Tonight is the first of two spectacular semi-final match-ups as Hawthorn play hosts to the Western Bulldogs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in what is quickly shaping up as highly-anticipated match. Last week the Dogs dominated last year's grand finalists in West Coast on their own home fortress in Perth in what was one of the best finals performances we've seen from any Western Bulldog side ever, and they were rewarded accordingly with a cut-throat semi-final match with none other than the reigning three-time premiers in Hawthorn.
The Hawks are reeling after an epic qualifying final loss against Geelong in what was another magnificent instalment in their fierce rivalry, after Isaac Smith missed his set-shot on goal after the siren, sending the Cats into a preliminary final.
After such a shattering loss, there is no doubt in my mind that the Hawks will come out to play and it comes as no surprise that they are the favourites with the bookies tonight. They will look to make a huge statement on this years Finals Series as their bid to become just the second team in league history to win four premierships in a row is in serious jeopardy, as they will now have to win the next three games to achieve such a glorious feat, but should they come across that same Bulldogs team that destroyed the Eagles last Thursday, that might do more than cause headaches for the Brown and Gold.
But keep in mind, that the Dogs will have the last time that these two sides met firmly entrenched in the back of their mind, as they gave up the lead in the dying minutes to go down to the Hawks by less than a kick, but with a crowd estimate of approximately 85,000 to attend this semi-final, will playing underneath the Friday night lights in a finals-style atmosphere get to the red, white and blue boys?
Either way, the history does not favour the Sons of the West.
The Hawks had to overcome a Qualifying loss and two trips to Perth last year to win the premiership, plus the fact that they are more seasoned than the young stars of the Dogs may play to their favour. Another telling statistic is that the Bulldogs haven't beaten Hawthorn since the 2010 season, with the Hawks on an eight-game winning run against the Bulldogs since their last win. The winner of this match will book a preliminary final date with the Greater Western Sydney Giants at Spotless Stadium in a Saturday twilight match. A win to the Dogs tonight will ensure that at least one fresh-faced team, whether it be the Dogs or the Giants, will take a spot in the AFL Grand Final.
IN: Toby McLean
OUT: Lin Jong (Collarbone)
B: Jason Johannisen, Joel Hamling, Matthew Boyd
HB: Matthew Suckling, Dale Morris, Easton Wood
C: Lachie Hunter, Marcus Bontempelli, Liam Picken
HF: Jack Macrae, Zaine Cordy, Jake Stringer
F: Tory Dickson, Tom Boyd, Caleb Daniel
FOL: Jordan Roughead, Luke Dahlhaus, Tom Liberatore
INT: Clay Smith, Toby McLean, Josh Dunkley, Shane Biggs
EMG: Tom Campbell, Lukas Webb, Roarke Smith
The Bulldogs have only made the one change for tonight, with Lin Jong the obvious omission after he sustained a broken collarbone in last Thursday's win over the Eagles, and whilst he was back up and running at training this week, the tears in his eyes on Thursday night as he was assessed by the doctors told the story – he won't take any further part in the 2016 finals series, and with him out of contract this year, has Jong played his last game in Bulldog colours?
But one of the Bulldogs' biggest strengths is that their depth is enormous, and are able to replace fallen players and still win games, which is crucial to any premiership-winning side. Toby McLean comes into the team for his first game since round 22, getting the nod over Lukas Webb and Roarke Smith, who were also strongly considered during the week to take Jong's place after solid game's for Footscray in their VFL Finals campaign.
IN: James Sicily, Billy Hartung
OUT: Daniel Howe (Omitted), Ryan Burton (Calf)
B: Taylor Duryea, James Frawley, Shaun Burgoyne
HB: Luke Hodge, Josh Gibson, Grant Birchall
C: Isaac Smith, Sam Mitchell, Bradley Hill
HF: Luke Breust, Jack Gunston, Cyril Rioli
F: Paul Puopolo, Jack Fitzpatrick, Ryan Schoenmakers
FOL: Ben McEvoy, Jordan Lewis, Liam Shiels
INT: Ben Stratton, Brendan Whitecross, James Sicily, Billy Hartung
EMG: Will Langford, Daniel Howe, Matt Spangher
The Hawks have made two changes, with Billy Hartung back into the side and will inject some speed into the Hawks' midfield and his inclusion isn't to be underestimated, and James Sicily also back in, after he was a late out against the Cats last week due to illness. Doggies fans will shudder at the name, after he was the hero for Hawthorn in their last meeting and has been one of Hawthorn's biggest finds down forward this year in a season where they've missed one of their big focal points up forward in Jarryd Roughead.
Making way for the duo will be youngster Daniel Howe, who has found himself in and out of Hawthorn's 22 a lot this year, playing 10 games in 2016. Also missing this game will be first-year player Dale Burton, who will sit out with a calf injury, but will be a disappointing out, as he had played the last four games for Hawthorn in the lead-up to tonight.
Last Time They Met – Round 3, 2016
Western Bulldogs: 13.12.90
After two resounding victories over Fremantle and St. Kilda to start the 2016 season, the Western Bulldogs faced off against Hawthorn in what was dubbed as the match of the round, pitting the champions against the challengers in a contest which lived up to the hype and then some.
The Hawks kicked the opening five goals of the match and got out to an early five-goal lead midway through the second term, before the Dogs kicked 10 of the next 12 goals of the match to open up a 19-point lead at three-quarter time, but the Hawks refused to throw in the towel, kicking seven goals to three in the last term, in which was a blow-for-blow quarter.
The Dogs dominated possession and dominated the clearances, but it was a clutch goal in the final minute by James Sicily which would've sank the hearts of Dogs' fans, but a knee injury to Robert Murphy in the moment Sicily took the mark inside 50 in that final minute shattered both players and fans by the final siren. It was revealed after the game that the Bulldogs' captain had ruptured his ACL and would miss the entire 2016 season.
Sicily kicked three final-quarter goals, including the go-ahead goal in the last minute and proved to be the hero for the Hawks on the day. Ben Stratton was another that shone for Hawthorn, but on the other end of the ground as he held the Doggies' most dangerous forward in Jake Stringer to only one goal late in the last quarter. Sam Mitchell (29 possessions, eight tackles) and Isaac Smith (24 disposals, nine marks) were prolific, whilst Cyril Rioli also starred with three goals.
Caleb Daniel starred in what was only 13th game for the Bulldogs, tallying 29 disposals, eight marks, six tackles and a goal, and was the one who ignited the Bulldogs when they were five goals down early in the second quarter. Luke Dahlhaus also had a brilliant game with 33 disposals and two goals and alongside Daniel, was one of the Doggies' most influential player on the ground. First-year player Marcus Adams (23 disposals, 15 marks) was a rock in defence and captain Murphy (25 disposals) was at his typical best before he went down with that knee injury.
Players To Watch
After having one of his best games of his very short career (No pun intended) last Thursday night against the Eagles, young Daniel will look set to have a difficult job in shadowing Hawthorn's midfield maestro in Sam Mitchell, who will be a little bit sore after he was heavily targeted by Geelong last weekend. He starred in their previous encounter, but this will be an entirely different ball game tonight.
Despite suffering an achilles injury over the last month and a bit, Suckling's performances in the second half of the year have been significantly down, but against his old side in Hawthorn, he'll be looking to put in one of his better performances of his career, keeping in mind that he has played in finals, and won a flag with the Hawks last year. I'm backing Suckling to have a big game tonight.
Sicily proved to be the match-winner in the last meeting between the two teams, kicking three goals in the last quarter to rally the Hawks to one of their many nail-biting win, and was sorely missed in Hawthorn's forward line last week. The young forward has been one of a few of Hawthorn's fringe players who have filled in for the ill Jarryd Roughead this season, kicking 29 goals in 21 games after only managing three games in the previous two years. Looms as a serious player to watch out for.
I predict that this will be a contest that goes down to the wire, much like the previous encounter, and I reckon given that the Dogs are riding high on confidence, are in a very good position to cause another massive upset on Friday night football. They dominated them in disposals and contested possessions the last time round and if they are able to replicate that and make the most of their scoring opportunities, they should be moving on to the preliminary finals.
After last week's amazing effort, I certainly believe that anything is certainly possible in this year's Finals Series. I'm picking the Western Bulldogs in a massive upset.
Western Bulldogs by 4 points
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