Heroes & Villains: Did the pre-finals bye affect the prelims ... again?

And then there were two. Richmond and Geelong earned their way through to a Grand Final at the Gabba in what should be a mouth-watering decider. Here are your Heroes & Villains from the weekend.

HEROES

Chris Scott: He cops a lot of flack, from opposition fans and Geelong supporters alike, primarily because of a lack of silverware since his first-year premiership in 2011. But the facts are his winning percentage is easily the best strike rate of any coach of more than 200 games in AFL/VFL history.

Yet somehow the knives come out with ferocity as soon as Geelong falters in the finals.

But Scott has continually put his team in the mix, which is far more than you can say for some coaches, and his fingerprints were all over Saturday night's commanding 40-point prelim win against Brisbane.

Almost from the first bounce, the Cats suffocated the Lions with manic pressure, and their structural ability to defend the corridor and control the tempo stifled any chance for the Lions to gain momentum.

While it took until late for their superiority to show on the scoreboard, the stats painted a picture of Geelong domination, with the Cats smashing the Lions in disposals (+65), contested possessions (+16), inside 50s (+18), disposal efficiency (+8 percent), marks (+20) and clearances (+3). Pure, unadulterated dominance. And a victory secured not through individual brilliance, but an ingrained game-plan that easily stifled Brisbane's weapons.

Kudos to Scott and his coaching team.

Kane Lambert: He doesn't get the praise like superstar teammates Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin and Tom Lynch, but Lambert's fourth-quarter efforts on Friday night are a MASSIVE reason why the Tigers are into a third Grand Final in four seasons.

In the last quarter, after Charlie Dixon kicked truly to put Port back in front and send the capacity Adelaide Oval crowd into a frenzy, Richmond needed a response. They got it three minutes later through Lambert - the man who had been overlooked in five national drafts.

The ball was bobbling about 15m out from the Tigers' goal when Lambert scooped it up, threw it on the boot and bent it through the big sticks to pinch the lead back.

He then kicked the next goal of the see-sawing contest, taking advantage of a deliberate out-of-bounds free kick (more on that later) deep inside forward 50 by screwing the ball over his left shoulder and through for another major.

They were the only two goals Richmond kicked in the final term but it was enough to hold off the Power and move themselves one win away from another flag.

Brad Ebert: Port Adelaide may have fallen agonisingly short of a Grand Final berth for the second time in eight years but Ebert can certainly hold his head high.

The Power veteran came up with the most courageous play of what was a thrilling preliminary final against the Tigers.

With just six minutes left on the clock, Daniel Rioli sent a high ball inside forward 50 for Richmond and it looked as though Jack Riewoldt was about to mark 25m out from goal. But Ebert flung himself backwards with the flight of the ball, to get a crucial spoil in and deny the Tigers spearhead.

The contest left Ebert dazed and he was taken from the field. It become clear quickly he had sustained another concussion. Half an hour later, after the Tigers had sewn up another Grand Final appearance, Power coach Ken Hinkley confirmed Ebert would be hanging up the boots.

"It's pretty clear if you watched coming off the ground tonight, Brad's done as an AFL player. He's got to put himself, his health, and his family first," Hinkley said. "He's been pretty certain this was probably be the end because he wasn't prepared to risk any further injury to his head."

Well played, Brad. Well played.

VILLAINS

The pre-finals bye: Let's preface this by stating the two best teams of the preliminary finals won through to the decider. Hats off to the Tigers and Cats for superb victories at the weekend

But the two results continued an eye-catching trend since the introduction of the pre-finals bye in 2016, where qualifying finals victors are more chance to bow at the preliminary final stage than ever before.

The numbers are stark.

Prior to 2016, 17 of the previous 18 preliminary finals had been won by a team which had won its qualifying final, had a week off, then took on a more-fatigued opponent which had been playing every week for months.

Since then, there's been 10 preliminary finals with the record of qualifying final winners now just 4-6. That's a winning strike rate which has fallen from 94 percent to just 40.

As Rohan Connolly wrote before the finals, perhaps top-four teams that win in the first week of finals, and then have another bye before their prelims, are actually at a disadvantage compared to the teams that gain continuity by playing another match?

As Connolly stated: 'If the advantages that come with all that sweat and toil expended to qualify in a position of strength are to be chipped away at, what's the point of all the hard work?'

Again, we're not saying the Cats and Tigers don't deserve to be in the Grand Final, but perhaps it's time the AFL studied the numbers and considered the impact of the pre-finals bye.

The 'deliberate' rule: It's always been a polarising rule, but during Richmond's preliminary final win over Port Adelaide on Friday night, the deliberate out of bounds rule took the gloss off what was a truly incredible final.

While social media lauded Ebert's courage, Dustin Martin's line breaking and Connor Rozee's stunning boundary line snap, it was also awash with criticism of the deliberate out of bounds rule, with some prominent footy voices likening it to a 'last touch' rule.

According to stats guru Joshua Kay on Twitter, umpires had paid 155 deliberate out of bounds free kicks in 2020, from 159 matches. In Friday night's match, they paid six, including what turned into the winning goal for Lambert and the Tigers.

Hamish Hartlett, in his back pocket and under pressure dived towards a loose, wet ball and attempted to bat it towards teammate Tom Rockliff, who was within metres of where the ball eventually went out. He was pinged and Lambert coolly slotted his second goal for the game. Stiff is an understatement.

Richmond young gun Shai Bolton was also pinged for a dubious one at the start of the last quarter; he managed to get a handball away while being taken 360 degrees, and the ball dribbled out and was judged to be too far from a teammate to be an attempted pass. It, too, was one which probably wouldn't have been paid last week.

The change in interpretation isn't the issue; in fact, the change might be the way to adjudicate the rule going forward, but changes need to been made in the offseason, not between semifinal week and the prelims, particularly in a match affected by driving rain.

Brisbane: A 'chokers' label would be unfair, but the Lions' inability to win through to a home Grand Final is nothing short of a massive missed opportunity.

The Lions were outclassed from start to finish against the Cats, with Chris Fagan's men stumbling to their third loss in four finals matches in the past two years - all at their home deck.

With Lions players able to sleep in their own beds through most of this COVID-affected season while their rivals jetted across the nation, isolated, hubbed and slept in hotel beds, and the Gabba locked in to host Saturday night's historic Grand Final, all the cards were stacked in Brisbane's favour.

Unfortunately it wasn't to be. And while the club and its fans should take plenty of positives towards next year, the prelim loss exposed a soft underbelly Fagan and Co. must strengthen if the Lions are to take the next step.