Sport AFL Multiple permutations possible in fabulous finale to finals race
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Multiple permutations possible in fabulous finale to finals race

AFL round 21 swans
The Swans' win over the Demons helped open a gripping final-eight race. Photo: Getty
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If you’d gone away for the weekend and missed round 21 of the AFL season, returned and only glanced at the ladder, you’d surmise that little had changed in your absence.

The top three is the same as it was a week ago – Richmond, West Coast and Greater Western Sydney – in that order. Three of the four teams that were in the bottom half of the eight – Collingwood, Port Adelaide and Sydney – are still there.

And the four teams immediately outside the eight – Geelong, North Melbourne, Essendon and Adelaide – still occupy exactly the same positions. So not much happened? And we can start drawing up finals match-ups? Hardly. And absolutely not.

If there’s been a season featuring as many possible finals permutations with just two rounds remaining as this one, I certainly can’t remember it. It’s a gift for the AFL, and a continuation of a fascinating run home which has done much to drag this season from the doldrums.

Essendon needed several other results to fall its way to remain a finals player after its Friday night win over St Kilda. It got them. Geelong’s finals hopes looked to be fading after a narrow loss to Hawthorn on Saturday afternoon. By Sunday afternoon, the Cats were very much back in the hunt.

On Saturday evening, with less than a minute left to play, Port Adelaide was eight points up on West Coast and eyeing off a top four spot. Now the Power will be up against it simply making the eight at all.

Yesterday, when North Melbourne led the Western Bulldogs by the best part of five goals and seemed likely to increase that margin further, the Roos were finals bound. Instead, they’re going to need to knock over Adelaide in Adelaide to do it, and even then potentially miss out.

Melbourne needed to beat Sydney a little later to protect its double chance. It not only lost it, but could also miss the eight entirely should it not defeat either West Coast in Perth next weekend or GWS in the final round, and maybe not be safe even then.

There are just 18 of 198 home and away games left. Seven of them, four next weekend and another three in round 23, pit two of the remaining 11 finals aspirants against each other. Can we conclude anything yet?

Maybe a little. Richmond has officially locked away at worst a top two spot and with it the opportunity to again play three finals on its home ground on the way to a premiership.

West Coast is now just one win away from the prospect of home qualifying and preliminary finals. That amazing last 45 seconds of playing time against Port Adelaide in which Mark LeCras and Jeremy McGovern reprised last year’s elimination final win over the Power might end up being the pivotal minute of the entire season.

We can say with some justification that Melbourne (should it even contest September) has some major revision to do should it stand any chance of mixing it with the big boys of finals.

The Demons, perhaps surprisingly, are paying $14 for the premiership compared to Geelong’s $21. But the Cats at least have six victories over current top eight opposition to their name this season.

After Sunday’s nine-point loss to Sydney, Melbourne has zero from five, and none from seven if you make it top nine and throw in two losses to Geelong.

The Dees look pretty good beating up on weaker opposition, not so flash when that opponent is made of sturdier stuff.

And the most ominous takeaway from the weekend? The team which slipped into fourth spot at Melbourne’s expense.

Hawthorn is a phenomenon. How the Hawks have not only staved off all that end of an era talk after starting last year 1-5, but within a season-and-a-half successfully regenerated to the point they have to be considered a very realistic premiership chance is, yet again, a tribute to the coaching of Alastair Clarkson.

afl round 21 hawthorn geelong
The Hawks showed they are genuine premiership contenders. Photo: Getty

James Worpel and Harry Morrison are just the latest products to have spun off the Clarkson production line and look not only comfortable, but valuable at senior level. More ominous still is the last month or so from Jaeger O’Meara in midfield, exactly the sort of chop-out needed by Tom Mitchell.

There’s the coolness and reliability of the senior core of Jack Gunston, Shaun Burgoyne, Isaac Smith, Luke Breust, Liam Shiels and Ben Stratton. And the prospect of two absolute keys in ruckman Ben McEvoy and key defender James Sicily returning for finals.

Those resistant to the possibility that Hawthorn could win yet another flag are you suspect still focussing on the absence of the names Hodge, Mitchell, Lewis and Gibson from the current mix. That’s a mistake you can rest assured the likes of Richmond won’t be making.

Jag a double chance, and Hawthorn is a serious premiership player. And, come to think of it, that actually is something that doesn’t seem to change much.

Read more from Rohan Connolly, formerly a senior football writer for Fairfax, at Footyology, or watch Footyology TV here.

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