It’s finally here.
After 23 gruelling rounds, we have finally reached September and with it a tantalising finals series. With eight teams left standing, only three Irish players would feature on the big stage this weekend in Conor McKenna, Zach Tuohy and Mark O’Connor.
Although all three would miss out on a much-needed win, valuable September experience was gained that will without a doubt put them in good stead moving forward.
As has been the tradition in recent years, the finals would kick off on Thursday night as the reigning premier West Coast Eagles took on McKenna’s Bombers in an Elimination Final at Optus Stadium.
Coming in as considerable underdogs, Essendon would need to put together an all-time performance to overcome the Eagles juggernaut, who, after falling out of the top four in the final round, were itching for redemption.
Despite their ability to take the game on and use their flair, the Bombers were simply not good enough in the West going down by 55 points as they yet again failed to win in September.
With his team enduring a tough night, McKenna would finish his season in solid fashion as he yet again brought his consistency across half-back.
Identified as a critical cog in the way Essendon play, the Eagles would give the Irishman some much-needed attention for the entirety of the night as they looked to slow up the fastball movement of the Bombers.
Despite this, he still managed to get involved on a number of occasions, fronting up to the mountain of pressure being placed upon him and as usual taking the game on at all costs.
Forming a formidable partnership with Adam Saad across half-back, it was their run and carry that really brought the Bombers back into the game in the third quarter and really made the Eagles sweat.
Picking up a reasonable 18 disposals, it was what McKenna did with his possessions that had heads turning, as he went at a brilliant 83% in a very high-pressure game.
He also didn’t hold back from the heightened physicality of a final and was often found winning the hardball and getting into scraps with the Eagles players.
Although the season now comes to end for the blonde-haired running machine, this performance is showed the potential McKenna has in big games for the Bombers going forward.
Speaking of big games, it doesn’t get much bigger than a Friday night final at the MCG.
This was the proposition that faced both Tuohy and O’Connor as the minor premier Cats faced Victorian powerhouse Collingwood in what ended up being a Qualifying Final for the ages.
With Collingwood getting off to a fast start, it seemed as if the game was over at half time as the Cats simply couldn’t withstand the pressure of last year’s grand finalists.
But a second-half fightback led by superstar midfielder Patrick Dangerfield would breathe life into the game late, as the Cats would get within ten points before time cruelly beat them.
No stranger to the September spotlight, veteran Irishman Zach Tuohy would be a pivotal contributor for the Cats on Friday night.
In a side littered with youth, Tuohy was a calming presence all night filling a number of roles from running defender to pressure forward.
Although he only managed the 14 touches, Tuohy had some big moments in the game, including a brilliant snap in the second quarter to keep his team alive.
He would also use the ball excellently going at 86% and provided a physical presence that his younger teammates could follow as the game continued.
On the other end of the spectrum, youngster Mark O’Connor would have some big moments in just his second final.
With a plethora of talented small forwards facing Geelong in Jamie Elliott, Jaidyn Stephenson and Jordan De Grey, the Irishman was brave and took the challenge head-on.
Although the Magpies smalls were able to get off the chain early, O’Connor was impressive in how he responded to the challenge and ending up being critical in the second half.
Winning a number of crucial one on ones, it was just another workmanlike performance for the defender as his stock within the Geelong set up and across the league continues to grow.
Along with his work defensively, O’Connor would also get involved in the Cats ball movement gathering 13 touches across half-back whilst also playing interceptor on a number of occasions with five marks.
Although Geelong were unable to get the job done, O’Connor will, without doubt, be better for the experience and itching for a shot at redemption against the Eagles this Friday night.