September will come two weeks early when each of the top four teams – Geelong, Brisbane, West Coast Eagles and Richmond – go to war.
On Saturday afternoon, the top two teams – the Cats and Lions – go head to head in what shapes as not just a possible minor premiership-deciding clash, but also a potential grand final preview.
Having cruised into the bye with 11 wins from 12 games, with the only loss being by four points against the Giants at home in Round 4, the Cats have suddenly lost consistency, having not won back-to-back games since their Round 13 break.
Stung by criticism following their 34-point loss to Fremantle in Perth, which came off the back of having played in Sydney six days prior, Chris Scott’s side returned to their ruthless best last Saturday night, thumping North Melbourne by 55 points and sentencing them to their lowest ever score – 1.8 (14).
Having seen Jeremy Cameron kick just one goal in his side’s loss to Hawthorn on Friday night, Tom Hawkins failed to close the gap on him, kicking only two goals to instead draw level on Ben Brown (who went goalless) with 52 majors.
With Cameron, who has led the Coleman Medal since Round 3 and has kicked 58 goals, in doubt for the Giants’ clash against the Western Bulldogs on Sunday, Hawkins can take the lead with a bag against the Lions.
It was in these teams’ most recent meeting, Round 18 last year, where the Tomahawk kicked seven goals on Lions fullback Harris Andrews, who was returning from a month on the sidelines after being sickeningly KO’d by Cameron at the Gabba.
Since then, Andrews has developed into the best fullback in the competition and is in line to usurp Alex Rance in that position when the All Australian team is revealed next month.
In fact, we could be in for a shootout, with Charlie Cameron kicking six goals in the Lions’ 91-point thrashing of the Gold Coast Suns – their biggest ever win in a QClash and their eighth straight win since the bye.
It is the longest winning streak by the club since they won their final 16 games of the 2001 season (and a further four in the first four rounds of 2002, extending their longest winning streak to 20 matches), one in which they won the first of a hat-trick of flags.
It is a clear indication that Brisbane’s Round 12 loss to then-bottom placed Carlton came as the wake-up call Chris Fagan’s side needed.
Charlie Cameron’s haul of six goals was more than what three teams – Greater Western Sydney, Essendon and North Melbourne – could manage as teams in their respective losses to Hawthorn, the Western Bulldogs and Geelong.
After missing the second half of last season due to a foot injury, he has played a vital part in a rising side which, just two years after finishing with the wooden spoon, has a chance to clinch its first minor premiership in club history.
While the club famously won consecutive flags between 2001-03 with Leigh Matthews at the helm, the Lions have never finished a regular season on top of the ladder – neither did the Brisbane Bears or Fitzroy before they merged at the end of the 1996 season.
This would also be the quickest rise from bottom to top since the Sydney Swans did it in the mid-1990s, going from a laughing stock in 1992-94 to grand finalists just two years later.
But to take the lead at the top of the ladder, the Lions will have to do what they haven’t done for over six years – topple the Cats.
The last time they won against Geelong, they came from 52 points down in the third quarter to steal a stunning five-point win after the siren, with Ashley McGrath kicking the winner in his 200th AFL game.
24 hours later, fourth-placed Richmond host the reigning premiers, the second-placed Eagles, at the MCG in what will be their first meeting since the day after Prince Harry and Meghan Markle tied the knot last year.
On that day, the then-reigning premiers flew across the Nullarbor for their first match at Optus Stadium against the Eagles, who were building towards their won premiership after winning seven of eight games to start 2018.
Damien Hardwick’s side copped a reality check that afternoon, losing by 47 points in the highest-attended regular season match for the year at the newly opened stadium.
While a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then (conversely, the Eagles have played Collingwood five times since they last met the Tigers), for the Eagles facing Richmond at the MCG will be a much tougher proposition.
In recent years, Adam Simpson’s side has overcome their fear of playing at the ground, winning their last five matches, including defeating the Pies and Hawthorn in Rounds 3 and 15 this season respectively, as well as beating the former on grand final day last year.
Forward Willie Rioli also has an unblemished record at the MCG, winning on each of his four visits.
However, the Eagles have not beaten the Tigers at the MCG since 2015 – in fact, no interstate team has beaten Richmond in Victoria since the Swans came from six goals down to steal a nine-point win at the G in Round 13, 2017.
Last week, the Eagles beat the Adelaide Crows at home by ten points, but dropped to third on the ladder after Brisbane gained enough percentage points to overtake them, thanks to their 91-point thrashing of the Suns.
If you froze the ladder now and started the finals this weekend, then this would leave Simpson’s men to make another long trip to the Gabba, where they lost by 44 points in Round 1 despite leading by 27 at quarter-time.
Meantime, without former Brownlow Medallists Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin, the Tigers did enough to hold off Carlton, winning by 28 to preserve their place in the top four.
It was their seventh straight win and fifth straight in a string of seven MCG matches to finish off the regular season, but it’s this week and next when their opposition goes up a notch.
They’ll be expected to get Martin and Cotchin back for the visit by the Eagles, and they’ll also need their services for the Round 23 match against the Lions, which could decide who finishes where inside the top four.
A win for the Tigers this Sunday will see them level on premiership points with the 2018 premiers, as well as the loser of the Brisbane Lions vs Geelong Cats match played the previous day (the winner of that match will go one game clear at the top for at least 24 hours).
In Round 23, the Cats and Eagles will face winnable matches against Carlton and Hawthorn respectively, and if they both win, as expected, then the final shape of the ladder will come down to the MCG blockbuster between the Tigers and Lions.