Only three rounds remain before the finals get underway, with the majority of matches in the run home set to shape the final ladder, ranging from finals berths all the way down to 18th place.
The finals chances of Essendon, the Geelong Cats, Adelaide Crows, North Melbourne and the Sydney Swans will all go on the line in various matches this weekend, while Richmond will get its final chance to break its interstate hoodoo when they travel up to the Gold Coast.
Meanwhile, Carlton’s faint chances of avoiding the wooden spoon could be all but dashed when it makes the long trip to Perth to face a Fremantle side battling for pride after another disappointing season.
Here is your preview of Round 21 of the AFL.
Essendon versus St Kilda
The first match of the round will see Essendon’s finals chances go on the line when they face a St Kilda side fighting for pride at Etihad Stadium on Friday night.
Written off after their embarrassing Round 8 loss to Carlton, which left them with a 2-6 record, the Bombers were instead able to revive their season in recent weeks, winning eight of their next ten matches before going down to Hawthorn by just four points last Saturday afternoon.
That loss has left them in tenth place on the ladder with just three rounds left to play, meaning every match from here on in are virtual elimination finals if they are to feature in September in back-to-back years for the first time since 2003-04.
Their clash against the Saints will be the first of three consecutive Friday night matches to finish their regular fixture, with matches against Richmond and St Kilda still to come after this weekend.
The Saints will be reeling after losing to the Western Bulldogs by 35 points last Saturday night, with coach Alan Richardson labelling his midfield’s performance as “unacceptable”.
At one point in the match, scores were level at 50-all before the Saints capitulated in the second half to crash to their 15th defeat of the season.
It was yet another disappointing loss which has left the fifth-year coach in the spotlight, though the club has backed him in for the long term as they continue to adjust to life without Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna.
But in some overdue good news for the Saints, key players Tim Membrey and Jimmy Webster have recently re-signed with the club until the end of the 2021 and 2022 seasons respectively.
Now, all they have left to fight for is pride – but I can’t see them springing an upset this Friday night.
Prediction: Essendon by 25 points.
Devon Smith of the Bombers (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Hawthorn versus Geelong Cats
The first match on Saturday afternoon will see Hawthorn mark the ten-year anniversary of their 2008 premiership when they host the Geelong Cats at the MCG.
The Cats has established themselves as the benchmark of the competition over the previous eighteen months, winning the 2007 flag in record breaking fashion and losing just one game throughout the 2008 regular season.
However, on grand final day, the Hawks came out with a clear plan to unsettle the Cats, playing a defensive-oriented match to restrict the minor premiers to eleven goals and a staggering 23 behinds, while kicking 18.7 (115) themselves.
The Hawks’ win was highlighted by a best-on-ground performance from Norm Smith Medallist Luke Hodge, as well as a five-minute burst from Stuart Dew, who had been lured out of retirement by coach Alastair Clarkson and some brilliance from first-year player Cyril Rioli.
Back to the present now, and while the Hawks remain alive in the fight for the double chance, the Cats’ finals chances took a hit when it lost to Richmond by three points last Friday night.
Their second loss to the Tigers this season saw Chris Scott’s men drop out of the top eight, leaving them in grave danger of missing the finals for just the second time since 2006.
To miss out on September action this year would render season 2018 a massive disappointment considering they were able to lure favourite son Gary Ablett Jr back home after seven years at the Gold Coast Suns.
But with winnable matches against Fremantle and the Suns, both at GMHBA Stadium, to follow after this weekend, the match against the Hawks looms as a virtual elimination final, as another loss would see them further fall further off the pace with the eight.
However, expect the Hawks to show no mercy at the MCG this Saturday afternoon.
Prediction: Hawthorn by 10 points.
Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson. (Image: AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Gold Coast Suns versus Richmond
Richmond will be hoping that it is fifth time lucky on their final interstate trip of the season when they travel to the Gold Coast to face a Suns side which has been battered from pillar to post under first-year coach Stuart Dew.
While a lot has been said about their dominant record at the MCG, with their victory over the Geelong Cats being their 19th consecutive win at the home of football, a major point of discussion has also been their dismal record away from Victoria this season.
All four of the Tigers’ defeats in 2018 have occurred outside the boundaries of Victoria, with two losses in Adelaide as well as one each in Perth and Sydney, with only the Crows (in Round 2) currently sitting outside the eight.
But while the Gold Coast Suns will quietly be confident of springing an upset, like they did at the SCG several weeks ago, the reality is that they will start huge underdogs against the reigning premiers, to whom they have lost five of their past six matches against.
The corresponding match last year saw Richmond win by 33 points, with Jason Castagna claiming a Rising Star nomination. The Suns had started brightly, kicking three of the first four goals, before the Tigers took control.
They’ll want to take a leaf out of the GWS Giants’ book, after they had executed the perfect game plan to frustrate the Tigers at every possible opportunity in Round 17, winning by two points.
But there will be no reason for complacency from Damien Hardwick’s men this Saturday afternoon, and they’ll be expected to land back in Melbourne by the end of Saturday night with the four points.
Prediction: Richmond by 50 points.
Jack Higgins of the Tigers (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Port Adelaide versus West Coast Eagles
To say that it has been a tough week for both clubs for contrasting reasons would be a massive understatement.
The Power are reeling following a controversial Showdown loss to the Adelaide Crows which has dented their top four hopes, while the Eagles have lost another key player for the season in a blow to their title chances.
After losing ruckman Nic Naitanui to yet another serious knee injury, the Eagles were rocked by the news that Andrew Gaff will miss the rest of the season after copping an eight-match suspension from the judiciary for his brutal punch to the face of Fremantle youngster Andrew Brayshaw.
It was one of the most ugliest on-field incidents in recent times, beating even the brutal swinging punch Barry Hall inflicted on Brent Staker over a decade ago, that incident seeing the Swans spearhead suspended for seven weeks.
Not only will Adam Simpson’s men have to contend without two of their most important players for the balance of this season, chances are full-forward Josh Kennedy may miss another fortnight due to a shin injury.
Meanwhile, the Power dropped out of the top four following their narrow loss to the Crows in Showdown 45, and there is every chance they could miss the finals altogether with clashes against fellow finals contenders Collingwood and Essendon to follow after this weekend.
It will be the first time the two sides have met at the Oval since last year’s thrilling elimination final, in which the Eagles’ Luke Shuey kicked the match winning goal after the final siren in the second period of extra time to see his side through to the semi-final, where they then lost to GWS by 67 points.
This time though, I think Port will gain some revenge at home as they look to regain the double chance.
Prediction: Port Adelaide by four points.
Port Adelaide will take on the Eagles. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)
GWS Giants versus Adelaide Crows
The first of two Saturday night matches will see the GWS Giants shoot for their third consecutive Canberra clean sweep when they face an Adelaide Crows side which has surprisingly fallen down the ladder in 2018.
The Giants’ impressive form, initiated when they defeated the Crows by 16 points at the Oval in Round 11, continued when they thrashed Carlton by 105 points at Etihad Stadium last Sunday.
However, the win came at a catastrophic cost with Dawson Simpson and Brett Deledio both suffering season-ending knee and calf injuries respectively, while Toby Greene, who had only just returned from a foot injury which saw him miss three months, is set for another stint on the sidelines after failing to see out the match due to a hamstring injury.
Tom Scully, meantime, has called time on his season due to an ankle injury he suffered in Round 2 against Collingwood at the MCG, which wound up being his only senior appearance for the year.
But in some positive news, full forward Jeremy Cameron kicked four goals in his comeback match from suspension as the Giants kicked their highest score for the season, kicking 23.13 (151) against the hapless Blues.
While their opponents, the Crows, languish in 12th place on the ladder with ten wins, nine losses and a percentage below 100, they still pose a serious threat with Sam Jacobs in the ruck and Rory Sloane in the midfield.
They are coming off a narrow win over Port Adelaide in the Showdown, which has reignited their finals chances after they had terribly fallen away in the middle part of the season.
In a tense finish, Josh Jenkins kicked a contentious goal to give them a three-point win, but it did little to improve their percentage, which could conspire against them if they end up missing the finals.
Finishing outside the eight for the first time since 2014 would complete a massive fall from grace for Don Pyke’s men, whose scoring has diminished this season after having the AFL’s deadliest attack in the past two years.
Taking into account the key injuries to several of the Giants’ players, I think the Crows can spring an upset here and carry the momentum from their win over the Power forward into the final few weeks.
Prediction: Adelaide Crows by 18 points.
[latest_videos_strip category=”afl” name=”AFL”]
Collingwood versus Brisbane Lions
The other Saturday night match sees Collingwood face off against a vastly improved Brisbane Lions outfit at Docklands for the first time since mid-2002.
The decision by the club’s board to back coach Nathan Buckley in for the long term has paid off, with the club currently sitting in sixth place on the ladder with twelve wins and seven losses.
But despite suffering three losses in their past four matches, they still remain on track to reach the finals for the first time since 2013, however, injuries to key players will hamper their run to September.
Last week they went down to the Sydney Swans by just two points, despite dominating large parts of the game. They will not want to make the same mistake when they host the Lions this Saturday night.
Chris Fagan’s young side came so close to registering their fifth win of the season, when number one draft pick Cameron Rayner missed a set shot at goal from close range to deny them a win over North Melbourne at home.
The sight of him being comforted by Fagan after the match will go down as one of the enduring scenes of the 2018 season, and is proof that in just his first season, he is being held in the highest regard by his teammates.
It is also proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel for a side which has fallen so far in the past decade, that the hat-trick of premierships the side enjoyed earlier this century seems anything but a distant memory.
While they will be expected to take the challenge up to Collingwood, as they did at the Gabba in Round 7, the Pies should prove too strong at Docklands.
Prediction: Collingwood by 20 points.
Magpies coach Nathan Buckley (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
North Melbourne versus Western Bulldogs
The first match on Sunday sees North Melbourne host the Western Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium in a match they must win if they are to remain alive in the finals race.
Despite being favoured by many to take out the wooden spoon this season, the Roos have exceeded expectations in 2018, winning eleven of nineteen matches and holding a percentage of 110.1.
Among their scalps this season have included Hawthorn, Sydney, GWS, and more recently, the second-placed West Coast Eagles in Hobart, which they have developed into a fortress in recent years.
This Sunday they will start favourites against the Bulldogs, who broke a four-match losing streak by defeating St Kilda at Docklands last Saturday night.
It was just the Dogs’ sixth win of what has undoubtedly been another disappointing season for the club from Whitten Oval, as they stare down the barrel of a second consecutive year without finals football.
They’ll want to make amends for their narrow loss to the Roos in Round 14, in which they had led by a considerable margin in the first half before Jack Ziebell kicked the match winning goal with less than 30 seconds remaining.
After that loss, coach Luke Beveridge let rip at his players in scenes reminiscent of Terry Wallace’s famous “I’ll spew up” speech from 1996, after his side had blown such a huge lead in the second quarter.
But while the Dogs would love to register their seventh win for the season this Sunday, the Roos should get home here.
Prediction: North Melbourne by 21 points.
Paul Ahern of the Kangaroos (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Melbourne versus Sydney Swans
While the finals hopes of both Melbourne and the Sydney Swans will be tested in Sunday’s match at the MCG, all the pressure will be more on the Dees than the Swans, for varying reasons.
While the Dees, under second-year coach Simon Goodwin, have been a revelation, becoming the first side this season to kick more than 2,000 points, they have either shown the tendency to drop off late in games, or lose matches they are expected to win.
Most notably, in Round 18, they lost to the Geelong Cats by two points after allowing their opposition a free passage out of defence, leading to Zach Tuohy kicking the match winner for the Cats after the final siren.
However, the Dees have hit back in the past fortnight, defeating the Adelaide Crows on the road before thrashing the Gold Coast Suns by 96 points at the MCG last Sunday.
They will face a more serious test of their finals credentials when they host the Sydney Swans in the annual Pink Lady match this weekend.
After four losses in five games, including a shock loss to the Suns at home in Round 18, caused them to drop out of the eight, the Swans breathed life into their finals chances by edging out Collingwood by two points at the SCG last Saturday night, with Tom McCartin kicking the winner with two minutes left.
That leaves them in eighth place on the ladder but still with a tough run home; after their clash with the Dees, they will face tough clashes against the GWS Giants and Hawthorn to round out their regular fixture.
This is what will make their clash against the Dees all the more important; if they can notch up their second win at the MCG this season, then they’ll give themselves every chance of sealing a finals berth in the final fortnight.
But while the Swans have had a dominant record against the Dees in recent years, losing to them just once since 2006 (a 73-point loss in 2010), I think the hosts should get the job done here.
Prediction: Melbourne by 24 points.
Nathan Jones of the Demons thanks fans. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Fremantle versus Carlton
The final match of Round 21 could all but see Carlton take out the wooden spoon when they make the tough trip west to face Fremantle.
The Blues’ season of misery continued last Sunday when they was thrashed by the GWS Giants by 105 points. The Blues were unfortunate to have to face their spearhead, Jeremy Cameron, who was returning from a five-match suspension incurred for striking Brisbane Lions fullback Harris Andrews.
Strangely, commentators said during the match against the Giants that despite the heavy loss that was about to be inflicted on them, the performance “was watchable”.
How wrong were they?
This weekend they’ll face another team who will be regaining a player from suspension, with Ryan Nyhuis to return from his three weeks off after he was convicted of a dangerous tackle on Port’s Robbie Gray in Round 17.
While the Dockers are coming off a ten-goal loss to the West Coast Eagles, any thoughts on the result were brushed aside following the sickening injury suffered by first-year player Andrew Brayshaw during the third quarter.
The 18-year-old was on the wrong end of a brutal punch from Eagle Andrew Gaff, who as mentioned above copped an eight-week suspension from the judiciary for quite arguably the most violent on-field act in AFL history for at least a decade.
As a result, Brayshaw suffered a broken jaw for which he has undergone surgery, meaning he will miss the rest of the season, however, he should be fully fit to return in Round 1 next year.
Andrew Brayshaw nurses his broken jaw (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Media/Getty Images)
As far as the rest of the season is concerned, Ross Lyon’s men will want 2018 to be over as quickly as possible, as they are certain not to be playing finals for a third consecutive year.
They will start favourites this Sunday, but after that will have to contend with tough clashes against the Geelong Cats (in Geelong) and Collingwood to finish off the year.
Not only will a win see them equal their win tally from last season, it will also almost certainly sentence Carlton to its fifth wooden spoon since the turn of this millennium with two games still to play before season’s end.
At home, there should be no excuses.
Prediction: Fremantle by 40 points.