You could almost be excused for thinking several teams were out of the running for finals already with the way the media tries, judges and hangs them on their performance over the first two rounds.

People have jumped off Essendon and North Melbourne right from the get-go. Others are lauding the competitive efforts of Gold Coast after labelling them the worst list in history before the season began, whilst Melbourne are looking for reasons for their faltering start to the season.

The Hawks ran out of legs against the Dogs, the Cats have shocked everyone, and the Lions have steeled themselves for a big year.

But as we enter Round Three, there are several teams and players that will be closely looked at, and by Sunday evening will either have earned a reprieve, or will have the media blowtorch on them anew. Let’s take a look at those teams and players with the most to lose this early in the season.

 

MELBOURNE V ESSENDON

Talk about a game with plenty on the line!

The Bombers have been deplorable. Their Keystone Cops-like performance in the first quarter against St Kilda was pitiful. Kyle Langford and Matt Guelfi exiting the field while the game continued right in front of them, Aaron Francis hitting Michael Hurley in the back with a kick from three metres away like he was aiming for him… these are the things that compound poor form.

The drums are beating about John Worsfold, about James Hird, about whether the players are playing for the current coach or in spite of him… ah Essendon, what will you get up to next? A win would be nice.

And then there’s the Demons, who have started having excuses made for them. Oh, a lot of players went in for surgery. Oh, they went deep into the finals.

Funny that. So did Collingwood. So did West Coast. They seem to be going okay, even with key players missing. Good teams go deep into the finals every year, and they recover – that’s why they’re good teams.

So these two teams meet on a Friday night and we will see one team leave the MCG with an 0-3 record. If it’s the Bombers, I reckon it’s season over, but the Demons… I think they’d still be expecting a big second half of the season and being winless after three rounds isn’t the end of the road for them.

Double standards? Possibly, but I think the Dees have a lot more firepower at their disposal as the season unfolds, and could get on a roll. The Bombers… I’m not so sure about.

Essendon need Tom Bellchambers to be aggressive, and not turn in another performance like he did against the Saints’ Rowan Marshall against Gawn. He’ll be killed if he does. The Dees need Christian Petracca to not pull out of contests and cash in on that potential we keep hearing about.

This is going to be a cracker.

 

DUSTIN MARTIN

Round one – zero tackles. Round two – zero tackles. Round three – ???

Dustin Martin has almost been the AFL’s untouchable man over the past couple of seasons. After a blistering 2017, he dropped off a little last year, but the decline in his tackling and general pressure this season has been marked.

Who remembers when Dusty used to be virtually impossible to tackle? Pepperidge Farm remembers, and so does Zac Fisher, who beat the fend off in Round One and showed that players have been putting work into curtailing the Martin style. If it works for Fisher – a bloke who is… a little on the light side, imagine how it can work for others?

Dusty of 2019 is not Dusty of 2017. It’s hard to imagine someone replicating the feats of Martin’s amazing 2017 again anytime soon… even Dusty would be a long shot, but when things like tackling fall off the radar – that’s a lack of effort.

For the first time in a while, the heart of Dustin Martin is being questioned. Is he warming into the season? Is he just having a slow start? Or has he taken the foot off the gas and is resting on his laurels, content to be a very good AFL player as opposed to the best player in the game?

We might get some answers against GWS.

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LANCE FRANKLIN

In his last three games against Carlton, Buddy has had his way. His averages are 19.6 disposals, and 4.66 goals per game, thanks mainly to a ten goal bag against them.

But Franklin is playing halves and quarters at a time so far this season. He’s doing the spectacular but… dare I say it… he’s going missing for long stretches.

He was virtually unsighted for the first three quarters of the Swans’ opening round loss to the Dogs, and he flashed in and out of the game against the Crows last week. He has four goals for the year, and if ever the Swans, sitting 0-2, needed something special from arguably, the biggest name in the game, it’s this week.

If Franklin doesn’t fire and the Blues manage to claw a win over the travelling Swans, many may start questioning whether it’s time to start focusing on the development of Nick Blakey, and looking to the future. How many times can they give teams head starts to the season?

Like Dustin Martin, Buddy has not often had his game questioned in his time in the league. 900+ goals kind of answers any criticism pretty quickly, but what you’ve done in the past doesn’t win games today. The Swans need a vintage Buddy performance, and they need it this week.

 

FREMANTLE AND NAT FYFE

It’s not often a former premiership coach has a genuine crack at one of the superstars of the game, but we got it this Monday, when Paul Roos more or less said that Nat Fyfe was a one-way runner.

Ross Lyon leapt to his star’s defence, as you’d expect, but talk is cheap, and it will be Fyfe who answers Paul Roos’ criticism this weekend.

The Dockers host the up-and-about Saints, and Fyfe will no doubt make the acquaintance of the accountable Jack Steele. How he handles the close attention, and what he can produce with the eyes of the footy world on him, will go a fair way to shaping how he is viewed in the coming week, and after dropping a game to the team people thought were a chance to not win a game at all, Freo will be eager for redemption.

In one loss to Gold Coast, Freo have gone from being the toast of the footy world back to where they’ve been for the last few years. They need a big win at home, and they need a big game, offensively and defensively from their captain.

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NORTH MELBOURNE V HAWTHORN

After a deplorable showing in Round One, North rebounded with three strong quarters against the Lions at Marvel, but Brisbane ran over the top of them in the last quarter.

Higgins got his touches, Cunnington was a contested-ball beast, and Ben Brown kicked three goals, but the usual suspects (hello, Shaun Atley) failed to fire a shot, and the Roos watched their narrow lead slip away, allowing seven Brisbane goals in the last.

North have a good record against the Hawks, and will feel that this is the game to turn it around this year – it has to be.

The Hawks had their own fade out in the last quarter, allowing nine goals against the Dogs. Is it possible both teams just stand around, exhausted after three quarter time?

Looking at it objectively, the North midfield should feast here. The Hawks are now without Burgoyne and Shiels, adding to the monumental loss of Mitchell before the season, and the Roos boast a great combination of run and inside ball-winning in the middle.

If they drop this one, their season is done. You can’t give the field an 0-3 start.

Many tipped the Hawks to fall over, and at three quarter time last week, they were set to wave the “told ya” finger right in the face of their detractors. Then it all fell apart on the back of undisciplined actions, knee-jerk umpiring and the inability to run the game out. Make no mistake, a loss here for the Hawks would be huge.

This game should be belter, but serious doubts will be cast over the finals aspirations of the loser.

JAMES SICILY

And while I am on the Hawks, you think this bloke might owe them a big one?

Truth be told, the Dogs probably would’ve run over the top of the Hawks anyway in the last quarter, but Sicily made it a little easier for them. While his actions weren’t illegal, they were pretty bloody dumb, and he had several moments throughout the game he’d like to have over again – if you think he only made errors in the last five minutes, watch again and check out his endeavor at times earlier… it ain’t great.

Supremely talented, Sicily let himself down last week, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jack Ziebell drop a shoulder into him early in the game to get him to fire back. Arguably the most important player in the Hawthorn structure, how Sicily responds this week may go a long way to seeing the Hawks triumph, or fail.

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RICHMOND

The Tigers’ 2018 record on the road was… errr… not good. The 2017 premiers did not travel well, dropping games to West Coast, Adelaide, Port Adelaide  and GWS away from Victoria, and this is their first road trip of 2019. To make matters worse, they’ll be doing it without Jack Riewoldt, who suffered both wrist and knee injuries in their loss to the Pies last Thursday.

In the corresponding outing last season, it was the Giants, who were suffering through an injury-plagues season, who rose to the occasion and pulled a win out to reinvigorate their season. It’s way earlier, but a win on the road is just what the no tackling Tigers need.

We touched on Dusty above, but he’s had plenty of mates down on form. Dan Butler can hardly get his hands on the footy, and when he does, he butchers it. Kane Lambert was down last week, and before he went off injured, Jack Riewoldt was getting a belting from Darcy Moore.

A big win on the road silences a lot of doubters, and it’s exactly the kind of victory Richmond need after faltering badly against Collingwood.

Are GWS capable? Word is they could get Kelly back, but will still be missing Toby Greene and Cal Ward, which is a massive shame as he is one of the biggest talents in the game. If they welcome Josh Kelly into the team to take the load off Stephen Coniglio, they could really put Richmond in a place they’ve rarely been over the past couple of seasons; in trouble.

 

ANDREW GAFF

Look, I’m sure he’ll be fine. He is ultra-professional with a good head on his shoulders, but six months ago he should’ve been out there, playing with his team and standing on the dais with them as they received the premiership cup.

But would they have received that cup with Gaff in the team? What if Sheed was the player to miss at Gaff’s expense? Would we be talking about a very different result? Would they have won by more, or at all?

So many things have changed since Gaff put one on Andrew Brayshaw’s chin, and he will be on a mission to ensure he has the chance to experience what his teammates did in 2019.

But the road to redemption goes through the Pies, who took care of the Tigers handily last week.

Gaff re-signed with the Eagles last season and knows his absence could’ve cost them on the biggest day of the year. It didn’t… but it did cost him.

After serving his suspension, the butterflies will be dancing in his stomach. Did he miss his chance? What if he never gets back there again? His response will be intriguing as the Eagles revisit the site of their greatest triumph against the team they beat to claim it.

 

Who have we missed? Who else is under the pump as we head into Round Three? Let us know

 

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