Hawthorn and Collingwood meet tonight in a replay of last year's classic Preliminary Final. The Hawks will go into this clash full of confidence, after an impressive pre-season which has seen them become many people's favourite for the flag. However the Pies will not lie down easily, and the dominant team of last year's regular season will want to show that they're still the team to beat.
Collingwood have won 4 of their past 5 matches against Hawthorn, with their only defeat coming just before the 2010 finals when the Hawks won by 3 points. The Pies comfortably disposed of the Hawks by 41 points in their only regular season clash last season, before narrowly winning the Preliminary Final by 3 points.
Hawthorn have looked the more impressive team in the pre-season, winning 4 of their 5 games and just falling short against Richmond in their only defeat. Collingwood looked sluggish in their pre-season defeats to Melbourne and Adelaide, but looked much sharper in a comfortable victory over the Saints, with Travis Cloke looking particularly sharp in the forward line
The Pies have been hit heavily with injuries, which should provide a real test to their much-vaunted depth. Captain Nick Maxwell is perhaps the biggest loss, whilst missing key defenders Nathan Brown and Chris Tarrant will also hurt, putting a lot of pressure onto Ben Reid's shoulders.
The Hawks biggest loss is the late withdrawal of captain Luke Hodge. Liam Shiels will also be missed, with the underrated midfielder being a key link player in the Hawks strategy of breaking through the zone with clean disposal. Jarryd Roughead should return soon, but will also sit out this game.
On paper the Hawks appear to have the stronger line-up, with the Pies naming three debutants and two more players with under 10 appearances to their name. If they're to be competitive in this game much will depend on the form of the Magpie's young guns.
Ben Reid was arguably the competition's best defender in 2011, with the young defender winning All-Australian honours for the first time. He had a Grand Final to forget, but was also carrying an injury in that game and is now back in peak physical condition. Whether anyone can stop Buddy is within doubt, but Reid is certainly as well equipped as any other defender in the game.
Sam Mitchell had his best season to date in 2011, with the in-and-under specialist averaging over 30 disposals a game. His total of 30 Brownlow votes would've seen him claim the medal in most years*, with his tally only being beaten by a record tally of 34 by Dane Swan. If he can continue to get his hands on the ball first in the middle the Hawks will be hard to stop this season.
After dominating the competition over the past two seasons it's impossible to rule the Pies out of this game, however their injuries should give the Hawks the edge in a tough, physical encounter. I think Ben Reid is capable of limiting Buddy's influence, but the Hawks should have too much strength in the middle and up forward, and will get home by a couple of goals.
Hawthorn by 12 points.
*Sam Mitchell was ineligible for the 2011 Brownlow Medal due to receiving a one-match sanction in round 5.