The bye rounds are finally over, and for the AFL, not a moment too soon. For this has been a particularly testing mid-season period for the league on a number of levels.
The look of the game continues to be a hot topic of conversation, too many matches reduced to low-scoring scrambles bereft of some of the most marketable facets of our indigenous code.
Football’s World Cup is reinforcing its standing as the greatest sporting show on earth and while a small number of embarrassingly myopic commentators insist otherwise, Australia is very much focussed on events in Russia. It might not happen often, but right now, AFL is playing second fiddle.
And while the AFL fixture is a logistical nightmare anyway, this current spate of Thursday night games during the six-game rounds always spreads the game fare dangerously thin, round 14 arguably the least appetising of this season.
Even 10 years ago in Melbourne, the prospect of a Collingwood-Carlton clash as a stand-alone Sunday game would have had the football world salivating. Indeed, in round 12 of 2008, the Pies hosted Carlton on a Sunday afternoon in front of more than 80,000 people.
Sunday’s Collingwood home game against the Blues could draw only 53,706, and those missing 26,000 can’t all have been disenchanted Carlton fans.
In a dozen Pies-Blues MCG clashes between 2008 and 2013, eight drew more than 80,000 with the smallest crowd still more than 75,000. In nine meetings since, crowds have topped 70,000 just twice, with Sunday’s game one of four to draw 56,000 or fewer people. Some food for thought, perhaps, in terms of the bigger AFL picture.
But with the byes now out of the way, all teams having played 13 games and the AFL ladder on an even keel for the first time since the completion of round nine, we can at least focus meaningfully on those sides in prime position for an assault on finals and those already seemingly doomed to miss out.
In that latter category, it seems increasingly certain you can place a grand finalist of last season, Adelaide, in keeping with the way 2018 has panned out, effectively losing over the weekend even without having played.
The Crows went into the weekend with four losses on the trot, a long injury list and confidence low, yet still at least nominally only a game outside the eight.
But you can make that two games plus a stack of percentage now after weekend wins to North Melbourne over the Western Bulldogs, Hawthorn over Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney against Brisbane, the Roos and Hawks with arguably the softest runs home of any of the finals contenders, Adelaide in contrast facing six of the current top eight in their remaining nine games.
GWS has just as tough a run, particularly the next month, during which it takes on Hawthorn, West Coast (in Perth), Richmond and Port Adelaide (in Adelaide). It’s a run the Giants will be tackling without key forward Jeremy Cameron, surely certain to cop at least three or four games suspended for an ugly looking elbow to the face of Brisbane’s Harris Andrews.
But even should the Giants stumble, neither the Roos nor Hawks, or for that matter Geelong and Melbourne, also on eight wins, look likely to cede their hard-won advantage to those beneath them.
On form, it’s Essendon with far better prospects of mounting a belated tilt at the top eight than Adelaide, the Bombers’ win in Perth over West Coast was arguably their best of the season.
The Dons have now won four of their last five games and have begun to discover a brand a lot closer to the speed-driven attack which got them to last year’s finals than the stodgy, error-prone rubbish they were serving up earlier in the season.
That said, their run home is far from a picnic, either, with five top-eight teams plus Hawthorn still to play. Indeed, the next two games, against North Melbourne and Collingwood, could bring any flirtation with the idea of finals to a screaming halt.
And along with West Coast, which will itself be tested over the next month without twin forward towers Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, it’s the Roos and Pies who have proved the surprise packets of this season.
Both have had far better wins than they managed on the weekend, North scraping over the line thanks to Shaun Higgins and skipper Jack Ziebell in the final minute against the Western Bulldogs, and the Pies’ win over Carlton far from spectacular.
But among their many improvements in 2018, the Roos are now learning to win the close ones. Last season, Brad Scott’s team lost five games by a total of just 14 points. Among its eight victories this year are two two-pointers.
No wonder Scott was so pumped when Ziebell kicked the match-winner with only 20 seconds left on the clock on Saturday night. All good runs need a bit of good fortune to go with them. Finally, the Roos might be getting theirs.
As for Collingwood, the Pies have strung together five wins on the trot, and indeed, since their opening two defeats, have won nine out of 11 to sit fourth on the ladder. The last time the Pies were that high was round 12 of 2015.
Will they stay there? Collingwood, too, has a challenging draw, playing four top-eight opponents in a row from rounds 17-20, but the Pies’ consistency of effort since a poor opening round showing against Hawthorn has been impressive.
They’re certainly as worthy a contender as Port Adelaide (equal on points) or Melbourne, Geelong, North and Hawthorn (all a game behind), with one of that group of a half-dozen likely to miss out not only on a double chance, but finals altogether.
There’s plenty of twists and turns left in that storyline at least. And after the unsettled period that is the mid-season, now also, thankfully, a resumption of normal programming. Let’s hope it’s all a little more engrossing than the last few weeks have been.