AFL Round 13: Will the real top four contenders please stand up?

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    There are three games of significance on this final bye weekend, all with a common theme: does anyone want one of the very available top-four spots?

    Both Richmond and Geelong had rock solid chances to build or maintain a spot in the double chance slot against flaky opponents in Round 13. Both failed to do so.

    In the process, the top eight was thrown further into chaos, with the third and fourth seeds open to any one of the five teams currently sitting between third and seventh.

    The Cats and Tigers sit in fourth and sixth place respectively on my strength of schedule adjusted percentage ladder. However, there’s not a lot in it.

    From second through to ninth – we’ll get to Sydney in due course – there’s only 20 percentage points difference. Meanwhile, 12 teams have a percentage of greater than 100, and a 13th, St Kilda, sits on 99.7 per cent.

    Things are getting mighty tight. Tighter than they were just a week ago when, for example, it looked like West Coast might be slipping and Geelong might be separating from the peloton. But Thursday night’s game between the two sides, both process and outcome, suggested there is still a lot of water to travel under the bridge.

    Geelong were favoured pre-game, and rightly so given the form lines of the respective teams. West Coast started the game as home underdogs for the first time since their 2015 qualifying final against the Hawthorn Hawks. It didn’t take long for that to look like an overreaction.

    The Eagles had all of the play in the first quarter, getting the ball inside 50 at a 14-10 advantage and putting up seven scoring shots to two. Geelong scored first through Nakia Cockatoo, who left the ground not long after with a high hamstring strain, but after that didn’t hit the scoreboard until the 25-minute mark of the term.

    West Coast never really looked back, mixing it with Geelong’s gritty inside midfield group and coming out on top. It was a most un-2017 West Coast-like performance from the Eagles, the home team showing a desire to get their hands dirty in tight and use the wide expanses of Subiaco Oval at every opportunity.

    A dominant second quarter put the game beyond doubt and raised the spectre of Geelong’s inability to translate the strength of Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood into quality scoring opportunities – the latter tagged into a largely ineffective 19 possession game.

    The Cats booted just 2.3.15 on the half, their forward line limp and lifeless. It underscored the importance of Tom Hawkins’ marking prowess, and the need for Chris Scott to find some medium-sized forwards with teeth.

    The final margin absolutely flattered Geelong in the end, West Coast warding off an early midfield-led challenge in the final quarter with some keepy-off football powered by a strong half-back line and hard-working forward group. The Cats kicked two junktime goals, salvaging what could have been a percentage-sapping loss.

    West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

    West Coast leapt back into the top eight with the victory, confident their best is still good enough within the confines of Subiaco Oval and with the knowledge they play six of their final ten games there. First up on the list is Melbourne, who put a languid Western Bulldogs to the proverbial sword on Sunday afternoon.

    We all know the Dogs are in a funk. Their swarming, scrambling midfield has lost the pep that carried it to a premiership in last year’s finals series, its forward line looking summarily pedestrian and its backline struggling under the weight of opposition inside 50 entries.

    These problems all bubbled to the surface once again, Footscray never really troubling the rising Demons as they went down by 57 points.

    The Dogs have now lost four of their past five, losing margins growing larger by the round. First, it was a meritorious eight-point loss to the Eagles in Perth, followed by a pedestrian 23-point loss to Geelong at Simmonds Stadium. A win against the Saints afforded a temporary reprieve heading into the bye.

    Their past two outings have been more noteworthy: a 46-point loss to Sydney, and Sunday’s 57-point loss to Melbourne.

    Is it a premiership hangover? It was a question vapidly asked by many over the weekend. The more interesting question is what was an appropriate benchmark for these Dogs? In the pre-season, I pondered whether Footscray was a young team that finished in seventh that could expect to make a leap to something greater.

    The Western Bulldogs are being held to a standard which belies the underlying fundamentals. Premiership team is a moniker that brings with it expectation, yes, but any rational person can see the Dogs were a good team that caught fire and won two favourable match-ups on their way to a preliminary final.

    That sounds like a criticism but it isn’t; perhaps we had grown so accustomed to the idea of Hawthorn, Sydney and Geelong winning all of the flags that we forgot what a more egalitarian competition looked like.

    Still, the Dogs have problems. A lot of it would appear to be form-related – the swarm of last year looks more blow fly than ravenous locust. A large swathe of the youngsters – Toby McLean, Caleb Daniel, Bailey Dale, Bailey Williams, Josh Dunkley – have done what young players tend to do: drift in and out of form, and in and out of the team.

    Just nine Dogs have played all dozen games this season, through a combination of injury and magnet-spinning by coach Luke Beveridge.

    They aren’t out of the race. The Dogs themselves showed last year that football can throw up some fanciful outcomes, and if it happened last year when the state of things actually made sense then it is almost certain to happen this year. Saturday night against North Melbourne, whose season is on life support after another loss, looms as good an opportunity as any to reboot.

    Jesse Hogan Melbourne Demons AFL 2016

    (AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

    For the victors, the Melbourne Demons, great things await. It was not more than a month ago we were lamenting Melbourne as the biggest what if of 2017. Their 3-4 record has evolved into 7-5 since, their percentage lifting from 106 to 115, their team looking every bit as complete as any of the four teams above them on the ladder.

    Melbourne are beating teams up around the ball, scoring with impunity when they win it, and stuffing opposition forward thrusts like sticky putty. One indicator I check after every round is adjusted contested possession differential (contested possessions less contested marks and free kicks against – a proxy measure for contests won on the ground). Melbourne are +9.5 per game on the year, second only to the GWS Giants (+11.9 per game).

    Since Round 7, Melbourne are obliterating the competition with a differential of +13.4 per game.

    However, the tough stuff begins now for the Dees. They travel west to play West Coast on a consecutive six-day break, host the Swans the week after on another six-day break, host Carlton, notionally host Adelaide (in Darwin) then host Port Adelaide.

    It’s a difficult five-week stretch, but on current form and with recent history taken into account, Melbourne should acquit themselves well. Top-four spots are available – the Dees, not assured a spot in the eight but clearly one of the eight best teams in the competition, should take one.

    Richmond remain in that frame, but as the close losses continue to mount another elimination final spot looks to have their name scribbled on it. The Tigers coughed up another five-goal lead – their third on the year – in losing to the Swans. Not even Jedi Knight Alex Rance could save Richmond from themselves.

    The real story out of this game was the continued resurgence of the Sydney Swans, who now find themselves just one win out of eighth spot on the ladder. As a reminder, Sydney sat 0-6 after six rounds, albeit with a close loss to the Pies in Round 3. They have since won five of their six games, doing so with a percentage of 146.3 per cent, which would put them above the ladder-leading Adelaide Crows.

    A word of caution before we end with a bang: Sydney have played Brisbane, North Melbourne and Hawthorn, the three worst teams in the competition, in this stretch (although they lost to the Hawks). They have also played St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs, who for now are more or less in their peer group on the full season ladder.

    Even when you include the Tigers, the Swans have played the second-weakest slate of games from Round 7 to Round 13 – worth about 11 points per week.

    Still, they have played it well, and put themselves into the conversation for finals. A lot still has to go right for the Swans, but right now they look to be edging their way into contention by the week. And as football statistician @SirSwampThing (who I only know by Twitter handle sadly) has been informing us all, every win puts the Swans on a slightly more rosy side of history.

    Sydney becoming the first team to go 0-6 and make the finals would be a fitting capstone to this mad home-and-away season. Odds remain against it, but wouldn’t it be something.

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