Roughly a third of the season has now passed and while the ladder is starting to take shape, the decline of heavyweight clubs Sydney and Hawthorn may have been exaggerated – for now.
After eight weeks away from home, Geelong return to their renovated base, with a blockbuster Friday night game against the premiers, and the Cats will be keen to bounce back after three straight losses.
There may not be any respite for another team that has lost three straight matches in Richmond, who tackle the Greater Western Sydney Giants at Spotless Stadium on Saturday night.
And the West Coast Eagles will be keen to make amends for their previous trip to Melbourne when they face Essendon at Etihad Stadium on Sunday.
Here is the full preview of Round 9.
Geelong Cats versus Western Bulldogs
After starting the season with five straight wins, the Cats lost unexpectedly to Collingwood, the Gold Coast and Essendon.
Coach Chris Scott has questioned his side’s effort against the Bombers, in which they laid only 40 tackles, including just 13 in the first half.
But while they came from 40 points down at the final change to nearly steal victory from the red and black, it was evident that the Cats had not come out to play.
The Bulldogs are also at 5-3, with the absence of key players possibly why they haven’t been playing their best football.
The injury-plagued premiers were kept on the back foot for the most part in their eight-point loss to the West Coast Eagles in Perth, but to their credit were able to keep the hosts honest right up until the final minutes.
If they are to defeat the Cats, they’ll have to break two hoodoos: they have not won at Kardinia Park since 2003, the year they last won the wooden spoon, and have not beaten the Cats anywhere since Round 21, 2009.
But the comforts of home should get the Cats over the line.
Prediction: Geelong Cats by 16 points.
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St Kilda versus Sydney Swans
Beware – the Swans are back.
After six straight losses to open the season, Sydney have won their last two matches to get their campaign up and running.
This has coincided with the return of former co-captain Jarrad McVeigh, who missed the opening six weeks with a hamstring injury and whose absence was severely felt during the Swans’ worst losing streak in 24 years.
They overcame a slow start to defeat North Melbourne by 42 points at Etihad Stadium – making their 11th win from their last 12 matches at the venue, with the only loss coming against the Western Bulldogs in Round 2.
This Saturday afternoon they are back at Docklands for the second week in a row, this time taking on a St Kilda outfit that has vastly improved in recent years.
After losing their first two matches of the season, the Saints have won five of their last six matches, the best of them being huge wins over Hawthorn and the Giants in Rounds 6 and 7 respectively.
But as impressive as they have been over the past month, and despite the Swans’ lowly ladder position, Alan Richardson’s men still face a monumental task in what is their third straight home game.
The Saints have not beaten the Swans since mid-2012 and have lost their last six matches against them by an average of 57 points, with the last three, under Richardson, by an average of 79.3.
But you get the feeling that the tide might finally turn here.
Prediction: St Kilda by 18 points.
GWS Giants versus Richmond
Another win for GWS has come at a huge cost, with their vice-captain Stephen Coniglio set to be sidelined for an extended period, after he suffered a recurrence of the ankle injury which kept him out of the first six rounds of the season.
Coniglio’s injury and subsequent departure from the game with seven minutes to go against Collingwood was supposed to cost them victory, but someone forgot to tell Steve Johnson, who pulled off the match-winning goal with less than a minute remaining to give the AFL’s youngest side their first ever win over the Pies.
The result kept the Giants in second place on the ladder, with only the Adelaide Crows above them on the ladder, by seven percentage points.
This Saturday night they welcome Richmond to Spotless Stadium for the first time since 2014, when a 113-point thrashing by the Tigers provided the turning point in the club’s recent history.
In that match, Jack Riewoldt outscored the entire Giants side, with 11 goals of his own – a career-best for the Tigers spearhead.
However, the Giants have vastly improved since then and in their last meeting kept the Tigers to the 2016 season’s lowest score, conceding a miserly 3.5 (23).
Leon Cameron’s men will again start favourites, with the Tigers coming off three straight defeats, the latest being a heartbreaking two-point loss to Fremantle after the siren.
Richmond started the season 5-0 for the first time in 22 years, but after their latest form slump, questions will start to be asked whether they are really finals contenders.
As much as the Tigers would love to bounce back, the Giants will offer no mercy.
Prediction: GWS Giants by 20 points.
Brisbane Lions versus Adelaide Crows
A major mismatch looms when the last-placed Brisbane Lions welcome the first-placed Adelaide Crows to the Gabba.
After starting the season with six straight wins, crushing opposition teams at will, many were talking up the Crows’ chances of ending their long, frustrating premiership drought. But Don Pyke’s men have come crashing back down to earth, suffering disappointing losses to North Melbourne and Melbourne in the past fortnight.
Against the Roos, they were ‘out-Adelaide’d’ – conceding ten goals in the opening quarter while failing to score themselves, setting the tone for a dirty afternoon in Hobart, where they ended up losing by 59 points.
Then, against the Dees last week, they led by 28 points in the second quarter only to suffer a meltdown in the second half to lose by 41 points in what was former teammate Bernie Vince’s 200th AFL game.
This Saturday night they fly to southeast Queensland for the second time this season to face Brisbane, who currently prop up the ladder with just one win, that coming in Round 1 against the Gold Coast Suns.
The Lions have spent the past fortnight on the road and were no match for fallen heavyweights the Sydney Swans and Hawthorn, their cause not being helped by a six-day break between those two matches.
Nor does their recent record against the Crows make for happy reading, with the Lions having lost their last five against the men from West Lakes. This includes the last meeting by 138 points at Adelaide Oval, in Round 20 last year, which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as Justin Leppitsch’s tenure as coach was concerned.
On that basis, it’s hard to see the Lions breaking their losing streak in front of their home fans.
Prediction: Adelaide Crows by 40 points.
Collingwood versus Hawthorn
The Pies’ season of disappointment took another negative turn when they went down to the Giants by three points at Spotless Stadium last Saturday night.
They had no right to lose that match, having dominated for the most part and only losing grip when they conceded a goal in the final 45 seconds.
Their latest defeat places coach Nathan Buckley under more pressure to retain his job.
Fears of the Hawks’ demise may have been exaggerated, with Alastair Clarkson’s men having won three of their last four matches.
The Hawks have won their last nine matches against the Pies, dating back to early 2012, but were pushed to the limit in their last meeting, in Round 12 last year, prevailing by one point after Jack Fitzpatrick kicked a crucial goal in the final minutes of the match.
But they will be without Cyril Rioli for an extended period after he suffered a serious knee injury in the win over the Lions.
Still, the Hawks will start favourites to continue their resurgence.
Prediction: Hawthorn by 16 points.
Essendon versus West Coast Eagles
What is it about the West Coast Eagles and planes?
So far this season, Adam Simpson’s men have crossed the Nullarbor four times, only taking home the points on two occasions (in Rounds 1 and 7, against North Melbourne and Port Adelaide respectively).
This Sunday, they venture to Melbourne for the fifth time this season, to face Essendon at Etihad Stadium, which to the players has become their preference for games in the AFL capital. They tend to play better at Docklands than at the MCG, the scene of their two defeats this season – and of course their embarrassing grand final loss to Hawthorn in 2015.
They face an Essendon side fresh off upsetting the Geelong Cats in the country game, and if that is anything to go by, the Eagles will have their work cut out attempting to bank their seventh win of the season.
Though they did beat the Western Bulldogs at home last Friday night, they kicked just one goal in the second half, while nine behinds prevented them from an even bigger win.
Their recent record against the Bombers in Melbourne does not make for good reading either, with only one win in the past four matches there, that coming in 2013.
They have, however, won the last two meetings by sizeable margins. The question is, can the Eagles fix their woes on the road?
Prediction: Essendon by 10 points.
Melbourne versus North Melbourne
This will be a testing week for Melbourne, following the news that young forward Jesse Hogan has testicular cancer, for which he has undergone surgery. That explains his absence from the club’s 41-point win over the Adelaide Crows at the Oval.
The fact that they had to come from 28 points down in the second quarter to notch their third win from six attempts at the Oval is somewhat impressive, given the manner in which the Crows dominated teams earlier this year.
Like the Dees, the Roos also enjoyed a recent win over the Crows, in Round 7, kicking ten goals to nothing in the first quarter, but last week were brought back to earth against the Swans.
Despite entering the match against Sydney at Etihad Stadium as slight favourites, and briefly taking the lead in the first quarter, Brad Scott’s men were no match for last year’s grand finalists, losing by 42 points.
This has left their season record at 2-6 and although they have dominated Melbourne for nearly a decade, they will enter their first (and only) match at the MCG for the season as underdogs.
While the Dees are heavily favoured, the question remains, which side will turn up at the MCG? And can they lift following the news surrounding Jesse Hogan?
Prediction: Melbourne by 18 points.
Fremantle versus Carlton
To finish off the round, Fremantle welcome Carlton to Domain Stadium.
Many pundits had forecast another long season for the Dockers after they suffered a humiliating 89-point loss to Port Adelaide at the Oval in Round 2. But since then they have turned their fortunes around, winning five of their last six matches to be sitting just outside the eight on percentage.
Last week they pulled off a great escape when they scored a two-point win over Richmond at the MCG, with former captain David Mundy kicking the match-winning goal after the final siren.
This saw the Dockers finish with a 2-0 record at the home of football for 2017, with no more matches scheduled for the club there for the rest of the year.
Back at home, Ross Lyon’s men will start hot favourites against Carlton, who are 3-5 for the season, with two of their three wins coming against their two biggest rivals in Essendon (Round 3) and Collingwood (Round 7).
That aside, another long season had been forecast for the Blues, but they have been punching well above their weight, with Caleb Marchbank and Sam Petrevski-Seton both being nominated for the Rising Star award in recent weeks.
They played fairly well against St Kilda last Saturday, but eventually went down by 19 points.
And they’ll have good memories of their last trip to Perth, which ended in a four-point win. It was Brendon Bolton’s first win as Blues coach, and effectively killed off the Dockers’ 2016 season.
This will mark the fourth consecutive year in which Fremantle has hosted the only meeting between the two clubs for the season.
Prediction: Fremantle by 24 points.
Both the Gold Coast Suns and Port Adelaide have the bye this weekend, following their clash in Shanghai.