Battle for the top four rages
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Battle for the top four rages in the AFL rages - will Collingwood finish on top? (SLattery Images)
“The most even season in recent memory” has been a common refrain during 2012, and rarely have we seen the race for every spot in the top four so open this far into the year.
With eight all-important rounds left to play, each of which contains at least one match-up between the current top six sides, it’s time to put my predicted top six down in black and white, and let the supporters of these teams know whether they’ll have secured the double chance come September.
1st – Collingwood – 18 wins
I’m pretty happy to write off the Pies defeat at the hands of Carlton as an aberration and ‘the loss they had to have’ after ten wins in a row.
While not the well-oiled machine of 2010-11, they are still the most impressively credentialed, well coached and talent-laden team in the comp.
We’ve yet to see Pendlebury, Swan and Thomas fit and firing in the same team this year alongside the impressive Beams and Sidebottom.
Jolly hasn’t been at his best, but the midfield depth can overcome any ruck deficiencies, and Jolly’s wiles and big game experience will carry him a long way.
Travis Cloke should find his powerhouse best in the lead-up to and during September, so they are still the team to beat.
The Pies run home isn’t particularly scary, perhaps dropping one more, to either Hawthorn in a blockbuster round 17 clash on Saturday afternoon at the MCG, or away to West Coast in round 22. Lose both of these, and they’ll be hopping on a plane in week one of the finals.
2nd – West Coast – 17 wins
The Eagles haven’t been at their best since the round nine derby win over Fremantle, going 3-2 from that point which included scrappy wins over Carlton and North, but a mid-year flat spot after a superb 7-1 opening is to be expected, if not encouraged.
This is the most structured team in the league, with a bevy of midfielders adept both inside and out being fed by the most lethal ruck combination in the history of the game.
Their backline is the most balanced in the league, and while Josh Kennedy’s absence will be felt if he can’t get fit for finals, their multi-pronged forward line has been impressive so far, with Cox and Naitanui filling the breach as the extra tall.
West Coast has four tricky matches in the run home, but the middle four rounds should all provide wins, and that should be enough to see them secure a top two spot, and potentially a home ground run through to the grand final.
3rd – Adelaide – 17 wins
The Crows are the surprise packet of the season that just won’t go away, and their ten goal showdown victory under injury duress on Saturday night suggests that they’re here to stay for a while longer.
Adelaide could be the most even team in the competition, with the gap between their best player and their worst the closest of any top side. Thompson provides the inside grunt and consistency of accumulation, while Dangerfield and Sloane provide explosiveness and are flint-hard at the contest.
A long kicking gameplan gives Walker and Tippett an edge that they’ve been all too happy to turn into goals, and they’ll need both to fire to go deep into September.
While the other sides in contention for the top four play only one of GWS, Gold Coast or Melbourne coming home, the Crows get to feast on all three.
Currently sixteen percentage points behind West Coast, this turn of good fortune could be enough to ensure their first final is played in Adelaide, and not Perth or Melbourne.
4th – Hawthorn – 16 wins
The Hawks own the highest percentage in the competition after their 162 point demolition of the Giants yesterday. It was their fifth straight comfortable victory, with an averaging winning margin of over thirteen goals during this period.
Hawthorn were the popular pre-season pick, but lost their way in the early part of the home and away rounds, losing to Geelong, West Coast and Sydney after being in positions of strength. But recent weeks have seen the confidence return, and with a hard-working midfield feeding Franklin, Roughead and Rioli, as destructive a forward trio as there is, they’ll fancy their chances against any opponent.
The Hawks will jump ahead of West Coast or Sydney into the top four next week, and the following three rounds will decide if they stay there, matches against Collingwood, Essendon and their arch-nemesis Geelong in that time. Win two of that three, followed by Port and Gold Coast, and they’ll get the double chance in September.
5th – Sydney – 16 wins
What Sydney has done as well as any team this year is beat up on weak prey when it’s been their turn. Wins over GWS by 63 and 92, victories over Melbourne by 101, Western Bulldogs by 92, Brisbane by 47 and North by 36, all in Sydney, have given them a percentage that sees them higher than they might otherwise be.
It is true that the Swans have beaten Essendon, Geelong and Hawthorn, but the first two were by bare margins, and the latter was arguably the strangest turnaround match of the year.
Losses to Adelaide, Richmond and St Kilda have the sceptics wary of rating them too highly, and they are yet to play Collingwood, West Coast or Carlton.
As stated a couple of weeks ago in this column, Sydney’s very best is probably unequalled, but it also isn’t sustained for long enough against the best teams, and when they have their flat patch during a game, they can struggle to even look like top eight material.
Jetta, Jack, Kennedy, Mumford and Goodes will carry them a long way this year, but just short of a top four berth for mine.
6th – Essendon – 14 wins
The Bombers got beaten in every facet of the contest against the Saints on Saturday night, but like Collingwood’s loss to Carlton, I’m happy to write it off as out-of-character; a bad performance from a good side.
Missing from that team were important players like Crameri, Zaharakis and Monfries, while Watson, Stanton and Ryder were unusually subdued – I’d be expecting all three to bounce back strongly against Port this week. Hurley going down with yet another hamstring won’t help, but Essendon have overcome injuries well this year.
They’re a solid team that isn’t a threat yet, but have the right building blocks in place to get there when their ‘premiership window’ does open.
The Bombers really only have one ‘gimme’ in the run home, but play a host of teams in and around them. I reckon they’ll go four and four, and are more likely to pinch another victory than lose one, but it won’t have any impact on their ladder position if they do. You can take it the bank that they’ll be finishing in sixth spot.
We’ll follow up next week with the fight for the lower echelons of the final eight, and work out who can book their holidays already.
Cameron Rose is a born and bred Melbournian, raised on a regime of AFL, cricket and horse racing. He likes people who agree with him but loves those that don't, for in his mind there is nothing better than a roaring debate. He tweets from @camtherose.
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