Monday, 6 September 2021

Oh no, not you again - Preliminary Final preview

This is your brain on Preliminary Final tension:

Mine anyway. You're welcome to be philosophical about Friday night, I'm considering taking horse medication.

You may recall an exciting finish to our Round 23 game against Geelong. At that time I suggested Victoria's frazzled morale could only be salvaged by a Grand Final rematch. This discounted the very real possibility of playing them one game earlier. Now, the idea of them eliminating us a step short of the decider fills me with sporting terror. The sort where you know there are about 300,000 more important causes in the world but temporarily don't care.

It's not that there's anything particularly fearsome about the 2021 Cats. They've got plenty of good players, but other than finals experience, neutrals would rightly consider us favourites. I just don't want to lose our best chance at a flag in my lifetime AND the happy memories of that Gawn goal on the same night. I reserve the right to sulk for the rest of the calendar year and beyond if required.

A goal after the siren to complete a 44 point comeback and win a first minor premiership in 57 years should be untaintable, but if we win here it'll mean no matter what happens next you can watch it again on your deathbed Soylent Green style without thinking "yeah, that was great, but what about when they beat us in a Prelim three weeks later?" Ask a Brisbane fan how their exciting Round 23 victory looks now, after the team they got the advantage over that night beat them by a point when it really mattered.

The best way to get everything we want - for another two weeks - is to win, by any means necessary. Ideally, we look back on the heroics of Kardinia Park as the moment that launched our flag campaign, not a wonderful historical curiosity that was flushed down the toilet shortly after. It's not hard to find examples of the same thing happening between these sides. The joy of holding on after the siren in 2005 was tempered by the Cats thrashing us three weeks later, and we all felt a lot better about Zac Tuohy's winner after rumbling them in front of 93,000 people simultaneously blowing an O-Ring.

Maybe it's this subplot that's got me this far without having to be heavily sedated. If I had to focus entirely on the chance of playing in a Grand Final or spending summer/the rest of my life wondering where it all went wrong I might end up having toxic waste pumped from my stomach/pantaloons. Ultimately this has nothing to do with Geelong, as terrified as I am of them, and everything to do with expectation. In 2018 there was excitement but no serious expectation of winning. This time it could very well happen, without the need for the opposition to suffer a mass outbreak of food poisoning first. Though that would be great, if the caterers of Perth could arrange it.

Not that I've felt any more confident if GWS were the opposition, but if nothing else Gawn's goal would have been safe from retrospective discrediting. Of course, once they limped over the line against Sydney, the Giants never stood a chance. That didn't stop me from nearly doing a tendon in the rush to start watching after they got within 20 points in the last quarter. The revival barely lasted the time it took to switch the game back on, ensuring that Hogan and Preuss wouldn't return from their contractually obligated injury breaks to beat us with the games of their lives. Instead, I'm left shitscared of the team we've beaten twice rather than the one that fixed us up last time. Doesn't hurt that GWS has about 11 supporters in Victoria, while I'm girt by Cats' fans at every turn.

So it's another battle against Chris Scott's merry mix of ageing superstars and players who'll sink like a stone in a couple of years. Chris looks more like a charismatic cult leader every day, so watch out for foaming Gatorade if they lose. Their long term future means nothing to us now, they've only got to drag themselves over the line for another week to make Perth our Prelim graveyard for the third time.

Anything could happen, but any sort of close result will be different to when we last made this stage. In 2000 we stuffed North, and in 2018 the Eagles won so easily the crowd could afford to shelve their dignity and do a Mexican Wave during the last quarter. I'm fully expecting a thriller, and if it's anything like the Brisbane/Footscray game you'll need the Fire Brigade to get me off the roof after.

Poor old BT will have to find another way to slaughter the call of a big game now that Par Fitt is out. On our side, we're a mystery midweek injury (current favourite: table tennis ball to the eye) from as close to a full list as you're ever going to get at this time of the year. The only scare so far was Channel 7 trying to sizzle up an ANB injury angle based on shots through some trees of him with light bandaging to the thigh. I'd be upset if he didn't play, but won't preemptively slash my wrists on the pissweak evidence provided. Apologies to Tom Browne c/o the AFL Media Association's Perth hot-tub when The Bullet's leg ruptures four minutes into the first quarter.

Otherwise, I don't see much need to test our depth. With a week off, everyone who's capable of playing should arrive with a spring in their step. Mind you, our first game after a break was against Collingwood and look how well that went. Plenty of water under the bridge since then, imagine a time when New South Wales was a safe refuge from COVID, not its largest exporter. Since then we've got on to win lots of games, finish on top, and convincingly win a final. Outsiders think everything is going swimmingly, from the emotional heart of things I'm waiting to be rorted by the worst umpiring decision of all time.

Coaches are paid to work this sort of stuff out, but from an uneducated perspective it feels like any changes would be tempting fate. Other than an extra tall in their side, and an injured tagger who'll be spared the embarrassment of watching Clayton Oliver run away from him all night, we pretty much know what we're in for. After holding Gary Rohan reasonably well last time, I don't see any reason to sacrifice Joel Smith for Hunt or Hibberd. This means the only question left is whether Nathan Jones gets the heartwarming call up to... err... sit on the bench and wait for a teammate to become injured.  Somebody's going to be the first man in many years to win a premiership medallion without stepping on the field, may as well be one of ours.

It would lack romantic flavour, but I wouldn't object to Jones filling a vacancy for a medical sub. However, if none exists we can't start trading on sentiment now. I'm sure he's been kicking the door down in training, but hasn't played a full game since Round 6 and was only just going then. I'm confident he could do a job on nothing more than half-arsed scratch match form, but the well-rested, youthful legs of Jordon, and the potential impact sub Melksham also have their claims. Could even be a job for Hunt, who can play at either end, and would add pace if somebody came a cropper towards the end.

I'd love to stop worrying and learn to love the fairytale, but the overwhelming sense that this is our best chance of winning a flag in nearly 60 years is too much to ignore. That's why I bet heavily on Ben Brown when our long term future would be better suited trying to get The Weid going. We should challenge for years to come (though 2019 would like a word...) but there will rarely be a more even field, and we'll never lose this few players to injury so the time is now. I'd be sad if Jones missed a flag, but for purely selfish reasons, at least that means we'd have won it.

The war on sentiment also means I won't make a scene if Jordon makes way for a more versatile player. Bit cruel to go out after playing every game a'la Fritsch 2018, but he has been unused sub in the last two, and we're not running the Make A Wish Foundation. If another player is needed to successfully move one space towards the ultimate prize so be it. Maybe they'll decide he hasn't played enough recently. This has been the first real break since he broke into the side, they might think experienced players will get going faster off the bench if needed.

If I was a neutral, randomly invited to give my thoughts on I'd say Melbourne win by 10 points. As an overly emotionally involved nutbag who's been building to this moment since 1989, I'm expecting to go down in controversial circumstances after extra time. Should be fun. For somebody else. 

Final thoughts
This is it friends. Our next game is either going to be even more IT, or a Petbarn Community Shield match against Carlton in Yackandandah. For now, we can only deal with what's ahead of us, and while I'm absolutely leaking with concern, I console myself by believing the players who have it all ahead of them on Friday night aren't. All season I've waited for the rug to be pulled out, or for a self-doubt timebomb to activate and destroy everything, but it hasn't. So, we might not win, but it won't be because of nerves, or failure to rise to the occasion. 

If we're lucky, the next time you read a post on this page it will be speaking about Melbourne in a Grand Final. Here's to, at long last, good things happening to people like us.

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