• Pete Roberts

Round 17 Preview

Five teams in the top four race. Two games separating 7th and 13th. These next few weeks become critical. If you can bank enough wins, the last few games of the season are free from the intense pressure of qualification. If you can't, then you rely on other results or, at the very least, have to win a couple against much better opposition.

This round delivers a soft matchup to a few finals contenders (Geelong, Richmond, West Coast) and an early insight into September with Port Adelaide v Melbourne and Western Bulldogs v Sydney doing battle. Bring it on.

Best Matchup - Port Adelaide v Melbourne

Best Underdog - Melbourne, Sydney

Team Under Pressure - Melbourne

Player To Watch - Jamarra Ugle-Hagan: hopefully everyone lowers their expectations on the number one pick. Excited to see him play and hopefully snag a few goals, but this Sydney team will make him earn it.

All games covered below...


Port Adelaide v Melbourne

Every win is worth four points, but some games are far more important than others.

This is definitely one of them.

If you asked any Melbourne supporter whether they would take a 12-3 record going into Round 17, they probably couldn't say yes quickly enough. Having lost two of their past three matches (against teams arguably inferior to Port Adelaide), hopefully the fans haven't lost faith. They are right in this.

So much at stake here for both teams - only one game separates 1st to 5th, so beating another top four contender is critical for ladder position as much as confidence. Port have only beaten Sydney out of the current top eight teams. Melbourne's loss to GWS last week was their first defeat to a potential finalist so far this year.

The real question is whether Melbourne have had their "slump" over winter. Their ability to score has dropped off, but their contested ball winning ability is still up there with the best in the competition. We can't overreact to their slight drop in scoreboard output, especially as a lot of sides tend to lose a few goals in the middle of winter.

Are too many people ignoring the obvious? The Melbourne midfield aren't as dominant as they have been (wonder if Petracca is carrying some sort of injury), which leads to issues moving the ball from defence, as well as winning stoppages and launching into an open forward line. Fix that, and the goals will come.

The Dees' stoppage game hasn't been at a level you'd expect from a side sitting second on the ladder. It has forced them to be ultra-efficient going forward, which is generally unsustainable. Top four at scores per inside 50 in the first twelve rounds, bottom for over the past three matches. Time for Gawn to hog the ruck duties and leave Jackson just to pinch-hit when he needs a rest? It's been a pretty even split lately...

Ben Brown's inclusion is an interesting one. His success will depend on the speed of ball movement from further up the ground. We can't expect him to be a contested marking power forward, particularly in his first game back for a while, so can Melbourne get it to him fast enough on the lead?

For Port, the critical part will be winning the forward half game. Make it difficult for the Demons to move the ball out of defence (they will still take their fair share of intercept marks), pile on the pressure in their front half and grind away. As much as Melbourne's stoppage game needs to improve, they still have nearly the best front-half turnover numbers in the competition. This is where it will be won and lost.

Expecting Port Adelaide to really lift for this one, particularly with Butters back (bloody love him as a player). And we have to expect Melbourne to resemble the team that has beaten the Bulldogs, Cats, Lions, Swans and Tigers already this year, not the one that has dropped games against Collingwood and GWS in recent weeks.

Ripping contest, with very little between them. Whichever team wins the turnover battle through the middle will win.

Pick: Port Adelaide by 2


Essendon v Adelaide

This is the kind of setup the Bombers will love - fast deck (unfortunately roof open), dry conditions (watch for how many players still slip over), against a team that hasn't topped over 85 points since round 10.

Both teams aren't particularly strong defensively, so it promises to be one of the most open contests of the weekend. In that case, you have to side with the more potent offence - the Bombers still sit third in points scored overall.

Tex Walker's status is important - his absence means they have to find scores from unlikely sources. Their midfielders aren't known to hit the scoreboard very often (Seedsman their best from a wing with 10 goals in 15 matches, Ben Keays next with 6) so unless another forward bobs up with a small bag they might find this difficult.

Essendon have enough weapons through the middle and up forward to take care of Adelaide here. Even with Heppell on the sidelines, the Bombers' speed and workrate should prove too much for the Crows over four quarters.

A fast start and some early confidence could give Adelaide a glimmer of hope. It's just hard to see a bottom-six pressure side closing this game down enough in dry conditions to stop Essendon from posting an above average score.

If some of the young Bombers aren't in desperate need of a rest they should be fun to watch on Friday night. Let's see what they can do after a pretty tough last four or five weeks.

Pick: Essendon by 23


Hawthorn v Fremantle

Very interesting to see how Fremantle responds after last week. Clearly it was the win that got away against Carlton, so their ability to bounce back will tell us a lot about their belief. They get a near-perfect setup to show their progress - head to Tassie, roll the sleeves up and knock off the Hawks away from home.

This is a huge game for Rory Lobb and Josh Treacy. Ten goals between them in the last three matches. They will need a similar output on the weekend in cold but dry conditions, plus a contribution from the likes of Henry, Schultz and Walters (watch him play a blinder after being mentioned a fair bit this week). Hardly household names, but they do have the quality to test Hawthorn's defence.

With the edge through the middle (+38 clearance in the last four games is the best in the competition), Fremantle just have to defend well enough to keep Hawthorn to a manageable score.

The Hawks have definitely improved their form after the bye, and might show some sort of response after the news of their coaching succession plan this week, so the Dockers won't find this easy. They are just a better side - doesn't always guarantee victory, of course, but we will side with the Dockers to get the job done.

Pick: Fremantle by 10


Carlton v Geelong

This game could deliver anything. Two wins in a row for the Blues - against the Crows and the Dockers. Neither of them all that convincing. Has it given us a bit of false hope that they could knock off Geelong here?

The Cats were pretty clinical against Essendon after quarter time. Importantly, that was nearly three quarters of football without Jeremy Cameron. There shouldn't bee too many concerns about their ability to score without him, even though the step down from Cameron to Ratugolea (we assume) is pretty significant.

Have to be wary of what this Geelong defence could do to Carlton, and how they could launch the ball back the other way if the Blues aren't committed to defending themselves. Stewart is borderline unstoppable, Henry and Atkins underrated, and you can absolutely trust Tuohy, Kolodjashnij and Henderson to play well.

Carlton haven't beaten anyone in the top eight this season. Hard to see this as the game they break the trend unless they can get the jump on Geelong early. Maybe that's their window of opportunity? The Cats are 6-8 in first quarters this season, haven't won a first term since Round 11 and have scored 1.2 combined in their past two. All out attack from Carlton early?

Geelong are far easier to trust than Carlton. The Blues have enough speed and class through the middle/half-back to trouble them at times, but it's a matter of whether they can penetrate their defence often enough. That's the big road block in the way of the Blues pulling off the upset.

Pick: Geelong by 29


Brisbane v St Kilda

A potential trap game for Brisbane after a soft win against Adelaide and an extended period away from home. They are closer to their own beds at least, having flown back to Queensland during the week. Metricon will obviously be no problem for them, but it's far from the Gabba fortress where the crowd really gets behind them.

St Kilda have at least turned the corner from an effort perspective, even though they don't seem to trust themselves to close out a contest - Adelaide came storming home when they went back into their shells, and the Magpies arguably could have pinched it last week in the final quarter. Poise isn't the Saints' strong suit.

So Brisbane will play in a similar manner to the way Collingwood did in the final term last Sunday. Aggressive, fast ball movement to a forward line full of players who hit the scoreboard. Tough test for St Kilda to hold up the dam wall, particularly in dry conditions.

Having said that, the Saints could test the Lions just as much. The 1-2 punch of Ryder and Marshall is a great starting point, giving them a clear edge over McInerney and Joe Daniher. Those two have played together five times this year. The clearance differential in those games: +48. A break even at stoppage would probably be a success against the Lions midfield, but they have the capability to do better than that if Steele, Crouch and Dunstan can rise to the occasion.

Tricky one - Lions clearly a better side, Saints incredibly hard to predict. Does their win against Richmond look a little less impressive after the Tigers dropped a game against the Suns a week later? Can only beat the team in front of you perhaps, and there aren't any easy games anymore.

Wary of the Lions putting in a flat one at some point. Couldn't confidently side with St Kilda either, even though a win wouldn't shock.

Pick: Brisbane by 20


GWS v Gold Coast

What a matchup. The winner might be the team who can hit the scoreboard early before each team loses a few players to frostbite.

The conditions will favour the blue-collar Giants far more than the inconsistent Suns. Don't let the +58 uncontested mark figure of last week cloud your judgement on the Suns' ability to win their fair share of footy. They've lost the mark differential in five of the past seven weeks, and the same with the contested possession and disposal count. Keeping the footy is their biggest issue.

The Giants come equipped with the midfield weapons to ensure the ball ends up in their front half as much as possible. A +16 clearance count against Melbourne is a good platform for this game - they have only been beaten at clearance differential once in the last nine matches. The Suns ball movement would have to be pretty slick (or the Giants are somehow off defensively) to give their forwards enough supply.

Really interested to see how mature this Suns team can be off the back of arguably their best ever win. That sort of effort again and they will be super competitive. We can't say GWS have a super post-bye formline, with two wins, a loss and a draw in their past four matches having played only one top eight team in that period.

The game setup just forces us to favour GWS strongly - if they are anywhere near on their game defensively they should enjoy plenty of footy, which should translate into a win.

Pick: GWS by 26


Western Bulldogs v Sydney

Our first look at the Dogs without Naughton, and with their number one pick making his debut. The Bulldogs weren't very interested in defending through the middle last week. If they do that again, this Sydney side will enjoy exploiting all that space with their foot skills. The Swans are the last team you want to accidentally energise by not clamping down defensively.

Two of the top four pressure sides in the competition go head to head here. The footy will resemble a hot potato in the first quarter - wouldn't shock to see the midfielders rack up huge disposal totals as they try to flip it around to find space. If that's the case you have to feel the Dogs' deep midfield should have the edge in that area.

The Swans are used to high pressure matches, so they should feel right at home in a bruising contest. Their biggest test will be their ability to move it with speed to their forward line, where the likes of Franklin, Papley, Heeney and Hayward can get to work.

Many keep thinking of the Swans as a dour stoppage side which posts low totals and grinds their way to win. They still have that workmanlike quality, but now they have a heap of potency and the skill level to test even the best sides. The Dogs are perhaps the biggest test in footy right now. Without Naughton there's an opening for Sydney to pinch this.

Do we have the courage to pick the Swans here? Tempted. But not quite.

Pick: Western Bulldogs by 5


Richmond v Collingwood

Two of the biggest disappointments of last week face off in a Sunday twilight fight to the death. Crowd sizes lifted (slightly) just in time for this one.

What do we make of these two? It's always the toughest type of game for the preview - two sides who should be better but aren't, coming off awful defeats, facing each other only a week later.

Clearly the Tigers are a better side overall. They might not be defending well at all, yet they find themselves up against a team that struggles to score. The Pies need a massive lift offensively, and might get a bit of confidence if they find ways through the Tigers early.

Neither side has scored above 81 points in the last three weeks. The problem for Collingwood is that figure extends back to Round 9. Richmond have two scores above 100 since that time, the kind of figure the Magpies dream about.

Is it basically a matter of which forward line can fire? If it is, then you have to be with Richmond. Tom Lynch and Jack Riewoldt with a sprinkling of dangerous smalls is enough to lean their way.

Unless we get another vintage Jamie Elliott performance similar to his six goals in Round 12, or De Goey enjoys his new midfield/forward mix to land a long-awaited BOG, then the Tigers should have this one covered. It's a critical game for them in terms of their top 8 chances - is there a danger they've got the cue in the rack and would prefer to miss the finals altogether and regroup for 2022? It's definitely a possibility.

If they are switched on then Richmond will win. The Pies will be fired up to spoil their season though, no doubt.

Pick: Richmond by 15


West Coast v North Melbourne

Monday night footy...the poor cousin to Thursday night footy. At least for West Coast it means the restrictions have lifted and a full crowd can turn up to see the Eagles try and turn their season around.

How blessed are the Eagles? Last time they ventured down to GMHBA and got hammered, they found themselves in a home Derby a week later against Fremantle and took care of them by ten goals. This time they come off the back of just as bad a loss (92 points) and tackle a two-win, 18th placed side on their home deck with 60,000 ready to dust off their best booing voice. Incredible.

So obviously we pick West Coast to respond. As bad as they were last week, you just feel they will get the setup they enjoy - dry conditions, back at Optus Stadium, on their own terms, against a side that will kick it back to them often.

In some ways you'd be cheering for the upset here just to see what happens. Don't think the Roos can do it though. Would be genuinely shocked.

Pick: West Coast by 28


Best Matchup - Port Adelaide v Melbourne

Best Underdog - Melbourne, Sydney

Team Under Pressure - Melbourne

Player To Watch - Jamarra Ugle-Hagan: hopefully everyone lowers their expectations on the number one pick. Excited to see him play and hopefully snag a few goals, but this Sydney team will make him earn it.