A GRAND Preliminary

Long gone are the days of the final four and final five when dominant teams had Preliminary Final week off and sat back on banana lounges and beanbags laughing at the spectacle of their prospective Grand Final opponents destroying each other.

Now every team has to earn its spot in the Grand Final. And the winner of tonight’s  Preliminary between Collingwood and Geelong will have really earned it.

They were meant to meet in the Grand Final as the system is engineered to bring about a decider between the two best teams. For a very brief moment, with Ling pumping his arms and Goddard screaming at the rain, it looked like it had gone to plan. But a rejuvenated and relentless St Kilda  showed everyone that engineers have no part in a brutal classic final.

Geelong and Collingwood are clubs proud of their heritage. The Cats celebrate their provincial status and persist with the daggy hooped jumper and socks (North Melbourne got rid of them  in the 1880’s). When a team is unsuccessful such an outfit can make it a figure of fun –   like the Blinky Bill, or was it Caramello Bear? – of the Brisbane Bears.

Certainly no one is laughing now at what this great team is wearing.

Collingwood, to the chagrin of AFL promotional event organisers, sponsors and other clubs, views its stripes as sacred and propagates an affinity with the working class despite the suburb’s working cottages now being million dollar homes and many of its supporters residing very comfortably in the eastern suburbs.

To the many people who love it, and the even greater number who loathe it,  Collingwood’s  modern incarnation is inextricably linked with the enigmatic figure of president Eddie McGuire.

The son of a coalminer, McGuire has achieved a lot. An affable buffoon of morning radio, a bringer of riches to poor people with good memories on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, the ruthless CEO of Channel 9, and the earnest patriarch of Australia’s most famous sporting club.

I remember McGuire as a young Channel 10 reporter in 1987 brazenly jumping the fence at Victoria Park with his microphone and approaching the training group like an excited kid. He doesn’t look so young now, is more serious, self entitled and annoying, but he certainly knows what he wants, and loves the club.

Collingwood  has the form, beating Geelong comfortably in Round 19 and was the best in the competition for inside-50s, contested possessions, tackles, and number of goal kickers .  It swarms at the contest with players of varying builds and styles. They are lighter limbed  than the bully boys of Corio Bay. They are  younger and, with the exception of Dane Swan, fresher faced. But appearances can be deceiving. The Pies captain Nick Maxwell who looks like the newly appointed school prefect, is actually older than Gary Ablett. For a powerfully built side Geelong are exceptionally skillful and quick.

Amazingly the minor premier has the worst goal conversion rate with 49.4%. The competition average is 52.6%.

Matthew Lloyd was one of the first commentators to show frustration at what he saw as poor  set shots at goal by all clubs. Although conversion rates haven’t altered greatly over the past twenty years it appears most modern players, who can hit a teammate sprinting across their  path forty metres away,  struggle on set shots at the stationary 6.4 metre gap between the goal posts. As Essendon great Paul Salmon noted: ”It [goal kicking] is a very unique thing. It’s very much a specialist role,  and there’s only a handful that can do it with any degree of success.”

Kelvin Templeton who had the unbelievable conversion rate of 92% practised some form of  meditation while lining up and Jason Dunstall simply aimed for the goal umpire. Perhaps Travis Cloke should talk to these two before one of his shanks costs his team a chance to play in a Grand Final.

Personally I want an old-fashioned, self obsessed goal hungry bastard to win the match like Kevin Bartlett who single-footedly won Richmond the 1980 flag. Goal hunger is a characteristic that fell out of favour but the game is beginning to appreciate it again.  I had that trait and during a Preliminary Final had a teammate handball to me on the boundary to kick the winning goal which I did without any thought at all of kicking it to a player in a better position. I do despair when Didak or Johnson look to centre the ball instead of bending it through the sticks. It denies us one of the great spectacles and if they do give it to someone else that person usually misses the set shot because they’re busy looking left and right, hoping to give it off themselves to avoid the responsibility of scoring.

And I’m sure Geelong haven’t forgotten the ’05 semi final against Sydney that was stolen from them 30 seconds from the end by Nick Davis’s miraculous snap.

Some great goal sneaks are still present in this series and Milne showed his worth against Geelong.

Will it be a player like Didak, Johnson or Stokes who puts his team into the Grand Final? I hope so.

Collingwood is looking to reverse its 2007 and 2009 Preliminary Final losses to Geelong.  Despite this year’s achievements its mental response to those losses (a motivation or a haunting) may decide the outcome.

Geelong want to win this to gain an opportunity to impose themselves on the history books:-

In twenty years time when a child is looking at this:-

PREMIERS:-

2007 GEELONG

2008 HAWTHORN

2009 GEELONG

he may question the title of GREAT.

But with a consecutive presence he’ll be convinced:-

2010 GEELONG

A characteristic of great teams is that other sides don’t beat them, they beat themselves. Geelong aren’t the team of 2007 but they still believe they’re good enough to control their own destiny. After the loss to Collingwood in Round 19 Matthew Scarlett said: “We didn’t want it…what we served up was despicable”. Severely self-critical but also tinged with a deserved arrogance.

Not as arrogant and self-assured as their predecessor Brisbane who let the other teams engage in the undignified scrap for the Golden Tickets to the finals. Then one by one, each team eliminated itself through a weakness of character until there was only one left. Ecstatic, they would enter Willy Wonka’s office to claim the prize only to find Brisbane had taken over the place: “You LOSE. You get NOTHING. GOOD DAY SIR!”

Usually teams only have two gargantuan efforts in them for the finals. To win the Premiership Geelong will have to summon a third. Their second is tonight and I’m sure St Kilda, confident of inflicting on the poor Bulldogs its  sixth Preliminary Final loss since 1992, will be sitting back in their Sortino leather lounges splitting their sides with laughter as the Pies and Cats tear each other to pieces.

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