Jake Melksham kicks for goal during Melbourne's win over Hawthorn in round 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

IN THIS week's Nine Things We Learned, we discover Jason-Horne Francis is ready to explode in September, Lachie Neale has returned to form at the right time plus much, much more.

Check out what we learned from round 23 of the 2023 season.


1) St Kilda's pressure is worthy of finals

St Kilda completely dominated Geelong from the opening bounce on Saturday night, leading from Mitch Owens' goal at the 36-second mark to the final siren. The Cats looked slow and somewhat shellshocked as the Saints controlled play and made a strong and effective effort at locking the ball in their forward half. In typical Ross Lyon style, the Saints dominated in tight and finished the night +24 in contested possessions and +12 in clearances, despite losing the tackle count by 16. It meant repeated opportunities for Max King, with Tim Membrey and Cooper Sharman providing valuable support, as the Saints had 20 marks inside 50 to just nine for the Cats. Geelong's run off half-back slowed to a crawl as the Saints allowed them just four bounces for the entire match, despite up-tempo games being the norm at Marvel. The only thing that kept Geelong in the game was St Kilda's inaccuracy in front of goal as they finished with 12.16 for the match. If the Saints can tidy up that aspect of their game, they'll be well placed to make a statement in September. - Sarah Black


2) JHF is ready to shape finals

While others rack up the big numbers in Port Adelaide's midfield, Jason Horne-Francis has found himself delivering in the big moments this season. The 20-year-old has all the hallmarks of a high-impact player who will shape finals early in his career, with Sunday's excellent performance against Fremantle a perfect example of the powerful midfielder's ability to turn a game. Horne-Francis used the third quarter to stamp his authority at Optus Stadium, with his five disposals all coming from contested wins and four of them resulting in clearances. He was clean, utilised his speed and found space where there shouldn't have been any. The Power midfield will be its weapon in September and Horne-Francis can't be underestimated. – Nathan Schmook


3) Jake Melksham is crucial to Melbourne's September push

It wasn't that long ago that Jake Melksham was out of Melbourne's best 22, but now he looks like one of its most important players. Against Hawthorn he started as a defensive forward on James Sicily and while the Hawks' skipper snared a few customary intercept marks, Melksham was punishing him the other way, having six shots at goal in the first half (2.4) before Sam Mitchell moved Sicily to the midfield. Melksham kicked three goals for the day from eight shots, but it was his aerial presence alongside Jacob van Rooyen and Joel Smith along with his ground-level prowess that impressed. He looms as crucial to Melbourne's forward line set-up as it eyes off another premiership tilt. When Bayley Fritsch returns and whether Tom McDonald is called on again, it won't diminish the importance of Melksham. – Michael Whiting


4) Lachie Neale's return to form has been perfectly timed

Friday night was crucial for Brisbane, with the Lions all but locking in a home qualifying final and - just as importantly - Lachie Neale returning to form after a lean patch by his high standards. Chris Fagan revealed post-game that Neale had been struggling with illness and injury niggles to the point where the coach offered his star midfielder the opportunity to have the week off. Neale didn't want that and went to work against Collingwood to show he will have a big say in September, finishing with 31 disposals, 13 contested possessions, 10 clearances (four centre bounce clearances) and six score involvements. Timing is everything at this point of the year and the Lions' linchpin may have timed his run perfectly. - Josh Gabelich​

Lachie Neale during Brisbane's game against Collingwood in R23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

5) Don't discount the Swans in a wide open flag race

It's been a rollercoaster season for Sydney but at the moment John Longmire's side is flying high and has the momentum to run into finals at a gallop. The Swans also have the experience of last year's campaign to drive them on and, should round 24 results fall their way, they might be starting September at the SCG. With six straight wins under the belt, seven away victories through the season, a fairly healthy list (apart from the banned Tom McCartin and sore Tom Papley) and no chance of facing last year's bogey side Geelong in the finals, Sydney will be afraid of no one. And there's no opponent scarier than one with no fear. – Howard Kimber


6) It's not just about Toby at the Giants

Greater Western Sydney's late-season surge has been based on the rebirth of its well-renowned 'Orange Tsunami', but in Saturday's massive win against Essendon it gained another element. Jesse Hogan's nine-goal haul wasn't a case of being in the right place at the right time or on the end of 'Joe the goose' handballs in the goal square. It was a super-competitive performance that included 24 disposals and an amazing 17 marks, six of them contested. The Giants' midfield can, at times, be unstoppable and the best opponents can hope for is to gain possession in the backline. But if Hogan can come close to replicating this form, with Toby Greene at his side, GWS will have the finish to the finesse and may produce some Giant upsets before the season is over. – Howard Kimber


7) The Suns could be anything under Dimma

Gold Coast ultimately blew a 40-point lead and lost to Carlton on Saturday but if you missed its opening-quarter performance, it's worth re-watching. It was some of the best footy witnessed in 2023 yet it came from a bottom-four team against the AFL's form side. The Suns were breathtaking with electric ball movement, precise link-up play and relentless pressure yielding a six-goal-to-one start. Gold Coast generated 11 scores from 19 inside 50s with seven marks inside 50. Sadly, when Carlton rallied, the Suns wilted, which has happened too often to a side that cannot manage momentum swings. That's the maturing this side needs to do and it's the assignment for its new coach, expected to be three-time premiership coach Damien Hardwick. He feels like the right man for the job. - Ben Somerford


8) It's Nick or nothing for North

Nick Larkey is North Melbourne's focal point up forward and after kicking his second haul of five-plus goals in two weeks, it's easy to see why. The issue is that he's consistently kicking big bags but it's still not enough for North, and Larkey's contributions are making the Roos' performances look better than they actually are. It has undoubtedly been a disappointing year for the Kangaroos with their last win coming in round two, and Larkey's remarkable accuracy and consistently brilliant performances are papering over the cracks. Kicking 62 goals so far this year and boasting a 70.5 per cent goal accuracy, Larkey has been responsible for 27.8 per cent of North's goals this season, meaning he's doing the lion's share of North's offensive work virtually unsupported. He's been ultra consistent, kicking at least one goal in every match except round four and averaging 2.8 goals per game, but it's still not enough to make the Roos competitive. It's been this way for the past three seasons, during which the Roos have finished in the bottom two each year despite Larkey's 142 goals across this time. If North is serious about improving, Larkey and North's other highly talented individuals like Harry Sheezel and Luke Davies-Uniacke need some support, as the Roos are over-reliant on too few and even freakish individual performances aren't enough to get them over the line. – Sophie Welsh


9) The Eagles have shown some fight - just not often enough

It has been a season to forget for West Coast, with five losses of 100-plus points including last week's Derby defeat to Fremantle, which has rightly cast doubt over the future of coach Adam Simpson. But for all the ugly defeats, the Eagles have also shown at times during the second half of the season that they are still playing for their coach. Since their bye, the Eagles have suffered narrow losses to St Kilda and Essendon, beat North Melbourne and now the Western Bulldogs and also challenged Richmond for parts. But they have also been on the end of humiliating losses. Even if Sunday's result didn't go their way, they have shown enough spirit and fight in patches - but is sometimes good enough to save Simpson? – Dejan Kalinic

Jamie Cripps celebrates a goal during West Coast's clash against the Western Bulldogs in round 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos