Here’s what we learned from Round 23 of the AFL season: while there are eight teams playing finals, the real interest surrounds the top six.
It’s been apparent for some time the September forecast wasn’t looking too sunny for the Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne. But neither enhanced their reputation on the eve of finals.
Instead, we saw one of the clear standouts throughout the home and away rounds drop to fifth, losing to a sixth-placed side that claimed their third strong scalp in as many weeks. Then there’s a top four where the case can be legitimately made for each club going all the way.
Sydney and Geelong flexed their muscles in round 23, but Hawthorn have a fourpeat to play for and keep on surviving (especially in close games). The GWS Giants might be written off as too inexperienced – it’s the club’s first finals campaign, after all – but do they have the talent to overcome that? It’d be hard to argue they don’t.
So finals time has arrived and this is definitely the time of year you want to be close to the top of the Power Rankings.
The ladder’s top six, unsurprisingly, can all lay claim to that.
No change // Ladder: 1st (17W, 5L)
As far as the Swans would be concerned, you couldn’t script a better lead-in to finals than putting 25 goals through the sticks, winning by 113 points and not picking up any injuries. Throw in a veteran who’s been in and out of the side, Ben McGlynn, showing his value at the selection table with five goals. Throw in seven goals to Lance Franklin. Throw in six – yes, six – players racking up more than 30 touches. They’re ready for the real stuff.
+2 // Ladder: 6th (16W, 6L)
It’s bloody hard to fault the Eagles’ last three weeks. Victories over GWS, Hawthorn and Adelaide – in games that weren’t meaningless – is, well, meaningful. Particularly when they’ve busted the narrative that this team can’t win interstate. And is the web back and better than ever? The pressure of finals will reveal all.
+2 // Ladder: 2nd (17W, 5L)
For the Cats, there’s obvious parallels with what the Swans got out of the weekend. A massive 111-point win over Melbourne and no apparent serious injuries. A six-goal haul from Tom Hawkins. They have the right to head into the week off in a more confident state than the team they’ll face in a fortnight.
+2 // Ladder: 4th (16W, 6L)
The Giants’ opposition on Saturday had every reason to be fired up, but to run out 37-point winners against North Melbourne was impressive. There were good signs up forward with Jonathon Patton continuing his late season form with five goals and Steve Johnson with four.
-3 // Ladder: 5th (16W, 6L)
What a costly loss that was to the Eagles. Instead of locking in the double chance – and quite possibly two home finals – the Crows’ path to a premiership is far more difficult. Rory Sloane will be back in a fortnight’s time. And there’s at least something for Crows fans in the fact their opponent will be North Melbourne … you know, that club they beat in 1998 … the year they had come from fifth to win the flag.
-3 // Ladder: 3rd (17W, 5L)
That’s now six wins from six games decided by less than 10 points. When you think this side might be done, bang. It may well prove this is a metaphor for their entire year. Jack Fitzpatrick seized the moment in the one-point win over Collingwood, a great moment for someone who’d well and truly slipped off the footy radar and might just be a secret weapon the Hawks have been hiding away all season.
+2 // Ladder: 12th (9W, 13L)
The Pies saved some of their best footy until last. “Some of” because the ups and downs throughout the season have been extreme. Consistency next year could go a long way.
No change // Ladder: 8th (12W, 10L)
There was plenty of drama at Arden Street last week and those of us who speculated it might translate to an inspired victory didn’t get that outcome. Can Boomer Harvey play on? He only needed to look across Etihad Stadium to Steve Johnson to find a player thriving after a late-career move.
-2 // Ladder: 7th (15W, 7L)
The Dogs will be up against tougher opponents than Fremantle if they are to make a run in this year’s finals series, so the 20-point loss is a concern (even accounting for the occasion the Dockers were playing for). There was a horrific gap in ball use, with an 8 per cent difference in disposal efficiency between the two sides.
+1 // Ladder: 9th (12W, 10L)
History will show the Saints missed the eight only on percentage, so they definitely get a tick for this year’s campaign. It was good to see Nick Riewoldt kicking a bag of nine once again in the win over Brisbane.
+1 // Ladder: 10th (10W, 12L)
Expectations were a bit higher with the Power so to land two games out of the eight means they don’t get a tick. Robbie Gray was hard to fault in the win over Gold Coast and has been one of the bright spots.
-2 // Ladder: 11th (10W, 12L)
A painful final fortnight for the Dees and not the fitting Paul Roos send-off against Geelong. Still, Roos walks away from another club with his name held high.
+2 // Ladder: 15th (6W, 16L)
The Suns can only look on as the Giants make their finals debut, starting from a top four position. This side was nowhere near that level in 2016 and with key talents leaving, some firm decision making will be required over the break.
No change // Ladder: 13th (8W, 14L)
The Tigers didn’t get a look-in against the Swans, underscoring the gap between them and the top side while also ending the year on a particularly disappointing note.
+1 // Ladder: 16th (4W, 18L)
A fitting send-off for Matthew Pavlich. The great man kicks his 700th goal, the Dockers secure a rare win over a finals-bound opponent and Lachie Neale notches the most disposals in a season on record. It was a tough year that ended on an uplifting note.
-3 // Ladder: 14th (7W, 15L)
Remember when there was talk about the Blues making finals? It was fanciful, of course, but perhaps it’s fair to say round 23 – losing to Essendon – was the season’s low-point.
No change // Ladder: 18th (3W, 19L)
For a team that wasn’t meant to win a game, the thrown-together Bombers did well. Zach Merrett made a name for himself this season and it will be interesting to see how that carries over to next season when there’s more support around him.
No change // Ladder: 17th (3W, 19L)
That Justin Leppitsch is unlikely to see out this week says all you need to know about how the Lions’ year went, but there’s also this: they had 516 more points scored against them than the next worst side.