After an eventful final round, which culminated in Port Adelaide’s 16-point win over Collingwood to secure the minor premiership on Monday night, fixtures for week one of the 2020 AFL finals series have been finalised.
The Power have not moved from top spot all season, but supremacy has not brought recognition. When Geelong coach Chris Scott labelled Richmond “the best team in the comp” a fortnight ago, he embodied the mood of an industry in what has seemed an even season. But there is no denying how good Port have been in 2020. They boast the right mix of youth and experience, the right mix of inside grunt and outside polish. The Power are tight defensively – no team in the regular season conceded fewer points – and possess a forward line marshalled by the irrepressible Charlie Dixon. Dixon has enjoyed his best season but with it brought a dependence on him. Geelong showed what can be done when stopping Dixon, and the flow of traffic to him, when trouncing Port by 10 goals in round 12. Port have proven since then they are more than Charlie Dixon, but the Cats will get the chance to test the theory again when the two teams meet in week one of the finals series. If the Power are seeking the respect of the competition, finishing the season as they started it will do the job.
Brisbane’s straight-sets exit last year was disappointing but forgivable for an emerging team and a club that had spent so many years in the wilderness. In 2020, however, there is no place to hide. The Lions have again been one of the standout teams this year, losing just three games and being denied the minor premiership only by Port Adelaide’s win over Collingwood in the last match of the regular season. There is so much to like: a high-octane style that is easy on the eye, class on every line, and of course Lachie Neale. Brisbane enter the finals on the back of seven consecutive victories but the Lions’ ability to win big games will only cease to be questioned when they win big games. And they will only do that if their kicking for goal improves. It has been acceptable since the bye but prior to that it was dreadful; eight times in the first 13 rounds Brisbane contrived to kick more behinds than goals. Lions fans won’t need reminding that their team had more scoring shots than Richmond in last year’s qualifying final but somehow managed to lose by 47 points. Not that Chris Fagan is dwelling on past failure. “Last year was a brilliant learning experience for us,” the Lions coach said. “We actually played really well in the finals last year, so we’ve got nothing to fear.” That’s good to hear, because Richmond lie in wait.
The Tigers have become expert at timing their run and 2020 looks to be going to type. Richmond were quite outstanding in the latter part of the regular season, winning six on the bounce after their round 11 loss to Port Adelaide. Though the margin was just 26 points, their win over Geelong in the penultimate round was arguably the finest victory by any team to this juncture of 2020. It bore all the hallmarks of the Richmond brand – relentless pressure, elite skill, deadly efficiency – and showed beyond doubt their bid for a third flag in four years will be executed in the rudest of health. Ivan Soldo is just about the only first-teamer guaranteed to miss the qualifying final against Brisbane, with Tom Lynch, Dion Prestia and Shai Bolton all expected to be available. On top of that, all their big guns are firing. “There are going to be some good players miss out, but you know your list has to run deep to go as far as you can,” Tigers coach Damien Hardwick said.
Few teams are as polarising – certainly those inside the top four – in this year’s finals series as Geelong. For every “expert” tipping them to go all the way, there is another confidently predicting a straight-sets exit. The Cats’ methodical, high-possession game is not to everyone’s taste but when on song it is most effective. Geelong are 2020’s heaviest scorers, helped in no small part by the Coleman medallist in their ranks, Tom Hawkins. Shut Hawkins out of the game, however – as Richmond did in round 17 – and suddenly the Cats have a less potent look about them. Not that Chris Scott will be piling his eggs all in the key forward’s basket; it should be remembered that a Hawkins-less Geelong had enough quality and diversity to lead Richmond by 21 points at half-time in last year’s preliminary final. The Cats will be warmed by the timely returns of Gary Ablett and Joel Selwood, and will fear nobody in pursuit of their first premiership since 2011. But there is no sugar-coating Geelong’s finals record under Chris Scott: just four wins to go with 11 losses.
After looking nailed on for a top-four finish for much of the season, the Eagles will be bitterly disappointed to place fifth for the second successive season. Losses to Richmond and Western Bulldogs inside their last five matches were pivotal, but unconvincing wins over Essendon, St Kilda and North Melbourne in that time do more to cast a cloud over the Eagles’ ability to pull a rabbit out of the hat from the lower reaches of the eight. They have had excuses, however, with injuries to key personnel doing much to halt the momentum gained from eight straight victories in the middle part of the campaign. It is looking likely that Josh Kennedy, Luke Shuey and Jack Redden will be fine to face Collingwood in week one of the finals, and Jamie Cripps will also return after missing the final four games for the birth of his son. But question marks still hover over Elliott Yeo (groin) and Jeremy McGovern (hamstring). Both will be needed if West Coast are to make a meaningful run at the title but if any team can do it from outside the top four this year, it is them.
There won’t be many happier fans than the St Kilda faithful that their club qualified for the postseason. It has been a lean few years for the Saints – nine to be precise, since the end of their salad days in 2011 – but they are worthy of their place in the finals, which was secured on the back of an impressive 52-point win over the Giants in round 18. Consistency has been an issue for St Kilda during 2020 but their best is good enough, as evidenced by comfortable wins over Port Adelaide and Richmond, and a two-point loss to Brisbane. Unlike the stranglers of a decade ago, Brett Ratten has this vintage playing attractive footy with no issues hitting the scoreboard. Only Geelong, Brisbane and Port scored more points than St Kilda in the regular season, with the likes of Dan Butler, Max King and Tim Membrey offering diverse avenues to goal. Much will hinge on the ball-winning power of the two Jacks – Steele and Billings – and only experience itself will show if the Saints’ style will hold up in the finals. But at least they are there.
It was a grim outlook for the Bulldogs after opening the season with two heavy defeats, to fellow finalists Collingwood and St Kilda. But for the second straight year, Luke Beveridge’s men finished with a wet sail to book a place in the finals on the last game of the season. Victories in five of their last six matches was enough to catapult the Dogs into an elimination final against St Kilda. A narrow win over West Coast in round 16 will give the Bulldogs confidence they can match it with the better teams in the finals, but a knock on their potential to go deep is their record in 2020 against the top four teams: losses to each of Port Adelaide, Brisbane, Richmond and Geelong. The Dogs know how to win a flag from outside the eight, having done so in 2016, but fresher in players’ minds will be their limp exit in 2019 at the hands of Greater Western Sydney. “Last year won’t necessarily help us, but we understand the difference between playing football, and playing with an edge as well as playing football,” Beveridge said. As ever, Marcus Bontempelli will carry a heavy load. More, however, is needed from Josh Bruce is the Bulldogs are to find an extra gear in front of goal.
All teams have had to deal with absenteeism in this most unique of seasons, but Collingwood have done it particularly tough. Losses to Essendon, Fremantle and Melbourne when times were hard snuffed out any hopes of a top-four finish, but the Pies did well to secure a finals berth even before they succumbed to Port Adelaide in the last match of the regular season. The Magpies are not out of the woods on the sick list, but even if they were full strength the question must be asked if they are good enough to make a meaningful challenge. Their prize for finishing eighth is a trip to Perth – and a quarantine period - for a knockout final against West Coast, the team that floored them by 11 goals in round eight. The journey west won’t be an issue for a team that travels well, but facing an Eagles outfit that will likely be as strong as it has been for six weeks is another matter. Collingwood are a quality group, make no mistake, but their level of quality might not be enough to do the impossible and win the flag from eighth place.