Quantity isn’t often a great substitute for quality, but in the case of an AFL season many would concede has at times underwhelmed, it may at least help a little over the next month.
There may have been more thrilling football years than 2018, but come the end of round 23 it’s unlikely we will have seen many lead-ins to a finals series as full of possibilities as this one still retains.
Round 19 was filled with critical match-ups, a potential grand final preview and three other games between two top eight aspirants, but if anything it only ended up muddying the September waters further.
As it stands now, at least four teams still have very achievable designs on a top two spot. Another five can realistically aspire to the top four and accompanying double chance. And there’s another couple beyond whom can at least keep dreaming of finals participation. That’s three different types of finals races in one.
Not to mention the very real prospect of up to four finalists this season who weren’t part of last September. That would be as many changes to a top eight from one year to the next as we’ve seen since 2007.
If you need to see the visual evidence of just how many variables there are, head to the AFL website and try out the ladder predictor. Note your final eight at the completion of round 23. Now change just one result in a game between two contenders. Yep, see what I mean?
For example, in my version, a Geelong victory over Hawthorn in their critical round 21 clash will see the Cats finish seventh at the completion of the home and away rounds and the Hawks missing out in ninth. Swap that one result and the two teams change places.
What about the top end of the eight? Well, after West Coast’s potentially very costly defeat at the hands of North Melbourne in Hobart on Sunday, it’s no less volatile.
An Eagles victory would have just about assured them of a home qualifying final in which they’d at the very least start favourite to then host a home preliminary final. As decent (5-3) as their road record remains after the loss to the Roos, an away final first up increases the difficulty factor of their September path exponentially.
Their challengers for second spot (Richmond has top as good as wrapped up) are Collingwood and Port Adelaide. The Power play both those rivals over the last four rounds, the Eagles at home and the Pies at the MCG.
I’ve currently got Port winning the first leg of that double and losing the second, and I have Collingwood ending up second by all of 1.5 percentage points to West Coast.
That’s a pretty large “if”, however, particularly given even more bad news on the injury front for the Magpies, Matt Scharenberg cruelly facing a third knee reconstruction, and walk-up start for their best 22, Jamie Elliott, again struck down with hamstring problems.
For a second time this season on Saturday, Collingwood came away from a clash with Richmond with its credentials largely intact, but ultimately beaten comfortably.
I still can’t help but feel either West Coast or Port Adelaide, given the right circumstances, might push the Tigers even further than the Pies, but there’s an even bigger “if” attached to that possibility, and that’s two home finals before the big one.
Needless to say with this trio of potential Tiger challengers, one result against those forecasts changes everything, but then so could even a slightly bigger Eagles victory in one game than I anticipate. Remember, too, that West Coast is batting 4-0 against the Power at Adelaide Oval, including that amazing finals victory last season.
Who misses out altogether? Famous last words, but I think some finals perennials.
Like Sydney, which has now lost four of its past five, faces a significant percentage deficit on those teams ahead of it in the top eight and has the toughest run home of any contender – Collingwood this week, followed by Melbourne at the MCG, Greater Western Sydney and Hawthorn.
Like Geelong, whose fate will undoubtedly be decided over the next fortnight. The Cats have a comfortable enough finish with home games against Fremantle and Gold Coast.
But it could be too late by then unless they can win at least one of the next two matches against Richmond and Hawthorn at the MCG, the same venue at which they’ve already lost to both this season, and at which they’ve now lost three of their past four appearances.
Throw in a grand finalist of last season, Adelaide now two games and a stack of percentage shy of the eight, and another 2017 finals player in Essendon, should the Bombers’ late surge still leave them short after a miserable start to the season, and you’d have massive change between this September and last.
The Dons’ clash with Hawthorn this week is just another in what is going to be a long list of pivotal games over the next month.
Indeed, perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch this season to declare that finals are upon us right now.