Hawthorn (15.12.102) def. Sydney (14.11.95) at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Saturday 25 August

The AFL community is pretty quick to whip up expectation surrounding big games, but the headlines for this clash wrote themselves. Buddy Franklin returning to an all-conquering Hawthorn team facing perhaps the stiffest road trip in the competition against the perennial over-achievers in the red and white, who knew four points would secure the minor premiership. Saturday 4.40pm kickoff, and the Devonshire St pavements were pounded by the 31,167 fans that filled every single seat of the SCG’s abbreviated capacity.

Before the game, the bloke ahead of me at the TAB machine placed a tenner on the quarter-by-quarter leaders as ‘Syd-Syd-Haw-Haw’, paying $17. By the final siren, he was $170 richer. Sydney held the visitors goalless in the first term before the Hawkers stormed back into it, and prevailed in an arm wrestle. Shaun Burgoyne was scintillating, and was rewarded with the clutch goal that put Hawthorn’s nose in front with a minute left. Franklin chimed in at important times. Ryan Shoenmakers turned in an uncharacteristically stable performance.

Hawthorn are every inch the flag favourite, but Sydney are as good a candidate as any to meet them in the big dance. This was a game of intense quality played in front of an appreciative gallery that rode every bump and bayed for every free kick. In the fading Harbour City sunlight, you couldn’t help but lament that fact that in a fortnight or so, the Swannies will be forced to play their home final at a half-full Olympic Stadium, rather than a Cricket Ground creaking at the seams. At least they’ll be running around in the finals – and with a few more efforts like Saturday, probably deep into September.

Sydney Roosters 44 def. Wests Tigers 20 at the Sydney Football Stadium, Sunday 26 August

The second leg of the Moore Park double-header featured two teams that can start to book their post-season holidays, because neither the Roosters nor Tigers will be playing any football next month. The Roosters already knew that before Sunday, but the Tigers had to wait until this morning to head into the Leichhardt Flight Centre.

Watching the black-and-golds get steamrolled by the 14th-placed Roosters, you got the feeling that Tim Sheens’ men had rolled their last pair of die in last week’s epic golden point loss to Canterbury. Robbie Farah was out with a broken hand and his mates that remained on the park had evidently used all their petrol tickets in their gallant bid to topple the high-flying Dogs, only to be scuttled by an incomprehensible obstruction ruling.

Although this was ostensibly a meaningless game for the Tricolours, it was an important victory for the morale of the club. Seeing Mitchell Pearce embrace his team-mates after claiming a four-pointer gives hope that the NSW No.7 will remain at Bondi Junction next season. Watching Daniel Tupou collect a hat-trick in his second game, starlets and housemates Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Tautau Moga continue to grow in their roles, and promising back-row combo Aidan Guerra and Boyd Cordner cut the Tigers’ fringes to ribbons all provides plenty of hope for the impending off-season.

Despite the contentious circumstances surrounding the milestone, Anthony Minichiello received as good a 250th-game present as he could have hoped for – including a touchdown gift-wrapped by Pearce. The Roosters’ greatest ever custodian and a peerless clubman celebrated accordingly, indulging himself in a lap of honour of grand final proportions – but hey, after 16 years of service, the great man can do what he likes.

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