Having both successfully navigated important round 18 clashes, St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs now renew a rather unique 21st century finals rivalry. The two sides met in successive preliminary finals in 2009 and 2010, with the Saints winning spiteful battles on both occasions. Now, St Kilda returns to the post-season for the first time in nine years, while the Western Bulldogs are back for their second straight finals appearance.
WHERE AND WHEN: Gabba, Saturday 2 October, 4.40pm AEST
TV AND RADIO: Click here for broadcast guide
WHAT HAPPENED THIS YEAR?
Round two: St Kilda 14.4 (88) defeated Western Bulldogs 7.7 (49)
Plenty of water has gone under the bridge since St Kilda thrashed the Western Bulldogs by 39 points to restart their respective seasons back in June. The Saints were completely dominant at Marvel Stadium, with Jack Billings (24 disposals, three goals) helping to sweep Luke Beveridge's team aside with ease. Recruits Dan Butler and Zak Jones also caused plenty of headaches, as the Western Bulldogs fell to 0-2 on the season with defeat.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Max King is a jet, but St Kilda can't rely too heavily on the young forward in attack. King has won just 12.8 percent of his one-on-one contests this season, ranking 49th of the top 50 targets in the League. Furthermore, when the two sides met in round two, King was targeted eight times inside 50, but took only one mark inside the forward arc. St Kilda's attack is most dangerous when it is spreading the love, with Rowan Marshall, Tim Membrey and Dan Butler also providing consistent options throughout the campaign.
Even though Aaron Naughton should play, despite a fractured cheekbone, expect Mitch Wallis to be the side's deepest target in attack. Wallis retained the ball from close to 48 percent of his forward 50 targets and kicked a goal from nearly 21 percent of his forward 50 targets this season – ranking fifth and fourth respectively in the League in both categories. He has proved a capable and dangerous option in the side's adaptable forward line.
WHAT THE STATS SAY
1. St Kilda won the hitouts 48-12 and the hitouts-to-advantage 20-3 the last time it played the Western Bulldogs. Both were the club's best differentials this season. Despite this, the Saints only won the clearance count 32-29.
2. Although they rank dead last for hitout differential and hitout-to-advantage differential over the last six games, the Western Bulldogs rank top-two in the League for disposal differential, contested possession differential, time in forward-half differential, scores from stoppage differential and scores from centre bounce differential.
3. Despite being based in Queensland for much of the season, the Western Bulldogs have played only one game at the Gabba this year – a 24-point loss to Brisbane back in round 11. Furthermore, they've won only one of their seven games at the Gabba since 2020. St Kilda finished with a 3-3 record at the Queensland venue this year.
4. Lachie Hunter could be the danger man on the outside for the Western Bulldogs. The midfielder ranks No.1 in the AFL for uncontested possessions, averaging 18.8 per game. He also ranks No.2 in the League for score involvements, averaging 6.7 per game.
5. Don't tip Callum Wilkie to lose many defensive contests. Of the 40 one-on-one contests the St Kilda backman has been involved in, he's won 42.5 percent of them – ranked fifth in the League. He also hasn't been out-marked once this season, according to Champion Data.
IT'S A BIG WEEK FOR
He's copped his criticism following a high-profile move from Fremantle last October, but now it's time for Bradley Hill to justify his recruitment. A triple-premiership player with Hawthorn, Hill is one of few St Kilda players to have tasted success in the finals. They'll need that experience on Saturday night. He's also coming in with some good form. Averaging an improved 19.3 disposals over the last month, his run will be important for the Saints.
Tim English's form over the last fortnight has been promising, impacting more frequently on the scoreboard to kick two goals in each of his last two matches. However, shouldering the majority of the ruck load will be a difficult task against St Kilda's twin attack in Paddy Ryder and Rowan Marshall. Limiting their effectiveness on the contest could be just as important as the impact English has going the other way.
PREDICTION: St Kilda by 11 points. The Saints have talent, style and have shown they can adapt to different situations this season. They should get the better of the Dogs.