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AFL semi-finals: making the case for another weekend of intrigue

Not enough has been written about the art of being underwhelmed by football. Certainly not in the past week, after a few days of finals footy that began as engrossing and ended up as epic, heralding a media deal equivalent to Fiji’s GDP.

But for the neutral supporter, there is a sense of AFL ennui this weekend, particularly in the context of it approaching the middle of September. To use the words of Ross Lyon: “Sometimes it’s just… it wasn’t vibing. There was no vibe.”

Forgetting for a moment that most AFL clubs purposefully have nothing to do with sports betting sponsorships, the league’s official sports wagering partner has this week’s visiting teams, Brisbane and Fremantle, as clear outsiders.

As you roll this week’s games around in your mind, the primary emotion is, well, a little meh. But roll them around with a can of Red Bull and some crushed anti-inflammatories, and you can make a case for a weekend of intrigue.

Melbourne v Brisbane

This year, Brisbane has been used as a punching bag by Melbourne who have twice beaten them up by 10 goals since the bye.

If the Lions are going to return to the preliminary final stage, replicating their seven-goal first quarter against Richmond at the MCG in round 20 is a good place to start – although that is easier said and done against a Melbourne defence featuring two of the league’s best in Stephen May and Jake Lever. Here, there are some lessons to be learned from Sydney last week, who clearly put some work into Lever to limit his intercept marking.

An issue may be Brisbane’s tall forward set-up of Joe Daniher, Eric Hipwood and Dan McStay, which dictates the ball coming in long and high. Luke Hodge’s suggestion of dropping one of the three for a smaller, more agile player may result in some more “chaos ball” and greater forward pressure, which troubled Melbourne last week. Do the Lions play McStay into the ruck, where last week he got his hands on the ball more times than he had in any of previous 158 games?

Max Gawn greets fans at a training session at Gosch’s Paddock this week.
Max Gawn greets fans at a training session at Gosch’s Paddock this week. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

While McStay rucking against the six-time All-Australian Max Gawn might make for an interesting tactic, it wouldn’t make it into the top two most intriguing aspects of the midfield battle, where Dane Zorko will play pantomime villain to the gentle boos of the MCC and the Demons’ Christian Petracca will play despite a hairline fracture in his fibula (which when you hear Seven’s Tom Browne describe the fibula as “one of the two legs in your lower leg” is akin to a miracle by one of the lesser-known saints).

If Lachie Neale can photocopy his game from last Thursday night and if the Lions can find someone to dampen Clayton Oliver’s influence, and if Brisbane can pull off a dozen or more ifs, we might just have a contest.

Collingwood v Fremantle

There are just as many ifs required to make the case for Fremantle in Saturday night’s game when you consider Collingwood pulled them apart by six goals in Perth the last time they met.

Besides, breaking the game down by its components has proven a futile exercise when discussing Collingwood this year. While they may have lost one of the great finals of the modern age last week, their coach, Craig McRae, summed it up when he said “We lost the game, but we’re not losers. There is a difference.”

Jack Ginnivan and Nick Daicos after the Pies’ round 10 win at Optus Stadium.
Jack Ginnivan and Nick Daicos after the Pies’ round 10 win at Optus Stadium. Photograph: Daniel Carson/AFL Photos/Getty Images

If anyone doubted Collingwood’s top four bona fides, they tabled enough evidence on Saturday to prove they belong, and listening to McRae, you sense the “belief” that has carried them this far has not been diminished.

There would plenty of belief, too, at Fremantle after giving the Western Bulldogs a seven-goal start last Saturday night. Yet concede a start half as great at a hostile MCG and you’d suspect this one would be just about done. But should the Dockers translate their second-half momentum to the opening 30 minutes and maybe, just maybe, the result isn’t as black and white as it would appear.

Central to this for Fremantle will be the 21-year old Caleb Serong, who is coming off a 33-possessions-10-clearances-six-tackles-and-a-goal game that had him adjudged best afield by both coaches.

Serong is as good a 21-year-old as the AFL has seen since his now 22-year-old teammate and current AFLPA MVP Andrew Brayshaw. Serong has already trousered a Rising Star Award as well as the AFLPA’s best first year player award. If he were on the Gold Coast, he’d probably have a Movie World ride named after him. If he were in Melbourne, he’d be a certified phenom.

Nick Daicos is a certified phenom. He too has won both the Rising Star (it wasn’t a contest) and AFLPA best first year player award, all the while attacking from off half-back in a way that has powered Australia’s biggest club to a season no pundit came close to predicting.

While Daicos’s stats are impressive, they largely miss the point of the 19-year-old, whose elusiveness, decision-making and poise are rare in any footballer, least of all one so young.

To see three of the game’s very best young players tested in the heat of a semi-final is an enticing prospect regardless of the outcome. Maybe the vibe’s not so bad after all.

  • Follow the first semi-final on Friday between Melbourne and Brisbane with Guardian Australia’s liveblog. Start time at the MCG is 7:50pm AEST.

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