On Saturday evening, the unusual time of 5:15pm to be precise, Spotless Stadium will play host to what should be one of the most exciting preliminary finals in recent memory, as the Greater Western Sydney Giants, who have only been in the league for five seasons, play off in a preliminary final against the Western Bulldogs, a side that hasn't made it to a grand final since 1961. Since that 1961 grand final defeat, the Bulldogs have been in seven preliminary finals and have lost all seven matches, their most recent defeat coming at the hands of St. Kilda in 2010.
But after dismantling both of last year's grand finalists in West Coast and Hawthorn over past fortnight, the Dogs have looked as good of a chance as they've ever been to break the streak of preliminary final defeats and finally make a Grand Final after 55 long years, but first standing in their way is the young and talented group of Giants, who after being given a week off by virtue of defeating the Swans in the first week of the finals, are looking primed to make a little bit of history of their own as they search for their first grand final in the club's history.
The Giants started very strongly in 2015 and were poised for their maiden finals series, but fell away dramatically in the second half of the year and missed out altogether, finishing the year in 11th, but this year, they've been a very solid team all throughout 2016. Their young core of talent, blended with the experience of more seasoned players have finally landed the Giants in a spot where, much like the Bulldogs, they can start to challenge for the premiership on a yearly basis. Some experts are declaring that the Bulldogs and the Giants will be the next big rivalry in the AFL, with both teams possessing a large number of elite talent and match-winners.
Again, the Bulldogs are seen as the underdogs of this game given the form of GWS, who easily defeated the Swans in their qualifying final match in the first week of finals, and recent history is on the side of the Giants, with GWS winning two of the last three meetings, including their only meeting at Spotless Stadium this year, which oddly enough, has been their only meeting at the venue in the five years of these two sides going head-to-head.
Can the Giants break through for their maiden Grand Final appearance? Or will the Bulldogs finally break that unwanted streak of preliminary final losses? Something will give come Saturday night in front of a sold-out Spotless Stadium, with not surprisingly, a majority of the 24,000 set to attend in Bulldog colours. The winner of this game, of course, will play off in the 2016 AFL grand final with either Geelong or Sydney, their preliminary final to be played tonight at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
IN: Fletcher Roberts
OUT: Matthew Suckling (Achilles)
B: Jason Johannisen, Joel Hamling, Matthew Boyd
HB: Shane Biggs, 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, Fletcher Roberts, Josh Dunkley
EMG: Tom Campbell, Lukas Webb, Roarke Smith
After taking care of Hawthorn last Friday night, the Dogs have only made one forced change, with Fletcher Roberts in for Matthew Suckling, after his achilles has again flared up this week during training, but the inclusion of Roberts is more of a tactical change, given the Giants boast three tall forwards in their forward line, and without Roberts in the line-up, it would make the job of quelling the likes of Jeremy Cameron, Jonathan Patton and Rory Lobb all the more difficult for the Bulldogs' defensive unit.
Roberts was dropped on the eve of the Bulldogs' elimination final win over West Coast, but since his axing, has performed very well for Footscray in their defensive 50 during their VFL finals campaign.
Greater Western Sydney
IN: Rhys Palmer
OUT: Steve Johnson (Suspended)
B: Adam Tomlinson, Phil Davis, Nathan Wilson
HB: Heath Shaw, Joel Patfull, Ryan Griffen
C: Jacob Hopper, Stephen Coniglio, Tom Scully
HF: Dylan Shiel, Jeremy Cameron, Jonathan Patton
F: Rhys Palmer, Rory Lobb, Devon Smith
FOL: Shane Mumford, Toby Greene, Callan Ward
INT: Zac Williams, Lachie Whitfield, Josh Kelly, Nick Haynes
EMG: Will Hoskin-Elliott, Adam Kennedy, Sam Reid
Like the Dogs, the Giants have been forced to make one change, with Rhys Palmer coming in for Steve Johnson, who's been forced to miss this game with suspension for his hit on Sydney's Josh Kennedy in the qualifying final win. Johnson's omission is a bit of a blow for the Giants, as he has been a revelation for them since he crossed over from Geelong at the end of 2015, kicking 43 goals this season playing predominantly as a forward.
But with Palmer, they get a ready-made player straight into the team who can also play the forward role that 'Stevie J' plays, as well as role further up the ground, unfortunately due to the huge number of talent at the Giants, Palmer has only been able to play 11 games this season, but nonetheless, this will be one of the biggest games of his 121-game career.
Last Time They Met – Round 9, 2016
Western Bulldogs: 10.13.73
Greater Western Sydney: 15.8.98
The Bulldogs travelled up to Spotless Stadium for the first time in the club's history to take on the Giants who were inside the top four at the time. The Giants kicked the opening three goals of the match, and it took until the 17th minute mark of the first term for the Dogs to get their opening goal of the match, but once they got going the Dogs, they kicked three of the next four goals to take the lead early in the second quarter, but unfortunately for the visitors, that was as close to the Giants as they got.
GWS kicked five goals in a span of eight minutes to blow out to a five-goal lead, before two quick goals from Tom Campbell and Mitch Wallis reduced the margin to just 17 points at half time, but the Dogs couldn't come back from that second-quarter flurry, as GWS cruised to a 25-point win despite losing defenders Tim Mohr and Matt Buntine to injury early in the first quarter.
Jeremy Cameron starred up forward and took advantage of a depleted Bulldogs' midfield with five goals, on the other end of the field, Heath Shaw brought his own footy, with 38 disposals - 36 of those being kicks and 14 marks, whilst Callan Ward (30 disposals, 11 tackles and eight marks), Stephen Coniglio (32 disposals, eight tackles, six marks and a goal), Dylan Shiel (27 disposals, seven marks, six tackles and a goal and Toby Greene (22 disposals, nine marks and three goals) were also amongst the best Giants.
For the Bulldogs, Marcus Bontempelli was the only Bulldog who cracked the 30-possession barrier, with 32 disposals, whilst Liam Picken (22 disposals and nine tackles), Luke Dahlhaus (28 disposals), Lachie Hunter (24 disposals and a goal) and Jack Macrae (26 disposals) all battled on for the Dogs, whilst Toby McLean, Lin Jong and Tory Dickson each kicked a pair of goals.
Players To Watch
Hamling's games so far in this year's finals series have been very solid. He shut down West Coast's Josh Kennedy in the elimination final triumph and was again solid in defence in last week's win over Hawthorn. Hamling looks to be the one who might start on Giants sharpshooter Jeremy Cameron, given that he played a solid job on him in their encounter last year.
Greater Western Sydney
This will be Griffen's second meeting with his old club after he was given a mass of boos at Etihad Stadium since his controversial departure from Whitten Oval at the end of 2014, but with a sea of red, white and blue coming into Spotless Stadium on Saturday, one has to imagine how the former Dogs captain will handle all the expected hostility that will be going his way. Griffen's 2016 has been hampered by hamstring and back injuries, but has still managed to have a handful of brilliant games.
In the final two games of the home and away season, Jonathan Patton found some incredible form, kicking 11 goals in that time span – a bag of six against Fremantle and a bag of five against North Melbourne, but he was hardly sighted in the qualifying final win, only managing to have five disposals for the match. What can we expect from 'The General' on Saturday night? Can he be a match-winner for the Giants with another bag of goals?
It's hard to split the two sides here as I genuinely think that this game can go either way. This will be a game that will be decided in the midfield. The Bulldogs have Bontempelli, Macrae, Liberatore, Dahlhaus, Picken and Hunter, whereas GWS have Ward, Scully, Shiel, Coniglio, Whitfield and Kelly.
A battle of the defences will also be one to watch out for as both sides have offensive weapons as well as key defensive players, look out for Matthew Boyd and Jason Johannisen to provide drive out of half-back for the Doggies, whilst look for the two-time All-Australian in Heath Shaw to provide another kicking masterclass if he doesn't get a tag this time around, or someone like Zac Williams or Nathan Wilson, both men criminally underrated outside the state of New South Wales.
My heart is going for the Bulldogs, but my head says the Giants, given it's a home game and they will be fresh after having a week off, will get over the line in nail-biting preliminary final, but you can't rule out the Doggies after making it this far, they will give it everything they have got in a game that will almost certainly be the start of long rivalry between the two teams.
Greater Western Sydney by 7 points
Photos Obtained From Getty Images