There was a delay in writing this report for a week due to the ‘do or die’ nature of games from last weekend that have shaped the overall ladder with five rounds to go. With the Giants coming from nowhere and jumping into the finals contention last weekend and the Saints still doing enough to hang around, the back markers have games and percentage to make up to overtake the Dogs, Saints, Giants and Cats who currently occupy positions five through eight.
The Big 4 seem to have separated from the pack and now need to sort out their own pecking order and start preparing for September. The battle for positions in the top 4 is just starting and it is just as exciting as the teams battling it out in the Wildcard rounds, positions 5-8.
Eight teams (possibly ten), now find themselves playing Wildcard games every weekend until the season’s end to decide who fills the minor placings in the top 8.
Hold your breath, barrackers, as the last five rounds of the season are going to be a roller-coaster of emotions as the fortunes of all clubs in the hunt will go down to the wire, culminating in a Round 24 bonanza of games deciding the final act of who will play in September.
The Big Four
Last week I watched three kookaburras chastise and attempt to move a magpie from where he was playing. While the magpie occasionally retreated, he never backed down and with sheer persistence he held his ground until the three kookaburras flew away. The magpie was just more determined than the kookaburras to hold his ground.
Are The Magpies That Good?
The moral of the above story is, it seems it doesn’t matter how much you attack the Magpies and think you have them beaten, through sheer persistence they just keep coming until they win. It has been the home-and-away story of the Pies since the middle of last season when they started this ridiculous run of wins and refused to ever say die in close games.
Ask any true Collingwood supporter, like my brother-in-law, and they will gladly tell you this is the best Collingwood team they have seen in their lifetime. In their words, Fly is a genius coach, Darcy Moore is the best captain of the club ever, Sir Pendles, De Goey, Billy Elliot, Mihocek, Hill, Maynard, the Yank, etc, all combined, are the best black and white side they have seen, and then they decide to talk to you about the Daicos brothers.
“Boy of boy, woo-wee”, to quote Collingwood sycophant BT, do the Pies supporters talk on and on about the Daicos brothers, especially Nick. Nick is an exciting, super talented second-year player, and possibly the best second-year player I have seen. He is at least on par with a young Tim Watson when he first burst onto the scene and the quintessential thoroughbred Chris Judd, yet I liken him more to Ben Cousins who was an unbridled super-talent in his first two years at West Coast (people forget how good a player Cousins was, especially early in his career). Like Cousins, Fly is slowly releasing Nick into his right position for maximum impact.
Sixteen wins, just two losses and a very healthy percentage does make Collingwood the frontrunner to hold aloft the cup on the last Saturday in September, however, two years of good home and away form means nothing if paradise is not found.
Collingwood have lost three matches by a goal or under since the mid-point of last season and two of those losses really hurt them in September last year. Collingwood supporters will argue they should have beaten both Geelong and Sydney in last year’s finals, but they didn’t, and it is the hurdle they must jump this year. By sheer weight of their percentage and playing personnel they are a better team this year and they should at least make the Granny, but buyer beware, as fellow Premiership aspirant Melbourne gave the Pies a reality check in the Kings Birthday clash that the black and white are not invincible in close games.
Get excited true Collingwood fans (not the bandwagon members of the press gallery and the sycophants who jump on a different team’s train at this time every year) as the journey may go one week longer in 2023.
The Persistent Kookaburras, the Power, The Lions and the Demons
Port’s loss to Collingwood last weekend in front of their adoring fans from Alberton was courageous and admirable, but it was their second loss in two weeks after an incredible run of 13 wins in a row, yes 13, and their next three games are not walks in the park either.
While the Power will start as the fancied team against the Crows in this weekend’s Showdown, these games have a habit of upsetting the team that needs the win the most. For Ken Hinkley and his Power, it is probably their most important Showdown clash in many a long year.
The following weekend comes the AFL version of a ‘horror show’ for any team who is drawn to play Geelong at Kardinia Park, I mean GMHBA Stadium. Geelong rarely lose at the Cattery no matter who the opposition is (except GWS for some reason) and it would be a brave person to tip the Power to win at the ground shaped more like a pill than an oval.
Then in the third week, they are drawn to play a very much improved Giants outfit that may be fighting for their own season’s survival.
Port has the lowest percentage of the Big 4 and must keep winning to stay in second position. My heart wants success for Kenny (he is a likeable dude), but reality suggests the Power will be travelling to the Gabba in the first week of the finals and most likely front up for a second-week home final, to wit they MUST win. If Port make a Preliminary Final (where anything can happen) then it has been a good year for the club, with a possible trip to the dance at the G as the cherry on top.
I would love to be a Brisbane support this year as they are really flying under the radar and just go about their business collecting wins and percentage. They currently sit third on the ladder and, with their percentage and allowing other results going their way, they could easily be hosting a first-week home final in September.
The Lions of 2023 are good, and there is a nice nasty edge about the way they go about their business. While Collingwood are the feel-good, do no wrong footy club of the year, the Lions are at the other end of the spectrum, snarling and bristling as they belt up on teams, especially at the Gabba.
Joe Daniher epitomises the Lions of 2023, kicking goals, not being selfish and passing the ball off to players in better positions, giving stick to his opponents, and refusing to talk to the press – love it. He is playing angry and with a point to prove. Caro, Kane, and that bitter old man, Robbo, you all owe Joey an apology after some of the stuff you said about him early in the year.
The injury to Will Ashcroft is a sad setback for the kid and his youthful enthusiasm and his skills will be missed, but the Lions’ list runs deep and apart from one or two key players (I am not going to jinx them by naming them), they can cover the loss of any player.
Many will say the Lions kryptonite is the MCG and they can’t win there. Maybe they are right, but they only have to win one game there this year. I think Brisbane will throw a one-two punch in the early rounds of the finals and as such their next encounter with the MCG will be the Grand Final.
I don’t believe in MCG hoodoos – it is a field of dreams.
Melbourne sit two games and percentage clear of any fifth spot challenger and two games away from second spot and a win and percentage behind Brisbane in third, so unless there is some cataclysmic resurgence by a team from below or a dramatic slump in form by the Power or the Lions, in all likelihood the Dees will finish fourth on the ladder and play the Pies in the first week of the finals.
They have fallen over the line in their previous two games against the Lions and the luckless Crows, but these ‘ugly wins’ have secured them a top 4 berth.
The injury to Clayton Oliver is a major concern as he is an important cylinder in the Dees’ engine when they are firing. The Dees are winning without him, and given their relatively easy draw (no draw is easy at this time of the year) they should win at least four out of their last five games, but is it a false economy?
Melbourne’s injury list runs deeper than just the mid-fielder Oliver, with key forward Bayley Fritsch out for an extended period and Harrison Petty still missing because of a rib complaint. Other clubs may have longer injury lists, but these three players are important components to the overall functioning of the Dees and need to return or replacements found and tuned before September.
The strength of the Demons is their backline led by the ever-reliable dynamic duo of May and Lever, however, they have leaked big scores over the last two weeks without Petty being the solid rock behind them in deep defence. Hopefully Petty is back this week.
Melbourne have struggled all year to find the right combination up forward and Fritsch’s injury compounds the problem even more. Brodie Grundy is not a forward player, Ben Brown runs hot and cold, Jacob Van Rooyen is a good kid with a bright future, but it would be a massive burden to place on his young shoulders to carry the brunt of the forward line into September. The onus now falls on the mid-field brigade of Max Gawn, Jack Viney and Christian Petracca to not only kick five goals a game between them, but then give enough supply for the in-form smalls of Pickett and Melksham (Melbourne must stick with Melksham in the team) to feed of the talls and kick five or six goals a week as well, with any goals from Brown, Van Rooyen, Chandler, Neal-Bullen, etc, being the bonus.
While this all sounds negative about the Dees chances this year, they have five weeks to iron out the wrinkles and find the right combinations for September. Whether that be with or without Grundy is irrelevant.
If Melbourne do finish fourth, and don’t have to travel interstate in the first week of the finals, they would fancy their chances against Collingwood, a team they beat by under a goal earlier this year.
The plight of Melbourne is one of the more interesting watches of the last five rounds.
The Wildcard Teams – Dogs, Saints, Giants, Cats, Blues, Tigers, Bombers and Swans
With all the above listed Wildcard teams, anything I say about them please put a big “IF” in front of it. The final configuration of the eight will depend on four teams getting the ‘IF’s” spot on.
Bulldogs and Giants
The first of the big Wildcard games occurs this weekend in, of all places, Ballarat. The winner of the Bulldogs versus Giants match can basically start to prepare for September action. If there is such a thing an 8-point turnaround game, then this is the ultimate 8-point turnaround game, as the winner will be reasonably safe in the eight while the loser maybe out the eight come the end of the weekend. Seriously, this game deserves a better venue than a regional venue.
For the fourth time this year, I am going to have faith in the Bulldogs as the team outside of the top four who can make a serious run for the premiership. History suggests they don’t mind coming from nowhere in September, they have a highly talented squad, they seem to be peaking at the right time of the season and their percentage is better than the other teams who may challenge them (three of the four teams who have played in draws this year have a better percentage, but unless the Dogs draw a game, it is irrelevant).
Win or lose on Saturday, the Giants could still win the three games necessary to make the eight. Their fate is in their own hands as they play other Wildcard aspirants in the Swans, Bombers and it may possibly all come down to an edge-of-your-seat last game, winner take all thriller against the Blue Baggers. Toby’s mob have probably already exceeded expectations for the year and anything from here on in is just icing on a very nice cake. With 10 wins after 18 rounds, however, their destiny is in their own hands.
Essendon and Sydney
The second of the Wildcard games happens on Saturday night at Marvel Stadium when the Bombers take on the Swans. The winner of this game will survive to fight another week for September action while it will be back to the drawing board for the loser. These two clubs do not like each other, and they have a long history of close matches, especially at Marvel. While neither club may not necessarily see September action, the winner will be more than happy to mothball the loser for the season.
Essendon, under new coach Brad Scott (the other Scott), have performed above expectations and they were firmly entrenched in the top eight before the bye, only for injury and form to catch-up with them as the season has progressed. However, early season form is good form, and they still find themselves in the hunt for September action. A win against the Swans could kickstart their season again as they play a woeful West Coast at home the week after, followed by the out-of-sorts Roos, before a challenging game against the Giants, and then finishing with a blockbuster against Collingwood, who may rest injured or sore players a week before the finals start.
Not sure where to start with the Swans. Since Aliir’s Hand of God moment and having the crapper beaten out of them by Geelong at the Cattery, the Swans have not looked likely all year, yet here we are. Last year’s Grand Finalists are capable of winning their last five games and storm into the finals. They are finding form and getting players back at the right time of the season. It’s a large “IF” as each game they play is a danger game and the Bloods’ fate may be known within as little as two weeks with consecutive Wildcard games against the Bombers and the Giants. Win both and the door’s open, lose both and the door closes, while winning one and losing one would still leave them somewhere in the hunt depending on other results.
The Blues and the Tigers
Carlton and Richmond drew the first game of the year and since then both clubs have played their own game of AFL snakes and ladders. At present, both are on the rise but given the nature of the draw, there may only be room in the top eight for one of them.
Since the bye, the Baggers have not lost a game and they are currently on a five-game winning streak. Some may say they have been easy wins, but they belted a dangerous Hawthorn outfit, smashed the Dockers on their own patch and made the second-placed Power look like a second-rate team, and yes, they had a soft win over the Eagles. After all that, they are still not in the eight.
Carlton is on the right path, but I don’t necessarily agree with all the hype about them on talkback radio. There has been a lot of hot air blow out of Princes Park over the years which has not been backed up with success, and again, without yet achieving anything, the dreamers dare to dream and shout it out to the whole world.
Beat the old enemy on the weekend and I must start to listen.
Injuries rather than form may be the biggest stumbling block as to the Blues’ chances in 2023. Sam Walsh, Harry McKay and Matthew Kennedy are three serious long-term injury concerns that do affect team balance, and with Patrick Cripps, Jack Silvagni, Corey Durdin, Jack Martin, Matt Owies and Adam Cerra all being sore and not certain to play this week, or the next, the depth of Carlton’s list will be truly tested, especially against the juggernaut which is Collingwood.
Carlton’s end-of-season draw is the hardest of the eight teams vying for the eight and if they do make it to September then it is a job well done. In my mind, the injuries are more of a worry than any opponent.
Richmond has three seriously tough Wildcard games coming up with fixtures against the Dees, the Dogs, and the Saints, and if they do survive that, then they have a trip to the City of Churches in the last round to play a Port Adelaide team who may desperately be trying to hold onto second place on the ladder or, avoiding finishing fourth. It is not an easy draw, and like Carlton, if they make it, then bravo.
It must be hard playing at any club where the coach leaves mid-year and suddenly, as a playing group, you are confronted with a new voice and a new structure. There is always that first win, but teams tend to struggle after the early sugar hit.
Not so, Richmond.
The Tigers have done well since Dimma left for ‘greener’ pastures as Andrew McQualter has quietly, almost anonymously (I had to look up his first name and correct spelling), taken over the helm and restructured the Tigers into a competitive unit. What has impressed me the most about McQualter has been the resurgent form of the ageing stars Dusty, Riewoldt, and Cotchin. It says a lot about McQualter that the old guard are again leading the charge for the Tigers.
While I doubt Richmond will slip into the eight (percentage is against them compared to the Cats, Swans and Blues), given the character of the club it would not surprise me, however, if they did make it.
The Cats and the Saints
Geelong and St Kilda are the AFL’s version of, A Tale of Two Clubs, with one being able to grab success and hanging onto it with all their might, while the other can somehow or another always find a way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Technically St Kilda, with 10 wins and an okay percentage, are in the box seat to make the eight and to even dream of bigger things, but they must win three of their last five games. First up they face a dangerous Hawthorn outfit, especially if Sicily is playing, a resurgent Carlton, followed by the Tigers, then the Cats and finally a lovely trip to play in the sunshine against Brisbane. This is as hard a draw as any team, however, four of the games are played at Marvel and three are against other teams who are Wildcard aspirants as well.
Write your own script, St Kilda, maybe even try some AI, and see if you can succeed when most of the football world is expecting you to be the most likely team to drop out of contention.
I am ambivalent about writing anything about St Kilda’s year to this point other than even with a different coach it looks remarkably like last year. This is the reason why I reserve any opinion on the Saints until the full-time edition of this series after Round 24 to ascertain if the Saint’s predictable script has changed – I do hope for a happier ending than last year, let’s see.
Most pundits believe Geelong’s three games at Kardinia Park, or GMHBA to appease the sponsors of the club, will romp them into the eight and they will create havoc once there. Sounds reasonable and simple, and given the first leg is against a club now resting players for the year in Fremantle, it should be an easy kill, but it gets harder from there. The following week they take on the much-improved Power who may offer more resistance at the Cattery than other clubs have this year down the highway and a loss would not surprise. They then have a mega match against the Pies at the MCG who would be desperate to keep the Cats out of the eight, followed by Wildcard games against the Saints at Marvel and the Dogs at home. They probably make it, but any sudden drop in form, or injuries may hurt them severely.
I do not know how to sum up Geelong’s season thus far as they are a different outfit without Joel Selwood leading the charge. Love him or hate him, and I have done both, but that man could lead a team to run through a brick wall, and quite often Geelong did under his stewardship. This is not a knock on Dangerfield, as leaders like Selwood are rarely if ever seen (I don’t believe I am actually praising Selwood so highly) and he has had some seriously big shoes to fill to which he has done proficiently. Premierships are hard to win and it is even harder to back up the next year, nonetheless, the Cats are still a major chance of making the eight after an up-and-down year. Like the Bulldogs, they have the class and the cavalry to make a serious charge towards the end of September “IF” everything goes perfectly.
Adelaide and Gold Coast
Mathematically, both the Adelaide Crows and the Gold Coast Suns can make the eight, but it would mean winning five games in a row against some well-performing sides. Having said that, neither of these two teams can afford to put the cue in the rack this season as these late-season games are vitally important for confidence and the street-cred they take into next year.
Adelaide, you have given your fans and the AFL a great ride this year. If it were not for a dubious two-point loss to the Pies and a four-point loss to the Dees last week, both at the MCG, you would not be bracketed here with the Suns. Having said that, bad losses to the Dons and the Giants were the reality checks between the two narrow MCG losses. To succeed in the AFL a team must have stamina and win the war of attrition, and as much as the Crows seem to be heading in the right direction, they need to look at training designed to maintain form throughout the whole year.
I am a fan of a team on the Gold Coast and the expansion of the competition, and I want this club to succeed. I once barracked for a team like the Suns, who fed their star players to other clubs. They were a kindergarten for other clubs to pluck stars from and a retirement village once they got too old. It took a Wiz, the Good Doctor and his wife, a pink helicopter, near bankruptcy again, another slide into irrelevancy, before a Demon Legend took stock and handed the reigns to a Rocket, who handed (may have been forced) the reigns to a Roos, and with the Cup in one hand, under the banner of the Captain Kirk’s re-established Bloods culture, he finally exclaimed, “Here it is!”
I don’t care who your coach is next year Gold Coast, but the club, the players, the supporters, and the sponsors must find the common point on which to build a culture. A good club culture is not a cure-all, but it binds the club together when the going is tough and strengthens resolve when the good times loom. As much as I say Carlton blow hot air, that hot air is still built on culture, and it is the heritage of the Blues culture that will eventually see them succeed – they truly believe.
Hawthorn, North Melbourne and West Coast, Fremantle
Hawthorn and James Sicily
I have seen a bit of the Hawks this year and I love what Sam Mitchell has done. The win/loss record is not very good, but it is plain for their fans to see where the club is heading and what is required to get there. Mitchell has openly said to the supporters that the win/loss record is less important than the growth for a year or two. It may seem like a strange sell, but as an outsider, I’m buying it for the time being.
It is often difficult for a player from a bottom-three club to be considered for All-Australian inclusion, especially one who regularly gets suspended, but James Sicily’s year has been outstanding. I have watched games where Sicily has played and games where he hasn’t played this year and the difference he makes to this young Hawks team is like chalk and cheese. Sicily is the tough, solid foundation of this team, yet he is also very athletic and skilful and he leads by example and the others all play to his example when he is on the ground.
North Melbourne and West Coast – same message
SORT IT OUT, ALL OF IT, SORT IT ALL OUT, AND COME BACK NEXT YEAR!
Maybe in 2022 the Dockers exceeded expectations by making the eight and winning a final, thus the expectations on them this year were just too high?
Long term injuries to Sean Darcy, Matt Taberner, Nat Fyfe (who is not retiring) and Brandon Walker haven’t helped the Dockers’ cause in 2023. Coupled with the drop off in form this year of some established players, this has seen the Dockers slide considerably down the ladder in 2023 and they are the first club to publicly state they are resting players for the year.
Expectations for 2024 will be lowered again for the Dockers and maybe the coaching staff will allow some of their talented players to play a more open style of football with freedom and flair, without fear of failure.
HB wrote an excellent in-depth article earlier this week about the plight of the Dockers this year and it is well worth the read for any supporters of the club.
Whether you agree with what is written, or you don’t, please let us know as articles like this should open debate and conversation. Also, a 4,500-word article take time to research, prepare, write, and edit, so allow me my ‘cup of coffee’, the odd mistake, and support The Mongrel Punt!