John Harms on AFL Finals Week 1

The weather has changed here in Melbourne, the mercury climbing to 25 degrees earlier in the week, as the city prepares for one of its biggest weekends of the year. The peach blossom is out, the first leaves are emerging, and the possums are corpulent, and growing. Let’s hope we punters enjoy a similar fate.

Hawthorn is all the rage for the flag – still. As they have been for years, it seems, a public orthodoxy fuelled by those who watch Big Brother, Master Chef, and are bought to tears by a kid who can belt out an Andrew Lloyd Weber tune. Please. In the quiet-street pubs, old-timers tip back their pork pies to tell you Hawthorn are a mile under the odds. Not that they’ll tell you who they’ve backed.
The top four teams all have their urgers, with Collingwood the most favoured from the bottom half of the eight.

Richmond fans are excited and nervous.

Some analysts are dismissing recent form, suggesting it is only now that finals have lobbed that we’ll see sides going flat out. They cite slovenly Geelong and holidaying Freo as the two teams ready to engage the after-burners at last.
I’m sticking with my Cats – who started 2013 at double-figure odds.

Hawthorn v Sydney

For the second week in a row, the Grand Finalists from last year go head-to-head, this time in Melbourne. The Swans (defending premiers, remember) were right in it for much of last Friday night’s match, but just couldn’t get on top of the Hawks. They were without Kurt Tippett and Daniel Hannebery. This week the Hawks have lost Buddy to suspension. Some say this is an advantage: that the boys of old Glenferrie perform better when undazzled by the light of the Buddy-star.
I reckon the Swans are the value here. Hawthorn will be the blue-bloods, the Group 1 lookers, playing with brilliance and class. The Swans will do all in their power to contain them and then break away themselves, as they have done in some previous meetings. You can do that to Hawthorn. The contest for the footy will be telling. If the Swans can win the scraps, and limit the supply to Hawthorn’s outside players, they’re a chance. To help that happen, the Swans have a huge advantage in the big-man department: in the ruck, around the ground, and up forward where the Hawks do not match up well.
I like the Swans at the line, and I reckon they can win a tight one. Sydney by 5 points.

Geelong v Fremantle

The Cats get to host a final at their home ground in Sleepy Hollow, a decision which has brought a smile to their supporters. They have won about 48 of their last 50 matches at Simonds Stadium. But any assumption that this will be a walk in the park is ridiculous. The Dockers compete – wherever they play. They have structure, system, discipline. They shut teams down. This will be full-on. The Dockers are playing for a home preliminary final, a much easier path to the Grand Final for a team of players who obviously crave rest - a dozen sat out in their loss to St Kilda last week. Their stars, like Pavlich, are getting back to match fitness. Aaron Sandilands will control the ruck, but the Cats will rove to him.
Geelong are deserved favourites though. If they find space, they win. In the equivalent match earlier this year it was actually Geelong who shut Freo down with pressure of their own; the Dockers had to put everyone back just to stay in the game. The Cats still found a way clear, and dominated. That could well happen again here. I think Geelong will have too many options at their home ground. They will spread the footy around and win. Geelong by 25 points.

Collingwood v Port Adelaide

The nation will be channel-hopping from election to footy to election to footy (and maybe the trots), although the election result may be announced before the lid comes off the Deep Heat tube at the MCG. Port Adelaide are up against it in this, but they can sleep easily knowing they have improved markedly throughout 2013 – unlike the Labor Party. This may free the Power boys up. They have a sneaky chance: the Pies can be complacent, particularly defensively in the mid-field. Travis Boak is a key. He needs to play an inspirational game – especially early – and carry his talented team into the contest. If they can stay in the match in the first half (which sometimes they haven’t been able to do), and cause the Pies to doubt, they may be able to come hard late. They need to pressure the bloke with the footy early and try to maintain that attack. However, the Pies mid-field is all class, and they have options up forward. Collingwood by 24 points.

Richmond v Carlton

For old VFL traditionalists this is a huge, huge game, and one laced with brilliant irony. Melbourne will be rocking on Sunday afternoon as Tiger fans hope, and neutrals giggle away at the prospect of it all. Richmond: so good for footy. As my Carlton-mad mate Litza has pointed out, what a delicious thing that Carlton have finished in Richmond’s spot – ninth – yet circumstances conspire to give them entry into the finals, and then they could knock out Richmond themselves. Don’t worry, the Tiger Army have considered all possibilities, and they are at a complete loss as to what to expect. Even those of us who are trying to assess it rationally feel logic may not apply in this case. What is in the mind of a Richmond player this weekend? For what it’s worth anyway, logic suggests Richmond are the better team having finished fifth, with a Hawthorn scalp in the belt. But the Blues came from behind to beat them a couple of weeks ago. That’s a nice complication, and one which will add wobble to the Richmond boot. A red-hot Carlton, with all their run, takes it up to Richmond again. The Tiges, solid through the back-half, will counter-attack themselves. It’s the query on the pseudo-stars that’s a worry for Richmond. Cotchin is fine, but how do Deledio and Martin handle the big game? Too many what-ifs to be confident here. I like the Blues at the line for value. And I reckon they can sneak home by 2 points.