Our AFL experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of Round 23, including the most disappointing aspect of Essendon's year, if the Round 23 fixture should be changed and who wins out of the Blues and Magpies.
What's been the most disappointing aspect of Essendon's season?
Rohan Connolly: The lack of preparedness for backing up last year's finals appearance. It was clear after just a quarter of that opening game debacle against Geelong that the Bombers were way off the pace. It smacked of a group which had drunk its own bathwater. And rather than knuckle down and catch up, the response seemed to be "too hard". Given the lack of tangible success for two decades, Essendon should be the "hungriest" team in the competition. In contrast, it often appears one of the least driven. That's an indictment on a whole complacent club.
Jake Michaels: Gee, where do you start? There's a few genuine contenders here but in my mind it's the disinterest in putting in 100% week in, week out. Look at Round 1, a shocking 66-point loss to the Cats. To Rohan's point, the lack of preparedness for the season-opener set the dismal tone for the year ahead. Each time the Bombers take a step forward, a horrid performance is just around the corner. Ask most Essendon fans what they're craving and it's effort and consistency ... among plenty of other things, of course.
Matt Walsh: I'm going to look off field and say when the board and CEO advocated for a review ... to be done internally. That's never a good sign, and does a disservice to fans who want to see the club looked at from top to bottom? What does that tell fans? 'We're happy with how things are, but we're not confident enough for someone with fresh eyes to take a look'. Not good enough.
Jarryd Barca: Probably their ability to tease supporters for an entire home-and-away campaign - it's sadly impressive. I never had them playing finals this year even after finishing in the top eight in 2021, but even then, their awful inconsistency 12 months later has still been calamitous. When your record consists of uplifting wins against premiership contenders Sydney and Brisbane, along with an opening-round 66-point loss and a pathetic 84-point annihilation at the hands of a fellow bottom-10 team, your long-suffering supporters have every right to be irate.
Who wins - Carlton or Collingwood and why?
RC: Toss of the coin job, but I have to go with the Pies here. Their form is better, 11-1 versus 5-7 over the last three months, they beat Carlton (just) first time around, and have fewer injury concerns. Plus, I think their motivation is every bit as strong as the Blues' because they'd know in their hearts that if they don't finish top four they can't possibly go all the way ... with a double chance, though, who knows?
JM: It feels like a genuine coin flip game and one I can see going either way. With that said, if the Blues bring the same energy as they did against the Demons, I can see Michael Voss' side snatching the four points to lock in a finals berth. The Pies looked a little thin through the midfield with Jordan De Goey and Taylor Adams missing the clash against the Swans, and that's an area Carlton can really look to control on Sunday. If the Blues do win, and if results fall a certain way, these two sides could be facing off in an elimination final.
MW: I think the Blues get the better of Collingwood here. It's been a massive emotional wave for the Magpies, and now the proverbial bubble has burst (somewhat), there's an air of 'beatability' about them. For a side led by Michael Voss, I expect Carlton to come out as hungry as they've been in more than 10 years, and they should be able to win the midfield battle considering the Pies are without Taylor Adams, and Jordan De Goey is in doubt. As an aside, is this the biggest Carlton-Collingwood clash since the 1988 qualifying final?
JB: The Blues are the better team, I've been a believer since day one that their best is all but the best in the competition and if they bring anywhere near that against Collingwood on Sunday -- which you have to expect given the do-or-die nature of the clash -- then they'll be playing in their first finals series since 2013. The Pies are vulnerable right now, especially in the midfield which Sydney exposed, and although they won't make it easy for Michael Voss' men, the Blues should just have too much quality. One thing's for certain - it's the biggest Carlton-Collingwood match at least in my lifetime.
Who's the player who can push Richmond deep into September?
RC: Several potential nominations here, for different reasons, but I'm going with Tom Lynch, because he is the man whose form makes the biggest single difference between Richmond being just a dangerous team or a super-potent one which hits the scoreboard hard. He's kicked 16 goals in the last three games now, and I think at his best is a scarier proposition for key defenders even than the likes of Cameron or Hawkins.
JM: For years the answer has been Dustin Martin, but I think Tom Lynch is just about the Tigers' most important player now. Richmond really struggled when he went out of the side, losing to the Suns and Kangaroos, before drawing with the Dockers. Since he's been back, he's kicked 16 goals in three games and the Tigers are 3-0, once again looking like a serious flag threat.
MW: Tom Lynch is the right answer. Had some injury concerns earlier in the season, but has kicked four, four, and now eight goals in his last three games. He's a gamebreaker and a difficult matchup at the best of times, and with Richmond showing some vintage rapid ball movement coming into finals, he'll benefit massively.
JB: Isn't it obvious? Three-time Norm Smith Medal winner Dustin Martin is that very player. Richmond is already a frightening prospect for whichever team draws them in the first week of finals, and that's without their Brownlow-winning superstar who has won games off his own boot before - including finals. A fit Dusty can easily turn this team from a side that may be able to win a final, to one that can genuinely challenge the contenders. He simply DOES make that much of a difference.
Would it be better if all three Sunday games started at the same time?
RC: From an integrity perspective? Absolutely. From an entertainment perspective? Ditto. The final day of the English Premier League does this as a matter of course, not only ensuring that it's almost impossible to "fix" outcomes depending on other results, but often increasing the drama as well (eg. Sergio Aguero's winner for Manchester City in 2012). The AFL should insist that, just for once, the broadcasters' interests come behind the competition's.
JM: I read a great tweet earlier in the week (apologies, I don't remember who wrote it) saying 50% of people are saying all Round 23 games need to start at the same time, while the other 50% of people want the games to be completely staggered. How about we compromise and LEAVE IT EXACTLY AS IT IS! Understand your point about Aguero, Rohan, but for every Aguero moment there's 20 final days where not much happens.
MW: Yeah I reckon do it! Let's not forget the vast majority of people might watch two or three games a week, and aren't fussed like some footyheads who want absolutely no crossover between games so they can watch the full slate of nine every week. Had the final round last year featured simultaneous starts across the board, the ladder would have changed more than 20 times. The drama would be worth the risk of 'nothing' happening one year.
JB: I don't think it makes anything 'better', given each team that features on the last day of the regular season knows exactly what they need to do. All of the Western Bulldogs, Carlton, Collingwood, St Kilda and Sydney essentially have fate in their own hands, and if you're relying on the result of a different match to give you an extra cup of motivation, then you probably don't deserve to get to where you're striving to be. Plus, let us, the fans, be able to watch each game!