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Have we seen the best game of the year? Six talking points for AFL Round 23

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Roar Guru
22nd August, 2021
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What a fantastic round, featuring thrilling matches, a large comeback or two and finals uncertainty certified.

Here are six talking points from the final home-and-away round of the year.

Geelong and Melbourne will remember that clash for very different reasons
Best match of the year? Look, I’d be leaning towards yes.

It had everything you would have wanted from the final round’s marquee match-up. It was a relatively stagnant first half in the sense that both sides had periods of ascendency without ceding too much advantage – until the Cats flexed their muscles in the second quarter.

I’ve spoken about the Cats regularly, suggesting they have a knack of winning without ever really looking like world-beaters. Not so on Saturday. Geelong appeared so powerful as if proving a point to the Demons that finals were made for the best of the best.

As it turns out, Simon Goodwin’s men are just that. Brushing aside how poorly they were playing in the midst of Geelong’s fantastic second term, the Demons came out breathing fire in the final quarter. They shook off a significant deficit and were near enough to replicating the Cats’ nine consecutive goals earlier in the game with eight straight of their own. The comeback was as remarkable as Geelong’s inability to stop the surge.

In the end it was only time itself that could have saved Chris Scott’s men. That it came down to a goal after the siren was torturous for them but euphoric for the now ladder leaders.

The fortunate thing for both sides – but especially for the losers – is that the double chance may yet prove ridiculously valuable. Geelong may be frustrated with their loss – and they should be – but they remain a super talented club, and you would be brave to bet against them doing some damage.

It’s the same with the Demons, who now need to muster everything into not pulling a ‘Melbourne’ as they head into finals.

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Honestly, this match very well might be repeated on the last Saturday in September. Hopefully with a crowd this time.

The Demons mob Max Gawn after kicking a goal after the siren to win the game against Geelong.

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

The Dogs hold the unenviable tag of ‘finalists in worst form’
It was close, it was thrilling and it was rather fun – if you were a Port Adelaide fan, that is. For Luke Beveridge’s side there’s a superlative or two that they would be using to describe Friday’s result: infuriating is one, disappointing another.

Reminiscent of the Cats a day later, the Doggies looked dominant for much of the clash. They started strongly, kicking the first four majors of the game – a hot start against a side that kicked 19 straight in Round 22 – and wielded considerable leads at times. But a stalemate halted their run, and despite rallying a little, Beveridge’s squad failed to bolster their early advantage.

The loss – which came off the back of the Power kicking five of the last seven goals – was a continuation of a rough patch of form. It was their third consecutive defeat to finish the home-and-away season. I spoke last week about their midfield uncharacteristically being a weak spot, and that rang true again this week. The absence of Stefan Martin forced the team to get creative in the ruck, which did not work, further permitting the Power to get on top in the midfield. That deficit in the middle is also somewhat hampered by the fact Adam Treloar and Josh Dunkley are still raw after their injury layoffs.

That is not to say that the Doggies are done. This is a footy team that won a premiership from a lower ladder place than they are now – seventh as opposed to this year’s fifth – and some of their footy earlier in the year was scintillatingly good. But this sport is a fickle game, and while it may produce recency bias, you can only judge a team from what you have seen. Right now I cannot see a premiership-winning team.

Perhaps the only thing the Bulldogs have going for them is their opposition next week – but even then, not really.

Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs fends off Travis Boak

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

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Welcome back to finals, Essendon
It was not certain until Sunday afternoon. And in an uncharacteristic, non-Bombers-like move, they were never close to blowing it, meaning their win over the Magpies solidified the positioning of 2021’s most unexpected finalist. And by solidified, I mean confirming what had been locked in an hour earlier after Fremantle’s horrendous loss in Sunday’s early game. Now they’ve made it, how will they do?

Essendon’s first up final is against the Western Bulldogs. At first glance the match-up is an exciting one. Both squads tend to play a fast, attacking style of football that is so often missing in the league nowadays. The club has also scored a Tasmanian venue for the game, which should be beneficial given the warm reception the team generally receives within that state.

And, importantly, they know how to beat the Bulldogs given they have done so as recently as three weeks ago – after years of trying and failing to do just that. Given the recency of that match, there are lessons the Dons will need to take out of it. It sparked the Doggies’ late-season form collapse. Essendon’s midfield brigade of Zach Merrett, Darcy Parish and the like were able to comprehensively smash the Dogs in the middle, something that they’ll need to exploit again given the Bulldogs’ weakness in that area.

However, there’s a clear elephant in the room for the side: the fact that they have not won a final since 2004. No matter how enthused I can be about the Dons, there’s no getting past that fact.

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The Lions do it late in the most exciting game ever with a 30-point margin
Very much in the vein of the ‘Australian swimming coach goes wild’ scenes that went viral during the Tokyo Olympics was Chris Fagan’s reaction to a behind.

A behind would typically elicit no celebration, but this was a point off the boot of Lincoln McCarthy that enabled the Lions to leapfrog the Bulldogs on percentage and sneak into the top four, with an exclamation mark added as Charlie Cameron slotted a major of his own seconds afterwards.

The late scores meant everything to the Lions but were the cumulation of the last few weeks of increasingly impressive form. Each recent win was as important as the other, for the first two (against Fremantle and Collingwood) provided ample opportunity for the club to bounce back from a mediocre form patch. Saturday’s game against the Eagles was a chance for Brisbane to not blow a seemingly obvious chance, as per the Richmond and St Kilda losses. They did not, and now they hold the equal second-best form line headed into finals.

Next weekend’s clash against Melbourne will no longer be as nerve-wracking for the Lions simply by virtue of the double chance, but given Melbourne’s form and Brisbane’s late-season resurgence, it’s almost impossible to tip.

Zac Bailey of the Lions celebrates after kicking a goal

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

A draw is a hell of a way to farewell some bonafide legends
Alastair Clarkson. Bachar Houli. Shaun Burgoyne. David Astbury. Given neither side were in any way gunning for finals beyond the faintest of mathematical possibility, the calibre of farewells alone was enough reason to tune into Saturday’s early clash between the Hawks and Tigers. And it’s probably fortunate, in a way, that the result was ultimately overshadowed by the retirements, otherwise the Hawks would be receiving a lot more criticism for the inexplicable way they let a considerable lead slip. But who cares when there’s so much talent to reminisce about?

Perhaps unfairly to the other trio, Clarkson’s final game at the Hawks drew a majority of the fanfare, and understandably so – this is a man who has been coaching the club since I was six years old, leading them to four premierships. The somewhat calamitous departure aside, Clarko’s imprint on Hawthorn was more than evident in the final four games of his tenure, all of which, ironically, the Hawks won.

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Burgoyne’s retirement is the end of an era – and, paired with Eddie Betts’s departure, closes a considerable chapter in Indigenous footy history – while Astbury will retire a too-often unheralded defensive cog in Richmond’s recent success. And then there’s Houli, who will be remembered as an influence through the league and in Australia’s Muslim communities.

All four are phenomenal individuals who got to quite literally share the spoils as they bow out.

Alastair Clarkson

Alastair Clarkson (Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Sacking Dew would be an utterly bizarre move
Just when you thought Carlton’s coaching conundrum would suck up all the footy media’s oxygen, along came the whispers of a changing of the guard at the Suns. The rumours began even before Gold Coast’s final home-and-away game and became so insidious that Stuart Dew himself had to address them in the lead up to Saturday’s clash with the Swans.

“I’m not here to clarify my existence,” he said. “I’ve been trying to do the best job for the players and what does the team need from me, and that’s what I think I’ve been doing really well.”

Dew isn’t wrong. If one manages to put aside the disgusting level of vitriol too often directed at the Suns, it’s easy to recognise that Dew has been the individual to unify the playing group and has them playing better football than ever before – frustratingly sporadically yes, but a more watchable and challenging style. The Suns’ 2021 season has been their best since 2014 in terms of games won, and he further allowed some of the talent on their list to develop.

There’s a not-insignificant amount of optimism surrounding the Suns, and while they’re not winning a premiership anytime soon, the right moves are being made and the right culture is being developed.

Such is the way the AFL’s fan-base has been conditioned, whatever coach is at the helm of the Suns won’t matter. The criticism will remain persistent. But Dew has the Suns a better side than ever, and I fail to understand why sacking him would be beneficial for the club.

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Everybody gets a turn

Adelaide Crows
They won in Adelaide for only the fourth time this season while avoiding the bottom two. Not bad.

Brisbane Lions
Joe Daniher became the only player to kick a goal in every game this year. He’ll be vital for Brissy in the finals.

Carlton Blues
Inevitable off-field tumult aside, you’d be hard-pressed to find a footy fan who was not saddened by the final game of Eddie Betts, an undoubtedly phenomenal man, a freakishly talented player and an individual who made the league better.

Collingwood Magpies
I’d say Collingwood fans would be relieved to have the season finished, but given their tumultuous off-season last year, I reckon most would be feeling nervous.

Essendon Bombers
Don’t bother arguing which team has surpassed expectations so far this year, because this team is the definitive answer.

Fremantle Dockers
This was the most disappointing game of Fremantle’s year. Injuries didn’t help, but it was a simply pathetic performance far from befitting a side playing for a finals spot. It was certainly a loss that belied Freo’s best season since 2015.

Geelong Cats
Port Adelaide in Adelaide – just quietly the most fascinating clash of the first weekend of finals.

Gold Coast Suns
Jarrod Harbrow being fined by the match review officer in his retirement game is so bizarre yet funny.

Greater Western Sydney Giants
They’re the ultimate dark horse for the finals. Mind you, that is only applicable if they play with their form from the second half of the Carlton clash, not from the first half.

Jake Riccardi of the Giants celebrates a goal

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

Hawthorn Hawks
Technically a streak continues: the Hawks have not lost since Alastair Clarkson announced his departure from the club.

Melbourne Demons
It’s the fact that’s been everywhere this week, but it bears repeating: the last time the Demons were minor premiers, they won a premiership. Whether that’s a good omen or a hard legacy to repeat remains to be seen.

North Melbourne Kangaroos
I’ll still be maintaining that they’re the least bad wooden spooners we’ve seen in a while.

Port Adelaide Power
Mitch Georgiades’s injury has come at a bad time for the Power, with the youngster likely to miss one or more finals.

Richmond Tigers
It’s officially official: no Tigers in the finals. I must ask: who are Tigers fans deciding to bandwagon this year in finals?

St Kilda Saints
If Max King’s absence made the Saints momentarily worry, they needn’t have. Cooper Sharman was simply unstoppable in a fantastic performance in his fifth game.

Sydney Swans
For the third time the Swans will meet GWS in a final. It’s going to be a huge game, but this far out, I’ll back the irresistible Swannies.

West Coast Eagles
At the very least they did what their West Australian counterparts failed to do and made the game competitive. But they’ll be left to ponder what could’ve been over a long off-season.

Western Bulldogs
Essendon’s up next, and it won’t be as easy as it seems.

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