Top and bottom of the ladder still up for grabs

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Jimmy Bartel will play his 250th AFL match tonight (Slattery Images)

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After the ecstatic highs of the opening round, this past weekend was turning out to be one big, fat anti-climax. Until late on Sunday afternoon, that is.

Hawthorn and Geelong’s arm wrestle at the MCG was one for the ages, and it proved once again that you should never write off a champion.

Widely tipped as a flag favourite this year, the Hawks looked home and hosed. After three and a half quarters of dominance, the fat lady would have been belting out the classics if Lance Franklin or Jarrad Roughead had found the target in the final quarter.

Nine times out of ten they would have split the middle, but this wasn’t to be. Sensing an opportunity, the reigning premiers climbed off the canvas, dusted themselves off and landed what could be a killer psychological blow. Four of them, to be precise.

The look on Alastair Clarkson’s face after the siren said it all. Geelong have a strong mental hold over Hawthorn and that needs to be broken if the Hawks are any chance in the finals.

Could this be the loss they needed to spur them on? Probably not given their recent head-to-head record – eight consecutive defeats since the 2008 decider.

Regardless, they will still be there at the pointy end of the season – but when they get there, they’ll find a number of other clubs alongside the Cats who’ll feel just as deserving of glory.

If the last three weeks has told us anything, it’s that the race for the flag is wide open. Geelong and Hawthorn are surefire contenders, but Carlton, Collingwood and West Coast are all making the noises.

In their 91-point win over Brisbane the Blues showed off their credentials in emphatic style. On paper, a midfield of Judd, Murphy, Gibbs, Simpson, Curnow and the rest reads like a premiership engine room.

But their most bitter rivals, Collingwood, are also up and about. They meet in a blockbuster showdown on Friday that shapes as must-see viewing for fans of all clubs.

The Pies are not yet at their strongest but like Geelong, there are too many winners on their list for them to fall away from the pack.
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Then there’s last year’s surprise packet. West Coast went from bottom in 2010 to within one game of the grand final last season, and so far this term they’ve done enough to suggest that was no fluke.

Who’s the best out of the lot? Who knows. There’s a reason Carlton, Collingwood, Geelong and Hawthorn are joint premiership favourites, with the Eagles close behind. Not even the bookies know who to back.

At the same time, it seems just as difficult to predict who will take home the most unwanted of gifts, the wooden spoon.

There are two obvious candidates, and they are obvious candidates for a reason. Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney are both so far off the pace it’s not funny.

Nobody really expected the Giants to give it a shake this year, so Easter Sunday’s brutal loss to North Melbourne came as no surprise.

GWS earned wide praise for their performance in their inaugural match against Sydney but are still nowhere near being competitive.

The fact that the Suns don’t look much better than them should be a matter of concern for AFL House. If anything, they are worse than GWS. They are supposed to be 12 months more advanced but the overwhelming verdict from their first two games is that they are too easily intimidated.

Two spankings, two disgraceful first-quarter brainfades. Gold Coast simply can’t win the contested ball and the freak Gary Ablett – surely now the best player in the league – can’t do everything on his own.

On the back of a fighting win over St Kilda and a gallant loss to Essendon, Port Adelaide – who are still trying to ditch their reputation as the joke team of the AFL – seem certain to break away from GWS and the Coast.

Melbourne appear most likely to take their place in the doldrums and join the boys from Blacktown and the upstarts from the tourist strip in a triple threat match for the dreaded booby prize.

If you don’t mind though, my eyes will be glued to the other end of the table.

Vince Rugari is an Adelaide-born journalist who cut his teeth on the sporting graveyard of the Gold Coast. He fancies the round ball and the Sherrin, and used to be a handy leg-spin bowler before injury curtailed a baggy green push. A Port Adelaide fan by birth, he now is a sports reporter for The Cairns Post.
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