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Five talking points from AFL Round 21

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11th August, 2019
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The home-and-away season is down to just two weeks left on the calendar, but there’s still plenty up in the air before finals roll around. Here’s my talking points from Round 21.

A quick note – ‘everybody gets a turn’, unfortunately, will not see everybody get a turn this week, as I spent the morning running City2Surf for some reason that probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Back next week!

Dogs deal Dons a devastating blow
When Dylan Shiel burst forth in the first twenty seconds of the game on Saturday night to kick the opening goal of the match, Essendon fans could have been forgiven for thinking that – after last week’s debacle against Port Adelaide – the side had arrived Marvel Stadium switched on and ready to secure a spot in the top eight.

The end result was anything but. The Bombers conceded the next 21 consecutive goals and in the end were lucky at all to kick another for the match, ultimately skipping away with three in a row at the end to make a 104-point loss on the scoreboard somehow flattering to their performance.

There’s little need to drag out the thesaurus and seek out creative ways to describe the performance; it’s self-evidently quite a bad one. The question is how much to read into it, and to what degree will it shape Essendon’s direction in the short and long term.

Coach John Worsfold has endured a rollercoaster season in the media. In the middle of the year it was widely believed he would cop the axe before season’s end, only to seemingly have revived his position with five straight wins, some of them being quality scalps.

Now, only a fortnight on from the last of those wins, all of a sudden his side is at surely the lowest point it has been during his tenure there – and after nearly two full seasons of a malaise that has seen the club fail to deliver on the expectations that a high-profile recruiting policy has created, fans are growing restless.

I noted with interest this week the news that highly-rated assistant Blake Caracella will join the Bombers next year. It’s a big get for the club, and I can’t help but wonder if that move has been made with a thought in the back of the mind towards having him ready to go if there’s a sudden need for a new senior coach.

Despite the debacle, Essendon are still a solid chance of squeezing into the top eight. They play what will be a demoralised Fremantle next week, a still-injury-stricken Collingwood the next – and they probably only need to win one of those to hang on to eighth spot.

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Of course, you wouldn’t expect them to manage that based on the form of the past two weeks. Whatever happens next, expect a dramatic final fortnight for the Essendon football club.

Dyson Heppell

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Port Adelaide firm for a finals place
While other teams around their place on the ladder seemed to lose their heads this weekend, Port Adelaide punched in a comfortable 47-point victory over the Sydney Swans on Saturday afternoon to deliver back-to-back victories for the first time in 15 weeks, and move one step closer to a spot in the finals.

Don’t get me wrong: we all know by now that Sydney aren’t the scalp they once were. But the Swans have still been a competitive side this year, they type that could throw an inconsistent side like Port Adelaide on the right day, and for Port to back up last week’s big win with another confident victory was a big tick.

The result puts them within tasting distance of a finals berth. They play North Melbourne next week and Fremantle the week after – both sides whose seasons are now effectively over, and who Port would feel reasonably confident against. They only need one win probably to guarantee finals, but I suspect they’ll get two.

Even that probably wouldn’t be enough to sneak into the top six for a home final but it would mean they approach September on a four-win hot streak with confidence they can do some damage. And that’s a remarkable result all things considered for this side.

They made bold decisions at the end of last year, allowing talented and mature players like Chad Wingard and Jared Polec to depart. It has meant fielding a younger team this year, which is not usually the way to rise up the ladder, but so far it’s worked very well.

Connor Rozee starred again with three goals on Saturday and remarkably looks set to become Port’s leading goalkicker in his first year in the comp. Xavier Duursma has been no less impressive will Zak Butters shows great potential too – while elsewhere, Todd Marshall and Peter Ladhams are adding promise to Port’s future spine.

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A bit of finals experience will be huge at this stage of their careers. Can’t wait to see it.

Todd Marshall

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Giants, Roos and Dons make footy history – but not the good kind
Homer Simpson’s famous quote about “the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked” gets thrown around plenty when it comes to describing poor performances from sporting teams, but in no week was it more appropriate than this one – the only problem being, of which team is it most accurate?

GWS put in one of the limpest performances in the club’s history on Friday night. Although by no means their greatest losing margin, one could argue that even in the most trying days fielding their very young squad in the early years of this decade, rarely did they seem so lifeless.

Asked after the game if his side didn’t enjoy playing in the frankly bizarre conditions, Giants coach Leon Cameron fired up in response – but in all honesty, Cameron seemed more up for the fight in that comment had his team had all night.

Looking at the Giants managing to record their lowest score in club history with a total of 29 points, North Melbourne said “that’s cute” and found a way to somehow kick 1.8.14, not only their lowest score in nearly a century in the VFL/AFL, but also the first time ever in a match that they’ve only kicked a single goal.

The weather conditions weren’t exactly ideal for footy, but don’t provide nearly as much of an excuse for poor performance as North would like. They were slaughtered at the clearances and could do nothing to prevent Geelong moving the ball forward with ease.

As for Essendon, well, we’ve probably talked enough of them already, but there was an interesting little historical anomaly in their result.

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I watched Brisbane’s battle with Gold Coast wondering if the Lions might finally rack up the first 100+ margin of 2019 – and when they didn’t, suspected once again that, perhaps, we might go a full season without one for what would be the first time in 46 years.

The Dogs and the Dons put that one to bed for us not three hours later.

Toby Greene

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Jack back as Saints snatch a wonderful win
If you were looking for reasons to be buoyant about St Kilda’s future prospects then Sunday’s last-minute win over Fremantle at home was full of them.

Once again under Brett Ratten the Saints showed an ability to start the match well, kicking the first three goals, and then proved tenacious when the momentum swung back Fremantle’s way, never allowing the Dockers to break away from the contest.

Still, it seemed like Fremantle just might squeeze past St Kilda for the win they needed to keep their finals hopes alive – until Jack Steven and Josh Bruce kicked back-to-back goals, St Kilda’s first since that opening flurry, to deliver a three-point win.

Don’t mistake the manner of that victory for it being at all a fluke. The Saints had more of the ball, more of the inside 50s, more of the tackles. Only some trouble in front of goal in the last quarter – kicking 2.5 – prevented them from making it a more comfortable margin.

Plenty of players deserve a tip of the cap. Dan Hannebery gave his critics something to think about with 23 touches and two goals, Hunter Clark continued his rapid emergence into stardom, and the same could be said of Josh Battle who took the game-saving mark with 39 seconds left on the clock.

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However the story to make the heart sing on Sunday afternoon was undoubtedly that of Jack Steven, who played just his fifth game of the year after an extended lay off to work through a poor period of mental health.

Steven collected 22 disposals but perhaps more importantly booted three goals, including the penultimate score of the match, arguably the most crucial performer on the ground if not necessarily the outright best.

More than the stat line though it was just wonderful to see the smile on his face, clearly overjoyed to be back at the top level and with an almighty win to boot.

Jack Steven

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Playing with the ladder predictor
There’s only 18 matches left in the home-and-away season, but just about any permutation you like of the top eight is still left on the table.

The race to get a top-two spot is wide open – at least one of Geelong, Brisbane and West Coast is going to miss out, and whoever that is will be forced to travel in their qualifying final.

Making it all the more dramatic is the fact that Brisbane host Geelong at the Gabba next weekend, though this is just the beginning of what will be a rollercoaster weekend for teams with finals aspirations.

That’s hardly the only thriller next Saturday though. Adelaide and Collingwood looks seriously promising – the Crows will need a win to keep their finals hopes alive, but Collingwood have a shot at top four if they get the job done.

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We might then find ourselves flicking between channels on Saturday night as Essendon (against Fremantle) and Port Adelaide (against North) play matches that could make or break their seasons.

West Coast just might be in the box seat for the minor premiership but only if they can bring to an end Richmond’s streak of seven straight wins.

Later in the day, the Bulldogs will need to knock off the Giants to keep their own finals dream alive, while GWS will be desperate to respond after Friday night’s frustrations.

Undoubtedly the match I’m looking forward to the most from here though will be Richmond hosting Brisbane at the MCG in Round 23. These are the two teams with the most momentum in the league, and who wins here might tell us which team deserves flag favouritism on the eve of finals.

A quick spin through the ladder predictor and here’s my top eight, guaranteed to be wrong:

1. West Coast Eagles
2. Geelong Cats
3. Brisbane Lions
4. Collingwood Magpies
5. Richmond Tigers
6. GWS Giants
7. Port Adelaide Power
8. Western Bulldogs

The eight teams most capable of making the finals interesting in my books, hopefully set to deliver a sizzling September. What are you tipping?