The business end

The season that has craved an outright favourite for so long is reaching its end, and it is an increasingly pointy one.

The match-ups for the first week of finals. Source: AFL

For most of 2012 we have been treated to a five horse race. A pair of non-Victorian sides gathering far less media exposure than deserved, an extremely top-heavy West Australian team, the most recent powerhouse and a club picking itself up off the canvas after a four year premiership hangover.

At times each contender has taken it upon itself to wear the unwanted tag thrown around by journalists, television presenters, your overly opinionated cab driver and that well-dressed man in a suit, whose mum seems to know her share about horses.

For a week or two, some fantasised about the chances of Carlton and Essendon. In a media world of predictions, tips and ‘you heard it here firsts’, football needs perspective. This year’s overdue pinch of salt came in the form of the Blues and Bombers. But they too will be better for the run. Unsustained early season form is short term disappointment but 8 wins from the first 9 cannot be ignored.

Adelaide has earned a home final, an advantage for some teams which is far more valuable than to others. Hawthorn’s solitary prize of a home final is subsequently diminished as a result of its opponent, Collingwood.  The Football Club mantra of ‘we’ll play anyone, anywhere’ means you won’t hear Al Clarkson, or ‘once upon a time’ his more outspoken President, saying this publicly. Fremantle however, may be regretting their ‘gun-ho’ attitude to the hapless Melbourne late on Saturday.

The Crows will host Sydney, one they will expect to win. Adelaide’s softer run into the finals, facing just one top-8 side in the final 5 rounds, compares favourably to a Sydney side low on confidence after recent losses to Hawthorn, Collingwood and potential second week opponents, Geelong. Although all but gifted 6 wins against the Suns, Giants and Power in an extremely favourable draw, the Crows should go deep into September.

Sydney flex their muscle against those below them and compete well with those around their mark. A fortress in the SCG has propelled them upward this year, but with home finals at the more expansive ANZ on the program, a straight sets exit is on the cards. One expects a contest from the Swans and they will not disappoint. An MCG record envied only by the Giants and Suns suggests an emerging brigade of inside midfielders may yet need another year.

Collingwood are a presence every side will be keen to keep on the other side of the draw. Half of the top 8 will be disappointed. Hawthorn will not take their qualifying final against the Pies lightly, memories of a final quarter fade-out will linger throughout. The inevitability of Travis Cloke finding form was realised on Saturday night, and from here until Mad Monday he will only get better. The Hawks will not fear the Pies, they will welcome them, but Collingwood has far less to lose from this position.

Hawthorn is now the team to beat. A tag most teams will look to shirk publicly, one they didn’t deserve to hold in their most recent premiership year. They proved after the mid-year bye they could pulverise the bad teams. They then showed they could pulverise the good, sending Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon into mid-year dilemma.

As Greg Baum wrote in The Age on Saturday, they have put the ‘foot’ back in ‘football’, with sublime foot skills and a hoard of raking left footers. Bizarrely, ‘raking’ is solely a left footed attribute.

In 2008 they were the best team in September, not all year. Coach Clarkson will certainly be wary of the likelihood another team could spring such a surprise on themselves. The Hawks may very well be beaten this September and it will come from an extraordinary application of tackling pressure and team defence. The Hawks will expect to be at their best.

And then there is Geelong. When premierships are awarded on Grand Final Day, talk is of potential dynasties. When Geelong wins premierships, talk is of the end of theirs. It happened in 2009. It happened after a preliminary final drubbing to Collingwood in 2010.  It happened after another loss, this time of Gary Ablett Jr. It happened again after last year’s triumph, one driven by a rejuvenated team and a rookie coach. But Geelong’s core group of champions refuse to succumb. Half of their side is exuberant and hungry, the other half knows how to win better than most.

The biggest trick up the Cats well-stocked sleeve is the now infamous ‘Kennet Curse’. As Hawthorn fans across the country will attest, Paul Chapman and his fellow Cats have very long memories. They should be feared. Up until now 2012 has not been about winning a premiership for Geelong. It has been about getting to the most important part of the season in the best possible shape. Six wins from a gruelling last seven says it all.

To win a premiership a side must scale the ladder and be the best for 4 weeks. Experience is something that cannot be bought by premiership points. Hawthorn and Collingwood have done it before, but Geelong has done it more than the rest. The race for the flag remains wide open.

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