Round 13 Preview
Feels a bit strange starting a round on a Friday night these days. But here we are.
The best part about this week - it's Indigenous Round.
How good is this....
We head to Darwin's TIO Stadium to kick things off, and go back again for the Dreamtime Game the following night. Having seen many games live in the Top End, it is definitely a ground where you need to do your homework. And where a fast start is absolutely critical to your chances of winning.
On the surface there are quite a few mismatches this weekend, so it becomes an exercise in figuring out which favourites might be more vulnerable than others, which teams could operate in a lower gear and still get the four points, and which ones are totally cooked for the year (*cough* Hawthorn).
Gold Coast v Carlton
The first of two matches at TIO Stadium in Darwin.
Again, having spent plenty of time at this ground, it throws up a few quirky scenarios this weekend:
Who gets the luxury of the brilliant Michael Long centre for their change room, warm up and meeting rooms? And who gets the short straw with the other change rooms?
Good luck social distancing in those coaches boxes - by my calculations, you'd be lucky to fit three people in there before you're breaking Covid protocols!
Anyway, onto the important stuff - the game!
A fast start is critical here - since 2014, only Melbourne (2019 vs Adelaide) have failed to take home the four points after leading at quarter time. They were overhauled by a fast-finishing Crows side which is a bit out of character for that venue.
Under warm conditions and a slippery surface (more due to sweat on the ball than any sort of moisture on the grass) it's important to build a lead and then play strategically once fatigue kicks in over the second half. The last quarters can turn into an awful spectacle with everyone totally gassed - shorter quarters might help here but there's also the cumulative effect of a lot of footy lately.
So who wins?
While both sides have never set foot on the ground, it's an even tougher task to ask the Suns to open Round 13 after just playing the last game of Round 12. At least they've had the comfort of their own beds, but since the Footy Frenzy started the Suns have gone 4 days, 6 days, 5 days and now 4 days between games. In all of those matches, they've lost the second half.
In contrast, the Blues have had the luxury of a bye, some longer breaks between games and have a direct playing style that might suit TIO Stadium, if they can get off to a fast start.
You'd nearly be confident the Blues can get the job done on those factors alone. But they are arguably a better side regardless, so they should have enough scoring power to do this pretty comfortably.
Pick: Carlton by 24
Western Bulldogs v Melbourne
Two sides who have been incredibly hard to read this season - their best is pretty good, but their worst is so predictable you totally kick yourself for backing them in.
The main issue for the Bulldogs has been their midfield turnovers - they have struggled to win the ball back through the middle which is exposing their defence. Melbourne have been built to be a midfield turnover team and have absolutely torched their opponents recently, albeit against lesser opposition.
So the Dogs either need to knuckle down in transition, or try and test the Demons with their own precision inside 50. The return of Naughton is a positive, but Melbourne have denied their opponents from marking the ball up forward better than anyone this season. So it can't be Naughton or bust - time for the smalls to get their hands dirty and lock it in there, find a way to grind out a stoppage goal or get in there first and earn a free kick.
This will be a fascinating game, presumably with a hell of a lot of speed. It seems silly to say that the team who executes better will win, but it's never been more certain than in this particular contest.
Pick: Melbourne by 8
Port Adelaide v Hawthorn
Port have Hawthorn covered in basically every statistical measure this season, and return to Adelaide Oval in front of a vocal crowd. Only the Saints have taken care of Port Adelaide on their home deck this season, and the Hawks aren't going anywhere near as well as St Kilda.
The Power will be ultra keen to take the sting out of this one early and build a lead. The only chance Hawthorn might have of winning is a strong start combined with a low-scoring grind where they can just try and grind their way to a few goals to pinch it.
Port Adelaide have had the fortune of some incredible timing in their draw so far this season - nothing better than finding a Hawks team with injury issues and a rebuild mindset after being pumped by the Cats last weekend (and off a longer break).
They could get the job done in the first half here and cruise to the line to save their legs.
Pick: Port Adelaide by 31
Essendon v Richmond
A bit of a different setting for the Dreamtime Game this season. TIO Stadium hosts the Bombers and Tigers, with the home team presumably getting the advantage of using the Michael Long Centre for their preparation. Only fair given it is named after one of their best ever players...
The Bombers haven't given us any evidence that they can turn their form around against a quality side here - is the change of scenery at least *something* to switch up their mindset and effort to give them some sort of chance to be competitive?
Just got the feeling the Tigers took the Suns game a little lightly last week and were waiting for a bit more of a challenge. In theory they won't get it here either, so there could be a small window of opportunity for Essendon to try and conjure up a fast start.
But over the four quarters you couldn't possibly pick against the Tigers. Complacency would be their only enemy. Or Jake Stringer coming back and kicking six.
Pick: Richmond by 33
Fremantle v Sydney
Tough game to pick here. Both sides have enjoyed playing in low-scoring affairs for basically the whole season - Sydney with an average winning margin of 15 points, Fremantle 13 points.
So in theory this will be a complete grind - first to 60 wins? Does anyone get to 60? The Dockers have played a few more wet games so they've had less opportunity to post a decent score, but you can tell by their playing style that it might just click at some point.
The Swans have been "up" a fair while, while the Dockers have been in a bit more of a slow build. With Sydney losing Rampe to add to an incredibly long injury list, and Walters pulling up fine in his first game back last weekend, it points to the Dockers finding a way to post a big enough score here to salute.
Pick: Fremantle by 13
Adelaide v Geelong
Oh dear. It will be interesting to see how Geelong goes about this one, especially at the selection table. Anyone with the slightest niggle might not make the trip for the Cats, and anyone who has been pushing for selection could get the nod to see how they fare.
The forwards must be absolutely licking their lips as they could pretty much do what they like here - Hawkins, Dangerfield and Rohan alone should be able to outscore the Crows if they are switched on.
The Crows will just need to throw caution to the wind and play with a bit of flair and excitement at home. Mistakes will be made but they've got nothing to lose.
Pick: Geelong by 54
Brisbane v St Kilda
Fascinating game. Have the Saints defenders been a little vulnerable lately? Hawkins and Rohan combined for 9 against them recently, Ben King managed 3 goals in a close one for the Suns, and even Tom McCartin slotted three for the Swans in Round 9. Only Adelaide have conceded more F50 marks than the Saints this year, and the Lions are behind only Geelong in marking the ball up forward themselves.
If the Lions can take advantage they will need Hipwood and McStay to control the air up forward. A real test for the Saints defenders, including the smalls (Charlie Cameron will have learned a lot about playing with injury last week, too, so look out). If they fail, the sides who eventually play them in the finals series will know they can be exploited.
Up the other end, St Kilda are dominant at finding a mark inside 50 themselves, so the Lions won't get it all their own way. But Harris Andrews has lengths on Jake Carlisle, so you'd back the Lions back six to nullify them in the air.
As has been the case nearly all season, the Saints best chance of winnning lies with their small midfielders and forward just running amok. The single focus for all of their little guys pre-game should be PRESSURE - force turnovers, go quick when you win the ball back and make sure to choose the right option going forward.
The Gabba is predominantly a centre bounce ground - whoever wins the clearance battle usually goes a long way towards winning. With the Lions we have a better midfield than the Saints, but St Kilda have the formidable Marshall and Ryder duo to cause them problems. Ultimately you'd back the likes of Neale, Zorko and Lyons to get the job done regardless.
An absolutely pivotal game for both sides' finals prospects. Brisbane with the edge here. Just.
Pick: Brisbane by 10
West Coast v GWS
Leon Cameron gave us a bit of a hint about the Giants mindset during the week...
So we might get to see what the Giants have tweaked this weekend, but they come up against a tough opponent to try it against. If they can somehow unlock all that scoring potential (the return of Toby Greene obviously helps) then they could easily give the Eagles a run for their money.
Still a very hard game to win though if you're not getting the ball back from the opposition - the Giants are still second last at producing forward half turnovers. Surprisingly, the Eagles aren't much better themselves but their back six is far more reliable at giving them a chance to score from their back 50.
While West Coast might not be travelling as well as people think, they probably still have the edge over the Giants here. An upset wouldn't surprise (get ready for the "where has this been lately?" commentary if it happens), particularly if the all-important top 7-8 Giants players can find a way to play like a team again and carry their bottom tier of battlers along with them.
Pick: West Coast by 17
Collingwood v North Melbourne
Another tricky contest, with the Pies bizarrely finding it really hard to score. On paper they still have way more class across the board than North Melbourne, but for some reason their synergy in all areas of the game has completely fallen away.
Does Bucks release the shackles a bit and somehow give them licence to be a bit creative? North Melbourne are nearly the most un-creative team around, so if Collingwood can't get over the line in this one then they might as well come back home (although not sure anyone wants to come home to Victoria right now).
Like we mentioned above in the Lions v Saints preview, the Gabba is a great Centre Bounce venue, so it's time for Grundy, Pendlebury, Adams and Sidebottom to run amok.
Pick: Collingwood by 20
Round 13 Burning Question:
Is there a better solution than including fines in a Club's soft cap?
There has been a lot of discussion around the ramifications of Club fines falling under a soft cap. The trickle-down effect could eventually cost someone their job, or move them from full-time to part-time, or heavily reduce someone's salary - even though they had nothing to do with whatever indiscretion it was.
Clearly there's no easy answer, but if the soft cap is going to shrink even further then it will likely be the dedicated staff in the background who become collateral damage from any cap squeeze. Cuts are inevitable, just not sure if adding fines to the soft cap is necessary given things are tight enough already.