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RoCo’s Wrap: Tight season, but for me still a flag race in three

(Left to right): Adelaide’s Matt Crouch, GWS star Stephen Coniglio and Sydney’s Luke Parker front and centre during the Round 21 action. Photos: GETTY IMAGES

RoCo’s Wrap: Tight season, but for me still a flag race in three

It’s the tightest season in AFL history, and with two rounds remaining there’s spots in both the top four and the top eight still up for grabs. So the flag is anyone’s, right? Well, maybe not.

Perhaps there’s a fine line between going out on a limb and making a dick of yourself, but in this case, I’m prepared to roll the dice. So, here goes. I believe there’s only three teams good enough to win this year’s premiership, one of which isn’t even in the top four at the moment.

Adelaide, GWS and Sydney are for mine, a cut above any other contender, and it’s one of those three teams which will be holding the premiership cup aloft on September 30.

That will rightly annoy supporters of Geelong, which on Saturday, given the circumstances, scored arguably its best win of the season. Maybe Richmond fans, too, because while the Tigers may have gone under at the Cattery, they, too are a still a member of the top four and have been admirably consistent.

The other teams still scrambling for spots in the eight? They’ll cite the effort of the Western Bulldogs in coming from seventh last year, and the week’s break before finals which has given those sides fifth to eighth a better chance than previously.

But I reckon the Crows, Giants and Swans have got them all covered, each with strings to their bow the others can’t match.

For Adelaide, it’s a standard of football this season that at its best, rivals haven’t come close to matching. For GWS, it’s about a 22 starting to tick over a lot more smoothly, players returning from injury and finding form, and a list all things equal the best in the AFL. And for Sydney, it’s both experience and, since that horrendous 0-6 start, the most consistently good form in the competition.

All won emphatically on the weekend. But those victories, for mine, were merely confirmation of a pattern that has been emerging for a few weeks now.

Adelaide has well and truly dispelled any doubts lingering over its midfield depth off the back of the successful tagging of Rory Sloane. Again on Saturday night against Essendon, Sloane was at best serviceable, and again the Crows still won comfortably, fellow on-ballers Matt Crouch, Richard Douglas and Rory Atkins getting the job done.

Sloane’s second half of the season hasn’t come close to matching his first, but unlike previously, that hasn’t spelt doom. The Crows’ midfield support cast remain criminally underrated, particularly Matt Crouch, who has to be shortening for All-Australian selection, his average 32 disposals ranked third in the AFL.

His brother Brad has made a significant difference, too, since overcoming early-season injury, and he, Douglas and Atkins all average comfortably more than 20 touches per game.

It’s a midfield group good enough to have kept the Crows as resilient on the inside as they are damaging on the outside. And coupled with easily the best attack in the league and a defence not only ranked fourth for fewest points conceded but which rebounds arguably better than any other, one which I reckon only has to break relatively even in the finals clinches to give Adelaide its best chance of a first flag for nearly 20 years.

No-one who has watched GWS this past fortnight, meanwhile, could have escaped the feeling of “look out, they’re coming” during the wins over first Melbourne, then Western Bulldogs.

That power-packed opening term of 8.6 against the Demons, the Giants’ best of the season, was followed up on Friday night with an even more complete performance against the Dogs, one which showed off not only the multitude of scoring options, even without Jeremy Cameron, but the capacity of their defence to absorb and rebound from repeated opposition entries.

The Giants seem a bit more prepared of late to get their hands dirty, and the gradual return of injured parts of the machine is beginning to tell. Brett Deledio could yet play a big role in this season, and pivotal has been the input of Stephen Coniglio, brilliant in his three games since coming back from a serious ankle injury.

And their crosstown rival? Well, the Swans effort in even reaching finals after failing to win any of their first half-dozen games speaks volumes. But Sydney are hardly going to be limping into September.

The Swans have won 12 out of 14 now, have statistically the best defence in the competition, and have really started to turn up the dial offensively, Saturday’s walloping of Fremantle their biggest score of the season.

After some early wobbles, midfield duo Luke Parker and Dan Hannebery have turned things around comprehensively, so much so that skipper Josh Kennedy, who seemed to be holding things together on his own through the first six rounds, has barely been missed over the past fortnight.

If Sydney still misses out on a top-four berth, no team in the AFL era will have been as well-equipped to give the flag a serious shake without the benefit of the double chance. The Swans have already accounted for three of the four teams above them and get the chance to make that four in a huge Friday night game against Adelaide.

The rest? Well, Geelong hasn’t done much wrong. Particularly not on Saturday against a fellow top-four member and without Joel Selwood, Tom Hawkins and Mitch Duncan, the likes of Cam Guthrie, Sam Menegola and Harry Taylor up forward rising to the challenge.

The Cats are second for points scored and very efficient with their forward entries, and solid for both contested and uncontested ball. My concern is their capacity to go up a couple of gears and explode in a hail of relentless scoreboard pressure.

They certainly had it at the start of this season, when they topped 100 points in their first five games. But they’ve only done it twice in 15 games since. They’ve also over the past six weeks come up short against both Adelaide and Sydney, and just managed to scramble a draw against a then-injury ravaged GWS.

If they can make every game that really matters a scrap, of course they have a show. Even then, however, it’s those moments of “burst” football that might well make the difference. Which is why Geelong will need Steven Motlop firing in September every bit as badly as they will the obvious names Dangerfield and a Selwood by then only just returning from injury.

Much the same for Richmond, too, I suspect. Saturday was a big test for the Tigers, and they couldn’t earn sufficient marks. Yes, they’ve beaten GWS and pushed Sydney, but the bottom line remains a 1-3 scoreline against my three flag fancies, and 1-4 against the other teams in the current top five on the ladder.

Indeed, the record of the other current top 10 teams against the Crows, Giants and Swans isn’t encouraging at all. It reads 26 games for just five wins and a draw.

That’s a major reason I don’t see anyone “doing a Bulldogs” in 2017, regardless of the advantages offered by the week’s break between round 23 and the first week of finals.

That Bulldogs’ line-up last year was still good enough to win 15 games despite battling continual injuries to key players. Melbourne’s win over St Kilda on Sunday may just about have locked the Demons in for their first finals campaign since 2006, but I don’t think they’re good enough yet to rise to a standard across four weeks the Dogs did in 2016.

Nor, for what it’s worth, are the Bulldogs of this year. Port Adelaide struggled to shrug Collingwood on Sunday and is 2-7 versus current top eight teams. Essendon is 3-7 and with one of the poorer midfields in the competition, let alone the eight. Any of them is capable of pulling one finals shock. But not four.

In a year as tight as 2017 has been, reducing a flag race down to just three with six weeks’ worth of games still to come might seem a contradiction in terms. But the cream was always going to rise to the top at some stage. This season, it’s just taken a little longer than usual.

  1. Nice work Rohan , enjoying your articles like i enjoy your SEN work 🙂

  2. Rohan, love your work mate but what does “for mine” mean? Aren’t you a footy writer… It is irritating enough when Lyon and Carey et al use this meaningless expression but please Lord not you as well! What is so hard about saying “I reckon” or “in my opinion”, which have the added bonus of actually being meaningful. Mine what? your dinner? your thoughts? or your socks? Next you will be saying “it is what it is” which is a pretty earth shattering observation.

  3. Rohan, Hawthorn’s record against those 3 teams this year is 4 games for 3 wins and a draw. If they do the very unlikely and squeak into the 8, can they cause problems?

  4. Nice work Rohan. I agree with most of your article but I still have a feeling that the Tiges might go deeper (GF??) into the finals this year. Having said that, it’s Adelaide “for mine”!! (Good to read/hear true footy parlance!!) BTW..really enjoy the podcast. It drops into my feed earlier than a couple of other footy pods I listen to and so the I get to hear the views of both you and Mark F before the footy news cycle reaches saturation point. (By about 1pm every Monday arvo!)

  5. Ahhhhh Rohan,

    I remember saying exactly the same thing about Adelaide in 2006. The Crowbots had beaten everybody by a cricket score and kept them to under 10 goals for the previous 2 months.

    They travelled to Subiaco and proceeded to get beaten by about 90 points by West Coast. Lost nearly every game from there on, and didn’t make the Grand Final.

    None of these team are infallible.

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