Saints get what they deserve and so do slow Cats; Blues loom as legitimate threat: Key takeouts from round 23

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Brisbane d Collingwood

As difficult as it is to quantify the impact of “dead rubber syndrome” on the Pies, their late-season slump has exposed an alarming trend they must quickly rectify. The competition’s most miserly team for much of the season, the Pies have given up the ton in each of their past three games, plus a 93 the week before in the loss to Carlton. Yes, these games have meant little for the Pies, who have a top-two finish cemented, but if form can be flicked like a switch they would have done so already. Coach Craig McRae said there is no instant fix for his team’s defensive issues, which is not reassuring for Pies fans. Already missing Darcy Moore, their backline may be further stretched with Nathan Murphy under an injury cloud.

Lachie Neale was back to his best for Brisbane, despite close attention from Collingwood’s mids.Credit: Getty

After four preliminary final and semi-final exits, this is Brisbane’s best chance of not only making a grand final but winning the flag. If they play their cards right and get the job done at home this week against St Kilda, they will have the luxury of home qualifying and preliminary finals. They may not have to leave Brisbane until grand final week. Will Ashcroft’s injury is a blow, so too Jack Gunston to a lesser extent, but they otherwise have a clean bill of health.

After injury and illness, their midfield star Lachie Neale was back to his best. The forward line of Joe Daniher, Eric Hopwood and Charlie Cameron is frightening when on song. In a high-scoring game, their defence held up well enough, even with Harris Andrews quiet. – Andrew Wu

Richmond d North Melbourne

A win on Saturday afternoon had less to do with the ramifications of ladder position and playing finals, and more to do with giving two club greats the send-off into retirement that they deserved. Neither Trent Cotchin nor Jack Riewoldt were at their vintage best in their final games for the yellow and black, but superstar teammate Dustin Martin made sure it was a game to remember for all the right reasons, not only taking it upon himself to win the match but also trying a number of times to dish off golden opportunities for the pair to hit the scoreboard. Martin and Shai Bolton were the clear standouts in the win, which provided Richmond fans the opportunity to say goodbye to Cotchin and Riewoldt in celebratory fashion. The two retirees went through the banner with their kids, and exited the game with a lap of honour, and post-match, interim coach Andrew McQualter said the players would duly celebrate their contribution to the club on Saturday night. The Roos chaired off one of their own, with Jack Ziebell playing his final game for the club before being badly hurt that night while out on the town to mark his final game. Nick Larkey did all he could for the Roos, kicking six goals, while Tarryn Thomas also showed why he’s highly touted at Arden Street. – Damien Ractliffe

Carlton d Gold Coast

Want to beat Carlton in the finals? There’ll be seven other teams trying desperately to figure out how to beat Charlie Curnow first. On Saturday against the Gold Coast Suns, he first dragged the Blues back into the contest from 40 points down, kicking four goals in the second quarter, plus an assist – a 55-metre pass to Matt Owies. In the final quarter, he kicked another monster goal, then sent a long pass to Harry McKay, who didn’t break stride to put Carlton in front. Then, for good measure, he drifted back as the spare man to take a final, game-saving mark. It was one of the individual performances of the year, reminiscent of Wayne Carey in his absolute pomp. Can the Blues pinch a premiership from outside the top four (and coming from the bottom four after the bye)? They can, and every coach and key defender will be having sleepless nights as long as they’re in the hunt. – Andrew Stafford

GWS d Essendon

On paper, this should have been a great match: two teams on the fringes of the top-eight, duking it out to stay in finals contention in the season’s penultimate round. In fact, the Bombers went into the game placed ninth on the ladder with consecutive wins to their name, while the Giants were one rung lower and had lost their previous two. But a deeper look at their respective form lines showed these teams were on different trajectories, and boy, was that how it played out. The 126-point victory was just what Greater Western Sydney needed, boosting their percentage by a whopping seven per cent. Jesse Hogan booted nine goals and picked up 10 votes in The Age footballer of the year award, perhaps emphasising why the Bombers are so keen on luring Ben McKay from North Melbourne this off-season. Even accounting for the lack of opposition on the day, that must rank as Hogan’s best day in the AFL. Tom Green’s breakout season continued, as he produced eye-watering numbers (39 disposals, 18 contested, nine clearances) to lead the way for the Giants midfield. The less said about Essendon the better. This game proved they are out of puff and out of finals contention. Narrow wins against cellar-dwellers West Coast and North Melbourne coming into this game masked the fact their form has been pretty ordinary since their stirring win over Adelaide way back in round 17. – Greg Dundas

Jesse Hogan had a day out against Essendon.Credit: AFL Photos

St Kilda d Geelong

How the mighty have fallen. Just a season after being one of the most dominant forces of recent years, the Cats are on have missed finals and there’s still a round to play. Yes, they have injuries, but they were slow and a half a step behind the surging Saints on Saturday night. The Saints’ suffocating press meant the Cats could not generate the run they needed for their forwards to be in the contest. It did not help that they did not have one of their three first-option rucks to pick from because of injury. Saints counterpart Rowan Marshall had one of his best games of the season. However, this did not explain why skipper Patrick Dangerfield and Jeremy Cameron had no influence. Saints dasher Jack Sinclair surely claims another All-Australian blazer this year, while forward Max King was the primary marking force on the field. The Saints have dropped below sixth spot only once this season, and deserve to play finals for the first time since 2020, an outcome that was guaranteed for them when the Western Bulldogs had their shock loss to West Coast on Sunday. Under Ross Lyon, the Saints have greater defensive steel – including hard-running skipper Jack Steele – and their game style will be suited to the business end of the season. A shout-out to Mason Wood, who plays his role on a wing week in, week out, with little fanfare. – Jon Pierik

Sydney d Adelaide

Putting aside the injustice of Ben Keays’ late goal being ruled out, the Sydney Swans will take both confidence and caution from their one-point win over Adelaide, a victory that came after they led by five goals going into the last term. But losing key defender Tom McCartin, who has been offered a two-game ban for his high shot on Shane McAdam will be a big blow if they accept it. Having Dane Rampe and Callum Mills back has been a boost, while there remains concerns around Tom Papley’s hamstring, which became tight and saw him subbed out in the second half. Swans coach John Longmire is happy his side has its future in its own hands heading into the final round, but when asked if they were at their best, Longmire responded: “If you ask me at half-time? Yep. If you ask me at three-quarter time? Yep. Ask me after the game? We still have a bit of work to do.” Crows coach Matthew Nicks carried himself with class post game when he could have swung wildly at the umpires. His focus is on making sure young defenders like Max Michalanney, James Borlase and Josh Worrall keep their focus going into the final round. “This year, our development has been off the charts and I don’t want us to miss that in a game where we are all disappointed,” Nicks said. “We are sitting right up there, from an offensive point of view, as the number one in the comp with our scores and we are getting better with our defence. “We have a couple of young fellas down back who have played less than five games but are fighting as hard as anyone. “The last thing we can do now is take our eye off the ball and not finish the season well.” – Roy Ward

Melbourne d Hawthorn

Barring an injury to Max Gawn, Brodie Grundy is unlikely to get back into the Demons’ team. He is a square peg in a round hole. While there are no questions over his ruck work, there does not appear room for both he and Gawn in the same team. Bayley Fritsch returns this week after missing seven games. Tom McDonald, who kicked three goals in the VFL, shapes as a better option to play second ruck and forward. Even Josh Schache appears ahead of him judging by his selection as sub. Grundy’s best hope of returning may be as a horses-for-courses-type selection against clubs with two frontline rucks but the Demons’ potential qualifying final opponents Collingwood, Brisbane and Port Adelaide have all tended to start with the one specialist ruckman. For Hawthorn, so long as Finn Maginness is judged by his opponent’s stats rather than his own, he will drive many a star midfielder batty. Clayton Oliver was limited to just 10 disposals in three quarters by the Hawks tagger, who two weeks ago shut down Nick Daicos. Maginness has a huge tank and is highly disciplined. His first worry is to locate his opponent, then the ball. This is not an issue for a team in developmental phase, but as the Hawks rise and play in more important games rival clubs will devote more attention on using Maginness’s opponent to expose defensive holes elsewhere. – Andrew Wu

West Coast d Western Bulldogs

The Bulldogs’ season is on a knife’s edge after a shock defeat at their Marvel Stadium home to a West Coast side that had won only four of their previous 47 matches, including a last-start 101-point capitulation against Fremantle. That result followed a loss to another bottom-four team Hawthorn the week before. It is a calamitous turn of events for Luke Beveridge’s men, who have hugely underwhelmed since their 2021 grand final appearance. Beveridge’s explanation for the disastrous fortnight was his players are “human”. That is unlikely to appease a frustrated fan base increasingly keen for a fresh direction for the club. The problem? Beveridge inked a two-year extension through to the 2025 season in December. They could yet make finals if results go their way in the final round, but their wild inconsistency from year to year, and even game to game, is a pattern at this stage. As for the Eagles, they have a coaching decision to make themselves. Adam Simpson, who was once a Hawthorn assistant alongside Beveridge, is also contracted until 2025, but is under immense pressure to keep his job. A West Coast statement on Monday confirmed no call would be made on Simpson, or anyone else, until the season ends. – Marc McGowan

Port Adelaide v Fremantle

Power coach Ken Hinkley is convinced midfielders Jason Horne-Francis, Connor Rozee and Zak Butters have the potential to be match-winners in the finals. “The competitive streak through our team, through our midfield, is what wins finals, and I’m hoping that’s what we get to … but we’ve got another game to go,” Hinkley said. “Next week could be our last game at home. I want to make sure we turn up and play proper footy.” Ryan Burton took a knock to his knee and didn’t return while the Power took a cautious approach when Tom Jonas copped a blow to the head. “We’ve lived a poor experience recently, and we needed to make sure we didn’t do anything anywhere near similar,” Hinkley said. “I was really pleased with the decision to do what we did. It was really brave. We’ve been really under the microscope for those things. We want to lead the way with that now. We don’t want to cause any problems.” After a season of disappointment, Tom Emmett gave Fremantle fans something to cherish when he kicked a goal on debut on Sunday. The 21-year-old was a mature-age draft pick last year from South Australia and the former Sturt forward, who battled cancer as a teenager, was mobbed by teammates after his first goal. He battled hard finishing with 13 possessions and two goals. – Roy Ward

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