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After the siren: The Tiger challengers arise

Give the Toby 'outrage' a rest Kane Cornes and Matt Thompson discuss the finals so far

THE BIG question heading into the opening weekend of the 2018 finals series was whether a genuine challenger to Richmond would emerge.

The answer? Maybe.

The Tigers comfortably disposed of Hawthorn on Thursday night and while several of the better-credentialled Hawks had absolute shockers, there was ample evidence on display to suggest the Hawks aren’t in Richmond’s league, at least not this year.

And we suggest Alastair Clarkson would agree.

However, over the remaining three games of the weekend, we saw glimpses from each of the victors to offer hope that maybe, just maybe, the flag isn’t signed, sealed and delivered to Punt Road just yet.

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On Friday night, Melbourne swamped Geelong early, kicking five unanswered goals in the first term, winning the contested possession and clearance count, and also winning the tackle count by a whopping 22-11. Alex Neal-Bullen had five tackles, Jack Viney laid four and it set the Cats back on their heels.

The Demons’ pressure was immense throughout and while they still have their work cut out just to make it through two more matches before any possible clash with the Tigers, what was abundantly clear is that Simon Goodwin is assembling a team made to win in September. Close to four quarters of what they delivered against Geelong would hold them in good stead against the Tigers.

Here’s what Greater Western Sydney coach Leon Cameron would have loved in the win over Sydney on Saturday — 163 contested possessions to 124. The Swans are the most blue-collar team going around and on Saturday they were monstered in every category that mattered.

The feeling with the Giants is that they have finally added the right degree of grunt to go with their undoubted polish. The 2017 model fell short against Richmond in the preliminary final, but the 2018 model would have pushed the Tigers right to the wire.

West Coast’s final quarter against Collingwood on Saturday night, in which it kicked 5.3 to 1.1 to surge to victory, will give it encouragement going forward. The Eagles were strong in the contest throughout and Elliott Yeo, with 24 contested possessions alone, was herculean.

However, what the Eagles will need later this month is for Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling to rediscover their magic, and both were superb in the final term on Saturday night. They’re the twin towers who helped pilot the Eagles to their 10-1 start and if they can get to the final day of the season against Richmond, they could cause the Tiger backmen some headaches.

The key word here is ‘could’, because what the remaining five clubs for 2018 will need to overcome is the MCG factor. The Tigers have now won 22 straight games at their home ground. That is the equivalent of an entire home and away season worth of wins at the home of football. It is a streak that will be written into the annals of the history of the game and spoken about forever.

The Tigers' MCG streak will be forever etched in history. Picture: AFL Photos

The ultimate back-room boy

There was a fair degree of jubilation in the Melbourne rooms on Friday night. Winning a final for the first time in 12 years does create that sort of excitement.

However, there was also a degree of caution. The prospect of the ornery Hawks in seven days’ time was enough to keep things in check. And the leading realist in the room was Melbourne chief executive Peter Jackson.

Not to say he wasn't thrilled. It was Jackson who heeded the call from the AFL to come out of semi-retirement to take over the downtrodden Demons in 2013.

The supporters in the rooms were clearly rusted-on, long-suffering Melbourne supporters, but with the exception of one assistant coach (Jade Rawlings), six players and a few long-serving back room staffers, everyone else had arrived at the club in the last five years, both directly and indirectly recruited by Jackson.

So he gazed around the room looking very much like the proud father. “That's a good way to put it. That's exactly what I’d classify myself as,” he told this column.

“These people have come together over the last five years to embark on a journey,” he continued while looking around the room.

“They’re all very humble, and as a club we have had a lot to be humble about and we must stay humble. Respect the game and everyone else. It's a club that's not going to get ahead of itself.”

 

The Demons will now play two consecutive Friday night games at the MCG, after none at the 'G during the home and away season. Finally, they’re giving their sponsors value for money and Jackson joked that this is the week to get on the phone and urge them commit to the club for even longer.

That the Demons are in such good fettle on and off the field is a tribute to Jackson, who also confessed on Friday night that he has felt more satisfaction out of lifting Melbourne out of the mire than any of his stellar work at Essendon.

He was chief executive there for 12 years and the Bombers won the 2000 Grand Final (against Melbourne) in that time, but Essendon was a big club when he got there and still big when he left.

Melbourne was the laughing stock of the AFL when he arrived, but when he finishes up at the end of the season and hands the reins to Gary Pert, the club will have filled the MCG twice in September, turning into a cauldron of red and blue as loud and passionate as when Collingwood, Richmond and his Bombers played finals there at their peak.

Jackson will likely not be in the employ of the Demons when they win their next flag, but his fingerprints would be all over any new premiership cup.

The Melbourne rooms were a sea of joy after the win over Geelong. Picture: AFL Photos

Take the hard road

One thing Alastair “It’s the systems, stupid” Clarkson has always believed about the run-home to the finals is that the harder your August, the better placed you are for the opening week of the finals.

That theory might be diluted a touch in this age of the pre-finals bye, but it was clear at the MCG on Friday night the Demons had benefitted from a tough run home that included Sydney (even though they lost), West Coast and Greater Western Sydney.

The West Coast win in round 22 injected enormous self-belief into the Demons. Not only did it confirm their place in the finals, it showed they could match it with just about anybody.

“It was a weight off our shoulders,” admitted Melbourne defender Michael Hibberd. “That game was like a final. Lose and we had our backs against the wall. But last week was like this week, GWS a very solid team in the eight. We played two solid teams and we were ready for Geelong.”

Not they could so anything about the draw, as coach Chris Scott pointed out, but coming off a pair of tough losses at the MCG to Richmond and Hawthorn, soft kills at home against Fremantle and Gold Coast weren’t the ideal tune-up for the finals-bound Cats.

The fixture requests for next season have already been lodged, but perhaps the Cats could seek a mulligan and ask for a couple of MCG games, and perhaps a tough interstate game, to round out the season, because with a 1-11 record after bye weeks (and the one win came when Isaac Smith missed after the final siren in 2016) the Cats need to change something.

They opened Friday night’s match in cruise control, and by the time their foot finally hit the accelerator, it was too late.

Medicos the real miracle workers

The footy only really reached great heights on Saturday night when the Eagles and Magpies played their clinker at Optus Stadium.

However, if you’re looking for the unsung heroes out of the weekend, how about the club medicos?

The condition in which Viney, Brett Deledio, Toby Greene, Zac Williams, Tyson Goldsack and West Coast’s Kennedy returned to their respective teams after long injury lay-offs was a credit to the enormous teams that got them in excellent shape for these games that truly mattered.

Zac Williams played his first match of the season in the elimination final. Picture: AFL Photos

It is said that the AFL medical teams are among the best in the business on a global scale and the contributions made by these players on the weekend is another example why.

Greene, by the way, is a star. He probably could have played for the Giants in round 23, but he was wisely held back for the opening final. While we noted earlier that there is more grunt to the Giants in 2018, they still need some X-factor and Greene provides it in spades.

 

His ‘Jackie Chan’ leg action will be scrutinised all week and probably needs some clarification from the rules makers. It is within the rules of the game, but perhaps not in the spirit, but that aside, how great is it to have him back on the field for just the eighth time this year.

He is one of the most watchable players in the competition and we cannot wait to see him take on Collingwood and 80,000 of their supporters at the MCG on Saturday night.