Jake Lever and Darcy Fogarty fly for the ball during the R19 match between Melbourne and Adelaide at the MCG on July 23, 2023. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

ALL 18 clubs are in action for just the second time this season as the competition descends on South Australia for Gather Round.

Four early pacesetters are undefeated with three wins, while Adelaide is among five clubs still searching for a breakthrough victory and will open the round against Melbourne on Thursday. 

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Port Adelaide hosts Essendon in a Friday night blockbuster, but arguably the matches of the round will be part of the Fremantle-Carlton and Western Bulldogs-Geelong double-header at Adelaide Oval on Saturday.

Here is what to look out for across Gather Round, as well as a tip for each match.


Adelaide v Melbourne, Adelaide Oval
Thursday, April 4, 7:10pm ACDT

Last time: Melbourne 13. 13 (97) d Adelaide 13.15 (93), R19 2023

What it means
It is now or never for Adelaide (0-3) as it kicks off Gather Round after three consecutive defeats that have its hopes of returning to finals on the brink of collapse. Playing their feature round match on home turf might give the Crows a much-needed boost, but the Demons showed last week against the Power that they have few fears of running out on Adelaide Oval.

Melbourne (3-1) found a way to get over the line even as Port Adelaide was in command for long periods in their round three clash. The Demons will be buoyed by their forward group firing and especially with Ben Brown booting three critical goals as they take on a Crows outfit with issues at both ends.

Brodie Smith walks from the field after Adelaide's loss to Fremantle in round three, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

Game shapers
Captain Jordan Dawson needs to lead the way for an under-fire Adelaide searching for a spark around stoppages and for slicker ball movement on the outside. Dawson can have an influence in both areas but will want to tidy up his kicking efficiency that has dropped to 49 per cent after being above 70 per cent across two previous seasons at the club.

It has been a while since Alex Neal-Bullen could be found flying under the radar but he has rarely had a more impactful outing than against Port Adelaide last week. The reliable Neal-Bullen has had 24 disposals in each of the past two weeks but added two goals against the Power as a livewire inside the forward 50 to again prove he is a well-rounded weapon for the Demons.

Early tip: Melbourne by 11 points


Brisbane v North Melbourne, Norwood Oval
Friday, April 5, 4:40pm ACDT

Last time: Brisbane 22.20 (152) d North Melbourne 12.5 (77), R5 2023

What it means
Brisbane (0-3) faces perhaps the ideal match-up against North Melbourne as it looks to get its floundering campaign back on track after three defeats including two at the Gabba. Last year's runners-up simply must win against a Kangaroos side that they have beaten in all six clashes going back to 2018, with three matches against top-four contenders and a QClash to follow.

North Melbourne (0-3) was always likely to find the going tough as it started its season with three matches against last year's preliminary finalists in the opening four rounds. But the Roos should still be aiming to tidy up their ball use if only to protect their undermanned and undersized defence that is struggling to contain opposition key forwards. 

Harris Andrews and Charlie Comben in action during the R5 match between Brisbane and North Melbourne at Adelaide Hills on April 15, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Brisbane's key forwards failed to grasp their opportunities against Collingwood but have a chance to make amends – and find form – against North Melbourne. Joe Daniher was far from the Lions' worst against the Pies but can now lead the way with his athleticism up the ground and long kicking sure to be a weapon at Norwood Oval.

While North Melbourne is still coming to terms with problems in its defence it must also tackle new issues at the other end with ruck-forward Callum Coleman-Jones sidelined with an Achilles injury. All-Australian Nick Larkey is now the one genuine key forward and will need to compete hard in the air against the Lions' defence to bring the Roos' goalsneaks into the game. 

Early tip: Brisbane by 33 points


Port Adelaide v Essendon, Adelaide Oval
Friday, April 5, 7:40pm ACDT 

Last time: Port Adelaide 11.12 (78) d Essendon 10.14 (74), R16 2023

What it means
Port Adelaide (2-1) did a lot right against Melbourne in having more shots on goal and an additional 21 inside 50s without clinching the statement win it arguably needs against a top-four contender. The Power must now make the most of their second of three consecutive matches on home turf against a Bombers side they have beaten in all of their seven meetings going back to 2018.

Essendon (2-1) turned to effort as much as an 'edge' in its rousing come-from-behind victory over St Kilda as its midfield won the battle at the coalface and around the ground. The Bombers are still a work in progress but can put themselves in a strong early position with a second consecutive win over a finals hopeful.


Game shapers
Zak Butters battled hard without having his usual influence against Melbourne after starting the season with a pair of dominant displays. The Power will need Butters to quickly bounce back to his best especially against a Bombers midfield building on their balance and strength around the contest.

Essendon needed a forward to step up when the game was on the line against St Kilda and it was little surprise when Jake Stringer was the one to do just that. The 'Package' delivered another match-turning performance against the Saints to add to a powerful start to the season that has already produced 10 goals. 

Early tip: Port Adelaide by 14 points


West Coast v Sydney, Adelaide Hills
Saturday, April 6, 1:00pm ACDT

Last time: Sydney 31.19 (205) d West Coast 5.4 (34), R15 2023

What it means
West Coast (0-3) has plummeted to historic lows but it is not about to get any easier as it faces a wounded Sydney outfit that won this clash by 171 points last year. The Eagles have become just the sixth team in AFL/VFL history to fail to win a quarter from their opening three matches but must hope to at least snap that streak for their young group to take a small step forward.

Sydney (3-1) had placed itself firmly among the frontrunners with a scintillating start to the season until dropping back to the pack with a shock loss to Richmond. The Swans fielded a younger side than the Tigers but they should now be well-aware that in an even competition it is essential to avoid complacency and expect an under-siege opposition to rise to the occasion. 

Sydney players Chad Warner, Nick Blakey and Logan McDonald look dejected after the R3 match against Richmond at the MCG on March 31, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Tim Kelly is too often found playing a lone hand in the West Coast midfield but the 29-year-old showed no signs of frustration with 28 disposals against Western Bulldogs. Kelly lacks the support to be at his most damaging but will be crucial for the Eagles in containing the Swans' young onball outfit and testing them the other way.

Sydney is still without skipper Callum Mills and is set to face West Coast without former co-captains Luke Parker and Dane Rampe, leaving Jake Lloyd as its most experienced player. Lloyd has warmed into the season but with 32 disposals against the Tigers sent a reminder that he can set up the Swans transitions as well as being a composed presence across the defence.

Early tip: Sydney by 67 points


Fremantle v Carlton, Adelaide Oval
Saturday, April 6, 3:50pm ACDT

Last time: Carlton 14.14 (98) d Fremantle 6.9 (45), R17 2023

What it means
Fremantle (3-0) could hardly have been more impressive in its undefeated start to the season but can no longer claim to be the hunter even as it faces the red-hot Carlton. The Dockers have been able to overcome injuries in their defence with an imperious midfield group that is now flowing into the forward half. 

Carlton (3-0) will be out to extend its bright start to the season as well as brush aside a 0-7 record at Adelaide Oval. The Blues look more settled following the return of Jacob Weitering to their backline, but are most ominous in the forward half with Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow already combining for 21 goals.


Game shapers
Captain Alex Pearce was a commanding presence in defence as Fremantle restricted Adelaide to only four goals but is set to face a tougher test against McKay and Curnow. The in-form Pearce can mind one of the Blues' twin towers but will also need to support young key defender Josh Draper as well as intercepting gun Luke Ryan if the Dockers are to claim a fourth straight win.

Adam Cerra has reminded his former club of what it once had with 59 disposals in his two previous matches against Fremantle, but this time faces a midfield looking at the top of their game. Cerra has been valuable on the outside in recent wins over Brisbane and North Melbourne but will likely need to help match the Dockers onballers around the stoppages to help the Blues get over the line. 

Early tip: Carlton by 13 points


Western Bulldogs v Geelong, Adelaide Oval
Saturday, April 6, 7:40pm ACDT

Last time: Western Bulldogs 16.8 (104) d Geelong 11.13 (79), R24 2023

What it means
Western Bulldogs (2-1) did what it had to do with a resounding victory over last year's tormentor West Coast, but now need to make a statement against a top-four contender like Geelong. The Bulldogs still allowed the Eagles to match them for inside 50s in an area of their game they will want to tighten up against the more potent Cats. 

Geelong (3-0) is setting itself up for another top-four tilt with a flawless start to the season although tougher tests are set to come. The experienced Cats know the importance of making the most of a winning streak and banking early-season victories, while young guns such as Tanner Bruhn are blossoming nicely to refresh the line-up.

Tanner Bruhn handballs during the R3 match between Geelong and Hawthorn at the MCG on April 1, 2024. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

Game shapers
Marcus Bontempelli was hardly needed against the hapless West Coast but it was still a surprise to see the Western Bulldogs skipper restricted to only 16 disposals – his fewest tally in nearly two years. Bontempelli still made an impact with three goals and nine tackles, but will be out to put in a typically robust performance against the Cats' more mature midfield. 

Mark Blicavs has shown across 12 seasons that he can influence a game from any position on the field. The versatile Blicavs will be equally important for the Cats in his 250th match whether minding the Dogs' tall forwards or competing with last year's All-Australian ruck Tim English. 

Early tip: Geelong by nine points


Gold Coast v GWS Giants, Adelaide Hills
Sunday, April 7, 12:00pm ACST

Last time: GWS Giants 15.15 (105) d Gold Coast 9.7 (61), R1 2023

What it means
Gold Coast (2-1) has had a week off to lick its wounds after a disappointing display against Western Bulldogs ended the glittering start to life under Damien Hardwick. The Suns are likely to remain inconsistent as they learn to play under their new coach's guidance but the emerging side should be primed to lift and test themselves against the high-flying Giants.

GWS (3-0) has had the better of Gold Coast in recent times, with 11 wins from their past 12 meetings going back to 2014. But the ladder-leading Giants will have no room for complacency especially knowing that the Suns' only triumph in that time came when the sides last met on neutral turf at Mars Stadium in 2021.

Adam Kingsley talks to his team during the R2 match between GWS and West Coast at Optus Stadium on March 24, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Gold Coast co-captain Touk Miller is looking back to his ball-winning best around the stoppages after an injury-hit 2023. Miller can be trusted to turn it on again where his hard-nosed graft will be critical against the Giants' battle-hardened midfield.

Lachie Whitfield has been shifted around in recent seasons as GWS look to make the most of his sublime foot skills in areas where he is needed most. Whitfield has mostly settled across half-back again this year and is averaging a career-high 33 disposals a game as a key to the Giants turning defence into attack.

Early tip: GWS Giants by 17 points


Richmond v St Kilda, Norwood Oval
Sunday, April 7, 2:50pm ACST 

Last time: St Kilda 14.9 (93) d Richmond 8.9 (57), R22 2023

What it means
Richmond (1-3) has been quickly brought crashing back to Earth after its stirring victory against Sydney was soured by injuries to Tom Lynch and Noah Balta. The Tigers built their win on intense pressure but after losing two key pillars will likely have to also find a strength around stoppages to upset a shaky St Kilda.

St Kilda (1-2) was left to rue not making the most of its early dominance and putting Essendon away last week as another defeat has left clouds hanging over a promising start to its campaign. The Saints can hardly afford to let another game slip when they face a wounded Richmond especially with a clash with GWS coming up after that.


Game shapers
Richmond might be in a state of transition but some familiarity remains with Nick Vlastuin a reliable presence in defence. The three-time premiership player was a key to cutting off Sydney's offensive threats with 15 intercepts among 29 disposals, and will again be pivotal as the Tigers attempt to stifle the Saints.

Jack Steele has rediscovered his consistency after an unusually up-and-down 2023, but will now be out to make amends for St Kilda giving up their ascendancy at stoppages as it was overrun by Essendon. The Saints captain might need more support but can still lead the way with clearances and tackles on the tight confines of Norwood Oval. 

Early tip: St Kilda by 14 points


Collingwood v Hawthorn, Adelaide Oval
Sunday, April 7, 4:40pm ACST 

Last time: Hawthorn 16.9 (105) d Collingwood 11.7 (73), R21 2023 

What it means
Reigning premier Collingwood (1-3) kickstarted its season with a win over Brisbane at the Gabba but now needs to back it up at another victory away from home. The Magpies withstood the Lions' early onslaught then turned up their own pressure to surge home in ominous signs for the rest of the competition.

Hawthorn (0-3) stayed in the contest against the white-hot Geelong even as stormy weather and lightning put a dampener on the match. But honourable losses should be well short of enough for the Hawks as they look to find ways to win and perhaps even repeat their upset of the Pies last year.

Collingwood players sing the team song after the R3 match against Brisbane at the Gabba on March 28, 2024. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

Game shapers
Jack Crisp paid the price for a slow start to the season while Collingwood lost its opening three matches to start as sub for this first time in his 230-match career. Crisp played little more than a quarter against Brisbane but made an immediate impact with 13 disposals and a goal to help turn the contest and press his claims to return to the starting line-up.

Hawthorn stunned Collingwood late last season as the eventual premier was outplayed and lost young gun Nick Daicos to injury. Finn Maginness had ensured Daicos had minimal impact even before injury struck, restricting the star midfielder to only five disposals in 60 per cent game time with a defensive diligence that sets up an enthralling return bout. 

Early tip: Collingwood by 27 points