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It’s that time of the year again when, with only seven rounds remaining until the finals, the jockeying for the double chance, positions in the eight and the battle for the wooden spoon will be the main talking points.
As always, I will provide this analysis in two parts: here, I will analyse the current top eight and their hopes of either staying alive in the race for the double chance or holding onto their place in the eight.
The second part will look at the teams currently outside the top eight and any chances they have of making a late finals charge, or avoiding the wooden spoon.
As always, we start from the top, where Richmond remains the team to beat.
Richmond (currently 1st, 12 wins, 3 losses, 48 competition points, 137.8%)
Matches to play: GWS Giants (Spotless), St Kilda (Etihad), Collingwood (MCG), Geelong Cats (MCG), Gold Coast Suns (Metricon), Essendon (MCG), Western Bulldogs (MCG)
With nothing but daylight separating Richmond and the rest of the competition, it will be interesting to see whether any of their nearest challengers can catch them as they chase back-to-back flags.
With a record of 12 wins and three losses, the Tigers have all but wrapped up a top-four berth, and with four of their seven remaining games at the MCG, a first minor premiership since 1982 beckons.
This Saturday night, they travel north for the first time this season to face a GWS Giants side missing their twin towers in Jeremy Cameron (suspended) and Jonathan Patton (knee injury).
After that, they face St Kilda, Collingwood, Geelong, Gold Coast (at Metricon Stadium), Essendon and the Western Bulldogs in their run to September.
If their and the Pies’ current form is anything to go by, then the Round 19 blockbuster could serve as a potential grand final preview and, if they do meet in the big dance, it could be the most-attended decider this century.
It will be the toughest test the Tigers have faced at the MCG so far; when the two teams met back in Round 6, the Pies took it right up to the defending premiers for three quarters before eventually falling by 43 points.
More on the Pies shortly, but with that counting as one of four matches Damien Hardwick’s men have at the home of football in the run to September, it will provide the club with the perfect preparation to warm up for their premiership defence.
In the end, I can’t see them dropping any of their remaining matches and they should comfortably finish on top of the ladder for the first time in 36 years.
Predicted finish: 1st
Collingwood (currently 2nd, 11 wins, 4 losses, 44 competition points, 122.2%)
Matches to play: West Coast Eagles (MCG), North Melbourne (Etihad), Richmond (MCG), Sydney Swans (SCG), Brisbane Lions (Etihad), Port Adelaide (MCG), Fremantle (Optus)
This time last year, the future of coach Nathan Buckley hung in the balance as the Magpies missed out on finals football for the fourth consecutive year.
However, a final round win over Melbourne proved to be just enough for the board to be convinced that the former skipper was the right man to lead the club going forward and, after a shaky start, it is starting to bear fruition.
The Pies have won their last seven matches after having divided their first eight matches evenly, and are in prime position to not only reach the finals for the first time since 2013, but also claim the coveted double chance.
This Sunday they face the West Coast Eagles, against whom they haven’t lost to at the MCG since 1995. If you stopped the season now and fast-forwarded straight to the finals, this would be the second qualifying final.
After facing North Melbourne across the road at Etihad Stadium, the Pies will brace themselves for the ultimate test of all tests, and that is facing a Richmond side that has not lost at the MCG for over 12 months.
It will be the last time they face a Victorian club in the run to September, and the clash against the Tigers will give the Pies the chance to test themselves against a team that has clearly become the benchmark this season.
They then have to travel twice in the final four rounds, making the short trip north to face the Sydney Swans in Round 20 and then wrapping up their regular season by facing Fremantle at the new Optus Stadium.
On form alone, I can see the Pies winning six of their seven remainders, with the only loss being against the Tigers.
Predicted finish: 2nd
West Coast Eagles (currently 3rd, 11 wins, 4 losses, 44 competition points, 120.6%)
Matches to play: Collingwood (MCG), Western Bulldogs (Optus), North Melbourne (Blundstone), Fremantle (Optus, home), Port Adelaide (Oval), Melbourne (Optus), Brisbane Lions (Gabba)
Last week’s gutsy 11-point win over the GWS Giants at home was probably the West Coast Eagles’ most important victory of the season yet.
On the back of three straight losses, and missing their best three forwards in Josh Kennedy, Mark LeCras and Jack Darling, as well as defender Tom Barrass, the Eagles were made to work hard against a Giants side which, despite having been in good form, were also missing their own key forwards.
But the Eagles could come crashing back down to earth when they face Collingwood at the MCG this Sunday.
Adam Simpson’s men will enter that match, their second at the MCG this season, with a large hoodoo hanging over their heads – they haven’t beaten the Pies at the home of football since 1995.
They must also face a potentially tricky match against North Melbourne in Hobart, where the Roos have compiled a 13-4 record since entering that market in 2012, as well as a final round trip to Brisbane where the improving Lions will await.
As far as home matches are concerned, they should not be troubled against the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne, while it will be their turn to host the Derby when they face Fremantle in Round 20.
In the end, the Eagles should retain their place in the top four, with my predicted losses being against the Pies this Sunday as well as the aforementioned match against the Roos in Hobart (the Eagles lost on their last visit there, in round 10 of the 2015 season).
Predicted finish: 3rd
Port Adelaide (currently 4th, 11 wins, 4 losses, 44 competition points, 117.6%)
Matches to play: Fremantle (Optus), GWS Giants (Oval), Western Bulldogs (Mars), Adelaide Crows (Oval, away), West Coast Eagles (Oval), Collingwood (MCG), Essendon (Oval)
Five straight wins since Round 11 has all but seen Port Adelaide book their fourth finals berth in six seasons under coach Ken Hinkley.
While the Power should start favourites against Fremantle at Optus Stadium this Sunday, it shapes as a potentially tricky hurdle in their run to September given they haven’t beaten the Dockers in Perth since 2014.
After that, they will enjoy a stretch of four games at the Oval in the final six weeks, of which one is the ‘away’ Showdown against Port Adelaide and another the final round clash against an Essendon side that could still be in contention for a finals berth.
They should also start favourites against the GWS Giants (who will be missing Cameron and Patton), Western Bulldogs and Adelaide Crows, while the other three matches could come down to a toss of a coin.
The toughest match in that period will be facing Collingwood at the MCG, however, the Power have won three of their last four meetings on the ground, including the past two (in 2016 and 2017).
It will now remain to be seen whether they can take advantage of the challenges that have been presented to them.
Predicted finish: 5th
Sydney Swans (currently 5th, 10 wins, 5 losses, 40 competition points, 118.3%)
Matches to play: North Melbourne (Etihad), Gold Coast Suns (SCG), Essendon (Etihad), Collingwood (SCG), Melbourne (MCG), GWS Giants (Spotless), Hawthorn (SCG)
Before their Round 14 bye, everything was going swimmingly for the Sydney Swans, who have been a very consistent side for the most part of this decade with five consecutive top-four finishes between 2012 and 2016.
However, two losses since then, as well as injuries to key players, have all but derailed their premiership hopes to the point where they are now fighting just to keep their place in the top eight.
Former co-captain Jarrad McVeigh will miss at least six weeks after breaking his collarbone in last Thursday night’s loss to the Geelong Cats, while midfielder Dan Hannebery will miss three weeks with a calf injury.
The other former co-captain, Kieren Jack, remains in doubt for the game against North Melbourne this Sunday after suffering a knee injury in the first quarter and not returning afterwards.
As if that wasn’t enough, the Swans must also contend with consecutive six-day breaks, hosting the Gold Coast Suns on the Saturday in Round 18 before backing up against Essendon at Etihad Stadium six nights later.
After that, they face second-placed Collingwood at home in a Saturday night blockbuster before they wrap up proceedings against three teams battling to stay in finals contention – Melbourne at the MCG, the GWS Giants at Spotless Stadium and, finally, Hawthorn at the SCG.
While they should beat the Dees and Giants, their September destiny could ultimately come down to the game against the Hawks, who have found form in recent weeks to break back into the eight.
Despite a rather treacherous next few matches ahead, I have them finishing sixth for the second consecutive year.
Predicted finish: 6th
Melbourne (currently sixth, 9 wins, 6 losses, 36 competition points, 127.8%)
Matches to play: Western Bulldogs (MCG), Geelong Cats (GMHBA), Adelaide Crows (Oval), Gold Coast Suns (MCG), Sydney Swans (MCG), West Coast Eagles (Optus), GWS Giants (MCG)
After three consecutive losses, Melbourne got back on track by defeating Fremantle in Darwin last week, but after this Saturday night’s home game against the Western Bulldogs, things could get very tough.
The Dees will take tough road trips to Geelong, Adelaide and Perth to face the Cats, Crows and Eagles, while they will also face the Sydney Swans, a side they haven’t beaten since 2010, at home in Round 21.
All four of those sides will be desperate to stay in the finals race themselves and, in the case of the Crows, they’ll be wanting to atone for the embarrassing 91-point thrashing they copped from Melbourne in Round 10.
What had held them back prior to their win over the Dockers was the absence of defender Jake Lever, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against the Western Bulldogs in Round 11.
His run from defence was sorely felt as the Demons dropped matches against Collingwood, Port Adelaide and St Kilda in recent weeks.
One of those losses could come back to bite the club hard if they miss out on September action for the twelfth consecutive year; this comes after they were bumped out of the eight on mere percentage after losing to the Pies in Round 23 last season.
But unfortunately, their run home, which is the toughest of any club currently in the eight, will be too much and I have them again finishing outside the eight.
Predicted finish: 9th
Geelong Cats (currently 7th, 9 wins, 6 losses, 36 competition points, 123.1%)
Matches to play: Adelaide Crows (Oval), Melbourne (GMHBA), Brisbane Lions (GMHBA), Richmond (MCG), Hawthorn (MCG), Fremantle (GMHBA), Gold Coast Suns (GMHBA)
With four of their last seven matches at home, and no more flights out of Victoria after tomorrow night’s clash against Adelaide at the Oval, the Geelong Cats will be hoping to cash in as they seek to qualify for their 13th finals series in 15 years.
Last Thursday night, the Cats overcame some woeful kicking to defeat the Swans by 12 points at the SCG, breathing life into their premiership campaign after they had suffered a gut-wrenching loss to the Western Bulldogs six nights earlier.
They are on the road again tomorrow night, facing a Crows side battling to keep their finals hopes alive in what is a rematch of last year’s preliminary final.
After that, they get two sets of back-to-back matches at Kardinia Park on either side of back-to-back matches against Richmond and Hawthorn at the MCG, which is separated by an eight-day break.
Chris Scott’s men will start favourites in all four of their remaining matches at home, with the Dees the only side of the lot that are still in finals contention.
Despite their favourable draw, I can’t see them making any movement on the ladder, as I have forecast losses for the Cats against the Crows, Tigers and Hawks within the next five weeks.
Predicted finish: 7th
Hawthorn (currently 8th, 9 wins, 6 losses, 36 competition points, 118.1%)
Matches to play: Brisbane Lions (UTAS), Carlton (Etihad), Fremantle (Optus), Essendon (MCG), Geelong Cats (MCG), St Kilda (Etihad), Sydney Swans (SCG)
By way of last week’s 63-point win over the Western Bulldogs, Hawthorn have broken back into the eight and they too will be hoping to make the most of a favourable draw in the final seven rounds of the regular season.
While they should start favourites against the Brisbane Lions in Launceston this Saturday afternoon, they’ll be wary of a side that not only beat them by 56 points at the Gabba in Round 9, but have also won their past two matches, albeit against poor opposition in Fremantle and Carlton.
The Hawks also won’t have to face a top-eight side until they meet Geelong in Round 21, with the club to use the occasion to mark the tenth anniversary of their 2008 premiership win against them.
There are also two road trips scheduled for rounds 19 and 23, where they will face Fremantle and the Sydney, with the match against the Swans set to serve as a genuine finals entree.
With arguably the easiest draw of all the sides in the top eight, the Hawks should take advantage and charge their way into the top four and a possible first-up showdown with Richmond in the first round of the finals.
Predicted finish: 4th
That’s Part 1. The second part will look at the teams currently outside the eight.