Melbourne has fallen agonisingly short of ending an 11-year finals drought, unceremoniously dumped from the top eight in a stunning climax to the 2017 home-and-away season.
The West Coast Eagles, having begun the last match of round 23 outside the eight, leapt into September with a 29-point win against the top-of-the-ladder Adelaide Crows at Domain Stadium.
The Demons had squandered their chance to rubber-stamp a finals berth by losing to lowly Collingwood on Saturday. This meant they had to rely on Essendon losing on Sunday or West Coast, also equal on 48 premiership points, losing, or winning by less than four goals. The Bombers booked their first trip to the finals since 2014 with a 15-point win over Fremantle at Etihad Stadium.
This left the clash between the Crows and Eagles to determine the finals make-up, and the enigmatic Eagles – having, at times, limped through the season – to pinch the final spot by 0.5 per cent. In a pulsating final term, the Eagles led by 23 points with five minutes to go after Lewis Jetta, brilliant in the final term, snapped a goal. When Jack Darling followed up minutes later with a courageous mark on the goal line, and converted, the Eagles were home in what was the final AFL game at Subiaco.
This will be their third straight finals campaign under coach Adam Simpson, and gives retiring veterans Sam Mitchell and Matthew Priddis the send-off they had hoped for. They will meet a free-flowing Port Adelaide, fresh from pounding a listless Gold Coast, in an elimination final at Adelaide Oval on Saturday week.
“The finals certainly started a week early,” Mitchell said.
“We thought if we could win by a goal a quarter that would get the job done.”
While the Demons remain a club on the rise, and are set to notch their first $1 million profit, missing the finals this year is a blow to the blue-print of expectations set when new management took charge in late 2013. They will hope the pain of missing September will act as a major spur for 2018.
The league will take a breath this weekend during the pre-finals bye but what shapes as an explosive finals series begins on Thursday week.
Three clubs carry the hopes of Victorian fans, with Geelong and Richmond the best positioned. The Cats and Tigers have each secured the double chance and will meet in what is likely to be a fiery qualifying final on Friday week at the MCG.
The two clubs have been at odds over fixturing issues this season, namely the Cats’ staging a home game at Simonds Stadium in round 21, and calling for their opening final to be held at the revamped venue. Tigers coach Damien Hardwick even claimed Cats’ supporters, the overwhelming majority at that round-21 clash, had influenced the umpiring.
However, Hardwick will not have to worry about that issue this time, with the AFL scheduling the clash at football’s spiritual home.
The Cats have held only one final at Simonds Stadium, losing to Fremantle in the 2013 qualifying final. Their recent finals record has been poor, winning only two of eight matches since the 2011 premiership.
The Tigers secured their first top-four berth since 2001 with a 41-point win over St Kilda on Sunday, spoiling Nick Riewoldt’s 336th – and last – game for the Saints.
Superstar Dustin Martin, best on ground with 36 disposals, acknowledged the benefits of having the double chance. He will spend time with his father in New Zealand this week pondering whether to sign a contract extension or accept the riches on offer from North Melbourne.
Had the Tigers lost, they would have been consigned to an elimination final, having lost three straight from 2013-15. Buoyed by a new game plan built on manic pressure inside attacking 50, they now have their best chance of vaulting into a grand final since 1982.
Essendon will return to the finals for the first time in three years, and will meet a surging Sydney Swans in an elimination final at the SCG on Saturday week. The Swans have become the first side to start a season 0-6 but rebound to make the finals.
“It was clearly a start that we didn’t want, but the players have been able to turn it around and play some fantastic football for a fair while now,” coach John Longmire said.
Seeking to erase the pain of recent years as a result of the supplements scandal, the Dons rubber-stumped their spot with a tight win over the Dockers.
The Bombers, having been forced into a late change with Heath Hocking replacing a sore Cale Hooker, began with urgency, signalling their desperation to be alive come September. The Dockers fought back but the Bombers, with Zach Merrett having 31 disposals and four goals, rallied, and now eye their first finals win in 13 years.
“I think finals are a bit overdue. A win in finals would be enormous,” Merrett said.
“It’s extremely exciting to be playing in two week’s time but it will be tough. We can’t wait to get ready and go.”
The Bombers will sweat on having Hooker (calf) and Michael Hurley (calf) fit in time.
The Crows will host Greater Western Sydney in the opening qualifying final at Adelaide Oval on Thursday week. The Crows will sweat on the fitness of skipper Taylor Walker (toe) and Daniel Talia (ankle). The two teams have met only once this year, when the Crows prevailed by 56 points in the season opener.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.