AFL football was something to be celebrated on Saturday, following an amazing 24 hours in which in no fewer than five games were decided by a total of just 15 points and the race for the final eight took several twists and turns.
The mood, sadly, didn’t last long. Because if that was the good, Sunday certainly delivered the bad, and then the downright ugly.
Two hidings, Greater Western Sydney’s 105-point demolition of Carlton and Melbourne’s 96-point smashing of Gold Coast, underscored a yawning gap between the competition’s best and worst teams.
And in a denouement of Round 20 the game didn’t need, the result of a one-sided WA derby was completely overshadowed by an act of violence from a most unexpected source, the ramifications of which are as sizeable for a whole club’s premiership aspirations as they are for the player responsible.
West Coast star Andrew Gaff, whose playing future has been the continued source of speculation, may just have played his last game for the Eagles after an appalling off-the-ball strike on Fremantle opponent Andrew Brayshaw.
An unblemished disciplinary record and his genuine and emotional remorse post-game aren’t going to spare him a suspension of at the very least four games, and potentially as many as seven, the same penalty handed Barry Hall for his infamous 2008 strike on Eagle Brent Staker, the comparison drawn by Freo coach Ross Lyon after the game.
Brayshaw has a fractured jaw, four displaced teeth, and has already been ruled out for the Dockers’ final three games.
If Gaff is suspended for six games, the only way he could play again in 2018 is if West Coast loses a qualifying final and recovers to reach the grand final.
— AFL (@AFL) August 5, 2018
And if it’s costly for Gaff, how about his team? While the Eagles have to date survived well enough with Nic Naitanui, the loss of Gaff could arguably be a bridge too far. The Eagles’ midfield has proved itself a deeper and more resilient group this season, but losing Gaff is a bigger blow than the loss of the No.1 ruckman three weeks ago.
Gaff is averaging more than 30 disposals per game, ranked No.6 in the AFL. He’s miles ahead of West Coast’s next most prolific on-ballers Elliot Yeo and Jack Redden, both on 24.6 per game.
His importance to the Eagles’ run is even more profound, Gaff averaging 21.3 uncontested possessions per game, Redden next on that list at less than 15. Gaff ranks third at West Coast for metres gained, and third for score involvements.
His impending suspension is a blow to the Eagles the size of which is hard to overstate, and ironically, coming on a day West Coast went close to sealing a top two spot and with it the prospect of two home finals.
Below Richmond and the Eagles on the ladder, meanwhile is a logjam the likes of which we’ve seldom seen this late in an AFL season.
As many as eight teams – GWS, Melbourne, Hawthorn, Collingwood, Port Adelaide, Sydney, Geelong and North Melbourne – could conceivably still finish either in the top four or miss out on finals altogether.
With 27 of 198 home and away matches remaining, isolated moments, let alone particular games, have the potential to determine entire seasons.
Had Josh Jenkins’ much-debated match-winner for Adelaide against Port Adelaide on Saturday been overruled for a point, as many believe it should have, the Power would likely now be fourth and not seventh, a double chance beckoning rather than clinging to a mere top eight spot by a thread.
There’s no fewer than four games in Round 21 this weekend which will be contested by two finals aspirants, the difference a result either way will make to the ladder enormous.
The MCG might as well be hosting back-to-back finals on Saturday and Sunday, when Hawthorn and Geelong meet followed by Melbourne and Sydney just on 24 hours later, the stakes for all four teams involved massive.
On my predicted ladder scenarios, a Hawthorn victory over the Cats this weekend will help the Hawks to sixth spot come the finals and consign Geelong to missing out altogether. Reverse that result and so will those ladder positions be switched.
It’s much the same for the Demons and Swans, both of whom take on fellow finals aspirants in all three remaining games.
My predictor has Melbourne finishing fifth after round 23 in the advent of a victory over the Swans on Sunday, and Sydney missing only its second finals series in 16 seasons.
In contrast, should the Swans beat the Demons, my ladder has them scraping into the eight and Melbourne, rather than fifth, finishing ninth, again dealing with the heartbreak of just missing out on finals.
It’s that fine a line. And manna from heaven for the AFL, which after a difficult season, at least has a gripping climax to the home and away rounds looming. That is, once it has dealt with the latest dramas, more score review controversy and a moment of madness straight out of that old 1970s footy video “Violent Saturday”.