MELBOURNE has refreshed half its team since its last preliminary final turned into a disaster inside a half of football.

Three years later, its matured stars will find out whether they still carry the battle scars.

The Demons were on a fairytale run through the finals when they travelled to Optus Stadium to take on West Coast in a preliminary final in 2018.

They had shocked the Eagles at the same venue just five weeks earlier, with a 17-point triumph that started the Demons' four-match winning streak and locked in their first finals campaign in 12 years.

But there would be no happy ending this time.


The preliminary final was effectively over before half-time, as the ruthless Eagles slammed on 10.9 to the Demons' 0.6 for a 63-point lead at the main break.

Jordan Lewis and teammates leave the field after Melbourne's horror preliminary final loss to West Coast at Optus Stadium in 2018. Picture: Michael Willson

A relatively young Melbourne team entered the match a little beaten up on the back of two knockout finals, but the eventual 66-point battering arguably set them back two years.

The Dees plummeted to a 17th-place finish the following season, then started slowly and could only nudge up to ninth last year.

But while deficiencies were being exposed on the field, behind the scenes the Demons were building for a second and more substantial, sustainable strike at ending the League's longest active premiership drought.

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The relaunch brings the Demons back to the same venue for another preliminary final, this time against Geelong on Friday night.

Since their last preliminary final appearance some shrewd recruitment to fill specific needs has seen Steven May (2018), Ed Langdon and Adam Tomlinson (2019) and Ben Brown (2020) traded in from other clubs.

Jake Lever had already been brought in ahead of the 2018 season but the intercept master ruptured an ACL in round 11 and missed the rest of that season.

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The defensive duo of May and Lever has become a significant weapon since then and a key feature of the most successful way the Demons now play. Tomlinson added another dimension to the tall defensive combination before he too ruptured an ACL in round eight this season.

Jake Lever and Steven May of the Demons celebrate after round 11, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

The inglorious fall after the 2018 preliminary final, along with some clever pick swaps, at least allowed the Demons to access more elite talent.

Luke Jackson (pick No.3), Kysaiah Pickett (No.12) and Trent Rivers (No.32) all arrived after the second-last finish in 2019 and have swiftly emerged as rising stars.

Tom Sparrow (pick No.27) and James Jordon (No.33) were picked up in the 2018 NAB AFL Draft but took until this season to establish themselves, while Jake Bowey (No.21) was selected at the end of 2020.

Melbourne's Trent Rivers in action against Brisbane in the 2021 qualifying final. Picture: AFL Photos

Of the Demons that were on the list in 2018 but missed the preliminary final pounding, only 2017 draftees Bayley Fritsch and Harry Petty have forced their way into the current line-up.

Fristch had shown plenty of potential with 23 matches in his debut season until he was omitted after the Demons' semi-final win, but has improved to kick 51 goals and earn a place in the Therabody AFL All-Australian squad this year.

Petty has taken a more typical route to work his way up to 17 matches this year, making the most of his opportunity after Tomlinson's misfortune.

While half the team has been rapidly refreshed, a core group of Demons remain from that disastrous day in 2018.


Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver, Jack Viney, Angus Brayshaw and James Harmes have matured into a damaging midfield, while Max Gawn has added the captaincy to his impact in the ruck.

Dynamic duo: Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver celebrate during the round five clash between Hawthorn and Melbourne at the MCG on April 18, 2021. Picture: Getty Images

Tom McDonald, Alex Neal-Bullen and Charlie Spargo are now settled in the forward half, while Christian Salem joined Fritsch in the All-Australian 40-player squad.

Joel Smith played in the 2018 preliminary final loss to the Eagles and this year's qualifying win over Brisbane, but injured his hamstring in training this week and will now be sidelined. His absence opened the door for Michael Hibberd, who was part of the 2018 side, to return for the first time since round 22. 

The rejuvenation means an experienced group from the 2018 preliminary final loss has been pushed to the fringes, with former captain Nathan Jones, Jake Melksham, Neville Jetta, Aaron vandenBerg and Sam Weideman overlooked at times this season and this week.

Five of the Demons who played in the 2018 preliminary final have since left the club, with Jordan Lewis retiring and Dom Tyson, Sam Frost, Mitch Hannan and Oscar McDonald moving to other clubs.

Nathan Jones and Oscar McDonald after Melbourne's 2018 preliminary final loss to West Coast. Picture: AFL Photos

Returning to the scene of that finals thumping at the same stage of the season perhaps gives those that remain their best opportunity to banish any lingering demons.

Not that this crop of Dees are paying the coincidence much attention as they prepare for the biggest game of their season.

"There are so many different things about 2018," Gawn said on RSN this week.

"We've got a lot of different players and coaches, we play a different brand of football than what we were in '18, and in '18 we were doing it from fifth so we had to win every game.

"There are very different feelings and we were beaten up early by West Coast. They came out hot and we couldn't bring it back. I see it as a completely different game of football."

Melbourne's 2018 preliminary final team

B: Neville Jetta, Oscar McDonald, Jordan Lewis
HB: Christian Salem, Sam Frost, Michael Hibberd
C: Mitch Hannan, Nathan Jones, Angus Brayshaw
HF: Jake Melksham, Tom McDonald, James Harmes
F: Aaron vandenBerg, Sam Weideman, Alex Neal-Bullen
Foll: Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, Jack Viney
I/C: Christian Petracca, Charlie Spargo, Dom Tyson, Joel Smith

Emerg: Jay Kennedy Harris, Jayden Hunt, Bayley Fritsch, Tim Smith 

Melbourne's 2021 preliminary final team

B: Christian Salem, Steven May, Jake Lever
HB: Jake Bowey, Harrison Petty, Trent Rivers
C: Tom Sparrow, Christian Petracca, Ed Langdon
HF: Bayley Fritsch, Tom McDonald, Jack Viney
F: Alex Neal-Bullen, Ben Brown, Charlie Spargo
Foll: Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, Angus Brayshaw
I/C: James Harmes, Luke Jackson, Michael Hibberd, Kysaiah Pickett

Emerg: Nathan Jones, Jake Melksham, James Jordon, Kyle Chandler