Gary Ablett and Geelong are rapidly firming as dangerous players. (Photo: AFL Facebook)

AFL: A season of surprises

We’ve talked of tipsters’ nightmares in the past, but come on…who had the Suns 2-1 and the Demons only 1-3 pre-season?

Some interesting lessons have been learned ahead of Round 4 of the AFL men’s competition, and perhaps at the top (or bottom?) of that pile: although they finally garnered four invaluable points in the Thursday night fixture against the Sydney Swans this week, Melbourne have simply not been up to matching their 2018 form.

They’re not the only sliders by any means, as the cloud over Brad Scott’s immediate future at Arden Street comes to mind, but the Cats and Lions continue to rise as the only undefeated sides remaining in the competition, and both will go into their respective games at the weekend as comfortable favourites.

Hatch‘s Jesse Robertson previews a round that should test the genuine aspirations of several sides previously figured to be chasing September dreams, starting at the MCG:

Friday, April 12, 7:50pm: Collingwood vs Western Bulldogs, MCG

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Collingwood were unable to avenge their woeful fortune in last season’s decider with a 22-point defeat to the Eagles in Perth last Saturday night.

It wasn’t for lack of trying on the part of Brodie Grundy, however, as he would not only slaughter the ruck combination of Nathan Vardy and Tom Hickey by himself, but more than double the clearance output of the next best player on the ground with 11 off his own boot. Jordan de Goey kept the pressure on Jeremy Cameron on the Coleman charts and Dayne Beams’ junk-time goal made his 26 disposals look better, but while the Pies weren’t completely run into the ground, a rebound at 1-2 will be greatly appreciated. Tagger Levi Greenwood is dropped in favour of Travis Varcoe.

It was a good day for members of the Dogs’ engine room last week in what would still be considered a surprise loss to Gold Coast but their forwards had little to offer. After a barnstorming final term in snatching improbable victory against the Hawks in Round 2, that energy utterly evaporated in their first loss of 2019 as Tim English yet again found himself thoroughly outgunned by Jarrod Witts and Peter Wright while Josh Schache found no momentum as the spearhead of the Kennel’s attack. Jason Johannisen is back into the side at an important time.

Hatch predicts: Collingwood by 23 points. The Pies’ quality shines above on paper, and while that advantage hasn’t necessarily carried them through so far, the Bulldogs’ lowest low last week is enough to go against them.

Saturday, April 13, 1:45pm: Geelong vs GWS Giants, GMHBA Stadium

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Geelong were winners that played like they were used to it at the Adelaide Oval last Thursday, as Patrick Dangerfield performed at his elite best against his old side. His full impact was illustrated with 12 inside-50s, 10 clearances, seven tackles and a whopping 746 metres gained, all on a stellar night that even allowed Joel Selwood to fly more under the radar. With Tom Stewart becoming immense in defence, trailing only Hawthorn’s James Sicily for rebound-50s, these two men need to be the Giants’ first priority. The Cats have reversed their only change from last week, with Jack Henry fit to return at the expense of Lachie Henderson.

Standing in their way, however, are such talents as the league’s leader for disposals in Lachie Whitfield, averaging 38 touches a game so far, and Jeremy Cameron, whose seven goals saw Richmond sunk last week and also cemented a commanding lead atop the Coleman table. Leon Cameron’s outfit rebounded strongly from a meagre performance in Perth and, by comfortably outlasting the Tigers, will come in with a world of confidence. Club leader Callan Ward returns in place of Tom Sheridan.

Hatch predicts: Geelong by 12 points. This should be a tight but entertaining tussle between two sides with September credentials.

Saturday, April 13, 2:10pm: Essendon vs Brisbane Lions, MCG

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Essendon stepped up when they needed to last week; facing a Melbourne side struggling with injuries and seemingly shellshocked yet still barely rated by punters, but got the job done to be on the board this season. Kobe Mutch went down early but the slack was picked up by the remaining 21 Bombers, with each and every one picking up double digit disposals. Their sheer potency inside forward 50 was the key, with 54% of their entries resulting in a score and eventually overwhelming the Demons in a high-scoring clash. Cale Hooker and Mitch Brown return to bolster the talls as Mutch and Shaun McKernan (both injured) depart among four changes.

AFL leading ball-getter Lachie Neale asserted himself as a match-winner with a colossal role in the Lions continuing their undefeated start to the year in triumph over Port Adelaide. Apparently the notion of Neale as an elite competitor was lost on media outside of Western Australia and his former club, Fremantle.

Nevertheless, he ran the show at the Gabba and has wasted no time winning over Lions fan with another massive day, this time racking up 43 possessions as well as an incredible 16 clearances, and a goal just to top things off. The question remains for Bombers fans as to which tagger will need to go with Neale. Allen Christensen and Nick Robertson are included this week as Zac Bailey drops with injury.

Hatch predicts: Brisbane by 36 points. The red-hot form of Fagan’s side should be too much to handle, especially if Neale can’t be stopped and Josh Walker holds the vision that saw him wind up with 16 marks last week.

Saturday, April 13, 4:35pm: Port Adelaide vs Richmond, Adelaide Oval

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The headlines at Alberton were stolen by the breakout performance of Connor Rozee, who duly won the Round 3 Rising Star nomination following a 21-disposal, four-goal effort in their loss to Brisbane. Travis Boak again starred with 35 touches and seven clearances but Ryan Burton’s transition play was important at both ends, picking up seven rebound-50s as well as six inside-50s. Xavier Duursma was seen training away from the main group Thursday but Ken Hinkley has named an unchanged lineup.

Matters continue to go from bad to worse at Punt Road after another flat outing against the Giants in Sydney last Saturday. Jayden Short’s day was done not long after it started following a dislocated elbow that rules him out for eight weeks, captain Trent Cotchin misses at least two weeks with a hamstring injury and Dustin Martin was handed a one-week suspension by the Match Review Officer, then heavily fined for an offensive gesture.

With Jack Riewoldt and Alex Rance already dealing with injury issues, the only question is who steps up to cover so many first-18 absences. Jack Ross is named to debut and Bachar Houli has been cleared to return as Damien Hardwick swings the axe with six changes.

Hatch predicts: Port Adelaide by 27 points. The Tigers’ struggles are mounting by the day and the Power have a chance to mark themselves as genuine top-eight bolters.

Saturday, April 13, 7:25pm: West Coast vs Fremantle, Optus Stadium

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West Coast were impressive in their grand final rematch on this ground last week against Collingwood, and after completing an eight-match suspension for an off-the-ball punch in this same fixture last year, Andrew Gaff slotted straight back in to lead the way for the Eagles. Brad Sheppard’s 18 disposals and 13 marks in defence landed him a deserved Team of the Week place, and skipper Shannon Hurn picked up 28 touches from full-back with 86% efficiency in an overall pleasing performance for Adam Simpson despite being controlled in the ruck and earning 52 less possessions. Liam Duggan is the only inclusion this week for Josh Rotham.

Speaking of leaders, it’s not Nat Fyfe’s week as the medical staff at Fremantle opted to take a conservative approach with his concussion recovery. Are people finally taking notice of Luke Ryan’s ability, though? Looking past the questionable hairdo launched in the narrow win over St Kilda, the mature-age Coburg recruit produced the goods Sunday with 32 possessions, 13 marks and eight rebound-50’s positioning the key defender for potential maximum Brownlow votes. Ryan is likely to get the job on Josh Kennedy in perhaps the most interesting duel on the ground. Darcy Tucker moves into Fyfe’s position while Sam Switkowski and Lachlan Schultz come into the side.

Hatch predicts: West Coast by 11 points. Another that could go either way, the Eagles have straightened up since losing to Brisbane and while the Dockers have employed a more resolute defence, West Coast can break it down gradually.

Saturday, April 13, 7:25pm: North Melbourne vs Adelaide, Marvel Stadium

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North Melbourne once again ran out of legs in a competitive game against the Hawks much as they did the week prior against Brisbane, and Brad Scott has come under intense supporter review as a result. Ben Cunnington proved his worth once again as a proper star in the Roos’ core and his 33 disposals, of which just six were by foot, enabled him to retain his status as one of just two players averaging more than 20 contested possessions in the opening three weeks, alongside Patrick Cripps. North supporters get their wish with Paul Ahern promoted as one of four changes.

The Crouch brothers have long since solidified themselves as central forces at the Crows, and were key figures as usual despite Adelaide’s disappointing loss to the Cats at home last Thursday. Ultimately, however, they fell to the will of Dangerfield and Tim Kelly while up front, Taylor Walker failed horribly to impose himself on the contest as the tall Cats backline kept him almost fully at bay. They’ll count themselves lucky that Paul Seedsman avoided injury to his ACL after an ugly incident in the closing minutes, but he’ll be replaced by Cam Ellis-Yolmen as Bryce Gibbs also drops out.

Hatch predicts: Adelaide by 21 points. The battle between Shaun Higgins and Matt Crouch will go a long way towards determining the outcome but the Crows have the higher quality on the outside.

Sunday, April 14, 2:40pm: Gold Coast vs Carlton, Metricon Stadium

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To claim that the Suns are over-performing on pre-season media expectations would be a supreme understatement (and yes, a slice of humble pie has been swallowed here as well). Lachie Weller is coming into his own as well after previous concern over his signing, especially for Pick 2. However, his 26 disposals at 81% with 11 rebound-50s were perhaps the Suns’ greatest asset as they scraped home to register a second win in a season where two wins was a generous forecast. Jarrod Witts stormed through his opposition with 52 hitouts to lead the league.

Carlton could unveil live-trading product Liam Stocker in an extended squad that could give the community a close look at the true value of the price paid in the highly-scrutinised swap with Adelaide in the first round of last week’s draft. Another ‘honourable loss’ was their fortune last week against the Swans but where one Curnow fell with injury, another would rise to the occasion as Ed managed a career-high four goals. Harry McKay has become a developing bright spark in an ailing Blues attack registering a record 15 contested marks in the three weeks so far and may be counted on again.

Neither side have confirmed any omissions.

Hatch predicts: Gold Coast by 11 points. The Suns are beginning to earn the respect of the wider football community early on in 2019 and should use this gilt-edged chance to inflict more pressure on Brendon Bolton.

Sunday, April 14, 3:20pm: St Kilda vs Hawthorn, Marvel Stadium

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Rowan Marshall came of age in the ruck in a winning display up against an also-youthful Dockers tall lineup, but Jack Billings was the crucial cog in the side that almost overturned a 31-point deficit before coming up just short in Perth. His 32 disposals at 75 per cent with six intercepts, six inside-50s and two goals were massive in almost dragging the slow-starting Saints back into the winners’ circle, while Jack Lonie remained a pressure-heavy threat around the goals with all four of his tackles inside forward 50.

Has Hawthorn unlocked a potential long-term performer in James Worpel? The man nicknamed the ‘Worpedo’ by Hawks fans has broken out so far this season and slotted comfortably into a rebuilding midfield that suffered in 2018 without the likes of Jordan Lewis and Luke Hodge. Jaeger O’Meara picked up the most touches of any Hawk on a surprisingly empty MCG last week against the Roos but at a poor effectiveness rate, racking up a shocking 11 clangers. Chad Wingard was a winner with supporters immediately on debut and could assert himself this weekend if given the chance.

Neither side have confirmed any omissions.

Hatch predicts: Hawthorn by 29 points. The Saints may have a slight edge in the centre but the Hawks have too much firepower up front for a depleted Saints backline to cope with.