John Harms on AFL Preliminary Finals

This is the fans’ weekend; the weekend when those who really love the footy and their club make their plans. Many will travel to the MCG or Subi – from all around Australia.

It’s the weekend when the faithful can secure themselves a ticket without having to resort to hassling that corporate second cousin of theirs.

And two intriguing matches as well, where the advantage of the week’s rest has to be weighed against other factors: the Kennett Curse for one, and the finals’ experience of the reigning premiers in the other.

Hawthorn v Geelong

Well, they don’t get any better than this.

Years of history, going back to the 1963 Grand Final, Hawthorn dominating the `70s and `80s despite losing Gary Ablett senior (once referred to from a Bay 13 Glenferrie yob as a “Hawthorn reject”), the `89 Grand Final, the `08 Grand Final and then The Kennett Curse. I was there that day. Jeff Kennett made the claim to Hawthorn’s psychological superiority over Geelong when he appeared on ABC TV’s Offsiders at the start of the 2009 season. Gerard Whateley, another Geelong nutter, and I sat on the couch looking at each other, hardly believing what we were hearing.

Of course, The Curse is nothing more than a happy coincidence for Cats fans and Labor-voters and those who admire Paul Chapman. It’s evidence that the rational world really craves. Well here’s an interesting fact: the Cats have won the last eleven outings which, given the evenness of the contests, is a statistical miracle. They’ve won because they have had dominant ruckmen and a strong structure. In the biggest of the games – the qualifying final of 2011 – Brad Ottens and Trent West dominated, as Ottens had done before. Throughout the period Geelong have done quite well on Buddy and Roughie by rotating key defenders, but much has fallen to Tom Lonergan. And up forward the Hawkins-Podsiadly combination has served them well. Geelong have also won because they have moved the ball very quickly, although it would be splitting hairs to work out which team has the better mid-field, or the silkier movement.

So how does this moment compare with that history? Firstly, Geelong has less-credentialed ruckman now. Secondly, Hawkins goes in under an injury cloud. Thirdly, Pods can’t take a trick (or a mark). Against that, the Cats have included more pace this year, and their youngsters have twelve months valuable experience.

As for Hawthorn, Roughie just gets better and better, Brian Lake helps, and then there is the Buddy-Cyril promise. Whether the Hawks actually think about recent history is a question only they can ponder. If it were me, I’d struggle to think of anything else. But I’m a hack golfer with a putting problem.

Hawthorn will be fresh; the Cats will be motivated. Leadership will be a key. An ability to drive the team to win the contests will be gold.

And then there is the X Factor. The universe and Travis Varcoe are slightly out of sync at the moment. If somehow they come together Travis is going to explode. He has been in brilliant attacking positions in his last two matches – only to use the footy poorly. A couple of good early disposals and look out.

Best Hawthorn v Best Geelong is the game so much of the country has been waiting for.
Let’s hope both are on their game, and the better team wins.

Geelong, led by Joel Selwood and his band of fierce on-ballers, to win by 1 point.

Fremantle v Sydney

This prelim is not without history either. Ross Lyon is the most interesting figure in it all. He of the understated vampiric laugh can remember these Sydney players when they were callow youths. He influenced them as an assistant to Paul Roos. Then took his formula to St Kilda, and then when the Saints had little blood left to give, on to Freo.

The Dockers have had the rest and they are at home. Everything points to a Freo victory. Sydney have been battered and bruised and will be stitching a team together and crossing the continent.

But Freo haven’t faced this pressure before, while Sydney have. Not only have the Swans faced it, they’ve stared down the odds to win unlikely finals, including a Grand Final. They have the experience. They have the mental strength. They also have the skill.

Coaching will be huge. Both are top-notch strategically and tactically. Both can instil belief. Both value the discipline – and demand the discipline – to carry out the plan.
Freo’s win at Geelong helped me understand that Freo are not just a shut-out side. They are very skilful as well. Their strength is definitely in their structure, which is the base upon which they build, but their victories come from classy players like Fyfe (superb), Pavlich ( when on), and Hill (if he gets off the chain).

Sydney will take them on at their own game with numbers around the contest, with tight-checking on those classy players, and by trying to have the game played in their forward half.

That, then becomes a battle of will. And will becomes an issue of fitness – even the strongest players mentally have their physical limitations.

If the Swans really are spent, then Freo win easily. If they have something left to give, this goes to the wire.

It’s a prelim. The Swans are not going to die wondering. They’ll be out there with their wooden stakes and garlic cloves.

But that won’t be enough. Freo by 14 points.