So the bye rounds over, the AFL season is officially into the home stretch. And what a finish we have in front of us.
There's two very different teams sitting in the top two spots on the ladder in Melbourne and Western Bulldogs. A couple more still relative September "newbies" just behind them in Brisbane and Port Adelaide. Three more seasoned finals heavyweights in Geelong, West Coast and Richmond. And a real wildcard in Sydney.
If the composition of the top eight doesn't change (and I still suspect it won't), there'll be a real freshness about this finals campaign. No wonder premiership betting is so tight, Geelong and Melbourne equal favourites at $5, and three teams each paying $6, Brisbane, Richmond and the Bulldogs.
But for all the talk about a new finals look, I still can't help but wonder whether the last Saturday in September might leave us with a match-up we've seen before ... like just 11 months previously.
Everyone has their own methods of sorting out premiership probables from pretenders. A favourite of mine is to examine not the strengths of candidates, but potential finals weaknesses, an all-important Achilles heel which might leave a premiership campaign coming up short.
So here's the theory ...
The Demons have one of the best defences recent AFL football has seen, and the midfield is superbly balanced and tough. It's the forward group that still has the question mark. Tom McDonald, Bayley Fritsch and Kysaiah Pickett have been terrific. But just who will end up playing the other key position role? Sam Weideman has kicked just three goals in five games, and Ben Brown is struggling in the VFL. Are resting ruckmen Luke Jackson and Max Gawn enough support for McDonald? And can the Demons afford to carry an out-of-sorts Brown or Weideman in the heat of finals?
No questions about midfield depth, particularly once Adam Treloar and Josh Dunkley return. The Dogs are potent up forward, too, No.1 for points scored. And the defence? While the Dogs have conceded second-fewest points in the competition, it's noteworthy that while they concede fewer inside 50s than any team, they only rank seventh for fewest opposition goals per inside 50. Do Zaine Cordy, Alex Keath and Ryan Gardner have the height and strength to deny the likes of Tom Lynch (who kicked 3.5 against them), Jack Riewoldt, Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron when it counts?
Weaknesses? Frankly, I'm not seeing any. The Cats' backline has been close to the best in the business for years, highly organised, great at negating, strong on the rebound. Their midfield is ranking No. 1 for contested possession for a third straight season, uncontested ball and clearances first and second respectively for a second season in a row. Even now without Mitch Duncan, though, it also looks a bit deeper and better balance for the run of Isaac Smith, Brandan Parfitt and Quinton Narkle. And it goes without saying the forward set-up plus Jeremy Cameron and a more consistent Gary Rohan, appears more dangerous.
This isn't a question so much of personnel or structure as venue. Brisbane is 5-1 at the Gabba this season. But it's only 4-3 away from there, including a victory only after the siren against Collingwood, and more-difficult-than-expected wins over strugglers Carlton and North Melbourne. As good as the Lions have been the past couple of years, their finals record is 1-3, and that's at home. It's going to be even tougher to win them away, and that's where the most important game of all is.
Simple question. Are the Power genuinely good enough to beat the very best when it matters most? You'd be forgiven for having your doubts. While their dispensing of Gold Coast last week was a 16th consecutive win over a bottom eight opponent, Port is 1-4 against top eight teams this season, decisive losses against West Coast and Brisbane away, and their home state advantage counting for little in two of their last three outings at Adelaide Oval against Western Bulldogs and Geelong.
Despite still sitting sixth on the ladder, the Swans are clearly the most vulnerable member of the top eight, having gone 4-5 since their four straight wins to start the season. Their 38-point loss to Hawthorn last start was probably their worst effort yet, and even the two wins prior against a struggling St Kilda and Carlton were nothing to write home about. Youth and inexperience remains the big handicap in flag terms. Just 14 players on the list have played anything more than one final. Really, just appearing in one this season would be a bonus.
There's no doubting the Eagles' flag capabilities with a full contingent of players. But arguably more than any other team, West Coast needs the cards to fall right in terms of finals position and fixturing. And that looks unlikely. A top-two spot is a long shot now, which means that to win a flag, the Eagles would need to win at least two finals away from home. Since its 2006 premiership, West Coast has played nine finals on the road and won two, one in extra time, and the other, famously, by five points. That's not particularly encouraging history.
Personnel? Tick, with what was a lengthy injury list shrinking by the week, Tom Lynch and Toby Nankervis the only remaining first choice players on the sidelines. Hunger? It's a valid query, given Richmond is 7-6 and playing at its best more in bursts than with consistency. And the counter arguments? The Tigers were also 7-6 in 2019 before rattling off a dozen straight wins and a grand final romp by 89 points. And the bursts? Sure, they need to be sustained for longer. But can any other contender produce the sort of devastating blitz of seven goals in 16 minutes Richmond did three weeks ago? I doubt it.
And the conclusion to which all this theorising arrives? Well, it is still June, after all. But if my life depended on correctly predicting the 2021 grand finalists right now, I'd be arriving at a match-up I'm sure most in football would be rolling their eyes about.
Yep, a re-match of last year between Geelong and Richmond. That's far from "sexy", obviously. But if nothing else, it would at least be the AFL paying appropriate homage to a famous line from French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr: "The more things change, the more they stay the same".
You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.