A Sydney injury concern has made a pre-finals brain-fade, which saw a key recruit suspended, look even worse.
Plus how Brisbane’s looming trade coup can keep them up, the Cats’ two-year youth injection and a Grand Final befitting this brilliant season.
The big issues from AFL preliminary final weekend analysed in Talking Points!
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SWAN’S BRAIN-FADE LOOMS EVEN LARGER NOW
It was a moronic brain-fade at the time. But now it could swing a crucial selection call for the Grand Final.
Sydney’s Peter Ladhams is unavailable for the flag decider due to his crude off-ball hit on Casey’s Taj Woewodin during a VFL qualifying final last month.
Ladhams, who was traded across from Port Adelaide in the most recent off-season, was viewed as a crucial piece of ruck-forward depth behind Tom Hickey.
But his first season at the Swans has been marred by silly acts, first getting suspended for a gut-punch to ex-teammate Ollie Wines, then for the VFL collision.
Ladhams accepted a three-game suspension ahead of the first week of AFL finals.
– One week was served during the AFL qualifying final/VFL semi-final weekend;
– He couldn’t serve a week during the AFL semi-final weekend, because the AFL Swans were on a bye, and the VFL Swans didn’t qualify because they were knocked out in straight sets;
– One week was served during the AFL preliminary final weekend;
– And so he has one week left to serve during AFL grand final weekend.
All of that is painful enough, but an injury concern to fellow Swans tall Sam Reid means Ladhams may be missing his best chance of a Grand Final berth.
Reid was subbed out of the preliminary final with a groin issue, with Herald Sun reporter Jon Ralph tweeting he “would have to be in real doubt” for the Grand Final.
“Just an adductor (groin). Don’t know, it’s too early to know,” Sydney coach John Longmire said.
Reid plays as the Swans’ second ruckman, meaning ruck-forward Ladhams would have been at the front of the line to replace him (though not a certainty).
Now the most obvious fill-in would be Joel Amartey, or potentially Hayden McLean. Either way, they deserve their spot in the side.
But Ladhams must go into 2023 knowing he only has himself to blame for missing a Grand Final.
TRIPLE COUP THAT WOULD HELP LIONS REMAIN A FORCE
A long off-season looms for Brisbane after that humiliating preliminary final exit at the hands of a clinical Geelong outfit.
But the injection of two father-son gun prospects at this year’s draft – including the clear No. 1 prospect of the class, according to many scouts – will refresh Brisbane’s on-ball brigade and give Lions fans ample hope their team can remain a contender for several more years.
In the hours prior to Brisbane’s horror loss to the Cats on Friday night, Will Ashcroft put together another gobsmacking individual display to further solidify his standing as the Pick 1 favourite for November’s national draft.
The 18-year-old starred in the Sandringham Dragons’ dominant NAB League grand final win over the Dandenong Stingrays at Ikon Park, finishing with 39 disposals, 13 contested possessions, six clearances, six inside 50s and five tackles to win the best on ground medal.
It was the latest brilliant performance from Ashcroft, who’s impressed at every level he’s played so far this year, whether that’s been for the Dragons in the NAB League, Vic Metro at the Under 18 championships or the Lions at VFL level. He was named captain of both the AFL Academy and NAB League Boys Team of the Year.
Ashcroft is also the hot favourite to claim this year’s Larke Medal – the award given to the best player of the annual carnival — this week after the Vic Metro-Vic Country national Under 18 championships match. He’s already kicked two goals and averaged 33.3 disposals, 15.0 contested possessions, 10.0 clearances, 6.7 tackles and 6.7 inside 50s from his three previous Vic Metro matches.
Ashcroft, the son of triple premiership Lion and 318-game great Marcus Ashcroft, will join the Lions as a father-son selection in November after officially nominating Brisbane as his preferred destination last month. It means Brisbane will get the opportunity to match a rival club bid on Ashcroft, who’d be a walk-up Round 1 selection next year and support the on-ball brigade ed by Lachie Neale and Hugh McCluggage.
One recruiter told foxfooty.com.au earlier this year Ashcroft “could play AFL this week” as he was on a “different level” to most of this year’s draft class.
“I can’t wait to join the club and start earning the respect of all the players and coaching staff,” Will Ashcroft said last month.
“To be following after dad is a privilege and if I can achieve half of what he did then I would be happy. I am also looking forward to forging my own name.”
Ashcroft isn’t the only father-son gun set to join Brisbane, with Jaspa Fletcher – the son of Adrian Fletcher who played 231 games for four clubs, including 107 for Brisbane – in late first-round calculations following an outstanding three carnival games for the Allies.
It means the Lions could spend most of this year’s trade period banking selections to match rival club bids on Ashcroft and Fletcher. After Friday night’s loss, the Lions hold Picks 15, 33, 44 (via Port Adelaide) and 69 in the draft, but will need more picks in their arsenal to have enough points to secure Ashcroft if his name is called at Pick 1.
They’re set to receive a free agency compensation selection for Dan McStay, who’s poised to join Collingwood on a five-year deal worth up to $600,000 a season. But the Lions are also right in the race for off-contract Bulldog Josh Dunkley – and to get him, the Lions will have to strike trade as he’s not eligible for free agency. The Dogs would likely command at least one first-round pick in a trade for Dunkley.
But if Brisbane list manager Dom Ambrogio and recruiting boss Stephen Conole can work their magic and land Ashcroft, Fletcher and Dunkley in the same off-season, the Lions will remain a force to be reckoned with in 2023.
CATS ‘AN OVERNIGHT SUCCESS THAT TOOK FIVE YEARS’ AMID INJECTION OF YOUTH
It’s Chris Scott’s least-favourite topic, but even he concedes something is different about this Geelong team.
Two years after their last Grand Final appearance – which also saw them thump Brisbane in a prelim to get there – his Cats have arguably their best chance to claim a premiership since 2011.
The common wisdom is they’re old, and that’s true. Their 22 on Friday night had an average age of 28 years and 173 days – the oldest 22 in VFL-AFL history.
But it easily could’ve been older if not for the number of changes made since that 2020 Grand Final, when the Cats led Richmond by as much as 22 points.
Assuming Max Holmes is healthy after his hamstring injury which saw him subbed out of the prelim, we would expect Chris Scott to name the same 22 for the Grand Final. That would mean eight changes from the 2022 decider to the 2022 one.
OUTs (Ages at time of 2020 Grand Final)
Gary Ablett, 36
Luke Dahlhaus, 28
Lachie Henderson, 30
Sam Menegola, 28
Mark O’Connor, 23
Brandan Parfitt, 22
Sam Simpson, 22
Harry Taylor, 34
Average age: 27.875
INs (Ages at time of 2022 Grand Final)
Tom Atkins, 26
Jeremy Cameron, 29
Brad Close, 24
Sam De Koning, 21
Zach Guthrie, 24
Max Holmes, 20
Isaac Smith, 33
Tyson Stengle, 23
Average age: 25
The Cats’ average age in the 2020 Grand Final was 28 years and 117 days old. They’ll be older in the 2022 decider, but they could’ve been MUCH older, with the injection of youth (Isaac Smith excepted) helping turn them into a more dynamic team.
Scott bristled slightly when asked about the changes from 2020 to 2022 in his post-match press conference on Friday night, but conceded their game style – which always saw them fall victim to finals pressure – had been tweaked.
“I mean, I don’t want to sound defensive, but it’s not really the way that we think about it. We’re just trying to look forward,” he said.
“So it’s not a matter of sitting down and saying, what sort of team were we in 2020 and you know, what’s the 2022 team going to look like in comparison?
“But if I do play that game, for a minute, one way of thinking about it is we thought, statistically, we’re a really good offensive team – that’s part that’s a bit confusing and you’re top two or three in offense, but your offense is not good enough, that doesn’t make any sense – but what does make a bit of sense was when we tried to play more aggressively in a need to score scenario, it just looked too different to our normal style.
“And I think that’s probably a fair observation that the various modes we have look a little bit more similar at the moment.”
He added: “We consciously tried to not think about the past with the start of the pre-season and some new people coming in. It feels to me a bit like the overnight success that took five years.
“Unless you’re talking about Mitch Duncan and Joel Selwood and Tom Hawkins, this team is completely different (to 2011). Aside from those guys, it’s been a complete rebuild.”
SEASON FOR THE AGES GETS ‘THE GRAND FINAL IT DESERVES’
The 2022 AFL season has been utterly remarkable, spellbinding and spectacular.
And it’s not done yet.
Collingwood appeared to be the year’s protagonist, smashing the all-time record and winning 11 close games on route to a top-four finish, but their luck abandoned them in September as they lost two games by a kick.
Instead, the story of this year will be one of the great clubs of the last 20 years getting the flag it has so desperately sought for a decade.
Sydney, falling short at the final hurdle twice since their magical 2012 triumph. Geelong, losing it in 2020 and so often a mere preliminary finalist. One of them will be premier.
And it’s fitting, as they were the two best teams once we got to the pointy end. That’s proven by their respective winning streaks.
Geelong has won a remarkable 15 games in a row – following in the footsteps of Carlton (1995), Brisbane (2001) and, perhaps worryingly, Geelong (2008) by taking that sort of streak into the Grand Final. The Cats’ last loss was to St Kilda back in Round 9.
Sydney’s streak is nothing to sneeze at; nine consecutive wins, with their last defeat coming against Essendon (of all teams) back in Round 16.
It is the longest combined winning streak for two Grand Finalists in VFL-AFL history, their 24 victories surpassing 1903’s combination of 20, when Collingwood (14-game winning streak) and Fitzroy (six-game winning streak) met.
“The best two teams have got through,” Hawthorn legend Jason Dunstall said on Fox Footy.
“They were the most professional, the most disciplined teams all year, and I always like it when they go through to a Grand Final.”
St Kilda champion Leigh Montagna agreed: “We’ve got two teams in unbelievable shape.
“They are both playing exceptional football … they are going into this game cherry ripe. We’re going to have a Grand Final for the ages, the way these teams are playing.”
As Fox Footy host Sarah Jones summed up: “It’s the Grand Final we deserved”.
GEELONG’S FRESH ‘WEAPONS’ COULD HOLD THE KEY
The Cats’ tall timber in Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron has been well praised in 2022, with the duo both finishing in the Coleman Medal top four.
Sydney and Carlton both managed two players in the top 15 – but not the top four like Geelong.
But against the Lions in the preliminary final, the Cats showed the other danger lurking up forward – their small brigade.
The trio of Tyson Stengle, Brad Close and Gryan Miers were “sublime”, according to Fox Footy’s Garry Lyon and looms as the Cats’ “weapons” come grand final day.
“The three small blokes today – Miers, Close and Stengle – my hell they’re a weapon. They’ve added to this football club,” he said.
“Those three are going to get some recognition this week that they thoroughly deserved.
“Miers ends up being the number one rated player on the ground (in the prelim final), Close ends up being the number five rated player in a preliminary final, Stengle kicks three goals – I mean what a weapon.
“They move up, they support, come back, they are selfless. They all look to be in sync.
“I think it’s one of the great weapons to emerge for this footy club. They’ve got an understanding.
“If you watch NFL footy, the connection between the quarterback and his receivers – they have to be on the same page, and that’s what this group’s got.”
Fox Footy’s Nathan Buckley praised the way the trio worked as a forward team – rather than as individuals.
“If you lined up Brad Close, Tyson Stengle and Gryan Miers – I don’t know if they’d be winning any long distance races,” he laughed.
“But (the small trio) play within a system. They do hustle hard in those 80 metre efforts up and back and they share the load for each other.”
Just Miers was there at the Cats’ last grand final appearance in 2020, while Close was in the team for last year’s finals heartbreak where they bowed out in a big prelim final loss to Melbourne.
The recruitment of Tyson Stengle was a big talking point last off-season after the youngster had a troubled history.
But under the watchful eye of new Cats development coach Eddie Betts, Stengle has turned his career around and shown the talent many saw glimpses of in his early days.
Betts and his family welcomed Stengle into their family home, and he’s paid back the club with a brilliant season that saw him arguably dubbed the recruit of the year.
“I’m not across every story in the AFL, but it must be a good one if it tops that one (Stengle’s),” coach Chris Scott said.
“That wasn’t the thought bubble whenever we took him – that was a multi-year process to make sure that we could give him an opportunity to revitalise his football career – I know it sounds a bit tripe when we say this stuff, but get your life back on track.
“If it didn’t work out for him, we would have done everything we could to make sure that his life was better for having been at Geelong. It’s nice when the footy stuff works out.”
Scott said it as the initial work by development coach Shaun Grigg that laid the groundwork to recruit Stengle – something that cost the club nothing given he’d been sacked by Adelaide months prior.
“Tyson’s a great story – I’m really happy for him,” Scott said.
“It certainly helped having Eddie there – that was all sort of part of the process. Shaun Grigg played a big part as well – he knew him from his time at Richmond (where Stengle started his career).
“It’s one thing to say: ‘Look, I think this could work’ and it’s another thing to put the people around him that we follow through and we can say hand on heart: ‘If you come in to our club, the football might not work out but you’ll be better for it’.
“The credit should go to Tyson, he’s just been outstanding.”