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  • Pete Roberts

Round 23 Preview

Behind in your footy tipping and need a miracle? Well, this is the round for you...


With the pre-finals bye in the bin, Round 23 definitely has an old-school feel to it. Serious consequences to most games involving top eight contenders, particularly when you factor in the Covid chaos, where the "home" sides might get their choice of venue from a small list of options.


Port Adelaide and Brisbane end up the pivotal sides in all this - the two teams who would find themselves on their home ground in front of a semi-full crowd if they earn the right to host a final. The others are playing to avoid that scenario and at least get to a neutral venue.


Plenty of other games between the also-rans are impossible to predict - who is up for the fight? Who will play better given there isn't anything on the line? Who has given up? This could be a throwback to the old days, where huge form reversals and zero-defence shootouts were the norm in the last game of the season. We might have to lean towards the sides that enjoy free-flowing footy and have the weapons up forward to capitalise on all the open space.


Team selection news is critical. A few games affected by injury news and a couple just completely giving up. What a tricky round to finish.


Best Matchups - Western Bulldogs v Port Adelaide, Geelong v Melbourne

Best Underdog - Melbourne, Fremantle, Adelaide

Team Under Pressure - Western Bulldogs

Player To Watch - Lance Franklin - there won't be too many games left with Buddy in full flight. Well rested after being given a week off, he could dead set explode against this Suns defence. If Stringer kicked five last week... "Play It Safe" Final Round Picks (if you're ahead in your comp and need to consolidate...) WBU, HAW, SYD, BRI, GEE, GWS, STK, ESS, ADE/NOR depending on previous results "Miracle Comeback" Final Round Picks (if you're behind in your comp and need to make up some ground. Monitor across the weekend to see where you sit after each game...) One of POR or RIC, SYD, BRI, MEL, GWS, FRE, ESS, ADE


Good luck to everyone! Let's cover all nine games below...

Western Bulldogs v Port Adelaide


A lot on the line in this one - the Dogs playing to stay in the top four, Port Adelaide searching for an unlikely top two finish and a critical home final. What a setup.


We should get a great contest at Marvel Stadium. Port are 5-0 at the venue this year, beating up mostly on bottom eight sides. The Dogs are 6-3 there but have lost three of their past four.


The recent drop off from the Bulldogs has been dramatic - they are now easy to score against (18th at scores per inside 50 against in the last six weeks), far less formidable at centre bounce (16th at CB score differential in that same period) and struggling to convert opportunities into scores on offence (15th at scores per inside 50). The highest scoring offence has dropped to 9th in the last six games.


Given the personnel hasn't changed dramatically (Josh Bruce is a big loss but not something they can't overcome), the chance of a bounce back is still there. No doubt the coaching group have been to work pretty heavily on their game style during the week, ready to face one of the form sides of the competition.


On the topic of form, we do have to consider Port a little blessed by the fixture. This is the only time they have faced a side in the top six for a second time. They are 1-4 in those matchups so far, but this is perhaps their best chance given the Dogs' troubles recently.


The key to beating the Bulldogs is a combination of pressure and inside 50 efficiency. Their three highest pressure ratings against them have all resulted in a loss for the Dogs. All of them have come since Round 14. Have teams worked them out?


The question is whether Port Adelaide are equipped to do it - only four games of 190+ pressure this season, one of them in their loss to the Dogs at home in Round 9. Their forward half turnover game is sound, but this is clearly their biggest challenge.


If Port can force the manic backwards handball from the Bulldogs early on and find enough turnovers, they have a huge chance. If they don't nail it and the Dogs' speed and ball use gets the better of them, it's all over.


Anything less than finals-like pressure from Port won't get the job done. A big question mark on whether the Dogs can turn their form around, but back on Marvel Stadium we will lean their way.



Pick: Western Bulldogs by 10


Richmond v Hawthorn


We usually stay away from talk about the betting markets, but the Hawks were magically backed as if unbeatable at some stage on Tuesday. We have been underestimating Hawthorn lately yet we have a reasonable handle on the Tigers, who only seem to play a couple of competitive quarters a week.


Team selection gives us a fair hint. Richmond have nearly broken the world record for changes, with no fewer than TEN players coming out of the side. Incredible. The list of inclusions isn't too bad when you look closely, but clearly their side is pretty decimated now. The Hawks welcome back Worpel, O'Meara and (out of nowhere) Luke Breust. Could not be more contrasting signals from these two sides.


It's one of those weird Round 23 matches where anything could happen. The new Tigers line up could just play like the shackles are well and truly off, even if they look severely out of their depth on paper. Still enough quality across the board to enjoy the wide open spaces of the MCG, where Riewoldt and Lynch have combined for 32 goals this season. After a shocker last week from both of them, pride alone should dictate a lift in form against a Hawks side not exactly flush with incredible key defenders at the moment.


Still, given the form of these two sides it's no wonder the avalanche of support has come for the Hawks. Three wins in a row, two of them against teams in the top six. We learned our lesson by underestimating them for several weeks, but with that kind of setup there is always the danger of them being softened up for a flat one. Given the send off for Alistair Clarkson and the kind of side the Tigers have produced, you still have to think the Hawks finish on a high note.


This is one of those games where it all seems too obvious. Are we in for a surprise here?


Pick: Hawthorn by 10


Sydney v Gold Coast


The finals might come a couple of weeks too late for Sydney, who are showing signs of tapering off a little after a big year of rapid improvement. Add to that Nick Blakey and Josh Kennedy's season-ending injuries and they have a tough task ahead of them to go deep into the finals series.


Still, they come up against the Suns at a pretty good time. Even without Buddy last week, the Swans had an average of 92 games experience across their playing group. The Suns had only 68, which makes it no surprise that they have conceded some big scores in the past month. The season has caught up with them in a big way, admittedly in one of the toughest runs home any side has faced.


On the offensive side they haven't offered much themselves. Either side of the win against Carlton in Round 21, the Suns have managed eight goals in eight quarters of football. Can they find the sort of effort that managed to beat the Swans in Round 6 out of nowhere? In that game they posted a 195 pressure rating and found plenty of ways to score, posting 100 points for only the second time this year. A repeat of that level of pressure goes close to challenging Sydney (and most sides) but they haven't reached that level since they peaked across Round 16 and 17 with wins against the Giants and Tigers.


The Swans have far too many offensive options not to post another 90+ total here. No Franklin last week and Isaac Heeney was well held, so up bobs Will Hayward and Tom Papley to hit the scoreboard. The ground level players for Sydney will be an absolute handful for the Suns, and enough to get them over the line despite their injury worries.


Even taking into account some usual final-round madness, it's hard to see the Suns having enough scoring power here. Sydney probably hit their top form at the wrong time this season but a good win here will give them some solid confidence heading into the finals next week.


Pick: Sydney by 28


Brisbane v West Coast


After a two-goal loss to Hawthorn in Round 20, many feared the Lions had lost their mojo a little. Looking back now, and knowing the kind of form the Hawks are in, it wasn't actually as surprising a result, and probably the loss they needed to have. They've scored 120, 118 and 142 either side of that game, confirming that their best form of defence is probably just to attack.


The Eagles will give them plenty of opportunity - they are the worst pressure side in the competition, among the worst tackling sides in recent history (hard to get a true measure as the official tackle/missed tackle stats aren't a very good guide), and have a back six that can't defend one-on-one.


Once the teams dropped the Lions just became even stronger favourites. No Kennedy, McGovern, Kelly or Sheppard in the Eagles side. Brisbane unchanged.


Something would have to go horribly wrong for the Eagles to pinch this. Is their glimmer of hope the midfield? They could roll the dice at stoppage, win the clearance battle and give their forwards enough supply to compete, but it could just as easily backfire if they are too offensively-minded. It might be Nic Naitanui BOG or bust.


The stoppage angle relies heavily on the Eagles having unbroken chains for long periods - as soon as the Lions can force it back into a contest, West Coast are disadvantaged again. They have the worst post-clearance contested possession figures in the comp in most categories. On a fast ball movement deck like the Gabba, this spells trouble.


The real enemy of Brisbane might be themselves. When you find yourself in a low-pressure contest outside of stoppage situations, there is a tendency for some teams to let their natural flair get the better of them. The Lions certainly fit into this category - remember a few weeks ago when we mentioned that it looked like all their forwards wanted to be the "finisher" rather than stick to the basics? They can't afford to fall back into that trap in this one, right on the eve of the finals.


Really hard to see how the Eagles have the energy to get over Brisbane in this sort of matchup. Team selection suggests they've waved the white flag, although the positive spin is that some pretty hungry depth players will get their chance. Nevertheless, it seems like it's all become too difficult for them this season. A summer of drastic change awaits...


Pick: Brisbane by 44


Geelong v Melbourne


Top spot at stake here, plus the choice of finals venue against 4th spot in week one.


Interested to see if these two play all their cards in this one. There's a slim chance they meet again around 7 days later, so that might come into consideration depending on what happens Friday night. You'd think the Cats are more likely to pull a few surprises, while the Dees generally don't mess with their formula too much these days.


What do we do here? Tricky one.


Melbourne's A-game is built on the back of turnover scoring. Geelong are equal parts competent at both styles of contests - stoppages and turnover, perhaps with a lean towards a bit more of a stoppage grind. The longer these sides can get the game on their terms, the better their chances at winning.


The skinny GMHBA deck probably isn't much of a factor with this matchup. It's more a case of the running power of Melbourne up against the contest work of Geelong, combined with their two big superstar forwards.


We find ourselves with the two best teams at forward 50 mark differential. The Dees haven't taken as many as Geelong over the course of the season for obvious reasons, but they more than make up for it up the other end by denying their opposition. Steven May returns to hold down a key defensive post alongside Harry Petty, leaving Jake Lever to do what he does best.


Really feel like this is Melbourne's defence vs Geelong's offence, and the Demons turnover game vs the Cats' stoppage power around the ground. No result would shock here, and we certainly wouldn't talk you out of picking Melbourne who have been able to win under a variety of circumstances this season. They have the soldiers to get the job done, as long as they can contain those Cats forwards.


Heart says Demons, head says Cats. Take your pick.


Pick: Melbourne by 4


Carlton v GWS


A club under absolute siege, running out of fit players, wishing their season away. Another just needing to win to make a late charge for a deep finals run. This only ends one way, right?


Would happily make a case for Carlton here, if we could find one. Is it the lack of genuine scoring power from the Giants that gives them a chance? The Giants haven't hit the 80-point mark in six of their last eight matches. A Blues offence without McKay will still find it tough, but with a low scoreline you're never really out of it if you can build some belief early on.


The first quarter is critical for both sides. GWS flew out of the blocks against Richmond, and this is no greater challenge. The Blues are 50/50 in first quarters over the past two months with a positive score differential - even last week against Port they were up and about early before it all fell apart. Neither side has a great second half record of late. The Giants have won only a single last quarter in their past 8 matches.


With Toby Greene out of exile (again), and their midfield absolutely flying, the Giants just have to play to their recent level and they win here. Carlton haven't won a clearance count since Round 18, have lost 9 of their past 12 differentials (and broken even twice in that period) and have outscored their opponent from stoppage by more than two goals only once this entire season.


From a turnover standpoint, the Giants aren't setting the world on fire but steadily improving now they have some confidence back. Given the Blues aren't valuing defence all that much, GWS will focus on preventing this game from resembling a bit of circle work. If it's too open they won't have as much chance to exert their dominance at the contest.


Giants are slowly becoming one of our favourite sides. We will drop off them quite quickly if they can't win this one.


Pick: GWS by 23


St Kilda v Fremantle


This game is impossible. The Saints are in better form than their recent 1-4 record suggests. The Dockers are 2-3 but would have the same record if they didn't win a miracle contest against Richmond at home. They find themselves in Tassie of all places, which hosted the famous siren-gate game all those years ago. The memories!


Let's not get seduced by Fremantle's win over West Coast, who let them walk through 50 tackles and really only scored in a vicious five-goal burst either side of quarter time. The Dockers have been super brave given their injury list and lack of potency up forward. Just expecting them to find this a bit tougher.


The Dockers' midfield combination of Darcy, Cerra, Serong and Brayshaw (returning from suspension) will always give them a chance. It's a huge test for St Kilda's midfield - they've won the clearance differential only once in the past six weeks, and have found it hard without both their star rucks on the park together.


A slim finals chance on the line for Fremantle, pride on the line for St Kilda. The Saints might go well with the pressure off a little, given they have been their own worst enemy for much of the year. Maybe with very little consequence they will kick straight, at least.


This probably comes down to whichever offence can fire down in Tassie. Max King v Matt Taberner would've been a highlight, but now King is missing through injury. Advantage Dockers? Tim Membrey and Rowan Marshall now shoulder more of the load up forward, which is less than ideal for the Saints. A pivotal head to head might be Jack Higgins v an underrated Lachie Schulz - a few goes from either of them will go a long way to helping their side get the four points. Ultimately, whoever makes the most of their opportunities will win, so it really is a coin flip here.


The Dockers have the edge through the middle, and with King out of the side it removes any advantage St Kilda may have had up forward. Hard to split them.


Pick: Fremantle by 4

Essendon v Collingwood


The Pies would love nothing more than to ruin Essendon's finals chances. They just aren't in any sort of form to make us believe it's actually possible.


Collingwood have won only a single quarter in their past two games - the final term against Hawthorn where they trailed by 30 points at the last change. Brisbane basically did what they liked against them last weekend, even though the final margin probably flattered the Lions.


The Bombers offence doesn't quite have the same calibre of Brisbane, but Collingwood will still find them tough to contain. The last time they met, Essendon put up 109 points. A repeat of that sort of scoreline and they win comfortably.


At least the Pies stay at the MCG for this one. Three of their six wins have been at this venue. The only time the Bombers have saluted at the G this season (in only four attempts, funnily enough), was against the Pies way back in Round 6.


Restricting Essendon's scoring is their best chance. Can Collingwood lock down for long enough and take the pace out of the game? They've shown they can do it in patches, but rarely for four quarters.


The Bombers won't mind plenty of stoppages. They have the best clearance differential of any side in the past six weeks, and double the amount of stoppage scores than their opposition. The evolution of Essendon from a free-flowing, turnover-based team to a stoppage beast has been interesting. It has worked against three of the bottom four sides recently (as well as the Bulldogs), and there's no reason to suggest it will fail against the 16th-placed Magpies.


Denying the uncontested mark game of the opposition is the key for Essendon - they failed to do it against Sydney and GWS and paid the price (-49 and -43 in those matches), but then held traditional ball hogs like the Bulldogs and Suns to basically a break-even figure. Given the Pies have the second-highest uncontested mark differential over the past six weeks, it will be an interesting watch early to see who gets the game on their terms.


For the sake of the competition, hoping the Bombers salute and provide a bit of spark to this finals series.


Pick: Essendon by 27

Adelaide v North Melbourne


What the hell do we do with this game? Two wins between these sides in the last month, with their scores of 100+ in Round 19 looking like an aberration. The Crows have won only a single second-half quarter in their past four games. The Roos have made the honourable loss an art form.


Clearly North Melbourne come into this one in better form - after comfortably dealing with Carlton they got within 20 points of Geelong, kept the Tigers to a 2-goal first half (before the floodgates opened) and stoically hung in there against Sydney last week. But relying on a four-win team to hold their form isn't something you should do...


In some ways, the Crows getting themselves up for this one shouldn't come as a surprise. Just as it wasn't a shock when they put in a flat one the week after the Showdown. With that out of the way, we are expecting them to play with a bit of freedom here in their last game of the season with nothing on the line. Their performance against Melbourne was reasonably competitive if you look closely.


The only ones cheering harder for Adelaide than Crows fans will be the Giants. They hold Collingwood's first pick, so if North fail to get the job done the Pies will fall to 17th (unless they somehow beat Essendon). Fair trade win that for GWS!


North are currently a better side than Adelaide. Just can't trust either of them so go with your gut - or if you need one last correct selection to leapfrog your footy tipping leader, go with the Crows to cause the upset.


Pick: Adelaide by 1

Best Matchups - Western Bulldogs v Port Adelaide, Geelong v Melbourne

Best Underdog - Melbourne, Fremantle, Adelaide

Team Under Pressure - Western Bulldogs

Player To Watch - Lance Franklin - there won't be too many games left with Buddy in full flight. Well rested after being given a week off, he could dead set explode against this Suns defence. If Stringer kicked five last week... "Play It Safe" Final Round Picks (if you're ahead in your comp and need to consolidate...) WBU, HAW, SYD, BRI, GEE, GWS, STK, ESS, ADE/NOR depending on previous results "Miracle Comeback" Final Round Picks (if you're behind in your comp and need to make up some ground. Monitor across the weekend to see where you sit after each game...) One of POR or RIC, SYD, BRI, MEL, GWS, FRE, ESS, ADE