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Tigers return to their 2020 field of dreams as Dees begin quest for back-to-back flags

After 198 home-and-away matches, an epic final round which saw Carlton drop out of the eight for the first time in the season on the final day of the regular season, and a brutal warm-up by reigning premiers Melbourne, we are down to only eight teams in the race for this year’s flag.

Five of last year’s finalists – Geelong, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs – return for another tilt at the flag, while Collingwood, Fremantle and Richmond make their September returns after missing out last year.

In the case of the Pies and Tigers, both return after dropping out of the top eight following finals appearances in 2020, while the Dockers will fly the flag for Western Australia in its first September campaign since 2015.

After a two-year absence from Victoria due to COVID-19 restrictions, finals football return to the state with two huge qualifying finals, including a 2011 grand final matchup and the Sydney Swans to play its first final in the state since 2017.

Before that, it all kicks off at the Gabba on Thursday night, where Richmond returns to the scene of its 2020 premiership triumph to face the sixth-placed Brisbane Lions, who will be reeling after a heavy final-round loss to Melbourne cost them the double chance, in a knock-out final.

Friday night sees the Swans face the toughest task of all, facing reigning premiers Melbourne at the MCG for the second time this year, after pulling off an epic comeback to win by two goals back in round twelve.

Saturday sees a double-header which will determine the opponents of the first semi-final, with minor premiers the Geelong Cats tackling Collingwood in a final for the third time in four years, before Fremantle welcome the Western Bulldogs to town across the Nullarbor.

It shapes as another exciting finals series as seven teams look to stop the Dees repeating as premiers in 2022, but the reigning premiers will have their own incentive to go back-to-back and win a flag in their own backyard after winning last year’s behind WA’s hard borders.

Here is your preview to each of the four finals matches this weekend.

Brisbane (6th) vs Richmond (7th)
Thursday, September 1, 7:20pm
The Gabba, Brisbane

This season: Richmond 15.14 (104) defeated Brisbane Lions 14.13 (97) at the MCG, round 20

Last meeting in a final: Brisbane Lions 10.9 (69) defeated Richmond 8.6 (54) at the Gabba, second qualifying final, 2020

The nine-match race to this year’s premiership begins at the Gabba with Richmond marking its return to September with a trip back to the venue of its 2020 premiership triumph over the Geelong Cats to face a wounded Brisbane Lions side.

This match pits together the two best attacking sides of the competition, with the Tigers finishing on the top of the scoring charts ahead of the Lions after booting 21 goals in its 66-point thrashing of Essendon in the final round.

After a mediocre three-week period which included narrow losses to the Gold Coast Suns and wooden spooners North Melbourne, as well as a draw against Fremantle in round 19, the Tigers have picked up in the past month to potentially loom as a premiership dark horse.

In a major boost for the Tigers, Tom Lynch and Dustin Martin look set to return to the side, and their presence could prove to be the difference as they look to claim an elimination final win for the first time in the AFL era.

On the other end of the scale, the Brisbane Lions will be wondering where it all went wrong, after they suffered their second embarrassing loss to Melbourne this season and losing two key players to costly suspensions.

Cameron Rayner and Noah Answerth both copped one-match suspensions for striking incidents involving Ben Brown and Alex Neal-Bullen, respectively, meaning the only way both play again is if the Lions can defy a very poor record against Richmond dating back to 2005.

When the teams met back in round 20, Chris Fagan’s side led by as much as 42 points before the Tigers came roaring back to claim a seven-point win at the MCG, leaving the northerners without a win at the home of football for over eight years now.

To present matters, and this will be the third finals meeting between the two sides in the past four years, and the first in which the loser will face elimination since the 2001 preliminary final, which the Lions won by 68 points en route to the first of three consecutive flags.

The Lions have won two of their three finals meetings, the only outlier being the Tigers’ 47-point win in the second qualifying final in 2019.

But in their return to September, the Tigers should continue their recent run of form and put an end to the Lions’ season on their home turf.

For the winner: A showdown against reigning premiers Melbourne at the MCG or a trip to Sydney to face the Swans in the semi-final.

For the loser: Season over – for the Brisbane Lions another wasted season, or for Richmond a long plane trip back home to Melbourne.

Prediction: Richmond by 15 points

(Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Melbourne (2nd) vs Sydney (3rd)
Friday, September 2, 7:50pm
Melbourne Cricket Ground

This season: Sydney Swans 10.13 (73) defeated Melbourne 9.7 (61) at the MCG, round 12

Last meeting in a final: Melbourne 21.23 (149) defeated Sydney Swans 10.13 (73) at the MCG, first semi-final, 1987

The MCG’s first final since the 2019 Grand Final sees Melbourne contest its first true home final since the 2018 elimination final when they come up against the Sydney Swans, who enter the finals series having won their past seven matches in succession.

After hitting some speed bumps in the middle of the season, including losing to the Swans by two goals back in round 12, the Dees have hit form at the right time and go into their qualifying final off the back of a crushing win over the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba.

There is the incentive for Simon Goodwin’s men to go all the way this year, as COVID-19 and domestic travel restrictions meant they won last year’s flag behind Western Australia’s hard borders, while their supporters back home in Victoria were lawfully detained in lockdown.

Given how the final eight has shaped, the Dees will never have to leave Melbourne again for the rest of the year, only having to clear at least three hurdles if they are to achieve their ultimate goal of winning a flag in front of 100,000 fans at the MCG.

A loss to the Sydney Swans on Friday night could make that four hurdles and make the club’s qualification for the decider that much harder.

While the Swans couldn’t beat St Kilda by the margin required to snatch second place on the ladder, the fact they’ve finished third on the ladder should prove a good omen.

Why, you ask? That’s because, the past two times they’ve finished in third place, they’ve gone on to win the flag, doing so in 2005 (with the third-weakest attack in the competition) and 2012 (with the best defence in the competition).

John Longmire’s men go into their second consecutive finals series having won their past seven matches, with only the Geelong Cats having concurrently won more matches consecutively leading into September.

They can take some heart from the fact that they were able to come from 26 points down to upset the Dees by two goals, with Logan McDonald stepping up in the absence of suspended talisman Buddy Franklin to claim a Rising Star nomination.

Among their highlights also included snapping the Pies’ eleven-match winning streak in front of over 44,000 fans at the SCG in the penultimate round, as well as Buddy kicking his 1,000th career goal in their round two win over the Geelong Cats, also at home.

It will also be a huge weekend for the club, whose women’s team will play its first AFLW premiership match in Victoria when they face Collingwood at Victoria Park on Sunday.

But while they were able to get the better of the Dees without Buddy back in round twelve, facing them in a final will be a tougher proposition altogether, and while the Swans will back themselves in, the Dees should take the chocolates in front of nearly 90,000 fans.

For the winner: Direct passage to the preliminary final, and if the Swans win, their first preliminary final at the SCG since the classic 1996 match against Essendon in which Tony Lockett booted the winning point after the final siren.

For the loser: Live to fight another day and face either the Brisbane Lions or Richmond in the second semi-final at home.

Prediction: Melbourne by 18 points

Simon Goodwin

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Geelong Cats (1st) vs Collingwood (4th)
Saturday, September 3, 4:35pm
Melbourne Cricket Ground

This season: Geelong Cats 16.8 (104) defeated Collingwood 13.13 (91) at the MCG in round 3.

Last meeting in a final: Geelong Cats 15.10 (100) defeated Collingwood 5.2 (32) at the Gabba, first semi-final, 2020.

From a 5-4 record after round nine, in which they lost to St Kilda by ten points at Marvel Stadium, the Cats won their final thirteen matches to claim its second minor premiership in four years and enter the finals series with the longest winning streak by any side this year.

But while Chris Scott’s side will enter their 17th finals campaign in the past nineteen seasons dating back to 2004, they must overcome a recent poor finals record if they are to go all the way while Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Patrick Dangerfield are still playing.

Since last winning the flag in 2011, the Cats have won just one first-week final (against Hawthorn in 2016, and even then they very nearly lost it when Isaac Smith missed a set shot at goal after the final siren) and have lost five of their past six preliminary finals.

Many feared for the end of the Cats as a powerhouse after they lost to the Dees by 83 points in last year’s preliminary final, but if anything, the men from Kardinia Park have hit back with a vengeance to once again feature among the contenders for this year’s flag.

Awaiting them in the qualifying final are Collingwood, who have won twelve of their last thirteen matches with the only blot being when they lost to the Sydney Swans by 27 points in round 22 at the SCG.

Their stunning rise from a second-last place finish last year to finishing in the top four after edging out rivals Carlton by a solitary point in the final round has rookie coach Craig McRae in line to claim the AFL Coach of the Year award at season’s end.

They will have learned plenty from its round three loss to the Cats, in which they kicked nine goals in the third quarter to lead by as much as 37 points before completely collapsing in the last to lose by 13 points.

That was then, but this is now, and this year’s surprise packets will back themselves to cause another upset against the top-placed Cats, as they did in 2019 when they saluted by ten points in captain Scott Pendlebury’s 300th AFL game.

However, it was the Cats that won their most recent finals meeting, thrashing the Pies by 68 points in the first semi-final at the Gabba two years ago.

Despite their recent poor finals record, Chris Scott’s men should claim the points and secure a place in the preliminary final.

For the winner: Direct passage to the preliminary final at the MCG.

For the loser: Await the winner of the Fremantle vs Western Bulldogs elimination final later in the evening and host them in the first semi-final at the MCG.

Prediction: Cats by 14 points

Jack Ginnivan celebrates a goal.

Jack Ginnivan celebrates a goal. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Fremantle (5th) vs Western Bulldogs (8th)
Saturday, September 3, 6:10pm AWST (8:10pm AEST)
Optus Stadium

This season: Fremantle 14.11 (95) defeated Western Bulldogs 11.12 (78) at Marvel Stadium in round 21

Last meeting in a final: Never

With their arch-rivals the West Coast Eagles having just completed its worst ever season, Fremantle will be hoping to fly the flag for Western Australia proudly when they host the Western Bulldogs in an elimination final at Optus Stadium on Saturday night.

It is seven years since the Dockers’ bid for a maiden premiership ended at the hands of Hawthorn in a home preliminary final at the since-demolished Domain Stadium, after which they endured six straight years without finals, with then-coach Ross Lyon departing in 2019.

Two seasons of slow but steady progress under Justin Longmuir followed as he cleaned up most of Lyon’s mess, with the club being in contention for a top-four berth right up until the final round before settling for fifth position after Collingwood’s one-point win over Carlton.

The club has unearthed some fresh new talent in recent years, including 2020 Rising Star winner Caleb Serong and Nathan O’Driscoll, who picked up the final Rising Star nomination for 2022 and whose sister Emma also plays for Fremantle in the AFL Women’s competition.

Among their highlights include handing Melbourne its first defeat of the season with a 38-point win at the MCG, that counting among five wins and a draw in Victoria this year.

Their elimination final against the Bulldogs will bookend a huge day for the club, with its women’s team playing the Geelong Cats at Fremantle Oval in the morning before a four-and-a-half-hour wait until the main event at Optus Stadium.

The Western Bulldogs will be playing their second consecutive final at Optus Stadium, after losing last year’s decider to Melbourne at the same venue last September.

Luke Beveridge’s men have been inconsistent this season, but were able to sneak into the eight following a 23-point win over Hawthorn which put to an end a 14-year dry run in Tasmania, the club’s previous win in the Apple Isle coming in 2008.

While their up-and-down form might do nothing to suggest they’ll be a threat in September this year, they can take heart that the last time they launched their finals campaign with an elimination final in Perth, they would go all the way and win their first flag since 2016.

Back then, the Bulldogs sprung upset wins over the previous year’s Grand Finalists, the West Coast Eagles and Hawthorn, before edging out the GWS Giants in a preliminary final for the ages and then ultimately beating the Sydney Swans to the flag.

Caleb Serong and Andrew Brayshaw of the Dockers celebrate.

Caleb Serong and Andrew Brayshaw of the Dockers celebrate. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

This will be the first time the Dockers and Bulldogs face off in a finals match, and the second time they’ll meet in a month, after the Dockers won by 17 points at Marvel Stadium in round 21, a result which at the time all but ruled the Dogs out of finals contention.

But Carlton’s form slump, coupled with two wins for the Dogs against the GWS Giants and Hawthorn, saw the Pups Bradbury their way into the eight where they’ll be hoping to go on another giant-killing finals run and show the Blues just what could possibly be.

At home, Freo will be hoping to turn Optus Stadium purple in their long-awaited finals return and put an end to the Dogs’ run of luck.

For the winner: Face the loser of the qualifying final between the Geelong Cats and Collingwood from earlier in the evening at the MCG next week.

For the loser: Season over, and for the Western Bulldogs a long trip back over the Nullarbor to Melbourne.

Prediction: Fremantle by 24 points

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