This week showed just how important the week off before finals was, revealed a new master of September and what the most important statistic to win is to advance deep into the finals series. These are the five things we learned from the semi-finals of the AFL.
The end of an era which should, but won’t be mourned
There were few people outside of the Hawthorn fan base who were bemoaning the reigning premiers’ defeat to the Bulldogs on Friday night, such is the recent negative consensus towards their monotonous dominance over the past three seasons.
The Bulldogs represent an exuberant, refreshing change of scenery to the gold and brown supremacy that many have recently become weary of, and most viewed the Hawks’ failed quest for a fourth consecutive premiership as a minor success of the equalisation policies pursued by the AFL.
However, personal convictions aside, the downfall of the Hawks was tinged with a hint of sadness.
In ascending to the top of, then ruling over, the AFL landscape, they have pioneered new benchmarks in ball movement, skill, and popularised the fast-paced, offensive footballing philosophies that are in vogue today.
Much of what people have admired about the Western Bulldogs and Greater Western Sydney this season are corollaries of the Hawthorn era, as sides have been compelled to match, and now better the Hawks’ playing style.
Coach Alastair Clarkson has heralded recent ideals of dynamic positioning, the prioritisation of possession over territorial progression and zone-based defensive mechanisms, all of which have transformed the AFL.
For the neutral observer, it was a melancholy feeling watching the downfall of a team which has redefined modern football, and they will rightfully be remembered as one of the great teams of AFL history.
Contested football reigns supreme in finals (for now)
The old mantra of ‘contested footy wins finals’ has never been more pertinent.
Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson might have claimed he “doesn’t give a toss” about contested football statistics, yet it was one of the facets most glaringly absent from his side’s performance on Friday night, as they were outworked and outmuscled by the ravenous Bulldogs, who were then able to deliver the ball to their outside midfielders.
Clarkson may still be vindicated as the temperament of the game changes (it would not be surprising), but for now contested football reigns supreme in September.
It is no coincidence that the four remaining finalists, are also the top four teams for average contested possession differentials in 2016.
In five of the six finals in 2016, the winner of the contested ball statistic has gone on to win the game, and both semi-finals on the weekend showed the value of a strong, ball-winning midfielder.
Whilst the Bulldogs win was a more collective midfield effort, Liam Picken was a standout in crucial moments in the game, gathering 13 contested possessions and kicking three goals.
The following night, Sydney’s Josh Kennedy delivered a contested masterclass, amassing 21 contested possessions to go with his 42 disposals.
Whilst Kennedy and Picken are not renowned as the most glamorous of players, their decision making, rapid fire handballs and ability to win the footy and offload to players in space played significant roles in helping their sides toward victory.
New dog, old tricks
There came not one, but two pivotal moments on Friday night at the MCG which served as a symbolic changing of the guard from Hawks captain Luke Hodge to rising Bulldog star Marcus Bontempelli.
The first came moments after a Jake Stringer snap had halted the Hawks momentum early in the second term, when Jordan Roughead‘s long searching kick went goal side of Bontempelli.
Running back with the flight of the ball, Bontempelli turned his body expertly to bump Hodge to the ground, take a strong mark, then kick the goal from the ensuing set shot.
The second came in the final quarter, as Hodge received the ball on the edge of Hawthorn’s defensive side of the square, looking to launch a counter attack.
As Hodge attempted to offload a handball, his pass was predicted by Bontempelli, who intercepted, gathered and then delivered the perfect kick to Tori Dixon inside 50, quelling any suggestions of a Hawthorn revival, and plunging the final dagger deep into Hawthorn hearts.
It was this type of moments for which Hodge has long been renowned.
Whether it is a crucial goal, intercept, mark or contest, Hodge has been one of the best big-game players of the last decade, serving as an integral element to the success of this Hawthorn era with his fearlessness, toughness and poise under pressure.
Now, Bontempelli looks set to assume this mantle with a similar skill set, and he may just deliver the Bulldogs similar success.
Heeney just another midfielder in Swans elite lineage
Whilst Isaac Heeney shot to prominence last year as an athletic, high marking forward, he has spent a significant amount of time removed from the comforts of the forward 50 this season.
Whilst Heeney’s midfield sojourn was initially conceived as a means of mentally and physically reinvigorating the young Swan after he suffered a minor bout of second-season syndrome, he has relished his new role.
With midfielder Tom Mitchell is rumoured to be departing for Hawthorn at season’s end, it appears Sydney might not need to look very far for a ready-made replacement, as seen on Saturday night when Heeney showcased similar contested nous and poise as Mitchell, amassing 32 disposals, nine marks and a goal.
With athletic attributes suiting every position on the ground, Heeney represents a welcome conundrum for the Swans, who could very well relocate him to the midfield next season to fill Mitchell’s void.
The value of a week’s rest has never been greater
Whilst Sydney hauled their battered and bruised bodies off the canvas to muster a stirring win over a lacklustre Adelaide Crows, they look set to go into Friday’s preliminary final severely undermanned.
In addition to the doubtful availability of Kurt Tippet and Rising Star Callum Mills, Jarrad McVeigh and Gary Rohan both suffered injuries, and their speed and class will be sorely missed on the wide expanse of the MCG.
Contrast this with the Geelong Cats, who having had a weekend of rest, go into the game with almost a full bill of health, with Nakia Cockatoo, Lachie Henderson and Shane Kersten all made readily available by virtue of a week’s rest.
This was also seen with the Western Bulldogs, who had almost written their finals campaign off after slew of season-ending injuries as they limped home from Perth in round 23.
However, thanks to the newly introduced bye weekend before the finals, the Bulldogs were able to regenerate their side, and now sit one game away from a grand final.
With the progressions in sports science and recovery methodologies, the value of seven days has never been more pronounced in the AFL, as the two well-rested sides go into the weekend’s preliminary finals as overwhelming favourites.
Written by Sean Nunan