18 teams has been cut down to eight, and after a week of waiting, the AFL finals series is now upon us.
And while the 2023 premiers will almost invariably hail from the top four of Collingwood, Brisbane, Port Adelaide and Melbourne history is made to be rewritten, and all of St Kilda, GWS, Sydney and especially Carlton from the bottom half of the eight will give themselves a puncher’s chance of storming through September the hard way.
Here is why all eight teams can claim premiership glory on September 30… and why they can’t.
Why they can: They’re minor premiers for a reason. Since about Round 2, the Magpies have been outright or at least equal-favourites for the flag. That’s a lot of time at the pinnacle, and one that doesn’t just happen by chance. The Pies have mostly maintained their mastery of the close game, winning eight times and losing just once in matches decided by 14 points or less. They’ve also occupied top spot since Round 7, barring one week during the bye rounds when Port Adelaide leapfrogged them by virtue of having played an extra game. While other teams, even their top-four rivals, have endured peaks and troughs, the Pies have sailed through, not without challenges, but with the ability to always steady the ship whenever things get a bit dicey.
Why they can’t: They peaked too early. Three losses from five games heading into September, with their only victories over two sides that missed finals in Geelong and Essendon, isn’t the form line of a normal premiership favourite. Indeed, before they pillaged the Bombers in Round 24, the Pies had gone six weeks without a win by a double-digit margin. Throw in a 2-3 record against their fellow top four teams, including a King’s Birthday loss to their qualifying final opponents Melbourne, as well as the continued absence of Nick Daicos, and the Pies will likely need to rise to another level to secure the premiership that for much of 2023 has seemed theirs to lose.
Why they can: The Gabbatoir. It has now been more than 12 months since the Lions were last bested on their home turf, having won 11 games there in 2023 as well as last year’s elimination final on the bounce. Indeed, since 2019, they’ve won at the Gabba 50 times while losing just nine – one of them after having been ravaged by a COVID-19 outbreak before a clash with Essendon in mid-2022. It means, for the third time in five years, the Lions won’t have to leave their home ground to reach the grand final. Defeat Port Adelaide in the first week, a side that hasn’t bested them at the Gabba since 2017 and had lost five in a row to them before an emphatic win in Round 1 this year, and they have the scalps of three of their possible preliminary final opponents at the venue this year too.
Why they can’t: Their finals record. Of those nine Gabba defeats in the last five seasons, four have come from just six finals there: it seems the Lions’ home ground advantage dissipates when September, and higher-quality opposition, comes to town. That nicely sums up the frustration of Brisbane’s time at the top, and makes them hard to trust even when firing on all cylinders at the end of a home-and-away season with ups and downs, but one that finished with a flurry via four straight wins. Having failed so regularly, even at the Gabbatoir, in their last four finals campaigns, is this Lions team really the one to break that glass ceiling?
Why they can: Butters and Rozee. It’s arguable the Power have two of 2023’s best three midfielders still in the premiership mix at their disposal for week 1, given the unavailability of Nick Daicos and the injury-plagued season of Clayton Oliver. Indeed, if you classify Christian Petracca as more of a forward, that star pair might be the best two outright. They complement each other beautifully – Butters as the AFL Players Assocation-certified toughest hombre in the competition, a slighter but equally explosive Patrick Dangerfield; Rozee as the consummate class act, a right-footed Marcus Bontempelli but quicker. Even having thrown away the chance to do as Brisbane have and secure home passage through to the grand final, the Power can never be discounted as a premiership threat while Butters and Rozee are still lurking, sharks in the September waters.
Why they can’t: Injuries. The Power will be underdone in the big man department across the ground when they take on Brisbane at the Gabba. Charlie Dixon is no guarantee to play as he battles a cracked foot, while Todd Marshall was a late withdrawal from their Round 24 win over Richmond with what has been described as a ‘niggling’ hip issue. In the ruck, the dice will surely be rolled on Scott Lycett despite chronic knee problems that have restricted him to one SANFL hitout since Round 19, while in defence Trent McKenzie and his own dodgy knee is racing the clock to bolster a backline that is undersized even with him there. Big finals can be decided by the fitness of key players, and with defeat to an in-form Lions to force the Power to reach a grand final the hard way, there will be little room to rest if any of those three can’t return to near their best.
Why they can: They’re settled. Only Carlton can match the Demons’ 7-1 finish to the home-and-away season, with a four-point loss to the Blues themselves their only blemish. Along the way were three wins over their fellow top-eight teams, St Kilda, Brisbane and an impressive win over Sydney at the SCG; so it was hardly a soft run in. This is also a team that has finally found its best combination, with precious few big names unavailable: Bayley Fritsch returned in style to give the forward line a look it hadn’t had in weeks, while Max Gawn seems certain to keep Brodie Grundy in the VFL throughout September. With Clayton Oliver back in the midfield, too, this is as strong as the Dees have looked all season, and certainly a far cry from the battle-wearied team that slumped out of last year’s finals in straight sets and left Christian Petracca with a broken leg.
Why they can’t: They’re not the best team in it. Recent finals series, especially since the arrival of the pre-finals bye, haven’t always followed logic. Often, one team, regardless of ladder position or favouritism coming in, takes the rest of the eight by storm and forces their way to a flag – think the Western Bulldogs from seventh in 2016, or Richmond in 2017 or 2019, or the Dees themselves in 2021. Only the last of them were minor premiers, but even then, certainly none were whopping flag favourites. And in all honesty, of the top four, the Dees seem the team with the lowest ceiling. Sure, Collingwood, Brisbane and Port Adelaide have flaws, but they play at their best an explosive, electric, fast-running and high-scoring brand the Dees don’t have in their arsenal. Reliable discipline is an admirable quality, but will it be enough for the Dees if one of their top-three rivals, or even Carlton below them, go supersonic?
Why they can: They’re red-hot. Forget a dead-rubber final round loss to GWS that saw the cue put in the rack midway through the third term: this Blues team is hitting September in peak form. Before that loss came nine wins, including three of the four teams above them and St Kilda directly below: they flogged Port Adelaide, got a valuable taste of finals and a thrilling finish in pipping Melbourne, and the Saints win showcased their ability to grind out a win while well below their best with a burst of scintillating footy. The Bulldogs of ’16 and the Giants of 2019 both won their way through September to grand finals from outside the top four, and neither had the form nor the belief the Blues and their legion of supporters have right now.
Why they can’t: No second chances. The Blues may well be premiership favourites if they’d forced their way into the top four… but they haven’t. And the reality is that that makes things substantially tougher, especially given the necessity of an away preliminary final even if they make it that far. In an even season, Sydney loom as the most dangerous eighth-placed finalist in many a year, giving the Blues a tough challenge right off the bat. Win that, and there’s every chance they’ll start favourites, if only slightly, against either Collingwood or Melbourne, given their recent success over both. When all is said and done, though, the Blues are at the mercy of maths: even if they were 75/25 chances in all four finals, which they most certainly are not, their official probability of winning all four would be just 31.64 per cent. Sure, they CAN do it – but the road is mighty tough, and even one slip-up means death.
Why they can: Defence wins premierships. No team in 2023 has conceded fewer points than Ross Lyon’s Saints: giving up just 71.6 points per match, they are miserly. But it’s not just because of a backline spearheaded by All-Australians Callum Wilkie and Jack Sinclair: St Kilda defend every inch of the ground with every fibre of their being, thanks to a manic pressure that has swept many a quality team off its feet throughout this doubter-defying season. It was even enough to push a red-hot Brisbane all the way at their Gabba fortress, without Max King, in the final home-and-away round. They’ve spent the last two months proving that rumours of their demise have been greatly exaggerated: what’s one more week, or two, or three, or four?
Why they can’t: They’re the worst team left… right? More than any other team left, the Saints can already be well satisfied with their season. But however vehemently their supporters might deny it, or their incredible desperation may cover it up, the Saints have achieved so much this year in spite of the talent available, not because of it. Their will to win, incredible defensive structure and the superb coaching of Lyon might be enough to win a final, or even two: and every win from here can well and truly be seen as a bonus, because no team this September has less to lose than them. That being said – they’re 34-1 outsiders for the flag for a reason.
Why they can: They’ve done it all before. For the sixth time in eight years, the Giants have made it to the finals, and in tip-top form to boot. And unlike their first opponents St Kilda, this is a team battle-hardened by September action, and battles won and lost at the pointy end of the season in years gone by. Toby Greene has a string of match-turning hands in finals to call upon for inspiration, while Josh Kelly, Stephen Coniglio and Lachie Whitfield are a number of other veterans surely yearning for the chance at an elusive premiership, or to redeem themselves from a nightmare 2019 grand final. The Giants didn’t go on the rampage in the second half of the year just to meekly bow out at the first hurdle.
Why they can’t: Road trips. Only the Giants and Sydney below them of the top eight will not have a single match at home this September: they’d need to win an unprecedented four away finals, with fever-pitch crowds baying for their blood, to lift the cup. Even the 2016 Bulldogs only needed to win TWO finals on the road, while that was the same number the Giants themselves mustered on the way to the 2019 big dance, only for the third to prove their downfall. Can a team with the smallest supporter base in the game really make it through four straight weeks as the enemy without a single lapse?
Why they can: They’ve made it this far. You wouldn’t have put counterfeit money on the Swans being here after Round 17, when they sat 15th on the ladder with a tough draw ahead. But against all the odds, last year’s runner-up didn’t just complete the comeback, but secured their spot with a week to spare, even if their Round 24 loss to Melbourne cost them a home final. Not just any team is capable of the sort of resurrection John Longmire inspired from his troops over the last two months: overcoming the obstacles already set in their path couldn’t have prepared them better for a finals series in which, once again, every week is an elimination final.
Why they can’t: It’s not their year. Sydney are eighth for a reason, and for all the brilliance of their late-season turnaround, just one win – by 11 points over GWS – came against a member of the top eight. The Swans are 2-7 against their fellow finalists this season, and their 21-point loss to a Demons team with nothing to play for in the final round rubber-stamped that they are still a diminished force from the team which stormed to last year’s grand final. With the hottest ticket in town Carlton up first, the Swans have their work cut out for them to even make it past week 1, let alone secure a first flag in 11 years.