Retirees and finalists headlined the final home and away round of the AFL season. (Photos: Melbourne FC/Twitter; Carlton FC; Hawthorn FC/Twitter)

The Inner Sanctum takes you through the defining highs, lows, and controversies surrounding Round 23 of the 2021 AFL Premiership season, complete from A to Z.

For eight teams, it’s time to prepare for finals. For the 10 others, they’ll hang their head in shame before moving onto next year.

The Inner Sanctum takes you through the defining highs, lows, and controversies surrounding Round 23 of the 2021 AFL Premiership season, complete from A-Z.

A is for Adelaide again. Port Adelaide secured its second consecutive top two finish by defeating the Western Bulldogs, allowing for a rematch with Geelong in yet another Qualifying Final. Port got the job done over the Cats last year, and with the latter entering September in some shaky form, we could see a similar result.

B is for Buddy’s Big Bag. Buddy Franklin enjoyed his final game of the home and away season, finishing off the campaign with a bag of six goals. Franklin made the most of his time up forward, as he was able to find plenty of space from the Gold Coast’s Sam Collins and get on the end of some delightful kicks. The game leaves Franklin just eight goals away from the 1000 milestone.

C is for Cat Capitulation. Geelong will be disappointed with its second half against Melbourne that saw the Dees answer its second quarter effort of nine unanswered goals with the last eight of their own. Geelong’s hold on the minor premiership and a home final all evaporated with the last gasp defeat, and it will now have to travel to Adelaide to face Port in the qualifying final for the second year in succession. 

D is for Deja Blue. The West Coast Eagles’ season started and ended with jumper issues, as young defender Harry Edwards’ jumper had a logo misprint in their round 23 clash against the Lions. Unlike his other teammates who had a yellow eagle with a blue outline, his was solid blue. The club notified the AFL upon realisation. Before the season commenced, West Coast were forced to turn to local company Burley Sekem to manufacture their jumpers after sizing and time issues with new sponsors, Castore.

E is for Eddie bids farewell. If anyone deserved a packed stadium to send him off in his final game, it’s this bloke. After 17 years of bringing footy fans across the country nothing but pure joy, Eddie Betts bid farewell to the AFL, running out to entertain for the 350th and final time. He finished with nine disposals, eight of which were score involvements, kicked two goals, and even attempted to take mark of the year one final time. 

F is for Five goal Finish reminiscent of Tigers of old. Up by 31 points with five and a half minutes remaining, Hawthorn looked likely to end its 2021 season with a win. Richmond though was determined to fight to the end, the late-game resilience evidenced across the last four years on display again in Round 23. The Tigers’ belief started with back-to-back goals to Sydney Stack as Tom Lynch joined in with his third. In the final minute, Jack Riewoldt kicked two majors, the second of which levelled the scores after Shaun Burgoyne’s goalline dive didn’t get there in time. 

G is for Gawn in 60 seconds. Geelong’s hold on the minor premiership was seemingly all but confirmed with it holding possession with just 60 seconds remaining. Enter Max Gawn. A turnover saw the Melbourne ruckman take a mark inside 50, and he made no mistake in kicking the winning goal after the siren, capping off a remarkable comeback for the Demons. 

H is for Harbrow Farewell. It wasn’t the fairy tale ending, but Jarrod Harbrow produced an admirable final game to conclude a wonderful career. Harbrow finished the game with 15 kicks, six handballs and eight marks before being subbed off with an injury in the final remaining minutes of the game. Harbrow ends his career as the highest games holder at the Suns, and will undoubtedly be inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame.

I is for Interesting medical sub. The medical substitute has been a constant discussion since its inclusion on the eve of the 2021 season. Debutants have been named as the sub and not get any ground time, which has been a constant bemoaning of its use. But many eyebrows would have been raised when the subs were named an hour out from first bounce to read Giants capitan Stephen Coniglio named as the medical sub.

J is for Jesse’s off the chain. Jesse Hogan has been a handy recruit for the Giants this season, and looks poised to play a big role in their finals campaign in the front half. Hogan couldn’t be contained by an undersized Carlton defence, kicking three goals, hauling in four big marks and providing a constant presence in the front half as the Giants got rolling.

K is for Kangaroos Kanga-woes. After a strong finish to the season, North Melbourne wrapped up its 2021 campaign with a dismal loss to fellow bottom four side Adelaide to take home the wooden spoon. It was the club’s first wooden spoon since 1972, and a ceremonial handing over of not-so-wanted trophy after Adelaide earned it last year.

L is for Late inclusion, a display of Hawks’ future. First-year Hawk Tyler Brockman made the most of a late change in Round 23, coming in for an injured Luke Breust. Kicking six goals in his first four games, Brockman hadn’t truly fired on the scoreboard since – until Saturday, as the lively forward kicked a goal in each of the first three terms. His pressure and relentless attack contributed to each major, especially his first where he got his boot to a loose ball, bouncing towards goal, and forcing a David Astbury turnover deep inside 50 for his second. 

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M is for Magnificent Marshall. Todd Marshall can often find himself as the whipping boy for Port fans, and Friday night saw a couple of missed shots on goal continue that trend. However, the former first round draft pick found himself quite handy as Bailey Smith’s sailing shot dropped just short, allowing him to punch it over the line and give Port the top two.

N is for Nineteen Sixty Four. Melbourne hadn’t finished as minor premiers since 1964 – the last time the Olympic Games were in Tokyo, and the last time it won the premiership. Whether you believe in omens or not, its second half comeback win against Geelong will fill Demon fans with a world of confidence that history can continue to repeat itself in 2021. 

O is for Outgoing Crows last hurrah. Veterans David Mackay and Tom Lynch would finish their Crows tenures in style with the two putting in impressive displays in an emphatic 44-point victory. Both retirees would score in the last quarter to cap off their last games. Chaired off and cheered off by the Adelaide faithful, it was a great way to close the curtain.

P is for Protected Zone. Essendon’s Alec Waterman’s suffered what can only be described as a minor brain fade as he gave away two 50-metre penalties early in the clash with Collingwood. The first came from not obeying the stand rule, while in the second he ran across the protected zone to infringe once again.

Q is for Questionable inclusion – The inclusion of Callum Mills this weekend could prove to be a costly decision leading into the finals. Mills came into the side after being a late out with a recurring Achilles injury against St. Kilda in Round 21. The Swans went into the final round knowing that they would remain in sixth position on the ladder at the end of the season and still chose to risk Mills who was eventually subbed out for Robbie Fox in the third term. The game could prove to be a missed opportunity to get match fitness into emergency Chad Warner ahead of the 2021 AFL Finals Series.

R is for Remember the name. While St Kilda had nothing to play for but pride at Blundstone Arena on Sunday afternoon, mid-season recruit Cooper Sharman set the goals alight, finishing the game with four to his name after managing to snag one in every quarter. His majors came from 15 disposals as he spent most of his time in the forward half of the ground.

S is for Stalemate sendoff. A game celebrating the careers of experienced servants of the Richmond and Hawthorn footy clubs, it was perhaps fitting that the contest ended in a draw – the first in a long 162-game span between the clubs. The Tigers farewelled three-time premiership players David Astbury and Bachar Houli while the Hawks said goodbye to winner of four flags, Shaun Burgoyne and four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson. While Houli was out with an ankle injury, Astbury and Burgoyne each performed their roles, reminiscent of their ever-present commitment, right to the end.

T is for To the drawing board. With Collingwood’s season now over, the club shifts focus to its next coaching appointment as Robert Harvey’s caretaker role comes to an end. With front-runner Don Pyke reportedly ‘not keen’ on going through the processes, the search might take longer than expected.

U is for Un-Bont-like – Marcus Bontempelli usually loves playing Port Adelaide, and has been a large reason behind wins over it in the past. However, he was less than impactful both in the midfield and as a pinch-ruckman, registering only 15 touches for the day. He’ll need to find himself in some form next week against Essendon.

V is for Vanishing act. Fremantle’s finals chances were well and truly up for grabs when they took on twelfth-placed St Kilda at Blundstone Arena, but it quickly became obvious that the Saints weren’t going to hand them over without a fight. The Dockers went into the halftime break with just three goals on the board before an eleven-goal second half sealed the deal for St Kilda, meaning Fremantle waved goodbye to their season. 

W is for Wrapping ‘em up. Jarryd Lyons was not letting any West Coast player slip past him, as he laid a career high 14 tackles in the win. His 19 disposals, 24 pressure acts, and five marks, on top of the 14 tackles were the perfect way to wrap up his outstanding 2021 home and away season.

X is for X wins and over. With its win over Collingwood, Essendon qualified for finals with 11 wins and 11 losses in eighth. This is the first time a team has qualified with less than 12 wins since Carlton in 2013, where the Bombers were banned from competing in finals as a part of supplements saga punishments. However, with West Coast and Fremantle dropping their last matches, the Bombers could have qualified with 10 wins if they too lost. They would been the first team to do so since the Brisbane Bears in 1995.

Y is for Young gun stands up. Fremantle’s Caleb Serong has arguably already cemented himself as a future star of the game, and Sunday’s match against St Kilda was no different. Despite his team going down, and inadvertently denying themselves a finals berth, Serong played a strong game, with 35 disposals at 80% efficiency as he split his time relatively equally between the forward and back half of the ground. 

Z is for Zero point five per cent. That’s what separated the Bulldogs and the Lions in the race for the top four. With mere second on the clock, Lincoln McCarthy kicked one of the most important behinds of his career to not only beat West Coast, but ensure his Lions had a place in the top four. Charlie Cameron rubbed salt into the wound with a final goal after the siren to well and truly lock in his team’s top four spot.

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