The stage is set for an exciting final round in the AFL

It all comes down to this.

The final round is nearly upon us and while the Geelong Cats are guaranteed to finish on top of the ladder for the second time in four years, there is still plenty to play out as the final structure of the AFL ladder takes shape.

This week I am resting my standard match-by-match round preview to deliver all the permutations that could potentially unfold in what shapes as the most exciting final round in recent AFL history.

With the McClelland Trophy heading down the highway, second place is at the mercy of the Sydney Swans who will play St Kilda at Marvel Stadium in the final match of the regular season on what’s been dubbed “Super Sunday”.

John Longmire’s men will wake up on Saturday morning to find out that they’ve been overtaken by the winner of the Brisbane Lions-Melbourne match at the Gabba that would’ve taken place the previous evening. We’ll have more on that shortly.

Having ended Collingwood’s 11-match winning streak and extended theirs to six courtesy of a 27-point win at the SCG, the Swans have put themselves in the box seat to clinch second place on the ladder, with which comes their first two finals at the ground.

It would cap off a meteroic rise for the Swans, who not long ago finished in the bottom four in consecutive seasons, but were able to rebuild on the run and return to September last year before bowing out in a heartbreaking elimination final loss at the hands of the GWS Giants.

There had been doubts cast about their finals credentials after they suffered a shock nine-point loss to Essendon at the MCG in Round 16, at which point they held a 9-6 record and sat in eighth place on the ladder.

But six straight wins later, they are being talked up as potential premiership fancies, and delivering a flag to the SCG would be the perfect retirement gift for Lance “Buddy” Franklin whose future will not be revisited until the end of the season.

Lance Franklin celebrates a goal.

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

They are one of only two clubs (the other being Melbourne) who have finished every round in the top eight since the start of the 2021 season.

The Swans will start hot favourites to beat the Saints at Docklands in the last of three matches that will be played on Super Sunday, with Carlton and the Western Bulldogs also still in the running to secure a finals berth.

Earlier in the day, the Bulldogs will start favourites against Hawthorn in Launceston but at the same time they must overcome a 14-year hoodoo in Tasmania, having not won in the Apple Isle since 2008.

All eyes will, however, be on the Carlton-Collingwood match that’ll be played at the MCG in the middle of the day, with the stakes set to be very high for both clubs. It is for that reason that a crowd of at least 80,000 (possibly 90,000) will be expected.

For the Blues, a win will secure them their first finals berth since 2013, and they will know the final score of the Hawthorn-Western Bulldogs game (which starts two hours earlier) by the quarter-time siren at the earliest.

The St Kilda-Sydney match at Marvel Stadium is scheduled to start at 4:40pm, which will be roughly during halftime or just as the second half begins at the MCG.

It is possible Michael Voss’ men could therefore start the second quarter outside the eight, or if the Bulldogs are beaten they could still hold their place in the eight right to the full-time siren.

This is similar to the situation the club (then coached by Mick Malthouse) found themselves in Round 23, 2013, whereby they defeated Port Adelaide by just a solitary point at the since-demolished AAMI Stadium to secure themselves a finals berth.

Otherwise, if the Blues are beaten (and the Bulldogs beat Hawthorn), they will drop out of the top eight for the first time in the season after Round 23, and face yet another September on the sidelines.

It would be a bitterly disappointing end to a season that had promised so much for the Bluebaggers, who have lost their past three matches and were pipped right at the death by Melbourne last Saturday night.

Patrick Cripps of the Blues looks dejected after a loss.

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Even then, St Kilda still remain a mathematical chance of replacing the Bulldogs in the eight, though whatever their winning margin against the Sydney Swans is must be bigger than what the Western Bulldogs beat Hawthorn by.

However, the Swans would be in no mood for mercy as they chase a top-two finish for the first time since 2016.

As for the Pies, a win would secure them a top-four berth and complete their dramatic rise back up the ladder, the black-and-whites having finished second-last in 2021.

Elsewhere in the round, the Lions and Dees meet in a pre-finals blockbuster at the Gabba, with the winner to move into second place pending the result of the Saints-Swans match at the end of the round.

If the Swans beat the Saints as expected on Sunday night, securing second place in the process, the winner of the Lions-Dees match will face the Swans at the SCG, and the loser could drop to as low as sixth and potentially host Richmond in a knock-out final.

Fremantle (currently sixth) will move up to third on the ladder if they beat the GWS Giants in Canberra, but a loss will see them finish sixth, regardless of the other results in the round, meaning they would host a knock-out final likely to be against Richmond at Optus Stadium.

The Tigers will start hot favourites to beat Essendon – a side they haven’t been beaten by since 2014 – but in the unlikely event that they are beaten, and Carlton beats Collingwood the next day, then Damien Hardwick’s premier side of 2017, 2019 and 2020 will finish eighth.

There are three matches that will have no consequential bearings as far as finals are concerned; two matches, including a Showdown, involve teams not in finals contention, while the other sees minor premiers the Geelong Cats face the 17th-placed West Coast Eagles.

However, North Melbourne will have their final shot to avoid a second consecutive wooden spoon when they face the Gold Coast Suns; this would leave the Eagles with the impossible task of causing a major upset at Kardinia Park if they are to offload it back to the Kangaroos.

Below are all the permutations that could play out in Round 23.

The matches that matter

Brisbane Lions vs Melbourne at the Gabba, Friday 19 August, 7:50pm

The winner:
* will move up to provisional second place on the ladder, and will stay there if the Sydney Swans are beaten by St Kilda at the end of the round
* will finish third if the Swans beat the Saints, meaning a trip to Sydney for the second qualifying final at the SCG.

The loser:
* could finish as low as sixth, pending other results, and face either Richmond or Carlton in the second elimination final. It is likely that the Tigers will be their opponent, as they will start hot favourites to beat Essendon on Saturday night.

GWS Giants vs Fremantle at Manuka Oval, Saturday 20 August, 1:45pm

* Fremantle will move up to third place on the ladder, behind the winner of the Lions-Dees match, and stay there if both Collingwood and the Sydney Swans are beaten on Sunday. It is likely, however, that they will finish fifth.
* in the unlikely event that the Lions-Dees match ends in a draw, Fremantle will move up to fourth due to an inferior percentage to both teams, and will finish sixth if the Pies and Swans win.

North Melbourne vs Gold Coast Suns at Marvel Stadium, Saturday 20 August, 2:10pm

* North Melbourne can offload the wooden spoon to the West Coast Eagles if they beat the Gold Coast Suns and the Eagles are beaten by the Geelong Cats at Kardinia Park.

Geelong Cats vs West Coast Eagles at GMHBA Stadium, Saturday 20 August, 4:35pm

* The Geelong Cats are already guaranteed to finish on top of the ladder regardless of whatever else occurs this round, but they can sentence the West Coast Eagles to the wooden spoon if North Melbourne beat the Gold Coast Suns earlier on Saturday.

Joel Selwood and Chris Scott

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Essendon vs Richmond at the MCG, Saturday 20 August, 7:25pm

* Richmond will finish seventh if they win, but must hope that both the Brisbane Lions and Fremantle win their respective matches earlier in the round, and the Sydney Swans beat St Kilda in the final match, to avoid an interstate knock-out final.

* If the Tigers are beaten by the Bombers, and the Blues beat the Pies the following day, they will finish eighth.

Adelaide Crows vs Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval, Saturday 20 August, 7:30pm

* Both teams are out of finals contention with the Crows to miss finals for a fifth-straight year, and the Power to sit out September for the first time since 2019.

Hawthorn vs Western Bulldogs at UTAS Stadium, Sunday 21 August, 1:10pm

* The Western Bulldogs will move into the eight with a win over the Hawks, but must then hope that Carlton is beaten by Collingwood in the later match at the MCG and St Kilda don’t make up the percentage required against the Swans to stay in there by the end of Sunday night.

*Hawthorn will miss finals for the fourth-straight season.

Carlton vs Collingwood at the MCG, Sunday 21 August, 3:20pm

* A win for Carlton could see them finish as high as seventh if Richmond are beaten by Essendon the previous night, or eighth.

* A loss could see them finish as low as 10th, if both the Western Bulldogs and St Kilda win their respective matches against Hawthorn and the Sydney Swans.

St Kilda vs Sydney Swans at Marvel Stadium, Sunday 21 August, 4:40pm

* A win for the Sydney Swans will see them lock in second place and a qualifying final clash against either the Brisbane Lions or Melbourne at the SCG. It would have to be scheduled in a way that it avoids a clash with the Sydney Roosters-South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL match that will christen the newly-reopened Allianz Stadium.

* An unlikely huge loss, coupled with an unlikely huge Collingwood win over Carlton earlier in the day, could see them finish as low as sixth and face either Richmond or Carlton in an elimination final at the SCG. More realistically, the worst they could finish is fifth.

* The Saints must first hope that the Western Bulldogs are beaten by Hawthorn, and that Carlton is in a potentially game-losing situation against Collingwood, then beat the Swans to have any hope of leapfrogging both the Blues and Bulldogs into the eight.

And in a good omen for Western Bulldogs fans…

* if the Bulldogs finish eighth and do play Fremantle in an elimination at Optus Stadium, then fans can dare to dream as it was in Western Australia that their run to the 2016 flag began…

Projected first-week finals fixture (with predicted times)

1st qualifying final: Geelong Cats vs Collingwood at the MCG, Thursday, September 1, 7:25pm
2nd qualifying final: Sydney Swans vs Brisbane Lions at SCG, Saturday, September 3, 4:20pm
1st elimination final: Fremantle vs Western Bulldogs at Optus Stadium, Saturday, September 3, 5:25pm AWST
2nd elimination final: Melbourne vs Richmond at the MCG, Friday, September 2, 7:50pm

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