One of the most enthralling home and away seasons in AFL history ends with a weekend of relief, heartbreak and intrigue, setting the scene for a September to remember.
Welcome to the AFL Round-Up, where we digest the week that was.
Cruellest of endings for Carlton
Where else can we start but the MCG on Sunday afternoon, where Carlton’s season was ended in the most brutal means imaginable and Collingwood’s 2022 fantasy somehow reached greater heights?
It was 23 weeks ago that the Blues begun their season on the same ground with a win over Richmond that served as a signal of intent. This was to be a new Carlton, judged using new metrics and with far loftier aspirations.
At the end of 22 of those rounds, the Blues held a spot in the top eight. The only time they slipped out was the only time it really mattered.
With the finals drought now officially extended by another year, judging Carlton’s season becomes complicated. Does being that close for that long represent success? Does falling so narrowly short at the final hurdle make the whole thing a failure? Can both realities exist at the same time without the universe caving in on itself?
There are weeks, maybe months, of emotional recovery ahead for Carlton, but they can take solace from the fact that though they technically won’t play finals this year, in a way they actually did just play two of them.
Those games against Melbourne and Collingwood were finals in all but name, and the experience gained from them — both good and achingly bad — will start them in a better position in 2023. It’s not much, but all the Blues have right now are silver linings.
As for Collingwood? It’s remarkable. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
There’s no way to quantify or analyse the spirit and belief within the Magpies right now. It’s officially carried them to a top four season, and it’s becoming harder to imagine a world in which they don’t somehow ride this wave to three more one-kick victories and the greatest premiership in the AFL era.
If you don’t believe in Magpie miracles by now, you haven’t been paying attention.
Who’s ready for some finals?
With tremendous relief, we can all retire our ladder predictors for another year. The top eight is settled, the finals picture is clear and once this infernal bye week is out of the way we can get down to business.
We begin in Brisbane on the Thursday night, where the Lions attempt to recover from their Demons horror show against a Richmond team many believe are capable of coming from the clouds to make a charge. And on the basis of Brisbane’s recent form, maybe things are opening up for the Tigers.
That display from the Lions on Friday night was a disaster on every level, the sort that won’t be easy to shake off in a fortnight. A home final it may be, but right now it’s impossible to have any confidence in the Lions for that one.
Melbourne and Sydney, second and third, might be the toughest game to call of the week. The Swans have had recent success against the Demons at the MCG, but there is a sense that the 2021 Dees have simply been in hibernation, waiting for a Spring re-emergence.
This will be the biggest stage most of these Swans have played on, a test just about as great as any in the game. But Sydney fear nobody, with good reason. This one could be special.
But if you can only watch one game in the first of week of finals, Geelong-Collingwood on Saturday twilight at the MCG should probably be it.
The Cats have just quietly completed one of the most dominant home and away campaigns of the last 15 years, finishing a whole two games clear of the scramble beneath them. They are proven to be the best team in the league at present, and have had the luxury of being able to spend the last several weeks preparing specifically for a finals assault.
But Collingwood are mainlining magic, and might look at the chance to play the minor premiers in the first week as the perfect setting to ride their ridiculous momentum further. Logic says Geelong should be favourites in this game, but the Pies have long since dispensed with logic.
A trip to Perth will wrap up the week with Fremantle, whose hold on a top four spot broke at the same moment as Carlton’s on the finals, welcome a Western Bulldogs team who probably can’t believe their luck.
The Dockers will probably be the clearest favourites of any of the four games, but the Dogs have priors here. An unconvincing route to finals? An imposing trip to WA in the first week of finals? Got just a whiff of 2016 about it, doesn’t it?
Around the grounds — season over edition
One last thumping came as a timely reminder of the work that is ahead, but the ending to North Melbourne’s 2022 story may make the whole thing worthwhile. Alastair Clarkson does not guarantee success, but he guarantees hope and a certain credibility long lacked at Arden Street. North are now must-watch in 2023, and there is more to work with at the Roos than results this year have indicated.
It’s no-man’s-land for St Kilda, and there aren’t many worse places to be. Brett Ratten’s challenge is to figure out where the marginal gains are coming from that can take a solidly mid-table team to greater heights, and that is one of the tougher tasks in the game. They’re frustratingly close, but frustration will be the overriding emotion for Saints fans.
Quoting The Sopranos has been in vogue at Essendon this week, so we will follow suit. As Carmine Lupertazzi Jr would say, the Bombers are at the precipice of an enormous crossroads. Essendon’s next decision needs to be perfect, and given they have butchered nearly every single one this year, who could possibly have any confidence in them getting it right?
It’s been a disappointing season for Port Adelaide, but the last two weeks and especially the Showdown win will have settled the rancour somewhat. Doesn’t take a genius to spot that the 0-5 start to the year killed them, but a 10-7 run since then isn’t a disaster. You can guarantee there will be little leniency in 2023 though.
For cross-town rivals Adelaide, 2022 brought only one more win that 2021 but still the overall vibe is tentatively positive. In the first half of the season, the Crows sporadically played some of the most entertaining footy of anyone in the league, but a lot of that dare steadily eked away, culminating in that damp squib Showdown performance. A much bigger step up is required next year.
The Gold Coast Suns have never been in a better position. They matched their greatest ever wins total, but this is a far more complete and stable side than the Gary Ablett-led one of 2014. Izak Rankine’s future will be an off-season talking point, but the main conversations at Carrara should be of playing finals in 2023. They are just about ready.
Sam Mitchell’s first year at Hawthorn should also be considered a success. There were bumps along the way, and the Hawks are still probably another year of building away from mounting a serious finals charge, but the plan is clear and the leadership is worth investing in.
It was a relief to see GWS find a little bit of their old selves again late in the season, but it doesn’t make up for what was a disastrous season for the Giants. With the coaching post yet to be filled and a number of players seemingly headed for the exit door, GWS seem to be starting again right when they should be peaking.
Then there’s West Coast, the only team in the bottom four content to carry on into 2023 with the same coach and leadership structure. The Eagles managed to contain their losing margins in the second half of the season, but will likely begin next year attempting a rebuild with an ageing and beaten down list. More pain ahead.
In the clubhouse
At last, we can crown our individual award winners for 2022.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that our pick for the Rising Star is Collingwood’s Nick Daicos.
Daicos locked the award up weeks ago in our books, and will now look to play a serious part in finals in his debut year. Honourable mentions to Geelong’s Sam De Koning and Hawthorn’s Jai Newcombe.
Next up, the mark of the year. Our winner…
Is Port Adelaide’s Mitch Georgiades for this grab against Fremantle. It wasn’t Georgiades’s only nomination for the year, but this was his — and the season’s — best.
Finally, the goal of the year. The winner is…
Collingwood’s Josh Daicos, rounding out the Daicos Double in this section. This was a tougher field to pick from, but we’ve gone with this one for the persistent efforts and incredible skill on display.
Week one finals
Thursday, September 1
- 7.20pm AEST – Brisbane vs Richmond at the Gabba, elimination final
Friday, September 2
- 7.50pm AEST – Melbourne vs Sydney at the MCG, qualifying final
Saturday, September 3
- 4.35pm AEST – Geelong vs Collingwood at the MCG, qualifying final
- 6.10pm AWST – Fremantle vs Western Bulldogs at Perth Stadium, elimination final