BEFORE the game, the guessing game. Having lost cornerstone players ahead of their no-tomorrow semi-final on Saturday night, Collingwood and West Coast each must amend their plan, simultaneously trying to anticipate the other's adjustments.
For Collingwood, the task of collaring West Coast's super-sized forward line has been made slightly easier by the suspension of Quinten Lynch, but harder by the suspension of Nick Maxwell, and will become harder still if the Eagles successfully appeal Lynch's ouster. They can lose nothing by trying.
Less shielded by the midfield than in previous seasons, the Magpies' defence has been brittle this year, and buoyant West Coast will be out early to establish its breaking point.
Against tall forward lines, Maxwell specialises as a ''third man up''. Ordinarily, the Magpies would re-assign the role to the athletic Tyson Goldsack, a defender until this season, best described now by that old-fashioned description, utility.
But Goldsack did not play last week because of an ankle injury, and is not certain to return this week.
Maxwell aside, Ben Reid is the best reader of the play, and the best mark, and the Magpies would be loath to limit him to a containing role. He was second only to Travis Cloke as Collingwood's best last Friday.
Last week, Heath Shaw, another career backman, ranged forward, took a pack mark, kicked a goal. He could be repatriated to the backline, but it would be with fresh instructions from the Collingwood hierarchy to mind his man. Their fingers would be crossed under the table. Tightening up is not Shaw's forte.
Chris Dawes' lack of form this season is not a state secret, but against the sublime Cox/Naitanui ruck duumvirate, the Magpies cannot afford to play a makeshift, and Dawes will keep his place.
But the Magpies might decide to bring in Jackson Paine, a late withdrawal last week, in an effort to stretch the Eagles' defence as its own is being stretched. It would be speculative to say the least; Paine has played just six games. But AFL finals are replete with such tales of opportunity knocking. In any case, expect Darren Jolly to ghost forward if he can, and Cox and Naitanui to ghost forward because they can.
If not Paine, and if Goldsack fails to prove his fitness, the Magpies are likely to recall the diminutive Jamie Elliott, like Paine a first-year player who has made a big impression. He specialises in harassment.
On balance, West Coast has been less hard-hit than Collingwood. The imposing pair of Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling have made the Eagles' forward line their own, and an in-form Lynch is a bonus. West Coast has a money-back guarantee at the tribunal, since Lynch, unlike Maxwell, does not risk a longer suspension by appealing. Freed, he would make the Eagles formidable indeed.
The loss of Beau Waters, vice-captain and hard nut, from the backline, is more problematic. But Jacob Brennan acquitted himself well as sub for Waters on Sunday, and on the sidelines, Matt Rosa and Mitch Brown are both - if not rubbing their hands - cooling their heels. Even without Waters, still the Eagles run deep.
All this presumes that Saturday night's match conforms to expectations. As the finals already have proved, they can be confounding. In Hawthorn's defeat of Collingwood, small forwards kicked lead-up goals. And West Coast's thumping of North Melbourne was largely a case of beating the opposition at its own game. Compelled to remake their teams, the Magpies and Eagles will lay their plans as best they can - and be ready at a moment's notice to tear them up.