2017 AFL season: Round 23 preview

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    Just one round remains in what has without doubt been one of the most exciting seasons of AFL football in recent history, with so much at stake in the final round before the finals get underway.

    The Western Bulldogs remain a mathematical chance of sneaking into the eight but in 11th position and with a percentage of 97.4 they face an uphill battle to do so against a Hawthorn side which will be intent on sending club great Luke Hodge out a winner.

    The wooden spoon will be decided by sunset on Saturday when the Brisbane Lions and North Melbourne go head-to-head in what has been dubbed the ‘Cameron Rayner Cup’, named after the player who is tipped to be the number one draft pick in November’s draft.

    There is also a huge match between the Geelong Cats and GWS Giants at Simonds Stadium that night to look forward to, with the possibility that the two clubs could face off again at the same venue in the first week of the finals.

    The final match of the regular season may require the Adelaide Crows to defeat the West Coast Eagles, in what will be the final ever AFL match played at Subiaco Oval before the Eagles and Dockers move to the new Perth Stadium in 2018, to secure the minor premiership.

    Here is the full preview of Round 23, plus the predicted match-ups for the first week of the finals series.

    Hawthorn versus Western Bulldogs
    Friday night’s match between Hawthorn and the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium promises to be an emotional night for both parties as far as their retiring players are concerned.

    After announcing his retirement last month, Luke Hodge will bow out after playing his 305th game, and in doing so would equal the number of games another club great in Shane Crawford finished on when he retired in 2008.

    The Hawks’ seven-point loss to the Blues last Saturday night all but knocked them out of finals contention, meaning they will miss out on September action for the first time since 2009.

    Now they can unleash their anger by ending any faint hope the Western Bulldogs have of forcing their way back into the eight, let alone defending their premiership.

    The Bulldogs have endured a poor second half of the season as they fought through injuries to key personnel and personal issues involving Travis Cloke and Tom Boyd, but were able to win four games in succession before losing their last two, to the GWS Giants and Port Adelaide.

    Though Luke Beveridge’s men have a faint hope of forcing their way back into the eight, it will very likely loom as the final match for club legends Robert Murphy and Matthew Boyd, both of whom will retire at the end of the season.

    After suffering a season-ending knee injury very early last season, Murphy chose to play on this season with one of his intents being to play his 300th AFL game, which he did back in Round 5.

    Amazingly, this will be the first time the two clubs have met since last year’s semi-final, which the Bulldogs won by 23 points to not only end the Hawks’ bid for a four-peat, but also ride the momentum all the way to the flag.

    A fixturing anomaly is that, despite this being a Hawthorn home game, it will be played at Etihad Stadium which the Bulldogs use more regularly – it will be their eleventh outing at the venue this season as opposed to the Hawks’ two.

    While the Bulldogs will have everything to play for, the Hawks will be using the occasion of this being Luke Hodge’s final game to win it for a man who has served this club with such grace since being drafted to the club in 2001.

    Prediction: Hawthorn by 15 points.

    Luke Hodge Hawthorn Hawks AFL 2016

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Collingwood versus Melbourne
    Currently sitting in seventh place on the ladder and with 12 wins for the season, Melbourne is one step closer to experiencing finals football for the first time since 2006.

    Their 13-point win over the Brisbane Lions at the MCG last Sunday afternoon has put them ahead of a pack of four clubs still jockeying for eighth place on the ladder and a possible away elimination final.

    It would be the ultimate reward for the club’s fans who have stuck by them through all the tough times, most notably the disastrous tenures overseen by Dean Bailey (2008-11) and Mark Neeld (2012-13).

    But there is every chance the Dees could miss out on finals action altogether if they lose to Collingwood on Saturday afternoon, and Essendon and the West Coast Eagles win their respective home ties against Fremantle and the Adelaide Crows on Sunday.

    But while Simon Goodwin’s men will start favourites to beat the Pies, they stand no chance of overtaking Port Adelaide or the Sydney Swans, both of whom play lower-ranked opposition later the same day.

    This would leave them to settle for seventh place, and if results unfold as expected they may have to travel to either Adelaide or Sydney for an elimination final against either the Power or Swans.

    As for the Pies, the only thing they will be playing for is pride, two straight losses to Port Adelaide and the Geelong Cats guaranteeing they will be sidelined from September for the fourth straight year.

    It could be the final game at the helm for coach Nathan Buckley, whose future has clouded much of the club’s season as they get set for an internal review which could see him out the door by next week.

    Their recent record against Melbourne is also poor, having lost their last four matches against them including by just four points on Queen’s Birthday earlier this year.

    Thus, can the Pies finish their season on a high note or will the Dees all but punch their ticket to September with a win?

    Prediction: Melbourne by 23 points.

    Brisbane Lions versus North Melbourne
    The only meeting between the Brisbane Lions and North Melbourne this season will decide which club finishes with the wooden spoon, and hence the number one pick in November’s AFL draft.

    It remains one of the most controversial matches in the tanking debate, but given both the Lions and Roos have played well in some matches, it should be a controversy-free build-up to the Gabba this Saturday afternoon.

    Both the Lions and Roos have claimed just five victories each this season, and with Carlton having officially skipped clear of the wooden spoon courtesy of their win over Hawthorn last week, it means the loser of this match will be doomed to finish last.

    The Lions may have struggled again in 2017 but have put more heart into their performances this season, unlike last year when they won just three games and their level of competitiveness was shockingly low.

    Last week they gave Melbourne a run for their money, kicking four straight goals to get to within seven points late in the final quarter before running out of puff in the end to lose by 13.

    That followed on from their 58-point win over the Gold Coast Suns at the Gabba in Round 21, and coupled with other impressive results achieved this season there is reason for Lions fans to believe that a return to better times might come sooner rather than later.

    If they are to avoid their first wooden spoon since 1998, they’ll have to defeat a North Melbourne side which, more than twelve months after starting the 2016 season with nine straight wins, faces the prospect of its first last-place finish since 1972.

    It was this time last year coach Brad Scott made the controversial call to delist club veterans Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Michael Firrito and Nick Dal Santo, with a view of rebuilding the club’s ageing playing list.

    This voided the club of over 1000 games’ experience but while they may have won just five matches for the year, one of them came in the great Hobart ambush of Round 7 when they scored 10.4 (64) to the Adelaide Crows’ nothing (yes, nothing) en route to a 59-point win.

    They have beaten Melbourne twice while their other two wins were against the Gold Coast Suns and Carlton.

    Scott has stated that his club is “desperate to win”, another sign that the club is seriously intent on avoiding the wooden spoon amid all the tanking talk that has plagued the club in recent weeks.

    However, at the Gabba, the Lions should finish off strongly and given fans cause for optimism going forward.

    Prediction: Brisbane Lions by 24 points.

    Sydney Swans versus Carlton
    When Carlton and the Sydney Swans met at the MCG earlier this year, the Blues set out to target last year’s Rising Star winner, Callum Mills, and succeeded en route to a shock 19-point win.

    That result left the Swans at 0-6 and facing a huge mountain to climb if they were to reach the finals for the eighth consecutive season. It also led many to believe that their time at the top of the ladder was all but up.

    But 17 weeks and 13 wins later, the Swans’ sudden revival will come full circle when they welcome the Blues to the SCG for the first time in over thirteen months.

    Last Friday night the Swans came from nine points down in the final six minutes to defeat the Adelaide Crows by three points, delaying the Crows’ security of the minor premiership and punching their own finals ticket in the process.

    The win was highlighted by a freakish goal-of-the-year contender from Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, who recreated his famous goal of the year from 2010 when he ran down the broadcast wing and nailed the goal from the pocket.

    But while the Swans will enter as favourites, they’ll be facing a Blues side brimming with confidence following their drought-breaking win over Hawthorn on the weekend.

    Brendon Bolton’s men led for the majority of the match as the apprentice stumped the man under whom he served as an assistant coach for many years, and filled in for him for five matches in 2014, Alastair Clarkson.

    It marked the Blues’ sixth win for the year and all but ensured they will avoid the wooden spoon, with the Lions and Kangaroos to instead duke it out to dodge the AFL’s most dubious award earlier in the day.

    While the Blues will head to Sydney with the momentum as they close out their second season under Brendon Bolton, there is no doubt the Swans will still be seething not only from their shock defeat earlier this season, but also the treatment that was dished out to Callum Mills.

    Prediction: Sydney Swans by 50 points.

    Geelong Cats versus GWS Giants
    September comes early when the GWS Giants make the trip down to Simonds Stadium for just the third time to face the Geelong Cats in a Saturday night blockbuster that shapes as the ultimate preview to September.

    It is third versus second on the ladder and there is every chance the Cats and Giants may face off at Kardinia Park again in the first week of the finals if results unfold as expected over the weekend.

    This means that Giants forward Steve Johnson could be set for two farewells from the Geelong crowd, with the 2007 Norm Smith Medallist set to return to the Giants’ side after being rested last week.

    Given the Giants’ low-drawing power, it would make sense for a Geelong versus GWS final to be played at the ground, and it would be just the second final played there after the Cats lost to Fremantle in the 2013 qualifying final.

    But first things’ first – Saturday night’s clash will decide second place on the ladder, and for the Giants the stakes are even higher as they could overtake the Adelaide Crows in the race for the minor premiership.

    Any doubts about their premiership credentials have been erased in the past month, with the club stringing together four straight wins to remain in the hunt for a top-two finish, with which comes their first two finals at home.

    Last weekend, marshaled by a best-on-ground performance from Josh Kelly, the Giants held their nerve to defeat the West Coast Eagles by 21 points and secure a top four berth for the second consecutive year.

    The fact that Kelly was even able to play out the match, let alone kick a goal, after being crunched by Josh Kennedy with eight minutes to go, is testament to his toughness and value to the club.

    Containing him will be crucial to the Cats’ chances of victory this Saturday night, because a loss could see them drop to fourth (assuming Richmond beats St Kilda at the MCG on Sunday afternoon) and potentially facing a difficult trip to Adelaide in the first week of the finals.

    While the Cats overcame a slow start to defeat Collingwood by 11 points at the MCG last Saturday, they cannot afford to start poorly against the Giants otherwise it will be punished brutally.

    Even during the Giants’ infant years, the Cats have not had everything go their way, such as in Round 10, 2012, when the two teams were level at half-time before the Cats ran away in the second half to win by 65 points.

    The only other previous meeting at Kardinia Park saw the Cats win by ten points, but not before some Stevie J magic inspired the Giants to an early lead.

    The earlier meeting between the two clubs at Spotless Stadium this year produced a draw, the first in the Giants’ history, and the return bout promises to be just as close and intriguing.

    But while the Giants are in good form, the Cats’ home ground advantage will be too hard to ignore in this one.

    Steve Johnson GWS Giants AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/David Moir)

    Prediction: Geelong Cats by 12 points.

    Port Adelaide versus Gold Coast Suns
    With a finals berth all but secured, Port Adelaide will now look to sneak back into the top four when it hosts the Gold Coast Suns at the Adelaide Oval for the first time.

    The Power have bounced back well from their humiliating Showdown defeat to the Crows, posting victories over Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs to all but deliver the knockout blow to their opponents’ finals chances.

    This Saturday night they face a Suns side that is devoid of any confidence whatsoever, having lost their last seven matches in succession, the last two of them under caretaker coach Dean Solomon who took over from Rodney Eade after Round 20.

    There is no doubt that the Power always seems to lift when they play the Suns, after they became that club’s first victim early in the 2011 season.

    The club has clearly never forgotten that defeat and have since strung together seven straight wins over the Suns, including their most recent encounter by 72 points in Shanghai earlier this year.

    Another win would see the Power temporarily enter the top four, with Richmond still to play St Kilda on Sunday afternoon. Otherwise, a loss will see them finish sixth at worst (Melbourne would have to beat Collingwood by a record margin to overtake the Power).

    At home, Ken Hinkley’s men should offer no mercy to the beleaguered Suns.

    Prediction: Port Adelaide by 30 points.

    Essendon versus Fremantle
    The final match at Etihad Stadium for the year will see Essendon play host to Fremantle in Melbourne for the first time since 2010.

    That’s after seven straight meetings in Perth dating back to 2011, as well as eight of their past nine dating back to 2009. During this stretch, Fremantle have won seven of nine contests against Essendon, including their last meeting at Etihad Stadium seven years ago by 44 points.

    That being said, Essendon hasn’t beaten Fremantle since early 2013, but will get its chance to break that hoodoo with this being their final home game of the season before they hope to embark on their first finals series since 2014.

    The incentive will be there for John Worsfold’s men – it will be the final time Jobe Watson ever plays at Etihad Stadium, while they are also facing a side that is coming off consecutive 104-point thrashings.

    As expected, the Bombers have improved a lot this season with the return of several senior players, who sat out the entirety of last season after they were found guilty of taking a banned substance during the club’s well-documented supplements program.

    They currently sit eighth on the ladder with eleven wins and have the best percentage of four teams that are equal with them on 44 competition points, thus putting them in the box seat to qualify for the finals.

    However, they need to commit to their end of the bargain first – hope the Western Bulldogs are beaten on Friday night, then defeat the Dockers on Sunday, and eighth place (at worst) will be theirs unless St Kilda and/or West Coast make up enough percentage later in the day.

    The best they could finish is seventh, if Melbourne is beaten by Collingwood, but it is likely they will finish eighth and therefore face the possibility of an away elimination final against either Port Adelaide or the Sydney Swans.

    As for the Dockers, they have nothing but pride to play for, and it seems as though the end of another dismal season can’t come quite soon enough.

    They started well against Richmond, with comeback kid Harley Bennell kicking two goals, but coughed up 22 goals (while kicking just four themselves) after quarter-time to go down by 104 points.

    It will now remain to be seen whether they can get up for their final game of the season, and start building something towards what should be a much-improved 2018 season.

    Prediction: Essendon by 34 points.

    Joe Daniher Essendon Bombers AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Richmond versus St Kilda
    A bumper crowd is expected to pack the MCG for what will almost certainly be Nick Riewoldt’s final AFL game when St Kilda faces Richmond in the second match on Sunday afternoon.

    Emotions rung around Etihad Stadium last Sunday after the Saints defeated North Melbourne by 49 points, with Riewoldt saluting the crowd who had grown to watch him become one of the best players in the competition since he was drafted to the club in 2000.

    It would seem only appropriate and fitting that the MCG hosts his final salute, however it will come at a ground where he experienced the heartbreak of two grand final defeats, on either side of the draw against Collingwood in 2010.

    He will almost certainly join other greats such as Tony Lockett, Nathan Buckley, Robert Harvey and Gary Ablett Sr., among others, as all-time greats who never got to taste the ultimate glory.

    Even though the Saints thrashed Richmond by 67 points the last time these two sides played, they will have it tougher this time, especially with the Tigers coming off a 104-point thrashing of Fremantle in Perth.

    In an amazing display of accuracy, the Tigers kicked 25.5 (155) to register their highest score in over three years as they became the last Victorian team to win at Subiaco Oval ahead of the move to the new Perth Stadium in 2018.

    They were tested in the opening quarter but unleashed with 22 goals after quarter-time to rack up the equal-highest winning margin in any match this season (shared with the Sydney Swans, who’d also beaten Fremantle by 104 points in the previous round).

    Now, not only do they have the chance to warm up for their fourth finals appearance in five years, they also have the chance to avenge the Round 16 loss to the Saints and end any hope they have of reaching the finals.

    Prediction: Richmond by 18 points.

    West Coast Eagles versus Adelaide Crows
    The final match of the 2017 regular season promises to be an emotional one for all Western Australia fans, with Subiaco Oval to host its final ever AFL match between the West Coast Eagles and Adelaide Crows.

    The Eagles are in the position where they cannot control their own finals destiny, following their 21-point loss to the GWS Giants in Sydney last Saturday night.

    Despite a four-goal haul from Josh Kennedy, his fourth of which brought the Eagles to within one point of the Giants late in the final quarter, Adam Simpson’s men capitulated from that point to go down to the fifth-year club for the second time this season (third if you include a pre-season match).

    The defeat denied them the chance to jump back into the eight and they must now rely on their cross-town rivals Fremantle causing an upset win over Essendon on the other side of the country earlier in the day to stay alive.

    They will know by the time they run out onto Domain Stadium whether their finals chances are still alive, but even if they are dead they can still unleash their anger on the Crows and potentially shape the upper half of the ladder.

    While the Crows have been the team to beat by a country mile this season, they did drop their fifth match of the year when they went down to the Sydney Swans by three points at home last Friday night.

    The outcome could have totally been different had Eddie Betts waited for the umpire to call on before tackling Callum Mills, who had clearly played on but was instead on the beneficiary of a 50-metre penalty which ultimately saw the Swans kick a goal and ride the momentum through to the final siren.

    That defeat, coupled with the GWS Giants’ win over the West Coast Eagles, means the Crows’ lead at the top of the ladder has been reduced to two points, with the likelihood that they could be relegated to second by nightfall.

    If the Giants defeat the Cats on Saturday night, the Crows will start their match against the Eagles in second place, and will need to win to claim their second minor premiership and first since 2005.

    However, if the Cats salute, the Crows will take the field knowing it cannot be overtaken at the top of the ladder, but won’t want to take a desperate Eagles side lightly.

    In fact, it was in the corresponding match last year that the Crows suffered a very costly loss to the Eagles, which denied them a double chance and ultimately set them up for failure in September.

    Twelve months on, Don Pyke’s men won’t want to repeat that same mistake again, especially with the minor premiership potentially at their mercy.

    Prediction: Adelaide Crows by 28 points.

    If my predictions unfold as expected, then the first week of the finals could look like this:

    Thursday night – First qualifying final
    Adelaide Crows versus Richmond, Adelaide Oval, 7:20pm

    Friday night – First elimination final
    Sydney Swans versus Essendon, SCG, 7:50pm

    Saturday afternoon – Second qualifying final
    Geelong Cats versus GWS Giants, Simonds Stadium, 3:20pm

    Saturday night – Second elimination final
    Port Adelaide versus Melbourne, Adelaide Oval, 7:40pm

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