Hawthorn (2) v Geelong (3) Fri, 7.50pm, MCG
Remember this: It has become the greatest of the modern rivalries. Hawthorn broke a streak of 11 defeats when it knocked Geelong out of the finals in 2013, then won again when the teams met in round 22. These matches tend to be classics.
Key factors: Brian Lake’s fitness is pivotal; he is the obvious match-up for Tom Hawkins, who has hurt the Hawks before and kicked a bag over the weekend. For Geelong to win, it probably needs a big game from Hawkins. The Hawks wheel back Hodge, Hill and Stratton, which will strengthen them, while Geelong should have Steve Johnson and McIntosh back.
A thought: Hawthorn’s prolific scoring is one of its benchmarks, and the Hawks are the No. 1 scoring team for the third year in a row (averaging 16.7 goals a game). Geelong plays an attractive brand but its players preach defence-first and they will need to honour it. Easier said than done, but you need to keep Hawthorn to around 12 goals to win.
The crossover: The winner goes to a home preliminary final. The loser goes into the knockout to play the winner of Essendon v North Melbourne in a semi-final.
Tip: Hawthorn is so explosive that it cannot be kept down for a whole game. While Hawkins will be a concern, the Hawks have the defensive systems to close down Geelong if they are on their game. Hawthorn by 8 points
Sydney (1) v Fremantle (4) Sat, 2.45 pm, ANZ Stadium
Remember this: Fremantle won only one fewer game than the Swans in the regular season. When they played in round four, Sydney won by 17 points at the SCG but since Ross Lyon went to Perth, it is 2-2 and a draw. The Dockers match up reasonably well; there were 289 contested possessions in this season’s attritional clash.
Key factors: The one spot that Fremantle might have a match-up issue is down the back. Who can stop Lance Franklin, who kicked four last time they played, and Kurt Tippett? Michael Johnson will be key, and Zac Dawson has to play above himself. Sydney’s big worry would be a giant’s game from Aaron Sandilands, hence Mike Pyke needs to step up.
A thought: Ross Lyon’s team was first in defence but 12th in scoring last year, too low on the second scale, a fact he acknowledged. This season the Dockers are seventh in scoring (averaging 13 goals per game) and second in defence. It is a slightly improved balance but the Swans have it better: first in defence, fourth in scoring.
The crossover: The winner of this final goes through to a home preliminary final. The loser is at home again, meeting the winner of the Port Adelaide v Richmond in a knockout semi-final.
Tip: The Swans may get an advantage from having rested at least four players last week. While the ‘home’ advantage is neutralised somewhat by the Homebush venue (as opposed to the SCG), Sydney plays the ground reasonably well. Sydney by 12 points.
North Melbourne (6) v Essendon (7) Sat, 7.15pm, MCG
Remember this: Essendon would have played finals last year had the AFL not suspended the club over the ASADA investigation. The Bombers have been coming for some time.
Key factors: Jake Carlisle’s likely absence could be a killer for Essendon, which has been brave and resilient all year. Carlisle provides a lot of the big-marking x-factor up front and, without him, Joe Daniher and Patrick Ambrose are asked to carry too big a load.
A thought: North Melbourne and Essendon are much better defensive teams than they have been in the recent past. North is No. 4 in the competition, conceding 78 points per game, as opposed to eighth in 2013. Since Essendon has struggled to score (12th in the competition) the Bombers could freeze up against North in a tough final.
The crossover: The winner plays the losing team from the Hawthorn-Geelong qualifying final and will remain in Melbourne.
Tip: North Melbourne’s improved defence trumps Essendon’s sketchy offence. North by 10 points.
Remember this: When Richmond played its first final in 11 years at the end of 2013, the Tigers fluffed their lines. Their performance smacked of a club that had set itself a target and achieved it. That stinging pain will be in the back of their minds as they step up to September action again.
Key factors: Port play a frenetic brand, hard inside then dynamic on the outside. Give them space to run into and allow the Power to play its game-style and they are near-unstoppable. Richmond has to bring the right mentality; to win a good share of the contested ball and break-even at least at the stoppages.
A thought: Melbourne will go into meltdown if the Tigers win. The Richmond run has been enjoyable but it is worth looking ahead. Richmond has to travel to Perth or Sydney in week two even if it wins, then confront a Hawthorn or Geelong beyond that. The streak is eight, but it is a huge assignment now.
The crossover: The winner goes through to play the losing team from the Sydney-Fremantle qualifying final. Hence, it is on the road again in week two.
Tip: Port is lethal on the spread and especially good at Adelaide Oval, where the crowd is worth three-four goals. I expect the Tigers to give it a shake, but to fall short. Port Adelaide by 20 points.
The also rans
9. West Coast 11-11: Had to adapt to a new coach and game plan. Needs more depth in midfield but on the way back.
10. Adelaide 11-11: Crucial year in 2015 for coach Sanderson, who started with a bang but has seen the team tread water since. Underachieving.
11. Collingwood 11-11: Young team that battled hard. Club needs to find a solution to injury concerns, but has a lot to look forward to.
12. Gold Coast 10-12: Should play finals in 2015, and would have had Gary Ablett not gone down. Huge reserves of young talent to draw upon.
13. Carlton 7-14-1: Disappointing season, the list needs more regeneration. Probably short of the gifted young players that it needs.
14. Western Bulldogs 7-15: Coming along slowly. Still have big holes in list, notably at both ends.
15. Brisbane Lions 7-15: Showed good signs under a new coach. Working their way back, but retiring Brown leaves a gaping hole.
16. Greater Western Sydney 6-16: Could push for a finals spot. Tough and hard in midfield, they need Cameron back fit and Boyd to improve.
17. Melbourne 4-18: Five minutes into a reshaping that will take several years, so hard to assess. Worked out Roos’ game plan, but must improve scoring ability to go forward.
18. St Kilda 4-18: On the rebuilding phase, and boasting some good young kids. But miles from being a finalist.