AFL Round 23: what’s at stake in the final round of home-and-away games? | AFL

To damn F. Scott Fitzgerald, the sentimental person thinks things will last, the Carlton supporter has a desperate confidence that they won’t. Since coughing up a loss to Adelaide in late July, Carlton’s season has had the anxious sluggishness of a house succumbing to a landslide.

To be among the Carlton faithful last Saturday night was to see grown men cry – tears of joy at first, before shedding some of genuine sadness. It was a reminder that in Melbourne football is still an important part of life, albeit one where grief is often softened with the saying “there’s always next week”.

Not now. Now it’s just this week. And hoo boy, what a week – one where six of the nine games have finals implications.

For no less than eight teams (nine if you’re willing to entertain St Kilda blowing the doors off Sydney by 100 points) it’s a round of great importance – the double chance, or an elimination final; make it to the finals or miss them altogether. Win and any of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane could end up as high as second. Lose and some could drop as low as sixth.

It’s one of the wildest finals rides anyone can remember – one that can punctuate the excitement with nausea. As Harry Dean Stanton says in Paris, Texas: “I’m not afraid of heights. I’m afraid of falling.”

Two games in particular stand out.

Brisbane v Melbourne

The implications are similar for Melbourne and Brisbane who open Round 23 at the Gabba on Friday night. Win and the double chance is yours. Lose and you could face Tom Lynch and a resurgent Richmond in an elimination final.

The reigning premiers have struggled to maintain momentum through the back half of the year, trailing every win with a loss since July. Before that they smoked Brisbane by more than 10 goals at the MCG on a Thursday night in June.

The Lions at the Gabba are a completely different proposition. Having won four of their last five, Brisbane go in as slight favourites, although another rare quiet night from Lachie Neale against the league’s best midfield will make things considerably more difficult.

Carlton v Collingwood

On Sunday, Carlton plays Collingwood, who until last weekend took to winning as an Irish poet to rhyme. It is the first match of consequence between the two sides since the 1988 qualifying final. At the time the hatred each club had for the other was the very spring of thought and action. It was something they enjoyed.

Collingwood’s Oliver Henry competes for the ball with Carlton’s Adam Saad and Lachie Plowman the last time the two sides met. Photo: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos/Getty Images

The pages have lacked the contemporary relevance to sustain a modern hatred, but on Sunday afternoon the antipathy will be restored.

Carlton win, they play final. Lose, and it’s better than an even money bet that last minute last Saturday night will haunt them all summer like a Senecan ghost. That guy with blank eyes mumbling “15 seconds” over and over? Yes, he is a Carlton supporter.

The star here is that, despite Michael Voss dubbing the game an elimination final, the Blues can lose and still hold on to eighth place if the Western Bulldogs drop their game against Hawthorn. And considering Marcus Bontempelli’s adductor muscles and their record against the Hawks in Tasmania, it’s a result only the most pessimistic Blue would dismiss.

While the consequences may not appear to be as great for Collingwood (although a win would give them the double chance), the Magpies have retained a hair-trigger sense of grievance against the Blues. One, that if Collingwood’s past two months serve as a guide, it will be tested for most of the afternoon.

A loss could also see Collingwood face a resurgent Richmond in an elimination final. In a list of adjectives likely to be attributed to that scenario, “hopeful” would fall somewhere well below “scared.”

And then there’s Essendon…

Richmond wraps up the home-and-away season on Saturday night against Essendon – a game that may have more interest than a few days ago, after the Bombers spent the first part of this week imploding like the crypto market, following a 14-goal loss to a medium Port Adelaide.

Ben Rutten leaves the Hangar in Melbourne on Tuesday.
Ben Rutten leaves the Hangar in Melbourne on Tuesday. Photo: Diego Fedele/AAP

Outraged Bomber supporters wanted the boss to step down. And the day after the Essendon defeat, president Paul Brasher committed.

But the fallout is not expected to end there. Not in the long term. At the time of writing, Ben Rutten remains as Essendon coach, but it’s hard to see how chief executive Xavier Campbell continues to face the dog he kicked yesterday heading into Tullamarine.

Campbell himself seems to lack any bluff to run other than going after Alastair Clarkson with an offer that can be calculated in GDP. But unless accompanied by an honest commitment to an external review of the whole club, Clarkson’s second act may well be a three-ring circus.

Mind you, a circus is a fittingly cohesive story arc to what has thus far been a perfectly entertaining season. We can only hope that what follows from here is half as exciting.

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