Dan Hannebery
The 2015 AFL season has thrown up its fair share of surprises as it reaches its final rounds. The race to September is becoming ever more intriguing, with the fate of a number of clubs hanging in the balance.

There are two simultaneous yet equally absorbing battles going on, with the fight for top four and the jostling for the bottom part of the eight seemingly shifting every match.

For most of the second half of the season, the top four has looked settled with Fremantle, West Coast, Hawthorn and Sydney.

Yet Sydney’s recent form slump has given teams such as the Western Bulldogs, Richmond and North Melbourne a shot at earning the double chance.

Out of those teams, Richmond has the easiest draw, with North being the only team above them they play in the remaining rounds.

Conversely, North has a tough run, with games against Fremantle, the Bulldogs and a challenge in Perth against West Coast.

Regardless, Sydney’s remaining games are against teams no higher than 10th on the ladder and so they should remain in fourth.

While Fremantle looks all but assured in top spot, West Coast’s hold on second looks shaky after their loss to Hawthorn. With a tough three weeks ahead against Fremantle, the Bulldogs and Adelaide at home, the Hawks may just secure second position and a home final.

In the bottom half of the eight, North with a tough draw and Geelong look most vulnerable, with Adelaide and GWS biting at their heels.

All four of these teams had a win on the weekend and will be confident they can secure a spot in the eight. This is where a number of games become vital.

GWS has three very winnable games against Port Adelaide, Carlton and Melbourne in the next month. If they can win those games plus a tough match against Sydney, finals is assured.

Adelaide and Geelong, separated by just half a percentage point, have two games they should win, one tough match against West Coast and Hawthorn respectively and then a blockbuster against each other in the final round which could decide eighth spot – and possibly the future of Patrick Dangerfield.

The other vital game in round 23 is Richmond versus North Melbourne. The outcome could be the difference between a home final, especially important if playing Adelaide or Sydney, and possibly missing finals all together. For these two teams, who both fancy themselves as premiership contenders this year, securing a good finals position is of utmost importance.

If North miss out on finals, it would put extreme pressure on coach Brad Scott, especially after they clearly recruited at the end of last season for a serious tilt at the flag this year. Richmond also, while they should make finals, need to at least win one for their season to be deemed a success.

The interesting thing about this season is that 12 wins will most likely not secure a position in finals, when it has in seven of the previous eight years.

13 wins seems the magical number, yet even then, it could still come down to percentage.

When it comes to finals itself, it is vital for West Coast to secure a home final as they obviously have a much higher chance of winning at their ‘House of Pain.’ Conversely, Hawthorn will crave a top two position, so they can play an interstate team at the MCG.

While the Bulldogs would love a top four finish and the double chance, a final at Patersons Stadium against a WA team or against Hawthorn at the MCG (where they have only played two games all season) is a daunting challenge, and a loss could result in a cutthroat semi-final against a confident Richmond or a finals-hardened Geelong. A straight set finals exit after finishing top four, would undoubtedly be a deflating end to an exhilarating season.

Therefore if the Bulldogs secured a home final at Etihad Stadium – where they have an imposing 9-2 record this season – against GWS, Adelaide or North Melbourne, they would very much fancy their chances.

They could then play a semi final against Sydney or West Coast, whom they have beaten earlier this season. Of course, this is very much speculation and the Dogs will want the double chance and the possibility of going straight to the preliminary final, but it is interesting to note.

Richmond, who have also been touted as a contender for top four, would hold no fears of Patersons Stadium, after defeating Fremantle there earlier this year. Their loss to Adelaide however, has severely limited their chances of this happening. Sydney’s recent form slump has made their quest for the double chance all the more vital, especially as they know they still have the quality to beat any other team in the top four.

The ladder position for elimination finals seems less important, as they seem fairly certain to be held in Melbourne. It would take a slump from West Coast or a surge from Adelaide to prevent this. The teams from fourth to 10th are all fairly even, so the winner in these finals could come down to form.

The 2015 finals series looks like it will be one of the most even ever, despite Hawthorn being clear premiership favourites. Each of the sides vying for the flag this year have shown flashes of brilliance and conversely, weaknesses, which bodes well for a competitive September. The result of finals is very much dependent on how the rest of the season pans out, as sides jostle for their ideal spot on the ladder. This makes the remaining rounds all the more absorbing, as every game these contenders play forms another piece of the puzzle for September success.