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2021 AFL season: Round 20 preview

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Roar Guru
28th July, 2021
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With just over a month to go until the finals get underway, several teams will be out to either keep their September hopes alive or start warming up for what lies ahead.

Despite the lockdown being lifted in Victoria, matches played in the state will be played behind closed doors for at least the next two rounds, and this has prompted Hawthorn to move its clash against the Brisbane Lions to Tasmania.

There is also talk that the Hawks-Pies clash next week could also be moved south, should that be the case, it will mark the first time the Pies play for premiership points in the Apple Isle.

The locations for two matches (Gold Coast Suns versus Melbourne and GWS Giants versus Port Adelaide) are still to be determined, while the Essendon versus Sydney Swans blockbuster will be played at the Gabba, marking a second appearance for both clubs at the venue this year.

The latter clash, which was to have kicked off Round 20, has been pushed back to Saturday due to both clubs playing on the Sunday last week; therefore, St Kilda and Carlton have been given primetime exposure, despite the fact both clubs are unlikely to play finals in 2021.

That match kicks off my preview of Round 20.

St Kilda versus Carlton
The first match of Round 20 threatens to be a mockbuster, if it isn’t already, with neither St Kilda nor Carlton likely to contest finals in 2021.

Essendon and the Sydney Swans were originally going to face each other in this timeslot, but their match got pushed back by twenty-four hours after both sides had played their Round 19 matches on the Sunday, and would’ve faced a short five-day turnaround.

Instead, the Saints and Blues have been given the premium Friday night stage in a match that is likely to be dwarfed in the television ratings by the ongoing Tokyo Olympics.

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Those who are willing to watch it will be treated to two sides that will be playing for pride and turning their focus to season 2022.

Both sides’ finals hopes were all but killed off last week, with the Saints losing to West Coast by just eight points despite a six-goal haul from Max King, while odds of David Teague remaining as Blues coach lengthened with their 39-point loss to North Melbourne.

Coleman Medal leader Harry McKay is a chance to return for the Blues, after he missed the match against the Kangaroos, while neither of Zac Williams nor Eddie Betts are likely to play again in season 2021.

With everything that is going on at the Blues threatening to prove a long-term distraction, the Saints should claim the points.

Prediction: St Kilda by 20 points.

Jack Billings of the Saints looks on

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Western Bulldogs versus Adelaide Crows
Having had its “home” match against Hawthorn moved to Melbourne, the Adelaide Crows will play in Victoria for the second consecutive week, when they face the top-placed Western Bulldogs in Ballarat.

The Crows gave themselves some breathing space between them and the bottom three, defeating Hawthorn for the second time in their past three meetings, banking their sixth win for the year in the process.

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It also came fresh off the news that last year’s number two draft pick, Riley Thilthorpe, recently extended his contract by three years, ensuring he remains at West Lakes until at least the end of the 2025 season.

It’s also a strong indication that things are starting to turn under coach Matthew Nicks’ watch; though the club will not contest finals for a fourth straight year, there are positive signs that a return to better times won’t be too far away.

As much as they would love to add to their win tally, which also includes a scalp of the Geelong Cats in Round 1, the Crows will have their work cut out tackling the Western Bulldogs on Saturday.

The Dogs moved ahead in the premiership favouritism race by reversing its round eleven loss to Melbourne with a 20-point win at the MCG, which, like their clash earlier in the season, was played in front of no fans.

In driving rain at the G, captain Marcus Bontempelli again led from the front with two goals from over 30 disposals, strengthening his chances of becoming the first Western Bulldog to win the Brownlow Medal since top draft pick Adam Cooney won it in 2008.

At stake for Luke Beveridge’s side is the chance to claim its first minor premiership (though their women’s team did finish on top of the ladder in 2018, en route to winning the AFL Women’s flag that year), and four weeks out from September, will not want to slip up here.

Prediction: Western Bulldogs by 30 points.

North Melbourne versus Geelong Cats
Playing the final game of their decade-long contract in Hobart, North Melbourne will be keen to perform in front of their Tasmanian fans when they face the Geelong Cats, who will be playing their first match in the Apple Isle since 2007, on Saturday afternoon.

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After a difficult first half of the season, the Kangaroos have picked up form over the past month-and-a-half, picking up wins over Gold Coast Suns, West Coast Eagles and Carlton to revive the battle for the wooden spoon, and hence the number one draft pick.

In a breakout performance, Nick Larkey kicked seven majors against the Blues, giving their fans hope for the future as they look to build something special under rookie coach David Noble.

But while finals may be a few years away for this young side, they can provide some nuisance value against the Cats, who have bigger things on their minds as they eye a top-two finish and a shot at a first premiership since 2011.

Chris Scott’s side made it two wins over Richmond this season, backing up their round-eight 63-point win with a 38-point victory, which has also all but ended the Tigers’ hopes of a fourth flag in five years.

Currently the form side of the competition with only one loss since Round 7 (albeit against the Brisbane Lions), the Cats still have forward Jeremy Cameron to return, having suffered a recurrence of the hamstring injury which has plagued his first season with the club.

As mentioned at the top of this preview, this will be the club’s first match in Tasmania since 2007, when it lost to Hawthorn by just four points, very early in a season that ultimately saw them take out their first flag since 1963.

This time around, they will start favourites to win, but will be aware of a North Melbourne side which has improved since the bye and will be keen to perform in front of its state-based supporters, hopefully not for the last time.

Prediction: Geelong Cats by 24 points.

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Jeremy Cameron of the Cats celebrates a goal

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Gold Coast Suns versus Melbourne
A venue for Saturday’s clash between the Gold Coast Suns and Melbourne is still to be confirmed, but regardless of where it is played, the Dees will start hot favourites to continue their march towards a top four berth.

The club’s flag credentials took a hit with last week’s loss to the Western Bulldogs, a result which also continued the club’s recent scoring woes, having not scored more than 90 points since Round 12 and not more than 100 since Round 7.

While they still sit in the top four, and are a good chance of securing the double chance for the first time since 2000, their recent woes is a far cry from the start of the season when they won their first nine games, and suffered its first defeat by a solitary point against the Adelaide Crows in Round 10.

Simon Goodwin’s men will start hot favourites to beat the Gold Coast Suns this Saturday, but will be wary of a side that had led the Brisbane Lions by 29 points in the first half only to then lose by 49 points, marking a 78-point negative turnaround.

The Suns appeared set to continue their recent strong form, which netted wins over Richmond and the GWS Giants, as well as a respectable loss to the Western Bulldogs, only to kick just one goal in the second half as they crashed to their twelfth loss of the year.

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It has all but ensured that the club’s hunt for a maiden finals berth will continue on into a twelfth season, in which coach Stuart Dew will be looking to get his troops to compete on a consistent basis.

Having derailed the finals hopes of the Tigers and Giants in recent weeks, the Suns will look to throw another spanner in the works against the Dees, but it’s the red and blue side which have bigger things to focus on, and so should claim the points.

Prediction: Melbourne by 28 points.

Collingwood versus West Coast Eagles
With a bouncedown scheduled for 4:15pm, the Saturday twilight clash between Collingwood and the West Coast Eagles will allow for the visiting side to fly across the Nullarbor on the morning of Game Day, and then back in the evening, so they can begin home quarantine.

The Eagles, whose percentage has taken a hit after recent disappointing losses to the Western Bulldogs, Sydney Swans and North Melbourne, have hit back with two consecutive wins, albeit against the Adelaide Crows and St Kilda, teams that won’t contest finals.

Last week they were able to keep the Saints at bay; having led by 25 points at three-quarter-time, they were outscored by six goals to three in the final quarter but got the win thanks to a pair of goals from 2018 grand final hero, Dom Sheed.

Sheed and the Eagles will be out to haunt the Pies at the MCG once again, with the westerners having won their past three encounters at the ground, including, of course, that fateful decider just short of three years ago.

As if losing to Port Adelaide by 28 points wasn’t bad enough, the Pies also lost their skipper, Scott Pendlebury, for the season due to a leg injury, leaving them devoid of any experience as they look to reverse their Round 5 loss to the Eagles.

They had trailed by 32 points but got to within nine in the final quarter, only for the Power’s experience to prove telling.

With finals out of the equation, the Pies have already started looking to next season and while a win against the Eagles would do wonders for their confidence, it won’t be forthcoming, with the Eagles keen to perform in their second and last MCG outing for the regular season.

Prediction: West Coast Eagles by 20 points.

Tim Kelly of the Eagles celebrates a goal

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Essendon versus Sydney Swans
A huge clash of proportions awaits when Essendon and the Sydney Swans face off at the Gabba, with the Bombers looking to get back into the eight after being knocked out of it by the GWS Giants last Sunday.

This match was originally scheduled to be played on a Friday night at Marvel Stadium, however the COVID outbreak in Victoria, which has since been quashed, and the fact that both teams played their previous matches on Sunday, saw the match pushed back by 24 hours.

After a strong first half, the Bombers kicked only one second-half major as Darcy Parish, who is tipped to take out the club’s best-and-fairest award at season’s end, was held on a leash by GWS youngster Lachie Ash.

It marked the first time the Bombers had lost to the Giants twice in one season and on Saturday night will be out to avoid a second loss to the Swans after going down to them by just three points at the SCG in Round 4, despite kicking one more goal than them.

The Swans’ run to September, which has come amid being forced out of their own state due to the coronavirus outbreak in New South Wales, gained more momentum after they thrashed Fremantle by 40 points on the Gold Coast, ruining David Mundy’s 350th game milestone in the process.

That came after they came from nearly six goals down to beat the Giants, that coming after at least two players were forced out of the match and into hotel quarantine after they had attended the rugby union match in Melbourne that became exposed to COVID-19.

The strong form of John Longmire’s side this season has led to many labeling them a dark horse for the flag, with Caroline Wilson comparing them to the Richmond side of 2017 that came from nowhere to claim its 11th flag.

It will be the second time the Swans play at the Gabba this season, after springing an upset win against the Brisbane Lions in the opening round in a result which, looking back, proved to be a foundation for the side’s impending return to finals.

For the Bombers it will also be their second match at the ground which will be the showpiece of the 2032 Summer Olympics, and they will be hoping for a better result after being thrashed by the Lions by 57 points in Round 5.

While the Dons will be desperate to break back into the eight, the Swans have bigger fish to fry, as they can keep their top four chances alive with a win.

Prediction: Sydney Swans by eight points.

Hawthorn versus Brisbane Lions
For the fifth time this season, Hawthorn will travel south to the Apple Isle to play in front of its Tasmanian supporters when they host the Brisbane Lions at York Park.

Originally fixtured to be played at the MCG, the move south was forced when the Victorian government announced a ban on crowds at AFL games in the state for at least two weeks, with that state emerging from its fifth lockdown this week.

On the field, the Hawks could enter this match in last place on the ladder, if North Melbourne upset the Geelong Cats in Hobart twenty-four hours earlier, so the stakes will be high in their case as they attempt to avoid a first wooden spoon since 1965.

A week after pegging the Dees to a draw, the Hawks suffered disappointment losing to the Adelaide Crows at Marvel Stadium, a result which saw them joined on equal premiership points with the Kangaroos.

The stakes are much higher in the Brisbane Lions’ case; having lost their previous two matches, Chris Fagan’s men faced a third straight defeat when they trailed the Gold Coast Suns by 29 points in the second quarter.

However, a halftime bake from Fagan saw the northerners run riot after halftime, kicking eleven of the final twelve goals of the game as they not only snapped a run of two straight losses, but more importantly, kept alive their hopes of securing the all-important double chance.

Dayne Zorko of the Lions in action

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

By the time they face the Hawks, it will be over sixteen months since they last met; on that occasion, the Hawks won by 28 points at the MCG, during which AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan announced the suspension of the 2020 season in the face of the growing COVID-19 threat.

For Hawks stalwart Grant Birchall, now at the Lions, this Sunday’s clash will mark the first time he faces the club with whom he won four flags; making the occasion all the more significant will be that it is played in his home state of Tasmania.

With a top four berth on the line, the Lions should take the points from the Apple Isle for the second time this year.

Prediction: Brisbane Lions by 25 points.

GWS Giants versus Port Adelaide
For both the GWS Giants and Port Adelaide, this Sunday’s clash at a venue still to be determined will be important in the context of their seasons, for varying reasons.

Having broken back into the eight after their come-from-behind win over Essendon, the Giants will need to navigate their way through a tough fortnight, starting with Sunday’s clash against the Power, followed by the tough trip down to Geelong where the Cats await.

Their chances of upsetting the Power is expected to be boosted by the return of Toby Greene, who has missed the last two matches due to being in isolation, and captain Stephen Coniglio, who missed the win over the Bombers due to a toe injury.

Having had their home game against Collingwood taken away from Adelaide due to South Australia’s snap lockdown, the Power still got on with the job, winning by 28 points at an empty Marvel Stadium.

By winning, they retained their place in the top four, but it also raised more questions about their true flag credentials, having beaten yet another team ranked lower than them on the ladder.

It was the perfect way to toast Travis Boak in his 300th AFL game, and this Sunday he will become the most capped player in the club’s history, overtaking Kane Cornes who retired on exactly 300 games in Round 8, 2015.

While Ken Hinkley’s men should start favourites on Sunday, they’ll be made to work hard against the Giants, which has played some good football against the good sides but have played rather badly against the lower-ranked sides.

Prediction: Port Adelaide by 12 points.

Fremantle versus Richmond
The final match of Round 20 sees Richmond make the trip west across the Nullarbor for the third time this season to take on Fremantle, with both sides desperate to keep their finals hopes alive.

The clash between the 10th-placed Tigers and 11th-placed Dockers has been robbed of its superstar status, with neither of their respective Brownlow Medallists Dustin Martin and Nat Fyfe, to play again this season.

Martin suffered a kidney injury in his side’s Round 18 win over the Brisbane Lions, while Fyfe suffered a shoulder injury against the Sydney Swans on the Gold Coast last week.

Fyfe’s season-ending injury was a lowlight in the Dockers’ 40-point loss to the Swans, in which they conceded a run of eight straight goals across the second and third quarters as their finals hopes took a sledgehammer blow in what was David Mundy’s 350th AFL game.

Andrew Brayshaw of the Dockers celebrates the win on the final siren

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

It was also the second time the club’s 350-game milestone was spoiled by the red and whites, after Matthew Pavlich’s milestone game resulted in a 90-point loss in 2016.

Meantime, the Tigers’ premiership hopes, let alone finals chances, remain on life support after they, like the Dockers in Round 18, copped a thrashing at the hands of the Geelong Cats, going down by 38 points in front of an empty MCG.

Like the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn before them, many are fearing the end of the club’s premiership era, which netted them three of the last four flags, that coming after coach Damien Hardwick just avoided the axe after a horror 2016 season.

Despite their recent poor form, the Tigers should claim the points in what is virtually an elimination final, a month out from September.

Prediction: Richmond by 20 points.

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