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Get set for the best final round EVER, and 2022’s worst dive named and shamed

It all comes down to this.

After 22 rounds, the race for the finals is down to nine – but if you’re a Carlton or Western Bulldogs fan, you’re in for a nervous week.

But Round 22 wasn’t just a set-up for the insane finale that is to come. From Derby drama, to Kysaiah Pickett’s left boot, to a Sydney masterclass at SCG, there are storylines everywhere to make this September utterly compelling, no matter who makes it.

So, for the second-last time this year, let’s dive in!

1. Strap yourselves in for the best home-and-away finale ever

There has never been an ending to a season quite like this.

Six teams vying for four top-four spots. Another two desperately hoping to squeeze into eighth. Hardly a dead rubber in between it all.

It’s all going to be utterly compelling.

The headline act, of course, is Sunday afternoon at the MCG. Even with post-COVID crowds, surely 90,000 get there to see Carlton face Collingwood (if 60,000 can get to the ‘G for Richmond-Hawthorn, then that might end up a conservative figure).

The Blues just need a win to scrape into eighth – maybe even seventh, if Richmond have an unexpected stumble against Essendon on Saturday night. For a side that has spent 22 of 22 rounds inside the eight, it would be a devastating blow to miss September yet again. The stakes could not be higher.

For Collingwood, the rewards are just as bountiful. Having fallen to fifth with their loss to Sydney, they are guaranteed top four if they can beat the Blues, with one of the Dees and Lions having to lose. Making matters worse, though, defeat would likely see them drop to sixth, and face a crunch elimination final against an in-form Richmond – the hardest task for any side in week one of the finals.

Remarkably, that might only be the second most important game of the weekend. The season is on the line for Brisbane and Melbourne on Friday night at the Gabba: unless other results go haywire (and you can’t rule that out this season), then the difference between victory and defeat could be as big as second versus sixth.

Win, and it’s a guaranteed qualifying final – second if Sydney lose or tank their percentage, third if not. Lose? Well, it could be sixth if the Pies and Fremantle both get the job done, which means… yep, those Tigers again.

It’s quite literally season on the line for two of the biggest contenders all season long.

Add to that a Showdown, with the Crows looking to tie on premiership points with an in-form Power and best their rivals for the second time this season, and there’s the spice factor too. We saw with the Derby this week how intense these cross-town battles can be – the Showdown historically brings with it an epic match as well.

Sydney and Fremantle both just need to get the job done on the road against tricky opponents St Kilda and GWS. Neither wants to be this year’s West Coast of 2019, and flush a great season down the toilet with a final-round shocker. The lines are so tight that a loss for either of them, especially the Swans, probably means bye-bye top four.

Then there’s Geelong, who get to have a training run in preparation for the finals with the minor premiership sewn up against, drum roll please… West Coast. Yeah. That’ll be worth watching, but only to see if the Cats can rack up a cricket score and smash some records to add to their dominant-looking season.

Final rounds usually feature dead rubbers aplenty and teams going through the motions until finals. This one has everything you could hope for.

It’s going to be EPIC.

Patrick Cripps of the Blues avoids a tackle by Brayden Maynard of the Magpies

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

2. Time for Saints to swallow their pride with Max King

Following his wayward, crucial 0.5 on Friday night in St Kilda’s narrow loss to Brisbane, Max King now has 47 goals and 41 behinds for the 2022 season.

Good on Brett Ratten for backing his coaches – most obviously Jarryd Roughead – to get the job done in the long run, but the fact is that after 18 months’ worth of repeat bad cases of the yips, something has to give.

“He won’t be seeing anyone outside the club, he doesn’t need to,” Ratten said after the defeat, which officially put a line through the Saints’ finals hopes.

“We’ve got people with the skill set to keep working there. It’s not just all about the technical aspect, there’s a mental aspect as well.

“With goalkicking, it’s a closed skill and there’s different elements to it. It’s not just, we bring someone in and they fix up the ball drop or something like that.”

Ratten is correct that there are more aspects to goalkicking than just fixing up technique – but the strangest part of it all is that King himself is in no doubt as to the man he wants, or at least wanted, to help him turn things around.

Midway through last year, following a similarly errant few nights in front of the big sticks, King sought out Matthew Lloyd, his old coach at Haileybury, keen on a session or two. But the Saints, either concerned about him being injured away from the club or just plain reluctant to outsource the job, turned him down.

For what it’s worth, Lloyd’s analysis of the issues with King’s set shots on The Sunday Footy Show is well worth a watch. Everything from the run-in, to the ball-drop, to the follow-through, isn’t working for the Saint, and Lloyd identifies and picks apart all of it with the knowledge only a former player of his standing could provide.

Imagine what other, more minute, things a man who kicked 926 goals at the third-most accurate rate of anyone with more than 300 (behind Tony Lockett and Peter Hudson, for those playing at home) could pick up with some close one-on-one sessions.

Even if, as Ratten suggested, the problem is more mental than technical, then surely Lloyd would be of help. King, after all, did have the belief last year that his old mentor could help out; the extra dose of belief he’d get walking in to goal having spent a few weeks working with one of the game’s finest sharpshooters couldn’t hurt things.

It’s not like errant kicking can’t be fixed up, either. King only needs to look at Aaron Naughton; who after starting the year with an 8.8 record after four rounds after a 47.40 2021, has since improved to be 40.22 for the rest of the season.

As it stands, King might have cost the Saints finals, and himself a Coleman Medal, with his errant kicking. For his sake, the club can’t stand in his way, and must let him do whatever it takes to solve it.

There is no shame in asking for outside help; but there is in refusing to address thoroughly something that is clearly broken.

Max King of the Saints celebrates a goal.

Max King of the Saints celebrates a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

3. 2022’s worst dive must be named and shamed

Rightly lost in the incredible finish that was Melbourne’s win over Carlton was this from Mitch McGovern.

McGovern had a great match, and should Carlton end up making the finals, will be a crucial asset for the Blues as an intercepting third tall. But this blatant stage off the softest of love taps from Jake Melksham is a horrendous look for him.

For starters, McGovern, frustrated at finding fresh air with his attempted spoil, grabs hold of Melksham, presumably to try and eat some seconds off the clock. Annoyed, Melksham gives him a clip to get him off, and McGovern goes down as if someone from Bay 13 had somehow smuggled a sniper rifle into the MCG.

Umpires were seemingly militant on off-the-ball contact during this week, which is fine: Clayton Oliver got done several times in the same quarter for some ridiculously dumb stuff.

But players shouldn’t be looking for any excuse to go to ground; thank goodness the umpire wasn’t having a bar of McGovern’s antics.

There have been calls for stagers to cop massive fines, or even get suspended. I’m nowhere near as harsh on it as that, but there’s no denying stuff like that is a horrendous look for the game.

The best course might not be to add any further punishment than the current soft fine McGovern will surely get, but instead to make sure Ethan Meldrum makes everyone that does it an instant meme.

No pressure, then.

4. Don’t sleep on the Swans’ stellar surge

Geelong and Collingwood have taken all the headlines with their 11-game winning streaks – the Cats are now up to 12 – but matching them both in just abut every respect of late has been Sydney.

Incredibly slick with ball in hand, well set up without it, and with weapons everywhere you look, last year’s ‘Cygnets’ are a force to be reckoned with this year.

Aesthetically, they are a delight to watch, which isn’t always a guarantee of a good side but seemingly is in 2022. They look to move the ball quickly and precisely from end to end, running in red waves and delivering to their smorgasbord of forward options.

Then, if Lance Franklin, Logan McDonald, Sam Reid and Isaac Heeney don’t mark, out come Tom Papley, or Will Hayward, or Errol Gulden, or Heeney again to make ground level just as dangerous for the opposition.

In the midfield, Luke Parker and Callum Mills have effectively made Josh Kennedy surplus to requirements this year even when fit; then on the outside, the frightening speed of Chad Warner and the grunt work of James Rowbottom makes for a fearsome combination. It’s every bit the equal of any side in the competition.

Defence was the issue with the Swans at their worst, but they have found a way to work collectively in the later stages of the year. The key seems to be pressure on the ball carrier, forcing high balls in that Paddy and Tom McCartin can read in the air for intercepts rather than needing to worry about a charging opponent. Then, once they win it back, Jake Lloyd and Nick Blakey’s elite kicking skills make it difficult to get it back off them.

Last year, they were a team 99 on style, but with work to do on substance. Stuff like this from Dane Rampe proves they’ve got the latter in spades now.

Some old dogs have been taught new tricks this year; Sam Reid was a washed-up key forward two months ago, and now looks a sprightly 25-year old again, roaming the ground taking marks, dropping behind the ball when required and working as a more-than-capable pinch-hitting ruckman. Papley has split his time between the midfield and forward lines and lost none of his effectiveness; the Swans’ ability to convince him to stay in late 2019 when he was seemingly destined for Essendon is the mark of a fantastic club.

Ryan Clarke is a tremendous story of perseverance; brought in from the blue in Round 15 against St Kilda specifically to shut down Jack Sinclair, he did such a good job that he made himself indispensable. Since then, he has nullified Bailey Dale, Jordan Dawson, Harry Himmelberg and now Nick Daicos, about whom you could say for virtually the first time all year that he did pad his stats with kick-ins.

Together, they all dismantled Collingwood on Sunday at the SCG, ending the Pies’ remarkable run, and in the process putting themselves in the box seat for top four. Play their cards right against St Kilda next week, and a home final is well and truly on the cards – it’ll be a battle of percentage between the Swans and whoever wins out of Brisbane and Melbourne for that coveted home final.

That the Swans are now equal for wins with their 2021 season with a game to play is more reflective of how top-notch last year was; but there’s no question that this year they are even better.

They’ve now knocked over five of the other sides in the top seven this year – Brisbane the only exception – and took care of the Dees and Fremantle on their home turf.

There are no guarantees in this game, but the Swans seem destined to win a premiership with this group – the only question is whether it’s as early as this year.

Tom Papley of the Swans celebrates a goal.

Tom Papley of the Swans celebrates a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

5. Cunnington returns to a bright North future

There are no words to describe Ben Cunnington’s inspirational return on Saturday, after giving cancer one of his famous ‘don’t argues’.

But let that take a back seat for just one second. Because it was clear all day at the Adelaide Oval that the Kangaroos no longer rely on the veteran as heavily as they have in the past few seasons.

The bottom fell out of North spectacularly when he suffered a series of injuries in 2020; then, in 2021, his career-best mid-season form coincided with a Roos spike.

Things have been tough for the club in Cunnington’s absence this year, but out of the gloom have emerged two young stars who have taken complete control of the on-ball brigade: Luke Davies-Uniacke and Jy Simpkin.

Davies-Uniacke’s second half of the year has been awe-inspiring; he very nearly dragged the Roos kicking and screaming over the line against Collingwood, has been very good to great in virtually every other match, and was gargantuan again against the Crows.

With 37 disposals, a goal and 11 clearances, he is basically playing the Cunnington role… with an extra yard of pace and the body of a Patrick Cripps or Marcus Bontempelli.

Simpkin is more of an accumulator, but seems zippier around the contest than a Tom Mitchell, and works hard into space, particularly at half-back to give his team options coming out of defence. He, too, had it 30 times, with 10 clearances.

Between the two, they had more than half the Roos’ total clearances, with no one else managing more than three. Yep, that was Cunnington.

With those two leading from the front now, Cunnington was able to take a back seat role and ease back into footy. Like Charlie Curnow in late 2021, he’ll surely been better in 2023 for this late run.

With Tom Powell and Will Phillips among those waiting in the wings at North for more midfield opportunities, the future is brighter than the almost certain 2-20 season they’re about to end. Cunnington will have a role to play – but no more is he the be all and end all.

6. The Bulldogs don’t deserve to play finals

Whether the Bulldogs squeak into finals at Carlton’s expense or not, the football the reigning runners-up are playing at the moment is not worthy of September action.

Most of my criticism of the Dogs this year has been based on the many, many things they’re doing slightly worse than they were in their remarkable run to the grand final last year.

In the last fortnight, though, they have been absolutely dismal. I saw every minute of their win over GWS on Saturday and am still totally baffled as to how they emerged with the four points they needed to keep their hopes of sliding into eighth alive.

Giving up 165 marks to a Giants outfit playing solely for pride, and missing a number of stars including Toby Greene, was an embarrassment. Fresh off the heels of allowing Fremantle to rack up 140, the Bulldogs are either structurally flawed in how they set up without the ball, or not prepared to work hard enough individually to fill spaces.

With the ball, the Dogs frequently panicked under minimal GWS pressure, conceding dodgy handballs, running themselves into trouble and dumping panicky long balls on the heads of their outmatched forwards, letting in Nick Haynes for intercept mark after intercept mark.

If that sort of stuff isn’t cutting the mustard against a bottom-four side with a second-string 22, it’s going to be even uglier against an actually good team.

Contrast that to Carlton, who against all the odds, were magnificent in nearly pulling off one of their finest wins in two decades against Melbourne. With equally high stakes, the undermanned Blues’ midfield fought and scrapped and just about matched it with the Demons’ star-studded on ball brigade, and were one dodgy final minute away from sealing their spot in September.

If the Dogs end up in eighth, surely nothing other than a thrashing – at the hands of almost certainly Fremantle again – will come in week one of the finals. In contrast, Carlton would at least ask a serious question of whoever ends up in fifth.

But you don’t always get what you’ve earned in footy – the Dogs probably deserved a top-four spot last year, yet were forced to do it the hard way from fifth. In sport, luck has a tendency to even out over time. With all roads leading to Sunday afternoon, will Luke Beveridge’s team have the chips fall their way?

Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs celebrates a goal.

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Random thoughts

– Picking Stefan Martin at a million years old and then only playing him for 59 per cent game time might be Luke Beveridge’s most Bevo selection move ever.

– Speaking of ruckmen, big Sean Darcy is one decent pre-season away from being the best big man in the game.

– Can’t wait to see Cam Rayner this finals series. Man is about three millimetres away from properly breaking out.

– Wrote a few weeks ago that Port’s Jeremy Finlayson-Charlie Dixon ruck call would bite them in the arse. I’ve got to put my hand up and say that I got that horrendously wrong.

– Whoever gets Tom Lynch in the elimination final is going to have an evening. He looks nigh on unstoppable if he gets going.

– Alwyn Davey Jr looks a ripper. Enjoy, Bombers fans.

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