The finals are just one month away, and with three rounds remaining in the regular season, time is running out for teams to stake their September claim.
Round 21 shapes as their last roll of the finals dice for Hawthorn, Port Adelaide, the Western Bulldogs, North Melbourne and Fremantle still a mathematical chance of qualifying for September.
The race for a top-two finish is also set to intensify, with the Brisbane Lions, Geelong Cats and West Coast Eagles all expected to jointly lead the ladder ahead of the former two teams facing off at the Gabba next weekend.
Richmond – who hold down fourth position – are also expected to be challenged by the GWS Giants and Collingwood in the coming weeks, but should not be threatened when it faces Carlton at the MCG on Sunday.
Here is your preview to Round 21.
GWS Giants vs Hawthorn
Cold conditions are expected to greet both the GWS Giants and Hawthorn when they converge on Canberra’s Manuka Oval to kick off Round 21.
For Hawthorn, it is almost certainly their last chance to keep their finals hopes alive, while the stakes are even higher for the Giants, who must win every game from here on in and hope that Richmond slips up at least once if they are to finish in the top four.
Last week, the Hawks blew a first-quarter 27-point lead to lose to North Melbourne by 22 points at Marvel Stadium, with the result almost certain to see them miss September action for the second time in three years.
It soured what was Shaun Burgoyne’s 374th AFL game, which set a record for the most games by an Indigenous player, overtaking the record held by Adam Goodes.
Meantime, the Giants won the closest Sydney Derby ever, escaping by two points after Sam Reid of the Swans was not paid a mark in the final minute, which would’ve given him the chance to kick a match-winner and break the Giants’ hearts in the process.
They’ll be expected to get at least one of Jeremy Cameron, Josh Kelly and Matt de Boer back for the clash against the Hawks, who handed them a 33-point defeat when the teams met at the MCG in Round 8.
That match saw the Giants blasted in the media by one of their own board members, Jimmy Bartel, after they kicked just five goals – including one in the dying minutes of the match – in otherwise perfect conditions.
However, back at Canberra for the first time since Round 7, the Giants should have learnt a lesson or two from that match and will start favourites against a Hawthorn side which will be playing in the nation’s capital for the first time.
Extremely cold conditions are forecast for this Friday night, with a slim chance of snow – if this eventuates, it would be the first time in nearly 20 years that a professional football match of any code has been played in such conditions.
In their final appearance in Canberra for the season, the Giants should take the points.
Prediction: GWS Giants by 15 points.
Melbourne vs Collingwood
The first match on Saturday afternoon sees Melbourne continue to try to salvage something out of its season of disappointment when they face an injury-ravaged Collingwood at the MCG
With several players deciding to call time on their seasons due to injury, the Dees came out fighting against Richmond in the first half before capitulating to lose by 33 points in front of a crowd of 37,254.
It won’t get any easier for Simon Goodwin’s side when they face a Pies side desperate to keep their top-four chances alive. The black and white have fallen to sixth on the ladder after a mid-season form slump.
Pies forward Mason Cox will not play again in 2019 after suffering an eye injury in the first quarter of their win over the Gold Coast Suns, which was just the second time they had played the men from the holiday strip at the MCG.
It was just their second win by more than 50 points this season, and their first since Round 5 when they thrashed the Brisbane Lions by ten goals at the Gabba.
Cox will join Dayne Beams on the sidelines for the rest of the season, while last year’s Rising Star winner Jaidyn Stephenson is not due back from his gambling suspension until the first week of the finals series.
When the Pies and Dees met on Queen’s Birthday nearly two months ago, it was the Pies who prevailed in what was their first home game against the red and blue since the fixture became annual in 2001.
Not only will they start favourites to prevail on Saturday, they’ll also be hoping to complete the double over the Dees for the first time since 2009, and possibly leave Simon Goodwin’s side at risk of picking up their first wooden spoon since that same year.
Prediction: Collingwood by 20 points.
Port Adelaide vs Sydney Swans
With their finals hopes officially extinguished, the Sydney Swans will head to Adelaide for the first time in nearly two years with nothing to lose when they face Port Adelaide at the Adelaide Oval.
Once again, John Longmire’s side fielded a young and inexperienced line-up, with the likes of Jarrad McVeigh and Lance Franklin still sidelined with injuries.
They now face a Port Adelaide side that were very impressive in thrashing Essendon by 59 points at Marvel Stadium last Saturday. The result kept alive whatever chances Ken Hinkley’s side have of qualifying for September this year.
Their next challenge will be trying to string together consecutive wins for the first time since Rounds 5 and 6, when they defeated the West Coast Eagles in Perth followed up seven nights later by a win over North Melbourne at the Adelaide Oval.
In their favour is the fact that they has won their past two matches against the Swans, but both of those were at the SCG. That being said, this will be the first time they have played the Swans at the Adelaide Oval, where the record stands at 2-0 in favour of the men from the Harbour City.
At home, Port should get the job done.
Prediction: Port Adelaide by 22 points.
Brisbane Lions vs Gold Coast Suns
The 18th edition of the Q Clash will see the Brisbane Lions start at short odds to not just defeat the Gold Coast Suns, but also have the chance to move to the top of the ladder for at least three hours.
Chris Fagan’s side racked up their seventh consecutive win – their longest winning streak since the premiership era of 2001-03 – last Sunday when they defeated the Western Bulldogs at home, reversing a Round 8 loss against them in the process.
Highlighting the talent in the team was the performance of Noah Answerth, who picked up a Rising Star nomination in the win. This made it two consecutive weeks in which a player from either Queensland club claimed a nomination, after the Suns’ Ben King in Round 19.
While the Lions head towards their first finals campaign in a decade, it seems like the season cannot come to an end for the Suns, whose 69-point loss to Collingwood last Sunday marked their 14th consecutive defeat – their worst in a single season since 2012.
They came to within a whisker of upsetting Essendon at home in Round 19, but the form shown in that match went out the window as they embarrassed themselves against the Pies in their only appearance at the MCG for the season.
While the Lions won the earlier Q Clash at Metricon Stadium in Round 6, the Suns did win the most recent match-up played at the Gabba, by five points in Round 5 last year.
However, this season has seen the Gabba’s fortress status reclaimed, with the Lions only losing once at home this year (against Collingwood in Round 5). However, the home tenants should show no mercy and hand the Suns a 15th straight loss.
Prediction: Brisbane Lions by 40 points.
Essendon vs Western Bulldogs
The first of two matches on Saturday night sees Essendon look to end a four-game losing streak against the Western Bulldogs when the two teams come face-to-face at Marvel Stadium.
The Bombers had the chance to all but seal their place in the eight last Saturday with a win against Port Adelaide, however they crashed to a 59-point defeat – their worst since Round 1 – to leave their finals hopes hanging in the balance.
It comes to show just how inconsistent the Bombers have become in recent years, despite the club having built a playing list that appears capable of going deep into September in the aftermath of the supplements scandal which plagued them earlier this decade.
Now they face a Western Bulldogs side whose finals hopes also hang by a thread, after an 18-point loss to the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba last Sunday saw them end the round in tenth place with a record of eight wins and ten losses.
Unless things change for the better, this will be the third year in a row in which the Bulldogs will be absent from September, continuing the club’s alarming regression following their 2016 premiership.
Still, coach Luke Beveridge recently had his contract extended until the end of 2023, which will give him more than enough time to continue rebuilding the playing list, which in the years following their flag has been decimated by the retirement of key players.
While the Bulldogs have won their past four against the Bombers dating back to 2015, it’ll be the men from Windy Hill who will start favourites on Saturday night.
Prediction: Essendon by 30 points.
Geelong Cats vs North Melbourne
The other match on Saturday night sees the Geelong Cats welcome North Melbourne to Kardinia Park.
Having cruised into the bye with a record of 11 wins and one loss, Chris Scott’s side has lost some momentum, dropping four of their past seven games to have them joined at the top of the ladder by the Brisbane Lions and West Coast Eagles.
Last week, Scott was forced to defend the club’s decision to fly straight from Sydney to Perth – bypassing home altogether in the process – after they suffered a shock defeat to Fremantle at Optus Stadium.
Many will also argue that the six-day break also cost them dearly, as they were also slow to get going against the Swans before rallying to win by 27 points at the SCG in Round 19.
Still, they remain in top spot by virtue of having the best percentage in the league, and with the Lions almost certain to move ahead on the ladder, the Cats will want to keep up the chase by defeating the much-improved Kangaroos at home on Saturday night.
The Roos’ performance against Hawthorn will give them some hope of causing an upset at GMHBA Stadium, where they has not won since 2015, and before that 2007.
Try as they might, it’s expected the Roos’ finals flame will officially be extinguished on Saturday night, with the Cats expected to prove too strong.
Prediction: Geelong Cats by 24 points.
St Kilda vs Fremantle
For St Kilda and Fremantle, Sunday’s crunch match at Marvel Stadium shapes as what is almost certainly the last roll of the finals dice.
The weeks following the departure of long-serving coach Alan Richardson has seen the Saints play with newfound freedom not seen in the first half of the year, with the club picking up wins over the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne before they fell to the Adelaide Crows last week.
Although the Saints drew to within a few kicks of the Crows a couple of times at the Adelaide Oval last Saturday night, they were unable to take the lead.
And in a major blow to their hopes of finishing the season strongly, forward Jade Gresham is certain not to play again this year after picking up an eye injury in the defeat in Adelaide.
On the other hand, Fremantle’s chances of qualifying for their first finals series since 2015 took a significant step when they upset the ladder-leading Geelong Cats by 34 points at home, ensuring that the critics lay off coach Ross Lyon for at least another week.
Lyon had been linked with a return to St Kilda after Richardson departed last month, however he remains contracted to the Dockers until the end of next season, and is a 50-50 chance of remaining in the west beyond 2020.
Another of their star players, Rory Lobb, will not play again in 2019 after electing to undergo surgery to the shoulder he injured in their win over the Sydney Swans in Round 18.
While finals appear unlikely for the Saints, they can at least sabotage the Dockers’ chances with a win on Sunday.
Prediction: St Kilda by 12 points.
Richmond vs Carlton
The fifth in a string of seven straight matches at the MCG to finish off the regular season sees Richmond play host to a much-improved Carlton in the second match on Sunday.
The Tigers’ run to September gathered momentum with a sixth straight win last Saturday against Melbourne, retaining their place in the top four with two rounds to play after this weekend.
With Jack Riewoldt having returned from injury in recent weeks, they’ll also stand to get ruckman Toby Nankervis back in due course as they aim for a second premiership in three years.
The Carlton side they will face on Sunday will be a whole lot different to the one they defeated in Round 1, with the Blues having picked up their form in the two months following Brendon Bolton’s departure after Round 11.
David Teague’s side gave the West Coast Eagles a run for their money last Sunday, staying with the defending premiers for the most part before ultimately losing by 24 points.
This followed a hat-trick of wins against the Sydney Swans, Gold Coast Suns and Adelaide Crows, which has almost certainly steered them away from a sixth wooden spoon this century.
Now they face the arduous task of attempting to derail the Tigers’ top-four chances, with Damien Hardwick’s men likely to start their match sixth on the live ladder, provided the GWS Giants and Collingwood win their matches earlier in the round.
For the Tigers, this will be their last match against a side out of the eight, as they will then face much higher-ranked teams the West Coast Eagles and Brisbane Lions in the final two rounds.
First though, they need to take care of the Blues, which I can see them doing with ease.
Prediction: Richmond by 36 points.
West Coast Eagles vs Adelaide Crows
The final match of Round 21 takes us west, where the reigning premiers, the West Coast Eagles, play host to the Adelaide Crows.
Last week, Adam Simpson’s side survived a challenge from Carlton to win by 24 points.
The Eagles have gathered enough percentage to overtake the Lions in the battle for a top-two spot, which could prove beneficial in the club’s bid to become the first interstate team since Brisbane themselves in 2001-03 to win back-to-back flags.
Now they face an Adelaide Crows side that overcame a week of scrutiny to defeat St Kilda at home and retain their place in the eight.
Coach Don Pyke came under fire after making the bombshell decision to drop Eddie Betts for their clash against Carlton, which they lost by 27 points, but promptly recalled him for the clash against the Saints, which they won by 22 points.
With Port Adelaide expected to join them on 40 premiership points, and with the chance to accrue enough percentage to move up to eighth place, winning will be important for the Crows if they are to keep their place in the eight and lock their South Australian rivals out of September.
When the Crows last met the Eagles in Round 10, the men from West Lakes led by 33 points in the third quarter, only for the Eagles to stage a stunning comeback to win by 12 points and score a crucial win on the road.
At home, the Eagles should prove too strong as they close in on a coveted top-two finish.
Prediction: West Coast Eagles by 22 points.