By PETER CORNWALL
It’s all or nothing in this contest and it looks like there’s nothing much in it.
North Adelaide’s underwhelming performance at Unley last week when the finals double-chance was on the line makes it even harder to predict what might happen as the major round kicks off.
The Panthers were the best they’ve been in a couple of months – admittedly against wooden spooner West, which suffered its 13th loss in a row – to get the job done and make sure they would be a part of the finals action.
But the Roosters were at their worst in months as they crashed to a 70-point loss at the hands of Sturt and faced up to an elimination rather than qualifying final.
They went into the clash as the best clearance side in the league but were smashed 34-44 in that area and were never in the game, their performance made to look more respectable by kicking three of the last four goals. It’s one of those games coach Jacob Surjan and his men need to dismiss as an aberration.
They have too much quality – including nine premiership players – to expect anything but a major turnaround in tackling a side that has plenty of incentive to get on a winning roll.
As if a 57-year premiership drought isn’t enough, the Panthers will be desperate to send dual Magarey Medallist, club icon Joel Cross off with a fitting farewell.
The clashes between these sides mirror their fluctuating fortunes. South, which won seven of its first nine games, beat the Roosters by 11 points in Round 2.
Meanwhile, North made it eight wins from nine games when it beat the Panthers by 68 points in Round 17. But then came a 12-point loss to Norwood, followed by the drubbing at the hands of Sturt.
North and South have impressive kicking games – ranked one and two in the league – which lend themselves to success on Adelaide Oval in spring.
Each side has three of the top-10 kick-winners in the league – the Roosters with skipper Alex Spina, talented Harrison Wigg and long left-footer Jarred Allmond, the Panthers with rebounding Joseph Haines, influential Matt Broadbent and classy Bryce Gibbs.
Rather than overusing handball, the incisive kicking of these playmakers regularly sets their sides in forward motion, where each will be looking for a mercurial left-footer – North’s Lewis Hender and South’s Liam Fitt – to have a positive influence on the outcome.
North’s midfield, with the likes of Campbell Combe, who has consistently played to the level that won him the Magarey Medal last year, Aaron Young and Andrew Moore, will be a threat.
Combe is SANFL’s fourth-highest possession-winner, second in tackles, third in clearances and No. 2 in Dream Team points (averaging 110). Gibbs’ numbers suggest he will be right up there when Magarey votes are counted this year.
He is the league’s second-ranked possession-winner, second in clearances and is No. 1 in Dream Team points, with 111 per game. It’s possible which of these two SANFL superstars has the most influence could just about decide the outcome of a game that looks a toss-up.
Campbell Combe (North) v Bryce Gibbs (South)
Is it too much of a statement to declare whoever wins this match up will guide their team to victory? Two of the genuine contenders for this year’s Magarey Medal will collide inside the centre square in a blockbuster pairing. When they are up and running, their teammates follow such is their commanding presence across all sectors of the field. Both wouldn’t have been planning to start their September campaigns in the Elimination Final so expect them to be desperate.
Lewis Hender (North) v Joe Haines (South)
The Ken Farmer Medal runner-up could find himself opposed to one of the best attacking defenders in the competition in North’s attacking 50m arc. Hender only needs a handful of possessions to turn a game on its head but he will need to be wary of Haines on the counter-attack, with the Panthers’ No.4 a master at constructing play from the back half. The more elusive Hender is, the more difficult it will be for Haines to assume his regular playmaking role.
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