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Six talking points from AFL Rounds 15 and 16

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6th September, 2020
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Another week of footy is over, and the days left of the 2020 home-and-away season are dwindling down to nothing. Here’s my talking points from the last seven days of footy.

Race for top eight set to go down to the wire
The race to secure the last spots in the top eight is growing tighter and tighter as the season draws to a close, and it just might come down to the final days, hours, minutes or seconds of the home-and-away season.

Melbourne’s loss to Sydney on Thursday night stood out this week as an unexpected and potentially significant result – one which just might keep the Dees out of finals, and just might put a team like St Kilda or GWS into them.

Indeed it was the Giants who later that evening moved back into the AFL’s top eight with a nine-point win over Carlton, albeit in perhaps the most unconvincing fashion that you could imagine seeing.

They kicked just two goals (and 11 behinds) in the first three quarters of the match and trailed by 15 points at the final change, but finally came to life in the final quarter and earned a crucial four premiership points.

Then, on Sunday, St Kilda were able to get a 14-point win in the books against a spirited Hawthorn side – by no means a confidence-inspiring result, but one that the Saints desperately needed to bank in order to sure up their finals chances.

But arguably the biggest impact – and certainly the most heart palpitations – will come out of Sunday night’s tight tussle between the Bulldogs and the West Coast Eagles.

A highly-skilled display of modern footy it was not, but you could hardly deny that with finals implications on the line for both teams and no less than four lead changes in the final quarter, this was edge-of-your seat material.

The Bulldogs came away victors by a single point, and all of a sudden that puts them very strongly in contention for finals. If they can get wins in their remaining matches against Hawthorn and the Dockers – and on talent, they should – then they’re set.

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As for the rest, who knows. There’s every chance that multiple sides finish the season on 9 wins, and eighth spot could be decided solely by percentage – and perhaps not very much percentage, either.

If I’m the AFL I’d be looking to get every relevant game scheduled for the final Sunday of the home-and-away season, and watch as chaos unfolds. Sounds fun, right?

Josh Bruce of the Bulldogs is congratulated by teammates

Josh Bruce of the Bulldogs is congratulated by teammates. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Clinical Cats decimate dreadful Dons
It’s not often an AFL side finds itself flattered by a 66-point loss, but that’s the position Essendon found themselves in after delivering one of the most dreadful performances of the season against Geelong at the Gabba.

The Bombers kicked just two goals in the first half – the second of those not coming until after the halftime siren – while Geelong pumped through 75 points in the first two quarters to have the game well and truly over by the main break.

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In a year where there has been plenty of ugly footy, it was as limp and lifeless a performance as we’ve seen from any team – the Bombers saved from true humiliation perhaps only by the fact that the Cats seemed to take their collective foot off the pedal once the win was in the bag.

The Bombers had 70 fewer possessions than their opponents for the match, yet still lost the tackle count. A very poor effort indeed, and one that will leave fans questioning the future direction of the club – as they’ve been doing for some time.

The Dons started the year with four wins from their first five games but have only tasted victory twice more from ten outings since and would need to break out the scientific calculator now to find any mathematical possibility of playing finals.

They’ve had some good news stories during 2020. Andy McGrath’s breakout year has been one of them, revealing the former No.1 draft pick as a player with the scope to become a genuinely elite AFL midfielder.

And Joe Daniher’s successful return against Hawthorn last week was as inspiring a moment as we’ve seen all year, albeit one that is still shrouded in uncertainty given the lack of clarity around his future at the club.

The Bombers will play just two more games under John Worsfold before Ben Rutten takes over in earnest this year, and perhaps we need to a see how they play under his full command before we make too many harsh judgements.

But it’s fair to say that right now, Essendon are a long way off premiership contention – and how long it will be before they get back there is anyone’s guess.

Coach of the Bombers John Worsfold

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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Adelaide avoid 0-17 season with breakthrough win
Adelaide fans have endured one of the most horrid seasons in football history up until now, but those dark times made Tuesday night’s rousing victory over Hawthorn all the sweeter.

The Crows entered the match as a strong prospect to become the first team in more than half a century to finish a VFL/AFL season without recording a win, but instead broke through to deliver their first four points in more than a year of football.

While Adelaide may not have been able to find a win previously this year, they’ve played competitive football at times, and come close to victory once or twice along the way.

So, against a Hawthorn side that has also struggled in 2020, they were sure to be a chance – and it’s a massive credit to them that they not only took that chance, but ran away with it, ultimately victorious by a very comfortable margin of 35 points.

Particularly exciting is that so much of the good work was done by young players who are crucial to Adelaide’s future.

Chayce Jones, Harry Schoenberg and Darcy Fogarty all kicked two goals each, while Tyson Stengle added one as well. They are some of the players the Crows will be looking to build around in the years to come, and seeing them making an impact is very promising.

Undoubtedly though the highlight of the night was watching Matthew Nicks join his players in the middle of the circle for a Gatorade shower to celebrate his first win as senior coach of the club.

There have been plenty of questions asked about the relationships and culture of Adelaide’s playing and coaching groups in recent years, but if this was anything to go by, they look to have taken a big step forward.

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Matthew Nicks coach of the Crows congratulates Taylor Walker

(Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Good news and bad for finals-bound Brisbane
In the space of a week, Brisbane have received some of the best possible news for their premiership chances in 2020 – and some of the worst.

The best, as you’d have to be living on Mars not to know by now, is that the 2020 AFL grand final will be played at the Gabba – a scenario that will obviously provide a massive advantage to the Lions, should they qualify for it.

And their win over Collingwood on Friday night, while not their best performance of the season so far, was another step on the road there. With just three games left in the season, they are half a win clear in the top two, leaving their destiny very much in their own hands.

Those three matches are against Gold Coast, Sydney and Carlton – all likely wins – and if they can get through that block without fault then they’ll be in a position where they could win the premiership without having to leave their home ground.

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To call it the opportunity of a lifetime is, if anything, understating it. This is the first time the grand final has been played outside Victoria in more than a hundred years of VFL/AFL competition and, for all we know, it could be another hundred years or more before it happens again.

But just as they secured a vital four points on Friday night, Brisbane’s hopes were dealt a cruel blow.

Harris Andrews went down with a hamstring injury during the match, and the most recent news is that it could see him miss five or six weeks – meaning a return in the middle of the finals is probably the most optimistic outcome at this stage.

Excepting maybe Lachie Neale or Charlie Cameron, no other absence could be as cruelly felt by the Lions, who on many occasions this year seem to have held on for wins solely through Andrews’ sheer determination to stonewall any and all forward entries from the opposition.

Can they still hope to achieve the dream of a premiership won on home soil? Or is an already mighty challenge now simply too high a mountain to climb? Only time will tell.

Harris Andrew of the Lions

(Photo by Chris Hyde/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

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Rising Star race appears all but over
The race for the 2020 AFL Rising Star award isn’t over, but it would be fair to say that – bit by bit – a clear frontrunner has emerged at Fremantle over the past few weeks.

Caleb Serong has recorded 20 or more disposals in five of his last seven games, and also won 28 clearances during that time, which are remarkable numbers for an 18-year-old to be putting up, especially given 2020’s shortened 16-minute quarters.

Serong has become one of Fremantle’s first-choice centre bounce players, which is a remarkable achievement for someone who just this week played only their 11th career game. With just two or three games left in the season, his 178cm frame is figuratively standing head and shoulders above the rest.

That said, it must be acknowledged that Noah Anderson has played some brilliant football in recent weeks – recording 23 disposals and a goal against North Melbourne last Sunday, and 26 disposals against Richmond in Round 12.

Anderson and Serong have each recorded 12 AFLCA votes for the season gone by, tied for the second-most of any Rising Star-eligible players this year (with Matt Rowell’s 30 being much too far ahead for anyone to catch at this point).

Max King and Izak Rankine have been the other names touted through the season – and if the award was judged purely on talent and potential, either one of them might be a chance.

Izak Rankine celebrates

Izak Rankine. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Rankine has shown that he has X-factor to rival any contender, while King is quietly putting together a debut season that’s every bit as impressive as the one his twin brother Ben compiled last year.

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But Rankine has lacked consistency and King is yet to tear a game apart. They both look like players who will be scary prospects in years to come, but if we’re judging this on body of work – as is typically the case – they’re both a step back.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a discussion at all had Rowell played out the full season. Some would argue he showed more in his brief spurt at the start of the year than any other contender has across a whole season, but the consensus seems to be that he surely couldn’t win off so few games.

And a similar line of thinking likely applies to Jake Riccardi, who has booted eight goals in three games – numbers which, if he had reproduced them across an entire year, could well have placed him at the top of the podium.

A big game or two from any one of the contenders just might sway the judges, but failing that, it looks like Serong’s to lose.

Caleb Serong marks the ball

Caleb Serong (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Everybody gets a turn
Adelaide Crows (1-13) – On the topic of Adelaide’s kids, Elliot Himmelberg is one who doesn’t get a lot of attention but has quietly shown some signs this year. One to keep an eye on.

Brisbane Lions (11-3) – It’s easy to forget just how young Eric Hipwood is. He’s the only 22-year-old in the league to have kicked 100 career goals – and in fact, he’s kicked 132. Gets more criticism than he should.

Carlton Blues (6-8) – It’s been a real sturggle of a season for Patrick Cripps in 2020, whose numbers are down across the board (even after adjusting for shortened gametime). He managed just 13 touches on Thursday night. Must bounce back in 2021.

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Collingwood Magpies (8-6-1) – No one would be as excited about the news of a pre-finals bye as they are – might mean just enough time to get some crucial players back. Though they likely need to beat one of Gold Coast or Port Adelaide to make that possible.

Essendon Bombers (6-8-1) – As if the scoreboard result wasn’t bad enough, what looks like a serious knee injury for Irving Mosquito is just really heartbreaking. Fingers crossed it’s not as bad as it looked.

Fremantle Dockers (5-9) – Don’t forget this is a team that stared 2020 with an 0-4 record, have gone 5-5 since then and really threatened a quality Richmond team at times on Wednesday. They have plenty to be excited about.

Geelong Cats (11-4) – I’ve been wanting to see Josh Jenkins get a chance for the Cats for a while now. Didn’t star but made solid use of the opportunity, and will give them something to think about at selection over the next couple of weeks.

Gold Coast Suns (5-8-1) – Didn’t play a game this week.

GWS Giants (8-6) – Experimented a bit this week playing all four of Jeremy Cameron, Jake Ricciardi, Jeremy Finlayson and Harry Himmelberg. Wouldn’t say it looked like a winning combination, with only three goals between them, two of those belonging to Riccardi.

Jake Riccardi of the Giants celebrates a goal

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Hawthorn Hawks (4-11) – 21 touches and 452 metres gained another very impressive effort from Will Day this week. Surely can’t be overlooked for a Rising Star nomination any longer.

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Melbourne Demons (7-7) – Tomorrow night’s game against Fremantle is the most crucial of their season. Very winnable, very losable, and their finals chances will live or die on the outcome.

North Melbourne Kangaroos (3-12) – Look, it’s been an awful season, and they are likely to finish it 1-14 from their last 15. But the performances of Ben McKay and Luke Davies-Uniacke on Saturday night provided a lot to be optimistic about.

Port Adelaide Power (12-3) – One of those players who fly under the radar at Port, I really like Karl Amon. Having a very good season and was one of their best on Saturday night.

Richmond Tigers (10-4-1) – 11 disposals are the least Dustin Martin’s had in a game since 2013. Don’t think we’ll be seeing that again any time soon.

St Kilda Saints (9-6) – I’ll admit I had no idea Jack Steele was capable of the kind of football we’ve seen from him this year. Another very impressive performance on Sunday, and great to see he’s re-signed with the club.

Sydney Swans (5-9) – It’s nothing new to say this, but they’re having just about the perfect rebuilding season. Plenty of games into the kids, plenty of promise from said kids, knocked off a few reasonable scalps, still going to get a very early draft pick.

West Coast Eagles (10-5) – They may have blown their top four chances with that loss to the Bulldogs. There was doubt about whether quarantine logistics would allow them to host a preliminary final in Perth, well, they might not have to worry about it.

Western Bulldogs (8-7) – The final margin belies how comprehensively the Dogs dominated that game. If they’d kicked a bit straighter than 6.13 they’d have won very comfortably. Frustrating, exciting performance.

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