Strap yourself in for a whirlwind finish to the Northern Football/Netball League Division 1 home and away season.
While the top-three spots on the ladder have now been locked away following results in Round 16, the battle for the last two spots inside the top-five has intensified.
Northcote Park’s upset win over Macleod means that only four points separate fourth-placed West Preston-Lakeside and the Cougars in seventh – setting the scene for a dramatic final two rounds of the regular season.
After crashing the party in Daniel Keenan’s 400th senior game, West Preston-Lakeside now sits on 32 points and needs just one more win to secure a third-successive finals berth under Rob Maiorana. It is possible for the Roosters to lose both games and still finish inside the top-five – not that they’ll be thinking that way.
Macleod’s upset defeat last week saw it slip to fifth on the ladder on 30 points, ahead of successive home games against sixth-placed Montmorency and West Preston-Lakeside. The Roos were beaten by both earlier in the season and simply cannot afford to drop this week’s game against the Magpies if they want to feature in a sixth-successive finals series.
Montmorency and Northcote Park are both snapping at the Roos’ heels on 28 points, although the Magpies superior percentage (89.17 compared to 76.62) puts them in a much better position to jump inside the top-five by season’s end.
The Magpies finish the season with a trip to Macleod and then a home match against next-door neighbour Lower Plenty. If they win this week their fate is in their own hands in the final round as they chase their first finals appearance since 2014.
Northcote Park remains the biggest outsider of the four remaining finals contenders, although the return of Paul Dirago, Jackson Starcevich, Kyle Galloway and Charles Le Fanu last week means the Cougars are capable of beating anyone on their day.
A lowly percentage ensures the Cougars will need to win their two remaining fixtures against Hurstbridge at Ben Frilay Oval and Heidelberg at Warringal Park to sneak into the top-five. Even in that case, they may still need other results to go their way.
The matchups in Round 17 provide so many intriguing storylines, perhaps none more so than Macleod’s clash against Montmorency at De Winton Park.
It would be hard to write a more riveting script leading into this encounter.
It is highly likely that the winner will go on to play finals. Throw in the fact that it’s Garry Ramsay’s first time back to De Winton Park since leaving Macleod at the end of 2018 and this one ticks all the boxes as one of the most anticipated games in 2019.
Despite this year losing four times the number of games than it did during the 2018 home and away season, Macleod’s form at home has ensured that De Winton Park continues to be one of the toughest venues for opposition sides to visit.
The Roos have won their past five matches at the ground, which bodes well for Christian Stagliano’s side ahead of consecutive home games to round out the regular season.
A win this week, coupled with Hurstbridge beating Northcote Park, would clinch a finals spot for the Roos – who would jump six points clear of the two sides below them ahead of the final round of the season.
Their chances this week could also be bolstered by the VFL fixture – with Coburg scheduled for a bye this weekend. That could give the Roos access to a host of their VFL-aligned players, including Muhammad Saad, Harry Simington, Mark Baker and Brodie Foster.
Of that group, Saad could be the one the Roos need most. The 20-year-old has kicked 10 goals in his past three appearances in the NFNL, which includes a five-goal haul in the Round 12 win over Bundoora and a team-high three goals last week.
The absence of Anthony Doherty and Kurt Manuel was certainly felt in last week’s loss to Northcote Park at Bill Lawry Oval, where the Roos trailed for the majority of the day – despite strong performances from Justin White, Brodie Foster and Hamish Paynter.
Montmorency also enters this week’s game on the back of a loss after going down to North Heidelberg in a fadeout 18-point loss at a very heavy Shelley Reserve.
No goals were kicked in the opening term, but the Magpies looked to have broken the game open when they kicked the first three goals of the second quarter.
However, the Bulldogs kicked six of the final seven goals of the game to run away with the four points.
Yet again Montmorency was well served by Jesse Donaldson, Jai Robinson and Stefan Uzelac, while Blake Murphy’s past five matches have confirmed he is on the verge of being one of the competition’s elite players in seasons to come.
The Magpies will enter this week’s crunch game without Ben Walton, although Coburg’s VFL bye should ensure that Braedyn Gillard is back this week.
The Garry Ramsay factor could also play into the Magpies’ favour, with the former Macleod premiership coach certain to have plenty of intel on his former side ahead of what shapes as his biggest game in charge of Montmorency.
The Magpies won the previous encounter between the sides in Round 2 when they held out an undermanned Macleod by eight points in a 34-goals shootout at Montmorency Park. Jesse Donaldson and Steve McCallum led the way in the midfield, while Patrick Fitzgerald booted five majors.
The action will be just as absorbing at Greensborough War Memorial Park where top-two sides Greensborough and Heidelberg meet on the eve of the finals series.
Greensborough has all but secured the minor premiership for the first time since 2015 – with last week’s win at Lower Plenty meaning the Boro sit eight points and 50 percent above second-placed Heidelberg with two rounds remaining.
While ladder positions aren’t going to be affected by this week’s result, it’s hard to see either side taking the game lightly – with the winner to gain a mental edge ahead of a potential meeting at Preston City Oval in September.
Greensborough’s only loss this season came in the previous fixture against Heidelberg, where the Tigers led for the majority of the day in a two-point thriller at Warringal Park. The Boro nearly pinched the points late, although Chris Clark’s shot from the pocket hit the post.
Another loss to the Tigers this weekend is certainly not a crisis for the Boro, however it could leave room for some doubts to creep in ahead of a finals series in which they will enter as premiership favourites.
Sam Gilmore was dominant in the ruck the last time the sides met, although Liam Read did miss that match. The Boro big man has played the past four games since and will have his hands full this weekend against the competition’s best ruckman in 2019.
The battle inside Heidelberg’s forward 50 will also be intriguing. The Tigers have a plethora of tall targets to kick to, with Sam Grimley, Chas Sargeant and Josh Minogue all capable of hauling in a big mark.
They’ll be pitted against the best defence in the competition this week – led by the likes of Nick Riddle, Dan McLinden, Jack Johnston, Michael Croxford and Billy Bedford. The Boro have conceded a paltry average of just 49 points a game this year – although Heidelberg’s forward setup could provide their biggest challenge.
Tom Sullivan was also central to Heidelberg’s win in the last encounter between the sides and last week made a welcome return to the Tigers’ line-up following a three-match absence. He marked the occasion in style and was best afield in a two-point win over Bundoora.
Will Knight also returned for his first game since Round 3 and with second spot assured the Tigers can use the final two rounds of the regular season to get match fitness into several key players who have been missing for extend periods across the back half of the year.
West Preston-Lakeside will be looking to secure its finals place when it makes the trip to Yulong Reserve to take on Bundoora.
The Roosters need one more win to secure a top-five finish and will be looking to bank that this week, ahead of a trip to De Winton Park in the final round to play Macleod in the second grand final rematch of the season.
The reigning premiers will enter as favourites this week against a side which has lost its past seven matches, as well as its past six at home. However, they will be wary of the Bulls, who last week finished strongly to finish just two points short of Heidelberg at Warringal Park.
All things considered, West Preston-Lakeside feels the most deserving of a finals spot of the four sides competing for the last two places in the top-five. The Roosters have won eight of their past 10 matches and look the side most capable of challenging Greensborough, Heidelberg and North Heidelberg for this year’s premiership.
The club’s best players are all in form at the right time of year and they could be bolstered by the inclusion of VFL stars Matt Signorello, Sam Glover and Aidan Tilley if they reach the finals – as well as last year’s premiership hero Mark Kovacevic.
Alex Federico’s past two months have been as good as any player in the competition, while the rebound generated by Garrett McDonagh and Max Dreher in last week’s win over Hurstbridge makes them a massive threat if their side can get to the wider expanses of Preston City Oval.
The Roosters will need to devise a new ruck combination to take on three-time Frank Rosbrook medallist Matty Dennis, with Matthew Harman out of the line-up for the next two matches.
Bundoora certainly won’t make life easy for the reigning premiers and the Bulls will be determined to cause an upset in their final home game of the season – which could potentially be the last time several of the club’s legendary premiership heroes play at Yulong Reserve.
While the losses have mounted over the past two months, it is worth noting that five of the past six defeats have been by margins of less than 20 points. That includes losses by one, two and three points.
The effort displayed in last week’s defeat at Heidelberg would provide the club with some renewed confidence heading into its final two games against the Roosters and North Heidelberg. The Bulls looked in all sorts when they trailed by 27 points at quarter time, before rallying with six of the last eight goals.
Whether they have the fire power to trouble the Roosters’ in-form defence remains a query, with Gary Moorcroft and youngster John Jorgensen – who hasn’t played since Round 12 – the only Bulls to average higher than one goal a game this year.
Northcote Park will be determined to keep its finals hopes alive when it makes the trip to Ben Frilay Oval to take on Hurstbridge.
Bolstered by the inclusion of a host of key players, the Cougars produced their best performance since the opening month of the season to beat Macleod by 16 points, just days after coach Matt McLennan announced this would be his last season at the helm.
While the chances of the club playing finals are slim, it’s impossible to write them off with the likes of Paul Dirago, Jackson Starcevich, Kyle Galloway and Charles Le Fanu all back in the side to help out the ever reliable and dominant Jordan Perry.
The Cougars’ tall timber has caused Hurstbridge trouble in recent times, with Starcevich booting five goals in a 57-point win at Bill Lawry Oval earlier this year, while injured star Ash Close piled on 10 to steer the Cougars to victory at Ben Frilay Oval last year.
Hurstbridge may have lost its past three games, however the combined margin in those losses is just 35 points. That includes a 15-point defeat to West Preston-Lakeside last weekend in Daniel Keenan’s record-breaking 400th match.
The Bridges continue to show glimpses of their potential and will feel they can be a massive threat in 2020 if they can produce their best for longer periods in matches – particularly with many of their key players already re-committing for next year.
A slow first quarter proved costly in last week’s loss to the reigning premiers, where the Bridges then more than matched it despite Tom Simpson and Cameron Cloke both being sidelined by injury. Simpson won’t return this season, although the Bridges will hope to have Cloke back this week.
Mitch Hymus again displayed his star quality last week in holding competition leading goal kicker Ahmed Saad to one goal, after keeping him goalless earlier this year. He may be in line to get first crack at Jackson Starcevich this week.
Northcote Park was far too good when the sides met earlier this year, although since that game Hurstbridge has displayed the better form. However, last week may have been a turning point for the Cougars – who certainly have more to play for this week.
Lower Plenty plays its final home game in the top flight when it hosts North Heidelberg at Montmorency Park South Oval.
The Bears were competitive early against ladder-leader Greensborough last week and trailed by just eight points at half time. However, they couldn’t keep pace in the second half and fell to a 36-point loss.
While their endeavour can’t be faulted this year, the Bears have found it a battle to find avenues to goals. They have kicked just 35 goals across their past seven games, which includes being held to just one behind in their previous meeting with North Heidelberg in Round 10.
It’s a far cry from the previous time the club hosted North Heidelberg in Division 1 – when the Bears piled on 30 goals in a 137-point win back in Round 15, 2015.
North Heidelberg’s come-from-behind win over Montmorency in Round 16 ensured the Bulldogs a double chance in the finals for the second-successive year. It’s a remarkable effort following its Division 2 premiership win in 2017 and they are the only one of last year’s top-three to again secure a double chance.
In atrocious conditions the Bulldogs found a way to respond from a three-goal deficit in the second quarter and notched their 10th win of the campaign against Montmorency last week. It was a gutsy effort, one in which lesser teams may put the game in the too hard basket when things went against them early.
While conditions made scoring extremely difficult, North’s ability to keep the Magpies to just four goals was noteworthy given Nick Matthews and Ryan McGhie were both sidelined, adding to an extensive list of unavailable which included Jesse Tardio (VFL), Kyle McDonald, Jackson Jones and Nick Shelley.
Ten points behind second-placed Heidelberg and ten points ahead of fourth-placed West Preston-Lakeside, North’s spot on the ladder cannot change irrespective of results over the last two rounds.
That means the Bulldogs can use the last fortnight to tune up for another September campaign, with this week’s clash with the Bears to be followed with a home match against Bundoora at Shelley Reserve.