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RoCo’s Wrap: In a crazy year, the only certainty is uncertainty

All tied up: Adelaide’s Mitch McGovern soars for a mark seconds before the final siren. His subsequent goal meant the third draw of the season. Photo: AFL MEDIA

RoCo’s Wrap: In a crazy year, the only certainty is uncertainty

You’re kidding me, right? What else can surprise this incredible AFL season, short of an elephant stampede on the MCG with five minutes left on grand final day?

Three draws. Comebacks the scale of which could only be dreamed about not all that long ago. No fewer than 29 games of 162 so far decided by six points or less. That’s close enough to one in every five. How are people’s hearts faring?

This season’s three draws have all come in the last five rounds. We actually had three in the first four rounds of 2011. But back then we also had two very dominant teams in Collingwood and Geelong, who between them lost just five home and away games over the entire season.

And as everyone knows all too well by now, that’s certainly not the case in 2017. You’d argue the fall-out of round 19 has upset the status quo. Except for the fact we haven’t really ever had a status quo.

A current snapshot, then? Adelaide still on top, albeit more precariously. Richmond eyeing off a double chance, and had St Kilda not lost the unlosable on Saturday night, perhaps with one as good as wrapped up.

Reigning premier the Western Bulldogs are back in town, and Sydney, the team they beat to win that title and the in-form team of the past two months, suddenly in danger of missing the finals party again after a second loss to a resurgent Hawthorn.

Can you recall another year in which, come the last month of the home and away season, there hasn’t been a team you could confidently predict would be there on grand final day? It’s not that there aren’t good teams. But none upon whom you’d put your house with anything less than genuine trepidation.

I’d just about got to that stage with Adelaide, faith that was badly shaken by the time the Crows were 50 points down against Collingwood five minutes into the second half. How much was restored by what was a remarkable comeback? Some, not all.

The first half-and-a-bit at the MCG on Sunday was the third time this season the Crows have delivered some truly ordinary football. Against North Melbourne, it led to a 10-goals-to-nothing first term for the Roos and a belting. Against Melbourne at home, just three second-half goals to a dozen meant another hiding. This time, Adelaide sort of got away with it.

But, like so many teams this season, just when you thought they’d proved their mettle in all circumstances, the Crows again disappointed. Rory Sloane was effectively blanketed again, and again didn’t have enough help.

Most worrying for coach Don Pyke will be the contested ball count. Adelaide stood third on the differential rankings on that score going into the game. But they were absolutely hammered in the clinches by Collingwood, the final contested count 117-167.

That’s a massive difference, one which suggested virtually a whole team wasn’t in the right headspace. And that won’t necessarily be solved by the likely returns next weekend of Eddie Betts or Jake Lever.

It’s hard to argue now the Crows are any more a flag chance than Geelong or GWS. Perhaps even Richmond. And just maybe even a side currently outside the top eight.

Essendon are hardly a powerhouse, yet I reckon there was something pretty significant about the Bulldogs’ 30-point win over the Bombers on Sunday. Have they played any better than that since 1 October last year? Maybe in round two against Sydney. But it’s been a while.

If you’re talking scope for further improvement, though, the Dogs have to be right near the top of your list.

Three wins in a row for the first time since last finals series. Their highest score of the season. A dozen individual goalkickers. A big return to form from two important players in Jason Johanissen and Shane Biggs. Names like Stringer, Boyd, Morris, Dunkley and Adams potentially still returning to the mix.

And, indeed, a welcome return of the entire Western Bulldogs’ ethos. Both inside and outside the packs.

The Dogs led the AFL for contested ball last season and were second for clearances. Prior to Sunday, they were only mid-table for the hard ball and bottom five for stoppage wins. They won both categories comfortably against Essendon, in a continuation of the curve of these past three wins.

More ominous still, however, was their efficiency once in attack. Until three weeks ago, the Dogs had managed more goals than behinds in only three games. They’ve now done it three weeks in a row. And that much better again against Essendon.

The Bulldogs’ goals per inside 50 ranking even before this round was the worst in the AFL at just 21.3 per cent. Against the Bombers, it soared to 35.8 per cent, 19 goals from 53 entries.

There had been a feeling in the Bulldog camp all week that the wins against Carlton and Gold Coast had seen the side start to tick over a lot better. This was the confirmation, one underlined by the coolness with which they overcame both a flying start from the Bombers, and put the game to bed when they had led by only a kick with five minutes remaining.

Like Sydney (despite its loss to Hawthorn on Friday night), the Bulldogs will have a lot of finals rivals looking uncomfortably over their shoulders, the obvious caveat of course being should they get there. And neither case is a “gimme”.

The Swans have Geelong at Simonds Stadium on Friday night, Fremantle at home, Adelaide away and Carlton at home. Two of those four assignments it goes without saying are enormous challenges.

The Doggies have a road trip to Brisbane, GWS at Etihad Stadium, Port Adelaide in Ballarat and Hawthorn, also not necessarily smooth sailing.

West Coast, which knocked the Dogs out of the eight in the final game of round 19, has two very difficult games to finish against the Giants and Crows. And both Melbourne and Essendon meet at least one likely top four finisher, GWS in the Dees’ case, and Adelaide for the Bombers.

Like most people, I’ll have a crack at the ladder predictor during the week. But has there ever been a season when that exercise has proved so futile?

In this crazy AFL season, what appear truths one week can become open to question the following week, and apparent falsehoods a week after that. About the one thing you can conclude with some certainty is that whatever happens from here, 2017 will go down as one of the more remarkable football years we’ve been fortunate to witness.

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