Stage set for close-fought AFL finals

A remarkable race to AFL finals ended with a frenzied finish at the MCG on Sunday that has only heightened expectations of something special in September.

Six clubs, including triple reigning premiers Hawthorn, started the final round with a chance of snatching the minor premiership or missing out on the top four entirely.

The Hawks posted a one-point win over Collingwood at the MCG on Sunday, setting up a mouth-watering qualifying final against rivals Geelong at the same venue.

Sydney and Greater Western Sydney will meet in the other qualifying final, while Adelaide and West Coast will host elimination games against North Melbourne and Western Bulldogs respectively.

History dictates only the top-four sides can win the flag – it has been that way since the introduction of the current system.

But the advent of a pre-finals bye and final-round ladder logjam suggests it could be different this year.

“The finals series will be really close this year. I reckon probably anyone in the top eight can steal it if they play well for a month,” Hawks midfielder Isaac Smith said.

“It should be a pretty interesting finals series for the fans.”

Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson suggested it would be foolish to dismiss any of the top-eight sides, pointing to how eighth-placed North won through to an elimination final in 2015.

“Ladder positions (being up for grabs in the final round) indicate it’s pretty close,” Clarkson said.

“We’re of the view that every side in the top eight is a dangerous opposition.

“On any given day they can play some outstanding footy.

“It’s going to be harder (to win the premiership) from fifth to eighth but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Particularly this year when there’s a little bit of a curveball in terms of the (post-season bye).”

Clarkson indicated he would try to keep things as normal as possible during the upcoming week.

“The only difference is we’re not playing a game next week,” he said.

“We’ll be pretty low key early in the week and give our players plenty of time to recover but then start to prepare for the Cats.”

Premiership players Ben Stratton and Ben McEvoy are likely to return for the Hawks against Geelong.

Plenty of other clubs will be making some big selection calls over the next fortnight – on account of both form or fitness.

The Swans will surrender home-ground advantage against GWS but boast plenty of confidence after five straight wins, the latest being a 113-point demolition of Richmond.

Geelong were resounding 111-point winners over Melbourne in the final round of the season, while the Giants downed North by 37 points on Saturday.

Western Bulldogs, who travel to Perth and face the Eagles in week one of the finals, have plenty to think about after a shock 20-point loss to Fremantle on Sunday.

The Crows were also far from convincing in round 23, suffering a 29-point loss to the Eagles at Adelaide Oval.

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