Making sense of an extraordinary finals feast

Max Holmes screams in delight

The most thrilling weekend of finals in a generation delighted footy fans and further ignited a premiership race to savour.

Welcome to the AFL Round-Up, where we digest the week that was.

A giant leap forward

Where do you even begin? Those mysterious footy gods have seen our struggles through the COVID years, the empty grandstands and awkwardly cobbled-together games, and took pity.

To make amends, we have been treated to one of the great individual weekends of Australian rules football. We’ll call it even.

It was a weekend to savour for footy fans.(Getty Images: Michael Willson)

Four games of immense quality, all of which were up for grabs right down to the closing minutes in front of the sort of ravenous crowds that can’t help but suck you in, no matter your usual allegiances.

Let’s start with the biggest winners of the week — Sydney and Geelong.

Max Holmes screams in delight
Max Holmes put his name up in lights by putting the finishing touches on Geelong’s winning goal.(Getty Images: Dylan Burns)

Both the qualifying finals had similar vibes to them, as the battle-hardened veterans tried to hold off the rise of young and scrappy challengers. To that end, it finished 1-1 over the two games.

But both wins were characterised by a fearlessness, a refusal to err towards conservatism when the big moments arrived. For the Swans, this has become second nature throughout a thrilling campaign of dash and dare.

But for the Cats, it marks the single greatest reason they are better prepared for a premiership in 2022 than in any season since probably 2013.

Max Holmes’ winning goal came at the end of a series of insanely risky decisions off half-back. Playing on deep in traffic, taking on tacklers, forcing overlap handballs when even one error would surely cost them the game going the other way.

It takes a certain courage to attack with that sort of commitment. It takes just as much to defend in the manner Robbie Fox did at the death for the Swans.

It’s the second time in three Sydney games a tight contest has arguably been decided by inspirational desperation in defence after Dane Rampe’s effort against Collingwood in round 22.

The Swans have seemingly been happy to fly under the radar this season, but those days are gone. Nobody who watched that game on Friday night and saw those red and white jerseys hunt and run and hit in unison could ignore them as a complete premiership threat.

Tom Papley screams with his fists clenched
The Swans were as fully committed in attack as they were in defence.(Getty Images: Quinn Rooney)

An SCG prelim awaits, and we know what sort of magic that ground can create in September.

Licking their wounds

It’s not often you can lose a qualifying final but come out of it more confident of a premiership charge, but the Magpies have managed it.

Collingwood were simply remarkable against Geelong. Not just because of their suffocating physicality, which is par for the course with these Pies, but more for the poise and maturity they displayed in and out of possession.

Collingwood players look disappointed as they walk off the field
Craig McCrae rightly encouraged his Pies players to keep their heads up.(Getty Images: Dylan Burns)

They controlled the game for large periods, and when the Cats had their turn in the ascendancy, were able to wrestle it back with the quality of their ball movement.

It wasn’t the sort of gung-ho, have-a-crack performance you’d expect from a young team so low on finals experience. It was the work of a side ready to win now.

Admittedly the task has become tougher, with Fremantle and then possibly Sydney standing between them and a grand final, but they are far from done. If anything, they’re better placed than ever.

The story is a little different for Melbourne. While it’s hard to be too downbeat about such a narrow loss, there were a couple of structural concerns — mostly when taking the ball inside 50 — that will need to be worked through.

Chrisian Salem handballs under pressure
The Demons were swarmed by Swans for the entirety of their qualifying final.(Getty Images: Quinn Rooney)

Christian Petracca will be playing the rest of his season with a broken leg too, which may either prove to be foreshadowing for one of the great individual finals campaigns of all time or a killer blow the Dees can’t quite recover from.

Very recent history suggests Melbourne should be strong favourites against the Lions this week, but a prospective preliminary final against Geelong will test every single creak and crack in Melbourne’s armour. They may yet hold up to the challenge, but of the top four sides their prospects currently seem the shakiest.

Staying alive

We should have known we were in for something special this weekend about 10 minutes into the first game on Thursday night, when Brisbane and Richmond let it be known that they were going to stand in the middle of the ring throwing haymakers for a full 12 rounds.

Looking back now that game feels like a fever dream. That many goals, so many of them extraordinary, all climaxing in a Joe Daniher volley to win it on a balmy Thursday night in Brisbane? Almost too good to be true.

Lions players surround Joe Daniher as the crowd goes wild
Joe Daniher was the last-minute hero for Brisbane.(Getty Images: Michael Willson)

Richmond will head for the off-season with the sense their 2022 business has been left unfinished, and they have paid a heavy price for their many costly slip-ups through the regular season.

Brisbane, on the other hand, will say it’s about time they fell on the right side of one of these. This one felt like so many finals the Lions have played and lost in recent years, when the finally telling bounce of the ball has eluded them.

But not this time. It took significant resolve to play as they did in this final after ending the home and away season so poorly, and this night was just reward for a club whose best has been as good as anyone’s for almost four years now.

They will live to fight another day. As will Fremantle, despite conspiring to play about as badly as was possibly conceivable for almost two full quarters against the Western Bulldogs.

A Fremantle AFL player pumps his fists as he celebrates a goal.
Michael Walters turned back the clock to inspire a Freo fightback.(AAP: Richard Wainwright)

But as slow as that start was, once the Dockers hit top gear and that incredible Perth Stadium crowd lifted alongside them, there was only ever going to be one winner. Freo’s season deserved this win, this night. There will be many more celebrations like it in this club’s future.

Around the grounds

Another drastic Bulldogs fade away in a final in Perth leaves them somewhat in limbo going into 2023. It’s hard to be too critical from this game though, as better teams than the Dogs’ would have fallen harder when faced with that Freo avalanche.

Joel Selwood is tackled by two Collingwood players
Joel Selwood fought on the inside, but added some much-needed class on the outside for Geelong.(Getty Images: Quinn Rooney)

Was that a Mt Rushmore game from Joel Selwood? He turned back the clock at the MCG, bringing some much-needed poise on a manic afternoon.

Lachie Neale might be two weeks away from being a two-time Brownlow Medallist, and just turned in one of the most complete individual finals performances of the modern era. We still haven’t fully appreciated what we are watching here.

Brisbane Lions' Lachie Neale tackles Richmond's Shai Bolton, who drops the ball, in an AFL finals game.
Lachie Neale was herculean on Thursday night.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Michael Willson)

The Steven May-Lance Franklin battle was an enthralling sideshow on Friday night, but even Buddy himself would admit he copped a frightful bath from the Dees’ defender. If May turns in three more games like that, it’s hard to see Melbourne losing any more of them.

Shout out Jye Amiss. The second-half comeback doesn’t happen without him becoming a genuine lead-up target, straightening up Freo and taking some heat off Rory Lobb. The Dockers have got something special there.



Author: Ivan Robinson