The new AFL season approaches. It’s a time for most to get excited.
We have reached the final round of the 2019 AFL premiership season and there is still plenty to play out for as the final ladder takes shape.
Seven teams have so far punched their ticket to the finals, which means a lot of the focus will be on the battle for eighth place, with the Western Bulldogs, Hawthorn and the two South Australian clubs still a chance to sneak into September.
It is the Bulldogs who are in the box seat, though, with their 61-point thrashing of the GWS Giants last Sunday seeing them enter the eight going into the final round of matches this weekend.
Their match against the Adelaide Crows will be played on what has been dubbed Super Sunday, with Port Adelaide also still in the race for a finals berth and Richmond set to go toe-to-toe with the Brisbane Lions in a heavyweight clash at the MCG.
Elsewhere, it promises to be an emotional day at the SCG as Sydney Swans veterans Jarrad McVeigh and Kieren Jack prepare to hang up the boots, while Lance Franklin remains a strong chance to finally bring up his 300th game on Saturday.
Here is your preview to Round 23.
Collingwood vs Essendon
In what shapes as the biggest non-Anzac Day clash between the two sides for a long time, Collingwood and Essendon will both warm up for September by testing out each other in what will also be their first Friday night clash since 2010 to kick off the round.
The Pies could not have been any more impressive last Saturday night when, on the road, they dominated from start to finish to thrash the Adelaide Crows by 11 goals, and all but wrap up fifth place on the ladder.
The stakes will be high for Nathan Buckley’s side, with the chance to go up to fourth on the ladder pending the result of the Richmond vs Brisbane Lions match at the MCG on Sunday.
Should the Pies win, and the Tigers stumble, then they will be the ones to travel up to the Gabba for a qualifying final date against the Lions, who would become minor premiers for the first time in club history.
But should the Tigers beat the Lions, then the Pies and Bombers will be at it again in the first week of the finals. This would be their first finals meeting since the 1990 grand final.
Even if they lose to Essendon on Friday night, they will not drop any lower than fifth, which means they’ll host an elimination final likely to be against the Western Bulldogs.
Meantime, the Bombers emerged from a week of soul-searching following their humiliating loss to the Western Bulldogs to score a crucial 31-point win over Fremantle on the road, and book their ticket to September in the process.
It has come at a cost, with David Zaharakis unlikely to play again this season after suffering a syndesmosis injury, which will rob the club of some much needed experience come finals time.
While the Pies will be playing for a double chance, the Bombers will be playing for sixth place and a home final, which would be against the GWS Giants at Marvel Stadium. That’s if the Giants are upset by the Gold Coast Suns on Saturday night.
More realistically, a win will place them seventh, which would see them face the Giants at Giants Stadium, the scene of their horrific season-opening 72-point loss in March.
Otherwise, a loss to the Pies would see them finish eighth and face either a rematch against them, or Richmond, in the first week of the finals.
On form, I think the Pies will take the chocolates.
Prediction: Collingwood by 20 points.
Sydney Swans vs St Kilda
The Sydney Swans will close the chapter on one of the most successful periods in the club’s history when they welcome St Kilda to the SCG in the annual Pride Game in the early match on Saturday afternoon.
This week, Kieren Jack announced that he will retire after the game against the Saints, joining Heath Grundy, Nick Smith and Jarrad McVeigh as 2012 premiership players to bow out of the game.
It therefore promises to be a massive day as the Swans not only pay tribute to the quartet, who have racked up over 1000 games between them, but also celebrate the contribution of the LGBTIQ community to the game of Australian rules football.
There is also the strong chance that Lance Franklin will make his long-awaited return from a groin and hamstring injury, which has delayed his 300-game milestone by nearly two months after he aggravated it in the Round 14 win over Hawthorn.
If he does get up, then this means his major milestone match will again be against St Kilda, the club he faced in his 100th and 200th AFL matches in 2009 and 2014 respectively.
While the Swans will finish in the bottom four for the first time in 25 years, they did show signs that the future is bright last Friday night as they defeated a dismal Melbourne side by 53 points at the MCG last Friday night, with their young brigade again leading the way.
For the Saints, there is also the strong chance that they will bring Dan Hannebery with them to Sydney, which would reunite him with many of his ex-team-mates and also see him stick around after the final siren as Jack and McVeigh leave the SCG for the final time as AFL players.
In the month following Alan Richardson’s departure from the club, the Saints have lifted their form, defeating the Western Bulldogs, Melbourne and Fremantle to give themselves a remote chance of sneaking into September.
Whatever chances they had to making their first finals series were officially extinguished last Saturday when they lost to Carlton by ten points at the MCG, but regardless of how they finish the season, caretaker coach Brett Ratten seems destined to win the full-time gig.
Despite both teams having nothing to play for, a large crowd will still be expected at the SCG as they look to farewell two of their premiership heroes, who led the club graciously as co-captains between 2013 and 2016, taking the side to two grand finals in this period.
On the field, the Swans should finish off the season with a win in front of their home fans, and give them something to cheer about as they continue to prepare for the 2020 season in earnest.
Prediction: Sydney Swans by 24 points.
North Melbourne vs Melbourne
Melbourne’s season from hell will finally come to an end in the cold conditions that are expected to greet them when they face North Melbourne at Blundstone Arena in the second Saturday afternoon match.
Preliminary finalists last year, the Dees’ stunning fall from grace continued last Friday night when they copped a 53-point thrashing at the hands of the Sydney Swans at the MCG, in which players appeared upset and angry at their current predicament.
The result has locked them in to finish second-last on the ladder, with only the Gold Coast Suns preventing them from claiming their first wooden spoon in a decade. It means that they’ll get, at best, the second pick in the upcoming AFL draft.
While he hasn’t officially announced his retirement as of yet, it could be the final game for Jordan Lewis, who has provided good service to the club on and off the field after crossing from Hawthorn at the end of the 2016 season.
The future of co-captain Nathan Jones also remains up in the air, though it is likely he will extend his career into a 15th season next year, with the 300-game milestone well within reach.
Meantime, North Melbourne emerged from a week of soul-searching to take their frustration out of Port Adelaide at home, winning by a whopping 86 points to give their fans hope of a much-improved 2020 season.
A week after posting just 14 points against the Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park, the Roos unleashed their fury on the Power, kicking 22.12 (144) to record their highest score in a match for a while.
Ben Brown was the architect, becoming the first player in just over 12 months to kick ten goals in a game and in the process snatch the Coleman Medal lead from a wounded Jeremy Cameron.
Another big bag against the Dees could see him all but wrap up the Coleman, though Cameron could still catch him given his track record of kicking bags against the Gold Coast Suns, whom his Giants play in the evening.
In their fourth and final match in front of their Tasmanian fans, the Roos should take the points and give their fans something to cheer about as another season without September action comes to a close.
Prediction: North Melbourne by 30 points.
Geelong Cats vs Carlton
The twilight match sees the Geelong Cats turn out in front of their fans for the final time this year when they face a much improved Carlton side at Kardinia Park.
After winning 11 of their first 12 matches to open up what was supposedly a comfortable buffer at the top of the ladder, Chris Scott’s men have not been able to string together consecutive wins since.
Last Saturday afternoon at the Gabba, the Cats suffered a gut-wrenching one-point loss to the Brisbane Lions, a result that saw them drop to second on the ladder, but still with the best percentage of any team in the league.
Back at home, they’ll start favourites to beat the Blues on Saturday night and temporarily reclaim top spot on the ladder for at least 22-odd hours while they await the result of the Richmond vs Brisbane Lions match the following day.
If the Lions are beaten (and assuming West Coast beats Hawthorn at Optus Stadium), then the Cats will finish with the McClelland Trophy and face the Tigers in a qualifying final at the MCG.
On the other hand, the Blues have nothing to play for and will almost certainly finish third-last on the ladder, but have at least secured their future with David Teague being permanently installed as their next head coach for at least the next three years.
He couldn’t have asked for a dream start to his official coaching career last Saturday, when the Blues came from behind to defeat St Kilda by ten points at the MCG and send Dale Thomas out a winner, while also making it a 100th game for co-captain Patrick Cripps to remember.
Their trip down the highway will be another chance to test themselves against the best, having stretched the West Coast Eagles and Richmond in the weeks prior to their win over the Saints.
However, I think the Cats will be too good here.
Prediction: Geelong Cats by 40 points.
Gold Coast Suns vs GWS Giants
For the Gold Coast Suns, another season from hell just can’t come to an end quite soon enough.
Their 70-point loss to Hawthorn at Marvel Stadium last Sunday all but locked them in to finish at the bottom of the ladder for the first time since 2011, but the upside of it is that they could get the first pick, and perhaps the second, at the upcoming AFL Draft in November.
They were rendered lambs to the slaughter as retiring Hawks champion Jarryd Roughead kicked six majors after earning a recall from their coach, Alastair Clarkson, when it was announced that he would hang up the boots at season’s end.
The loss to the Hawks marked the Suns’ 17th consecutive defeat, and another ugly result could await on Saturday night when they welcome what is expected to be an angry GWS Giants side to Metricon Stadium.
Like the Suns, the Giants are also coming off a recent thrashing against the Hawks, losing by 56 points in snowy conditions in Round 21, and fared even worse last Sunday when they again failed to kick a goal in the second half of their 61-point loss to the Western Bulldogs at home.
Still missing several key players, including Jeremy Cameron (who has lost his Coleman Medal lead), Brett Deledio, Jacob Hopper and Stephen Coniglio, Leon Cameron’s side led by 15 points midway through the second quarter, before the wheels fell off after the main break.
It marked a 143-point negative turnaround from their previous clash against the Bulldogs, having won by 82 points in Canberra in Round 1 last year. It was also their worst pair of defeats since 2014 when they lost consecutive matches by over 100 points, only separated by a bye.
Perhaps getting out of Sydney might be what the Giants need as they look to lock down a sixth-place finish, with which comes a home elimination final, set to be against either the Western Bulldogs or Essendon, who they beat by 72 points back in Round 1 this year.
Their recent record against the Gold Coast Suns is imposing, winning their last seven against them by an average of 67.5 points, including by a record 108 points in Round 12 last year and by 83 points in Round 11 this year.
However, the Giants cannot afford to bank on that recent record, nor arrive on the Gold Coast simply expecting to win, if they are to salvage something out of their recent poor form and earn themselves a home elimination final at Giants Stadium in the first week.
After a dismal fortnight, the Giants should hit back hard.
Prediction: GWS Giants by 30 points.
West Coast Eagles vs Hawthorn
For Hawthorn, their final shot at making the finals comes down to the long trip across the Nullarbor for a date with reigning premiers the West Coast Eagles in Perth.
Back-to-back thrashings of the GWS Giants and Gold Coast Suns have seen the Hawks keep alive their remote chances of sneaking into the eight, though they will need to draw on all their energy and experience if they are to cause a boil-over in the west on Saturday night.
The million-dollar question remains whether Jarryd Roughead will play against the Eagles, the 2013 Coleman Medallist making the most of a recall to kick six majors against the Suns in his final AFL match in Victoria.
It came after he announced that he would draw the curtain on an illustrious career, which saw him feature in four Hawthorn premiership sides and play over 280 games, while also battling cancer and a serious knee injury in 2016.
It was also the first time since Round 20 last year that the Hawks have kicked over 100 points in a match, ending a streak of 25 matches without hitting triple figures.
Meantime, the Eagles are coming off a gut-wrenching loss to Richmond at the MCG, where they gave up a quarter-time lead of 24 points to drop their first match at the ground since early 2017, when they also lost to the Tigers.
With the Geelong Cats’ loss to the Brisbane Lions the day before, it cost Adam Simpson’s side the chance to take top spot on the ladder, and they’ll now need to beat the Hawks by enough if they are to reclaim a top two spot.
While they should beat the Hawks, I don’t think they’ll earn enough percentage points to overtake the Lions, which would leave them to make another long trip to the sunshine capital to face them in the second qualifying final.
Prediction: West Coast Eagles by 25 points.
Western Bulldogs vs Adelaide Crows
For the Western Bulldogs, it’s all or nothing.
Back-to-back thrashings of Essendon and the GWS Giants not only saw the Bulldogs climb back into the eight, but also boost their percentage ahead of the visit by the Adelaide Crows to Ballarat this Sunday afternoon.
Returning to Giants Stadium, the scene of their memorable preliminary final win from all those years ago, the Bulldogs kicked the first three goals of the game, and then fell behind by 15 points in the second quarter before reeling off the final 12 goals to win by 61 points.
It means they have won their past two matches by a combined total of 165 points, and will start favourites on Sunday to defeat the Adelaide Crows and shut up shop on the eight for 2019 and sentence Port Adelaide to play a dead rubber against Fremantle later in the day.
In contrast to the Bulldogs’ recent rich vein of form, the Adelaide Crows appear destined to miss out on September action for a second straight year, their finals hopes going up in smoke after being thrashed by Collingwood at home last Saturday night.
The men from West Lakes failed to kick a goal in the first quarter as they surrendered in meek fashion, suffering their heaviest ever loss at the Adelaide Oval in the process.
Fourth-year coach Don Pyke’s future will be a certain point of discussion come the off-season, however co-captain Taylor Walker has backed him to continue into next season as they look to regenerate their playing list.
Unless the Crows can pull off a major upset, which would keep their finals chances alive, they will be absent from September for the second consecutive year, which would continue their downfall after having reached the Grand Final in 2017.
That being said, the Bulldogs should wrap up the final berth in September that is up for grabs, and should the rest of the round unfold as expected, then they’ll be back at Giants Stadium for a knock-out final against the GWS Giants.
Prediction: Western Bulldogs by 22 points.
Richmond vs Brisbane Lions
The perfect finals entree arrives on Sunday afternoon when two top-four teams, Richmond and the Brisbane Lions, go to war at the MCG in the second Sunday afternoon match.
Both teams will go into the final round showdown having not lost a match between them since their bye rounds, which means that, barring a draw, one of them will suffer defeat before the finals series gets underway.
The Tigers came from four goals down at quarter-time to overhaul the West Coast Eagles by six points at home, marking their eighth consecutive win, while the Lions notched up their ninth straight win by beating the Geelong Cats by a single point at the Gabba.
With a lot on the line, and the expectation of a crowd of over 60,000, the stakes will be high for both the Tigers and Lions on Sunday.
If Collingwood beats Essendon on Friday night, the Tigers will enter Sunday’s match in provisional fifth place on the ladder, meaning they’ll have to beat the Lions to remain in the top four, and possibly earn themselves a shot at the Geelong Cats in the qualifying final.
Otherwise, not only would the Pies take their place in the top four, they’ll also be the ones to travel to Brisbane for a qualifying final date with the Lions, for whom a win would see them finish the minor rounds on top of the ladder.
This would then leave Richmond to play either Essendon or the Western Bulldogs in an elimination final at the MCG.
For the Lions, it will be another opportunity to test themselves at the MCG, where they lost to Essendon by 47 points back in Round 4, while they’ll also get the chance to smash another hoodoo, having not beaten Richmond anywhere since Round 7, 2009.
They’ll also have the chance to win their first silverware of any kind since the 2013 NAB Cup, and their first minor premiership in either the history of the merger or its predecessors, the Brisbane Bears or Fitzroy, neither of whom managed to top the ladder at season’s end.
It would also complete a remarkable rise for the side, who just two years ago finished with the wooden spoon and in the years prior struggled to retain key players such as Sam Docherty, Elliot Yeo and Billy Longer.
This will be the last of Richmond’s seven straight matches at the MCG to finish the regular season – can they make it a perfect seven from seven? I think so.
Prediction: Richmond by six points.
Port Adelaide vs Fremantle
After all that, it then comes down to the final match of the regular season at the Adelaide Oval which will see Port Adelaide play host to Fremantle with the possibility that both sides could be playing for pride.
Having fought hard to break back into the eight courtesy of wins over Essendon and the Sydney Swans, the Power confronted and capitulated to a very angry North Melbourne side at Marvel Stadium last Saturday night, losing by 86 points.
Their third-worst defeat at the Docklands venue came three hours after their cross-town rivals, the Adelaide Crows, suffered an 11-goal loss to Collingwood back at home, thus sending the whole state of South Australia into a huge state of embarrassment.
As a result, the Power dropped to 11th on the ladder with one round to play, and in the most precarious of positions as far as the race for a finals berth is concerned.
They must rely on the West Coast Eagles beating Hawthorn, and the Crows defeating the Western Bulldogs by a small margin in Ballarat, and then beat the Dockers by enough if they are to, somehow, force their way back into the eight.
Otherwise, if the Bulldogs are victorious earlier in the day, then the Power will be playing for pride against the Dockers, whose finals hopes officially went up in smoke after they were beaten by Essendon at home last Saturday night.
It was a disappointing way for club legends Aaron Sandilands and Hayden Ballantyne to bow out of the game, and ensured Ross Lyon’s men will be absent from finals action for the fourth straight year.
Still, Lyon insists he is still the best man to continue rebuilding the club’s playing list, but another season without finals could see the board lose patience.
In the end, whether they are playing for a finals berth or for pride, the Power should win easily at home.
Prediction: Port Adelaide by 30 points.
If my predictions end up being correct, then this will be the first-week finals schedule:
Geelong Cats vs Richmond, MCG
Brisbane Lions vs West Coast Eagles, Gabba
Collingwood vs Essendon, MCG
GWS Giants vs Western Bulldogs, Giants Stadium