15/04/2024

Ben Cunnington returns for the first time since July last year. (Image: North Melbourne FC)

Ahead of the penultimate weekend of the home and away season, there is still plenty to play for with the top eight far from finalised.

The Inner Sanctum has broken down the five things to keep an eye on in Round 22.

How much do the Lions want a double chance?

The race for the top four is super tight, with the sides in second through sixth all able to finish in each position, making wins in these last two weeks so critical.

That’s where the question comes for the Lions. They will need to most likely win both games to secure a double chance with the potential of hosting a Qualifying Final if they increase their percentage.

Lachie Neale is a centre piece to the Lions success this year. (Image: Brisbane Lions)

Lachie Neale could well be leading the Brownlow Medal at this late point of the year, and is a major factor pushing the Lions towards another Qualifying Final.

Brisbane faces St Kilda on Friday night in what is a massive contest for both teams. Brisbane is fighting to earn its place in the top four, while host St Kilda needs to win to stay in touch with the top eight.

The midfield battle is where this game will be won and lost, with the likes of Neale, Jarryd Lyons, and Hugh McCluggage facing Jack Steele, Brad Crouch and Marcus Windhager.

Which ever midfield can get on top will certainly give themselves the best chance to claim the four points on Friday.

Will the Bulldogs respond with season on the line?

It’s a tough road to the finals for the Western Bulldogs, and it all starts on Saturday afternoon against the depleted and underperforming GWS Giants.

In addition to the importance of the game for the Bulldogs, there is a fair rivalry that has sparked since the 2016 Preliminary Final when the Bulldogs went up and defeated the Giants on their home turf.

The Bulldogs must win back to back games to have a chance at finals. (Image: Western Bulldogs)

The Bulldogs need to win both of their remaining two games and Carlton or Richmond to lose both of their games to claim eighth position and scrape their way into September.

They had a great opportunity last week at home against the Dockers, but couldn’t capitalise, leaving them in a win or they’re out scenario.

The Bulldogs head into the contest as confortable favourites, but given the circumstances of the game and what is on offer, they will not be looking to drop their heads for a second of play.

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Emotional return for Ben Cunnington

Emotions will be running high at the Adelaide Oval when Ben Cunnington finally makes his AFL return after over a year recovering from two bouts of testicular cancer.

Cunnington highlighted in an interview with his club that he had a fear he would never return. On top of his two cancer diagnoses, he had a calf injury, and just a few weeks ago had COVID. This just proves the grit and determination Cunnington has to get back to the top level.

The 31-year-old played his first game last week in the VFL, collecting 18 disposals in a managed load. On Wednesday this week, the club and footy world was informed that Cunnington had finally got the nod and will feature in Saturday’s game in Adelaide against the Crows.

Cunnington opened up to teammates on the day and said, “I’m here now, hungry, and I feel I’ve worked hard to be in a position to hopefully help the boys out again. I’m keen as ever”.

Ben Cunnington makes an emotional return to the senior side. (Image: North Melbourne FC)

While it has been a tough season for the Roos, these last few weeks will sure bring an uplifting tone with the club champion back on field, especially next week in front of a home crowd against Gold Coast.

Can Carlton be uplifted with Cripps outcome?

Pressure is growing on the Blues. After sitting in the eight all year, with each passing week it seems more and more likely that they may stumble at the final hurdle and potentially miss finals action.

But in what will be in the media for weeks and seasons to come, captain Patrick Cripps’ two-game suspension was overruled. He is eligible to play this weekend against Melbourne in an attempt to secure his side’s place in September.

Can Carlton make the eight for their skipper? (Image: AFL)

Carlton still have a depleted midfield, with George Hewett and Matt Kennedy both missing this week, leaving Adam Cerra and Sam Walsh to do a heavy amount of the work. Even then, the likes of Liam Stocker or even Sam Docherty can rotate into these positions.

The Blues’ young midfielders will have their work cut out for them against a fierce Demons centre bounce. With Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney featuring amongst the best in the competition week in, week out, the presence of Cripps can’t be spoken of highly enough.

Earlier in the season, this Melbourne vs Carlton fixture loomed as one of the games of the year. It appears less so now, but the importance of the game is just as much as it would have been, with the Dees fighting for top four and the Blues close to dropping out of finals altogether.

Early Qualifying Final preview

Sunday’s clash between Sydney and Collingwood looms as a contest that shapes the top four, with the winner making it one step further to second and a home Qualifying Final.

Collingwood currently hold the position, but can fall as low as fifth with a loss, which could see its double chance hopes dashed.

Sydney and Collingwood are set for a thriller. (Image: Sydney Swans)

Sydney will certainly fancy its chances to end Collingwood’s 11 game winning streak. The Swans have won eight of their last ten contests on the SCG by an average margin of 39 points.

Collingwood’s success this season can be heavily attributed to its steadiness down back. Jeremy Howe, Brayden Maynard, Josh Daicos, Isaac Quaynor and Nathan Murphy all play their respective roles to a tee, and even if it’s not a stand out performance, they are doing their job.

Both teams will be as hungry as they could be for this game. A top four spot will be secured for the winner, and given how close the race is, this could be one of the games of the season.

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