For just the fifth time since the advent of the top-eight finals system in 1994, all top eight teams will play one another. But there are great match-ups beyond the eight as well, with every set of opponents this week within four spots of each other on the ladder.- Rohan Connolly
The AFL's bye rounds are over, and after some dreary days of football over the past few weeks, some would say not a moment too soon.
Fortunately, however, we're about to be blessed with a few days that might make up for it.
Round 15 is a fixturer's dream.
Indeed, it's not over-cooking the omelette to suggest it's one of the most mouth-watering rounds of football with which we've been blessed for many years.
For just the fifth time since the advent of the top-eight finals system in 1994, all top eight teams will play one another.
But there's great match-ups beyond the eight as well, with every set of opponents this week within four spots of each other on the ladder.
Melbourne and Brisbane, second and first on the AFL ladder, respectively now, kick it off with an MCG blockbuster on Thursday night.
There's a rare Friday night double-header, with games in Melbourne and Perth, before a massive back-to-back-to-back triple treat on Saturday, Carlton (fifth) playing Fremantle (third), Geelong (fourth) taking on Richmond (sixth), and Sydney (seventh) up against St Kilda (eighth).
There are various intriguing sub-plots in all these games, too.
The Demons, for example, have now lost three games in a row after having won 17 on the trot, been upset by some off-field dramas, and are now without heart and soul skipper Max Gawn for the next month or so injured.
Brisbane isn't necessarily flying; the Lions 2-2 over the past month.
They haven't played at the MCG since March 2020, believe it or not, and have lost their last nine games there, the last win against Collingwood all the way back in 2014.
This game is a huge test for them.
Fremantle is third and beat its opponent this round, Carlton, a couple of months back, and has won its last three games.
None by big margins, though, and the Dockers, prior to that, did drop two in a row to teams now outside the eight.
And three of the remaining five teams in the top eight all lost in round 14, Carlton pushed out of the top four, Sydney losing to Port Adelaide, which itself is still a finals chance despite losing its first five games of the year, and St Kilda turning in a shocker against the previously hapless Essendon.
Perhaps, then, the bigger narratives than merely this cracker of a round are that every side, even the very best, has its vulnerabilities.
And that 2022 is headed towards arguably one of the most exciting conclusions we've seen.
The top of the ladder is as compacted as we've known it for a long time, just one game separating Brisbane, on top, from Carlton, fifth, and just two games separating the top team and ninth-placed Collingwood, not to mention four teams outside the eight still with realistic finals prospects.
You're going to have to be better than usual to get there in 2022, too.
Eleven wins was good enough to win Essendon a finals berth last year.
This season, there's every chance it's going to take 13.
That's hardly music to the ears of a team like St Kilda, whose turn it has been this week to feel the media blowtorch after a very lacklustre display against the Bombers last Friday night.
They have a particularly tough run home, too, with games coming up against Sydney, Carlton, Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs in the next month, just one bottom-four opponent in the remaining rounds, and their last three games against Geelong (at Geelong), Brisbane and Sydney for a second time.
Certainly, the return this week of skipper Jack Steele, who has missed the past four games after injuring his AC joint, can't come quick enough.
His sort of leadership example is invaluable.
And who's to say he can't help them defy the odds?
St Kilda is vulnerable for now.
But they've got plenty of mates.
And the Saints have shown welcome resilience at other moments during this footballing marathon, which still has a fair distance to run.
Melbourne might have made the running for nearly the entirety of 2021.
But you only have to go back to the Western Bulldogs' incredible flag of 2016 to find the best example yet of a team which produced its best when it was most required.
Even the very best are finding consistency difficult in 2022.
All of which means that this particular AFL premiership, like that stunning triumph by the Dogs six years ago, might be far more about hitting a peak at the perfect time than it is about doing it better for longer.
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