Rhys Mathieson's narrow escape didn't stop him from copping the mother of all sprays!
With three rounds remaining, a handful of teams’ finals chances could be extinguished by the end of the round, while for others this is the time to continue to warm up for September.
For the GWS Giants, Richmond and St Kilda, their respective matches against the Geelong Cats, North Melbourne and the Sydney Swans represents their final roll of the finals dice, as a loss for either side will sentence them to the sidelines this September.
A reduced crowd will be permitted into the Adelaide Oval for the landmark 50th Showdown, which will also mark a return of football to the City of Churches after it was locked down late last month to combat the Delta strain of COVID.
The two matches in Perth will see the Brisbane Lions and Melbourne flex their finals muscles when they face Fremantle and the West Coast Eagles, respectively, with both WA sides also keen to defend their places in the eight.
Here is your preview of Round 21.
Geelong Cats vs GWS Giants
By the time the Geelong Cats and GWS Giants come face-to-face at Kardinia Park this Friday night, it will have been 15-and-a-half months since the two clubs last met, anywhere.
On that occasion, the Giants won by 32 points in a match that was played in front of an empty stadium, just over a week after the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 pandemic as such, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison outlawed non-essential gatherings of over 500 people.
It was Stephen Coniglio’s first game as full-time captain and his side were so deadly accurate that night, kicking 17 majors from 20 scoring shots.
Since then, the Giants have largely struggled, as the psychological and mental scars from their 2019 grand final humiliation at the hands of Richmond continue to haunt the club, to the point that they could miss out on finals action for a second straight year.
Last week against Port Adelaide, they hung in for three quarters before capitulating in the last, as they had their place in the eight taken by Fremantle, which had defeated Richmond by four points earlier in the day.
On the flip side, the Cats have continued to go from strength to strength, reaching the decider last year where they were outplayed by the Tigers, and this year are on track to reach another, having lost just once since Round 7.
A week after all but delivering the last rites to the Tigers’ premiership defence, the Cats ventured to Tasmania for the first time since 2007 and comfortably defeated North Melbourne by 20 points, though they could’ve won by more if not for inaccurate goal kicking.
Unfortunately, star forward Jeremy Cameron has failed to recover in time from a hamstring injury, meaning he will miss out on facing his former club, thus robbing this match of its grudge-match status.
In the teams’ first meeting at Kardinia Park since 2019, Chris Scott’s men should take the points, but not without an almighty challenge from the Giants, who will be desperate to keep their finals hopes afloat.
Prediction: Geelong Cats by 32 points.
Carlton vs Gold Coast Suns
With the finals hopes of both sides all but extinguished, both Carlton and the Gold Coast Suns will be playing for pride when they face each other at an empty Marvel Stadium in the first of four Saturday matches.
After another week of intense scrutiny, the Blues hit back with a much-needed win over St Kilda, taking advantage of the rare Friday night prime-time opportunity that had been afforded to them after a lack of matches in the timeslot in recent times.
For now, it has alleviated some pressure off under-fire coach David Teague amid an ongoing extensive review of the club’s football operations, with every chance the Blues could be hunting for a new coach with Alastair Clarkson right among the names being considered.
The club should start favourites to beat the Gold Coast Suns, who are spending the week in Melbourne to avoid the COVID-19 lockdown in south-east Queensland.
For all the improvement that the club appears to have shown this season, it all amounted to nothing when they crashed to a humiliating 98-point loss to Melbourne at Docklands last Sunday, marking a sour result in forward Ben King’s 50th AFL game.
It was their third straight loss and leaves them with more questions to be asked than answered, not least of whether Stuart Dew is indeed the right man to take the club out of the mess they find themselves in at the moment.
They are spending the week camped in Melbourne to avoid the COVID-19 lockdown in south-east Queensland; perhaps the time spent together as a club might lead to an improved performance on the weekend – or will it?
Prediction: Carlton by 18 points.
Richmond vs North Melbourne
With their finals hopes, and premiership defence, on life support, Richmond will have to make a major statement against North Melbourne at the MCG if they are to prove that they are not yet a spent force.
A poor second half of the season has seen the Tigers drop to 11th place on the ladder as they face the same post-premiership hangover that plagued the Brisbane Lions earlier this millennium, as well as Hawthorn in recent years.
Damien Hardwick’s side have lost six of their last seven games, with the only win in that period being against the Brisbane Lions, which in recent weeks have also stumbled.
Last week, despite hitting the lead late in the fourth quarter, they fell to Fremantle by just four points, leaving them with an uphill battle to break back into the eight, with no Dustin Martin to lean back on after he suffered a season-ending kidney injury in Round 18.
Despite their recent poor form, the Tigers should start favourites against North Melbourne in what will be their first regular season meeting at the MCG since 2012, though history is against them as they have not beaten the Kangaroos at the ground since 2006.
Their last meeting at the G ended in a 17-point win to North, before which their cheer squad unfurled a banner that made fun of the Tigers’ (then) poor finals record.
— 3AW Football (@3AWisfootball) September 13, 2015
The present-day Roos may be struggling at the bottom of the ladder, and their chances of avoiding a first wooden spoon since 1972 took a hit with a 20-point loss to the Geelong Cats, which was followed by Hawthorn upsetting the Brisbane Lions the next day.
Despite this, their form since the bye has been strong, winning three matches, including upsetting the West Coast Eagles in Perth in Round 17, giving their supporters hope for the future.
This Saturday, in what will be their only match at the MCG this season, the Roos can just about deliver last rites to the Tigers’ season with a win, which will also vindicate the belief that the future at Arden Street is indeed bright.
Amazingly, this will also be the first time David Noble’s men step foot onto the ‘G since Round 3, 2019, when it lost to Hawthorn by 16 points – that’s 28 months ago.
However, knowing the repercussions that could arise should they lose to the Roos, the Tigers should claim the points.
Prediction: Richmond by 17 points.
Adelaide Crows vs Port Adelaide
A capped crowd of 15,000 will be permitted into the Adelaide Oval for the landmark 50th Showdown, as both the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide return home to the City of Churches after a fortnight away from the city.
For the Crows, who will miss finals for a fourth consecutive year, this is their chance to unleash their frustration at missing out on September by unleashing on Port Adelaide, which on the flip side is still in the hunt for a top-four finish.
After an impressive win against Hawthorn in Round 19, Matthew Nicks’ men came crashing back down to earth, beaten convincingly by the Western Bulldogs by 49 points in front of an empty Mars Stadium.
With Collingwood’s win over the West Coast Eagles later that day, the result sunk the Crows to 16th place on the ladder and there is every chance its Round 23 clash against North Melbourne could decide the wooden spoon, should Hawthorn suddenly find form in the final three weeks.
But if there is an incentive for the Crows to win, not only would it derail the top-four hopes of their bitter rivals, it would also square the Showdown ledger at 25-wins apiece after 50 Showdowns dating all the way back to Port’s win in the inaugural match in 1997.
Meantime, the Power withstood a furious challenge from the GWS Giants, before breaking the shackles in the final quarter to win by 27 points and remain a game clear of the Sydney Swans in the hunt for the double chance.
With this match to be played concurrently with the St Kilda-Sydney Swans match, in which the Swans will start heavy favourites, Ken Hinkley’s men will surely not want to slip up, as a defeat could see them drop out of the top four by the end of Saturday night.
With bigger things on their minds, the Power will indeed start favourites, and could end up locking up the top four should the Swans suffer a shock loss to the Saints at the same time.
Prediction: Port Adelaide by 40 points.
St Kilda vs Sydney Swans
For St Kilda this Saturday night’s clash against the Sydney Swans is their absolute last roll of the finals dice.
While the Saints’ faint finals hopes remain alive, the side did themselves no favours when they lost to Carlton by 31 points at Marvel Stadium last Friday night, continuing yet another frustrating season for coach Brett Ratten and its supporters.
The last thing they would want is to face a Sydney Swans side that has won their past five matches, all on the road, confirming a return to September football in the process.
Last Sunday, the Swans outlasted Essendon to win by seven points, with a seven-goal third quarter proving crucial as they kept alive their chances of a top-four finish.
Two goals from Lance Franklin saw him draw to within 15 of the magical 1000-goal milestone, and with three regular season matches remaining, plus at least one final, there is no reason to believe he won’t bring up the four figures this year.
Historically, Buddy has had a good record against the Saints, kicking nine goals against them in his 200th game as well as four in his 300th; he also hasn’t lost to them since his 100th game in 2009.
Should the Swans win on Saturday night, and Port Adelaide suffer a shock loss to the Adelaide Crows in the match that is to be played concurrently, then John Longmire’s side could find themselves in the top four by midnight.
It is also the sixth edition of the annual Pride Game, which was established in 2016 to celebrate the role that the LGBTIQ community plays in the AFL.
To celebrate the occasion, the Swans will wear a specially-designed guernsey for the match, similar to their home guernsey but with a rainbow on it.
With some big fish to fry, the red-and-whites should claim the points.
Prediction: Sydney Swans by 30 points.
Hawthorn vs Collingwood
It wasn’t very long ago that a match between Hawthorn and Collingwood would have blockbuster status.
Think the 2011 preliminary final, which the Pies won by just three points, after which was followed by a period of Hawthorn domination.
A decade on, both clubs will be playing for pride, with the Hawks to miss September action for the fourth time in five years while the Pies continue to prepare for 2022, with speculation over who will be the club’s new coach continuing to drag on.
While finals may be out of the equation for Alastair Clarkson’s side, they did produce one of their best performances for the year when they defeated the Brisbane Lions in Launceston last week, handing the northerners their third loss in four games.
The much-needed result came following the news that Clarkson would exit at the end of this season, rather than next as planned, ensuring he’ll fall short of coaching 400 games for the club.
It means former captain Sam Mitchell will take over by the start of the 2022 season.
Also last week, the Pies had their best win of the season thrashing the West Coast Eagles by 45 points and burying the demons of recent losses to the same side at the MCG, not least of which was the heartbreaking 2018 grand final.
The result moved them up to 14th place on the ladder, but even if they beat the Hawks on Sunday they will move no higher, ensuring they will finish the round in the bottom six.
Originally scheduled to be held at the MCG, this clash has been moved to York Park in Launceston, with a maximum crowd of 10,000 to be permitted into the ground for what will be the first time the Pies play in the Apple Isle.
It means that every club will have played in Tasmania at least once since Hawthorn began playing games in the state in 2001; since then, the only club they have yet to ‘host’ in Launceston is Melbourne (though the Dees have played North Melbourne in Hobart a couple of times).
It is also the second of three consecutive matches the Hawks will play at their secondary home, as they are also due to play the ladder-leading Western Bulldogs in the penultimate round.
On the basis of their strong form last week, the Pies should prevail, but not without a challenge from the Hawks.
Prediction: Collingwood by 14 points.
Western Bulldogs vs Essendon
The Western Bulldogs’ charge to a possible first minor premiership in club history continues when they face Essendon at Marvel Stadium in the only match to be played in Melbourne on the Sunday.
Another strong performance against the Crows has them well in contention to claim a second flag in six years, but first they need to get past an Essendon side which is refusing to throw in the towel in its chase for an unlikely finals berth.
The Bombers sit in tenth place on the ladder, and can break back into the eight with a win, but that is dependent on the GWS Giants losing to the Geelong Cats on Friday night, plus Fremantle losing to the Brisbane Lions later on Sunday.
Ben Rutten’s side pushed the Sydney Swans all the way at the MCG last Sunday, in a match that was first scheduled to be played at Marvel Stadium, then moved to the Gabba, before a COVID lockdown in Brisbane saw the match postponed then returned to Melbourne.
Frustratingly, it was the third time they had lost a match this year after scoring over 100 points, after doing so in consecutive weeks against Carlton and the GWS Giants earlier this season.
History is also against the men from Windy Hill, who have not beaten the Western Bulldogs since 2014 and in their most recent clash in Melbourne, were thrashed by 104 points as the Dogs ran riot, kicking 21 goals in a row across the four quarters.
Try as they may, but the Bulldogs should prove too strong on Sunday, and leave the Bombers’ finals hopes hanging.
Prediction: Western Bulldogs by 24 points.
Fremantle vs Brisbane Lions
The first of two matches in Perth this round sees Fremantle host the Brisbane Lions, with the chance to consolidate its place in the eight, though that is dependent on the GWS Giants and Essendon slipping up earlier in the round.
After recent disappointing losses to the Geelong Cats and Sydney Swans, the Dockers, who are without Nat Fyfe for the rest of the season, pulled out all the stops to defeat Richmond by four points and put their finals hopes and premiership defence on life support.
As for the Dockers’ own finals hopes, they could find themselves out of the eight should Essendon upset the Western Bulldogs earlier in the day, and will need to find a way past the Brisbane Lions if they are to break back into it.
The Lions’ run to September has hit turbulence in recent weeks, losing three of their past four matches, including last week when they were upended by Hawthorn by 12 points at York Park in Launceston.
Chris Fagan’s men are in the middle of their seven-day quarantine in Perth – though they travelled west directly from Tasmania, the fact they played their Round 19 match against the Suns in Brisbane in the past 14 days meant that the club could not enter WA freely.
It will be the first time the club plays in WA since May 2019, with the club spared from having to travel to the state hub during last year’s COVID-interrupted season, in which they did not travel outside of their home state after Round 7.
The Lions’ recent record against the Dockers is strong, having won four of their past five clashes against them, with the only loss being in their last trip west when Michael Walters kicked a poster on the final siren to give his side a one-point win.
Having lost their place in the top four, the Lions should get things back on track with a win, though the Dockers will have bigger things on their mind as they chase a first finals berth since 2015.
Prediction: Brisbane Lions by 25 points.
West Coast Eagles vs Melbourne
Monday night football returns, with the West Coast Eagles out to resuscitate their finals hopes when they receive a visit from Melbourne at Optus Stadium.
The match was originally scheduled to be played on Saturday night, but after the Dees’ match against the Gold Coast Suns got postponed to Sunday, and moved to Victoria, it was pushed back to Monday night so that the Dees could quarantine for seven days after entering WA.
The Eagles continue to limp into September, beaten by Collingwood by 45 points in their second (and last) match at the MCG for the season, with the performance suggesting that they’ll be doing nothing more than just making up the numbers, should they qualify.
It continued a recent poor run of form which included heavy losses to the Western Bulldogs and Sydney Swans, as well as a shock defeat to North Melbourne at home in Round 17, though they did go into Round 20 on the back of two consecutive victories.
Awaiting them are the Melbourne Demons, who will be without Jack Viney after he was suspended for two matches by the judiciary for rough conduct on Gold Coast Sun Sam Collins in their 98-point thrashing at Marvel Stadium last Sunday.
With a double chance firmly on their minds, the Dees showed no mercy as they racked up their biggest win of the year, putting to bed any doubts over their finals credentials after recent losses to the Western Bulldogs and GWS Giants, as well as a draw against lowly Hawthorn.
It has them on track for their best regular season since 2000, also the year the club most recently made a frand final where they lost to Essendon by ten goals.
And in a good omen for Dees supporters, the club’s last flag came in 1964, a year where Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games, as they are this year (albeit rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
While Optus Stadium may hold some bad memories for the club, not least the 2018 preliminary final which they lost by 11 goals after failing to kick a goal in the first quarter, the Dees should banish their demons, so to speak, with a win on Monday night.
Prediction: Melbourne by 28 points.