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Five talking points from AFL Round 23

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25th August, 2019
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The 2019 home-and-away season is over, and finals are officially on the menu. Here’s my talking points from the round, and don’t forget to check out the fixture for the first week of finals.

Tigers enter September as flag favourites
Flashback to twelve months ago and the Richmond Tigers were entering the 2018 finals series as flag favourites. In 2019 it’s the same, but the margin by which they do so is significantly different.

That year the Tigers appeared so clearly head and shoulders above the rest that in my corresponding column I labelled the upcoming finals series a tale of “Richmond and the seven dwarves” – they’d not lost at the MCG all year and had six straight wins coming into September.

Yes, Richmond are on an almighty winning streak right now too – one we’ll discuss a bit more soon – but there’s no doubting they’ve had to do it the hard way this season, battling an immense injury load and discovering hitherto unheralded depth.

Even though they entered this week on an eight-game winning streak they still knew they needed the W today to secure a top-four spot; a position which is chillingly similar to their final match of the 2017 home-and-away season.

Now, like then, they did what contenders do, closing out the result masterfully. Now, like then, they are in third position on the ladder going into September – though most will have them ranked favourites, they can view themselves as underdogs, and that may be a powerful mental tool.

What’s different to 2017 of course is that they are not so lucky as to be coming up against a Victorian club in week one, instead they’ll travel to the Gabba to get their finals campaign underway.

Still, playing the Lions for what will be the second time in three weeks, you’d expect they’ll be confident after today’s result.

Here’s the interesting question though, and it’s the same one I asked at this time last year – can they be the team to snap what is now nearly a two-decade hoodoo?

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I refer to the fact that no team since 2001 has managed to win their last six games of the home-and-away season (or more) and then gone on to win the flag. A handful of teams have entered September on such a hot streak, but all of them have faltered.

Maybe it’s just an accident of bad luck, or maybe there’s something to the idea that a loss late in the season helps sharpen a contender up.

Certainly it felt that way last year when the Tigers seemed to cruise to the finish line only to be blown out of the water by Collingwood.

Nine-game winning streak be damned, there just isn’t that same feeling about Richmond this year. Unlikely 2018, they’ve felt the need to keep winning at every turn – they’re a hungry team and I don’t think that will trip them up this time. I’m not sure anything will.

Look at the other sides in the top four: Geelong haven’t managed two wins in a row in three months, Brisbane are loveable but lack September experience or a proven ability to win at the MCG, while Collingwood are crippled once again by injury.

It seems strange to say of a side finishing third and travelling 1600kms in the first week of finals, but it’s Richmonds’s premiership to lose.

Dustin Martin

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

West Coast wipe out, Essendon outsmart themselves?
I suspect I wasn’t the only one who saw Essendon’s team selections on Thursday night and thought things looked, well, a bit crafty, to say the least.

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To see David Zaharakis miss through an injury last week that appears to have ended his season was no surprise, but for Dyson Heppell, Jake Stringer and Orazio Fantasia – some of the Bombers’ most important players – all placed in cotton wool was a little more eyebrow-raising.

All three have been known to be carrying a bit of a niggle at points throughout the season and I have no doubt there’s a legitimate basis on which to list them as injured. That said, I suspect if Essendon’s season had been on the line this week, they might all have played.

Instead there was almost a little incentive for the Bombers not to take this one too seriously – a loss on Friday night and their most likely finals fixture was a return to the MCG against Collingwood, and if not that, Richmond.

The motive was there if they wanted to do it, though from the players’ performance once they hit the park there was clearly no intention at that level of letting the game go easily, proving a pest to Pies all night long and only narrowly falling short in the end.

Far be it from a North Melbourne fan (remember 2015?) to level accusations at any club of trying to fix the finals fixture, but if Essendon did take a calculated risk on Friday night, well, unfortunately for them it proved a poor roll of the dice.

A West Coast win on Saturday seemed the likely outcome and would’ve guaranteed that a Victorian club of some description finished in fifth spot and allowed the Bombers to stay home in week one – but instead West Coast were woeful, humbled by Hawthorn and falling out of the four.

The reigning premiers now face the mountainous task of trying to win a flag without the double chance if they wish to defend their 2018 premiership. Despite being one of the best teams in it, it seems unlikely they could secure the three straight wins on the road they’ll need to get the job done.

It’s a position neither club wants to be in but there will be a certain morbid drama in ‘West Coast vs Worsfold’. Either the Eagles will see their season end in extremely disappointing circumstances, or the Bombers will extend it out to fifteen years without a finals win.

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John Worsfold

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Brilliant Bulldogs book finals berth, crush Crows
When the AFL locked in the fixture for the final round of the season, the final-round match between the Bulldogs and the Crows looked like it could be a tantalising and tense finish to the season – one that was bound to have at least some finals implications, and could go down to the wire.

Well, the finals implications were still many, but we never got within spotting distance of the wire. The Western Bulldogs rushed out to early dominance and never looked seriously challenged by an Adelaide Crows side who probably spent the halftime break in a prayer circle asking for the season to end.

The Dogs seemed unlikely finalists not that long ago and the fact that they’ve made it in on the back of some seriously hot form to close out the home-and-away season is an exciting prospect. Comparisons to 2016 aren’t accurate entirely accurate, but they will be made.

They will come up against the Giants who they rolled just a week ago and I’d expect them to do the same thing comfortably again in the first week of finals.

After that… who knows? I’m sceptical of another miracle flag, but my tip is that they will do some serious damage – a very good chance of sneaking into a prelim final – and that come the end of the series, we’ll be thinking of them as 2020 flag favourites.

Can we, then, say that the best eight teams of the year have made it into the finals? I think yes, with the caveat being that some of those sides earned their spot through good form earlier in the year rather than later, and look likely to only make a shallow contribution to September (GWS, Essendon… Geelong? West Coast?).

As for the Crows, there’s no getting around the fact that this was a bitterly disappointing end to a bitterly disappointing season.

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After appearing a finals lock and even top four chance midyear, they won just three of nine matches after the bye – beating only Gold Coast (twice) and St Kilda in that time – to fall well short.

If it was one bad year you could call it rough luck and an aberration, but this makes back-to-back seasons where they’ve punched well below their weight and ultimately not even made it to the postseason despite their list build clearly targetting premiership contention.

I don’t want to come across as axe-happy, but I strongly suspect this was Don Pyke’s last game as an AFL coach.

As those clubs now out of the mix quickly turn their eyes towards 2020, I wouldn’t be surprised to see confirmation of that come within the next 24 hours.

Don Pyke

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

Cameron’s big bag clenches Coleman Medal
Apologies in advance for what will be the saltiest talking point of the year, for like every other North Melbourne fan in the country I came into Round 23 with one dream and one dream only – to see beautiful human being Ben Brown with a Coleman Medal around his neck.

At first glance it seemed a likely outcome too. North had what appeared to be a very winnable match against Melbourne in Hobart, and Brown already held a four-goal lead over the next best contender after last week’s bag of ten. Easy thing.

Then I scrolled just slightly down the fixture to see who the only man seriously likely to challenge him would be playing against, and broke into a cold sweat. The Gold Coast Suns. Oh, what a debacle this was always guaranteed to be.

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It’s not the first time Brown has been at least partially in the mix for the Coleman come the pointy end of the season so not the first time a North Melbourne coach has been asked if the players will look to help him get over the line. Rhyce Shaw, as you’d expect, reminded us that it’s a team game, and his side is there to get the win.

Yes, yes – a very nice sentiment Rhyce, but here’s what you should’ve said instead: “Of course we bloody will!” I don’t think Ben himself cares all that much about Coleman Medals, but surely it doesn’t take a genius to realise how uplifting it would be for his teammates, the club and its fans.

At any rate, Brown kicked two, North won, and we went into Saturday night’s fixture with me begging Gold Coast on Twitter to keep Cameron to six goals or less, even making them the lucrative offer of promising never to again suggest relocating them to Tasmania if they got the job done.

In no surprise, the club that is thoroughly incapable of doing anything right proved thoroughly incapable of doing this specific thing right also, and Cameron booted a Coleman-winning bag of nine on a backline where the three tall defenders combined for a total of 38 AFL games experience.

Gold Coast, you had one chance to be useful to me and you missed it like a Stormtrooper somehow misses a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall Wookie. I shake my fist at thee.

In all seriousness though, Cameron’s had the better season and thoroughly deserves the award. Congratulations to him!

Jeremy Cameron

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

And a few other awards…
The end of the home-and-away season signals not just the beginning of the finals, but also the AFL industry’s free-dinner frenzy. A plethora of awards shows and functions are about to get underway.

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That being the case, I’ll finish by picking out my tip for a few awards that may or may not be handed out over the next week weeks, but certainly should.

Rookie of the year – Sam Walsh
The conversation all year has been trying to pick apart Walsh’s season and make a case for the likes of Connor Rozee, Sydney Stack or Bailey Smith, but the reality is no one holds a candle to the sheer volume and consistency of Walsh’s performances this year.

Value rookie of the year – Noah Answerth
Flown so low under the radar as to be practically subterranean, but pick No.55 from last year’s draft has not only broke into one of the best sides in the league in the Brisbane Lions, but become a reliable and valued member of the best 22.

Recruit of the year – Lachie Neale
Already a two-time best and fairest winner at Fremantle, he took his game to a whole new level at a new home this season. Tom Lynch at Richmond has only improved as the season’s gone on and deserves a nod, but Neale has been too good for too long not to get the top prize. 50 touches today, might be the best of all come Brownlow night.

Value recruit of the year – Jarryd Lyons
No surprise that Brisbane have done well when you see how many of these trophies they’re taking home so far, eh? Lyons has some close competitors, most notably Jordan Roughead, but simply has to get the win here when you consider the club paid literally nothing for him. Lions also had Lincoln McCarthy in the mix.

Most improved – Josh Dunkley
Actually a really tough one to call this year. I give the nod to Dunkley for not just improving compared to his 2018 season, but improving over the course of the season. There’s at least ten other players in the league you could give the nod to here and I wouldn’t argue the point.

Every best and fairest winner
Adelaide Crows – Brad Crouch
Brisbane Lions – Lachie Neale
Carlton Blues – Patrick Cripps
Collingwood Magpies – Brodie Grundy
Essendon Bombers – Zach Merrett
Fremantle Dockers – Nat Fyfe
Geelong Cats – Patrick Dangerfield
Gold Coast Suns – David Swallow
GWS Giants – Tim Taranto
Hawthorn Hawks – Ricky Henderson
Melbourne Demons – Max Gawn
North Melbourne Kangaroos – Ben Cunnington
Port Adelaide Power – Travis Boak
Richmond Tigers – Dion Prestia
St Kilda Saints – Jack Billings
Sydney Swans – Luke Parker
West Coast Eagles – Elliot Yeo
Western Bulldogs – Marcus Bontempelli

Some of these decisions were easy, some of them not so much. Feel like Luke Shuey, Jeremy Cameron, Brayden Fiorini, Tim Kelly and Dustin Martin, in particular, are all serious chances to win at their respective clubs – with several of those still having a finals series to play.

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Think Rowan Marshall could be a real bolter at St Kilda too, having had such a consistent year, and I’m certain we’ll see Dunkley come home strong in the Western Bulldogs’ count – just a matter of how close he gets, and another one that could be decided in finals.

Josh Dunkley

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

Everbody gets a turn… soon
Eight teams are heading into finals mode but for the rest, they will wake up next morning and immediately begin plans for season 2020.

That being the case you can expect the AFL’s silly season of speculation and rumour into player movement and the draft to ramp up rapidly – especially with regards to an inveterate trade period tragic like myself.

This hectic finish to the final round has left me without time to put together the usual ‘everybody gets a turn’ section of the column, but for those wishing to hear my thoughts on where your club sits at the end of 2019 and what they’ll do next, there is good news.

Tomorrow morning will kick off the third year of my club-by-club list analysis and offseason previews, beginning with the Gold Coast Suns, and (I promise) getting rapidly more interesting after that.

I’ve been beavering away at some elegant Excel spreadsheets to bring a new level of analysis this year, and I think you’re gonna like it. Be sure to check The Roar daily between now and the start of finals for each instalment as it arrives.