THE PENULTIMATE round of the 2023 home and away season presents a make-or-break opportunity for several teams currently stuck in the middle of the ladder logjam.
For some teams, a loss will just about disqualify them from the finals race, while others have a chance to solidify a top four position before the final round.
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 27
Gold Coast v Greater Western Sydney at Heritage Bank Stadium, 6:45pm AEST
In four meetings between these sides, including Gold Coast's first ever AFLW match, the Suns have never bested the Giants. But Friday is arguably their best chance yet to nab their first win over GWS and officially qualify for a second finals series. Last week, while Gold Coast eked out a draw against the Power, GWS worked out a way to win despite being soundly beaten at the contest. Going minus-21 at the clearance and minus-35 in contested possessions, it registered a two-point victory with a style of play that will serve it well coming up against a Gold Coast team that is averaging 21.5 more contested possessions and 4.5 more clearances than its opposition each week. The Giants are further helped by a suspension handed down to Lucy Single, one of the Suns' top performers this year. Last week GWS also laid a record 104 tackles, and this pressure is something that certainly has the potential to unsettle the Suns, as we have seen at times this year.
Zarlie Goldsworthy was outstanding last week, but the Giants cannot rely on the teenager to do the job for them each round. The load needs to be spread more evenly, and regaining Bec Beeson from suspension will certainly help in this respect. And while GWS has learned to win final quarters in recent weeks, it is still very vulnerable to high scoring forward lines, conceding 57.5 points on average each week. Gold Coast has some genuine firepower in its side, and it needs to utilise several of its attacking options consistently throughout the game to exploit this vulnerability in the Giants' team.
Tip: The Suns will finally beat the Giants. Gold Coast by 15 points.
SATURDAY, OCTOBER 28
Melbourne v Fremantle at Casey Fields, 1:05pm AEDT
Fremantle is desperate for a second straight win to remain in finals contention, but it is now presented with one of the toughest trips in the AFLW – Melbourne at Casey Fields. The Demons, meanwhile, will be focused on winning to remain atop the ladder. It is likely we will know where this game stands after just the first quarter, as the Dockers still follow the pattern of a first quarter win resulting in the premiership points, but Melbourne's last quarters are still absolutely dominant, and often where it gains the bulk of its ladder percentage.
The Demons are controlling games by winning 149.2 uncontested possessions, an average of 20.8 more than their opponents each week, while Fremantle struggles in this respect, averaging 16 fewer than its opposition. As a result, it will be important for the Dockers to protect stoppages – particularly centre stoppages – so that Melbourne is not able to efficiently break free of the contest and send the ball forward to its plethora of options in attack. Important for Fremantle, given Aine Tighe's absence, is that it found more depth in attack last week, with experienced players Hayley Miller, Ange Stannett and Gabby O'Sullivan having a significant influence, something the Dockers need again if they're any chance of beating the reigning premiers.
Tip: The Dockers will fall out of finals contention. Melbourne by 25 points.
St Kilda v Brisbane at RSEA Park, 3:05pm AEDT
Another vital game in terms of not only the final eight, but also the makeup of the top four. The Lions need the win to all but confirm the double chance, while it is a must-win for the Saints should they still be a chance for their first finals series. Finals aside, it will be Jesse Wardlaw's first game against her old side, after leaving Brisbane for St Kilda in the off season.
Last week the Saints got trapped in their defensive half, really struggling to exit the back 50 and generate any consistent scoring opportunities, and this spells danger this weekend given Brisbane is the best forward pressure team in the competition. As a result, the Lions are averaging 10 more inside 50s per game than St Kilda, so it is likely the ball will live in Brisbane's forward half. But it comes down to whether the Lions can take their chances, with conversion at goal one of their few downfalls this season. The Saints are generating a goal from 19.7 per cent of their inside 50 entries – the same percentage as Brisbane – but getting it in there less, so it is crucial that they make the most of the entries they are afforded.
Tip: The Wardlaw reunion won't be a fairytale. Brisbane by 20 points.
Essendon v Carlton at Windy Hill, 3:05pm AEDT
In their first ever meeting in round two last season, Essendon and Carlton played out a thriller. The Bombers came from behind, kicking 20 points to nil in the final quarter to ultimately fall by just one point, and there is no reason to expect this one won't be equally enthralling. Essendon dropped a game it shouldn't have last week against West Coast, and a win would have kept it out of the top four on percentage alone, but now it is battling it out to remain a chance for its first ever finals series. The Blues are in a similar situation, losing last week by two points and now out of the top eight on percentage.
Averaging almost identical scores, disposals, contested possessions and clearances, it is in fact the differentials in those numbers that tell a very different story. Essendon is winning an average of 38.1 more disposals per game than its opposition this season, while Carlton is winning 3.9 fewer. In addition to winning more footy than its opposition, Essendon is preventing teams from using the ball well, conceding just 58.5 per cent disposals efficiency. As a result, the Blues need to be smart about how they use the footy, remain composed and make clear-headed decisions. At times this year Carlton has been sucked into panicking, rushing, and turning the footy over, and should this happen on Saturday, the Bombers will punish the Blues.
Tip: The Bombers will confirm a maiden finals berth. Essendon by 12 points.
West Coast v Western Bulldogs at Mineral Resources Park, 2:05pm AWST
In the wake of Eagles head coach Michael Prior stepping down during the week, the team will be wholly focused on winning back-to-back games for the first time in the club's history. While the Bulldogs can boast two wins from three games against the Eagles, it was against the Dogs that West Coast claimed its first ever win back in 2020. Still winless this season, the Bulldogs conceded their highest ever score last week, and are preparing to face an Eagles side that scored an upset win over the Bombers last week.
This year the Western Bulldogs aren't only conceding a record 63 points per game, but also record numbers of disposals, uncontested possessions, marks inside 50, disposal efficiency, and shots on goal in what is an unwanted stat profile. But what this offers the Eagles is a now or never chance to string together wins for the first time and build confidence in what is quite a talented list. When West Coast brings strength at the contest has been where it has won this season, going minus-one and minus-two in the clearance counts against Port Adelaide in round five and Essendon last week respectively. This must be priority No.1 on Saturday against a Bulldogs side that has failed to compete consistently at the contest this year.
Tip: The Eagles will come home strong. West Coast by eight points.
Richmond v Geelong at Ikon Park, 7:15pm AEDT
In four meetings between these two sides, Richmond has won just once – in its first ever win back in 2021. When they played off in round one last season, what was eventual All-Australian Eilish Sheerin's debut, the Cats fell over the line by four points thanks to a controversial Georgie Prespakis goal at the death. In their first matchup at Ikon Park this weekend, however, everything is on the line for last season's two big improvers, who are currently separated only by percentage in the middle of the ladder.
The Cats are likely to use the width of the ground better, employing the likes of Nina Morrison and Mikayla Bowen outside the contest and sending the ball into marking forwards like Chloe Scheer, Jackie Parry, and Aishling Moloney. Meanwhile the Tigers have a less-than-positive record at their makeshift home ground, winning just two games from nine starts at the venue. Typically, this season Geelong has started strong and faded as the game has worn on, while the Tigers just need to be within touching distance heading into the last quarter. It is for this reason that the Cats need to make the most of any early dominance they enjoy, punishing Richmond on the scoreboard to put the game out of reach come the fourth term.
Tip: The Cats will make it four from five. Geelong by 13 points.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 29
Sydney v Collingwood at Henson Park, 1:05pm AEDT
Coming off her best performance of the season, Chloe Molloy must now back that up against her old side for the first time. The Swans, somewhat surprisingly after a stuttering 2022, are just percentage out of the top eight, while the Pies simply need a win to all but confirm a fifth consecutive finals appearance. A hamstring injury to important defender Lauren Butler, however, is not ideal news for the Magpies who have just started to find consistent form since her inclusion in round five.
Sydney will head into this one still without ruck Ally Morphett, so Bella Smith and Lexi Hamilton will have their hands full with a confident Sabrina Frederick taking the taps for the Pies. As a result, the Swans' midfielders will need to adapt to a lack of hitout dominance, and not let Collingwood control stoppages off the back of Frederick's work. Where the Swans have excelled, however, is in the air. Averaging 51 marks this season – 8.4 inside 50 and six contested – an area that Sydney can get some control is the aerial game. It is likely we'll see Collingwood get the fast start, and the Swans work steadily to narrow that gap for the remainder of the game.
Tip: Sydney will fight but ultimately fall short. Collingwood by five points.
Adelaide v North Melbourne at Norwood Oval, 2:35pm ACDT
Having played four times, North Melbourne has beaten Adelaide just once, albeit handing the Crows their biggest ever loss in the process. While both sides are coming off a loss, Adelaide to Brisbane and North Melbourne to Melbourne, the Kangaroos' situation is a little more precarious than that of the Crows. Adelaide is secure, dropping the game by three points to fellow premiership contender Brisbane away from home, while the Roos still have the mental battle of falling to the 'big three' teams – Adelaide, Brisbane, and Melbourne. This weekend is North Melbourne's last opportunity to break past that mental barrier this home and away season before preparing to face one or more during the finals series.
A clash of styles, North Melbourne is the highest handball and contested possession team the competition has ever seen, while Adelaide is breaking records for kicks and uncontested possessions. The Crows will look for outside ball movement and marks inside 50, while the Kangaroos are the best team at limiting opposition marks inside 50 and, as a result, scores conceded. Ultimately this one will come down to which team is able to get the game on its terms, playing out in its specific brand.
Tip: The mental barrier remains. Adelaide by seven points.
Hawthorn v Port Adelaide at Kinetic Stadium, 5:05pm AEDT
In the first ever meeting between Hawthorn and Port Adelaide last season, the Hawks played the Kinetic Stadium conditions beautifully to jag a 13-point win, and bragging rights between the two new sides. It was in that game that Hawks defender Jenna Richardson came to the fore, playing a great role on star Erin Phillips, which went a long way toward the Hawthorn win.
This game will ultimately be won by the side who can find more composure with ball in hand. Often messy with disposal, both teams are prone to rushed, panicked disposal that lets the opposition in, so whichever side can remain cool-headed will win out. At the contest, Port Adelaide has stood its ground, winning 26.4 clearances per week, while Hawthorn is the weakest clearance team in the competition. Not only are the Hawks winning just 23.9 clearances each game, they are allowing their opposition to win an average of 5.1 more, and it is here that the Power can capitalise.
Tip: The Power will get one back. Port Adelaide by three points.