After one of the most thrilling AFL regular seasons in history the line-up for the playoffs has finally been revealed.
It was so tight at the top that it took until the penultimate game in the last round, Melbourne Demons thrashing Greater Western Sydney (GWS), until the order of the eight was revealed.
Last year’s premiers, and the favourite for this year’s premiership flag, the Richmond Tigers, clinched the McClelland Trophy – awarded to the team that finishes top of the table in the regular season – and will face fourth-placed Hawthorn on Thursday night at the MCG in the first Qualifying Final.
The Hawks secured fourth place only on Saturday night when they beat Sydney, sending the Swans down to sixth spot, and they will now take on GWS in Sydney Derby No16 at the SCG, which doubles as the second Elimination Final on Saturday afternoon.
In the other matches in week one of the finals, second placed West Coast Eagles will host Collingwood (third) at Optus Stadium in Perth on Saturday in the second Qualifying Final, while on Friday night Melbourne (fifth) host the Geelong Cats (eighth) at the MCG in the first Elimination Final.
Hawthorn, Geelong and the Swans are all regulars in the top eight over the last decade but the playoffs also feature a few teams appearing in September for the first time in a number of years – glamour club Collingwood back after a four-year hiatus and traditional power Melbourne back in for the first time in 12 seasons.
A quick mention should also be made of the four teams who finished 9th to 12th and missed out on the playoffs by a single victory – North Melbourne, Port Adelaide, Essendon and last year’s losing grand finalists, the Adelaide Crows.
For the AFL it’s a dream playoff scenario with six of the top eight best supported clubs featuring in the finals series and on the first weekend there are games in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.
In a perfect world the AFL would have probably liked a match in Adelaide, rather than the two in Melbourne, but the nigh-on 100,000 crowd expected at the MCG when the Tigers take on the Hawks will provide consolation.
Unlike Australia’s other footy codes – rugby union, rugby league and football – Australian Rules is in rude health, displayed by the fact that this year they broke the one million mark in club memberships.
As AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan pointed out: “One in every 24 Australians is now a member of an AFL club, a sign that the national reach of Australian football has never been greater.”
Reigning premiers Richmond top the membership list with their numbers growing by a whopping 38.6 pe rcent, going from 72,669 in 2017 to over 100,726 this year.
And before you accuse Tigers fans of being “Johnny-come-latelies”, this was a club that had not won the flag for 37 long years prior to last season and almost folded in 1990 when they were forced to launch the “Save our Skins” campaign to raise AUD$1million in six weeks to stave off extinction.
Richmond also boast one of the most recognisable faces in Australian sport currently, Dustin ‘Dusty’ Martin, the first player to win a Premiership medal, the Brownlow Medal and the Norm Smith Medal in the same season as he led the Tigers to the premiership in 2017.
The forward recently joined the likes of Usain Bolt, Lewis Hamilton, Antoine Griezmann, Selena Gomez and Rihanna to become the latest star — and first Australian — to agree to a multi-year contract with European sporting brand, Puma.
So popular is the 27-year-old that during the pre-season he sold out two evenings at the 800-seat The Palms at Crown for fans to come along and hear him talk about “family, friends and footy” as well as a few stories of “quiet trips to Vegas” with Collingwood legend Dane Swan.
Las Vegas is the end-of-season destination for many AFL stars, who love the relative anonymity away from the goldfish bowl existence of Melbourne.
Last chance to hear from me talking all things family friends footy and life before the season gets underway !! Also some stories from me and @swandane quiet trips to Vegas 😜 pic.twitter.com/QcxfsYL0UB— Dustin Martin (@DustinMartin4) February 7, 2018
Tigers fans however are cautious about back-to-back flags as in the last decade only two teams have gone to win the flag after finishing minor premiers – Collingwood in 2010 and Hawthorn in 2013.
Richmond have been impressive however with 18 wins and just four losses, finishing with a percentage of 136.1 – the amount of points scored against the amount conceded – which is again the best in the league.
Only St Kilda (two in 2009), Collingwood (two in 2011) and Hawthorn (three in 2013) have had fewer losses over the last ten years.
Whoever wins down at AFL HQ are already celebrating quietly on another spectacular season.
Their total crowd attendance figures of 6,893,909 and average of 34,818 embarrass the other Aussie codes and go close to the English Premier League average for 2017/18 of 38,297.
Indeed the Tigers’ average home crowd of 61,175 is only beaten by Manchester United (75,102) and Spurs (70,642 at Wembley) in the EPL.
Like the NFL in the US, it’s clear which game is closest to the heart of the nation in Australia.
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Real Madrid came from behind to see off Girona and continue their winning start to the season, Karim Benzema grabbing a second-half brace in a 4-1 scoreline.
Girona had been surprise winners in the same fixture last term but despite threatening a repeat when Borja Garcia opened the scoring, they could not contain Julen Lopetegui’s side at the Montilivi.
Penalties either side of half-time – a Panenka-style effort from Sergio Ramos and a clinical strike from Benzema – shifted the momentum before Gareth Bale made it two in two La Liga games since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure.
Benzema popped up again late on to add the gloss and ensure Real matched Barcelona’s six-point haul.
All eyes will be on Jose Mourinho, Paul Pogba and Manchester United tonight as they face the first true test of their season, a home date with Tottenham.
In other news, Man City boss Pep Guardiola insists results mean nothing yet as they lost their Premier League lead.
The champions were held to a 1-1 draw by battling Wolves to drop their first points of the campaign.
Pakistan opening batsman Fakhar Zaman said his team are favourites to win next year’s World Cup in England.
The 28-year-old said Pakistan’s recent record and their win in the Champions Trophy make them favourites for the World Cup.
Elsewhere, Sri Lanka cricket authorities rejected claims of discrimination against England fans in the pricing of tickets for an upcoming tour, saying both foreign and local supporters would be charged the same.
England will play five ODIs, a one-off Twenty20 and three Tests between October 10 and November 27 at four venues – Colombo, Dambulla, Galle and Pallekele.
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Coach Ernesto Valverde has criticised the pitch at Real Valladolid after Barcelona scraped to a 1-0 victory on Sunday night.
The players were seen struggling as the newly laid turf began cutting up during the match at the Estadio Jose Zorrilla, with Valverde saying he had not seen anything like it “for a long time”.
Read more, here.
After Manchester City and Bournemouth were both held earlier on Saturday, Liverpool took their chance to take top spot on the Premier League table – at least until Watford, Spurs and Chelsea are in action later in the weekend – by defeating Brighton 1-0 at Anfield.
Here, Alex Broun rates Jurgen Klopp’s men.
Our cricket writer Ajit Vijaykumar ponders the curious case of selection and why some players miss the boat. Read more, here.
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Premier League: Watford v Crystal Palace (4.30pm); Fulham v Burnley (7pm); Newcastle v Chelsea (7pm)
La Liga: Girona v Real Madrid (12.15am); Sevilla v Villarreal (12.15am)
Formula One: Belgian Grand Prix (17.10pm)