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By Boris Kilpatrick, special to AFANA from Australia

The 2017 season continues to play out as one of the closest battles in recent memory. While the Adelaide Crows and Geelong Cats have stamped their credentials as the teams to beat, the Greater Western Sydney Giants are starting to show signs that their long injury list is taking its toll. With some of the Giants walking wounded due to return, they should once again return to the form that should see them in contention for the flag. The Sydney Swans are the team with the best form in the competition, which should strike fear into every team with designs on taking out the premiership this season. With 11 teams having realistic claims on the final eight, there are many stories yet to be written as we approach the stretch run to the finals.

1.    Adelaide Crows (Last time - 3)
The Crows took care of the Melbourne Demons in Darwin on Saturday night, giving them not only a three game winning streak but also putting them two points clear on top of the AFL ladder with six games to play. With a tantalizing upcoming Friday night blockbuster against second placed Geelong, the Crows have the chance to take a firm grip on top spot – providing they can find a way to defeat the Cats, a task that has eluded them often in the past.

2.    Geelong Cats (2)
The Cats once again pulled off a narrow win against a fast finishing Hawthorn despite an early injury scare to Brownlow Medal favorite Patrick Dangerfield. A foot injury forced Dangerfield to rest in the forward line instead of his customary midfield role – where he produced a miraculous five goals despite his limited movement. The Cats can snatch top spot if they can upset Adelaide at home on Friday night.

3.    Greater Western Sydney Giants (1)
After never having experienced a draw in their short AFL existence, the Giants managed two in two weeks against Hawthorn and Geelong respectively. Facing a red hot Sydney Swans on Saturday night in the “Battle of the Bridge”, the Giants were gallant but could not stop the Swans from running out thirteen point winners in a classic battle. A Sunday matchup with Richmond at the MCG could be just what the Giants need to return to the winners list and keep in touch with Adelaide and Geelong at the top of the table.

4.    Port Adelaide Power (4)
The Power continue to go about their business after easily taking care of the Kangaroos at Adelaide Oval on Saturday afternoon. Despite a hiccup at home against the Tigers in round fifteen, the Power have a healthy playing list and look to be in good shape to take a coveted top four spot at the end of the minor round.

5.    Sydney Swans (6)
With their 0-6 start a distant memory, the Swans have waltzed into the top eight with a solid win against crosstown rivals the Greater Western Sydney Giants. Since their horrendous start to the 2017 campaign, the Swans have rolled to a 9-1 record, making them the hottest team in football right now. Sydney is now starting to resemble the team that appeared in last season’s Grand Final, and with six rounds remaining before finals begin, all of the other finals contenders have been put on notice – the Swans are back.

6.    Richmond Tigers ( 8 )
The Tigers sandwiched solid wins against Port Adelaide and Brisbane with a shocking performance against St. Kilda, yet they sit in 5th position on the ladder with a big game against the Giants at the MCG to come on Sunday. Not fancied at all in the pre-season after a few lean years, Richmond has re-invented itself with a speedy forward line and a miserly defense. Whilst most pundits don’t consider the Tigers genuine flag contenders, a win against the upstart Giants would put them firmly in the mix.

7.    Melbourne Demons (5)
The Demons continue to battle despite numerous injuries to their midfield. While beaten against Adelaide in Darwin on Saturday night, Melbourne is still in good shape to have a say in the finals in 2017. With Jack Viney, Nathan Jones and Christian Salem all due to return soon and Jesse Hogan plus Max Gawn already back playing, the Demons should finish strong in 2017.

8.    West Coast Eagles (7)
The Eagles are keeping in touch with the top of the table as they continue to juggle injuries to high profile players. After finally welcoming back key forward Josh Kennedy to the line-up after a month long absence, gun recruit Elliot Yeo went out with a quad injury, once again robbing the Eagles of putting their best on the park at the same time. With ruck duo Nick Natanui and Scott Lycett out through injuries of their own, the Eagles were valiant in taking out the Western derby against crosstown rivals Fremantle on Sunday.

9.    St Kilda Saints (10)
The Saints followed up their best performance of 2017 against the Tigers just a week ago by putting in one of their worst, as the hapless Saints went down by 61 points to a switched on Essendon. Whilst there is plenty of talent in the Saints line-up, they are struggling to play their best footy with any consistency, making them a hard to team to trust in regards to finals contention in 2017.

10.    Essendon Bombers (11)
Essendon added the scalp of Saint Kilda in a Friday night affair totally dominated by the Bombers, once again giving their fans the chance to dream of finals action in 2017. With the easiest finishing draw compared to all other valid finals contenders, there is plenty of scope yet for the Bombers to steal a spot in the top eight before all is said and done. Joe Daniher continues to provide highlights up forward while Zach Merrett has become one of the most consistent midfielders in the competition.

11.    Western Bulldogs (9)
The Bulldogs defeated a plucky Carlton Blues by 20 points at the MCG on Saturday, however despite their first win in three weeks, there are plenty of concerns for the reigning premiers. While the Bulldogs sit just one win and percentage outside of the top eight, the fact is they are the third lowest scoring team in the competition, with only Fremantle and Carlton behind them. With full forward Jake Stringer out of action with a hamstring injury, the Bulldogs simply have to find more avenues to goal if they are to seriously defend their 2016 premiership.

12.    Hawthorn Hawks (13)
The Hawks seem to be starting to find their identity after the loss of much experience at the end of 2016. Coming off a win against Collingwood and a draw against the highly fancied Giants, the Hawks had the chance to steal a late win against Geelong in the final twenty seconds on Saturday night. One could have been forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu as Isaac Smith missed his chance for glory, just as he had against the Cats in the 2016 Qualifying final. The Hawks won’t play finals in 2017.

13.    Fremantle Dockers (12)
The Dockers took the game up to the Eagles in the Western derby on Sunday, in all facets of the game – except for in front of goal. Despite having 57 inside 50 meter entries to the Eagles 46 and winning the clearances 40 to 28, the Dockers were abysmal in their scoring conversion, kicking five goals and fourteen behinds. They did receive some great news this week however with Nathan Fyfe putting pen to paper on a lucrative multi-million dollar deal, keeping the talented midfielder at Fremantle for the next six years.

14.    Collingwood Magpies (15)
Collingwood finally gave Coach Nathan Buckley some joy with a hard fought victory over the Gold Coast Suns at Metricon Stadium on Saturday. In a matchup of teams with coaches under immense pressure to survive into next season, it was the Magpies who took the points behind outstanding performances by Steele Sidebottom and Alex Fasolo.

15.    Gold Coast Suns (17)
Coach Rodney Eade, under pressure to provide some positive results for the struggling Gold Coast franchise, had another day to forget in their loss to the Magpies by 15 points. Unlucky to lose captain Steven May and midfielder Jarrod Lyons in the first half, the undermanned Suns couldn’t stay with Collingwood in slippery conditions during the second half, resulting in their 10th loss for the season and snuffing out any realistic finals hopes for 2017.

16.    Brisbane Lions (18)
The Lions put on a solid showing against Richmond at Etihad Stadium on Sunday, with most of their best players coming from the younger end of their list. Just eight points down at the main break, the Lions once again lacked the polish to take down a more fancied opponent. Look for a potentially big improvement in 2018.

17.    North Melbourne Kangaroos (14)
The Kangaroos continue to struggle, this time being thumped by Port Adelaide by 70 points. With a full rebuild on the cards, the Kangaroos will be desperate to land prime midfield free agents Josh Kelly or Dustin Martin in the off-season.

18.    Carlton Blues (16)
The Blues continue to play a style of football that can stifle their opponents scoring flow – however the flipside is they do not have the game plan to kick match winning scores. With plenty of young talent to build on, Carlton will have to be smart about adding enough established talent to once again climb the AFL ladder.

Article last changed on Friday, July 21, 2017 - 7:38 AM EDT

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