AFL Finals

Will Melbourne or the Western Bulldogs take top spot? Photo: Melbourne Demons - Twitter

With only five rounds left of the season, The Inner Sanctum takes a look at your teams' must win game ahead of AFL Finals.

With only five rounds left in the home and away season, there are plenty of clashes that can make or break your teams’ chance for a spot in the AFL finals.

Not only do these games have finals implications, but they also can determine who has the dreaded wooden spoon, but the favoured number one draft pick.

The Inner Sanctum takes a look at your clubs’ must-win game as the home and away season comes to a close.

Adelaide – 16th (5-12, 79.4%)

Round 23 vs North Melbourne

After an impressive start to 2021, the Crows have fallen and fallen hard, dropping to 16th on the ladder. The Round 23 clash against the Kangaroos could ultimately decide who has the number one pick in the AFL Draft as the Crows reside just six points ahead of their opponents. Since they last met in Round 4, the Crows have struggled and they had trailed at three-quarter-time of that game before blowing the Kangaroos away by 41 points in the end. We had the Matthew Kreuzer Cup years ago, this may very well be the Jason Horne Cup, with the South Adelaide young star on the lips of many recruiters.

Other games: Hawthorn, Western Bulldogs, Port Adelaide, Melbourne.

Jack Hudson

Brisbane – 5th (11-6, 124.9%)

Round 21 vs Fremantle

The Lions have hit another rough spot in their season following successive defeats to St. Kilda and Richmond but they hit the final stretch of the season, scheduled only against one top-eight team on the run. The upcoming clash with Fremantle away at Optus Stadium looms as the most intriguing game in the Lions’ run home as it will be the only time they will leave the Gabba in the leadup to the AFL finals. The Lions are 4-6 in games played away from the Gabba this year so the Round 21 clash looms as an interesting match for the Lions.

Other games: Gold Coast, Hawthorn, Collingwood, West Coast

Jono Baruch

Carlton – 13th (7-10, 93.9%)

Round 20 vs St Kilda

The Blues come up against the Saints in round 20 at Marvel Stadium, a match-up that looms as crucial for both sides. For Carlton in particular – which has won just one of its last five games against St Kilda – the clash will be a chance to show its measure against another top-eight contender as the Blues fight to keep their ever-fickle AFL finals chances alive. The Blues have the chance to make it four wins from their past five matches in round 19 against North Melbourne and could come into the match in red-hot form, and a win against the Saints could be instrumental for the belief and confidence of the playing group as Carlton surges on in the wide-open race for one of the last spots in the top eight.

Other games: North Melbourne, Gold Coast, Port Adelaide, GWS.

Will Cuckson

Collingwood – 15th (5-12, 89.8%)

Round 21 v Hawthorn

Although none of Collingwood’s remaining games are particularly crucial for their season, this Round 21 clash against the Hawks could make or break the future coaching chances of Robert Harvey. The former Saints champion has had a rocky start to his interim coaching experience, with the sole win over Richmond to his name, but this MCG match-up against a similarly placed team in the Hawks could decide his fate. If the Pies really have mixed up their game style and become more attacking, they should show it against Hawthorn. But if they haven’t fixed their ways, then they’ll be exposed and the cogs may begin moving for a new outside option as Collingwood’s future coach.

Other games: Port Adelaide, West Coast, Brisbane, Essendon

Sean Mortell

Essendon – 8th (8-9, 104.5%)

Round 19 vs GWS

With the final two spots in the eight wide open, any game between two top-eight contenders is vital. That’s what the Dons face in round 19 when they take on the Giants at neutral venue Metricon Stadium. Essendon is clinging onto the eighth spot by percentage, with Richmond, Fremantle, and St Kilda on the same points and GWS a half-game back. If they can beat the Giants, the Bombers could have breathing space in the AFL finals race with all four teams below them underdogs to win games against sides in the top eight. Having lost their first meeting of the season by two points, Essendon will be out to kill off any hopes the Giants maintain of September action.

Other games: Sydney, Western Bulldogs, Gold Coast, Collingwood

Jasper Chellappah

Fremantle – 10th (8-9, 92.5%)

Round 23 vs St Kilda

Fremantle and St Kilda are sitting in 10th and 11th place respectively, separated by only percentage. If Freo is to make the 2021 AFL finals, it is crucial, it beats an opponent on a similar level to eliminate competition for the top eight. There’s no denying they have a tough run home, with this being one of the more equal matchups in the next five weeks. St Kilda has had a lengthy injury list this season, with Fremantle in a similar boat. With their stars coming back and each team getting back to full strength, the competition will be as fiery as ever. The two sides have not met this season, but it should be an intriguing match-up, especially considering it is the final match of the season for them both.

Other games: Sydney, Richmond, Brisbane, West Coast, St Kilda

Rebecca Ruthven

Geelong 3rd (13-4, 130.3%)

Round 23 vs Melbourne

Since the 25-point loss to Melbourne in round four, Geelong has only lost twice, a two-point loss to Sydney and a convincing defeat against Brisbane. With Richmond cruelled by injuries, the only chance the Cats will have to test themselves against a genuine premiership rival will come in the final round of the season. The round 23 encounters will give supporters some idea of how much Geelong has bridged the gap since the last time the two sides met. On that day Melbourne led at every change and Geelong had no answer for Christian Petracca who starred with 36 disposals and two goals. Geelong’s form since that loss has been mostly consistent. Throughout the season they have developed an ability to switch between two game plans. They can move the ball at pace and get it forward to an in-form Tom Hawkins, Gary Rohan, or Jeremy Cameron (if fit.) Or they can kick the ball around with patient precision, a slow uncontested buildup to find free players and move the opponents out of position. They have improved since Round four and only Round 23 can give some idea as to how much.

Other games: Richmond, North Melbourne, GWS Giants, St Kilda

Kieran Yap

Gold Coast – 14th (6-11, 88.7%)

Round 22 vs Essendon

The time to put a stamp on the competition is now for the Gold Coast Suns. Wins every so often against top sides before dropping results to poorer teams have consistently plagued the Suns through their existence so far. Gold Coast will again, barring a miracle, miss finals action, so it needs to do some damage on the way through on the teams competing. Taking the scalp of the Bombers, who have been smashing their way into the top eight, would be a huge notch for the Suns, who also defeated the reigning premier this year. The Suns will need it to take some momentum into 2022, where they’ll hopefully land their inaugural AFL finals campaign.

Other games: Brisbane Lions, Melbourne, Carlton, Sydney Swans.

Jack Hudson

GWS – 12th (7-1-9, 95.5%)

Round 19 vs Essendon 

It’s been another peculiar season for the Giants, who continue to win the ones they should lose but lose the games they should be winning. GWS sits half a game behind the chasing pack with a poor percentage so a loss here sees them out of the AFL finals race with four games to play. A win – which would be it’s second of the season over Essendon – is a must to keep their finals chances alive. Josh Kelly is fit to play after a nasty ankle roll subbed him out of the game against Sydney, while Lachie Whitfield will return from his concussion and captain Stephen Coniglio has a match under his belt. They are some very handy inclusions as they come into a home stretch that includes tough matchups. It’s now or never for the Giants, and there are no excuses with the line-up they can put on the park at what has gone from an away game to a neutral venue.

Other games: Port Adelaide, Geelong, Richmond, Carlton

Jasper Chellappah

Hawthorn – 17th (4-12, 79%)

Round 21 vs Collingwood

Hawthorn for the first time in a long time is sitting on the bottom of the ladder, entering their second consecutive draft with a top ten pick. Following the Hawks blow-out loss to Fremantle, Hawthorn fans started to get excited about potentially falling to 18th and landing top draft prospect Jason Horne. Finishing the 2021 season without another win would help Hawthorn’s draft hand in this year’s draft, but there is one game that is worth more than 4 points. Following Nathan Buckley’s resignation, media speculation linked the vacant position at Collingwood to Box Hill Hawks head coach and Hawks assistant coach Sam Mitchell. After Collingwood approached Mitchell, Hawthorn made sure to officially implement a succession plan to secure Mitchell’s services as the next head coach after Alastair Clarkson sees out his current contract. A big loss to Collingwood would raise questions about whether Mitchell made the right decision to stay at Hawthorn. Both teams are going through periods of coaching handovers and list rebuilds, and even with Mitchell locked away, speculation will continue now with Clarkson possibly taking the reins at the Holden Centre after the handover. The winner of their Round 21 face-off will win bragging rights as the club furthers along in their rebuild.

Other games: Adelaide, Brisbane, Western Bulldogs, Richmond

Luca Catalano

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Melbourne – 1st (13-1-3, 127.8%)

Round 19 vs Western Bulldogs 

To secure a top-two finish, the Demons need to win this Saturday night’s top-of-the-table clash against the Bulldogs.  Only holding a two-point lead at the top of the table over the Bulldogs and Geelong a loss could send Melbourne from first down to third by the end of the round.  A win would give Melbourne a six-point cushion over the Doggies allowing them to potentially lose one of their remaining four games and still finish in the top two and secure a home AFL final.  A home final at the MCG would be huge for Melbourne as they have proven to be a very difficult side to beat when playing there having a 7-1-1 record in this season. Melbourne should enter Saturday night’s encounter confident having knocked off the Bulldogs by 28 points when they met earlier this season, where their talls looked too much for the Doggies key backs to handle. 

Other games: Gold Coast, West Coast, Adelaide, Geelong 

Ben Filosi

North Melbourne – 18th (3-1-13, 67.1%)

Round 23 vs Adelaide

It’s been an incredibly tough season for North Melbourne and expectedly so after it culled a quarter of its list last season before beginning a rebuild. What looked like it could end as a complete nightmare for David Noble in season one and a potentially winless one at that, has given Kangaroos supporters some hope. The Roos have shown signs of promise. The wins over Hawthorn, West Coast, and Gold Coast as well as the draw against GWS display a light at the end of a dark tunnel. The Kangaroos may fully well end the season with the wooden spoon, but there’s a chance they may not, and it could come down to this game. The last time these sides met, North led at three-quarter-time before bombing drastically to lose by 41 points. However, the Roos have shown significant improvement since that game and the Crows have dropped off. To avoid the wooden spoon, one win, and then this scalp will be huge.

Other games: Carlton, Geelong, Richmond, Sydney Swans

Jack Hudson

Port Adelaide – 4th (12-5, 119.8%)

Round 23 vs Western Bulldogs

Port Adelaide must face just one more top-eight side in the home and away season, being the Western Bulldogs in the final round. It’s not just a vital game in the scheme of the top four race, but at club level for the Power. Port has failed against the top four throughout this season, losing to Melbourne, Geelong, and the Bulldogs all at home, and Brisbane at the Gabba. Last year’s minor premiers have been injury-ravaged through the season but are now getting their reinforcements back, with Xavier Duursma and Zak Butters set to return in the coming weeks. Port struggled to keep Marcus Bontempelli quiet last time they met, as he had 26 touches and two goals.

Other games: Collingwood, GWS Giants, Adelaide, Carlton.

Jack Hudson

Richmond – 9th (8-9, 100.8%)

Round 19 vs Geelong

Richmond comes up against only one top-eight team for the remainder of the season, that being Geelong in Round 19. It’s a crucial game for the Tigers, currently sitting outside the eight, who up until last week in Round 18, hadn’t beaten a top-eight side since the 22-point win over the Western Bulldogs in Round 7. The reigning premiers were comprehensively beaten by 63 points when they played the Cats in Round 8 so will be wanting to change things this time around against the side they beat in last year’s grand final. Richmond this year has been a shadow of its former self, a team that has won three of the last four premierships. Injuries have played their part, including recently to Dustin Martin, the team needing to step up their performances for the remainder of the season. While the Tigers most likely will need to win a majority of their remaining games to not miss finals, this game against the Cats will allow them to show the competition they can still keep up with the best teams this year to prove they belong in the 2021 AFL finals series.

Other games: Fremantle, North Melbourne, GWS, Hawthorn

Jason Irvine

St Kilda – 11th (8-9, 86.6%)

Round 19 vs West Coast 

The Saints will need to win most of their last five games to make the AFL finals, but a win against the Eagles in Perth will be a massive confidence boost.  After a slow start to the year, the Saints have been impressive since the bye but a slip up against Port Adelaide in round 18 makes every game so much more important. The Saints have never won a game at Optus Stadium, with their last win in Perth in 2017. However, they should take confidence out of their come-from-behind win against the Eagles at the start of the year. The Saints will also be without ruckman Rowan Marshall which will make their task that much harder. Yet, if they can find a way to win it will go a long way in deciding their 2020 fate.

Other games: Carlton, Sydney, Geelong, Fremantle  

Miah Shannon

Sydney 6th (11-6, 116.5%)

Round 20 vs Essendon

Few games are as closely fought as Sydney Vs Essendon during the season. The two sides have made a habit of playing games to the wire. Sydney may very well still be pushing for a top 4 berth, but Essendon arguably has more to play for, pushing for an unlikely AFL finals spot that could be it’s for the taking, should they keep their form up. In round 4, Sydney got home in a thriller by three points that saw nine lead changes and were the fourth match in a row between the two that was decided by 10 points or less. Already having played each other to the line once this year, and with the potential added carrot of AFL finals and top 4 spots, this looms as the biggest danger game for Sydney in the last five of the year, and one Sydney must win if they want that double chance.

Other teams: Fremantle, St Kilda, North Melbourne, Gold Coast. 

Thomas Grattan

West Coast – 7th (9-8, 98%)

Round 19 v St Kilda

Despite sitting in seventh, the Eagles are dangerously close to slipping out of AFL finals, with four other teams hot on their heels, including St Kilda who are only one win behind West Coast. With difficult tests against Brisbane at the Gabba, a ground that West Coast has publicly struggled at, and table toppers Melbourne at home, it’s crucial Adam Simpson’s men pick up the wins needed against opponents of a similar calibre. The round 19 clash is the perfect opportunity for redemption after round four’s second-half fade out at Marvel Stadium. In the third quarter, West Coast led by as much as 33-points, but St Kilda fired up, causing a 53 point turnaround to lock in a 20 point win. Additionally, despite typically dominating at Optus Stadium, there is an element of regaining pride involved. West Coast is looking to reclaim its fortress after North Melbourne breached it two weeks ago. The Eagles can also take confidence in the fact that St Kilda has yet to record a win at Optus Stadium.

Other games: Collingwood, Fremantle, Melbourne, Brisbane

Rebecca Ruthven

Western Bulldogs – 2nd (13-4, 140.4%)

Round 19 vs Melbourne 

The last time the Bulldogs faced the Demons, Melbourne showed pure dominance in all three phases. Now that the time has come again to play the top of the ladder Demons the Bulldogs will be looking to correct last time’s mistakes to secure a top-two finish and go to the top of the ladder. In the last clash, the Demons were able to stop the Bulldogs’ quick chain handballs that have featured heavily in games this season as well as the likes of Steven May and Jake Lever running riot defensively. To get over the line the Bulldogs will need to stop bombing it long into the forward line and adding that extra kick or handball to get inside fifty gives the likes of May and Lever less time to read the ball.  With Geelong just behind the Western Bulldogs on the ladder with the same game points, a loss could see the Bulldogs go as low as third. With a home final on the line the Bulldogs need to pull out all the stops against the Demons and a win could see the Bulldogs sitting on top of the table come to the end of the round.

Other games: Adelaide, Essendon, Hawthorn, and Port Adelaide. 

Elly McNerney

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