Another year of the underdog?

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Post Preliminary Final Win. Photo Credit: AFL Facebook Page

The Western Bulldogs were the unexpected fairytale story of 2016. Richmond followed the Dogs’ footsteps to claim victory last season. This year Collingwood will go head to head with the West Coast Eagles.

The under-rated Magpies silenced their critics this season, not only by upholding their faith in coach Nathan Buckley, who has been heavily scrutinised after every performance since his coaching reign began in 2012, but they’ve managed to create an exciting game style that had the power to unexpectedly break the defending premiers’ 20 plus game winning streak at the MCG to finalise a spot in the grand final.

The high expectations proved to be too much for Richmond on Friday night as Buckley’s Magpies crushed their hopes of back-to-back success.

Scoreboard pressure was absolute by the black and white, especially in the first half, sitting four goals up at the first break and 10 goals to two at half time. Collingwood’s big American handy man Mason Cox, plotted the first three goals of the second quarter while Jordan De Goey finished the game with five goals, making for an efficient forward structure against an elite backline, fronted by Alex Rance.

“There has been a shift, and for us it’s our capacity to be able to stand up in those big games against the best teams,” coach Nathan Buckley said on the win post game.

“We’re still proving that we can do that but tonight’s a pretty good example.”

Brody Grundy’s stellar performance was the cherry on top for what had already been an outstanding season, dominating the ruck against Toby Nankervis 51 hit-outs to 24 and finishing it off with an epic final quarter goal.

It wasn’t only the players with height consuming the ball though, Collingwood’s midfield were a strong force, Steele Sidebottom dominated the field, with 41 disposals and three goal assists, he showed up with class, experience and the elite form that earned him a spot on the all Australian squad.

Collingwood played a fast paced, high pressure game, the style that usually comes from Richmond, but for the majority of the four quarters, the Tigers gave up the ball too easily and didn’t make the most of their opportunities in front of goal.

To the best of his efforts, Jack Rewioldt’s five goals was too little too late, as the fourth quarter surge was halted by the sharp passage of play between Scott Pendlebury, De Goey and Adam Treloar who beautifully snapped the ball between the goals in what was a crucial moment that suspended the Tigers’ momentum and inevitably sealed the game.

Collingwood have been consistent all season but are peaking at the right time,
and now find themselves playing in a grand final. Underdogs? Sure.

Despite the hype, the Melbourne Demons couldn’t live up to the form they had produced in the first two finals to create their fairytale ending. The West Coast Eagles made the most of their two week break and home ground advantage to dominate across the field. 

What was expected to be a fight-to-the-death battle, the Eagles made it look all too easy, with their disposal efficiency at 72% there wasn’t many moments of error. Melbourne ruckman Max Gawn actually dominated the hit outs 42-31 but the Eagles won the clearances and contested possession, dismantling Melbourne’s game plan and impressively keeping the Dees goal-less for the first half.

West Coast’s scoreboard pressure began as soon as the opening siren sounded. Seven goals between the most talked about duo, Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, as well as Mark LeCras and Jamie Cripps adding three majors each, placed the Eagles in a more than comfortable lead and although Melbourne players never gave up, every passage of momentum constantly got shot down by the Eagles midfield and defensive pressure. 

Jack Redden was superb with 31 disposals, 13 marks and a goal, performing with an 84% efficiency rate, he was destructive in the Eagles midfield. Along with the likes of Dom Sheed and Luke Shuey, they made it difficult for the Dees to launch into their forward 50. 

“We executed our plans really well, we kept it simple, played our own way,” Eagles coach Adam Simpson said post win.

“When it really matters, we’re standing up pretty well.”

Jake Melksham was the only Demon who could hit the scoreboard more than once, but Jack Viney and Angus Brayshaw were best for the travellers. The McDonald brothers at each end of the ground couldn’t break through and their leaders Nathan Jones and Jordan Lewis were kept at bay. 

For their first finals endeavour in 12 years, this young squad exceeded expectations when they made it to the preliminary final. They’ve had a taste of September action, and they’ll be back.

Not exactly an underdog, the West Coast Eagles have been ‘flying high‘ over the past few seasons, consecutively playing in a finals series since 2015 and featuring in the 2015 grand final against Hawthorn during their three peat era. However, the MCG isn’t Optus Stadium, where they produce their finest performances. 

Looking to next Saturday, Collingwood and West Coast both have their challenges cut out for them. As strong as Collingwood’s defence has held up throughout this finals campaign, they haven’t come across the strong forces of Kennedy and Darling. West Coast are playing away from home, and will need to contain the two metre tall Texan Mason Cox as well as the in form Brodie Grundy tapping the ball to a gelled midfield in front of what will be a ferocious Collingwood crowd. 

It will be a battle of the birds next Saturday at the G’.

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