The Weekend Preview is a blog that aims to provide a different angle on the narrative of an upcoming sporting event.

AFL Semi Final: Geelong vs. Sydney

AFL Semi Final: Geelong vs. Sydney

Friday Night, 15th September 2017 at the MCG

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Nick Davis! Nick Davis! I don’t believe it! I see it, but I don’t believe it!

Anthony Hudson in commentary for Channel 10
Sydney vs. Geelong, SCG, September 9th 2005

 Figure-1: Sydney vs. Geelong – 2005 Semi Final

Figure-1: Sydney vs. Geelong – 2005 Semi Final

It probably comes with the territory of being a perennial finalist, but the Sydney Swans seem to have had their fair share of dramatic finals moments, including Tony Lockett’s point after the siren and Leo Barry’s premiership saving mark. But due to the drama of the comeback, it is hard to top Nick Davis’ last quarter cameo performance in the 2005 Semi Final against Geelong.

The AFL Semi Finals are always intriguing contests, as you are presented with the scenario of the home and supposedly superior team coming off a loss against a side coming off what is usually a morale boosting win. And 2005 was no exception, Sydney were coming off a 4-point loss to West Coast in a pulsating Qualifying Final at Subiaco with some questionable umpiring decisions that left the Swans players feeling robbed: [1]

Michael O’Loughlin: I have never been one to complain about umpires and their decisions, but I felt hurt that night. Roosy told us to get over the decisions and the match result. ‘Forget it,’ he stormed. ‘Use the hurt for next week.’ It was good advice as dwelling on one or two things that go against you can infect the mind. Negative thoughts can run through a team like a virus and that’s not the way to go into another finals match.

The Swans needed to quickly banish those demons and prepare for a home final against Geelong, who had smashed Melbourne by 55-points in their Elimination Final and would be coming to Sydney with confidence. Sure enough, Geelong arrived in Sydney ready and dominated the low scoring encounter, taking a 17-point lead into the Final Quarter. But little did we realize the drama that would unfold: [2]

Brad Ottens [Geelong]: Sydney had kicked only three goals for the night going into three-quarter time. Then we got the first of the last. They needed four goals on what was a wet, shitty night. I thought, ‘We’re home here!’ 

Leo Barry [Sydney]: Then Nick Davis kicks three, playing out of his skin.

 Brad Ottens: The siren was imminent. Seconds left. The ball went back into their forward line again, there was a ball-up about twenty out.

 Leo Barry: There were 36 players in our forward line.

Brad Ottens: There weren’t many numbers around the actual stoppage… I was thinking, ‘They’re going to kick a goal here, there’s no doubt…’ and Davis just swooped! Goal! 

Leo Barry: I was close, just to see him get that space… It was amazing. 

Brad Ottens: It goes back to the middle, and the siren goes.

Leo Barry: Nick Davis, the last four goals of the game. The exhilaration… the noise! The crowd was absolutely erupting! 

Leo Barry: Then a few weeks later we win the Grand Final by a few points. It was just an unbelievable fairy tale.

But there was more to the story than just a lucky streak of goals for Nick Davis. Was it a rev up from Brett Kirk that inspired Davis’ achievements? [1]

Michael O’Loughlin: After Geelong had kicked a goal because Davis allowed his opponent to run off him, a furious Kirk ran to the Swans forward and blasted him with words that obviously hit their mark: ‘You owe us’. 

And although Davis took all the praise, there is also the forgotten hero in Jason Ball whose ruck work was fundamental in the winning goal. Equally, the players who blocked Josh Hunt from chasing down Davis were vital to the success of the set play. In short, it was a team effort that was no accident: [1] 

Michael O’Loughlin: Ball also was a match-winning hero as his tap was classic ruck work, the perfect result of hours of practice. The Ball-Davis goal was a set play and no fluke. It had been rehearsed at training 100 times or more. It takes enormous skill to hold off your ruck opponent and then direct the ball exactly where you want it to go, straight into your teammate’s hand. That one set play was absolutely critical in the Swans’ 2005 premiership success as even a slightly off-target Ball tap probably would have meant our elimination from the finals that night at the hands of Geelong.

But for the best analysis of such crucial moments, we can often learn the most from the person who felt the pain the most, Geelong coach Mark Thompson: [3]

It was a set play by Sydney, not even close to a fluke, and I watched it unfold from the coaches’ box and it was like death in slow motion. Our runner was already on the field; it was too late to get a message out to the players. In moments like that, the coach becomes irrelevant and it is down to the guys on the field; they have been trained for these situations, repeated over and over, and you trust that they will set up in the right way, the way that you have taught them to set the structure. But they did not.

Here is what should have happened: we needed to get players into defence for the ‘outnumber’ at the stoppage, to clog it up as much as possible. At the moment the field umpire called the ball-up in the goalmouth, that actually started to happen. I have watched it a zillion times on replay; there are 16, yes, sixteen Geelong players in the picture as the umpire calls the ball-up, but then the Sydney players start waving their arms and walking away from the stoppage, clearing the area for themselves. And the Geelong players – their opponents – walk away with them, which is a mistake. A fatal mistake.

At this point, I was screaming in the box, and you cannot imagine a more helpless feeling as a coach. Sydney walked out a whole bunch of our players to utterly nondescript positions. Matthew Scarlett went with Barry Hall to the goal-line; you might as well be 15 rows back in the stand, and Tom Harley had gone (with Darren Jolly), Darren Milburn was out of there too, minding a man who did not want to go near the football. Sydney created a funnel wide enough for a bus to drive through, and Nick Davis came from the blindside, running straight at the Swans’ goals.

By now, it is near despair for me. Jason Ball, working against a part-time ruckman in Playfair, taps it to his left, not even looking because he knows that Davis is on the burst. Josh Hunt, who is playing on Davis, is chasing him hard but cops a block from a Swans player and falls a step behind. Davis grabs at the footy, but bobbles it, then hits it with a left-foot volley as Joel Corey tries in vain to smother. It loops through for a goal, and Anthony Hudson’s commentary on Channel 10 goes into the annals: ‘I see it. But I don’t believe it.’

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As alluded to earlier, the AFL Semi Finals are always an intriguing prospect, pairing up a Qualifying Final loser against an Elimination Final winner. The Final 8 system whereby the Top-4 play each other in Week 1 for a place in a Preliminary Final, whilst 5th to 8th play-off in Elimination Finals has been in place since the year 2000. And in the first 14 years of this system, Week 2 of the finals were an almost non-event. On only 2 occasions across 28 matches did the winner of the Elimination Final back it up with a win in the Semi Final. This lop-sided win-loss register is even more remarkable when you consider the nature of those two wins – one was an extra-time win for Collingwood against West Coast in 2007 and the other a narrow 3-point win for Hawthorn over Port Adelaide in 2001. The Final 8 system was becoming effectively a Top 4 system, as the likelihood of winning the premiership from outside the Top 4 was looking increasingly slim. But in the last three seasons something has changed, the winner of the Elimination Final has won 4 out of the 6 Semi Finals, with the Bulldogs the biggest outlier of them all as they incredibly went on to win the Premiership. What’s the reason for this? A more even competition? Teams better equipped at winning away from home? Did the bye before the finals help the Dogs last year? Whatever the reason, Sydney and West Coast will enter this weekend’s matches with little fear that history is against them.

 Figure-2: Winner of the Semi-Finals between 2000 and 2016

Figure-2: Winner of the Semi-Finals between 2000 and 2016

As for Geelong, they must feel as though the world is against them. After a very impressive end to the home & away season and a Top-2 finish, the Cats were rewarded with what was effectively an away final against the Tigers at the MCG. And after licking their wounds from the resultant loss they need to back up with a match against the Swans that look like an unstoppable juggernaut at the moment. And even if they win this week they then have to travel to Adelaide to play the seemingly indomitable Crows on their home patch. And despite playing an interstate team this weekend the Semi Final has been again scheduled for the MCG. However, the negative connotations with the MCG are not as strong this week, as of course the Swans beat the Cats at Simonds Stadium earlier this year and the big expanses of the MCG will equally not suit the Swans. In fact, both the Cats and the Swans have had mediocre records at the MCG this year, with both going at a 50% win-loss record, as presented in Table-1 and Table-2. But, perhaps the match against Richmond has prepared the Cats well for this week, enabling them to review all their failings on the bigger ground and address them ahead of the game this Friday Night.

 Table-1: Geelong Results at the MCG in 2017

Table-1: Geelong Results at the MCG in 2017

 Table-2: Sydney Results at the MCG in 2017

Table-2: Sydney Results at the MCG in 2017

Geelong’s performance against the Tigers was uncharacteristic and I would be weary to take too much from the game from Geelong’s perspective, particularly as they gave up the fight when the game was lost in the last quarter – percentage is not an issue in finals. The game was a season low in many areas for Geelong. The Cats are the number 1 contested ball team in the AFL, yet they had their biggest loss in this department for the season, a -19 differential. To put this into context, only a month ago the Cats dominated the Tigers winning the contested possession count with a +18 differential. The game was also a season low for disposal efficiency, 62.1%. The only other time they were below 70% this year was in their Round 13 loss to West Coast (67.8%). Much of this can be attributed to the pressure the Tigers put on them, but it is hard to imagine the Cats having two consecutive weeks like that. Their barometer, Patrick Dangerfield had his worst game for the year. Sure he still collected 31 disposals, but he had both a season worst disposal efficiency (45.2%) and clanger count (9). As the champion he is, you would expect an improvement from him this week, as well as from his partner in crime Joel Selwood. 

So I’m expecting an improved performance from Geelong this week, but is that going to be enough to beat the Swans? Given how the Tigers so successfully shut down the Cats forward line last week, it may be tough going again for them against the stingy Swans defence. Hopefully we have a match to rival 2005, but I suspect the Swans will be a little too strong.

Sydney to win by 16 points

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[1] O’Loughlin, M. & Main, J. (2012). “Micky O: Determination. Hard work. And a little bit of magic”, HarperCollins, NSW, Australia.

[2] Zurbo, M. (2016). “Champions All: A History of AFL/VFL Football in the Players’ Own Words”, Echo Publishing, Victoria, Australia

[3] Thompson, M. (2016). “Bomber: The Whole Story”. Penguin Random House Australia.

AFL Preliminary Final: Richmond vs. GWS Giants

AFL Preliminary Final: Richmond vs. GWS Giants

AFL Elimination Final: Sydney vs. Essendon

AFL Elimination Final: Sydney vs. Essendon