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AFL 2021: All you need to know ahead of week one of the finals
BT Sport’s AFL expert Josh Gabelich previews the first weekend of the finals after a remarkable final round of the home and away season.
After 23 rounds of another home and away season that has been dramatically affected by the pandemic, the finals are finally here, albeit with a twist.
Most won’t be played in front of delirious home fans. All won’t be played in front of packed stadiums. At least we got here.
The final round of the home and away season presented the most dramatic end to a campaign we’ve seen since 1987.
But now, the real stuff begins; the month where reputations are enhanced or ruined.
With the AFL scrapping the pre-finals bye to keep the season rolling, while Melbourne and Sydney are still in lockdown and the rest of Australia continues to hold its breath and cross its fingers, the first weekend of the finals has arrived.
And it all starts at Adelaide Oval on Friday when Port Adelaide – the only team to enjoy the luxury of a home final – hosts Geelong in front of 20,000 supporters. The Power were the big winners of Round 23, with their last gasp two-point win over the Western Bulldogs not only sealing a double chance, but also securing at least two home finals.
Geelong was always going to play in South Australia this weekend given the current state of Victoria, but they arrive in the city of churches after coughing up a 44-point lead to Melbourne at GMHBA Stadium last weekend.
Chris Scott’s side have struggled in the finals since they won their last flag in 2011 and won’t get too many better opportunities while Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood and Tom Hawkins are still wearing the famous hoops.
The two New South Wales sides meet in an elimination final in Tasmania on Saturday in the first final played in the apple isle. Sydney has been one of the biggest improvers of 2021, rising from the bottom four to be a premiership contender on the back of the return of superstar spearhead Lance Franklin, who needs only eight more goals to become just the sixth player to slot 1000 goals.
John Longmire’s men will face the newest team in the AFL in Greater Western Sydney, who have also shocked the competition this year in their tenth season. Many had put a line through the Giants after they fell off a cliff last year before losing Jeremy Cameron and Zac Williams during the trade period.
Somehow, despite a stack of injuries to star players, they are back in the finals and could do anything across the next month, especially with Toby Greene on the park.
With four finals so evenly matched, it is almost impossible to pick a game of the weekend, but Melbourne versus Brisbane could prove to be the one. Both sides have spent plenty of time down the bottom of the ladder in the past 15 years. But now they are back in business.
Melbourne skipper Max Gawn sealed the minor premiership last weekend by kicking a goal after the siren to sink the Cats, while Brisbane snuck into the top-four by the narrowest of margins on percentage, climbing over the Western Bulldogs in the dying seconds of the game against West Coast. Now they meet in a qualifying final at Adelaide Oval, where the winner will be only one win away from a Grand Final.
The final game of the first week of the finals involves a team who had been in the four since round three until nosediving in the final three rounds – the Western Bulldogs – against a team that has come from the clouds in 2021 – Essendon. The Bombers haven’t won a final since 2004 – a remarkable amount of time for a club who has won the most premierships with Carlton – and don’t have anything to lose. All the pressure is on the Dogs and their coach Luke Beveridge, who despite winning four finals in 2016 to end a 62-year flag drought, hasn’t won a final in any other season since he took over in 2015.
By the end of the weekend there will be only six teams still alive in 2021.