Sport AFL No twists in the tail mean a perfect set-up for September

No twists in the tail mean a perfect set-up for September

AFL round 23
The top four remained unchanged in Round 23, with Richmond at the top of the ladder. Photo: Getty
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And so the final twist to an AFL home and away season which turned tantalisingly on a weekly basis in the approach to September was that in the end, really, there was none.

While all sorts of ladder possibilities beckoned over the last few rounds, the last weekend of the season proper went pretty much as you might have expected, West Coast and Collingwood negotiating potential booby traps on the road, and Melbourne at home continuing the form which had put it in a strong position the previous Sunday.

It meant the top four remained unchanged not only in name, but in numerical order. And it gave probably the two biggest wildcards in the lower half of the final eight at least a decent base from which to launch a flag assault.

And for the sake of the best and tightest possible finals series, or more cynically perhaps, the chance of someone at least pushing Richmond all the way to a second successive flag, that’s something for which we should probably be grateful.

Take West Coast, for example. As good as the Eagles have been this season, already compromised by the losses of Nic Naitanui and Andrew Gaff, it was hard to see them surviving a couple of finals road trips and still having enough in the tank come grand final day should they make it.

AFL round 23
How deep can West Coast go into September without Gaff and Naitanui? Photo: AAP

But West Coast’s comfortable enough win over Brisbane at the Gabba on Sunday has dealt the Eagles two home finals. Win the first and they’re only another home win away from a grand final berth, their most recent visit to the MCG arguably their most impressive win of the season over Collingwood. That’s doable.

At the same time, while Collingwood in some eyes might have drawn the short straw having to face West Coast at Optus Stadium in Perth, the Magpies have less reason to fear the challenge than most.

Come Saturday week, their most recent hit-out will have been a win at the same venue, Saturday’s victory over Fremantle a handily-timed reconnaissance mission to say the least, plus they’ll be boasting a 4-1 interstate record this season, the sole defeat by just two points.

Hawthorn has done a brilliant job in regenerating this season and last, but the Hawks still have the oldest list in the competition, the likely return of James Frawley for their qualifying final against Richmond giving them eight players in their 22 in their 30thyear or older.

There would be plenty of doubts about them being able to convert four consecutive finals into a premiership win. Not so now with the chance of two weeks off en route to a preliminary final berth should they upset the Tigers.

And in the bottom half of the eight, the cards have fallen nicely for Melbourne and Geelong. Yes, they face off in a fight to the death on Friday week, but the victor will get a second final against the Tigers or Hawks on (in the Demons’ case) their home deck, or for the Cats, at a nominal second home.

Beats a trip to Perth or Sydney. Or in the case of the survivor of Saturday week’s elimination final between Greater Western Sydney and the Swans, a trip to Perth or Melbourne.

That’s one reason Geelong, despite finishing a game behind Sydney and half-a-game behind GWS, is now shorter than both in flag betting. The other, more substantial, is the Cats’ cushy lead-in to September, two confidence-building 100-point-plus demolition jobs on Fremantle and Gold Coast.

AFL round 23
Gary Ablett makes his return to the AFL finals when Geelong plays Melbourne. Photo: Getty

Geelong’s best are not only on the park, but in great nick, Patrick Dangerfield, Gary Ablett, Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins, Mitch Duncan and Tim Kelly all among the best in Saturday’s thrashing of Gold Coast.

Sydney, in contrast, is looking increasingly banged up. Lance Franklin and Luke Parker didn’t make it to the line for Saturday night’s crucial top-four playoff against Hawthorn, valuable small defender Nick Smith is done for the year, and Dan Hannebery finished the game against the Hawks sore as well as sorry.

The Giants, meanwhile, have battled that sort of catalogue of medical woes all year, and the lack not only of personnel, but of continuity in terms of a settled side is looking even more of an issue at the pointy end of the season.

And while much was being made of Melbourne’s record against top eight teams, GWS itself is now 3-6 against the top eight after Sunday’s lack-lustre display, having been overrun two weeks in succession in the second half.

Melbourne is the really intriguing starter in the finals race. Appearing in its first finals campaign for a dozen years, the Demons certainly won’t have experience on their side. They do, however, have plenty of firepower, easily the highest-scoring team this season at an average of 104.5 points per game, and have also won more quarters of football than any rival, even Richmond.

But intriguing is an applicable adjective for the entire week one menu this finals series. The previous two clashes between the Demons and Geelong have both been decided either just on or just after the final siren. Collingwood’s record on the road is renowned.

Both Sydney derbies this season have been decided by 20 points or less. And the Tigers and Hawks haven’t met since round three, and, almost unbelievably, never before in finals history.

Round 23 might not have delivered all that much drama in the end. But given that sort of schedule for week one of this year’s finals series, it’s not like we’re going to be short of it over the next month or so.

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