Clockwise from left: Luke Beveridge, Izak Rankine, Charlie Cameron, Brayden Maynard. Pictures: AFL Photos

THE big storylines started on Friday night, with Brisbane winning its mini-Grand Final and in so doing exposing major Collingwood problems.

The twists exploded on Saturday. Essendon lost by 126 points. Giant Jesse Hogan booted nine goals. It was officially an era-ending day for Geelong. The reigning premier lost again and won't make finals. A goal umpiring mistake cost Adelaide a victory against Sydney and ended its finals dream.

Dustin Martin reminded us of his greatness, ensuring the farewells of his great mates Trent Cotchin and Jack Riewoldt coincided with a win. In a dreadful game of football, Dusty was sublime.

Jack Ziebell retired in the same match that day, and later that night, was assaulted outside a pub. His club, North Melbourne, had earlier lost its 20th consecutive match but by Sunday afternoon had undeservedly become the weekend's biggest winner - by falling below West Coast on the ladder and into national draft pick No.1 position.

Unbelievably, West Coast, beaten five times by 100-plus points in the previous 15 matches and with officials mulling over candidates to replace the coach and CEO, outplayed finals aspirant Western Bulldogs, in Melbourne. On the final siren, under-siege current coach Adam Simpson joked about trying to tank in the closing minutes of the game. That only made greater the misery for his Sunday opponent, Luke Beveridge.


Melbourne and Port Adelaide both ground out solid, finals-readying wins against plucky opponents unburdened by expectation, respectively Hawthorn and Fremantle. Don't under-value their grittiness in those circumstances, nor the benefits of hard slogs on the eve of September.

By the time round 23 was shut down and we all got the chance to take a breath and absorb all the ramifications of a wild three days, it had been established that while the top four teams would retain a finals double chances regardless of round 24 results, all positions within that quartet could still change. Beneath them, Carlton, St Kilda and Sydney had become finals locks. GWS and Western Bulldogs were left to fight for eighth position.

The win by the Lions was their most significant inside a home-and-away season of coach Chris Fagan's seven seasons in charge. The stakes were mini Grand Final-like, and the win granted them the right to control their destiny. A win next Saturday against St Kilda would guarantee a Gabba qualifying final, which would then provide access to a Gabba preliminary final, which would then open up a Grand Final booking. This club will never get a better flag opportunity.

Collingwood, without Nick Daicos, Jordan De Goey and Darcy Moore, looked pedestrian. The mental fatigue of being a tearaway ladder leader when finals remained distant has no doubt contributed to its plight, which has seen three losses (to the Lions, Hawks and Blues) in the past four games. Opponents have scored 100 points in the past three matches (the Cats tallied 101 in falling eight points short in round 22). Holes have appeared seemingly everywhere. The backline is no longer imposing itself on matches, the midfield is no longer explosive, the forward line no longer finding an easy way.

Coach Craig McRae, dignified as always, unusually showed the slightest public hint of frustration post the loss to the Lions. Maybe he is like everyone else after all. The 2023 prize seemed Collingwood's to lose for a large chunk of the season. The highest form of pressure is now in play for everyone at this organisation.

Of all the losers in round 23, the Western Bulldogs were the biggest. Their home-ground loss to the basket case West Coast followed a loss to the third-last Hawthorn in round 22. They don't deserve to make finals, and if they miss, a prospect over which they now have no control, they will need to re-set operations.

They probably should do that, anyway. Something is very wrong.