Jordan De Goey dari Collingwood diskors selama tiga pertandingan karena menabrak Elijah Hewett

The leaders or the challengers? How two massive AFL preliminary finals will be decided

Footy isn’t always about the wins and losses from week to week. It’s sometimes about the journey, and what you can learn along the way.

After his side’s round eight loss, Carlton coach Michael Voss sat down and tried to make sense of what just happened.

“Good teams give you feedback. And we got some feedback tonight that we were short in a few areas.”

The Lions had vanquished the Blues by 26 points, a margin that was perhaps closer than the game indicated. The loss left the Blues hanging on the edge of the eight with real work to do.

A week later Adam Kingsley sat a couple of kilometres away, pondering his own freshly learned lesson.

“I take out of it that we have a fair way to go before we are one of the better teams in the competition.”

“There’s no point getting a lesson and not doing something about it.”

The 65-point loss to Collingwood left the Giants in the bottom four, closer to the stragglers than the trendsetters.

If they say a week is a long time in footy then four months is an eternity. Footballing empires have risen and fallen in this period, falling by the wayside as the contenders of the 2023 season rose to the occasion.

This year’s preliminary finals sees two sides from the final four in 2022 play off against two sides who failed to make the finals last year.

This week sees a rematch of those one-sided May match-ups, with the Blues hoping to battle back against Brisbane and GWS plotting revenge against the swooping Magpies.

Both Carlton and GWS have had stellar second halves of the year, buying into their coaches’ game plans as the season progressed. If both sides can somehow cause upsets, it would be the first time that two sides from below the top four have made the Grand Final.

It would also be just the third time in almost three decades of AFL top eight finals where two teams have made the grand final after missing the finals the previous season — a feat last achieved in 2007 by Geelong and Port Adelaide.

To get there, the Blues and Giants will have to beat arguably the two most consistent sides this year.

The Pies and Lions have picked up where they left off in 2022. Both sides sat near the top of the ladder all season, shaping up as sides to beat.

Brisbane’s attack has been the envy of the competition, while Collingwood’s attack and pressure through the middle of the ground has left teams shell-shocked.

Can the two standard setters seal their spot in the decider, or have the Blues and Giants learned their early season lessons?

Swooping on the Orange Team

It’s been mentioned once or twice this year that there’s more than a passing resemblance between GWS’s sharp 2023 rise and Collingwood’s own ascent last year.

Both are led by acolytes of Damien Hardwick, leaning on critical elements of their style. The similarities are more than skin deep as well.

GWS and Collingwood are both built from the defence up, using a solid protective base to enable exciting attack. Both sides look to attack via shifting angles, and lean to using the corridor with overlapping handballs.

The two teams press hard both ways up the ground, creating pressure in contests and space up forward.

This pressure that was one of the differences between the two sides in their round nine encounter.

“I don’t think we coped with their pressure — not that their pressure was ‘numbers-wise’ high — but I felt like the impact they had with it caused us to panic at times. At times we were too slow to get rid of the ball.” Kingsley told the media after the match.

“We didn’t defend to the level we expect, particularly in the back half.”

The Pies operated like they had all the time in the world, regularly moving the ball down the ground at will. They laid 63 tackles to the GWS’ 29, the second largest differential in a game this year.

Watching the game it felt like the Magpies had no shortage of space, able to take the Giants apart with their trademark waves of well spaced hard runners.

The Pies were even able to score four goals from kick ins — they’ve only scored 60 such points from the rest of the season combined.

It was a lesson that the Giants have not only learned, but started to apply themselves.

Throughout the season Kingsley talked about becoming a “front half team”. That’s a team that dominates via territory, pressing up to trap teams and force mistakes.

Where the Pies tend to sit a little bit deeper to lull opposition sides into attacking and exposing themselves, the Giants trust their stellar 1v1 defence to cover any gaps.

The Giants have also moved the magnets significantly since that game with six different players featuring last week from that side that lost to the Pies. Others are featuring in different roles, such as Harry Himmelberg’s move back to defence.

Since the byes began, almost no side has been better at forcing and exploiting front half turnovers than the Giants. That connection between their players in executing that high press has been helped by arguably their healthiest period in their short history as a club.

For Collingwood, the recipe is simple — plenty of pressure around contests, and their trademark running game. They finished as minor premiers for a reason.

While the effectiveness of this game plan tailed off as the season progressed, it’s still the model for much of the competition. If the Magpies can find forwards in open space, there won’t be a big, big sound again this year.

The Giants must limit the damage of the Magpies’ outside runners and prevent easy movement forward. If GWS can trap the Pies in their territory, and match their numbers around the ball, they stand a real chance in the game.

Given the similarities of how the sides play, and how exciting both look in full flight, there’s a chance that it could be as exciting as their 2019 preliminary final.

Like a Blue rag to a Lion

The other preliminary final is more a study in contrasts. Carlton and Brisbane are a bit like oil and water, which makes it a little hard to work out exactly what is going to happen.

Brisbane is a team that has a rotating cast of forwards, more options than any team can reasonably cover. Carlton, by contrast, lean on their two centrepiece forwards more than any other good side.

Brisbane are the most effective team at scoring from intercepts this year, while Carlton is the second least effective.

Carlton’s second half resurgence has instead been built on a “bend don’t break” defensive attitude, denying teams the ability to pile on the points. Carlton are devoted to placing effort around the contest and forcing teams to fight their way through.

Brisbane’s effectiveness at generating points from intercept showed strongly in their round eight match up.

All up, the Lions were able to generate a massive 85 points from intercepts in the game, well up on their already high bar. Voss was pleased about the attack on the contest, but little else.

Since then the Blues have had an increased focus on preventing those costly types of turnovers, balancing caution with attacking prowess. This has been key to their run through September to date.

To beat the Lions, that part of the Blues’ game has to be rock solid. Brisbane picks teams apart from their solid defensive structure, forcing the game to be played in their half.

You can’t score unless you have the ball at your end, and the Lions are as good as anyone at keeping it away from their end on their day.

At the same time, the Blues need to maintain their attack at stoppages. While Carlton has been one of the best sides at defending in stoppages this year, Brisbane are no slouches either.

If the Blues can limit the damage that Brisbane’s versatile forward line can do and effectively transition the ball out of the danger zone, the Blues might have a real chance to make their first grand final this century.

Otherwise, it could be Brisbane’s time to return to the biggest stage of them all after almost two decades away.

ABC Sport will have live blog coverage of the Collingwood-GWS and Brisbane-Carlton preliminary finals across the weekend.



Author: Russell White