Round 23 kicks off tonight with a rematch of the stunning Semi Final from last year, as Hawthorn and the Western Bulldogs renew hostilities for the first time since that September evening, but with the Hawks missing out on finals this year for the first time since 2009 and the Bulldogs extremely unlikely not to make it either, it looms as a game for pride and with a few retiring stars from both sides facing their final games for the year, it looks like it'll be an emotionally-fueled night under the roof of Etihad Stadium.
For the Hawks, their slim chances were wiped out completely last weekend by Carlton as they secured a shocking seven-point win over the Hawks, ensuring that this week will be Hawthorn champion Luke Hodge's final game, and with Josh Gibson also announcing his retirement earlier in the season, the Hawks will be out to win it for two guys who were extraordinarily important in their trio of premierships from 2013-15.
This season has seen a side of Hawthorn that we hadn't seen in so long, as the Hawks, particularly in the first half of the season had comprehensively been thumped on the scoreboard, struggle to put wins on the board. But once again, massive credit goes out to Alastair Clarkson, who has managed to bring Hawthorn out of what looked certain to be a bottom-four finish into being a finals chance. In the future, Clarkson will be looking to rely on guys such as Ryan Burton, Blake Hardwick, James Sicily, Jaeger O'Meara and Tom Mitchell to take them forward in the years to come.
For the Western Bulldogs, the dream of playing Finals in 2017 remains hanging by the thinnest of threads after their loss to Port Adelaide last week - that was a game that they needed to win, and for all but the final five minutes of the game, the Bulldogs looked like a side on their way to a historic victory in Ballarat. They must win this game and rely on three other results to snag the eighth and final spot on the ladder. Otherwise this will be the final games of club stalwarts Matthew Boyd and Robert Murphy.
The Dogs must pray to the football gods that St. Kilda, West Coast and Essendon all lose their games on the weekend, but firstly, they need to deal with the challenge ahead of them tonight, that being a Hawthorn side that will unquestionably be fired up for a game 11 months in the making. Remember, it was the Bulldogs that did end Hawthorn's chances of going four premierships in a row last September and before that game, the Hawks had not lost to the Bulldogs since round three of the 2010 AFL season.
The Bulldogs haven't won two game in a row against the Hawks since 2009-10, but they'll need to smash this streak tonight to keep their extremely faint finals hopes alive. Will the Bulldogs end their home and away season on a high note tonight? Whatever the result, this match does promise to be a extraordinary encounter under the roof.
IN: Patrick Lipinski, Matthew Boyd, Tom Campbell
OUT: Jake Stringer (Hamstring), Travis Cloke (Soreness), Tory Dickson (Omitted)
B: Shane Biggs, Zaine Cordy, Dale Morris
HB: Matthew Boyd, Lewis Young, Matthew Suckling
C: Lachie Hunter, Marcus Bontempelli, Bailey Dale
HF: Jason Johannisen, Josh Dunkley, Liam Picken
F: Toby McLean, Tom Campbell, Robert Murphy
FOL: Jordan Roughead, Tom Liberatore, Jack Macrae
INT: Luke Dahlhaus, Patrick Lipinski, Bailey Williams, Caleb Daniel
EMG: Mitch Wallis, Fletcher Roberts, Mitch Honeychurch
Three changes have been made in the Western Bulldogs' camp ahead of tonight's big match, including the debut of the 1000th player ever to don the red, white and blue. Patrick Lipinski, a lifelong Bulldogs supporter and product from the Northern Knights Football Club will have that dubious honour as the 1000th Bulldog in the history of the football club. Lipinski was the Bulldogs' second selection in the 2016 AFL Draft, taken with the 28th overall pick and had been recently in some good form in the VFL, having recorded 33 disposals and seven marks against Essendon last weekend.
Matthew Boyd also comes into the side for what is his 292nd and potentially his last game after he announced his retirement a few weeks ago, Boyd is highly regarded as one of the best players to have come from the rookie list, with his ball-winning abilities as a midfielder crucial to the team in the Rodney Eade era, and then proving to be a pivotal part of a premiership winning defence in the Luke Beveridge era. Alongside Robert Murphy, who could be playing his final game tonight as well, will be sorely missed in the next couple of years as some of the younger players build up games and experience.
Tom Campbell comes in to replace Travis Cloke up forward, who will miss tonight with general soreness, and with Tom Boyd just returning to VFL and Jack Redpath still suspended, Campbell will be that big presence up forward at times tonight, as well as playing back-up to Jordan Roughead in the ruck. Jake Stringer will also miss tonight as he reinjured his hamstring in last week's loss to the Power, whilst Tory Dickson has been omitted after a poor game in Ballarat last week, that saw the sharpshooter only have seven touches of the footy.
IN: Liam Shiels, Harry Morrison
OUT: Ryan Burton (Foot), Ricky Henderson (Back)
B: Shaun Burgoyne, Kaiden Brand, Blake Hardwick
HB: Luke Hodge, James Sicily, Jack Gunston
C: Isaac Smith, Tom Mitchell, Billy Hartung
HF: Ryan Schoenmakers, Tim O'Brien, Paul Puopolo
F: Luke Breust, Jarryd Roughead, Jaeger O'Meara
FOL: Ben McEvoy, Daniel Howe, Liam Shiels
INT: Taylor Duryea, Will Langford, Conor Glass, Harry Morrison
EMG: Brendan Whitecross, Teia Miles, Marc Pittonet
Hawthorn have made two forced changes tonight, one sees midfield regular Liam Shiels back in after missing his first game of 2017 last week with a hip complaint, whilst Harry Morrison has been named to make his debut for the Hawks. Morrison was Hawthorn's first pick in last year's draft, taken with the 74th overall pick. He is a mid-sized defender who can take an intercept mark, kick well and is a solid runner. Morrison is also the cousin of Brisbane midfielder Tom Rockliff and is the godson of former Hawthorn and West Coast coach, the late Ken Judge.
Ryan Burton will be a huge out as he misses with a foot injury, Burton has enjoyed a breakout 2017 season and is without question, the favourite to take out this year's Rising Star award, averaging 21 disposals, six marks and four rebound 50s as a defender this year, inheriting the number five left that was left behind by champion midfielder Sam Mitchell. Ricky Henderson also misses tonight with a back injury, but can consider himself a solid recruit for the Hawks this year, with the former Crow averaging 21 disposals, six marks and nearly a goal per game across 18 matches this year.
Recent History (Past 10 Meetings)
Semi-Final, 2016 - MCG: Hawthorn 12.12.84 def by Western Bulldogs 16.11.107
Round 3, 2016 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 13.12.90 def by Hawthorn 14.9.93
Round 3, 2015 - Aurora Stadium: Hawthorn 19.13.127 def Western Bulldogs 8.9.57
Round 19, 2014 - Aurora Stadium: Hawthorn 16.11.107 def Western Bulldogs 6.9.45
Round 17, 2013 - Aurora Stadium: Hawthorn 13.17.95 def Western Bulldogs 11.10.76
Round 16, 2012 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 6.8.44 def by Hawthorn 17.14.116
Round 23, 2011 - MCG: Hawthorn 16.17.113 def Western Bulldogs 10.7.67
Round 10, 2011 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 9.8.62 def by Hawthorn 13.13.91
Round 14, 2010 - MCG: Hawthorn 12.7.79 def Western Bulldogs 11.10.76
Round 3, 2010 - Etihad Stadium: Western Bulldogs 14.16.100 def Hawthorn 12.12.84
Players To Watch
Last week saw Jack Macrae reach the 40-possession mark for just the second time in his career, but I have a feeling it won't be long before we see him do it again. I personally believe Jack Macrae could break his personal best tonight. Last time these two sides met, Macrae recorded 39 disposals along to be one of the Bulldogs' best players on the night the Bulldogs sent the Hawks out of the Finals in straight-sets. Definitely one to watch tonight, Macrae looms as one of the favourites to take home the club's best and fairest award this season after consistently solid games this season.
I get the sense that the media is hyping this up as Luke Hodge's final game, but let's not forget that the Bulldogs have two champion players - in their own right - retiring also. Robert Murphy has been the heart and soul of the Bulldogs for years, and it'll be interesting to see his response tonight, after media personality Sam Newman criticised Murphy on Channel Nine's The Footy Show last night, stating that "The Bulldogs won't have to go through the charade of finding a premiership medal for Murphy for not playing in the Grand Final" and to "Let the players take the credit for who actually won the thing". Very harsh, but let's see if the old Dog has one last trick for us all.
Whilst Hawthorn's night will be all about Hodge, one man that needs to bounce back tonight is James Sicily, who was given an absolute bath last week by Carlton's Jed Lamb, which saw Lamb's tactics get the better of Sicily, who gave away seven free kicks last week in their loss to the Blues. Despite last week, Sicily has been enjoying his season more since his move from the forward line to back line, averaging 23 disposals, nine marks and 4.5 rebound 50s since round 14, and if the Bulldogs allow him to get his way tonight, they'll be in a bit of trouble. Knowing the Bulldogs and their dysfunctional forward line, I think it's a good idea to see someone try something similar to what Lamb did last weekend, it's not a pretty look on the game, but if it wins games of footy then it'll keep happening.
Game 305 will be the final game in Luke Hodge's career, and what a stellar career it has been. People will have differing opinions on Hodge - some will call him a dirty thug and others will call him a champion, but either way, you can't argue all the accolades he has achieved since making his debut for the Hawks in 2002. A four-time premiership player, a premiership captain, a two-time Norm Smith Medallist and a two-time club best and fairest. I can still remember the first time Luke Hodge played against the Western Bulldogs, he was only an 18-year old in just his eighth game, but he was absolutely outstanding on that night, will Luke Hodge turn in one last match-winning performance tonight?
It's interesting to see that only half of Hawthorn's 2015 premiership team are playing tonight, and with veterans such as Grant Birchall, Cyril Rioli, Ben Stratton, Josh Gibson and James Frawley all not playing tonight, Hawthorn certainly have a lot of youth, and usually it doesn't bode well. Ryan Burton out tonight also hurts as he's been magnificent for the Hawks this season.
At the half-way point of the year, you would've jotted this one down as a dead certainty for the Bulldogs, but their past two weeks haven't been the greatest. They were very poor against the Giants and they lost a game they probably should've won last week against the Power, whilst the Hawks have looked better as the season has progressed, winning five of their nine games since the bye. Given that Hawks will be up and about for this game and the fact that they will be keen to put one last dagger in the Bulldogs' finals aspirations, I think they'll get the job done tonight.
That doesn't mean the Bulldogs won't be out to play tonight, I expect them to come out firing and give it their all for the retiring veterans in Murphy and Boyd, but I don't think it's going to be enough. The Bulldogs must overcome their horrific use of the ball going inside 50, and I'm not certain they'll do it tonight. I'm extremely excited to see how young Lipinski performs on debut, the Dogs really rate him highly at Whitten Oval, and either way in regards of the result, this game should provide a beauty.
Hawthorn By 8 Points
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