By Peter Blucher. Aliir Aliir is walking an injury tightrope desperately hoping to avoid a grand final bogey that already has caught him once in his burgeoning AFL career.
The Sydney Swans defender, arguably the biggest story of the 2016 season, is in doubt for Saturday’s Toyota AFL Grand Final against the Western Bulldogs at the MCG with a knee problem.
Scans have cleared him of any major structural damage, classifying the damage as a minor medial ligament strain, but Swans medical staff have said only that the 22-year-old has not yet been ruled out.
Already Queensland have one confirmed starter for the grand final, with Kurt Tippett set to play against the Dogs after a strong showing in Friday night’s 37-point preliminary final win over Geelong.
Resuming from a week off with a hairline jaw fracture, Tippett showed no ill-effects with 13 possessions, two goals, five hit-outs and three clearances.
Aliir had three disposals, one mark and five 1%ers in a bright opening against in the preliminary final before landing awkwardly in a marking contest late in the first term.
But Geelong ruckman Zac Smith, who had enjoyed a fairytale first season with the Cats, will have to wait another year for a crack at the big one after the Cats were eliminated from the finals in straight sets after finishing second on the home-and-away ladder and beating Hawthorn in the qualifying final.
Smith had five possessions, 18 hitouts and three clearances.
Any hope of a fairytale grand final appearance for Sunshine Coaster Sam Reid were also dashed when the GWS Giants, for whom he had been an emergency, were beaten by the Western Bulldogs on Saturday night.
It will be an anxious wait for Aliir as both grand final combatants ponder injury issues.
Swans co-captain Jarrad McVeigh and Rising Star winner Callum Mills are also walking the fitness tightrope after missing the preliminary final.
In the Dogs camp, ruckman Jordan Roughhead is awaiting the all clear on an eye injury suffered when a football was kicked flush into his face on Saturday night.
Matt Suckling will be assessed, too, after he missed the preliminary final with Achilles soreness.
Also in the mix is midfielder Lin Jong, who was best afield in Footscray’s VFL grand final win on Sunday in his comeback from a collarbone fracture suffered in week one of the AFL finals.
Aliir already knows what it means to miss a grand final, having been forced to watch as teammates lost the 2014 NEAFL premiership decider by two points to Aspley in his first season with the Swans.
Interestingly, almost half of that side will play in the AFL grand final this week – Mills (if fit), Isaac Heeney, George Hewitt, Sam Naismith, Tom Mitchell, Zak Jones, Shane Biggs, Xavier Richards and Harry Marsh.
But on that occasion Aliir had plenty of warning as a shoulder injury sidelined him from Round 15,
This week every hour will count as he looks to convince coach John Longmire he is fit to take on the biggest game of his life.
That Aliir is guaranteed a spot in the Sydney side if fit, particularly with retiring veteran Ted Richards on standby for what would be his last game, is extraordinary.
The Aliir story as is big as the wave of emotion that has engulfed Melbourne as the Bulldogs prepare for the first grand final since 1961 and chase their first premiership since 1954.
The last Queenslander to miss an AFL grand final through injury was Dayne Beams at Collingwood in 2011.
He’d played in the Pies’ drawn grand final in 2010 and their replay win over St.Kilda a week later but suffered a groin injury in the 2011 preliminary final and watched as teammates were beaten by Geelong by 38 points.
In 2002 the Brisbane Lions;’ Robert Copeland suffered the devastation of being dropped for the grand final. He’d deputised for the injured Chris Scott in the preliminary final but was excluded when Scott was fit for the premiership decider.
Brisbane’s Matthew Kennedy also suffered a grand final week heartbreak in 2001 when he dropped from a winning preliminary final side in similar fashion. He’d deputised in the grand final qualifier for a suspended Alastair Lynch but made way for Lynch in the big one.
In other news from the weekend, Queenslander Jake Spencer finished on the losing side in the VFL grand final as Casey Scorpions were beaten by Footscray by 31 points at Etihad Stadium.
Spencer had four possessions, five tackles and 23 hitouts against Dogs pair Will Minson (11 possessions, 32 hitouts) and Tom Campbell (13 possessions, 18 hitouts) as they lodged a late audition for possible inclusion in the Dogs’ senior grand final side if Roughead is ruled out.