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Premiership favourite, contenders, why every finalist can and can’t win the flag, analysis, news

Eight finalists, eight stories and eight chances at joining history.

The 2022 AFL finals get underway tonight and every team left in the race can still dream of glory at the end of September.

Here’s why all eight finalists can and can’t win the premiership.

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Ablett set to make his footy return | 02:35

GEELONG CATS

1st, 18-4, Qualifying Final v Collingwood at the MCG

Why they can win the flag

Superstar veteran Patrick Dangerfield said it best after the Cats’ most recent win over the West Coast Eagles, telling Fox Footy: “We’re ready.”

This is a playing group that has come so close yet so far for many seasons, but there’s a dynamism and professionalism about this 2022 list that has Geelong perfectly placed to claim its fourth flag this century.

Much of that sense stems from the gameplan tweak coach Chris Scott has implemented this season, with the Cats prepared to be more direct and positive with their ball movement. Yet they also have the maturity and skill to change gears to a control and high-possession style midgame at short notice.

Geelong’s forward line is nightmare to stop, highlighted by the fact Jeremy Cameron, Tom Hawkins and Tyson Stengle all made the All-Australian team last week – the first team with three players in the All-Australian forward six in 20 years. The midfield is brutal yet well balanced, with no heavy reliance on one or two players, despite the big names on paper. They’re in mighty form too, winning their past 13 consecutive matches.

The equation now is simple: Win three more and a premiership is theirs. Outside of a mini query on Cameron’s hamstring – which they insist isn’t an issue – the Cats are healthy ahead of September, with key players managed across the home and away season so they’d be primed for this flag push.

Put simply, Geelong should fear no finalist this year – a proposition Cats fans wouldn’t have been comfortable with in previous seasons but should be in 2022.

Why they can’t win the flag

History. As good as the Cats have been during the home and away season in previous years, their finals record under Scott since 2012 doesn’t make for great reading, winning just seven of their 22 matches.

It’s the conversation Scott and the Cats hate acknowledging, but it won’t go away until the team bucks the trend. Plus only two teams in the past 11 years have won a premiership from first position on the ladder.

There’s also a question mark on Geelong’s lead-in to the finals – albeit one out of its hands – with its past two games being big wins over against bottom-eight clubs Gold Coast and West Coast. On their current 13-game winning streak, just four wins were against the top eight (the Bulldogs twice, plus Melbourne and Richmond).

Seven-time All-Australian Nathan Buckley told Fox Footy’s Best on Ground Geelong might’ve been better suited to have faced two contenders in their final home and away games to get them truly battled-hardened for finals.

Buckley also said as good as Geelong’s defence is, it has looked vulnerable, at times this year, when opposition sides have moved the ball quickly and disallowed Cats defenders from setting up efficiently. Get the Cats panicking early in a final and anything is possible.

After all we’ve seen exactly that in recent years. The Cats have trailed at quarter-time in five of their last six week one finals, averaging just one goal in the first quarter. We’ll know quickly if they’re reverting to that poor form, or if something is different in 2022.

Should teams be given a pre-finals bye? | 03:48

MELBOURNE

2nd, 16-6, Qualifying Final v Sydney at the MCG

Why they can win the flag

We could just link to one of the many YouTube videos of them kicking three goals in 35 seconds in the third quarter of last year’s Grand Final, a clip we suspect most Dees fans know off by heart at this point.

They’re the reigning premiers for a reason, and they started the year 10-0 for a reason. Their best, which we’ve most recently seen twice against Brisbane, is as brilliant and brutal as the form they found last September. At that level, nobody can stop them.

But the emotion of winning one in front of their home fans, at the MCG, has been spoken about as an enormous motivator for Simon Goodwin’s men all year – basically since they won last year’s flag. It’s the driving factor that has helped them avoid the post-flag hangover we sometimes see; there’s no absence of hunger here.

The midfield is still incredible, potentially featuring this year’s Brownlow medallist in Clayton Oliver, while Christian Petracca and Max Gawn combine with him for arguably the AFL’s most dominant trio. The best contested possession side in the land, the Demons will back their boys against anyone else’s midfield, especially in a final where things can get even more contested.

They didn’t finish on top of the ladder this year, but that may not matter. We recently looked at the fates of minor premiers who finished two games or more clear on top – as Geelong did this year, winning 18 games to Melbourne’s 16 – and it doesn’t look great for the top seed.

In fact, the last three times a team finished two games clear on top – Richmond 2018, St Kilda 2009 and Geelong 2008 – the team that finished second on the ladder won the flag instead.

Why they can’t win the flag

Could it be as simple as, they’re not as good as they were last year?

Their defence remains stingy but an absence of applied pressure, especially up forward, and less scoring potency means they’ve not been quite as deadly on a week-to-week basis.

After ranking second in ball movement heading into last year’s finals series, the Demons rank eighth coming into this one, behind Geelong, Sydney, Richmond, Brisbane and the Bulldogs among finalists. They’ve kicked 15 goals or more just five times all season.

Since that remarkable 10-0 start the premiers have looked human, with teams discovering they can go around them instead of kicking it directly into the mouth of the beast – ie the hands of Steven May and/or Jake Lever.

To put it more simply, they’re 6-6 in their last 12 games. That’s been against high level opposition, admittedly – nine games against fellow finalists – but that’s the level of opposition they’ll play all September, too.

The finals bracket itself will play a crucial role in their season. Win their qualifying final, and the Demons will be heavily favoured to make the Grand Final, likely facing one of Collingwood, Fremantle or the Western Bulldogs in a home preliminary final.

Lose to Sydney this Friday night though and it’ll be either Brisbane or Richmond in a semi-final, then potentially Geelong in a prelim, even before getting to the Grand Final. That’s a much tougher road.

Latest on Bombers coach hunt! | 01:59

SYDNEY SWANS

3rd, 16-6, Qualifying Final v Melbourne at the MCG

Why they can win the flag

On the numbers, there are three clear favourites for the premiership in this finals series. Sydney is one of them.

A win over Melbourne, very achievable given they did it earlier this season, on Friday night would put the Swans as enormous favourites to make the Grand Final given they’d be hosting a preliminary final against the weaker side of the bracket – likely Collingwood, Fremantle or the Western Bulldogs.

They may not be on the 13-game winning streak of Geelong – a team they beat earlier this year, by the way – but their seven-win dash into September includes wins over three finalists, and four scores over 100. They are undoubtedly getting better as the season goes along.

The Swans are a deadly combination of youthful excuberance and experienced heads. From Tom Papley, Isaac Heeney and Buddy Franklin, to Nick Blakey, Dane Rampe and Chad Warner, there’s talent everywhere.

On Champion Data’s premiership profile there is no team better prepared for success, as the Swans rank seventh for clearances, fourth for post-clearance contested footy, first for ball movement and second for defending ball movement. Having no real weaknesses is a pretty good place to be.

Plus, third spot on the ladder seems to have some luck on its side. Both of Sydney’s premierships this century were won from third, while four of the last seven premiers came from third (Richmond all three times and Hawthorn in 2015).

Again – beat the Dees on Friday night, and they’ll have one foot in the Grand Final.

Why they can’t win the flag

Beating the Dees will be no easy feat and the loser of Friday night’s qualifying final faces a horror draw, getting either Richmond or Brisbane, then likely Geelong in a preliminary final just to make the big dance.

They’re on a seven-game winning streak but the last we saw these Swans, they were nearly losing to a St Kilda side playing for nothing, and coughing up the opportunity to win well enough to finish second and host this qualifying final.

Their form has been up-and-down across the season more broadly, with losses to Essendon, Port Adelaide and Gold Coast.

And clearly this has a silver lining, but this wasn’t when the Swans were supposed to be ready. Their excellent development means there’s plenty of youth in this group, with most expecting them to be ready for a true flag tilt in 2023 and beyond.

Because of that, if they don’t win it this year, it’s not a disaster.

Why Pies can spoil Cats’ party | 05:16

COLLINGWOOD

4th, 16-6, Qualifying Final v Geelong Cats at the MCG

Why they can win the flag

Do you believe in fate?

If there’s a team of destiny this season, it’s the Magpies, who keep proving the doubters wrong and doing what seems to make little sense.

They can beat anyone on their day, most notably having stunned Melbourne twice, while they led Geelong by 37 points back in Round 3 before the minor premiers stormed home. They’ve done it with defence and with, when needed, scoring power – 15 goals against the Demons in Round 21 the prime example – though it’s been about clutch goals more than amassing a mega score.

And if it’s even slightly close in the fourth quarter, you know Collingwood will believe it can win, and there must be a compounding effect from their 11 wins by less than two goals – the opponent thinking ‘here we go, the Magpies are doing their thing again’.

More to the point they are an older and more experienced side than you think, with the steady head of Scott Pendlebury helping them get the best of frantic opponents in those last-minute situations. (Of course, you’d think teams like Geelong and Sydney would do better stopping an attempted goal from the kick-in than Essendon did.)

While the Cats are a formidable first-up opponent, the Magpies go into Saturday’s qualifying final with no expectations. They’ve already equalled the greatest ladder jump in VFL-AFL history, moving up 13 places from 17th to 4th.

If they lose? Well, fair enough, the Cats are that good – and the Pies will still be favoured in their home semi-final against either Fremantle or the Western Bulldogs.

If they win, it’s yet another Magpie miracle, and who knows where it ends?

Why they can’t win the flag

It would be a historic statistical aberration if Collingwood won the flag.

Not just in footy, but in all sports, we know margin of victory is a strong indicator of how good a team is. Goal difference in soccer, points differential in rugby league, percentage in footy – whatever you want to call it, the best teams don’t win close games, they don’t play in close games because they’re thumping their opponents.

So this isn’t even about the historic outlier that is the Magpies winning 11 games by less than two goals, THREE more than the next-best in VFL-AFL history. It’s about their percentage, which sits at a frankly pedestrian 104.3% – worse than the Bulldogs, worse than Carlton, worse than Port Adelaide, and closer to 12th-placed Gold Coast than to any other finalist.

No team in the AFL era has ever won the flag with a percentage that low, and just one team – Carlton in 1999 – made a Grand Final with one. (Those Blues finished sixth and lost their first final but because of the top eight system at the time, stayed alive and got to face fifth-placed West Coast in Melbourne the next week, before the famous prelim upset of Essendon.)

But even just look at the pure on-field elements. They’re a poor clearance team (13th), mediocre at ball movement (12th) and extremely good defensively (1st), but can you win a flag with just that one string on your bow?

And for what it’s worth, no team has won the flag from fourth this century (since this finals format was introduced in 2000).

They’re an absolutely incredible story, and it would be one of the most remarkable achievements in footy history if they go on to win the whole shebang, but it would go against everything we know about statistical analysis of football teams.

Fyfe ruled out for crucial finals clash | 00:57

FREMANTLE

5th, 15-6-1, Elimination Final v Western Bulldogs at Optus Stadium

Why they can win the flag

The Dockers sat in the top four for 15 weeks of this season and can match it with the best teams – beating Melbourne at the MCG and Geelong in Geelong.

If they can get over the top of the Dogs, the Dockers hold no fear playing away from home in big games.

Their young midfield has stood tall in the absence of injured skipper Nat Fyfe for the majority of the year, with Andy Brayshaw even taking out the competition’s MVP award this month.

Statistics show the Dockers have won more ball than all teams in the competition, ranking number one for disposals in 2022, while they are also the best team with the ball – ranking first for effective disposals.

They are the third-ranked finals team for clearances.

And it’s the work of young ruckman Sean Darcy that is gifting the Dockers’ first use – with Fremantle second only to the Gold Coast for hitouts this year.

The small forwards, led by experienced veteran Michael Walters, have proved unstoppable at times in 2022 when the Dockers were down on big men.

The likes of Lachie Schultz, Michael Frederick and Bailey Banfield can all kick bags and loom large come finals time.

Freo’s backline is ranked second only to the reigning premiers – by just three points for the entire 2022 season. Alex Pearce, Brennan Cox and Luke Ryan are in outstanding form and hold the key to the Dockers’ success.

Add in the emotion club games’ record holder David Mundy’s retirement, and the Dockers have plenty to play for in September.

Why they can’t win the flag

Fremantle ran hot early in the season and sat inside the top two as late as Round 8, but their late season form has faltered as injuries started to mount.

Forward Matt Taberner hasn’t played since picking up a calf injury in the win over the Dogs back in Round 21. Rory Lobb has battled an ongoing shoulder complaint and has at times been visibly restricted late in the season.

Without a key forward, Fremantle has the worst attack end of any finalist – more than 70 goals adrift of the most dangerous forward line in Richmond.

The Dockers are ranked last of any finals team for marks inside 50 – albeit they’ve gone smaller with injuries to both Taberner and Lobb, and without a replacement in the injured Nat Fyfe.

They are also ranked last for any top eight side for contested marks.

Coach Justin Longmuir just hasn’t been able to lock in a stable line up, with Griffin Logue swinging back and forward where the situation arises.

The Dockers have struggled in the wet this season, with back-to-back losses to Gold Coast and Collingwood in the rain.

And with showers predicted for Saturday night, the conditions could work in the Western Bulldogs’ favour.

The Dockers’ uncontested ball game – they rank first in the competition for uncontested possessions – has come unstuck in wet or slippery conditions this year.

Freo are also lacking the finals experience of their rivals with just four players on their list from that last finals campaign in 2015 – Nat Fyfe, David Mundy, Michael Walters and Matt Taberner.

And Fyfe, and potentially Taberner, won’t feature in Saturday night’s elimination final due to injury.

Should the Tigers try to provoke Zorko? | 00:47

BRISBANE LIONS

6th, 15-7, Elimination Final v Richmond at the Gabba

Why they can win the flag

This felt like the year they were going to finally vanquish the demons of Septembers past, make amends and break through for a first Grand Final under Chris Fagan.

There was arguably no team with more motivation coming into the season than the Lions, unfairly tagged with an inability to win big finals – even though they have beaten Richmond at the Gabba in one before, and even though their two semi-final losses were agonisingly close.

Fagan calls himself a footy historian and points to the fact most great teams battle through adversity before reaching the pinnacle – Richmond’s three elimination final losses across 2013-15 come to mind.

The list is absurdly talented from end to end, with pillars any team would love to have and a potential two-time Brownlow medallist in Lachie Neale steering the ship. Hugh McCluggage remains an underrated superstar, Cam Rayner showed some of his best form too.

And despite their last-round loss to Melbourne, their home form is still some of the best in the league. As mentioned, they have beaten these Tigers in a week one final at the Gabba before.

They can score like few other teams and in full flight, they’re absolutely electric.

If they get past Richmond, they may get a clash with Sydney at the SCG in the semi-finals – a fixture they won convincingly back in Round 7. In the prelim would be Geelong (who they nearly beat at the Cattery) or Collingwood (who they beat at home), so again, that game too is winnable.

The path is obviously harder coming from outside the top four but it is not impossible.

Why they can’t win the flag

Not impossible, but just implausible.

It’s much easier to find reasons why the Lions can’t win it from here than why they can. Round 23’s loss to Melbourne wasn’t just damaging because it showed how easily they can be beaten (again), but condemned them to an elimination final for the first time under Fagan.

That path of beating Richmond, then Sydney or Melbourne, then Geelong or Collingwood to make a Grand Final sounds alright when you take the optimistic viewpoint… but it’d be bloody hard to win all of those games, two of them away, AND then a Grand Final.

Yes teams have come from outside the top four to make a Grand Final before but there’s a reason it’s still notable; it is unlikely.

And the fact is Brisbane will have to beat Melbourne at some point – either in a semi-final or in the Grand Final – to win the cup, and after watching those teams meet twice already, we’re struggling to see how.

The midfield, bar Neale, has not been up to the level of the last few years this season and the defence has been poor, with Harris Andrews’ form intermittent at best. A vulnerable back six will be exploited by the high-scoring teams left in this finals series.

Cam Rayner, Noah Answerth and Jarryd Lyons’ absences alone could be the difference between the Lions winning on Thursday night. And then they’d have to win three more times.

Yes, they won 15 games this year so they’re better than your usual sixth-placed team, but it’s just so hard to see that happening.

Dustin Martin joins team in Brisbane | 00:42

RICHMOND

7th, 13-8-1, Elimination Final v Brisbane Lions at the Gabba

Why they can win the flag

Richmond loom as one of the most dangerous prospects this finals series.

While all the talk around Collingwood’s remarkable winning streak and tight finishes, Richmond’s last loss of more than a goal came all the way back in Round 6.

The Tigers haven’t tasted defeat since the shock four-point loss to North Melbourne back in Round 18 – finishing the season with four straight losses and the draw with Fremantle.

And some of those wins were without star duo Dustin Martin and Tom Lynch, who are both set to pass their final fitness tests this week – and both boarded the plane north to Brisbane.

If the Tigers can snag the win over Brisbane at the Gabba – a ground where they’ve won 12 of their past 14 matches – then Richmond could set themselves for a run to the grand final with all matches at their home MCG.

While many experts doubted Richmond early this season, with the Tigers sitting in 12th after six rounds, a host of young talent has given the club a massive boost – none moreso than young Noah Cumberland. The forward, who came in to replace injured Lynch in Round 17, has shone kicking 18 goals in his past seven games.

And with Lynch back in the mix alongside experienced Jack Riewoldt and the exciting Shai Bolton, the Tigers forward line looms large.

Bolton has already proven himself a match winner, with clubs struggling to find a match up for the player who starts midfield and pushes forward at every opportunity.

The Tigers sit second to only Geelong for inside 50s and are the equal competition leaders with Brisbane for the most dangerous forward line, averaging more than 14 goals a game.

Why they can’t win the flag

Remarkably, the Tigers have never won a final when they finished outside the top four.

History shows Richmond are yet to win an elimination final in the AFL era – losing three straight do-or-die first round clashes between 2013 and 2015.

So while Richmond may be the most dominant side in recent history, with three flags in four years, they’ve done those campaigns from the safety of the double chance.

The Tigers may have finished in the top eight this year, but they had one of the easiest draws by playing the seven other finalists only once this season.

And of those matches – they won just once against the top four. All of the Tigers’ double ups came against teams outside the top eight, including West Coast, Essendon and Hawthorn.

Richmond are also ranked second last in the competition for tackles – behind only Essendon, they are the worst ranked finals side for contested ball, and are the most ill-disciplined side in the AFL – coughing up more than 22 free kicks a game.

The Tigers also top the competition for clangers.

With an ageing list, the task to travel to Brisbane and beat a Lions side with it all to play for and win three more games against top-quality opponents – one of Melbourne or Sydney in a semi-final, for a start -may be too much.

Lewis urges Essendon to keep open mind | 02:08

WESTERN BULLDOGS

8th, 12-10, Elimination Final v Fremantle at Optus Stadium

Why they can win the flag

The Dogs hold no fear heading into the finals, despite scraping in by the barest of margins.

Luke Beveridge teams have shown they can do crazy things from the bottom half of the eight, becoming just the second team from outside the top four to win the flag (from seventh in 2016).

Last year, the Dogs defied the odds and won three straight finals to reach the grand final from fifth.

And should the Dogs travel to Perth and get the win over Fremantle, at a venue they’ve won three of their past four games – at an average margin of more than 61 points – they would fancy themselves against the loser of the Collingwood-Geelong clash.

The Bulldogs have shown they have the ability to match it with the best, beating top four teams Melbourne and Sydney this season.

The bye week has given skipper Marcus Bontempelli the chance to regain his fitness, after battling through an adductor injury in recent weeks. Together with the likes of Bailey Smith, Jack Macrae, Adam Treloar and Josh Dunkley, the Dogs midfield is more than capable of turning a match on its head.

The Dogs are the number one ranked clearance team in the competition, averaging just over 40 per game.

Throw in the form of Aaron Naughton, who has gone goalless in just two of his 21 games this season, and the Dogs loom a dangerous opposition.

Young Sam Darcy has shown he has solid hands and can kick goals if the Dogs need another target up forward, while prized pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is starting to show just why he was rated so highly.

Add in the added motivation of trying to atone for the 2021 grand final loss, and the Bulldogs could go far in the finals – if it all comes together.

Why they can’t win the flag

The Bulldogs haven’t gone close to finding their best in 2022 and been patchy at best throughout the season. Sneaking into the top eight, by just 0.6 per cent on the back of Carlton’s devastating final round loss to Collingwood, doesn’t instil a lot of faith that the Dogs can go all the way in 2022.

The Dogs have the worst defensive record of any team in the top eight, as the only team who conceded more than 1800 points this season.

But it’s not just defensive woes the Dogs have to overcome – they are the lowest ranked finals team for hitouts and they are struggling to use the ball efficiently when going inside 50.

The star-studded midfield is getting the ball forward, with the Dogs equal to Melbourne for average inside 50s, and behind only Geelong and Richmond.

But they aren’t getting reward for their efforts on the scoreboard.

While they have a recent good record in Perth, just one of those three wins has come against Fremantle.

Add in the fact the Dockers got the four points when the two sides met earlier this year, despite Matt Taberner being subbed off with injury, and it’s proving a tough ask to now travel to Freo’s home ground and get the win.

They’ll be without star midfielder Tom Liberatore for the elimination final against the Dockers in a big blow to the club’s hopes of moving on in 2022.

No team has ever won the premiership from eighth; adding to the tough task the Dogs face moving forward.



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