Max Gawn chases Lachie Neale during Melbourne's clash against Brisbane in round five, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

THE STAKES are rising even as the ladder looks more settled while we move out of the bye rounds with every team now having played 14 matches.

The three-win margin between pacesetter Sydney to the second-placed Carlton is as big as the next gap down to Hawthorn in 13th, leaving a logjam of clubs battling for a top-eight spot.

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Brisbane and Melbourne open the round on Friday night in differing form but with the same aim to stand out among the finals contenders.

This is what to look out for across round 16 and a tip for each match.


Brisbane v Melbourne, Gabba
Friday, June 28, 7.40pm AEST

Last time: Brisbane 12.10 (82) d Melbourne 8.12 (60), R5 2024

What it means

Brisbane (7-6-1) has moved ahead on the win-loss ledger for the first time this season after three wins on the trot including a 79-point thumping of Port Adelaide last week. The Lions' return to form has had them steadily rising up the ladder and now a win over the Demons could lift them into the top eight with the bottom-four Adelaide and West Coast to follow.

Melbourne (8-6) only just escaped with a victory over the fast-finishing North Melbourne to avoid a third consecutive defeat. But the Demons have not beaten a fellow finals contender since snapping Geelong's winning streak in round eight, while losing four of their six matches overall since then, and now need to turn their fortunes around to stay in the logjam of clubs battling to be in the top eight.

Game shapers

Lachie Neale has been back to his most impactful best in recent weeks to lead the Lions' mid-season surge that now has them threatening the early pacesetters. The reigning Brownlow medallist gathered 37 disposals including 10 clearances against Port Adelaide and could punish a Melbourne midfield now looking undermanned.

Lachie Neale leads the team off following the match between Brisbane and St Kilda at the Gabba in round 14, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Bayley Fritsch made a strong start to the season as the Demons looked set to again sit among the leading teams but has lacked the same influence since injury and other issues hit their campaign. Fritsch has only booted one goal in the past three matches, which came against Collingwood when he also finished with four behinds, while the Demons have been searching for firepower during a lean patch of two defeats and a nail-biting win last week. 

Early tip: Brisbane by 11 points


North Melbourne v Western Bulldogs, Marvel Stadium
Saturday, June 29, 1.45pm AEST

Last time: Western Bulldogs 15.15 (105) d North Melbourne 13.6 (84), R14 2023

What it means

North Melbourne (1-13) has turned its fortunes around since breaking through for a first victory of the season before heading off for a bye, even while falling short twice since then in narrow losses to Collingwood and Melbourne. The improved performances and results, even in defeat, have given the Roos a nice percentage boost but they still need another win to leapfrog Richmond and jump out of last place.

The Western Bulldogs (7-7) evened up their win-loss record with a thumping victory over Fremantle before dropping back a couple of spots during a week off with the bye. The Dogs can now aim to bounce back up the ladder and potentially end the round in the top eight, against a Roos side that they have dismantled in their past five meetings by an average of 59 points.

Game shapers

Luke Davies-Uniacke is arguably in career-best form as he prepares to line up in his 100th match since being drafted by North Melbourne with pick No.4 in 2017. The midfielder has been a key to the Roos' resurgence over the past month with his burst from stoppages and long kicking a key weapon, while averaging a career-high 28.3 disposals and crucially 6.3 clearances this season. 


Tom Liberatore has hit the ground running since returning to the Bulldogs' side after suffering ongoing concussion symptoms that even threatened to derail his career. Liberatore sent a reminder of his value to the Dogs in his second game back when they faced the Dockers before their bye, gathering 28 disposals and 10 clearances to help set up their crushing win.

Early tip: Western Bulldogs by 14 points


Sydney v Fremantle, SCG
Saturday, June 29, 1.45pm AEST

Last time: Sydney 13.9 (87) d Fremantle 4.15 (39), R9 2024

What it means

Sydney (13-1) has won 10 matches in a row for just the second time since 1935 to hold a three-win gap, and with a significantly superior percentage, over the chasing pack. The Swans will now be out to climb to their best ever win-loss record at this stage of a home and away season, with complacency perhaps the biggest threat to a side ranked No.1 for both points for and against.

Fremantle (8-5-1) has risen to fifth place despite an inconsistent season but now gets to test its credentials against the competition benchmark. The Dockers could put themselves in a strong position to play finals with a shock win over the Swans, especially with their next four matches to be against sides currently sitting outside the top eight.

Game shapers

Justin McInerney could hardly be accused of trying to fly under the radar in a star-studded midfield with his full-blooded and vocal approach to the contest more likely to get under the skin of opponents. The hard-running McInerney can make an impact from most positions, whether starting in defence or attack, or on the inside or outside of the mids, while averaging a career-high 20.5 disposals this season. 

Justin McInerney during the round 11 match between Western Bulldogs and Sydney at Marvel Stadium, May 23, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

Hayden Young has been a success story for the Dockers since making the timely move from defence to the midfield and is now averaging career-highs for disposals (25.1), clearances (4.8) and inside 50s (5.2). The big-bodied onballer showed that he can add another string to his bow with a personal-best three goals against the Suns that suggested Young has even more to come.

Early tip: Sydney by 33 points


Gold Coast v Collingwood, People First Stadium
Saturday, June 29, 4.35pm AEST

Last time: Collingwood 18.12 (120) d Gold Coast 5.12 (42), R16 2023

What it means

Gold Coast (7-7) stretched its shocking streak of failing to win on the road to seven matches with back-to-back defeats while finding scoring particularly difficult either side of a bye. But the Suns will now have the ideal opportunity to prove that their home truly is a fortress as they come up against the reigning premier while still holding onto a perfect record when the hosts.

Collingwood (8-4-2) might have only edged past cellar dweller North Melbourne but it was enough to lift it to third place before dropping down a spot during the bye. The victory by the barest of margins might be just the wake-up call that the Magpies needed, but they should hold few fears of visiting the Gold Coast where they have won their past five matches by an average of 41 points.

Game shapers

Touk Miller led the way for the Suns as they continued to search for their first win on the road since May last year, gathering 33 disposals in more of an outside midfielder role in the defeat to the Dockers. The Suns skipper has looked back to his best at times this season after an injury-hit 2023, but would still want to tidy up his ball use especially against an outfit that punishes turnovers as good as anyone.

Touk Miller and David Swallow during the round 13 match between St Kilda and Gold Coast at Marvel Stadium, June 8, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

Isaac Quaynor has become crucial to the way that the Pies play ahead of his 100th appearance since being drafted with pick No.13 in 2018. The versatile defender is a master of turning defence into attack even if the opposition often put just much work into nullifying him, as shown when the Roos focused on taking away Quaynor's ability to take intercept marks.

Early tip: Collingwood by four points


Adelaide v Greater Western Sydney, Adelaide Oval
Saturday, June 29, 7pm ACST

Last time: Greater Western Sydney 10.11 (71) d Adelaide 8.9 (57), R18 2023

What it means

Adelaide (4-9-1) looked to be rediscovering the positive play and pressure that were behind its most promising periods last year, until three consecutive defeats all but rubber-stamped another bottom-half finish this time around. The Crows might still have a mathematical chance of making the finals but the margin for error is so slim from here that it already looks like being another development year.

GWS (8-6) was outclassed against arch-rival Sydney last week but remains in the hunt for a top-four finish after banking five early-season victories on the trot and with reinforcements now to come. But the Giants won't want to drop their more winnable games like this and against an opponent that they have only lost twice to since 2017, especially with a sterner challenge against the Blues to follow.

Game shapers

Taylor Walker is reportedly looking to play on whether with the Crows or somewhere else, even though the 34-year-old has been well short of the heights he hit last year when he booted 76 goals. The former skipper has only managed more than two majors in one match this season, when he kicked four against the Blues in arguably the Crows' best performance, but should like his chances of another bag against the Giants' injury-hit defence.

Taylor Walker celebrates a goal during Adelaide's win over West Coast in round 11, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Toby Bedford has made an immediate impact in his new-found role as a tagger, locking down on Zak Butters, Connor Rozee and Chad Warner to devastating effect over the past two weeks. The Crows' midfield might not run as deep for star power as the Power and Swans, but if Bedford can nullify the likes of Jordan Dawson while again winning enough of the ball himself his job would be done.

Early tip: Greater Western Sydney by nine points


Geelong v Essendon, MCG
Saturday, June 29, 7.30pm AEST

Last time: Geelong 18.14 (122) d Essendon 7.3 (45), R18 2023

What it means

Geelong (8-6) is on the brink of tumbling out of the top eight following six defeats in its past seven matches and looking well off the pace in its most recent loss to Carlton. But the Cats now have an ideal opportunity to rediscover some form against a side that they have beaten in their past six matches by an average 52 points.

Essendon (9-4-1) did what it had to do against West Coast after its bye and now has a chance to not only reaffirm its top-four credentials but also snap a hoodoo against a club that has had a stronghold over it for 20 years. The Bombers have not beaten the Cats since 2018, and only come out on top four times in their 25 clashes since 2004.

Game shapers

Mitch Duncan has had an up and down season since overcoming injury and as his role continues to change but showed his class while fighting as hard as any Cat in their defeat to the Blues. The 33-year-old is spending more and more time in defence and the Cats should look to be getting the ball into his hands especially if the Bombers follow the trend to shut out Tom Stewart's influence.

Mitch Duncan kicks the ball during Geelong's clash against St Kilda in round one, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Dyson Heppell remains a reliable performer for the Bombers even as he manages his body and often flips between roles to make the most of his experience ahead of his 250th match. The former skipper has even turned back the clock at times this season when gathering 25 or more disposals five times, and can be trusted to use the ball cleanly especially when launching attacks. 

Early tip: Geelong by two points


St Kilda v Port Adelaide, Marvel Stadium
Sunday, June 30, 1.10pm AEST

Last time: Port Adelaide 11.16 (82) d St Kilda 11.6 (72), R7 2024

What it means

St Kilda (5-9) booted its highest score for the year in its match before a bye but still fell short against the resurgent Brisbane to fall further away from the top eight. The Saints will need to find the right balance between defence and attack if they are to make a late charge towards finals, but should like their chances against a Power outfit suddenly under siege.

Port Adelaide (8-6) has lost its past three matches by an average 46 points with the most demoralising defeat coming as it celebrated the 20th anniversary of its only premiership last week. The Power have been heading in the wrong direction but won't mind returning to a venue with a fast deck where they have won nine of their past 10 matches since the start of 2021.

Game shapers

Jack Higgins has been a standout for the Saints even as they have often paid the price for not making life easy enough for their forwards this season, with the goalsneak averaging a career-high 2.1 goals a game. Higgins is also making the most of his opportunities since tidying up his finishing to kick 23.12, and can be trusted to remind the Power defenders that their backs are to the wall.

Jack Higgins tackles Tim Taranto during St Kilda's clash with Richmond in round 22, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Connor Rozee needs to make a statement as a first-year skipper with his side on the ropes even after doing almost all that he could in the crushing loss to the Lions. The 24-year-old has now been back playing for two weeks after injury issues and looks on the brink of returning to his best even as the Power midfield has recently underperformed.

Early tip: Port Adelaide by 17 points


Richmond v Carlton, MCG
Sunday, June 30, 3.20pm AEST

Last time: Carlton 12.14 (86) d Richmond 12.9 (81), R1 2024

What it means

Richmond (2-12) had shown signs of improvement in the weeks before stunning Adelaide with a victory on the road but fell back into old traps when outplayed by a rapidly improving Hawthorn. The Tigers have had a week to lick their wounds during a bye but will now need to bounce back quickly to challenge the in-form Blues.

Carlton (10-4) has entrenched itself in second spot and is rightly being lauded as the main challenger to Sydney, but rather than simply enjoying the ride from here it should be time to repay some favours. The Tigers owned this match-up for close to a decade, but even as the fortunes of the two clubs have flipped around in the past couple of years, the Blues are still to properly put their old foe away and inflict a heavy defeat.

Game shapers

Toby Nankervis has been integral to the Tigers mostly remaining competitive during a horror run with injury and the skipper can now rightly be celebrated for his efforts ahead of his 150th match. The three-time premiership ruck is still only 29 but has seen it all before and should relish the fresh challenge of taking on the Blues up and coming Tom De Koning.

Kieran Strachan and Toby Nankervis compete in the ruck during the R13 match between Adelaide and Richmond at Adelaide Oval on June 6, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Zac Williams has had to do it the hard way to reach 150 matches after being ravaged with injuries including torn ACLs since making his debut in 2013. The 29-year-old has looked rejuvenated in his new role as a forward, no doubt helped by the Blues being on a dream run, as he has booted 10 goals over the past month and a bit while adding intense pressure as a tackling machine. 

Early tip: Carlton by 27 points


West Coast v Hawthorn, Optus Stadium
Sunday, June 30, 2.40pm AWST

Last time: Hawthorn 22.10 (142) d West Coast 4.2 (26), R10 2023

What it means

West Coast (3-11) looked refreshed after its bye and had its chances against Essendon but ultimately ran out of legs as its opponent skipped away late. The young Eagles have been better on their home turf this year with all three of their victories coming as hosts, while their last three defeats at Optus Stadium have been by 14 points or less.

Hawthorn (7-7) will hope its dream run has not been interrupted by having a bye after winning four in a row, and seven of its past nine, before taking a break. But there is no reason to think that the Hawks' eye-catching form might come to an end, and they showed signs of progress last year when thumping the Eagles on their home deck.

Game shapers

Oscar Allen was back with a bang last week that might have been much louder as the Eagles skipper booted two goals against the Bombers but also finished with four behinds. The Eagles looked much better with Allen back in attack, the tall forward taking nine marks and working well alongside revitalised spearhead Jake Waterman while Jack Darling roamed further from goal. 

Jamie Cripps and Oscar Allen celebrate a goal during West Coast's clash against Essendon in round 15, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Massimo D'Ambrosio has been a bargain pick up for Hawthorn after his move from Essendon, the former mid-season draft pick looking at home on a wing. The Hawks look to find the 21-year-old whenever they can as part of their transitions, with his sharp kicking skills a weapon while he averages 20.5 disposals a game.

Early tip: Hawthorn by seven points