With just six rounds of footy left in the AFL home and away season, six burning questions remain on the lips of footy fans.
Q1: Who can actually win the flag?
It’s one of the most open years in recent memory and with constant contenders Richmond seemingly out of the picture, the stage is set for an epic race to the finish.
The top eight is far from set, but four teams have so far distinguished themselves as flag contenders and separated themselves from the chasing pack.
At the top of the list, we have the Demons. Many predicted Melbourne would improve on last year’s ninth place finish but few could have seen this coming.
At their best, the Dees look untouchable, with Christian Petracca leading the way along with perennial Brownlow smokey, Max Gawn.
Petracca has been dynamic, his goals per game ratio the best it has been since 2017 and his midfield partner Clayton Oliver has been a ball magnet.
Though Melbourne has passed most tough tests against strong opposition this year, it has fallen against lesser opponents with its three losses coming against Adelaide, Collingwood and GWS.
If they are to push for the flag, Simon Goodwin will need to find a way to solve this complacency problem.
The Doggies are hot on the Demon’s heels and Luke Beveridge will be keen to let them off the leash come September.
They have proven midfield depth which is only set to improve with the inevitable return of star recruit Adam Treloar.
Josh Bruce and Aaron Naughton have provided over 70 goals between them this year. Couple that with the scoring power of midfield gun Marcus Bontempelli and it is enough to give any opposition side a headache.
The fixture list has been kind to the Dogs in the run home, though they face Melbourne in a top of the table clash in two weeks time and Port Adelaide in the final round of the year, a match which could decide the top four order.
Many have questioned Geelong’s credibility and pointed to its ageing list as a sign of weakness, but the Cats have shown that with age comes valuable AFL finals experience.
In games that have been decided by 10 points or less, Geelong is four wins from five games, the only loss coming in a nailbiter against Sydney in round seven.
Injuries will be the main hurdle for the Cats as their older players fight to stay fit but come finals time, their experience will be an asset.
Lastly, we have everybody’s second favourite team (if that exists), the Brisbane Lions.
A devastating knee injury to star forward Eric Hipwood has put a major dent in the Lions’ AFL Premiership credentials but if there’s one thing we know it’s that this young side can overcome adversity.
The Lions started the season with three losses and just one win, before going on an impressive streak of seven straight victories.
A home final is a bigger key to Brisbane’s flag push than any other side in contention so the next six weeks will be huge and it kicks off with a match against the reigning premiers this week.
The Lions then face Hawthorn, Gold Coast, Fremantle, Collingwood and West Coast in what is certainly a favourable draw.
Ben’s pick: Geelong – Experience wins Premierships and the Cats have it in spades.
Q2: Is the Tigers dynasty over?
If a loss against the Suns on a Thursday night wasn’t enough for you to draw a line through Richmond’s Premiership defence, a last quarter capitulation against Collingwood surely got the job done.
Injuries to key players, out of form stars and an ageing list has seen Richmond almost fall off of a cliff in AFL season 2021.
Throughout the year, we heard the cries of Tigers fans saying they had seen this all before, and in their defence, they had.
A trademark of the Hardwick era of success at Richmond was timing the run of form correctly, giving them the most chance of going all the way.
The importance of playing to a system regardless of players available stood them in good stead and the rewards were reaped with three Premierships.
This year, though, the famous Richmond run has been left too late. The Tigers sit in 12th position, only four points out of the eight but surrounded by teams in far better nick than they are.
They boast the fourth oldest team in the competition and with injuries to key players, the questions of whether we have seen the best of this Tigers side becomes more valid with every passing week.
Perhaps they can turn it around in 2021 and make a push for finals, the fact will remain that they are miles behind the four main contenders.
For Hardwick, it’s nearing ‘play the kids’ time as the Tigers look to reload in 2022 but with the contending sides, bar Geelong, full of young talent, perhaps the era has come to an end.
Still, it is hard to write off a team with so much Premiership pedigree and there is every chance that Cotchin and co will come out in 2022 and prove the doubters wrong.
Ben’s pick: Stick a fork in them – dynasty over.
Q3: Who is the furthest from a flag?
The obvious candidates for this category appear if you cast your eyes to the foot of the AFL ladder.
Though they have shown an ability to actually play football in recent weeks, the Kangaroos kicked off the year in terrible fashion, losing eight straight games.
Kickout merchant Jack Ziebell had the flattering numbers and Todd Goldstein, who has since broken the hitouts record, was in good form but that aside, the outlook for the Roos looked bleak.
Since then, they have somewhat fashioned a functioning forward line with Larkey and Zurhaar chipping in with vital contributions and the uplift in form from prized recruit Jaidyn Stephenson has been welcomed with open arms.
They have the second youngest list in the competition which will provide some solace to their supporters, however the question has to be asked as to how much weight that holds.
Luke Davies-Uniacke has shown flashes of talent, as has Tom Powell and young defender Ben McKay but other than that, obvious quality in this young squad is few and far between.
The same can be said about fellow cellar-dwellers, Adelaide, who pip North Melbourne to the post by having the youngest side in the competition.
With an average age of just 23.6 years, the Crows are in full rebuild mode under coach Matthew Nicks.
The Taylor Walker renaissance continues to roll-on with Tex playing some of the best football of his career in 2021, but is he in their next Premiership side? Absolutely not.
The same can be said for lion-hearted captain Rory Sloane who has battled through injury after injury to lead this young group in the past few years.
The saving grace for the Crows comes in the form of top draft pick Riley Thilthorpe. An Adelaide boy, Thilthorpe looks at home at AFL level and has impressed since his debut against the Hawks.
Their midfield is an undeniable issue, though, and if they are going to come close to finals in the coming years, they will need to see continued, significant improvement out of their youngsters.
The gap between their young players and the old brigade is massive so a lot falls on the shoulders of Tom Doedee, who many believe will be the club’s next skipper.
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Perhaps the team with the strongest claim to being the furthest from success is the one that just entered into a bonafide succession plan, Alastair Clarkson’s Hawthorn.
The Hawks have a promising backline, but that means nothing if they’re constantly injured.
Sicily has missed the entirety of 2021 and season-ending injuries to Jarman Impey and Changkuoth Jiath mean that youngster Denver Grainger-Barrass is now firmly in the deep end in the Hawks back six.
Up forward, people are finally starting to realise that Tim O’Brien, for all his efforts, can’t be considered ‘the future’ anymore.
Mitch Lewis has had patchy form but has shown that he does have quality when he puts it all together.
Hawthorn’s issue is its age. Clarkson and company are now clearly in a rebuilding phase with the reins handed over to Sam Mitchell in 2023, but simply saying you are rebuilding doesn’t mean you have a young list.
In fact, for the Hawks, the opposite is true. Their average age is 24.4 years old leaving them on the wrong side of the middle of the pack but their ladder position does not reflect that at all.
This means the road for the Hawks to return to the top is perhaps longer than others in a similar ladder position.
Ben’s pick: This hurts as a Hawthorn fan, but the Hawks are a long way off where they were a decade ago. A long way off.
Q4: Who makes up the rest of the eight?
Is this a burning question? Maybe not, no team (other than the Dogs) has won an AFL premiership from either of these positions in the modern era, but clubs and supporters can dare to dream.
If you head out west, you will find the two sides currently occupying these positions in Fremantle (seventh) and West Coast (eighth).
Starting with the Dockers, their claim is genuine, but will ultimately be hard to execute. They have a young list that has come a very long way under Justin Longmuir but the fact is, their run home is pretty tough.
In the remaining six matches, Fremantle will face Geelong (tonight, third, massive), Sydney (sixth), Richmond (reigning premier), Brisbane (fourth), West Coast (derby) and St Kilda (red hot).
If they can break even in the next four rounds, they give themselves every chance of a finals spot given their final two games are against their direct competitors.
If there is one team West Coast would hate to gift a finals position, it’s Fremantle, so the Eagles will no doubt be looking to turn this horrendous form slump around, fast.
Many had the Eagles as Premiership hopefuls at the beginning of the year but their attitude and performance in the last month has completely ruled that out.
When they lose, they lose big, pointing to a mentality issue, but their list is undoubtedly talented enough for finals footy.
If they beat Adelaide in Adelaide this week, the Eagles give themselves every chance of qualifying for the finals, but if they lose, it would take a mammoth effort to turn the season around.
Snapping at their heels is the in-form St Kilda. Along with GWS, perhaps the most jekyll and hyde team in the competition.
A tipsters nightmare, St Kilda has the capacity to look like the odds on favourite for the wooden spoon and a week later look like it could beat anyone in the AFL.
Currently, Ratten has them playing some slick football and skipper Jack Steele has been a pressure machine.
They knocked off flag-chance Brisbane last week but like several other sides around them, have a tough run home.
If they can steal a win against an out-of-sorts Port Adelaide this week, momentum may well carry them over the line and into the eight.
The Tigers have arguably the easiest run in across the final three games, taking on North, the Giants and the Hawks from round 21 onwards.
We know their quality but injuries may have just done enough to kill their season.
It would take an impressive run from 12th but if anyone can do it, it’s Richmond.
Other smokeys are the Bombers and the Giants. Essendon has, quite clearly, a very impressive young side with three Rising Star nominees across 2021.
The Giants have notable quality and will welcome back Stephen Coniglio with open arms this week.
These two sides play each other in round 19 which looms as do or die for both camps.
Ben’s Pick: Many of these sides have a tough run home, I’m playing it safe and sticking with Fremantle and West Coast.
Q5: Who will land the first pick in the draft?
Collingwood and Adelaide sit one win above Hawthorn in 17th and six points above North Melbourne, the current leaders of the wooden spoon race.
With the spoon comes the chance to have the pick of the draft stocks and with North Melbourne’s lack of young talent and Hawthorn’s lack of youth in general, both sides are no doubt keen on landing it.
North have got Hawthorn covered in both the form and personnel stakes. Injuries to Hawthorn’s entire back-line have nullified the threat they previously possessed with a fast, rebounding halfback lineup.
If we assume (potentially incorrectly) that both of these proud AFL clubs are above tanking, then we need to look at the run home to determine who has the best shot at jagging a win and getting off the foot of the table.
North Melbourne’s remaining AFL fixtures:
Essendon, Carlton, Geelong, Richmond, Sydney, Adelaide
Hawthorn’s remaining AFL fixtures:
Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Collingwood, Western Bulldogs, Richmond
From that list, you can pencil in the Hawks to definitely lose three games and North Melbourne to definitely lose two.
The Kangaroos are then left with four very winnable fixtures to make up the two point gap on Hawthorn, with the Hawks having a maximum of three winnable games remaining.
Both sides will have to negotiate a trip to Adelaide but other than that will remain at home in Victoria, COVID permitting.
North’s draw against the Giants will mean that the race won’t come down to percentage.
Ben’s pick: I fancy North to pick up points somewhere, Hawthorn to go winless. Hawthorn to snag the first pick in the draft.
Q6: Can Lance Franklin kick 1000 AFL goals before season’s end?
He has been arguably the biggest name to take to the footy field in the past decade and Lance Franklin is slowly closing in on an unbelievable milestone.
Franklin started 2021 with 944 goals, 56 shy of the 1000 mark that only five other players have managed to surpass in the history of the game.
Since then, he has kicked 33 goals in 12 games for the Swans, bringing his grand total to 977, a mere 23 goals away from history.
Assuming the Swans make the finals, which at this stage looks to be all but certain, Franklin will have a minimum of seven games to kick 23 goals, a touch over three per game.
This sounds like a tough task, but that seven games is assuming the Swans don’t progress in the finals which, if they play to their capabilities, they certainly should.
In seven of his 12 games this year, Franklin has broken the three goal barrier, including a haul of six against potential finals opponent Fremantle in round 10.
The Swans have a pretty handy run home. GWS, Fremantle, Essendon, St Kilda, North Melbourne and Gold Coast are their remaining opponents.
Nobody could forget Franklin’s famous 13 goal haul against North Melbourne in Hawthorn colours, could he repeat the effort and etch his name into the AFL record books in round 22?
13 might be a stretch, but given Sydney don’t play a single team above them in the final six rounds of the AFL season, Franklin has every chance of making it to 1000 by season’s end.
Ben’s pick: I reckon he does it. Buddy gets to 1000 in the same year Burgoyne passes 400 AFL games, let’s just hope he can do it in front of a crowd and COVID doesn’t spoil the party.
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