WITH the first week of finals done and dusted, there is no turning back for any side now, with every match a do-or-die clash.
Last weekend we farewelled the Calder Cannons and Eastern Ranges as Sandringham Dragons and Oakleigh Chargers advanced to the semi-finals.
In the qualifying finals, Murray Bushrangers and Geelong Falcons advanced through to the preliminary finals at the expense of the Dandenong Stingrays and North Ballarat Rebels who now face sudden-death semi-finals against the successful metropolitan teams
Dandenong Stingrays vs. Sandringham Dragons
The minor premiers looked completely in control during their first quarter against the Murray Bushrangers, but were eventually overrun by the Bushies in the last three quarters.
Sandringham almost looked like making a shock exit late in the match against Eastern Ranges and indeed trailed for most of the game.
But a couple of late goals saw the Dragons get home by two points in a thriller.
This weekend is expected to be another beauty with both teams having legitimate claims to victory.
Sandringham has a star studded midfield, while Dandenong has consistent players all over the field.
The five questions that need answering:
1 Can the likes of Myles Poholke, Tom Glen and Tom Jok win enough inside ball to topple the Dragons classy midfield?
2 Will the inclusion of Sam Fowler who missed last week’s qualifying final be one that helps get Dandenong over the line?
3 Can Josh Battle repeat his six-goal haul from last week?
4 Who will the Dragons move to full back if their first choice defender is beaten? Would Andy McGrath have the ability to play on Battle?
5 How will the teams adjust to a game expected to be vastly different to the ones they played last week given their opposition’s styles?
The star: Josh Battle
Underrated: Myles Poholke
Danger man: Sam Fowler
Watch for: Dan Allsop
The star: Andy McGrath
Underrated: Hamish Brayshaw
Danger man: Tim Taranto
Watch for: Will Setterfield
How does the match play out?
I anticipate both sides will take a disciplined approach to the match, with a lower scoring game my tip.
Sandringham will attempt to win plenty of the ball through midfield, while Dandenong’s defence is the best in the league and those players will read the play and come off their men to spoil other contests.
The key will be whether Dandenong can keep the ball in their own hands’ long enough to keep it off Sandringham’s premium ball users.
The Stingrays midfield should aim to nullify the likes of McGrath and Ollie Florent who are two of their better ball users, while keeping Tim Taranto on a tight leash.
Dandenong has the more damaging forward line, with Battle, Sam Fowler, Dan Allsop and Tom De Koning all able to kick bags on their day.
Sandringham’s defence will have its work cut out trying to reduce one-on-one contests, particularly with Battle and De Koning.
Up the other end, the Dragons’ forward line is also capable of kicking a big score, but it will need to make the most of its opportunities against the stringent Stingray’s defence.
Sandringham’s Lachlan Filipovic is likely to win the ruck battle against Dylan Atkins to give his mids first possession, but the Dandenong midfield is willing to do the hard stuff.
Tip: Dandenong by 2 points
I could certainly see Sandringham winning this contest, but as good as the Dragons’ midfield is, I feel the Stingrays have the more consistent line-up across the field.
Therefore I will tip the Stingrays in a thriller, but the result could honestly go either way.
North Ballarat Rebels vs. Oakleigh Chargers
Oakleigh Chargers’ dream of a three-peat and four premierships in five years is still alive, with a preliminary final awaiting them if they can defeat the wounded Rebels.
The Rebels have been sensational in the second half of the year, but have limped into this semi-final on the back of a string of injuries in the past fortnight.
James Gow was a late withdrawal last week with appendicitis and both Jarrod Berry and Jacob Wheelahan are omissions through injury this week along with Todd Clode who was suspended in last week’s fiery clash.
North Ballarat still has their stars in Hugh McCluggage, Willem Drew and Cedric Cox through the midfield, but will require players such as bottom-age prospect Trent Reed to step up on the big stage.
Oakleigh got through last week’s thumping win over Calder Cannons unscathed and will be fresh to take on the Rebels.
The five questions that need answering:
1 How will North Ballarat cope with the losses of Berry and Wheelahan?
2 Can Patrick Kerr have a bigger influence on the match this weekend?
3 Will we see a highlight reel of sensational runs down the field given both sides contain a great deal of pace?
4 Can the likes of Shannon Beks and Sam White stand up and deliver for the Rebels to kick them a winning score?
5 Will Oakleigh adopt a similar style to Geelong last week and place a defensive midfielder on Hugh McCluggage?
North Ballarat Rebels:
The star: Hugh McCluggage
Underrated: Tom Williamson
Danger man: Cedric Cox
Watch for: Willem Drew
The star: Patrick Kerr
Underrated: Taylin Duman
Danger Man: Jordan Ridley
Watch for: Josh Daicos
How does the match play out?
I predict Oakleigh will try and run North Ballarat off its feet. The Chargers will look to try and get a big score on the board early and dent the Rebels’ confidence.
On the other side of the coin, North Ballarat will look to limit the amount of effective inside 50s and not get caught on the counter attack.
North Ballarat’s midfield is stronger, Oakleigh’s forward line is stronger and both teams’ defences you could throw a blanket over.
Lloyd Meek should get the better of Ned Reeves in the ruck and with Todd Lawrence assisting, expect the Rebels to have first hands to it.
McCluggage must get off the chain and get plenty of it, with Cox and Williamson other good ball users who can hurt the opposition.
As good as the likes of Willem Drew and Callan Wellings are, they are better at extracting it and getting it forward rather than using outside pace or footskills.
Likewise, Oakleigh will look to Jack Higgins and Taylin Duman, with Lachie Walker and Campbell Lane at the coal face.
If Oakleigh’s forward line gets as much supply as it did last week, it is hard to see the Chargers losing here.
North Ballarat need to win the midfield convincingly and get plenty of forward 50 entries to have any chance of victory.
Tip: Oakleigh by 35 points
It pains me to predict such a large win given the Rebels were a genuine premiership contender, but given their omissions and the strength of Oakleigh, it is hard to see North Ballarat really pushing the Chargers.
Hopefully the Rebels can prove me wrong and make a real game of it and even upset the apple cart as they have earned it this year.