he final round of the season can be a damp squib. Finals berths, double chances, places in the pecking order: these things can find themselves cemented, in part, before the final act of the regular season, in spite of the AFL’s insatiable thirst for a grandstand finish.
Round 18 in 2020, however, had plenty going for it. All bar one of the nine fixtures were influential in reshaping the composition of the eight. No rung on the ladder, from position No 1 through to position No 8, was set in stone at the start of the round. And it is not over yet.
For the time poor, here is a digest: St Kilda will partake in the postseason for the first time since 2011; Greater Western Sydney can take an early bath, 12 months after contesting the grand final; Western Bulldogs shaded Fremantle to keep their season going; despite getting the better of Essendon, the Dogs’ victory means Melbourne’s stop-start season ends with a stop; Richmond beat Adelaide (comfortably) and Geelong beat Sydney (uncomfortably) to consign West Coast to fifth spot; and finally, the minor premiership, plus Collingwood’s finishing position, will be decided on Monday night when the Magpies face ladder-leading Port Adelaide. Got all that? Good.
Teams can either limp or sprint into September. And, this year, October. Momentum is everything. Though Geelong have secured the double chance, they are limping. The danger signs were there a week ago, albeit against the machine that is Richmond, and Sunday’s six-point win over Sydney carried little conviction the Cats are ready to take the finals by the scruff of the neck.
The Swans have been acceptable in the latter part of the season, but they are one of 2020’s also-rans and there will be one elimination final winner quite prepared to face Geelong should the Cats lose their qualifying final. Chris Scott, for one, is cognisant of Geelong’s return to the chasing pack. “I’m not saying we took anything for granted, but as soon as you are a little bit off, I think the gap between the best and the rest becomes pretty small,” the Cats coach said. “I’m not even convinced we’re in the best just yet, but we have got the opportunity to prove that.”
The week off before the finals commence will be a help, not a hindrance, for Geelong. The same can be said for West Coast, who could use some time for introspection and restoration. The Eagles might have finished the home-and-away season with three wins in their past four, but each of those 15-point triumphs was unconvincing – against St Kilda and non-finalists Essendon and North Melbourne.
A positive prognosis on Josh Kennedy’s left ankle will help, as will the imminent return of A-listers such as Jeremy McGovern, Elliot Yeo and Luke Shuey. But the jury is out if the Eagles are going well enough to perform the AFL’s magic trick and win the flag from the bottom half of the top eight.
St Kilda aren’t many people’s idea of this year’s premiers but their resounding win over the Giants precipitated a welcome return to the finals. It also emphasised the malady engulfing Greater Western Sydney. While not exactly doing an Adelaide, the Giants look scarred by their grand final embarrassment at the hands of Richmond. They close out the season with a narrow win over Carlton, three straight defeats and an off-season agenda that includes soul searching, soul searching and soul searching.
GWS have several key players out of contract and a captain in limbo, but Leon Cameron is not about to hit the panic button. “I think everyone has to take a big deep breath,” the Giants coach said. “I think we’ve still got a great list that can really challenge, but we clearly have to regain the respect of the footy public because we’ve lost it in six months.”
Western Bulldogs and Collingwood will fancy their chances at the elimination stage, and perhaps beyond. But while one does not have to go too far back – to the Dogs of 2016 – to reference a flag winner from outside the top four, the focus must remain on those with the double chance. Richmond were as good as they needed to be in shrugging off this year’s wooden spooners, but a more dependable form reference can be gleaned from their dismantling of Geelong the week before. The Tigers are in it up to their fangs.
Which leaves us with Brisbane and Port Adelaide. Seven consecutive victories has the Lions well placed to exile the bad memories of last year’s straight-sets exit. But with the playoffs now dawning, they will be forced to deal with, well, the memories of last year’s straight-sets exit.
Brisbane remain the X-factor of the finals series, unlike the Power. What you see is what you get. And it is very good. Port have been top of the pops since round one, all the way back in March, but they face Collingwood in second place and will stay there if they fail to beat the Pies. It would be cruel on the Power if they were to be denied a fourth minor premiership, but it might also be a blessing in disguise. No team since Hawthorn in 2013 has entered the finals from first place and won the flag.