A grand old flag is there for the taking as Melbourne enters the final round of the home-and-away season on the AFL ladder’s highest rung.
The last time the Demons finished the regular rounds on top was 1964, when they also won their last premiership.
While Simon Goodwin’s side dropped games to struggling Adelaide and Collingwood during a mini mid-season lull, they have consistently dealt with the league’s more accomplished sides.
Grandstand AFL expert and premiership-winning Magpie, Luke Ball, believes Melbourne has proven to be the competition’s most consistent performer.
“The gap between their best and worst has been the shortest out of any team throughout the season,” he said.
“If they go on and finish top they will have absolutely earned it, but then we know it is a new season after that.”
To clinch the minor premiership in the final round, the Demons must overcome Geelong, a side they beat by 25 points in round four.
That win forms part of an impressive list of triumphs. Melbourne has also recorded victories over every other team currently occupying a spot in the eight.
The Giants (round 16) and Bulldogs (round 19) each won their second meeting with the Dees this season.
Round 23 shapes as a magnificent finals appetiser, with the current top four to play quasi-qualifying finals. In addition to the top-two clash between Melbourne and Geelong, third-placed Port Adelaide faces the fourth-placed Western Bulldogs.
At the other end of the eight, two spots are still up for grabs with four sides in contention. Greater Western Sydney (42 points, 98.9 per cent) climbed to seventh after a spirited victory that finally ended the sputtering season of the reigning premier Richmond.
Essendon (40 points, 107.2 per cent) entered the eight with a convincing win over Gold Coast, while West Coast (40 points, 94.9 per cent) and Fremantle (40 points, 89 per cent) are also still in the running.
The Dockers boosted their own claims while further diminishing those of their West Australian rival with a first Derby victory since April 2015.
In round 23, the Giants are scheduled to play Carlton at Docklands, Essendon faces Collingwood at the MCG, West Coast plays Brisbane at the Gabba and the Dockers meet St Kilda at Docklands.
Times and venues are still to be officially confirmed.
‘Worrying’ signs for Bulldogs
Round 22 was further cause for concern for one of the flag favourites. During the bulk of the 2021 AFL season, the Western Bulldogs have looked a contender, displaying some of the most damaging and exciting football of any team in the competition.
With 15 wins from their first 19 games, the Dogs established a position from which to launch an assault on the premiership. But a horror fortnight has jeopardised all that good work.
Critically, the competition’s premier midfield has been blunted.
Former Tiger and Giant Brett Deledio believes it is a huge concern for Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge with only one round until the finals.
“I think that is the part that would be worrying Luke Beveridge, that they’ve been so well beaten, especially from centre clearances,” he told ABC Sport.
“The Dons put them to the sword last week and now the Hawks, who were missing Jaeger O’Meara, one of their key centre takeaway players.
“I would be very nervous if I was a Dogs supporter.”
When the Bulldogs’ confidence is high, the ball moves quickly through slick handball chains and damaging field kicking. It is ‘blink and you’ll missed it’ kind of stuff.
But Hawthorn successfully put the brakes on, and — as noted by Grandstand AFL expert commentator Adam Ramanauskas — the Hawks took the ball wide and controlled the tempo.
“Slow the game down … that’s the blueprint, what Hawthorn have just shown other clubs,” Ramanauskas said.
In the final round the Bulldogs face the Power, who also thrive on the need for speed and enjoy a ‘helter skelter’ style of play.
If the Bulldogs win, they secure a top-four finish.
If they lose, they could relinquish their spot to Brisbane. It is a match with massive consequences.
Clarkson still at his best
Saturday afternoon was yet another masterclass from the master coach Alastair Clarkson, the type of victory that has defined his storied 17-season tenure.
Post football, Clarkson could easily slip into a career as an architect or an orchestra conductor, such is his meticulous attention to detail and ability to hit the right note. Just do not let him near a guitar.
Clarkson, a revered figure with four premierships in his keeping, has somehow further elevated his reputation in the past three weeks, as the rebuilding Hawks claimed superb wins over Brisbane, Collingwood and the Bulldogs.
To see Clarkson’s reaction on the ground and in the rooms in Launceston offered an insight into his undiminished energy and enthusiasm for football. The pursuit of excellence still drives him.
That Hawthorn’s win was achieved without O’Meara, James Worpel, Luke Breust, Jack Gunston, James Sicily and exciting young defenders Will Day and Denver Grainger-Barras only added to its magnitude.
It also makes the Hawks’ decision to part ways with Clarkson all the more perplexing. In engineering the coaching handover to a favourite son, Sam Mitchell, the club’s hierarchy — including president Jeff Kennett — has taken the boldest of punts.
Mitchell’s inheritance is looking increasingly prosperous, but with that comes the burden of expectation and the biggest of football boots to fill.
A masterful move, or the ‘Kennett curse’ 2.0?
Only time will tell.