With the bye rounds over, the run to the finals begins in earnest this weekend, with several matches set to shape the eight and decide who drifts further away from qualifying for September this year.
For Hawthorn, Friday night’s clash against Collingwood is just about their last roll of the dice, though they will come up against a side that will be smarting following their humiliating loss to North Melbourne last week.
It is likewise for the Sydney Swans, who must smash a near-century hoodoo against Essendon this Saturday if they are to stay alive in finals contention, while the two local derbies will also make for must-watch viewing in South Australia and Western Australia.
On Sunday, the GWS Giants will face their toughest home assignment this season when they welcomes the finals-bound Brisbane Lions to their home base after more than a month on the road.
Here is your preview to Round 16.
Hawthorn vs Collingwood
It was not so long ago that matches between Hawthorn and Collingwood made for compelling viewing, as both consistently battled for places in the upper echelon of the ladder.
But times have passed – the Hawks, one of the most consistent sides of this century – occupy 15th place on the ladder while the Pies have been made to search for answers after a clueless loss to North Melbourne last week.
Despite starting as heavy favourites, the Pies crashed to a 44-point defeat and registered a score of just 5.7 (37) – their lowest in any match for nearly a quarter of a century.
This followed their rather unconvincing win over the Western Bulldogs the previous week, where they lost three quarters but still did enough to take the victory.
The Hawks will be wondering where it went wrong after they suffered a heartbreaking loss to the West Coast Eagles last week, putting them at risk of failing to qualify for September for just the third time since 2006.
Coach Alastair Clarkson said he would be happy to quit as Hawks coach if he feels that his side is no longer in the space to contend for the premiership, and you get the feeling that his long tenure at the club may be about to come to an end.
At least his Pies counterpart Nathan Buckley won’t have to think about tagging Tom Mitchell this Friday night, after last year’s Brownlow Medallist destroyed his side in Round 1 in 2018 with a record-equalling 54 disposals, including a record 34 handballs.
They say you can only get better in your next game. That being said, I think the Pies will bounce back this week.
Prediction: Collingwood by 18 points.
Essendon vs Sydney Swans
If the Sydney Swans are to keep alive any hopes they have of making the finals, then they must overcome what is believed to be the AFL’s longest hoodoo.
You’d have to go all the way back to 1923 to find the last time the Swans – either as Sydney or South Melbourne – defeated Essendon at the MCG, while you only have to go back to 2004 to find the teams’ most recent meeting at the MCG, which the Bombers won by ten points.
The Swans’ mid-season resurgence continued last Saturday night when they defeated the Gold Coast Suns by seven goals at the SCG, despite losing ruckman Callum Sinclair in the first quarter and being seriously challenged by a side that was sitting second-last on the ladder in the first half.
Now they face some much sterner opposition in the Bombers, who have won just one more match than the Swans this season and will be chasing revenge following the controversial finish to their previous meeting at the SCG in Round 8.
Last week, John Worsfold’s side came from three goals down in the final quarter to steal a controversial win over the GWS Giants, with Cale Hooker stepping up to kick the winning goal in the final 30 seconds and toast David Zaharakis in his 200th AFL game.
This gives them the chance to complete the rare double of beating both the Sydney clubs in consecutive weeks, and at home they should take the chocolates.
Prediction: Essendon by 14 points.
Gold Coast Suns vs Richmond
The second of two Saturday afternoon matches sees Richmond fly up to the holiday strip to face the Gold Coast Suns at Metricon Stadium.
The Tigers breathed life into their finals chances by coming from behind to defeat a dogged St Kilda outfit at Marvel Stadium, being one of only two clubs to crack 100 points in Round 15 in the process.
But while they climbed back into the eight after starting the round in the all-too-familiar position of ninth, their percentage is the worst of any team in the top half of the ladder (less than 100).
They should receive a boost when they face the Suns, who after starting the season with three wins from four matches, have lost their last ten in succession to drop to the bottom of the ladder.
Looking to replicate their upset win over the Sydney Swans last year, the Suns stuck with them in the first half before again capitulating after half-time, kicking only two majors as they crashed to a 42-point defeat.
This match will see Tom Lynch, now in the yellow-and-black colours of Richmond, return to his old club for the first time since walking out on the Suns at the end of last season, and his presence at Metricon Stadium will be sure to infuriate Suns fans who still feel hurt by his departure.
Lynch has struggled to make an impact at Punt Road Oval, even more so after Jack Riewoldt suffered a PCL injury which has kept him sidelined since Round 6.
But if there is ever a time for him to really prove his worth to the Tigers, then it’s on Saturday afternoon when he confronts his old club and what is expected to be an unforgiving crowd.
Prediction: Richmond by 36 points.
Adelaide Crows vs Port Adelaide
South Australia will come to a standstill on Saturday afternoon for the 47th Showdown, which will prove crucial to the top four hopes of the Adelaide Crows and the finals chances of Port Adelaide.
Both South Australian clubs are coming off contrasting defeats, with the Crows going down to the Geelong Cats by 27 points and the Power losing to the Western Bulldogs by 25 points in teeming rain at home.
The main topic of discussion at West Lakes will again be about Bryce Gibbs, who has struggled to make an impact at the club since arriving from Carlton at the end of the 2017 season and has been dropped numerous times this year.
Meantime, Power coach Ken Hinkley has demanded more consistency from his players after their defeat to the Bulldogs at home followed an 11-point win over the Cats, just their third against them since 2004. It continued an all-too-familiar win-loss pattern.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, and with the Crows leading the Showdown count by 24-22, they can protect their winning head-to-head for at least another 12 months with a win on Saturday night.
The 47th Showdown also comes just days after the fourth anniversary of the death of Adelaide Crows coach Phil Walsh, and this is something the players may think about when they enter battle at the Adelaide Oval.
Prediction: Adelaide Crows by 20 points.
Western Bulldogs vs Geelong Cats
The first of two Saturday night matches will see a much-welcome change of conditions for the Western Bulldogs, who after defeating Port Adelaide in driving rain at the Adelaide Oval last week, host the Geelong Cats under the roof at Marvel Stadium.
Whatever hopes Luke Beveridge’s side have of making finals remains alive following their win over the Power, and now they’ll be out to sabotage the Cats’ chances of claiming a top two finish for the third time in four years.
Just where the Cats will host their first final, should they finish in the top two, remains a topic of major debate after Chris Scott’s side came from 20 points down in the second quarter to defeat the Adelaide Crows by 27 points, tightening their grip on the minor premiership in the process.
It is increasingly likely that the club will be forced to play their qualifying final at the MCG, though if their opponent ends up being a low-drawing side such as the GWS Giants, then the Cats can stake a strong claim for it to be played at Kardinia Park.
The corresponding game last year saw the Dogs narrowly edge out the Cats in a Friday night thriller at Docklands, with Harry Taylor missing a set shot at goal which would’ve seen his side stay unbeaten against the men from Footscray since late 2009.
However, the Cats did win their most recent meeting, in Round 9 at Kardinia Park, by 44 points, though the Dogs were very competitive in that match and are again expected to be on Saturday night.
Again, the Cats’ class should get them home here.
Prediction: Geelong Cats by 30 points.
Fremantle vs West Coast Eagles
As South Australia comes to a standstill for the Showdown, the same will happen in Western Australia as Fremantle and the West Coast Eagles gear up for the landmark 50th Western Derby.
The Dockers will have a point to prove after blowing a five-goal lead to lose to last-placed Carlton at home last Sunday, the defeat being their third against as many bottom sides this season after their loss to Melbourne the previous week and to the Gold Coast Suns in Round 2.
But they would love nothing more than to derail the Eagles’ premiership defence, which is back on track after two consecutive victories.
After the week’s break following their 45-point loss to the Sydney Swans in Round 12, Adam Simpson’s side have returned more rejuvenated, registering victories over Essendon and Hawthorn with Jamie Cripps kicking the match-winner last week.
It was the Eagles’ first win over the Hawks at the home of football since 2006, and if this is an omen for what is ahead, then another premiership may beckon.
In a huge positive for the reigning premiers, Nic Naitanui emerged from his comeback match unscathed and will relish the chance of playing back at home for the first time nearly a year to the day since his last match at home (against GWS on July 8 last year).
The Eagles have historically dominated the Western Derby since Fremantle entered the competition in 1995, winning the first nine in succession before the Dockers broke through for their first win in Round 16, 1999.
Having won the last eight dating back to late 2015, when the Dockers had the chance to level the rivalry, the Eagles can equal their own record of nine consecutive Western Derby victories with a win this Saturday night, and extend the record to 30-20 in their favour.
Prediction: West Coast Eagles by 25 points.
Carlton vs Melbourne
The first match on Sunday afternoon sees Carlton and Melbourne meet in a battle of the cellar dwellers that no-one could have predicted at the beginning of this season.
While the Blues have again struggled this season, resulting in the dismissal of fourth-year coach Brendon Bolton, they have lifted in recent weeks, winning two of three matches and narrowly losing to the Western Bulldogs in the other.
In the two wins, they had to come from at least 30 points down to beat the Brisbane Lions and Fremantle, with the win over the latter coming thanks to a late goal by former captain Marc Murphy at the death in the west.
Caretaker coach David Teague will now get the chance to further his chances of assuming the role full-time when the Blues tackle a Melbourne side whose form has suffered this season as a result of the weight of expectations, as well as injuries to key players.
Last Sunday, the Dees stuck with the Brisbane Lions for a half before losing by 33 points, with the catalyst being an argument between defenders Steven May and Sam Frost over a defensive play gone wrong in the third quarter.
Coach Simon Goodwin said the exchange was constructive and also said that May produced one of his best performances for the club since crossing from the Gold Coast Suns at the end of last season.
At least he won’t have to deal with Charlie Curnow, who booted a personal best seven goals against the Western Bulldogs in Round 13, as he has been ruled out for up to a month due to a knee injury.
However, captain Patrick Cripps remains a chance of returning from a foot injury, and his presence would largely boost the Blues’ chances of moving further away from the bottom of the ladder in the short term.
The corresponding game last year saw the Dees register a massive 109-point victory, but I think the Blues can turn the tables on Sunday.
Prediction: Carlton by six points.
North Melbourne vs St Kilda
The second of two matches in Melbourne on Sunday afternoon sees a rejuvenated North Melbourne play host to St Kilda under the roof at Marvel Stadium.
After being touted as potential strugglers this season, the Roos have improved over the past month-and-a-bit after coach Brad Scott agreed to step down after conceding his side’s premiership window had all but shut.
Under caretaker coach Rhyce Shaw, the Roos have stepped up to win three of their last four matches (four of their last five if you also include Scott’s last match as coach, a win over the Western Bulldogs in Round 10), with the only blot being a loss to GWS in Round 13.
Perhaps most impressive was their 44-point win over Collingwood at Marvel Stadium last Saturday night in which they kept the Pies to their lowest score in 24 years, which came amid the distraction of an off-field incident involving forward Taylor Garner, who is on a club-imposed suspension.
On the other hand, the Saints – who also have a 6-8 record but have an inferior percentage – will be looking for another much-improved performance on the weekend after running Richmond close in the first half before crashing to a 33-point defeat last Sunday.
A lot has been spoken about the battles Alan Richardson faces to retain his job after what has been an average season by his side, but it must be remembered that the Saints have already won two more matches than they did last year and have been hit by injuries to key players.
In the battle of the six-win clubs, I think the Roos will continue their good form.
Prediction: North Melbourne by 18 points.
GWS Giants vs Brisbane Lions
Round 16 concludes on Sunday afternoon when the GWS Giants return home for the first time in over a month, playing host to the Brisbane Lions at Giants Stadium.
The Giants’ chase for a top two spot suffered a setback as they suffered a heartbreaking and controversial six-point loss to Essendon at Marvel Stadium last Thursday night, giving up a 19-point lead halfway through the final quarter in the process.
Coach Leon Cameron put the defeat down to his side not being smarter for longer enough, but you could also attribute it to the absences of Matt de Boer and Lachie Whitfield, who is expected back after missing the last three matches due to injury.
Meantime, the Brisbane Lions’ bid to end their decade-long finals drought took another step when they overpowered Melbourne at home last Sunday, with Eric Hipwood kicking five goals in another exciting display up forward.
The win lifted them to fifth place on the ladder and you’d think that another three or four wins should be enough for them to qualify for September for the first time since 2009.
But to notch up their tenth win of the season, they’ll have to end two hoodoos – firstly, a six-match losing streak against the Giants dating back to mid-2014, and a seven-match losing streak in Sydney, having not triumphed in the Harbour City since Round 22, 2009.
This match will bring current Coleman Medal leader Jeremy Cameron face-to-face with Harris Andrews for the first time since the sickening incident at the Gabba last year in which an errant elbow from the former knocked the Lions defender out cold, the result being that the 26-year-old copped a five-match suspension from the AFL judiciary.
Cameron should consider himself lucky that this fixture isn’t being played at the Gabba, where he would have copped the full wrath of the pro-Lions crowd, which last week were so unforgiving towards Melbourne fullback Steven May.
You’ll recall that in Round 4, 2016, while playing for the Gold Coast Suns, May ironed out Lions ruckman Stefan Martin, receiving a five-match suspension for his actions.
Back on topic to finish off, and I think the Lions’ strong form will be too much for the hosts.
Prediction: Brisbane Lions by eight points.