It may only be mid-August, still weeks away from Spring sun and footy finals, but for four premiership contenders the 2019 AFL season may well come down to this very weekend.
The crunch games
- Brisbane (2) v Geelong (1): Saturday 2:10pm AEST at the Gabba
- Richmond (4) v West Coast (3): Sunday 1:10pm AEST at the MCG
The buzz from headquarters has been present all year — this is the tightest season in recent memory, they say, with so little separating the wheat from the chaff, and any team a realistic chance to win any given game on any given Sunday or Saturday or Thursday night.
Scoring may be down, sure, and any number of ex-pros will tell you skills were far better in their day, but when the comp is this tight, Steve Hocking and the AFL are unlikely to care.
And why should they, given the scenario we find ourselves in? The fixture-fixers have stumbled upon pure round-22 gold — the league’s Elite Four, with barely a bee’s proverbial between them, doing battle on two days of pure pre-finals fury.
In most years, the prospect of late-season meetings between first and second and third and fourth would be intriguing. This year, the stars have aligned to make them potentially defining.
If you’ve had a play around on the AFL’s ladder predictor you’ve probably come to this conclusion already, but it’s no exaggeration to say that this weekend of football will have a more tangible impact on the destination of the cup than any other this side of September.
This is because for all of Geelong, Brisbane, West Coast and Richmond, any finishing position between first and fourth is in play.
That means the possibility exists for any combination of qualifying finals, and the potential for some of the most daunting away trips in the game. The difference between finishing second or third is likely to come down to a few goals across an entire season, and has never been more important.
Let’s look at one likely outcome. Say the home teams, Brisbane and Richmond, win their games this weekend against Geelong and West Coast respectively.
The Lions would then sit a game clear on top of the AFL ladder with one to play. The percentage boost it picked up in thumping Gold Coast last week would almost make the round-23 game against the Tigers inessential — Brisbane would almost certainly finish in the top two regardless of that result.
And what happens if Brisbane finishes in the top two? It plays two finals at the Gabba, a ground it has only lost at once this season. The Lions would probably be playing the Eagles, who they beat by 44 points at home way back in round one, with a win putting it one home prelim in front of a rabid Gabba crowd away from a grand final.
Basically, if Brisbane and Richmond win this weekend, the likelihood of the Lions playing the grand final increases exponentially. Their path to a fairytale flag opens right up.
And if Geelong wins? Well, then the Lions would likely need to beat Richmond at the MCG next week to have any hope of making the top two. If they don’t win, then a trip to Perth to face the reigning premier or to the MCG (not Kardinia Park, according to reports) to play the Cats again awaits.
Meaning if the Lions lose this weekend, the likelihood of them playing in the grand final becomes considerably smaller. Simple as that.
A similar situation confronts the Eagles. Beat Richmond at the MCG on Sunday, and a top-two finish and two home finals is just one very achievable home win against mid-table Hawthorn away.
History tells us that every single time the Eagles have finished first or second, they have played in that year’s grand final.
Lose to the Tigers, and West Coast is suddenly dependent on results elsewhere or a considerable, almost unattainable, swing in percentage to climb into second. Only once in their history, way back in 1992, have the Eagles made a grand final from outside the top two.
There’s more work for Richmond to do, but none of it impossible. Should the Tigers win both of their remaining games, against fellow flag aspirants West Coast and Brisbane and both at the MCG, by decent margins, second place remains on the table.
Of course, they could lose both and slip out of the top four altogether. But of all the possible permutations, this still feels like the least likely.
The stakes are somewhat lower for Geelong — given its sizable percentage boost, comparatively easier round-23 fixture and the fact it seems the AFL won’t allow it to play its finals at its actual home ground — but a win against Brisbane on Saturday would all but ensure the minor premiership.
All up, it’s an awful lot of importance to put on two home and away fixtures. Especially for the two non-Victorian clubs, a now-or-never chance has presented itself to take control of their own destiny and clear a path to the MCG on the last Saturday in September.
Regardless of the results, coaches and players will stick to their “one week at a time” mantras and insist nothing is ever certain, nothing can be taken for granted, everything is still up in the air.
But we know that’s only partially true. There’s a weight of history and statistics and straight up common sense that tells us that this weekend will be decisive, in any number of ways.
And you want to know the best bit? Tipping these two games is just about impossible.