A Carlton strength has evaporated in recent weeks, further exposing their current flaw.
Plus why Sydney has to wake up or face another early-game problem.
Every club’s burning question ahead of Round 15, as well as the tips and commentators for every Fox Footy game in our ultimate weekly preview: The Blowtorch!
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AFL ROUND 15 FIXTURE (All times AEST)
MELBOURNE v BRISBANE LIONS
Thursday, June 23, 7:20pm at MCG
How to watch on Fox Footy: Channel 504 from 6.30pm, with Sarah Jones, Jason Dunstall, David King, Leigh Montagna, Brad Johnson and Jon Ralph.
Demons’ burning question: Is this the start of a downward spiral?
A month ago, Melbourne looked like they were cruising towards back-to-back premierships. They had just won their 17th game in a row and appeared to be the clear benchmark of the competition. Fast forward to late June, and the reigning premiers have lost top spot after suffering three losses in a row. Their form slump was exacerbated by a wild night at a French restaurant which saw Steven May and Jake Melksham involved in a physical altercation. Is this how it all ends for the Demons? Triple premiership Brisbane forward Jonathan Brown doesn’t think so. “The bye has come at a good time for them, remember they are equal top of the ladder, they just lost their way the last few weeks with personnel,” Brown told On The Couch. “Steven May is a huge out clearly, obviously (Max) Gawn is a concern going forward, but you feel as if they’ll be able to re-energise and get that pressure back that I don’t think we’ve seen that well in the last two or three weeks.” If they are to turn things around, Melbourne legend Garry Lyon stressed they needed to fix their forward connection which had become “a bit of a disaster”. Since Round 8, the Demons are ranked 14th for scores per inside 50. “I don’t know if they’ve run out of ideas but there’s no imagination in the way they go forward,” Lyon said. St Kilda’s longest-serving captain Nick Riewoldt said a lot of responsibility now fell on Luke Jackson’s shoulders in the absence of Gawn. “They have had the luxury of having been able to send Max Gawn forward and if it hasn’t been him taking big clunks forward of the ball, well then they haven’t really looked all that threatening. He’s going to have to do the majority of his work now in the ruck.”
Lions’ burning question: Can they fix their defensive issues?
Brisbane might be riding high in top spot on the ladder, but that doesn’t mean that all is well and good in the way they’re playing. In their three games prior to their win over St Kilda, the Lions conceded an average of 104 points and since Round 8, they have ranked 16th for points against from the defensive half. And those numbers concern Brown. “That to me doesn’t look like a premiership team, and they’ve given up big chunks of scores in small periods of the game,” Brown said. “They’ve given up scores from stoppages as well so they’ve got to be able to tidy that area up because that is their ‘one wood’ – they’re a strong stoppage team.” Brown also threw the challenge down at the feet of Joe Daniher and Harris Andrews in the second half of the season. “Daniher has come back into the team, he’s going to do a little bit of ruck but he’s got to kick goals – three-plus goals a game. And it’s the bookends for me – I think Harris Andrews and Joe Daniher, they need the biggest 10 weeks of their career to get Brisbane over the line to win a premiership.”
WESTERN BULLDOGS v HAWTHORN
Friday June 24, 7pm at Marvel Stadium
How to watch on Fox Footy: Channel 504 from 6.30pm, with Garry Lyon, Jonathan Brown, Nathan Buckley, Kath Loughnan and Jon Ralph.
Bulldogs’ burning question: When does Josh Bruce return?
The Western Bulldogs were flying in 2021, sitting at the top of the table when forward Josh Bruce went down clutching his knee in Round 21. From that point in the season, the Dogs lost the next three straight to slip out of the top four. While managing to come through three straight do-or-die finals to reach the grand final against Melbourne, the loss of Bruce remained a sore point for the forward line. In 2022, a host of players have been rolled through the attack end, including Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, Josh Schache and Buku Khamis. But Bruce remains the player the Dogs are desperate to get back. Bruce kicked three goals from his nine disposals. Speaking after the match, Bruce said he expected at least another fortnight in the VFL as he strives for match fitness. But as the Dogs sit a game outside the eight with games against Brisbane and Sydney to follow, the temptation may be to bring Bruce back sooner rather than later. The Dogs then have games against St Kilda, Melbourne, Geelong and Fremantle – six straight against top eight teams.
Hawks’ burning question: Does Hawthorn’s defence stop Aaron Naughton?
Early in the season Fox Footy’s Nick Riewoldt said the Hawks may have already recruited their “next premiership back six”, such was the praise for Hawthorn’s defence. Sam Frost proved himself as a lockdown defender while James Sicily and Will Day showed their intercepting prowess. But with Frost now sidelined with a knee injury, the question of who steps up to take on Naughton arises. The star Dog has kicked 35 goals in 13 games – including two bags of five and three bags of four. But against the Hawks, Naughton is yet to kick a big haul – with just four goals from his four games.
WEST COAST EAGLES v ESSENDON
Friday June 24, 8:40pm at Optus Stadium
How to watch on Fox Footy: Channel 503 from 8.30pm, with Adam Papalia, Jason Dunstall, Brad Johnson, Matthew Pavlich and Jon Ralph.
Eagles’ burning question: Will West Coast rush Nic Naitanui straight back?
West Coast showed improvement in the loss to Geelong last weekend as a host of premiership players returned to the line up. Elliot Yeo and Dom Sheed came back through the WAFL first, as did skipper Luke Shuey. Now the decision on whether to rush ruck star Nic Naitanui straight back into the line up looms for coach Adam Simpson. Since Naitanui last played – the Round 4 win over Collingwood – the Eagles have won the hitout count just once – with +6 v GWS. In the other nine games, West Coast are averaging a dismal -24 hitouts per game. The lowest hitout count came in the big loss to Brisbane, where the Eagles won just 13 hitouts for the entire clash at the Gabba. Naitanui is now 32 and out of contract at the end of the season. Whether he wants to play on remains to be announced.
When Naitanui returned from a serious knee injury in 2019, he played one match in the WAFL first. The path West Coast decide for Friday night could be the difference between a win and a loss.
Bombers’ burning question: Do the players find form away from home?
Essendon hasn’t won a game outside of Victoria this season. And now they travel west to Perth to take on an Eagles side that is slowly building as their players return from injury. The last time the Bombers tasted success interstate was more than 365 days ago – in Round 14 against Hawthorn at University of Tasmania Stadium. Coach Ben Rutten is faced with changing up a winning side, or sticking fat with the players who got the job done over St Kilda in Round 14. Darcy Parish looms as a potential inclusion, but Rutten said he’s focused on finding balance in his side. “It’s a balance about making sure we get some cohesion out of our guys through there but also we’ve got some good options as well,” he said. “So just balancing that up. I don’t think it’s too difficult. But when the opportunity’s there, Darcy was out and we had a guy come in and fill his role, that’s what we’re after. We don’t want to be too reliant on Darcy or any other individual.”
CARLTON v FREMANTLE
Saturday June 25, 1:45pm at Marvel Stadium
How to watch on Fox Footy: Channel 504 from 1pm with Sarah Jones, Mark Howard, Jordan Lewis, Jonathan Brown and Tony Armstrong.
Blues’ burning question: What has happened to their midfield grunt?
Carlton were one of the strongest centre-clearance teams in the AFL in the opening three months, averaging an extra 3.5 per game than their opposition up until Round 12. But in their last two games against Essendon and Richmond, they have been off the boil in that department with nine fewer combined across both games. The game against the Tigers was particularly alarming as Carlton not only lost that battle 9-13, but the general clearances as well by a whopping 14 (27-41). “The clearance game, the real strong part of the start of their year, has suffered over the last few weeks. And you look at the personnel that are missing and clearly (ruckman Marc) Pittonet has been out of the side, he’s a behemoth for them – he’s a big, physical presence – (and) Adam Cerra out,” Riewoldt said. Compounding their recent struggles in the middle is that it has left their decimated backline even more exposed. “You’ve got to protect your back six,” Lyon said. “When you’ve got no (Jacob) Weitering and no (Mitch) McGovern and no (Oscar) McDonald, (Caleb) Marchbank now goes out, if you’re losing it at the source, then this is putting your most vulnerable area of your team under pressure.” Defenders Zac Williams, Luke Parks and Sam Durdin are also out injured. “I’ve never seen one position group so affected by injuries,” Brown said. With the Dockers, Saints, Eagles and Cats to come, Riewoldt stressed the importance of Carlton’s midfield getting their act together at the stoppages. “It’s a daunting month ahead when you consider the guys that are missing from this line-up. The teams they play against, they’re loaded with guys that can mark the footy in front of the ball.”
Dockers’ burning question: Can they win a flag seven years after their last finals series?
Fremantle are fast becoming one of the fairytale stories of the year under third-year coach Justin Longmuir. They find themselves in third spot on the ladder, equal on 10 wins with Brisbane (first) and Melbourne (second), having already claimed their scalps as well as those of Geelong and Carlton. But it’s been seven years since they last finished in the top eight, and despite how well they’ve been performing this year, Brown wasn’t sure the current group would be able to win the premiership this year at their first attempt. “I really like what Fremantle is doing, I just couldn’t see them winning a premiership first up,” he said. Riewoldt added: “They’re rare stories, the groups that get there before their time.” But Lyon was keeping an open mind, saying: “There’s a school of thought that you’ve got to get there and you’ve got to experience it, I think it would be a massive ask, it would be an enormous ask, for them to do that. But who knows? This season shapes as one that you’ve got to get it right at the right time of the year.” Of more immediate concern for Fremantle is their turnover game. Since Round 8, they have ranked 15th in the league for points from turnovers. “We talked them up as a great turnover team, the numbers don’t match that up in the last few weeks. I know they’ve had wins, they’ve beaten Brisbane who are of course a top-four team, but if you look at Fremantle’s turnover game, it just hasn’t been what Justin Longmuir would’ve hoped for,” Brown said. Lyon agreed, saying: “Coming out of this game, we’ll watch and see what this is. I think they’ve only won turnover twice in the last seven games. So for a side who set up so well defensively behind the footy, that is a little concern.”
GEELONG CATS v RICHMOND
Saturday June 25, 4:35pm at MCG
How to watch on Fox Footy: Channel 504 from 4.30pm with Anthony Hudson, Dwayne Russell, Garry Lyon, Nick Riewoldt and David King.
Tigers’ burning question:Are the Tigers of old back to wreak havoc again?
After a slow start to the season which saw them win two of their first six games, the Richmond juggernaut is slowly building momentum, and after winning six of their last seven, they’re now sixth on the ladder and just a game outside the top four. And if you’re wondering if you’ve seen this Richmond team before, you’re not experiencing a case of deja vu, because the 2022 Tigers are playing a lot like the teams that won three of four flags between 2017-20. In their last seven games, Damien Hardwick’s men have ranked first in the competition for points from turnovers, points differential from turnovers, forward-half turnovers created and points from forward-half turnovers. It might be enough to send “a shiver down the rest of the competition’s spine”, according to Lyon. Riewoldt agreed, and suggested they could win their fourth premiership in six years if they continue along this trajectory. “This is what we were putting up week after week after week through the four years they were the dominant team – these were the numbers and these were the blueprints for Richmond going and winning the free flags,” he said. “A player like (Noah) Balta comes in who’s a freakish talent, but this year it was players like (Nick) Vlastuin and (Dylan) Grimes and (Dion) Prestia through the middle of the ground as well. If they can stay healthy, I think they’re going to be right there again, the Tiges.”
Cats’ burning question: Is their recent offensive drop-off cause for concern?
The Cats are the team in fourth spot that the Tigers are currently chasing in the battle for the double chance. And while they are once again a premiership contender with four wins in a row, Geelong’s recent performances against bottom-10 sides have perhaps papered over some of their cracks. Since Round 8, Chris Scott’s team ranks 10th for points from turnovers, 11th for points from clearances and ninth for ball movement. “When you talk about offensively, a Geelong side that’s got names like (Jeremy) Cameron, (Tom) Hawkins, (Tyson) Stengle who are in good nick, but it’s just dropped off a bit,” Lyon said. However, Brown saw it as a positive that they’re not firing on all cylinders, yet still winning games. “It has dropped off a little bit but they’re going as well as anyone in the comp if you look at their wins and losses … they’re going really well so they’re probably good signs. I don’t think they’ve hit their straps absolutely so there’s a lot of up side … and you’ve got Patrick Dangerfield still to come back in so if Patrick Dangerfield wants to cement his legacy as one of the all-time greats, he finishes the year off strong. He’s fresh as a daisy, this injury might have come at the right time.” Something to keep an eye on is the Cats’ performance against higher quality opposition during their heavy mid-season training load. “(They were) a little bit sluggish against a much-improved West Coast Eagles on the weekend,” Lyon said of Geelong.
SYDNEY SWANS v ST KILDA
Saturday June 25, 7:25pm at SCG
How to watch on Fox Footy: Channel 504 from 7.20pm, with Mark Howard, Jonathan Brown, Nathan Buckley, Nick Riewoldt and Kath Loughnan, followed by Best on Ground.
Swans’ burning question: Can they remedy their slow starts?
For all the good that Sydney have done this year, namely beating Melbourne at the MCG, they have been prone to shooting themselves in the foot and undoing their good work. And so it was last weekend, as they were comfortably defeated by 12th-placed and injury-hit Port Adelaide to find themselves battling to stay in the top eight. And one of their biggest issues is their slow starts to games. Of the 13 matches they’ve played so far this year, they have only lead at quarter-time on four occasions, ranking them 13th in the league in that category. “It’s become a bit of a common theme for them is they just don’t get out of the blocks,” Riewoldt said. “They’ve been so sluggish to start games. Now, they’ve been able to overcome that, but on the weekend it was just a bridge too far for them in the end against Port Adelaide.” Brown suggested a cause for that might be the fact their midfield group is young. “Not a lot of leadership, ‘Joey’ (Josh) Kennedy is out injured and (Luke) Parker doesn’t spend as much time in there, (Peter) Ladhams is a younger type ruckman,” Brown said. Riewoldt added: “I just think it’s the inconsistency that comes with a young group and also they’re a ball-movement team and when teams take that away from you, and that’s your real strength as a side … what do you turn to?”
Saints’ burning question: Can they be less predictable entering forward 50?
Max King is one of the most exciting young forwards in the competition, but the Saints are delivering the ball to the 21-year-old way too often, and it’s hurting the quality of their inside 50s. King is targeted a whopping 38 per cent of the time St Kilda enter their forward 50 which is the most of any player in the competition. The next three players on the Saints’ list in that category are Jack Higgins (17 per cent), Tim Membrey (15) and Rowan Marshall (12). Brown said St Kilda’s reliance on King was unhealthy. “He’s a terrific young player, I love watching him play, no doubt about it, but he’s targeted the most of any player in the competition – 38 per cent, that is far too predictable for the opposition defences, they can load up around him. Last year they had a better balance between King and Membrey as the two main ones. They suffer (from something) a bit similar to what Sydney suffer with being too ‘Buddy-centric’. Quite often when Buddy is not there, they go better Sydney, so they’ve got to get that balance right.” Lyon agreed that the Saints’ inside-50 target percentage was “out of whack”, saying: “Once you’ve got more options, you become less predictable, from a defensive point of view you’re not sure where it’s going, and then King gets a better look at it once you start to target others.” But Riewoldt suggested the Saints’ issues in their forward line ran deeper. “You look at those three guys, Max King is not great defensively, Higgins the same, Rowan Marshall the same, so when you’ve got the resting ruckman, King, Higgins and (Jade) Gresham resting forward … the ball bounced out of that forward 50 pretty easily on the weekend,” the Saints legend said.
NORTH MELBOURNE v ADELAIDE CROWS
Sunday, June 26, 1:10pm at Blundstone Arena
How to watch on Fox Footy: Channel 504 from 1pm, with Anthony Hudson, Dermott Brereton, David King, Ben Dixon and Jon Ralph.
Kangaroos’ burning question: Where do the goals come from?
North Melbourne have kicked more than 10 goals just twice in 2022 as goals are proving hard to come by. Nick Larkey has kicked 22 goals from his 12 games, while Cam Zurhaar sits second with 15 goals from 10 games – after starting the season with three straight goalless games. Zurhaar is in the mix for a return in Round 15 is a massive boost for the Roos struggling forward line. The move of skipper Jack Ziebell forward paid off against the Swans but hasn’t given the side the consistency forward coach David Noble would have wanted. Ziebell will miss the game with Adelaide through injury. Callum Coleman-Jones is in the mix to return but didn’t hit the scoreboard in the VFL in his appearance earlier this month. He’s kicked just one goal from his five VFL appearances this season.
Crows’ burning question: Can Adelaide kick straight?
The Crows have struggled with accuracy in 2022. In the clash with Gold Coast last weekend, the Crows should have had the lead late in the contest, but their wayward radar cost them any shot for victory. They then conceded six of the last seven goals of the match to watch as the margin blew out. Coach Matthew Nicks lamented his side’s inability to kick straight against the Suns. “I feel like a broken record here again, it’s execution,” he said. “I have great respect for Gold Coast … but we lost that game of footy. We handed that game of footy to the opposition … Most people will be talking about Adelaide’s inability to kick goals … and it’s an issue we have to fix.” Even forward Taylor Walker admitted the Crows’ execution was “not at the level” it needed to be. But will the side address the issue before the clash with North?
COLLINGWOOD v GWS GIANTS
Sunday, June 26, 3:20pm at MCG
How to watch on Fox Footy: Channel 503 from 3pm, with Kath Loughnan, Brad Johnson, Eddie Betts and Jon Ralph.
Magpies’ burning question: Will Collingwood players have focus?
The Jordan de Goey saga has dragged on for much of the Magpies’ bye break, but now there’s Jack Ginnivan and Isaac Quaynor issuing apologies too. The Pies head into the game on the back of a four-game winning streak, starting back in Perth over Fremantle in Round 10. Their last win – the Queen’s Birthday blockbuster over Melbourne – came after a week of controversy for the Demons after two teammates were revealed to have fought at a public restaurant. Melbourne couldn’t muster up a win in the wake of their scandal – but can Collingwood? Jeremy Howe was ambushed as he left training on Monday, left to answer questions about his teammate. De Goey will not play on Sunday after taking personal leave. Safe to say the Magpies are worse off now than they were as they walked off the MCG a couple of weeks ago.
Giants’ burning question: What do GWS do with Mark McVeigh?
Giants caretaker coach Mark McVeigh has made no secret of his intention to be a senior coach in the AFL. Since taking the reins from Leon Cameron back in Round 9, McVeigh’s four games in charges have been four of the top five highest scoring games for the club this year. In fact, McVeigh’s four games in charge are all in the top 10 highest scoring games since the elimination final win over the Western Bulldogs back in 2019. It’s clear McVeigh is getting goals out of this GWS line up. So where does the club go in the search for a head time coach in 2023? “I definitely feel ready. It’s only been a four-week snippet, but I felt like I’d done a lot of work to get here, whether you’re good enough, well we’ll wait and see but I certainly feel like I’m ready,” McVeigh said. “Whatever happens with the coach next year I fully support the club. They’re going to make sure they interview the right people, which is absolutely right, and they’ll come out with the right person.” If the club elects to go in a different direction to McVeigh, exactly where he will end up in 2023 remains unknown.
PORT ADELAIDE v GOLD COAST SUNS
Sunday, June 26, 4:10pm at Adelaide Oval
How to watch on Fox Footy: Channel 504 from 4pm, with Kath Loughnan, Dwayne Russell, Nick Dal Santo, Gerard Healy, Mark Ricciuto and Jon Ralph, followed by Bounce and First Crack.
Power’s burning question: Who do Port turn to in the ruck?
Scott Lycett is still sidelined until next month, while mid-season recruit Brynn Teakle will miss at least six weeks after injuring his shoulder on debut. Now taking on one of the competition’s best tap ruckmen in Sun Jarrod Witts, the Power will need to come up with a ruck plan if they are to get the four points. Seven-gamer Sam Hayes remains the only ruck on Port’s list with experience able to play this Sunday. Dante Visentini could make his debut after being snapped up with pick 56 in last year’s draft. Port assistant Nathan Bassett said the club had “liked what we have seen” in Visentini. Both Geelong and Hawthorn have been ruck decimated in 2022, and both opted to play without a recognised ruckman as a result. The Power have that option with Jeremy Finlayson standing at 196cm. Sam Powell-Pepper is an option as a back up ruck – like Richmond’s Marlion Pickett has done. “If the midfielders can do a good job limiting the direct hits – that give the opposition those hit-outs to advantage and get out the front of a stoppage – then the follow-up around the ball becomes really important,” Bassett said. “It is a combination of what the ruckman can do with his hit-outs – and what the (midfielders) can do on the ground … and how the ruckman can support that.”
Suns’ burning question: Can Gold Coast stay in the finals race?
The Gold Coast Suns have never made it to the AFL post-season. But in 2022, they remain in contention for a spot in the top eight. Fox Footy’s Leigh Montagna was full of praise for the Suns after their 43-point victory over Adelaide. “They are the hottest team in the competition,” he said. “They’ve won five of their last six, a percentage of over 150, they’ve beaten Sydney and Fremantle in that run of games. They are doing a lot right.” Youngster Matt Rowell said finals was a focus heading into the final nine rounds. “We’re not relying on anyone too much in games … everybody’s playing their role,” Rowell said. “Every game from now on is a big game. We want to play finals and we know we’ve got to win a lot.”