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  • Pete Roberts

Round 21 Preview

In the context of the 2021 season, this could end up being the most crucial week in the run home, both for potential finalists and those looking to secure a top four spot. What a mix of matches we have this weekend:

  • 7th to 10th all play teams above them

  • The Saints are in 13th but still clinging to a slim finals hope. They face the Swans in 5th

  • 11th and 12th - Richmond and Carlton - find crucial soft matchups

  • Top four contenders Melbourne and Port Adelaide face arguably the two most out-of-form teams in the competition

It's moving week on the AFL ladder. Things could be turned on their head with a few upsets, or consolidated even further if the favourites salute. Bring it on.


Best Matchup - Fremantle v Brisbane

Best Underdog - Fremantle, St Kilda, West Coast

Team Under Pressure - West Coast

Player To Watch - Maurice Rioli - great to see another Rioli buzzing around the MCG. These zippy small forwards usually have a good impact on their side in their first couple of games. Hopefully he kicks a goal just so we can see the Tigers players swamp him from everywhere.


All games below...

Geelong v GWS


As the old coaching cliché goes, hope is not a strategy. In this matchup, it might be all the Giants have...


GWS failed an easier test last week against Port Adelaide on a neutral ground. They now come up against a better defence on a ground where the Cats have lost only once in the past two seasons. Crowd or no crowd, this road trip is a challenge for any side.


The window of opportunity for the Giants is small but familiar - defend first, create plenty of stoppages and hit the scoreboard early to find some sort of reward for effort. It's the clear blueprint for most unlikely upsets this season. The Giants are at least equipped to give it a shot. Geelong won't have any issue with the game becoming a bit more of a stoppage battle. Even though it's a weapon for the Giants, the Cats still do it better.


The six day break for the Cats hasn't effected selection much, outside of Isaac Smith being rested. The Giants come off a five day break with five forced changes along with resting Mumford and Hogan. They now have to face another top four side with Phil Davis, Tom Greene and Jacob Hopper on the sidelines and 3-game rookie Kieran Briggs in the ruck. Things just got even tougher.


Even though the Cats are prone to a few games where their scoring dries up, their past month gives us a reasonable form line to follow - they have played three teams directly around GWS on the ladder, conceding under 60 points in each of the past four games. Ironically it was last-placed North Melbourne who kept the Cats to only 62 last weekend. It wouldn't shock at all if this is a low-scoring grind, particularly in the first half.


Ultimately it would take a reasonable spike in form for the Giants to put up a competitive total. The intangible is how much they lift once they've been reunited with their families during the week. Clearly that's not an angle we usually consider, but worth having in the back of your mind when you wonder if they have another level in them.


Comfortable picking the Cats unless the Giants can keep it close and pinch it. Tricky margin to predict given there's a real threat of the game being locked down for long periods. If it's a little more open, the Cats could do anything.



Pick: Geelong by 34


Carlton v Gold Coast


Always a conundrum when teams are coming off an absolute hiding. The Suns were embarrassing last week, albeit against a far better side than they face here.


What do Gold Coast do at half time? They've kicked 28 points in the third quarter across their last four matches. TOTAL. We can forgive them for the Giants game, where they kicked into a four-goal wind on that occasion, but the other three were in perfect conditions. Time to mix up the routine, lads!


Which Carlton do we get here? If they bring anywhere near the level of pressure they found last week - a season best 211 - then the Suns will find it difficult. The problem is, that was a huge spike in their defensive intent compared to previous weeks. Remember, only two weeks ago they failed to turn up against the bottom team. Do we get the side that beat St Kilda or the one that lost to North? The truth might lie somewhere in between.


In what looks like a fairly open contest, the ability for both teams to move the ball will be the key. Neither of them are elite ball movement teams but they do enjoy when they can move with speed into a reasonably open forward line. McKay (& Curnow) up one end, Ben King up the other.


You'd think Weitering can keep King under wraps. The usually honest Suns defenders were given a lesson last week, arguably hung out to dry by their mids and forwards. In a game where the ball might be coming in thick and fast yet again, they can't afford to just be Caravan defenders - trailing in behind the Carlton forwards wherever they go.


Have to lean to the Blues. Amazing what difference a week makes, though. Can't be super confident in a side which lost to North Melbourne only 13 days ago...


Pick: Carlton by 22


Richmond v North Melbourne


We were wrong about North last week. The expectation was they would taper off over the last few weeks of the year, beginning with a hiding at the hands of a red hot Cats outfit. Didn't happen.


Now they have a different problem, the Roos - becoming the kings of the "honourable loss". History says there is a real danger of this pattern leading to a fairly substantial loss at some point, as the team runs out of energy just to compete. We thought last week was that moment for North. Maybe we were a week too early.


Richmond have lost six of their past seven matches. Half of them to teams below them. But they do come out of a tough three week stretch against reasonable teams, ready to play with a lot more freedom here. Five unforced changes for the Tigers, giving us our first look at the exciting Maurice Rioli. Zurhaar and Thomas come back in for the Roos, arguably two of their most important players.


Expecting Richmond to win the same way they usually do - through their offence. They've won eight games this season, scoring over 100 points five times. We know they aren't defending nearly as well as previous years, but they get a chance to attack North Melbourne here on their preferred ground. The Roos haven't played on the MCG this season, and the Tigers' running power hasn't gone away.


There is a real query on North Melbourne's ability to defend the air down back. No team has conceded more forward 50 marks than the Roos. They may have improved sharply and managed a 3-3 record in the past six games, but even through that period they are still 17th for conceding F50 marks to their opposition. We know that's generally the way Richmond wins games, so with this kind of setup the Tigers are in the box seat for a crucial four points. 15+ marks inside 50 and they should easily have North covered.


Pick: Richmond by 29


Adelaide v Port Adelaide


A Showdown in front of a small crowd, at least. Even though it looks like a mismatch on paper, these games are usually worth watching.


The Crows are probably the most out-of-form team in the competition - they've lost seven of their past nine matches, winning only a miracle comeback in the pouring rain in Cairns and a shootout against Hawthorn where they just couldn't miss.


Port have finally found themselves with a settled team, some of them slowly gaining fitness after a few weeks back following injury. The general consensus is they aren't a top level side, but they don't have to be to win this matchup. A 5-1 record in their past six games and the fourth highest scoring offence in that period. They are travelling fine.


So theoretically Port just put up the kind of score the Crows can't match. Adelaide would need to shoot the lights out again - No Tex Walker (scandal hanging over him and all) so Fogarty and Thilthorpe will have to find a way against a reasonable Port defence. Hard to see that happening, even if we account for a slight lift from a pro-Crows crowd against a team they hate.


The lack of speed from Adelaide should give Port the chance to get back to their 190+ pressure ratings from a few weeks ago. With that sort of number, the Power will get their turnover game rolling once again and find it pretty easy to find a mark inside 50 and score.


Anything other than a huge spike defensively from the Crows should see Port do this comfortably. The leakiest defence in the past six weeks will find it hard against a team that can score several different ways.


Pick: Port Adelaide by 41


St Kilda v Sydney


Huge trap game for Sydney. Everyone remembers the Saints losing to Carlton last week and written them off. Expected score in that match was 89-82 in St Kilda's favour. Their past month has been OK, running Port Adelaide and West Coast to within a couple of goals.


So this all comes down to whether you think the Swans can hold their form. If they're off slightly, the Saints are equipped to trouble them. Max King and Tim Membrey hold the key to their chances. McCartin v King could decide whether the Saints can get close.


Up the other end, it's a scary prospect for St Kilda - Franklin still playing well, Sam Reid with a couple of games under the belt to stretch their already vulnerable key defence, and Hayward and Heeney threats in the air as well. If the Saints can't bring the ball to ground they are toast.


This is one of those games where the Swans are clearly the better side, but there is a sneaking suspicion they are in danger of a flat one somewhere along the line. Never an easy thing trying to predict a dip in form. After five wins in a row and hub life still over their heads, in some ways they are due for at least a bit of a scare...


Pick: Sydney by 10


Hawthorn v Collingwood


The venue switch has played into Collingwood's hands here. Still a tricky matchup to predict, though. Hawthorn have knocked off the Swans, Giants and Lions in the last two months, and drawn with Melbourne. In between those games they've been obliterated by Fremantle without an offence, and lost a shootout with...the Crows.


So what the hell do we do here?


The post-Buckley era at Collingwood makes for interesting reading - they're enjoying far more of the ball (jumped from 11th to 3rd in disposal differential), kicking their way through teams (16th to 1st in uncontested mark differential) and given the youngsters a shot at staking their claim for a spot in the best 22. Nine debutants this season is the most of any side.


With Luke Breust on the sidelines and question marks over the Hawks defence, this looks like the kind of setup where Collingwood could thrive. Consistency hasn't been a strong suit for either side lately so we can't be too confident, but happy to side with the Pies given they are at least a couple of seasons ahead of the Hawks in their list cycle.


Pick: Collingwood by 19


Western Bulldogs v Essendon


The Bombers have played in three games this season where both sides have scored 100 points. They have lost all of them. If they find themselves in another shootout here against the Dogs, it's not going to end well for them.


The Blues and Giants posted their highest scores of the year against Essendon. The Swans put up a 13-goal second half last week. The Bulldogs are the highest scoring offence this season. Unless the Bombers try to win a bit differently, it's hard to see how they contain a side with more scoring options than anyone.


In comes Adam Treloar for his first game since Round 10. Does that push Bontempelli forward a bit more? It's already a stacked front six, so it will be interesting to see how they line up, and who ends up hitting the scoreboard.


The Bombers have some reasonable inclusions of their own but lose Heppell and Langford which could upset their balance a little. Heppell in particular would have been important to try and contain the flood of Dogs midfielders charging into the forward line. Without him they are even more vulnerable defensively.


The clearance game of the Dogs should see them win the stoppage battle comfortably (#1 at clearance differential this year), and with the Bombers prone to making the game an open contest, it's hard to see how they can contain the turnover of the Bulldogs either.


There were signs a few weeks ago that the Bombers had lost a bit of their energy. Getting close to the Swans last week might have given them false hope and drained their batteries even more. They are super vulnerable here.


Pick: Western Bulldogs by 45


Fremantle v Brisbane


Match of the round. Someone has pulled the hand brake on Brisbane, while the Dockers come off winning the unwinnable last week against Richmond.


Was the Hawks loss the reality check the Lions needed? It might turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Now with their top four hopes basically gone, Brisbane's best chance is to throw caution to the wind and make this an offensive battle.


Fremantle don't generally beat you by posting big scores, while the Lions are still the second highest scoring offence of the year. Their defence has let them down lately - scores of 95, 106, 71 and 92 against them in the past month. Now they face a side without a heap of potency, they only need a slight uplift defensively to keep the Dockers to a manageable total and let their forwards go to work up the other end.


Clearly the midfield battle becomes pivotal here. The Dockers have been propped up by their mids for most of the year and aren't showing any signs of slowing down. They have the second best clearance differential in the past month. The Lions aren't far behind in fourth.


Darcy, Mundy, Cerra, Brayshaw and Serong up against McInerney, Lyons, Berry, Zorko and McCluggage. What a matchup. Fremantle with the edge on paper, so it probably comes down to Brisbane's ability to break even and find their fair share of supply to their forwards.


The Dockers have arguably over-performed this year given their injuries and gaps up forward. Knocking off the Lions here isn't out of the question, but it would be a serious effort to lock down another potent offence like they did with Richmond last weekend.


Leaning to the Lions because of their scoring power. Just.


Pick: Brisbane by 8

West Coast v Melbourne


It would be an absolute indictment on the Eagles if they magically lift for this one. After practically not trying in so many games this season it would be very West Coast-like to actually put in an effort up to AFL standard.


So we are wary of a massive uptick in output from the Eagles on defence. But will it be enough against a side suited to a dry Optus Stadium where the turnover game is critical?


Have to feel for Xavier O'Neill - how is he the only one omitted from a side that threw in the towel from the first bounce last week? There is loyalty and there's loyalty. Incredible to see the same players given another chance week after week in this side.


So the turnover game is the key here. Melbourne have the best midfield turnover differential in the comp, dropping to fourth in scoring output from that area. The Eagles are the lowest of the top eight sides in both categories. When you consider West Coast are the worst pressure side of the season and the Demons sit second, it is incredibly hard to argue that the Eagles can somehow cause the upset.


With Melbourne having to endure a 7-day lockdown over in Perth in order to play at Optus Stadium, there is a slight query on whether they come out a bit flat in their first game in front of a crowd for a while. A slow start could give the Eagles a bit of confidence at least, and any dip in defensive intent from Melbourne would be dangerous given the offensive weapons of West Coast - give them enough supply and they will still find ways to score.


An Eagles win certainly wouldn't shock, but you'd have to be picking them on the basis that Melbourne don't play to their usual level. First quarter critical.


Pick: Melbourne by 9


Best Matchup - Fremantle v Brisbane

Best Underdog - Fremantle, St Kilda, West Coast

Team Under Pressure - West Coast

Player To Watch - Maurice Rioli - great to see another Rioli buzzing around the MCG. These zippy small forwards usually have a good impact on their side in their first couple of games. Hopefully he kicks a goal just so we can see the Tigers players swamp him from everywhere.