key forward running into some form. If the Hawks are susceptible, it's when the opposition can divide and conquer their back line. The Pies might play Chris Dawes as a decoy to make sure the Hawks' key defenders are occupied and can't double-team Cloke. The fitness of Tyson Goldsack, who has injured his ankle again, could be a factor. Andrew Krakouer's return added a different dynamic as well.
PREDICTION The Hawks are the team to beat this year. HAWTHORN by 18 points.
Second qualifying final
ADELAIDE v SYDNEY
Saturday, AAMI Stadium, 3.15pm
HOW ADELAIDE WINS ...
When you have Taylor Walker and Kurt Tippett up forward, unleash Brownlow Medal contender Patrick Dangerfield, Scott Thompson and Rory Sloane through the midfield and count Rising Star award favourite Daniel Talia in one of the key defensive posts, the Crows look as good as any at the top end. More important, they can score. They rank No.2 in the AFL for offence and can blow the Swans away with sheer firepower if they get on top. Aside from Tippett and Walker, they have Josh Jenkins playing the third tall, Jared Petrenko and Graham Johncock the clever, pressure-applying small forward role, and Ian Callinan coming into the finals in super form, having kicked three consecutive bags of four. Jason Porplyzia is another key component, and Adelaide also gets plenty of goals from its midfield.
HOW SYDNEY WINS ...
It's hard to know how Sydney beats Adelaide. It has only done it once the past nine times it has played the Crows. The Swans are universally respected for being able to take it up to any team. Yet there are certain oppositions that, for whatever reason, they can't seem to crack. Collingwood is one, Adelaide is another. Of course, this is a different Swans team this year. But didn't we say that going into the Collingwood game in round 20? It is hard to get a read on the Swans. They will slide quietly into the finals having been outplayed by two premiership contenders - the Pies and Geelong - in the past three weeks. There are also injury queries on Jude Bolton and Sam Reid and the possibility of Heath Grundy being suspended. Everything points to Sydney requiring a fighting, backs-against-the-wall effort. And no one does it better.
PREDICTION Tight one. Hardest of the four finals to predict. ADELAIDE by 6 points.
Second elimination final
GEELONG v FREMANTLE
Saturday, MCG, 7.45pm
HOW GEELONG WINS...
The Cats have a potential strength and a potential weakness when you look at the pure match-ups. The weakness first. Geelong doesn't have a seasoned ruckman to go against Aaron Sandilands in the way Collingwood, Sydney or West Coast does. Trent West stepped up in the finals last year, but that was playing behind Brad Ottens. Now he is the No.1 man and he has still played only 39 games. Nathan Vardy's perfectly- timed comeback helps. He will also help the Cats exploit the likelihood of Fremantle being without its defensive leader, Luke McPharlin, who may miss with a hamstring injury. Geelong can throw Tom Hawkins, a rejuvenated James Podsiadly and Vardy at an exposed Dockers back six.
HOW FREMANTLE WINS...
Get in Geelong's faces. It worked in round one, the last time the two teams met in a spiteful clash. Doubtless, the Cats will be ready for it this time, and may not get sucked in by the type of antics that put Hayden Ballantyne in the spotlight back then. This is an elimination final and who knows how the Cats' premiership players might react if they feel their September dream slipping away prematurely. It was that type of in-your-face attitude that got the Dockers in the mood to play a brand of football that brought Geelong undone. The Dockers kicked 16 goals that night, and have averaged 14 in their past four games. And we already know how good Ross Lyon's team is defensively.
PREDICTION The Cats have more in store for September than a first-round exit. GEELONG by 24 points.
First elimination Final
WEST COAST v NORTH MELBOURNE
Sunday, Patersons Stadium, 3.15pm
HOW WEST COAST WINS...
The Eagles need to kick-start that frenzied tackling pressure which has been the key hallmark of their game in the past two years. It is the only way they can win it from outside the top four. The raw numbers don't tell the story - West Coast has lost the tackle count twice, badly, in two of their past four matches. But the apparent lack of forward pressure has been the biggest worry recently. Fremantle exposed the Kangaroos tendency to over-possess the ball if you close down their space, something they were guilty of against Greater Western Sydney on Saturday, too. If there are bad habits starting to creep into North's game, then a renewed focus on intense tackling pressure could bring them out. Josh Kennedy's potential absence with another foot injury would be a crucial blow, however.
HOW NORTH MELBOURNE WINS...
Certainly the interstate travel, and overcoming it, is the No.1 factor. If this game was at Etihad Stadium, some would have the Roos starting favourites despite the ladder positions. North's form against the Eagles this year stands up - a 25-point defeat at Patersons Stadium, and a two-point heartbreaker in Hobart. But Brad Scott's men have taken their foot off the pedal in the past two weeks. Playing the type of football that steamrolled the likes of Collingwood, Essendon and Carlton in the second half of the year, the Roos can beat anyone. Central to that is Daniel Wells, who should be back after missing three weeks with a calf injury. Still, it all comes back to doing it at Patersons Stadium, which has been a ‘‘house of pain'' for North in recent times - the Roos having lost six of their past seven at the venue.
PREDICTION It's a tough ask for the Roos, but it might be closer than most are tipping. WEST COAST by 12 points.
2012 AFL PREMIERSHIP MARKET
COLLINGWOOD $ 5.00
ADELAIDE $ 6.00
SYDNEY $ 6.00
GEELONG $ 8.00
WEST COAST $ 15.00
FREMANTLE $ 51.00
NORTH MELBOURNE $ 101.00
*Odds courtesy of TAB Sportsbet