WITH just four teams and three matches left in the 2016 TAC Cup season, this weekend’s action is expected to be red hot football.
In what has become an annual trend, both the metropolitan teams – Sandringham Dragons and Oakleigh Chargers – sent their respective country top four opponents packing in straight sets last weekend.
It set up another duo of country versus metro battles with Geelong Falcons facing the Dragons, while Murray Bushrangers meet Oakleigh Chargers.
At the start of the season, I tipped Murray Bushrangers and Sandringham Dragons to face off in the grand final, and both teams are just one win away from making that happen.
Standing in their way are two sides that are more than capable of providing an upset, with both Geelong and Oakleigh well and truly in the contest.
Geelong Falcons vs. Sandringham Dragons
The first preliminary final will be between the Falcons and the Dragons with the latter expected to go in strong favourites.
Geelong rarely gets to face Sandringham at full strength due to the amount of players missing due to school football, while the Falcons enjoy the luxury of most of their school footballers (but not all) playing during the week and not clashing with TAC Cup matches.
I think many people, myself included, underrated the Falcons already and believed they could well have been heading for a straight sets exit.
To their credit, the Falcons put in a strong performance to intimidate the North Ballarat Rebels in the first final and run out winners by 37 points.
On that day, Brett Blair booted five goals, while Max Augerinos starred for his role on Rebels playmaker Hugh McCluggage, collecting 22 disposals, 18 of which were effective, while containing McCluggage to 20.
Meanwhile Sandringham Dragons defeated Eastern Ranges in a thrilling comeback, booting the last three goals of the game to run over the top of them.
Last weekend, Sandringham did it much easier over Dandenong Stingrays in the semi-final, restricting the Stingrays to four goals in a 61-point victory.
Their performance has them heading into the clash as favourites, but the Falcons are fresh off a break and are a solid cohesive unit that have shown they can upset the apple cart.
Andrew McGrath (Sandringham Dragons)
A dashing half-back and balanced midfielder, McGrath wins his own ball as well as provides his team with outside run and carry.
McGrath is a contender for pick one among a number of other players at this year’s National AFL Draft and does not do a lot wrong.
Shown he can play against players much taller than his 179cm frame, McGrath is able to impact anywhere he is placed from back, midfield to forward.
James Worpel (Geelong Falcons)
Worpel is more than 12 months away from being drafted, but is a strong prospect already.
A tireless worker underneath the packs, around the stoppages and in front of goal, Worpel impacts the game through the middle and up forward.
He still has a season to show his worth, but expect Worpel to be among the top handful of names read out at the 2018 AFL National Draft.
How will the game be played?
I expect Sandringham to look to capitalise on the contest through the midfield with so many stars rotating through there.
If Geelong can try and shut the Dragons midfield down, it is halfway to victory, with Sandringham’s quick fire handballs into space likely to cause headaches for any opposition.
The Dragons are not afraid to back themselves and constantly over possess the ball in a game style that is quite simply ‘keeping’s off’.
Their true logic is, if the opponent does not have the ball, they cannot score.
Sandringham very rarely looked rushed in its forward movement and is more than happy to switch play when required or chew up the clock in tight situations.
Geelong might not have the skills the Dragons do, but they could match them for pace, and on the inside.
Geelong will need to give its forwards silver service delivery to ensure the likes of Brett Blair can help the Falcons kick a winning score.
Who will win?
It is hard to go past Sandringham who were mighty impressive in their last couple of matches, but anything can happen in finals.
Tip: Sandringham by 25 points.
Murray Bushrangers vs. Oakleigh Chargers
The winner of preliminary final one will face the victor of Murray Bushrangers and Oakleigh Chargers on Saturday afternoon.
Much like Sandringham, Oakleigh go most of the season without their top line players who are missing through school football commitments.
Murray Bushrangers often miss a few players too when NSW/ACT Rams begin their championships with the likes of Todd Marshall, Zach Sproule and Max Lynch playing in the division two and division one championships meaning Murray are left short – literally.
Murray was strong in its qualifying final victory over Dandenong Stingrays after a poor start to the game.
After kicking one behind in the first term, the Bushrangers booted 15 goals to nine in the last three quarters to run out 26-point winners.
Oakleigh Chargers have felt the two polar opposites of match intensity in the last two weeks, rolling the Calder Cannons by 106 points before holding on by a goal against the North Ballarat Rebels last week.
Many expected the Chargers to knock off the wounded Rebels pretty comprehensively, but instead it was more of a dog fight, which is likely to steel themselves for some red hot pressure against Murray this weekend.
Either side has a legitimate chance of victory here and it will be whether the week off has done wonders for Murray, or if they will be slow to start against a battle-hardened Oakleigh.
Will Brodie (Murray Bushrangers)
Another contender for the number one pick, Will Brodie is a contested ball winner who just hunts the footy around the stoppages.
A barometer for his team, Brodie is the safe pick in this year’s draft, readymade and built for AFL.
Expect Brodie to have another solid performance, where while he often does not rack up the numbers others do, has plenty of influence in the match.
Taylin Duman (Oakleigh Chargers)
While Oakleigh might have a few players read out before Duman, he is one of the most underrated players in this draft crop for me. With Jordan Ridley missing with a shoulder injury, Duman is a crucial figure in the back half for the Chargers.
A lovely kick of the football, the rebounding half-back can move into the midfield and have an impact.
While others can often rush under pressure, Duman keeps a level head and delivers the ball well in tight situations.
How will the game be played?
I predict the game could be a higher scoring affair than the other preliminary final, with both teams able to score plenty quickly.
Both have shown the capability to come back from deficits, but also battle tough and get the job done.
I feel Oakleigh will start strongly but Murray will finish better because the Bushrangers are a better second half side, while Oakleigh does most of its damage in the first half when the heat is on.
If Murray can withstand the heat and win the ball at the coalface, I expect them to get up.
But if Oakleigh can over possess the ball similar to Sandringham enough to get it forward to their key targets, then they would be my tip.
Between the sides there are plenty of potential top 30 players and recruiters will enjoy trying to sort them on their draft boards.
Of the two games many predict this will be the closer final, and I am no different, with either side staking a claim for victory.
Who will win?
While Oakleigh’s recent premiership history is well spoken about, I will tip Murray in this one. I think they have prepared well and will be right to go.
If Murray slow the pace and stop Oakleigh getting too much run, I think the Bushrangers will get home in a close one.
Tip: Murray by 7 points.