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The 21st round of the 2018 AFL season is upon us in a few short hours and with it comes a five-game Saturday spectacular – a marathon of key games in determining how the rest of the season will unfold.
Hawthorn v Geelong – MCG
Kicking off in Melbourne in the afternoon, there’s so much on the line for both of these sides it’s not funny.
Geelong enters the encounter after a three-point loss to Richmond and sit outside of the top eight – ninth spot with 11 wins and eight losses.
For Geelong, a loss to the Hawks tomorrow leaves the side with two must-win matches to close out the season – and even if they do manage to defeat both Fremantle and the Gold Coast Suns, nothing is guaranteed with how tight the competition is in the middle of the table.
For the Hawks, a win against Geelong means the team is one step closer to a top-four finish – a result that few expected for Alastair Clarkson and his men heading into the new year.
Adding another layer to the excitement surrounding this match, the last time these two sides it was one of the exhilarating encounters of the season – with Hawthorn taking the four points by less than a kick after a final term full of momentum shifts.
Gold Coast Suns v Richmond – Metricon Stadium
There have been plenty of heated encounters between Richmond and the Gold Coast Suns in recent years and the Saturday brawl between this pair at Metricon Stadium should be no different.
Above all else, the clash between the Suns and Tigers will be staked on Richmond’s ability to play outside of Victoria.
Richmond is undefeated inside Victoria in 2018, rarely coming close to dropping a match, but outside of the home state, it’s been a different story.
Losses to Port Adelaide, Greater Western Sydney, Adelaide and West Coast at interstate venues – by admittedly varying degrees of outcome – have painted the image of a side capable of destroying opposition sides at home but unable to offer any sort of flexibility or adaptative abilities on the road.
If Richmond is able to defeat the Suns – as they should as the heavy favourites – it will go a long way towards shaking the team’s reputation as weak on the road. If they lose, it’s going to be an asterisk on the reigning premiers that will bother them in the weeks, months and years to come.
Both sides have named a cavalcade of changes. Richmond will see four returning premiership players – Bachar Houli, Nathan Broad, Jack Graham and Dion Prestia.
Houli is a concern for the Tigers for sure – they’ve already rushed him back from injury too early once this season.
Graham and Prestia will be the key for the Tigers in the middle of the park, with Graham one of the finest defensive pressure players in the competition and Prestia central to both Trent Cotchin and Dustin Martin’s ability to impact the contest.
Port Adelaide v West Coast – Adelaide Oval
I’m not sure what it is about those two teams specifically, but when they come together sparks just seem to fly.
With Sam Gray back in the side for Saturday’s encounter, it’s going to be fascinating to see what level the Power are capable of playing at.
Last round Port Adelaide took on South Australian rivals Adelaide in other highly memorable Showdown. The Power usually struggles in the week following a Showdown, drained of its energy in the often emotional and physically taxing encounters with the Crows.
For the Eagles, it’s the first time in 2018 they’ll have the chance to prove themselves without Andrew Gaff.
Gaff, suspended for the remainder of the season, will be replaced by Brendon Ah Chee and Dom Sheed in the side.
With the Eagles entering this match without Nic Naitanui, Josh Kennedy and Andrew Gaff, it’s going to be a big learning experience for the remainder of the squad.
Collingwood v Brisbane Lions – Etihad Stadium
You wouldn’t think that a clash between top-four fancies Collingwood and cellar-dwellers Brisbane would be one to look forward to – but it is based on the last time they went head-to-head.
Rewinding the clock back to Round 7, the Magpies and Lions put on a show that spiritually called back to the great years of 2001-02 and a rivalry spanning the entire content.
Collingwood got over the line that match 19.7 (121) to Brisbane’s 18.6 (114) – but after the match, Lions’ senior coach Chris Fagan said his side was overjoyed with the result – and they had every reason to be.
The man of the hour in that match was Dayne Zorko, collecting 34 touches, ten tackles and booting four goals in one of the individual performances of the season. Zorko did all this after being tagged out of the first six games of the season in a huge solo comeback.
At the other end of the ground, Jordan de Goey strutted his stuff, picking up 20 disposals and kicking five snags. De Goey returns to the Magpies from injury this week – no doubt they’ll be hoping he can do the same again.
Greater Western Sydney v Adelaide – Canberra Oval
It seems hard to believe but with just three rounds remaining in the season, Adelaide’s chances of finals remain faint but alive and a win against Greater Western Sydney on Saturday would see them take one huge step forward.
With the exception of perhaps Collingwood and the Gold Coast, Adelaide and Greater Western Sydney have been rocked by injuries like no other teams in 2018.
Greater Western Sydney has rebounded well, however, parking themselves in the top four in a run of form few saw coming and now look like a true threat for the premiership despite the absence of so many key players throughout the season.
If you had to offer up one reason for a neutral fan to tune into this encounter it would have to be the midfield talent on show.
For the Giants we’ve got Josh Kelly, Stephen Coniglio and Callan Ward ready and raring to go in the middle of the deck while standing opposite them we’ll see Bryce Gibbs, Rory Sloane and Matt Crouch keen to keep their season alive.