• Make your September forecast with the 2014 finals predictor
• Nine things we learned from round 23
• Nine's a charm: How Richmond stormed into September
SO THERE'S no Carlton or Collingwood, no bonus derby or Showdown. But the AFL has lucked into a magnificent opening weekend of the 2014 finals in which each game has, to steal a quote from Bruce McAvaney, a delicious backstory.
It starts Friday night with Hawthorn and Geelong. Not much else to be said there. The 'Curse' is dead, but the enmity between them is not.
The Sydney Swans host Fremantle on Saturday afternoon. John Longmire and Ross Lyon, both coaching disciples of Paul Roos, lock horns with memories of last year's preliminary final still vivid. Rarely have the Swans of recent times been so systematically dismantled as on that night in Perth, so this will be an opportunity for payback.
North Melbourne and Essendon on Saturday night at the MCG, which will bring back memories of so many great matches between these two clubs around the turn of the century when Denis Pagan and Kevin Sheedy were in charge. I'm not sure I've ever met a North Melbourne supporter who doesn't despise the Bombers with every fibre of their body. It must be a geographical thing.And then there's Sunday. Port Adelaide and Richmond, with so much history on both sides.
It will be the first final at Adelaide Oval, a fitting finale for the year at a venue that after just 12 months has become a jewel in the AFL's crown. A sell-out is a given but the make-up of the crowd will be worth watching because in theory, there will be nearly as many tickets available to Richmond fans as to Port, so depending on how many Tiger supporters travel – and up to 10,000 of them might - the home crowd factor might not be as intimidating as it would at other times of the year.
Not that Richmond will mind. The Tigers overcame Adelaide only a fortnight ago in hostile conditions, so the venue will hold no fears.
For Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley, Richmond is one of several clubs that overlooked him during a coaching search a few years back. And Port speedster Matty White has become an important weapon for Hinkley in his first year at the club since crossing from Richmond. It's funny how, as the Tigers slumped to their 3-10 start to the year, that the absence of the zippy White was seen as a key cause.
For many at Richmond, the trip to play Port in a final will be just like old home week. The Port Adelaide diaspora has already played a strong hand in two Hawthorn premierships thanks to identities such as Alastair Clarkson, Andrew Russell and Stuart Dew, but its influence at Richmond is profound as well.
Watch the last two minutes from Saturday's ANZ Stadium epicThree of Richmond's coaches are deeply embedded in the history of Port Adelaide. Tiger coach Damien Hardwick was a premiership player at Port in 2004. But he was more than that. A salary-cap casualty at Essendon a few seasons before that, Hardwick came to Alberton where he provided some hardness and a bit of mongrel to a prodigiously talented team, but one with perhaps some mental demons.
In a story about the 2004 premiership team in the AFL Record this year, Kane Cornes recalled that Port had fallen short in the previous years' finals series, squandering a hard-won double chance opportunity every time. Shortly before the '04 finals, Hardwick called a players-only dinner at Glenelg to deal with the proverbial elephant in the room.
"We talked about what we were facing and that we had to make the most of this opportunity, but it lifted the pressure off and let us focus on our footy," Cornes recalled with clarity 10 years later. "It showed good leadership."
WATCH: Tigers hold firm in a famous fourth quarterPort premiership teammate Brendon Lade has been with Hardwick throughout his time at Punt Road and now coaches the Tiger forward line. And the head of development at Richmond and Hardwick's match-day bench coach is Mark Williams, the premiership coach at Port in 2004.
Williams, of course, is Port Adelaide royalty. His father Fos coached Port to nine SANFL premierships and is the author of the famous creed that any well-grounded Port supporter should know to recite by heart.
In an interview for that same Record article, Mark Williams talked about his passion for Port and it is obvious that despite his attachment to Richmond – he will be at the club for as long as Hardwick is coach – he is a Port man at heart.
"I look forward to the next success Port has," he said, although given the circumstances he now finds himself in, he might want to put those sentiments on hold for a week.
The year they're havingThe other plot twist on Sunday was spawned by the most recent clash between the two clubs, when Richmond beat Port Adelaide by 20 points in round 17 at Etihad Stadium.
But a key factor in the result for the Tigers were two final-quarter goals to erstwhile defender Troy Chaplin, who before joining Richmond at the start of last season, had played 140 games in nine seasons for Port.
It was after the second goal that an excited Chaplin kissed the crest of his Richmond jumper, a gesture that clearly irked his former teammates.
"They were winning so I guess he can do what he wants, but I hope he's enjoying the year they're having," Boak said on Monday. At the time, Port was in the top four and Richmond was languishing in 12th with a 6-10 record and still seemingly out of finals contention.
Chaplin was hammered at the time for what was regarded as "contrived passion", but as for Boak's remarks, there is no doubt Chaplin would now be enjoying Richmond's season a great deal. It is the first time since 1975 the Tigers have made the finals in consecutive seasons.
And you can bet Chaplin, like Hardwick, Williams and Lade, is looking forward to renewing acquaintances on Sunday afternoon.
QUESTION TIMEWho will be happier to be playing at ANZ Stadium on Saturday afternoon?
It might be Freo. The Swans have won just two of their past six at the ground although the mitigating factor there might be that two of those matches (round 23 last year and this year) were dead rubbers.
But the Dockers might be happy with the venue (which the AFL is contractually obligated to use for finals until 2016) because it is narrow and it is on those sorts of grounds that they do their best work because it best suits their patented defensive press.
WATCH: Match highlights - Fremantle v Port AdelaideFreo's home ground at Patersons Stadium, where they have won 11 from 12 this year, measures just 122 metres wide. Simonds Stadium, where they stunned Geelong in last year's qualifying final and lost by less than a kick this year, comes in at 115 metres wide.
Saturday afternoon, they'll be at ANZ Stadium which comes in at 118 metres, so from that perspective, they'll be most comfortable.
Contrast this with the SCG, which is 136 metres wide and you can understand that Freo will be happy to have this game played at the Olympic venue. The MCG, by the way is 141 metres wide, which is something the Dockers will need to take into consideration if they were to play the Hawks there later this year. Hawthorn's home ground advantage at the MCG (10-1) this year has become quite formidable.
The other factor will be the surface of the ground. At least on Saturday, the grass was cut short, AFL-style rather than left at the grazing levels the rugby codes seem to prefer. But there were still soft and uneven patches, particularly at one point on the half-forward flank where in the last few minutes of the final quarter, Swans full-back Ted Richards slipped over at a contest, allowing Dusty Martin to scoot away, run into open goal and kick the sealer.
There was an NRL game at ANZ Stadium two nights before the Swans-Tigers game, but there is nothing scheduled between now and Saturday's qualifying final, so hopefully the AFL will insist that until game time, that the retractable seats remain, well, retracted and that a week of natural sunlight and some additional turf management be allowed to do their thing.
Who will ruck for Hawthorn in the finals?
Possession is nine-tenths of the law as they say, so right now Jonathan Ceglar and David Hale have the front running. Ceglar was good, but not great against Collingwood on Friday night, while David Hale has picked the right time of the year to find some form. But theirs is a combination that worked well against Geelong a fortnight ago, because both were mobile enough to go forward and take some contested marks against Hamish McIntosh, whose work deep in defence can be shaky.
But don't discount Ben McEvoy just yet. He kicked four goals and looked great in the VFL on Saturday and arguably his best game of the year for Hawthorn was against the Swans at the MCG in round 18 where he simply wore Mike Pyke out. Alastair Clarkson has enough fit and available players available for September that will allow him to mix and match his best 22 according to match-ups, so while it might be Ceglar and Hale on Friday night, that could change entirely as we move through September.
Who has the better list of the expansion clubs?
Right now, you would have to say the Giants. No Callan Ward, Jeremy Cameron, Jon Patton, Stephen Coniglio, Jed Lamb, Tim Mohr, Tom Scully, and Lachie Whitfield, but they finished the season in style. Once Gary Ablett hurt his shoulder, Gold Coast's season petered out with barely a whimper. The Suns should still make the finals ahead of the Giants, but long-term I like the way Greater Western Sydney has put its list together and an off-season development to monitor is whether the Giants can keep list manager Stephen Silvagni at the club or whether new Carlton chief executive Steven Trigg will be able to entice him back home.
WATCH: Showreel – Gold Coast's Jack Martin gives a glimpse of the futureJames Gwilt anybody? Can I sell you a Clint Jones?
Gwilt could work at a new club as the third or fourth defender instead of having to fill a key defensive post as he often had to at the Saints, while Jones gets marked harshly because for all his shutdown ability, he just butchers the footy too often. As good as they have been for St Kilda, I'm not sure at this stage that any club will be bashing down the door to sign either player for next season.
But what makes this episode so fascinating is that the Saints didn't even wait until after round 23 to tell Gwilt and Jones. Coach Alan Richardson is clearly impatient for the off-season to begin and to get about shaping St Kilda's list as he wants it. Remember, the Saints didn't sack Scott Watters until two months after last season ended and that Richardson was not installed until well after the trade period was completed.
St Kilda now owns the No.1 pick and the bold Ben McEvoy trade last October showed that list manager Chris Pelchen isn't afraid to wheel and deal as required. Clearly, the Saints are now open for business and it would be no surprise whatsoever if the first pick changed hands between now and the draft, for the first time since 2001 when Fremantle traded it to Hawthorn (who selected Luke Hodge) in exchange for Trent Croad.
St Kilda's list is full of holes and trading away the first pick for existing talent and/or more picks down the track might be the most sensible way for the club to fast-track its replenishment of the playing list. It is the first pointer towards this October being the most intriguing for years.
Ashley Browne: The Tigers are the form team of the competition, with nine straight wins and as stated earlier, the venue will hold absolutely no fears whatsoever. What they can't do now, however, is pause for breath. It's like five-set tennis where a player comes from two sets down to level the match by going for broke on every point. But it's when they collect their breath at 2-2 and retreat to the baseline again that they lose the final set. The Tigers have to play with the same verve and spirit that has marked their last nine weeks. They have nothing to lose and the pressure this week is all on Port Adelaide.
#afterthesiren the umpire with a go pro on his head at the ej whitten game had a Better review angle than the afl approved one. Amatures— Hector Mauricio Peña (@hectormpena) August 30, 2014
AB: I'm finding it increasingly difficult to argue. Two goal umpires at either end might be the best solution of the lot.
AB: You would think Carlton has made its major list management decisions before the final game of the season and that Watson's fate is already known, at least within the confines of Mick Malthouse's office. If it didn't save his career at Carlton, at least Watson's four-goal haul just might prompt another club to offer him a lifeline for the next 12 months. Lachlan Henderson remains the player to build the Carlton forward line around.
AB: That's two weeks straight that a Brownlow medallist has come under scrutiny for staging - Jimmy Bartel last week and now Goodes and in the case of Goodes, it isn’t the first time. An absolute champion of the game on it and off it, the only blight on Goodes is his propensity to swing his arms and look for free kicks and it is why a section of Richmond supporters jeered him on Saturday. Goodes is an interesting figure in the game and if you spend time trawling various online footy message boards and forums, you will find he is a polarising figure and not as universally beloved as, say Lenny Hayes or Dean Cox, because of some of his perceived playing traits.