By PETER CORNWALL
In this topsy-turvy Covid-ravaged world you don’t know what to expect from one week to the next. And the same thing could be said for what’s been happening in the SANFL.
Three weeks ago it would have been just about unthinkable – in-form South Adelaide facing a Glenelg side having suffered successive losses in the cut-throat preliminary final.
Just that short time ago, the Tigers were still unbeaten and looking capable of breaking all manner of records – five games clear on top of the ladder – and the Panthers, having won just two of their previous eight games, would have slipped out of the finals race with a loss to West Adelaide in the final minor round.
In the build-up to the do-or-die Bloods clash, Panthers icon Joel Cross – he’s already on the mural of greats at Noarlunga’s main gates – told his team-mates this would be his final season. He told the Panthers he had “one more little thing to do – and that’s hopefully go for five more weeks”.
The dual Magarey Medallist, who played his 200th SANFL game this season, has earned plenty of individual honours but “the only thing I ever wanted was a premiership”. He told his team-mates: “If we can try to do that over the next five weeks, even if we don’t, if we can work as hard as we can and try as hard as we can, then I’m happy.”
His team-mates clearly were listening. South beat West by 43 points to lock in the last finals spot, then swept aside North and Norwood in successive cut-throat finals as Cross walked the tightrope towards his – and his club’s – long-awaited flag. “The boys are building great belief,” South coach Jarrad Wright said.
No-one was too concerned when Glenelg dropped the last minor round game to a Port Adelaide side packed with AFL talent at Alberton. But, having played just four games in eight weeks starting with the season’s Covid interruption, the Bays looked out of sorts for most of the first three quarters in the second semi-final against the Eagles.
It was clear how much they were missing the run and carry and sublime skills of Magarey Medallist Luke Partington, sidelined with a hamstring injury. He will be back against the Panthers and that will make a huge difference.
There are plenty of Glenelg players who will feel they have been there, done this. After winning the minor premiership in 2019, the Tigers looked rusty and fumbly in the second semi against Port, looking almost out of the contest at the final break. But they hit back hard and snatched the lead, only to be edged out by four points. Sound familiar? That was just how the clash with the Eagles unfolded – and ended.
The Tigers who went through this in ’19 will know what happened after that. But they still need to make it happen and the Panthers are up and about. Most of South’s players have tasted preliminary final action and they will feel better prepared because of the experience and more determined to this time take the elusive next step. Especially when you throw Joel Cross into the mix.
Last year South beat the Bays by 25 points in the first semi-final before facing the Eagles in the prelim, which they lost by 43 points. Superstar Matthew Broadbent was outstanding in both finals but he clearly will be sorely missed this week after limping out of the first semi.
Glenelg has won both clashes this season, by 40 points at Noarlunga, then by 18 at the Bay – but only after kicking the last two goals of the game. South will know home-and-away losses don’t count for anything, having lost twice to Norwood this season before beating it when it really counted.
Glenelg deserves to be strong favourite considering the outstanding way Brett Hand’s men have played this year and the club’s long list of quality players and leaders. Having Chris Curran (captain), Partington, Liam McBean, Matt Allan, Matt Snook and Brett Turner, along with coach Hand, selected in The Advertiser SANFL Team of the Year shows how dominant the Tigers have been.
But South has a couple of X-factors in powerhouse 200cm Daniel Nobes, who stood tall with 4.2 against Norwood, and dashing Jason Horne-Francis, who continues to show exactly why he is considered top AFL draft prospect. Nobes, 27, who booted 100 goals in Waikerie’s 2017 premiership season, has kicked 14 goals in nine appearances this year. And he’s been a lucky charm, the Panthers winning eight of those nine games – the only loss to Glenelg.
Brett Turner (Glenelg) v Bryce Gibbs (South)
Two of the competition’s best big-bodied midfielders will go head-to-head in the centre square. Gibbs needs no introduction with his 268 games of AFL experience, landing on his feet beautifully with South in leading the League for clearances. Former West forward Turner is continuing to develop his craft on the ball, placing fourth in overall clearances for the League while also being named in The Advertiser SANFL Team of the Year with Gibbs. The key to this battle will be who is the most consistent throughout the contest, with Gibbs playing a steady role across four quarters against Norwood in the First Semi-Final and Turner sparking Glenelg’s close comeback in the final term of the Second Semi-Final.
Luke Reynolds (Glenelg) v Sam Skinner (South)
It’s difficult to predict who Sam Skinner will line-up on but South’s impressive key defender is relishing his newfound role in the backline. The former Brisbane Lion snared 11 intercept marks against Norwood in the 1st Semi-Final to be one of the best players on the ground, and a huge influence on the result. Reynolds is adept at moving up the field when required, as evidenced by him taking marks in defence in the Second Semi-Final. If he can keep Skinner accountable while kicking a couple of goals himself, it could go a long way toward a Tigers win.