Heroes & Villains, R20: So many questions after Gaff's act of violence

Steve Hocking and the AFL's competition committee might be feeling more useless than a screen door on a submarine after we were all witnesses to one of the greatest rounds of football in modern memory.

In fact, Round 20 was the first in history where five games were decided by fewer than six points, highlighting that the game is in pretty decent shape after all.

That was until Sunday, anyway. After a thrilling opening six games of the round, Sunday's three matches were all blowouts, with the West Coast-Fremantle clash descending into near chaos after a sickening punch that left a young Docker in hospital.

From the feel-good comeback stories, to last-minute heartbreak, to the epic Friday night contest between Richmond and Geelong, to the drama of the Western Derby, Round 20 had it all.


The comeback round: With so many themed rounds gracing the AFL calendar already, surely the AFL should have officially dubbed Round 20 the "Comeback Round"?

Storylines were coming out of clubland thick and fast throughout the week, with Sydney announcing Alex Johnson would play his first league game since the 2012 Grand Final. Struck down by a five ACL reconstructions, Johnson made a successful comeback in the Swans' last-gasp, two-point victory over the Magpies, amassing 15 touches and 11 marks.

At the same time down in Melbourne, Nathan Freeman, the No. 10 pick from 2013, made his debut 1,718 days after being drafted, following a number of hamstring and shoulder setbacks. While the Saints couldn't get the win, Freeman emerged unscathed and with 19 possessions to his name

And while the number of days missed wasn't quite in the thousands for Adelaide's Brodie Smith and Melbourne's Aaron vandenBerg, they too made returns to senior football -- Smith nearly a year after tearing his ACL during the 2017 finals series, and vandenBerg after nearly 850 days of being sidelined by persistent foot problems.

Tim Kelly: On a night where no fewer than four Brownlow medallists took centre stage at the MCG, it took a player in his first year to take the game by the scruff of the neck and handle the wet and greasy conditions best.

If he hadn't already, Geelong's Tim Kelly proved he is set to become one of the game's true elite talents after turning in yet another epic performance -- this time against Richmond on a Friday night. Alongside Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood, the 24-year-old was a colossus in the Cats midfield, racking up 36 possessions, winning four clearances, kicking a goal and setting up plenty more but it was his clean ball handling and poise which caught the eye most.

The Cats may have fallen short to the Tigers but gave Damien Hardwick's side its biggest fright at the MCG in over 12 months. Geelong fought back to be four points down with two minutes left on the clock and had Gary Ablett kicked truly from 40 metres on a slight angle, it could be Geelong sitting third on the ladder as opposed to GWS.

Kelly may be ineligible for the Rising Star Award but don't be surprised to find him in the All Australian squad of 40 players.

Another Showdown special: A full house. A come-from-behind effort. Robbie Gray. Late controversy. It was just another Showdown, in case anyone was wondering.

For the second time this season, the AFL's South Australian teams put on one of the best performances of the year (in fact, they might have sewn up the quinella), when the Crows rallied late to sink the Power and throw Port's top four chances into limbo.

To the delight of both sets of fans, it was the Showdown specialists who again came to the fore when the game clicked up a gear. Rory Sloane, Gray and Chad Wingard all starred, thrilling viewers at the ground and on TV.

Speaking of TV, the goal review decision that ensured an Adelaide win was the main talking point after Saturday evening's see-sawing Showdown. An honest Josh Jenkins said he thought his kick brushed the post, Ken Hinkley said it was "a monumental mistake" but the AFL said the correct decision was made.

It's the sort of drama and confusion the AFL was trying to avoid when it introduced the goal review system but the inconsistencies of both the system and the officials who govern it have only caused more people to scratch their heads.


Oh, Andrew: Could there be a bigger villain this week -- possibly even this year -- than the previously mild mannered Eagle Andrew Gaff?

Gaff's shocking, unprovoked punch to the face of Andrew Brayshaw -- an act of violence that broke the Fremantle youngster's jaw and displaced several of his teeth -- will have enormous ramifications on West Coast's premiership hunt, not to mention Gaff's Brownlow Medal chances and might even be his final act in a West Coast jumper.

The strike caused tensions to reach boiling point, with several scuffles breaking out and Dockers players targeting Gaff for the remainder of the game.

After the clash -- easily won by West Coast -- Freo coach Ross Lyon didn't hold back.

"Andrew Brayshaw was king-hit 100m off the ball," Lyon said.

"I've got an 18-year-old kid that I saw in a real mess when I came down to the rooms and his mum in tears as I was walking in. It's not very palatable.

"He was pretty distraught. I gave him a hug. I wouldn't like to see my son like that."

It was a thuggish act from someone who had been such a fair player throughout his 175-game career with the Eagles and while Gaff said "he felt sick" for hurting Brayshaw so badly, he'll likely pay a huge price when the AFL Tribunal hears his case on Tuesday evening.

Several questions remain. Firstly, how many weeks will Gaff be suspended for? In terms of recent comparisons, Barry Hall copped seven matches for his awful 2008 hit on Brent Staker, while last season, Tom Bugg was sidelined for six for his punch on Callum Mills.

Secondly, will Gaff's possible season-ending suspension cruel the Eagles' flag hopes, considering they're already without Nic Naitanui for the rest of the year?

And thirdly, is that the final time we'll see Gaff wearing West Coast colours, with the out-of-contract free agent being courted by several Victorian-based teams?

Talk about brain snaps: In footy, it can be fine line between being a hero and a villain, and within the space of three hours on Saturday, two of the league's best young stars proved you can be both in the matter of minutes.

Up at the Gabba, Cam Rayner looked to be the match-winner for the Lions after he kicked a goal to get them to within a straight kick, and then won a free kick 20 metres out on a slight, perhaps 30-degree angle with 30 seconds to go.

However, instead of going back, sucking in a few deep ones and slotting the drop punt, Rayner bizarrely rushed his set-shot routine and ran around clumsily for a botched snap which missed badly -- robbing the Lions of what would have been a last-minute win. Rayner was beautifully and understandably supported by his coach and teammates after the siren and he'll no doubt learn from the experience.

Then, not three hours later down in Adelaide, newly-re-signed Port star Ollie Wines fluffed a chance to ice the game for the Power by deciding to do something equally as confusing when he also chose to run around and try a snap. Instead of hitting a reasonably simple drop punt, the Power star kicked so badly that the ball went out on the full -- and we all know what happened next.

What's wrong with the good old fashioned drop punt?

Bruise-free Bombers: When you finish a game -29 in contested possessions you aren't going to come out on top too often, so it was actually quite surprising that Essendon almost defied the odds to beat Hawthorn.

The Bombers' four point loss on Saturday afternoon all but slammed the door shut on their season with finals now out of their hands.

While it wasn't an awful effort, the contested possession differential -- which continued to grow throughout the contest -- should have been sending alarm bells off inside the coaching box.

Zach Merrett appeared to be the only Bomber who was prepared to get his hands dirty. He finished with 42 disposals (16 contested) but he didn't get much assistance from his fellow midfielders in what was a crunch game for Essendon in every sense. Dyson Heppell, Devon Smith and David Zaharakis combined for 25 contested possessions while Hawthorn's Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O'Meara and Shaun Burgoyne had 48 between them.

It wasn't just the midfielders. By full time 12 Essendon players had accumulated less than five contested possessions while for the Hawks only seven players fit that category.

With so much riding on the result, you'd have wanted more Bombers to be prepared to get their hands dirty than they did on Saturday afternoon.