AFL 2021: Everything you need to know ahead of Round 23

BT Sport’s AFL expert Josh Gabelich previews the final round of the home and away season before the finals.

Published: 18 August 2021 - 2.45pm

And there was one. Nine matches across one weekend to determine who finishes where on the ladder. Right now, the top four isn’t set. Neither is the bottom of the top-eight, with four sides fighting for seventh and eighth spot.

That’s the equation this weekend. One round to go in another unusual home and away season that has been dramatically impacted by the pandemic. With Melbourne and Sydney still in lockdown, Australia is still grappling with COVID-19 and the AFL is still trying to navigate a smooth finals series. But we can worry about that later. 

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Round 23 starts with the Western Bulldogs hosting Port Adelaide at Marvel Stadium in a match Luke Beveridge’s side has to win if they are going to secure the all-important double chance.

The Dogs have been inside the top-four since round three and have been one of the premiership favourites for the entire season. But things have changed in the past fortnight. They have lost their past two games and lost their marquee forward, Josh Bruce, to a season-ending knee injury. If they don’t remain in the top-four, they might not go all the way.

The final Saturday of the home and away season begins with a dead rubber between Richmond – the reigning premiers who won’t feature in September – and Hawthorn. And while neither side will play beyond this weekend, there is still plenty on the line for both camps.

Four-time premiership coach Alastair Clarkson will coach the Hawks for the final time following the acrimonious split with the club last month. When you consider he has led Hawthorn to three straight wins since that announcement, you would expect the narrative to continue to heighten if he can end with four consecutive wins.

Sydney are a mathematical chance of qualifying for a top-four spot, but that won’t happen realistically, even though they face the struggling Gold Coast Suns at Marvel Stadium. It remains to be seen whether this will be the final game of Stuart Dew’s battling tenure at the Queensland club, with the jungle drums beating after another disappointing season at the expansion club. 

If you’re looking for a final before the finals this weekend, Brisbane versus West Coast is a game to put in your diary.

The Lions are hunting down the Western Bulldogs’ spot in the top-four, while West Coast are still in the hunt for a top-eight berth despite a nightmare second half of the season that has shone the blowtorch brightly on the seasoned stars at the Perth powerhouse.

The minor premiership doesn’t mean too much in the AFL, but the blockbuster clash between Geelong and Melbourne at GMHBA Stadium will determine who finishes on top of the ladder and could prove to be a Grand Final preview.

Both sides have been serious flag threats for the duration of the season. Will they keep a couple of moves up their sleeve for deep in September or will they roll the dice on Saturday night football?

The equation is simple for Greater Western Sydney: win and they return to the finals after falling off a cliff in 2021. But things are never simple in the AFL. Leon Cameron’s men must beat Carlton to secure their own fate, facing a Blues’ outfit who have capitulated in the second half of the season but are farewelling one of the most loved players of this century – Eddie Betts. 

Ben Rutten
Ben Rutten’s Essendon take on rivals Collingwood in round 23 of the AFL season

Sunday starts with St Kilda and Fremantle heading south to Blundstone Arena in Hobart. While the Saints can’t make the finals from here, the Dockers remain in contention after ending an 11-game losing streak to West Coast in last Sunday’s western derby at Optus Stadium. There is so much more on the line for Justin Longmuir’s young team.

Essendon and Collingwood are one of the biggest rivals in the AFL, but this weekend’s clash will be played behind closed doors at the MCG, in a game that is usually played in front of 100,000 people. Welcome to life in the pandemic.

The Magpies have been one of the most disappointing sides of 2021, but the Bombers have risen from nowhere to sit in eighth spot with one game to play. If Ben Rutten’s side get the job done, they will be back in September and be only one win away from winning their first final since 2004.

The final game of the home and away season involves two sides sitting on the bottom of the ladder – North Melbourne and Adelaide. The Kangaroos will finish last for the first time in 49 years, but the narrative couldn’t be much different between the two sides. The Crows haven’t really progressed in 2021 after claiming the wooden spoon last year. While the Roos have made strong inroads in the second half of the season.