Circle work: Games that defined each club
ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian likes to call them “circle games”. They’re the ones you circle on the calendar for having memorable outcomes – for better or worse – so at the pointy end of the year you can easily look back and identify the wins or losses that defined a team’s season.
Sure, this exercise may be better suited to a sport in which teams endure a 162-game grind rather than one in which they play fewer than two dozen. Still, in an AFL season that has seen more parity than any other in recent memory, every team has had their share of clashes that stand out as helping shape their year.
So with the top eight officially set, let’s take a look at each of the 18 clubs’ circle games.
Sydney (minor premiers, 17-5, 151.2%)
Cyril Rioli’s late goal from outside 50m sunk the Swans in Round 17. Jason Johannisen got the Dogs home with the final possession of their win over Sydney in Round 15. And Sam Lloyd sealed victory for the Tigers after the siren in Round 8. But none of that matters much – the Swans lost just two other games and finished on top of the table. Their biggest win? How about blowing away Geelong in the second half at Simonds Stadium in Round 16 to win by 38 points. Coming off their heartbreaker against the Dogs and a six-day break, this would have been a classic example of the Swans’ resilience even if Kieran Jack’s family spat hadn’t dominated headlines in the lead-up.
Geelong (2nd, 17-5, 143.8%)
The Cats’ struggles against non-finals teams have been well-documented. Having dropped consecutive games to Collingwood and Carlton a few weeks earlier, Geelong stumbled again when St Kilda snatched a thrilling three-point win in Round 14. But after securing a spot in the top two, the Cats would point to their come-from-behind win over Richmond in Round 21 as a crucial bullet dodged. Having scored just 37 points in three quarters to trail by 35 at the last change, they stormed home by kicking 6.9 to the Tigers’ 1.0 in the final term to get over the line by four points.
Hawthorn (3rd, 17-5, 118.6%)
It’s been a fascinating year for the Hawks. There was that trio of three-point thrillers – including wins over the Dogs and Crows – from Round 3 to Round 5. Then there was that nine-game win streak from Round 10 to Round 19 which put them two games clear on top with four to play. But then they ran into the Demons, who led at every change and kicked five goals to one in the final term to run out 29-point winners. That clash was also notable for the injury to Ben Stratton, whose absence was felt two weeks later when the Eagles’ forwards largely did as they pleased to beat Hawthorn by 39 points and knock them from the top of the table. Just imagine if the Hawks hadn’t found a way to work their devil magic against the Pies in Round 23 – their sixth win from six games decided by nine points or less.
Greater Western Sydney (4th, 16-6, 143.1%)
The Giants’ breakout season has included nine wins by at least seven goals, including six by at least 75 points, putting them in the top four ahead of fellow 16-win teams Adelaide and West Coast on percentage. But they might have cost themselves a top-two finish with their Round 21 home loss to West Coast, in which the Giants led by six points in the final minute but were left stunned when Nic Naitanui snapped truly with the last kick of the game to steal a one-point win.
Adelaide (5th, 16-6, 138.3%)
So confident was I in the Crows winning their Round 23 fixture, I wrote ahead of time about their Round 12 clash against West Coast in Perth: “Trailing by 26 points in the third term and 12 points at the final change, the Crows booted 6.5 while keeping the Eagles scoreless in the last quarter to ensure they entered their bye with an 8-4 record – which looked a whole lot better than 7-5 would have – and were well on the way to a top-four finish.” Oops. Their final-round disaster against those same Eagles dropped the Crows from second spot to fifth on the eve of the finals, significantly increasing the difficulty of their path to a premiership.
West Coast (6th, 16-6, 130%)
It would be easy to point to their last-gasp win over GWS in Round 21, or how they somehow got over the line against the Dees in Round 18. But for a team that finished comfortably inside the eight but missed out on the top four, the Eagles would be bitterly disappointed with their loss to Adelaide in Round 12. A win there would’ve seen them enter their Round 23 rematch with the Crows in line for a double chance and dreaming of a top-two finish. Instead, their impressive victory meant they only finished sixth.
Western Bulldogs (7th, 15-7, 115.4%)
The Round 3 loss to the Hawks was a heartbreaker – James Sicily kicking three last-quarter goals to erase a 19-point three-quarter-time deficit as Hawthorn claimed a three-point win. Worse, skipper Bob Murphy suffered a season-ending injury in the same marking contest that led to Sicily’s match-winner. But if any game has typified the Dogs this year, it was their gritty win over Sydney in Round 15 at the SCG, in which a deft pass from captain-in-waiting Marcus Bontempelli set up a go-ahead goal in the dying seconds to Jason Johannisen, who had missed the past nine games through injury.
North Melbourne (8th, 12-10, 105.2%)
If we were looking to define North’s season, perhaps we’d just draw one big circle around their first nine games (9-0, including two wins over September-bound teams) and another around their next 13 (3-10, winless in nine games against teams that finished in the top eight). But of all those losses, the Roos would really rue a missed opportunity against Hawthorn in Round 13, in which they brought plenty of intensity around the ground but not their best in front of goal, losing by nine points despite having six extra scoring shots. Oh yeah, this game also resulted in a $30,000 fine for coach Brad Scott and $50,000 more for the club.
St Kilda (9th, 12-10, 95.7%)
Having come up empty after controversial umpiring decisions late in both their Round 4 loss to Hawthorn and Round 7 loss to North Melbourne, the Saints finally claimed a big scalp when they held on to stun Geelong by three points in Round 14. For a team that unexpectedly doubled their win tally from 2015 and missed the eight by percentage, it is these sorts of victories that instil belief among a group of young players on the rise.
Port Adelaide (10th, 10-12, 106%)
At 6-5 going into their Round 12 home clash with the Bulldogs, the Power held a nine-point lead at three-quarter-time. But the Dogs kicked five goals to three in the final term to clinch a three-point win, and a game that could have seen Port improve to 7-5 instead dropped them to 6-6. They also went down by two points to Carlton in Round 8, but the Power never really looked like matching it with the best this year, going 1-9 against finals-bound teams and losing those nine games by an average of more than six goals.
Melbourne (11th, 10-12, 97.6%)
Considering their percentage at the time, the Dees were essentially the last challengers to North Melbourne’s spot in the eight, but their loss to Carlton in Round 22 dashed their September hopes a week earlier than expected. Carrying momentum and expectations into a game against a lesser opponent, let’s just call it a most Melbourne-ish loss. But remember when this team also followed a stirring first-up win over GWS with a loss to Essendon in Round 2? Let’s settle on the Blues clash proving they weren’t quite ready for a finals tilt and the Bombers game defining the club’s borderline comically demoralising past decade.
Collingwood (12th, 9-13, 95.6%)
While they beat Geelong, West Coast and GWS, and could easily have pipped Hawthorn and notched a pair of wins over the Western Bulldogs, it’s fair to say Collingwood provided a pretty good idea of where their season was headed when they got slaughtered by Sydney way back in Round 1. Off-field distractions leading in, a career-ending injury to star midfielder Dane Swan in the opening minutes, a forward line that kicked just one goal to halftime and, when it was all said and done, an 80-point first-up loss that did nothing to help ease the scrutiny surrounding coach Nathan Buckley’s validity to continue in the top job.
Richmond (13th, 8-14, 79.5%)
Against Collingwood in Round 2, a Brodie Grundy snap in the dying moments proved an early-season dagger to the heart of Damien Hardwick and the Tigers. Of course, it would be remiss not to acknowledge Richmond got one back when Sam Lloyd lifted them over the Swans after the siren in a gripping Round 8 encounter. But the Tigers’ wins were generally less noteworthy than the losses. Would their season have played out differently had they started 2-0? Maybe not, although one thing’s for sure: they certainly wouldn’t have started 1-6.
Carlton (14th, 7-15, 79.3%)
Under new coach Brendon Bolton, the Blues finally got in the win column in Round 5, beating Fremantle in Perth to kick off a four-game winning streak that included a 15-point victory over fierce rival Collingwood. The feather is their cap was their Round 10 win over Geelong, in which they were reduced to 20 men by halftime with skipper Marc Murphy having played his last game for the season.
Gold Coast (15th, 6-16, 78.2%)
In a forgettable year for the Suns, it’s easy to forget they kicked off the year with three straight wins. And it could have been a 4-0 start, if not for a 13-point QClash loss to the Lions, which also marked the last time for a while we’d see possible future captain Steven May in action after he copped a five-game ban for his huge hit on Stefan Martin. The Suns went on to lose their next nine games by an average of more than 10 goals. Yikes.
Fremantle (16th, 4-18, 74.3%)
This year has been a nightmare for Ross Lyon and the Dockers. But the low point came in Round 5 when, at 0-4 after losses to the Bulldogs, Suns, Eagles and Kangaroos, they were pipped by then-winless Carlton on their home turf. To make matters worse, that was the last we saw of Nat Fyfe and Michael Johnson. Ouch. At least they sent Pav off a winner.
Brisbane Lions (17th, 3-19, 61.6%)
It’s been a downright brutal season for the Lions. More than once it seemed that just when you thought they’d hit rock bottom, they managed to surprise everyone by plunging to an embarrassing new low. One such instance was when they hosted Fremantle in Round 12, with both teams sporting identical 1-10 records. Despite kicking the first three goals of the game, the Lions allowed nine unanswered majors in the second term as the Dockers romped to an 83-point victory. Good thing there were fewer than 13,000 there to see it unfold.
Essendon (18th, 3-19, 61%)
In a season with not much to celebrate, the Bombers saluted the thousands of fans who marched from Fed Square to the ’G with a spirited win over Melbourne in Round 2. And while their six-point victory over Gold Coast in Round 21 and four-goal win over the Blues to finish the year provided some joy at the end of a long season, many fans would most fondly remember their Round 8 clash with the Kangaroos, in which they rallied from a 54-4 halftime deficit to lose by just 14 points and earn a standing ovation from the Bombers faithful after the final siren.