Ten teams out, eight are still left standing in the race for the 2023 AFL flag. And among the eight teams, there are eight different stories.
Some have been the pace-setters all year where nothing more than an appearance on Grand Final day – or even lifting the cup – will be acceptable. Some have returned from the finals wilderness, while others will make their fans proud with just a win.
Foxfooty.com.au has ranked the top-eight finalists in order of our finals pressure gauge and given them a pass mark that would make their September a success.
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1. BRISBANE LIONS
Pass mark: Win the flag.
Coach Chris Fagan said on Fox Footy’s On the Couch that “we have to” internally acknowledge that this is the best chance the Lions have had to win the premiership since he’s been at the club.
This is surely the case, having emerged with a perfect record at home and at least two home finals to come after being mainstays in the top four since 2019.
Fagan was pragmatic when asked about the opportunities the Lions have had over recent years and believes the experiences have “hardened” his playing group for this campaign.
“We’ve had nine opportunities over the last four years and saluted in three of them but weren’t able to win six of them – and some very close losses as well that kept us out of prelims,” Fagan said.
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“You talk about that, you face up to it, you talk about the lessons you’ve learned and understand these opportunities don’t keep coming along.”
Fagan also spoke of the maturity of the group that had experienced the finals heartbreak in previous seasons and the likes of Hugh McCluggage, Jarrod Berry, Brandon Starcevich, Cam Rayner and Zac Bailey, who have all grown into “mature AFL players” having started their careers together at the Lions.
“I think with the improvement and maturity of those guys and the men we’ve recruited to the club, I think this is our best opportunity without doubt. We won 17 games this year, which is the best we’ve ever done. So the ladder doesn’t lie,” he said.
Despite their poor recent MCG record, the Lions did win a final at the venue last year. And despite not getting results, they’ve played some good football in recent visits to the MCG.
Their window won’t stay open forever – and they won’t get a better chance than now.
Pass mark: Win the flag.
The Demons have timed their run to near perfection.
After banking the wins they needed to throughout the early part of the year, albeit with a few minor concerns, the Dees have set themselves to peak at the right time with their game in order.
While Jake Melksham’s ACL rupture in Round 24 was an ill-timed, heartbreaking blow, Melbourne appears settled with its selection mix.
There are match-winners on every line. Steven May and Jake Lever are the defensive rocks, Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver and Jack Viney are the bulls in the engine room and Bayley Fritsch and Kysaiah Pickett in the front half.
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Then there is skipper Max Gawn. As former Melbourne captain Garry Lyon declared on Fox Footy’s On The Couch: “When Max Gawn plays well, they win.”
While the Dees won their breakthrough flag in 2021, the itch of winning a premiership at the MCG in front of their adoring faithful is one that is still waiting to be scratched.
With two guaranteed MCG finals, the Demons would be sweating on not going out in straight-sets – like they did last season – and wasting another year with a brilliant list at their disposal.
Pass mark: Win the flag.
Halfway through the season, the footy world seemed ready to hand the cup over to the Pies as they continued to blitz the rest of the field.
But when they momentarily started to stutter towards the end of the season – with the knowledge greater tests were coming – the competition made up a few steps on the league leaders.
While the Pies finished comfortably on top of the ladder, they’ll probably encounter their least desirable match-up in the first week of the finals when they run into a red-hot Melbourne at the MCG.
It makes the stakes on Thursday night that much higher. Lose to Melbourne and Collingwood’s path to the premiership becomes all the more trickier, with potential match-ups against arch-rivals Carlton in a semi-final then, quite possibly, a preliminary final trip to Brisbane.
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As a viewer and consumer, we want maximum possible drama – and it would only add to the story of what would be a well-deserved flag winning season, should the Pies respond to a qualifying final loss.
But the thought of dominating the regular season like they did then coming up short in the finals crunch would burn deep.
There’s something about coach Craig McRae, though, that won’t allow that to happen. No matter what happens, McRae’s troops will continue to play their games their way – and with a smile on their faces.
But it would be a dramatic fall and failure if the Pies didn’t hoist up the big prize at the end of the year, considering all the dominance they’ve had throughout the year.
4. PORT ADELAIDE
Pass mark: Make a preliminary final.
It’s been the bounce-back season the Power was expecting, overcoming a rocky opening month then going on a 14-game winning streak that launched them into the top four and positioned them among the leading contenders.
While the opening round match-up – Brisbane in Brisbane – is the toughest assignment in footy right now, they are guaranteed a game at home at Adelaide Oval.
Coach Ken Hinkley started the season in the firing line then coached his way to a two-year extension. He has been to three preliminary finals before in his coaching career, two of them at the Adelaide Oval. While it looms as a difficult task, they have a path to get there again and write the wrong of the botched 2021 prelim where they were blown off the park by the Bulldogs at home.
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If their star-studded midfield in Zak Butters, Connor Rozee and Jason Horne-Francis fire up, as they have all season, the Power can throw a spanner into the finals series works.
A Power win on Saturday night could mean that Collingwood or Melbourne’s path to the Grand Final would be forced to make a stop at Adelaide Oval – a place both teams put on match of the year contenders, with the Power splitting the results.
While some pundits in South Australia would say its premiership or bust for Ken, the pass mark for us is for Port to get to the penultimate weekend from the position they’re in. That’s an attainable goal, considering they have the tools in both the players and their home ground advantage.
5. SYDNEY SWANS
Pass mark: Make a semi-final.
It’s been a hell of an effort to get to the finals for the Swans, considering where they were on the ladder two months ago and the state of their injury list.
To date, it has been a disappointing season for last year’s Grand Finalists to only just scrape into the top eight. But, as the Swans have made a habit of since John Longmire has been at the helm, they’ve managed to find a way to get there – and they are in decent shape too.
While it looms as a tall order for the Swans to come to the MCG and take down the Blues, Sydney has plenty of finals experience and knowledge of how to handle these moments – which is, critically, something Carlton does not have.
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The Swans are yet to win at the MCG this year and haven’t beaten Carlton at the ground since 1918. But again, knowing how to get the job done on the biggest stage in finals shouldn’t worry the Swans.
While their late-season surge was unlikely, the expectations on the Swans from the end of last season carry over now that they’re there. And with the talent at their disposal, they should be progressing past the first week of finals.
A win in week one would see them return to the MCG to face the loser of Collingwood-Melbourne – a reprise of some days at the MCG in 2023 the Swans faithful would rather forget.
But as is the way the Swans have forged their name and reputation, as long as they are in the fight, they are a chance.
Pass mark: Win a final
What a rollercoaster of a year for the Blues.
From the early unconvincing wins then the losing streak where the sky was falling and everyone needed to lose their jobs, to the nine-game winning streak to storm into finals.
Glancing at the ladder, this was probably where you would have expected Carlton to finish after last season. Missing the finals by a whisker, it was expected the Blues would naturally level up, right?
It certainly wasn’t the case early. But to his immense credit, Michael Voss has led the Blues’ return to September for the first time since 2014 – to the point where they loom as the team most likely to win the premiership from outside the top four.
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Carlton has already improved on last year by virtue of making the finals. But as the performances and the numbers stack up, Carlton has what it takes to make a deep run.
Winning a final should be the minimum expectation from here on in for the Blues. From there, who knows what they will be able to do.
The Blues though have players that are built for finals in captain Patrick Cripps and dual Coleman Medallist Charlie Curnow, whom if they both fire up, according to triple premiership Lion Jonathan Brown, should “carry them through a few weeks”.
“He’s (Cripps) never played a final. He’s the big bull. He epitomises his coach, so I think ‘Vossy’ will be able to give him a couple of big tips,” Brown told On The Couch.
7. ST KILDA
Pass mark: Already passed … but if we must set one, make a semi-final.
The Saints enter September as one of just three clubs that spent every week of the season inside the top eight.
Given the state of the list, their injury toll at the start of the year and the constant personnel issues, the Saints have surpassed most fans’ pre-season expectations.
Now back in the finals, Ross Lyon has a knack of getting his teams through to the pointy end – and given where they have been all year, winning a final should be a goal for this St Kilda team.
The language has certainly changed from yon in recent weeks. From labelling his team a “fumbling, stumbling mess” and “not worthy of playing finals” after losing to the Gold Coast in Round 18 to winning four of the past six games to secure a home final in Melbourne for the first time since 2011.
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While there were plenty of critics about what the Saints could do this year from how far back they were coming from, Lyon looms as St Kilda’s September trump card, according to Lions great Jonathan Brown.
“His finals record is almost square – 9-10 with a draw – but he’s taken two different teams to Grand Finals. That’s not luck. This man can just drag you into deep water and turn it into a game where 10 goals to eight wins you the game. I feel like he’ll have something up his sleeve and make it a real dogfight,” Brown said on Fox Footy’s On the Couch.
Step one would be a win over the Giants at the MCG, which for the most part seems attainable with what is shaping to be a big, partisan St Kilda crowd.
From there it gets a bit trickier with a trip to either Adelaide or Brisbane to confront the Lions or the Power. But with Lyon in the box in a special year for the Saints with not much pressure on, something wild could amount.
8. GWS GIANTS
Pass mark: Already passed … but if we must set one, make a semi-final.
For all of Collingwood’s form, Carlton’s storm and the Power play, the biggest sound this season has come Sydney’s west.
From sitting as low as 16th on the ladder, the Giants have stormed into finals when almost no one expected them to on the back of a seven-match winning streak and some inspiring performances from their skipper Toby Greene.
For that reason, this season is already a success – and this finals series is almost a free hit for Adam Kingsley in his first season as coach.
The Giants’ feature has been their small forwards’ pressure and their running power from their back half. Former Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley believes it shapes as an area where they can break Ross Lyon’s defensive bubble.
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While they sweat on the availability of Toby Bedford, who provides so much to their structure and plan, the Giants will believe they can use the expanses of the MCG to show off their running power and overrun the Saints.
Should they get through, a trip to Adelaide or Brisbane would follow. But they won’t hold any fears – especially to Adelaide where they recorded an uber impressive win against the Crows as part of their seven-game winning run. Let’s also not forget their famous victory over the Lions at the Gabba in 2019 in their unlikely run to the Grand Final.
However, or whenever, it ends, this year will be one the Giants look back on and know that whatever list and football department decisions they made in the off were validated.