Darcy Moore and Harris Andrews pose with the premiership cup during AFL Captains Day at Marvel Stadium on February 26, 2024. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

SIX months after one of the greatest Grand Finals of all time, Collingwood and Brisbane have become the first two teams to play off in the decider then both back it up with a 0-2 start.

The Magpies have even gone one worse with a third straight loss while the Lions were licking their wounds last week during a bye. 

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One of the Grand Finalists will at least break through for a first win of the season, unless there is a draw, when the two sides open round three at the Gabba on Thursday, March 28.

Arch-rivals Hawthorn and Geelong have been evenly matched with four wins each over the past six years and will complete the round with the traditional Easter Monday blockbuster.

Here is who and what to look out for across round three, as well as a tip for each of the matches.


Brisbane v Collingwood, Gabba
Thursday, March 28, 6:30pm AEST

Last time: Collingwood 12.18 (90) d Brisbane 13.8 (86), Grand Final 2023

What it means
Brisbane (0-2) has blown hot and cold, then hot again, in its two losses this season. Scintillating starts have been followed by poor second and third terms that have left the Lions with too much to do in belated fightbacks. A return to the Gabba, where Brisbane's loss to Carlton in Opening Round was its first at the venue in 15 matches, should only boost a side looking to bounce back in the Grand Final rematch.

Collingwood (0-3) has become just the fifth reigning premier to lose the first three matches of the following season and is quickly running out of time to turn its form around. History is already against the Magpies as no side has been 0-3 then made the top four since 2007, while you have to go back to 1976 to find the last similarly sluggish starter that reached the Grand Final.

Josh Daicos and his teammates walk off the ground after the R2 match between Collingwood and St Kilda at the MCG on March 21, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Brisbane was outmuscled by Fremantle's midfield while losing the clearance and contested ball counts in its defeat before the bye. Hugh McCluggage had the opportunity to lead the way in the absence of dual Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale, and while the smooth mover found enough of the ball on the outside he should be out to have a similar impact at the coalface in this high-stakes clash.

The blowtorch has turned onto Collingwood captain Darcy Moore as the leader of a defence that has seen an average of 103 points kicked against them in three defeats this season. Moore can be a master of reading the play and sets up the way that the Magpies like to play from the backline, but might need to go back to basics with their season in danger of drifting away.

Early tip: Brisbane by 11 points


North Melbourne v Carlton, Marvel Stadium
Friday, March 29, 4:20pm AEDT

Last time: Carlton 16.11 (107) d North Melbourne 11.18 (84), R4 2023

What it means
North Melbourne (0-2) gave a glimpse into the future with a blazing start against Fremantle that might have looked even hotter but for some wayward set shots. The Kangaroos then returned to the familiar problems of the past as they were quickly overrun in the second half, making a four-quarter effort in the seventh Good Friday SuperClash even more crucial if only to show progress in their landmark match.

Carlton (2-0) went into its early-season bye with two narrow wins in the bag but surely well aware that its record could just as easily have been flipped. The Blues now have an opportunity to entrench their place near the top of the ladder against the young Kangaroos, while the return bout in round 19 will be the first time the teams have played each other twice in a season since 2008.

Players from North Melbourne and Carlton run through a joint banner before the R4 match at Marvel Stadium on Good Friday on April 7, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
North Melbourne powerhouse Cameron Zurhaar has shown in the past that he can perform on the big stage and booted 3.4 against Carlton in last year's Good Friday SuperClash. The restricted free agent has three goals from two matches so far this season but Zurhaar will need to have more impact for the Roos to stun the Blues. 

Charlie Curnow generally punished the poorer teams in his back-to-back Coleman Medal seasons, including with nine goals in two matches against North Melbourne. The Blues' spearhead will be eyeing another bag against the Roos' inexperienced defence while needing one major to have kicked at least a goal in 50 consecutive matches.

Early tip: Carlton by 22 points


Fremantle v Adelaide, Optus Stadium
Friday, March 29, 4:30pm AWST

Last time: Adelaide 17.9 (111) d Fremantle 10.12 (72), R4 2023

What it means
Fremantle (2-0) has been one of the surprise packets with two victories after overcoming slow starts. While the Dockers will gladly bank the eight points from their upset over Brisbane and an expected win against North Melbourne, they now have an opportunity to make a strong statement against fellow finals hopefuls on their own home deck.

Steady progression from Adelaide (0-2) over the past four seasons was broadly expected to continue this year in the push for a first finals appearance since 2017. But the Crows are already on the ropes and need to turn around a 2-9 record away from Adelaide Oval since the start of last year, to start winning on the road and stay in touch with the top eight.

Brandon Walker tackles Izak Rankine during the R4 match between Fremantle and Adelaide at Adelaide Oval on April 8, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Fremantle settled back into its preferred forward set-up with the return of Matt Taberner alongside Jye Amiss and Josh Treacy last week. Luke Jackson is another goal threat but Amiss looms as the Dockers' long-term focal point, although the sharpshooter that goals with almost 70 per cent of his scoring shots will want to make amends for a rare off-day with 1.3 against North Melbourne.

Adelaide is the top clearance team so far this season with an average of 45 and has also had the equal-most inside 50s with 60 a game. But the Crows' midfield needs a spark and slicker skills from the likes of Izak Rankine to make the most of their strength around stoppages that has led to only 13 marks inside 50 – the fewest of all teams.

Early tip: Fremantle by 14 points


Essendon v St Kilda, Marvel Stadium
Saturday, March 30, 4:20pm AEDT

Last time: St Kilda 14.8 (92) d Essendon 11.8 (74), R3 2023

What it means
Essendon (1-1) has drawn a line in the sand with its intention to play with a physical edge but now needs to back it up on the scoreboard even when the tide is against the side. The Bombers were unable to contain Sydney's speed on transitions as they leaked 36 scores, and will have to tighten up their defence against a St Kilda outfit looking to play much the same way. 

St Kilda (1-1) has impressed with its pacey play in its opening two matches, but benefited as much from full-field defence against Collingwood as it led tackles inside 50 by 10-1. The Saints were also able to slow down the reigning premier's ball movement while knowing when to put the foot down themselves, and have the slick ball carriers to test the Bombers' injury-hit defence. 

Liam Stocker celebrates during the round two match between St Kilda and Collingwood at the MCG, March 21, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
While Peter Wright and Sam Draper made their presence felt against Sydney, Zach Merrett was leading the attack in his own determined way. The Bombers skipper added two goals to his typical haul of disposals against the Swans, and is winning more of his own ball than ever before this season with an average 11 contested disposals as well as 5.5 tackles a game. 

St Kilda is looking to get the ball into Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera's hands at any opportunity as the 21-year-old and his sublime skills become critical to turning defence into attack. Wanganeen-Milera had 32 disposals against Collingwood while again showing that his classy ball use is a key strength for the Saints.  

Early tip: St Kilda by 17 points


Port Adelaide v Melbourne, Adelaide Oval
Saturday, March 30, 7:00pm ACDT

Last time: Port Adelaide 11.14 (80) d Melbourne 11.10 (76), R10 2023

What it means
Port Adelaide (2-0) faces arguably its first true test of its season after brushing aside West Coast and Richmond despite some wayward kicking for goal. The Power's midfield is popping with Zac Butters and Connor Rozee in sublime touch, while key forwards Charlie Dixon, Todd Marshall and Jeremy Finlayson have already combined for 12 goals.

Melbourne (2-1) is up and running with a pair of comfortable victories over Hawthorn and Western Bulldogs but will now take on a fellow top-four hopeful with issues at both ends. Injuries to Steven May and Jack Lever might not be as bad as first feared but will still disrupt the Demons' strength in defence while perhaps limiting their options in attack.


Game shapers
Charlie Dixon's eyes will be lighting up at the prospect of taking on a Melbourne defence hit by injury as Port Adelaide's key forward looks to continue his bright start to the campaign. Dixon has five goals from the Power's opening two matches as he remains a tough match-up whether near goal or pinch-hitting in the ruck.

Melbourne has been waiting to add Harrison Petty to its forward mix since he was sidelined a couple of weeks after booting six goals against Richmond late last year. But Petty returned to his original role with the Demons' backline ravaged by injury last week, and looks set to help shore up the defence again before being given further opportunities near goal.

Early tip: Port Adelaide by five points


Western Bulldogs v West Coast, Marvel Stadium
Sunday, March 31, 1:00pm AEDT

Last time: West Coast 14.8 (92) d Western Bulldogs 12.13 (85), R23 2023

What it means
The Western Bulldogs (1-1) will need little reminder of the threat that an under-fire West Coast can pose after paying a hefty price for a shock defeat when the sides met in round 23 last year. The Bulldogs missed the finals, then began this season with clouds hanging over them after a lacklustre loss to Melbourne, but have finally kickstarted their campaign with a resounding win over Gold Coast.

There were worrying signs for West Coast (0-2) as it was stuck on two goals until the final term against the high-flying GWS, but a spirited showing from there at least stopped the bleeding. The Eagles will be looking for small wins at this stage and outscoring the opposition in a quarter for the first time this season currently seems like a reasonable goal.

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

Game shapers
The Bulldogs have a surplus of tall forwards to choose from but it was livewire Cody Weightman who booted the first two goals of the clash with Gold Coast to light up the match. Weightman had four majors before the first change and finished with an equal career-high six, and will be licking his lips at the possibility of another bag against the inexperienced West Coast defence.

West Coach veteran Jeremy McGovern is set to see more of the ball than he would like this season but there are few players better positioned to teach a young defence how to set up. McGovern has been sidelined for significant periods in every season since 2019, but turned back the clock against GWS and should relish the challenge against the Bulldogs' multiple key forwards.

Early tip: Western Bulldogs by 42 points


Richmond v Sydney, MCG
Sunday, March 31, 4:00pm AEDT

Last time: Richmond 12.16 (88) d Sydney 11.9 (75), R17 2023

What it means
Richmond (0-3) will be sick of the honourable losses but faces a tough test to break the pattern against an in-form Sydney. The Tigers' surge style that served them so well in their three-premiership era is being tweaked under new coach Adem Yze, but they need to quickly find fresh ways to move the ball forward with only West Coast having a worse inside 50 differential than their -15.3.

Sydney (3-0) is making the most of having attacking weapons all over the field as it continues to impress during an undefeated opening to the season. The Swans look sharp and are finding goals from the midfield as well as their enviable mix of forwards, and it feels like only complacency might dull their bright start.


Game shapers
Liam Baker led the way as Richmond made a late charge against Port Adelaide and finished with three goals as well as 23 disposals. The versatile Baker is now winning more of his own ball at stoppages and around the ground, but this week might be more focused on limiting the impact of the Swans' prime movers.

Sydney has been able to rely on a spread of goalkickers and it was Tom Papley's turn to load up against Essendon. Papley booted four majors as well as gathering 24 disposals, but arguably did as much damage when tripling-down on post-match comments about the Bombers' physical approach. The small forward is more likely than most to relish the extra attention and can be expected to back it up his words with action on the MCG.

Early tip: Sydney by 33 points


Hawthorn v Geelong, MCG
Monday, April 1, 3:20pm AEDT

Last time: Geelong 19.13 (127) d Hawthorn 6.9 (45), R4 2023

What it means
Hawthorn (0-2) tried and failed to paper over the cracks with a controlled and cautious approach against Melbourne but would be better served by focusing on lifting its intensity around the ball. The Hawks have the worst average clearance differential this season at -10.5 while also sitting last for tackle differential at -20, but have an opportunity to tidy up both areas against their heated rivals.

Geelong (2-0) has made an ominous start to the season with a pair of victories over other top-eight hopefuls despite injuries and late withdrawals to important players. The Cats will have to overcome more injury concerns with captain Patrick Dangerfield sidelined, but are showing enough signs that they are purring even with their best still to come.

Ollie Henry marks in front of Blake Hardwick during the R4 match between Geelong and Hawthorn at the MCG on April 10, 2023. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

Game shapers
Hawthorn skipper James Sicily will be out to inspire a side looking down in several areas but also needs to get his own game humming after a couple of disappointing displays. Sicily is at his best when he finds the right balance between defence and attack, and will have little choice but to mind an opponent this week against the Cats' twin towers. 

Power forward Tom Hawkins is showing few signs of slowing down as he reaches 350 games when Geelong faces Hawthorn on Easter Monday. Hawkins booted four goals against Adelaide, including three in 12 minutes as the Cats pulled away in the third term, in a reminder of the impact he can have even at the age of 35.

Early tip: Geelong by 38 points