After 17 rounds of toing and froing and jostling for position, the fight for the top five is going right down to the wire, with three clubs in contention for one spot in the last day of the home and away season.
Nar Nar Goon currently occupies fifth spot, but Bunyip and Koo Wee Rup are circling with all three locked on 40 points and percentage expected to be a decisive factor in any scenario.
The Goon faces the toughest task with a showdown against undefeated ladder leader Phillip Island.
Having seen his side on the wrong end of a 116-point hiding in round seven, Goon coach Dean Blake was well aware of the challenge at hand, but insisted no side was unbeatable.
“It’s one of those things that we’ve got ourselves in a position where you don’t want to be, you don’t want to be relying on other teams,” Blake said.
“It’s going to be tough but I’m pretty positive… the boys might play out of their skin this week and enjoy the challenge.
“(The Island) are a great side but whether they can go all the way through undefeated remains to be seen. They might think of it as a dead rubber, but they are the most professional team I’ve seen in this competition.
“Their midfielders kick a lot of goals so we’ll try to nullify their scoring power but at the same time they’ve got a lot of guys that can hurt you and you can’t focus on all of them.”
Nar Nar Goon hasn’t been helped by a spate of injuries to key personnel. This year’s captain Baz Hermann (collarbone), last year’s skipper Brent Hughes (ACL) and Sam Blackwood (hamstring) have all been ruled out for a quick return.
On the plus side, it may lead to West Gippy fans getting to see the head to head battle they have been waiting for, between ex-AFL teammates Lachy Hansen and Cameron Pedersen.
The pair were both on North Melbourne’s list for seasons 2011-12, playing 10 games together, before Pedersen was traded to Melbourne.
A favourite son of the Goon, Hansen returned to his boyhood club this season, while Pedersen and his family moved to the Island, eventually landing in the red, white and blue.
Pedersen has taken the competition by storm and looms as a red-hot favourite for the best and fairest award, while Hansen has had his moments in an up and down campaign.
The pair didn’t really cross paths much in the reverse fixture at the Kennel but with the Goon currently lacking some height, Hansen may take on more of the ruck duties, an area of the ground Pedersen has spent plenty of time throughout the season.
Leading the race for Nar Nar Goon’s spot, is Bunyip.
The Bulldogs welcome Korumburra Bena to town knowing a win would put them in a strong position.
However, with Koo Wee Rup also a firm favourite to win its clash with Warragul Industrials, the Yips will want to make sure its current percentage advantage isn’t relied on too heavily.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” Bunyip co-coach Aussie Jones said.
“We had a look at the fixture five or six weeks ago and our philosophy was just to keep winning and it should look after itself.
“(Going into the year) we thought we would be around the mark we are now and we feel our season has been too good to end at the home and away stage.”
The Bulldogs were sitting pretty ahead of last week’s game and would be all but assured of a finals place had they managed to beat Koo Wee Rup last weekend.
Defeat has thrown a spanner in the works and may necessitate the return of forward Brent Hues, who will need to convince Jones and co-coach Ricky Clark that the benefits of his inclusion outweighs the risks of re-aggravating his injury.
Jones admitted last week’s loss, coupled with as many as eight season-ending injuries – four in the past month alone, including in-form leading goal-kicker Cley Bertoncello – made calculations a touch trickier, but the club’s developing depth had come to the fore.
“From where we came from last year to even be in this position is exciting, the playing group has been sensational,” Jones said.
“I’m not an AFL coach but it’s a bit like when you hear them saying at that level, next one in, play your role. We’ve played a lot of kids and had guys come in and play out of position and they’ve done a good job for us.”
The Bulldogs have given a competition-high 39 players a senior game this season, but with the likes of bottom age fourths player Alex Dijkstra showing they can perform at that level, there have been positives to the excessive squad rotation.
The side with the most ground to make up is Koo Wee Rup, but coach Ben Collins believes his side will have well and truly earned their spot.
“We dropped a couple of games we shouldn’t have but we’ve had a tough draw and we’ve beaten Bunyip home and away and Inverloch at Inverloch,” Collins said.
“We’re relying on other teams either losing or not winning by too much so we’ll just do the best we can to win by a big margin and if we make it I would back us to go well in finals.”
Joel Gibson looks set to return for the do-or-die clash with the Dusties and the Demons boast one of the healthiest lists in the competition at this point in the year.
A percentage boost will most likely be required and with unfavourable weather forecast, scoring at Western Park may not be easy – expect the Demons to be ruthless at both ends in their pursuit of finals football.
Elsewhere, third plays fourth when Tooradin Dalmore makes the trek to Inverloch Kongwak, while Dalyston and Kilcunda Bass will bring tough campaigns to a close against Cora Lynn and Garfield respectively.
There is also plenty of interest in the A Grade division, with three teams still in the hunt for the final two finals spots in the top five.
Nar Nar Goon and Bunyip hold the higher ground, with each boasting a four-point advantage over sixth-placed Inverloch Kongwak after 17 rounds.
A win against 10th placed Phillip Island would be enough for the Goon, and it’s a similar story for the Yips, who face a tougher task against the in-form and finals-bound Korumburra Bena.
Should either side fall short, it will open the door for the Sea Eagles, whose superior percentage ensures a win would be enough to jump into the five.
However, they face the monumental task of knocking off unbeaten ladder leader Tooradin Dalmore in order to put that in motion.
The Seagulls, as well as Dalyston and the Giants, are already locked in for a top-three finish and the double chance in finals.
In the remaining games, Dusties host Koo Wee Rup in the battle for seventh spot, Dalyston meets Cora Lynn and bottom sides Garfield and Kilcunda Bass square off, with the Stars looking to win their first win of the season.