In the AFL finals, momentum is great - but it's not everything

History suggests that first-week losers like the Lions aren't necessarily done yet. Photo: Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images

History suggests that first-week losers like the Lions aren't necessarily done yet. Photo: Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images

Momentum is a powerful thing in AFL football.

And, as we approach two cut-throat semi-finals this weekend, it's pretty clear which teams have it, and which don't.

Greater Western Sydney's thrilling one-point win over Sydney in the elimination final was its fourth win in a row.

The Western Bulldogs' second half against Essendon was so dominant by game's end it appeared the Dogs had recaptured much of the confidence they had lost over the previous three straight losses.

Those two will be taking on two teams which finished higher on the ladder, but are coming off potentially morale-sapping defeats.

Geelong never really looked in the hunt against Port Adelaide in its qualifying final loss, while Brisbane was comprehensively beaten after quarter-time against Melbourne.

Can either reverse the slide now?

History certainly suggests they can, despite a seemingly annual rush of pundits to jump off whichever team is headed into a semi-final with a qualifying final loss under its belt.

Since the final eight system was revamped for the 2000 season, we've had 42 semi-finals played between a qualifying final loser and an elimination final winner.

The qualifying finalist has rebounded to win their semi-final in 34 of those 42 games.

Interestingly, though, that ledger has evened up significantly in recent years.

Between 2000 and 2013, no fewer than 26 of 28 qualifying final losers went on to win their semi-finals and live to fight another day - most of them convincingly.

But since 2014, the scorecard is only 8-6, half-a-dozen qualifying final losers defeated again and bowing out of finals in straight sets.

In 2014, it happened to both Geelong and Fremantle. In 2015-16, Sydney then Hawthorn. In 2018, the Hawks again. And two years ago, Brisbane.

It's pretty compelling evidence of the increasing evenness at the top of the AFL ladder.

Not to mention the fact that in that same period, we've seen a premiership won from seventh (Bulldogs in 2016) and a grand final reached from sixth (Giants in 2019).

Encouraging, obviously, for elimination final winners the Giants and Bulldogs.

Yet both have significant obstacles in their path this week to get over the line and send two qualifying final losers packing together for only the second time in 22 seasons.

The biggest for GWS by some measure is the loss of star forward Toby Greene, suspended by the AFL Tribunal for three games on Tuesday for making intentional contact with umpire Matt Stevic during the win over Sydney last Saturday.

Greene was the Giants' most important player in the nail-biter against the Swans with three crucial goals, and some inspiring and courageous efforts, none the least the final moments when he put his body on the line and won a free kick to soak up the precious last few seconds on the clock.

He's been involved in 38 per cent of the Giants' scores this season, with easily the highest average score involvements per game of any player in the competition, and with 45 goals from 18 games has 25 per cent more than No.2 on the goalkicking list, Harry Himmelberg.

That's all going to be pretty hard to replace whomever the Giants bring into the 22 for Greene, or whom they rely on to pick up the goalkicking slack. Not that their opponent is travelling that well.

Geelong's finals record post its 2011 premiership has been the subject of endless discussion, the score now a very unflattering 6-14 over the past 10 years.

The Cats have kicked more than 80 points in just eight of those 20 finals, and hit triple figures just once.

For the Western Bulldogs, meanwhile, taking on a beaten Brisbane at the Gabba, it's primarily about the venue.

Indeed, that could be said of the Lions as well. Brisbane this year is 9-1 at home, but just 6-7 away, its qualifying final loss to Melbourne the Lions' fourth loss from the last five road trips.

No wonder 2020, when the grand final was played on their home ground, is seen as a massive opportunity lost.

The Bulldogs, though, have really struggled at the Gabba, winning eight of their 24 matches there, and losing seven of the past eight, including last year's elimination final against St Kilda, their last appearance in Brisbane.

Their previous meeting this season came in round four at Mars Stadium in Ballarat, a game in which the Dogs had to scrap for much of the day to eventually earn a 19-point win despite having opened the season all guns blazing and Brisbane having struggled to get into stride.

Does the Gabba make a three-goal difference? Perhaps.

And does Brisbane's three wins on the trot then a poor final equal the Dogs' three straight losses leading into a vastly-improved showing against Essendon last week? Maybe.

Both games will be a good test of the maxim about momentum.

We'll know afterwards that one team in each of these appetising contests will have at least a bit of it leading into a preliminary final.

The other? Well, they'll be in mothballs, so not so much.

This story In the AFL finals, momentum is great - but it's not everything | Rohan Connolly first appeared on The Canberra Times.