Higher stakes, aggression and anxiety: Finals football reminds us why we love AFL

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In finals football, teams who have played it safe all season suddenly find themselves burned by the intensity of the

higher-stakes-aggression-and-anxiety-finals-football-reminds-us-why-we-love-afl photo 1 Photo: Callum Sinclair of the Swans, who took nine marks against Essendon (AAP: David Moir)

The beautiful anomaly of Australian rules is most finals are played differently to home and away matches.

Successful teams adapt and thrive — some have been preparing for it all season — rigid and cautious teams fail.

And old school footy devotees fall back in love with their game.

The big September change is caused by higher stakes, increasing anxiety and aggression in contests.

Players with enough skill and nerve to win the ball while under attack have less time and space to make decisions — they start kicking more for territory than precision.

The game becomes chaotic and players respond by feeling for their opponents.

At once, commentators shout: "It's ONE-ON-ONE all over the ground."

This is how the game was designed; it is how footballers learned to play as children.

Most finals are won by the team whose tackling and chasing ("pressure") is greatest.

Essendon falters, Swans pounce

Pressure quickly overwhelms lesser teams, as happened to Essendon on the weekend.

Sydney took advantage of the Bombers' passivity by winning the ball in contests and kicking to forwards with only their direct opponent to beat.

higher-stakes-aggression-and-anxiety-finals-football-reminds-us-why-we-love-afl photo 2 Photo: Gary Rohan (centre) of the Swans celebrates with Lance Franklin after scoring against the Bombers (AAP: David Moir)

Lance Franklin benefitted, as did Callum Sinclair, who took nine marks.

One of the best analysts in the game, Matthew Richardson, uses an old term to describe a forward who is one-on-one with his defender. He calls it being "one out".

Modern players often avoid kicking to teammates "one out" because they are coached to avoid "going to a contest" — a strategy adopted and refined through studies of other ball sports.

GWS's hesitancy helps Crows slay the Giants

This limited mindset contributed in Greater Western Sydney's loss to Adelaide.

The Giants' pressure was admirable and they won enough of the ball to be a threat.

But they were so focused on perfect passes into the forward line they became hesitant and ineffective.

Their only goal in the first half came from a long kick to Harrison Himmelberg, who marked the ball "one out".

Only GWS insiders know whether this was poor strategy or a lack of trust between teammates.

higher-stakes-aggression-and-anxiety-finals-football-reminds-us-why-we-love-afl photo 3 Photo: Brad Crouch of the Crows celebrates a goal with team mates (AAP: David Mariuz)

In contrast, the Crows have no questions of trust and boast enough belief in each other to win the premiership.

For evidence, watch the way they kick to space — to Eddie Betts and Josh Jenkins' advantage — or out in front of a leaping Taylor Walker.

Don Pyke's men have been playing finals-style football for seasons.

Powers and Eagles stand toe to toe

The Power-Eagles elimination final was a classic (does it get any more exciting?), teams so fairly matched no-one wilted.

Port's kicking to contests was superb and forward Charlie Dixon was best on ground.

Only unsteady nerves in goal-kicking cost Power victory.

higher-stakes-aggression-and-anxiety-finals-football-reminds-us-why-we-love-afl photo 4 Photo: Shannon Hurn tackles Charlie Dixon during the AFL first elimination final match between the Port Adelaide and West Coast. (AAP: David Mariuz)

Richmond's simple and brutal imperfection

Richmond's victory over Geelong was a masterclass in one-on-one finals play.

The Tigers craved collisions and physically wore down the Cats.

And they did not rely on exactness to score; for example, watch a replay of Trent Cotchin's last quarter goal.

Five minutes to go. The ball is in Richmond's forward line. Geelong wins the tap from a boundary throw in.

The skilled Cat Motlop takes possession and rushes a kick outside 50, teammate Hawkins picks it up but loses it when tackled.

higher-stakes-aggression-and-anxiety-finals-football-reminds-us-why-we-love-afl photo 5 Photo: Trent Cotchin (left) and Brandon Ellis of the Tigers celebrate after winning the second qualifying final against the Cats. (AAP: Julian Smith)

Tiger defender Nick Vlastuin takes the Sherrin and wastes no time in thought, rather he executes an otherwise ugly punt, knowing his forwards will compete hard.

Richmond hero Jack Riewoldt is "one out" but also out of position. He lurches and taps the ball, which bounces only once.

In full stride, Cotchin bends and feels the leather in both hands, while spinning on his left foot to brace for a hit that never happens; in just over point nine of a second he steadies — composed enough to square his shoulders — and shoots accurately for goal, absorbing a heavy tackle and a mighty roar from inspired onlookers.

Vlastuin would later say the crowd's noise "bloody gave me goose bumps".

It was a fitting reward for his team's style of simple and brutal imperfection — perfect for the next few weeks.

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