Patrick Dangerfield and Billy Frampton in action during the match between Collingwood and Geelong at the MCG in round 22, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

THE RACE for finals places was shaken up last week with pacesetters Sydney and Carlton both suffering defeats, while the six clubs immediately behind the top two each had a win.

Collingwood has dropped out of the top eight following consecutive losses and now needs to beat Geelong in the round 18 opener on Friday night to get its premiership defence back on track.

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Last year's runner-up Brisbane is heading in the other direction after five victories on the trot, and will close out the round against a besieged West Coast on Sunday.

Here is who and what to look out for across round 18, as well as a tip for each match.


Collingwood v Geelong, MCG
Friday, July 12, 7.40pm AEST

Last time: Collingwood 16.13 (109) d Geelong 15.11 (101), R22 2023

What it means

Collingwood (8-6-2) has suffered back-to-back defeats as a mounting injury list takes its toll and the reigning premier runs out of lives in close results. The Magpies had not lost a match decided by two goals or less in more than a year, while winning 11 of them since then, but are now running out of time to rediscover their form and fitness with a testing run home still to come.  

Geelong (10-6) has shown promising signs of a return to form in comprehensive victories over Hawthorn and Essendon and could now make a statement with a third win in a row when it faces the reigning premier. With a refreshed midfield powering their success, the Cats are right back in the hunt for a top four spot with the Pies one of only three finals contenders they face in the run home. 

Collingwood players after their loss to Essendon in R17, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers

Steele Sidebottom turned back the clock to play his most impactful, all-round game of the season as the undermanned Magpies tried to hold off the Bombers' second-half surge. The 33-year-old might have had an up-and-down season, as have several of his teammates, but after rediscovering his touch with 34 disposals the versatile midfielder can now be a key to the Pies keeping pace with the top eight.

Jack Bowes has taken some time to find his rightful place in the Cats' lineup after joining the club following their 2022 premiership, but with more midfield minutes is now starting to make his mark. The 26-year-old has averaged 25 disposals with 11 of those contested, as well as 3.5 clearances a game over the past two weeks as a refreshed onball brigade has helped turn around the Cats' form.

Early tip: Geelong by four points


Hawthorn v Fremantle, UTAS Stadium
Saturday, July 13, 1.45pm AEST

Last time: Fremantle 14.9 (93) d Hawthorn 8.8 (56), R24 2023

What it means

Hawthorn (8-8) had its five-match winning streak snapped in emphatic fashion as it was quickly blown away by Geelong at their GMHBA Stadium fortress last week. However, the Hawks return to their own stronghold this week to face the Dockers at a venue where they have won their past four matches and 12 of their last 15, with a victory all but essential to keep pace with the finals contenders.

Fremantle (10-5-1) has stayed a step ahead of most of the top-four contenders with three straight wins and will start the round only half-a-win behind second place. The Dockers have been making the most of their balance of power and polish around the stoppages, while their backline regularly turns defence into attack with intercept possessions.

Dylan Moore handballs under pressure from Brennan Cox and Jordan Clark during the match between Fremantle and Hawthorn at Optus Stadium in round eight, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Game shapers

Dylan Moore has become one of the most potent attackers in the game as he can turn to his forward craft built over several seasons playing near goal, while also being a key cog in Hawthorn's midfield. The 24-year-old has booted 26 goals and is averaging 19.3 disposals a game, to become a leader and one of the most influential players among the Hawks' emerging group.

Matthew Johnson is starting to live up to his promise as a big-bodied midfielder who is now complementing ball-hunters Caleb Serong and Andrew Brayshaw in the Dockers' onball brigade. The 193cm Johnson is using his size and playing with a new-found confidence as he breaks tackles and releases zippier teammates while the Dockers build on their strength around stoppages.

Early tip: Fremantle by seven points


Sydney v North Melbourne, SCG
Saturday, July 13, 1.45pm AEST

Last time: Sydney 14.9 (93) d North Melbourne 14.6 (90), R10 2023

What it means

Sydney (13-3) looked irrepressible as it surged to 13 wins from its opening 14 matches, including a run of 10 in a row, but has since had chinks in its armour revealed in two narrow defeats. The Swans have paid the price for allowing the opposition to control the ball and tempo, and will have to be wary of an improving Kangaroos setting out to do much the same this week.

North Melbourne (2-14) got the reward it had arguably deserved for its vastly improved performances since a bye with a win over Gold Coast that followed three defeats by an average of seven points. The Roos now face the ultimate test against the wounded Swans, while they can be buoyed by pushing the ladder leaders up to the final seconds in a narrow loss when they met last year.

Eddie Ford and Will Phillips celebrate victory after the match between North Melbourne and Gold Coast at Marvel Stadium in round 17, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers

Callum Mills has had to watch on from the sidelines as his teammates have played some scintillating football and surged to the top of the ladder this season, but will now be unleashed against the Roos. The Swans' sole skipper is finally ready to return after recovering from an off-season shoulder injury and later a torn calf, just in time to give his side a boost after they staggered to a pair of narrow defeats.

Harry Sheezel has done little wrong across his 39 matches as the plaudits and individual accolades have flowed. But the 19-year-old is now having a significant impact on the Kangaroos' fortunes and sudden leaps towards more success since a move to the midfield that has allowed the ball-magnet to still average 27 disposals, while also booting eight goals across his past six matches.

Early tip: Sydney by eight points


Western Bulldogs v Carlton, Marvel Stadium
Saturday, July 13, 4.35pm AEST

Last time: Western Bulldogs 11.13 (79) d Carlton 8.11 (59), R9 2023

What it means

Western Bulldogs (8-8) remain one of the most inconsistent sides in the competition and fell well short of winning a third match in a row for the first time this season when outmuscled by Port Adelaide. The Dogs are now facing an injury crisis as well, but have shown they can challenge the leading contenders even with their backs to the wall when dismantling Fremantle just three weeks ago.

Carlton (11-5) was perhaps due a loss after five comprehensive victories, but would be most concerned with the manner of its defeat to GWS after giving up a 39-point lead with barely a whimper until a belated fightback. The Blues are now only one win ahead of the Power in sixth spot, but can turn their focus back on a top-two finish against the injury-ravaged Bulldogs and with the Kangaroos to come next week.

Jamarra Ugle-Hagan in action during the match between Carlton and the Western Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium in round nine, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers

Jamarra Ugle-Hagan had found a way to find the goals in every match this season, even when below his best at times, until going goalless from only seven disposals in the heavy defeat to the Power. The 22-year-old is sure to be a key target for the Dogs again this week in the absence of Aaron Naughton, and is due a first haul of four or more goals this year, especially against the undersized Blues defence.

Patrick Cripps will reach 200 matches this week with another Brownlow Medal within his sights and, more importantly, a top-two finish and deep finals run also up for grabs. The Blues' skipper has been in typically imperious touch while averaging 38 disposals and booting three goals in his side's past three matches, and will again be must-watch as he goes head-to-head with the Dogs' skipper this week.

Early tip: Carlton by 11 points


Adelaide v St Kilda, Adelaide Oval
Saturday, July 13, 7pm ACST

Last time: Adelaide 19.7 (121) d St Kilda 10.9 (69), R9 2023

What it means

Adelaide (5-10-1) gave the in-form Brisbane a scare last week, but is now running out of opportunities to secure the wins that would give them a foundation to build on for next year. The Crows should be out to leapfrog back over the Saints and boost their hopes of avoiding a first bottom-four finish since 2021, with a tough run against six finals contenders to come.

St Kilda (6-10) rediscovered the effort and intensity that propelled it to a finals berth last season as it stunned ladder leaders Sydney last week. That victory lifted the Saints above the Crows into 14th place, and while they have not beaten a team in the current top half of the ladder since the Magpies in round one, Ross Lyon’s side has at least been able to get the better of those placed around them.

Mattaes Phillipou celebrates St Kilda's win over Sydney in R17, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers

Ben Keays is set to bring up his 100th consecutive match for the Crows since making his debut for his second club in 2020 and has rarely been more crucial to their hopes of success. The Crows' vice-captain adds tenacity and a touch of class to an under-fire midfield that will be looking for a spark, and showed what he can add near goal with four majors against his former club Brisbane last week.

Mattaes Phillipou is hardly the first young player to suffer from a case of the second-year blues, but a stint in the reserves seems to have cured his concerns as he returned with a bang last week. The 19-year-old gathered a career-high 26 disposals including five clearances in a best-on-ground performance in the win over the Swans, and looks to have the confidence to back it up against the Crows.

Early tip: Adelaide by 14 points


Melbourne v Essendon, MCG
Saturday, July 13, 7.30pm AEST

Last time: Essendon 15.14 (104) d Melbourne 11.11 (77), R5 2023

What it means

Melbourne (9-7) made the most of facing an out-of-sorts West Coast with a commanding win that suggested the worst of a run of two wins in the previous seven matches might be behind it. The Demons are still suffering from injuries to some of their most critical players, but need to find a way to beat a finals contender for the first time since round eight if they want to stay in the hunt for a spot in September.

Essendon (10-5-1) made a statement with its first victory this season over a side sitting in the top eight when it overran Collingwood to knock the reigning premier out of the finals places. The Bombers won’t be able to double down on that this week against the Demons, but more importantly can boost their hopes of securing a double chance, especially with the Crows and Saints to come next.

Tom McDonald and Sam Draper contest for the ball during the match between Essendon and Melbourne at Adelaide Oval in round five, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

Game shapers

Kysaiah Pickett has dazzled and delighted across his five seasons, but is now adding more consistency ahead of reaching 100 matches this week against the Bombers. The 23-year-old has booted at least a goal in all but one match this season, while averaging a career high 1.8 a game, and is also making more of an impact winning the ball outside the forward 50 as a key to unlocking the Demons' attack.

Jye Caldwell has had to overcome fitness and form concerns to reach his potential, but in his fourth season with his second club he is now crucial to the way the Bombers play. The 23-year-old is adding a steely resolve to Essendon's midfield and has the fifth-most tackles in the competition, but is now also winning more of the ball and starting to add goals to his increasingly well-rounded game.

Early tip: Essendon by nine points 


Gold Coast v Port Adelaide, People First Stadium
Sunday, July 14, 1.10pm AEST

Last time: Port Adelaide 16.10 (106) d Gold Coast 11.7 (73), R17 2023

What it means

Gold Coast (8-8) is increasingly relying on its impeccable home form to keep its finals hopes alive as it continues to pay the price for a horror record on the road. The Suns should have extra motivation to make a statement against the Power after coach Damien Hardwick unleashed with a verbal tirade calling out their lack of effort in another loss away from home this time to the Kangaroos.

Port Adelaide (10-6) has responded to the humiliating defeat to Brisbane with back-to-back victories that have breathed fresh life into its campaign. The Power can now ride that fresh wave of momentum against an opponent they beaten in their past 14 matches since a shock loss the first time they met in 2011, including in all seven encounters at a venue that has become a fortress for the Suns.

Jason Horne-Francis, Connor Rozee and Zak Butters celebrate Port Adelaide's win over the Western Bulldogs at Adelaide Oval in R17, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers

Sam Flanders has hardly skipped a beat as he has been shifted around this season, mostly from midfield to defence and then back to join the onball brigade. But the smooth-moving Flanders will be especially crucial this week as the Suns look to overcome the absence of co-captain Touk Miller while keeping hopes of a first ever finals berth alive.

Jason Horne-Francis continues to grow as a weapon in all parts of the ground, but is now having as much impact in the front half where he is able to add more than just goals. The 185cm midfielder is proving to be a dependable forward target with his ability to win one-on-one contests, or at least trap the ball in close, proving valuable at more than just stoppages.

Early tip: Port Adelaide by eight points


Richmond v GWS Giants, MCG
Sunday, July 14, 3.20pm AEST

Last time: Richmond 16.14 (110) d GWS Giants 15.14 (104), R12 2023

What it means

Richmond (2-14) is now sitting in 18th place on the ladder for the first time in club history, becoming the last team to earn the dubious honour. The Tigers have dropped below the Kangaroos on percentage only, after losing their past three matches by an average of 53 points, so could now turn to at least avoiding heavy defeats as it aims to dodge the wooden spoon.

Greater Western Sydney (9-7) will hope it has reignited its season after overrunning the fast-starting Carlton to clinch just its third victory in the past nine matches. That win lifted the Giants back into the finals spots and they now have an opportunity to boost their top-four chances against the bottom-placed Tigers with three matches against sides currently sitting outside the top eight to follow.

Shai Bolton in action during the match between Fremantle and Richmond at Optus Stadium in round 17, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers

Shai Bolton remains a standout for the Tigers even as they have fallen away, whether he spends more time in the midfield or closer to goal. The 25-year-old is giving regular reminders of his potency in attack and booted 4.3 in a heavy defeat to the Dockers last week, to now have 24 for the season as he continues to ensure there is a spark despite the results.

Kieren Briggs helped turn the contest against the Blues last week as the Giants overturned a 39-point deficit with their ruck dominant at the stoppages on the way to piling on 14 of the next 16 goals. The 24-year-old has emerged as one of the more robust rucks in the game, with his attack on the contest and ability to win clearances critical to the Giants getting the ball moving their way. 

Early tip: Greater Western Sydney by 19 points


West Coast v Brisbane, Optus Stadium
Sunday, July 14, 2.40pm AWST

Last time: Brisbane 16.20 (116) d West Coast 5.5 (35), R17 2023

What it means

West Coast (3-13) has lost much of the shine that came with its early-season promise, with six defeats in a row as it faces up to issues at both ends of the ground. The Eagles only gave up an average of 69 points a game in their three victories this season, while conceding 104 in their 13 losses, and can expect to have their work cut out trying to limit the damage against the third-highest scoring team in the Lions.

Brisbane (9-6-1) has climbed to within one win of the top four with five consecutive victories and will like its chances of adding another against a struggling West Coast that it has beaten in their past five meetings by an average 54 points. The Lions might look for another healthy boost to their percentage with the Dockers among the teams also eyeing a double chance that, like Brisbane, have had a draw.

Jake Waterman and Liam Duggan look on at Adam Simpson's press conference after ending his tenure at West Coast on July 9, 2024. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

Game shapers

Liam Duggan might not be the most high-profile skipper in the competition but along with co-captain Oscar Allan he will be crucial as the Eagles look to respond to the departure of premiership-winning coach Adam Simpson. The 27-year-old has remained a consistent contributor even as results have floundered, averaging 23.6 disposals, but will now be out to make his most impact without ball in hand.

Josh Dunkley had barely even stuttered as the Lions' early-season form grew as a concern, but he has still found another gear in recent weeks. The 27-year-old has averaged 33 disposals, six clearances and seven tackles in the past three matches to add a balance to the Lions' midfield as they continue their surge towards the top four.

Early tip: Brisbane by 27 points