This current AFL season, in all of its madness, is clearing up after its murky beginnings.
The release of Round 6 fixtures and details of future WA hubs means the season is starting to take shape. For numerous teetering sides, Round 4 looms as a massive weekend for their 2020 fortunes. There are a raft of contests that could go either way.
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Sydney v Western Bulldogs
Last week’s results mean this clash intensifies.
Not long ago these two sides were meeting in a famous Grand Final. Now, they are both fighting to string early wins together to make a push for finals. Sydney have surprised; their young list is producing enough to hang in matches. The Bulldogs have found a renewed sense of vigour after last Friday night, and must match it if they are to have any chance of making it two in a row.
The battle of the tough mids
Sydney’s older core of stars in Josh Kennedy and Luke Parker fashioned a special four-quarter performance against the Roos last week. Coming up against one of the tougher midfields in the competition, Kennedy’s strength at the coalface and Parker’s industry led the Swans right over the top of the Shinboners. With Isaac Heeney coming into his own in the midfield, Sydney must replicate this superiority against the fiery Bulldogs.
The boys from Footscray changed rapidly last week. Tom Liberatore was back in the side and the Dogs were tenacious around the ball. If both teams bring this renewed application to winning the contested ball, then this match should be a cracker.
Will the Bulldogs be able to break through Sydney’s defence?
Often an underrated line, Sydney’s back six are rock solid. Dane Rampe, Aliir Aliir and Callum Mills are one of the best groups of tall defenders in the competition, while Jake Lloyd and Robbie Fox are composed disposers of the footy coming out of the back 50. With the likes of Harry Cunningham and Oliver Florent also spending time off half back, the Swans have a trustworthy yet aggressive defence who are difficult to score against.
To win this game, the Bulldogs must find ways of breaching them. They rely heavily on their midfielders to push forward and kick goals, but Aaron Naughton, Mitch Wallis, Josh Bruce and Sam Lloyd must all contribute and wreak havoc against their reliable opponents. If they don’t, the scoreboard may dry up quicker than a puddle on a summer’s day.
Tip: Expecting another tight contest that could go either way. If Sydney play the way they did last week they should prove too good – just. Swans by 16.
GWS v Collingwood
This match could be anything.
In a rematch of the crazy 2019 Preliminary Final, Collingwood will travel up to Western Sydney looking for revenge. They are in decent form to challenge the Giants, who will be fired up after a fortnight of pathetic performances. All roads point to this contest being intense and close. We’ll just have to wait and see which GWS comes out to play.
Can the Giants finally produce a hardened attack on the footy?
Halfway through last season, GWS came out amidst criticism to absolutely dismantle Collingwood. The black and white army were helpless as the likes of Stephen Coniglio, Josh Kelly, Lachie Whitfield and Jeremy Cameron all burst out of the blocks to set up a rampant win.
Now, the Giants need this effort again. They have come under fire for their weird attack on their opponents last week. To beat the Pies, they must be completely zoned in to winning the clearances and out-working Collingwood’s vaunted midfield. GWS rely on getting the ball to outside users like Heath Shaw and Whitfield, but they can’t do this if they aren’t winning it at the start.
Is GWS the only team who can break through Collingwood’s defence?
After last week’s miserly effort against the Saints, the Magpies’ mature back six were praised for keeping their three 2020 opponents to under 40 points each. Darcy Moore and Jordan Roughead have been superb against the competition’s tall forwards, but now they must do the job against Jeremy Finlayson and Jeremy Cameron. Both aren’t playing at their best; that means nothing when they have the talent to suddenly flick the switch.
Brayden Maynard has been rock solid, but he will now get a tougher assignment on Toby Greene. Jeremy Howe’s ability to take intercept marks will also be put to the test against Harry Himmelberg. It’s a mouth-watering contest between the league’s best attack and defence.
Tip: This is another that can easily go either way. If the two sides play as they have in previous weeks then the Pies should get the job done, but GWS are extremely unpredictable. I’m going to go Collingwood by 25, but it all depends on the boys in orange.
Port Adelaide v West Coast
It’s getting close to do-or-die for the Eagles.
They must win in Queensland if they are to have any chance of a finals spot, nonetheless a double chance. They have been disappointing so far – could a win against the competition’s leading team shock them into action?
This is Port’s test
The Power are currently atop the ladder, but they have had it rather easy. They easily dispatched a rusty Gold Coast in Round 1, and then returned from the hiatus to smack the wooden spoon favourites in Adelaide and edge past a defiant Fremantle. Despite West Coast’s poor recent form, their experienced midfield will put the Power to the test.
Power coach Ken Hinkley has his eyes on finals, and these sorts of games must be won if his side is to remain a threat going forward. They have a list primed for a run at success, but it’s all about Port Adelaide’s mental strength.
When will West Coast’s experienced group regather themselves?
The Eagles’ start to the 2020 season has been the biggest shock. Boasting a midfield of Andrew Gaff, Elliot Yeo, Luke Shuey, Dom Sheed and Tim Kelly, they have no excuses for putting up such disappointing efforts. Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling have been listless up forward, while Shannon Hurn and his defensive group are showing signs of frailty.
Nic Naitanui has been a lone ranger in pushing his side forward, but he needs help. The onus is on Adam Simpson’s established side to find their form – are they able to do it, or are they too far down the rabbit hole?
Tip: Honestly, who knows. I went for West Coast last week and was left bitterly disappointed. Port Adelaide aren’t reliable yet, but they may just get over the line here unless the Eagles bounce back extraordinarily quickly. Power by 10.
St Kilda v Richmond
Another nailbiter is ahead of us.
St Kilda are looking to prove that their stumbling loss to Collingwood last week was a slight setback in their progression. Back on their preferred track at Marvel Stadium, they have a real chance at upsetting the failing Tigers.
Much like the Eagles, Richmond need a win very soon if they are to right the ship.
Will we see Dusty back?
Dustin Martin’s rib soreness saw him sit out last week’s humbling loss to the Hawks. His impact was sorely missed in the middle, as his teammates couldn’t cover his absence. Dusty, regardless of his form, is a necessity for the yellow and black in these times. Just his presence may inspire his side into playing better.
Similar to West Coast, the Tigers need their older heads to prevail if they are to blunt the Saints run. Dusty is the prime one to do it, but is he fully fit?
Is Billings and co ready to usurp the Tigers?
He may have had a quiet game against the Pies last week, but Jack Billings is ready to become an elite midfielder. With Jade Gresham also putting in consistent efforts in the middle, the younger St Kilda midfielders have a prime chance to out-run the Tigers and make a statement.
Ex-Tiger Dan Butler has been in great touch up forward, while Max King is already showing signs of becoming a powerhouse marking target. If St Kilda can win the centre battle, it’ll go a long way to breaking through Richmond. Their forward line will have to play much better than last week, but a functioning midfield may make their attack look so much more dangerous.
Tip: I’m always hesitant to go against Richmond, but this season has been full of upsets. I’m prepared to lose a tip here in going St Kilda by 19.
Gold Coast v Fremantle
So much hype is surrounding Gold Coast and Matt Rowell. He has jumped out of the box to lead his young side to a commanding position at the end of Round 3. The big question is whether the Suns can continue this form against a miserly Freo.
Will Freo get consistent contributors?
To become a better side, Justin Longmuir needs more purple-clad men to give more. Nat Fyfe and Michael Walters have carried the load in 2020, but they need their forward line to click into gear and fire. If ex-Demon Jesse Hogan and Brandon Matera can find their feet, then Fyfe and Walters can spend more time controlling the midfield. It makes their team more balanced and dangerous. But if the Freo attackers continue to struggle, Fyfe will be left to shoulder all responsibility up forward.
Can Witts keep his form going?
Underneath all the talk surrounding Gold Coast’s young guns, co-captain Jarrod Witts has started out terrifically. Rucking for the majority of games, he has beaten the likes of Nic Naitanui and Reilly O’Brien in recent weeks. He has always been an impressive tap ruckman, but he is now starting to develop his around the ground craft.
Sean Darcy and Rory Lobb are both good ruckmen on their day. But they have been scratchy; Witts looks set to claim another ruck win, and it could go a long way to winning his side the match.
Tip: It’s hard not to ignore the Suns’ talk. Freo are tricky, but Gold Coast have too much firepower across the board. Suns by 30.
Essendon v Carlton
Despite last week’s COVID-scare, the Bombers should be fit and ready to go on Saturday night. It’s still hard to get a read on Essendon after their scrappy start to 2020, while Carlton’s season was given a major boost when beating the Cats last week. The famous rivalry will heat back up in unfamiliar circumstances at the ‘G.
How will everything impact the Bombers?
Essendon have had a crazy few weeks.
After overcoming the Swans in an underwhelming performance, captain Dyson Heppell broke his foot and Conor McKenna sent a ripple of fear over the competition. Everything now looks better for the Dons, who will not lose many players to quarantine. The main issue will be the COVID-induced bye – will they be able to find their feet quickly in this game? They need to, for Carlton aren’t the easy opponents they used to be.
Was Eddie’s effort a flash in the pan?
Last Saturday night Carlton’s forward line changed remarkably. Jack Martin continued his dominance across half-forward, while Mitch McGovern and Levi Casboult marked everything. If they let one slip, Eddie Betts was everywhere. It’s been years since Carlton’s forward six were that dangerous.
The task is to replicate this. They have an easier assignment than the Cats at GMHBA Stadium, but complacency is a horrible thing in football. All eyes will be on this forward line – with Patrick Cripps in better touch, they’ll get the service required to win the game. It’s all about whether they’ll take their chance.
Tip: Another ridiculously hard one to read. Essendon are the great unknown, and I’m too scared to hedge my bets on them. They’ll warm into a good side, and Carlton may not be able to back up after such an inspiring win. Lineball on this one – Dons by 7.
Brisbane v Adelaide
In a round of tight tussles, this is one of the only matches with a clear favourite. Adelaide are a rabble, and can’t be expected to suddenly bounce back. Stranger things have happened, but if Brisbane are the real deal then they must win easily.
When will Brisbane’s forward line fire?
Many Brisbane eyes will be on Eric Hipwood. He is only showing frustrating glimpses of his potential. For someone who has the ability to win games off his own boot, he must perform to keep his side’s winning streak going.
Young players in Jarrod Berry, Hugh McCluggage and Alex Witherden are all improving rapidly. Hipwood is the last piece of the puzzle – if he is improving then the Lions can win games when not playing at their best.
Give Doedee some help
Since returning from his ACL injury in 2019, Tom Doedee has gone under the radar. In a defence that has been bombarded like no other, he has held his own and continued to dominate down back. But he needs some assistance.
Doedee already has his hands full with the best tall forwards in the league. Now, Rory Laird, Jake Kelly and Luke Brown need to give him some help so he can continue progressing his intercept game.
Tip: Adelaide may give more of a yelp, but Brisbane simply must win. Lions by 47.
Melbourne v Geelong
Melbourne are another side who are unknown. Their tight win against the Blues was made to look better when Carlton snatched victory over the Cats. With their match against Essendon being postponed, they have had an extra week to work on their game.
The Dees forwards will be tested
Melbourne’s small and versatile forward group managed to just get the win over Carlton two weeks ago. Christian Petracca and Jayden Hunt were electric and fast, but the likes of Tom Stewart, Mark Blicavs and Zach Tuohy will make life much harder.
Young Luke Jackson has an impossible task ahead of him against this defence. Tom McDonald must contribute with some goals, while Alex Neal-Bullen and his other small forwards need to get the ball to ground and run rings around Geelong to post a winning total.
Who will go with Max Gawn?
The one player capable of turning the game is Max Gawn. He did it in the latter stages against Carlton, and is primed to do so again here. Rhys Stanley’s Round 3 was a let-down – he now has one of the toughest jobs in the league against the Dees captain.
Gawn will give his midfield a decisive advantage at stoppages, so it’s a head-scratcher to see how Geelong can stop him. The Cats centremen must be dynamic in sharking his taps if they have any chance of winning clearances.
Tip: Melbourne could easily get up here, but Geelong will be looking to bounce back hard after last week’s let-down. The Dees have what it takes – it’s a flip of the coin. Cats by 5. I could be wrong though.
Hawthorn v North Melbourne
Of course, this difficult round must end on another hard one.
Hawthorn were a completely different side in Round 3 to the one that lost to Geelong. With Jaeger O’Meara back controlling the midfield, the Hawks blitzed the Tigers. North Melbourne were left seething after giving up a win against the Swans. Who will come up trumps on Sunday?
Which midfield will triumph?
Ben Cunnington should be back for the Roos, meaning their midfield will return to full strength. Todd Goldstein against Jonathon Ceglar and Ben McEvoy will be an intriguing battle. The tough blue and white bulls in Jy Simpkin, Jed Anderson and Shaun Higgins will have a tight fight against O’Meara, Tom Mitchell and James Worpel.
This is a tantalising match-up – both midfields are on the rise and are capable of beating anyone. The team who is more focused and intense at the footy will win this one.
Now is the time for Ben Brown
After a slow start, Ben Brown is starting to find his touch. A handful of goals last week brought him into the game, yet he drifted out of the latter stages when the match was on the line. In a 50/50 game, Brown needs a consistent display of marking to stamp his presence on the contest. If not, Hawthorn have the rebounding defenders to make the Roos pay.
Tip: With all the emotion surrounding Hawthorn this weekend, they may just be fired up enough to get the win. Hawks by 12.