2020 AFL season: Round 18 preview

With only one round to be played before the AFL finals get underway, the minor premiership, the last two remaining berths in the top eight, and the wooden spoon are all to be decided.


The Brisbane Lions will start hot favourites to move to the top of the ladder when they host Carlton at the Gabba, but they’ll finish second should Port Adelaide defeat Collingwood at the same venue on Monday night.


The battle for seventh and eighth has the Greater Western Sydney Giants needing not just to beat St Kilda by a large margin on Friday night, but hope that Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs are beaten later in the round to Bradbury their way back into the finals.


Down at the wrong end of the ladder, North Melbourne can all but avoid the wooden spoon if they can cause an upset against the West Coast Eagles, but a loss, coupled with an Adelaide win over Richmond, will see the Shinboners finish last for the first time since 1972.


That’s all to play out in what promises to be a massive final round of the 2020 regular season.


North Melbourne vs West Coast Eagles

After winning their first two games, the Roos have fallen into a massive heap, winning only once more (against the Adelaide Crows) to be sitting in 17th place on the ladder, all but guaranteeing their lowest ever finish since entering the AFL in 1925.


The only thing they can do now is to cause some nuisance value against the Eagles, who are still in with a chance to finish in the top four, but that would mean no home final due to Western Australia’s quarantine protocols.


The AFL has announced that Perth’s Optus Stadium will only host a final should the Eagles finish either fifth or sixth; any other position, even third or fourth, will render it impossible.


Despite being without their first-choice midfield from the 2018 premiership, the Eagles still managed to eke out a 15-point win over St Kilda at the Gabba, but their overall form in Queensland does little to suggest that they’ll be a threat for the flag.


After they face the Roos, they’ll then have to remain in Queensland until the end of Monday night before knowing what their finals fate will be. Either way, a win is non-negotiable.


Prediction: West Coast Eagles by 30 points.


St Kilda vs GWS Giants

Successive frustrating losses to the Adelaide Crows and Melbourne have seen the Giants, beaten grand finalists last year, sit in tenth place.


The only team to have won at least one final in each of the last four seasons, Leon Cameron’s side now risk missing the finals for the first time since 2015, which would be a catastrophic result given the high expectations that were bestowed upon them at the start of the year.


Seventh-year coach Cameron has implored his men to go all out as they attempt to reclaim their place in the eight, with Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs expected to start favourites in their respective matches against Essendon and Fremantle later in the round.


The Giants overcame a slow start against the Dees but pulled level at halftime before going down by five points at the death.


Meantime, St Kilda also took the fight right up to West Coast, who were missing their entire midfield from their 2018 premiership triumph, but still lost by 15 points to risk missing finals for a ninth consecutive season.


For Brett Ratten’s side, however, the equation is simple – win and they’ll finish in sixth place. Lose, however, and they’ll have to hope that other results go their way if they’re to participate in October.


With an eye on the finals, the Saints will take the points.


Prediction: St Kilda by 18 points.


Dylan Roberton

Dylan Roberton (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos/Getty Images)


Essendon vs Melbourne

90 days after the Bombers and Dees were originally drawn to face each other at the MCG, the two clubs will finally play their rescheduled fixture on the Gold Coast.


The original Round 3 match was postponed at 24 hours’ notice on Saturday June 20, after since-retired Bomber Conor McKenna tested positive to COVID-19.


The Bombers had started the season 2-0, while the Dees were 1-1, but fast forward to now and this Saturday will be John Worsfold’s final game in charge of Essendon, bringing an end to a modest five-year stint during which he oversaw the club’s rebuild after the drama of the supplements scandal.


Meanwhile, for the Dees, it’s win by enough and then hope that the Bulldogs are beaten heavily by Fremantle on Sunday – irrespective of the result between St Kilda and GWS the previous day.


Last week, Simon Goodwin’s men kept their faint finals hopes alive by edging out the Giants by five points at the Gabba, falling behind in the second half before a goal from Trent Rivers in the final quarter proved to be the winner.


But over the past decade matches between Essendon and Melbourne have proven to be hard to predict, with the underdog side victorious on all but two occasions.


So, while everyone expects and thinks that Melbourne will win, I’m going the other way.


Prediction: Essendon by six points.


Adelaide Crows vs Richmond

While the Tigers are widely expected to win, the Crows have won their last three games to give themselves a chance to avoid the wooden spoon.


In recent weeks, Matthew Nicks’ men have beaten Hawthorn, the Giants and Carlton to join North on three wins for the season, and could yet finish in 17th place should North Melbourne upset West Coast on Thursday night.


Otherwise, the Crows would have to thrash Richmond by a large margin – and that too is dependent on how much the Roos lose to the Eagles by – to avoid the embarrassment of finishing last in their 30th AFL season.


Realistically though, the Tigers will be looking to wrap up third place, with the expectation that they’ll be fourth on game day as the Eagles will start favourites to beat the Roos.


A win would then see them either ‘stay home’ and face Brisbane in a qualifying final, which would be a repeat of the corresponding final last year, or face another trip to the Oval to face Port Adelaide, to whom they lost by 21 points in Round 11.


Last week, the Tigers produced a strong defensive effort to restrict Geelong to only one goal in the first three-quarters, eventually winning by 26 points to retain their place in the top four.


Meantime, the Crows produced their best first-half of the season, thrashing Carlton into submission and eventually winning by 16 points to reignite interest in the battle for the wooden spoon.


While the men from West Lakes would love to finish their season on a high, and potentially hand the wooden spoon to the Kangaroos, it would be wise not to predict against the Tigers.


Prediction: Richmond by 14 points.


Jason Castagna of the Tigers celebrates after scoring a goal

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)


Brisbane Lions vs Carlton

The Power and Lions sit in equal top-spot with records of 13-3 each, though the Power’s superior percentage sees them just above.


Chris Fagan’s side locked up the top two with a five-goal win over Sydney in Cairns last week. Having trailed at quarter-time, the Lions kept the Swans scoreless in the second quarter and then kicked six goals to three in the last.


It ensured they will play their first two finals at the Gabba, and could potentially play the grand final at their true home should they get that far.


While they’ll start favourites against the Blues this Saturday night, they’ll be very aware of a side that came from well behind to beat them by 15 points in the teams’ most recent meeting at Marvel Stadium last year.


On that occasion, the Blues were armed with a new coach in David Teague, after his predecessor Brendon Bolton was sacked halfway through the season after returning just 16 wins in 77 matches in charge.


The Lions used that loss, after they had led by as much as 37 points in the second quarter, to spark them into a ten-match winning run that would take them to second place on the ladder, but ultimately a straight-sets exit from September.


But Teague’s side will have their own motivation to win this Saturday night, with one of the club’s modern greats in Kade Simpson to bow out of the game after over 340 games in the Navy Blue.


Simpson was drafted to the club during the club’s lowest ebb, whereby salary cap breaches saw the club stripped of top draft picks, hampering their short-term and long-term rebuilding plans.


The 36-year-old delivered what he could for his beloved club and will leave as one of the most respected and admired players in the game, even if he never featured in the game’s biggest stage – the grand final.


But, having already locked up a top-two finish, and with the minor premiership at stake, expect the Lions to show no mercy at home.


Prediction: Brisbane Lions by 20 points.


Hawthorn vs Gold Coast Suns

The first match on Sunday afternoon takes us to the Adelaide Oval for the second time this weekend, when Hawthorn, who have been hubbing in the Barossa Valley in South Australia, face the Gold Coast Suns in a dead rubber.


With just four wins this season, and currently sitting in 16th place on the ladder, this will be the Hawks’ worst season since 2004, and in the Alastair Clarkson era, with the club’s golden era now seemingly a distant memory.


Two more players from their triple-premiership winning classes of 2013-15 – captain Ben Stratton and Paul Puopolo – will play their final games this weekend, with the latter to fall short of the double-ton by only a couple of games.


Another veteran – Shaun Burgoyne – will play on for another season, after which he will retire after twenty seasons in the AFL.


Thus, the Hawks will have an incentive to finish their 2020 season on a high, but it will not come easy against a Gold Coast Suns side that has improved in spades this year.


After being thrashed by Port Adelaide in the opening round before the season suspension, the Suns won three matches in a row, which led many to suggest that this year would be the year they make their finals breakthrough.


But after last year’s top draft pick Matt Rowell suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against the Geelong Cats in Round 5, the Suns have dropped down the ladder, winning only two matches and drawing against Essendon since.


This Sunday, they’ll fancy their chances of a sixth win when they face the Hawks, who they’ve beaten only twice – both times in 2017.


Last Monday night, Stuart Dew’s side pushed the Pies to the death, leading at quarter-time but ending up losing by 22 points.


Another strong performance against the Hawks will again instill belief into Suns members and fans that the club is on the right track, and anything less than (say) eight-to-ten wins next year will be unacceptable.


Prediction: Gold Coast Suns by eight points.


Sydney Swans vs Geelong Cats

After a prolonged period on the road brought about by a second wave of coronavirus cases in Sydney, the Swans’ 2020 season will finally come to an end this Sunday when they ‘host’ the Cats at Metricon Stadium.


John Longmire’s men have covered a lot of the country this season, sans the Northern Territory and Tasmania, playing two matches each in Adelaide, Perth and Cairns, while remaining based at their true home in the first half of the season before being forced out of their state.


In addition they have been ravaged by injuries to key players all season, with Lance Franklin not featuring at all this season, Isaac Heeney suffering a horrific ankle injury that ended his season in Round 6 and Josh Kennedy also missing several games.


They also had to deal with the Elijah Taylor quarantine scandal which saw him suspended for the rest of the season after Round 12, and subsequently stood down by the club as he faces serious assault allegations that has been leveled against him.


Last Sunday night, the Swans pushed the Brisbane Lions all the way, leading by five points at quarter-time, and then getting to within two points before capitulating in the final ten minutes to lose by 32 points.


Despite the defeat, coach Longmire said he was happy with his team’s performance, as they won most key statistics including inside-50s and clearances.


But they’ll need more than a repeat performance if they are to upset the Cats, who are eyeing a double chance and a possible shot at Port Adelaide in the first week of the finals.


Chris Scott’s side were anything but abysmal against Richmond last Friday night, kicking only one goal to three quarter-time and losing by 26 points to all but end their chances of finishing in the top two.


But in a major boost for the Cats, they’ll get soon-to-be-retiree Gary Ablett Jr back after he returned to Melbourne to care for his ill son, and then quarantined for a fortnight upon his return to Queensland.


His presence could be exactly what they need as they close in on fourth place on the ladder and a showdown against the Power in the City of Churches in the opening week of the finals.


Prediction: Geelong Cats by 22 points.


Fremantle vs Western Bulldogs

The penultimate match of the regular season will see the Western Bulldogs control their finals destiny when they face Fremantle at Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns.


Of the four teams still in contention to fill the final two places on the ladder, Luke Beveridge’s men are the best placed, needing only to beat the Dockers to be assured of their place in October.


It would also be advantageous to them if the GWS Giants and Melbourne drop their respective ties against St Kilda and Essendon earlier in the round, as that would shut up shop on the eight with over half a round to go by the time the final siren goes in the Bombers-Dees match.


The Dogs would then play for seventh place on the ladder, which could mean an elimination final against the Saints, likely to be played at Metricon Stadium.


First, they must get past a Freo side that has impressed this year under rookie coach Justin Longmuir, winning seven matches, the most recent of them by 64 points against North Melbourne last Saturday afternoon.


Normally a defensive side, the Dockers registered their highest score for the year, falling just a point short of the ton as they made it back-to-back victories, having also beaten Melbourne in Round 16.


But with everything to play for, expect the Bulldogs to take the points.


Prediction: Western Bulldogs by 18 points.


Collingwood vs Port Adelaide

The final match of the regular season could see Port Adelaide playing to claim the minor premiership when they face Collingwood at the Gabba on Monday night.


With the Lions starting favourites to defeat the Blues on Saturday night, it will be left to Ken Hinkley’s side to ensure that they beat the Pies to finish the season having spent each round at the top of the ladder.


The last team to do this was Essendon in 2000 – and the Bombers went on to claim the flag that year.


In another good omen for Port Adelaide supporters, each team that has ended Round 1 on top of the ladder in every leap year since then have also gone all the way, including the Power themselves in 2004.


But standing in the way of the club potentially finishing the season as minor premiers are Collingwood – a team against whom the Power have struggled against in recent times.


The Pies have won their past two against the Power by a total of 90 points, though both of those were in Melbourne. Thus, Port should consider themselves they won’t have to face the Pies in the Victorian capital, which has been locked down since Round 5.


In their last regular season home game before the finals, the Power trailed Essendon at quarter-time but ran riot thereafter, winning by 50 points to strengthen their grip on the minor premiership.


Collingwood, meantime, were made to fight for its victory against the Gold Coast Suns, being held on a leash for three quarters before pulling away in the final quarter to win by 22 points.


It confirmed that they will play finals for a third consecutive season, and they will have the incentive to beat the Power on Monday night as captain Scott Pendlebury will bring up game #314 in what has been a glittering career.


But currently six points adrift of the West Coast Eagles, who sit in fifth place, the best the Pies can finish is sixth with a win, which would mean a “home” elimination final likely to be at the Gabba, or at worst eighth place and another trip to Perth to face the Eagles in a knockout final.


In the end I think Port will take the points, and henceforth the minor premiership.


Prediction: Port Adelaide by 16 points.


Should my predictions wind up being correct, the first week of the finals series could look like this:


First qualifying final: Port Adelaide vs Geelong Cats, Adelaide Oval, Thursday 1 October at 7:20pm (ACST)

Second qualifying final: Brisbane Lions vs Richmond, Gabba, Friday 2 October at 7:50pm


First elimination final: West Coast Eagles vs Collingwood, Optus Stadium, Saturday 3 October at 6:10pm (AWST)

Second elimination final: St Kilda vs Western Bulldogs, Metricon Stadium or the Gabba, Saturday 3 October at 4:40pm