MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 18: Andrew Gaff of the Eagles and Dustin Martin of the Tigers compete for the ball during the 2019 AFL round 22 match between the Richmond Tigers and the West Coast Eagles at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on August 18, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Many football analysts have claimed that the top-eight is well and truly set. As it stands after Round 12, there is a two game gap between the eighth-placed Tigers and the Bombers in 9th. If the Bombers were somehow able to walk away victors last week, the narrative around the top eight's stability would be completely different.

The Lead-up

As Richmond often do, they showed that they're a class above. A dominant final 10 minutes saw the Tigers blow a competitive Bombers outfit out of the water, kicking seven goals straight to run away 39-point winners.


The same went for Sunday's match between the undermanned Eagles and the underwhelming Blues. The Blues needed to prove themselves worthy of finals contention against the low flying Eagles, who brought a WAFL team on the plane to Sydney.

Again, another opportunity for a bottom 10 side to keep close tabs to those in the eight went begging. A woeful effort from the defenceless Teague didn't capitalise against the inexperienced Eagles, allowing the boys from Perth to fly back west with the four points.

Despite the current gap between the league's top eight and the bottom 10, the eight is nowhere near set. The team that is vulnerable to those outside of the eight will almost certainly be the loser of Sunday's blockbuster clash, as the seventh-placed Eagles hosting the eighth-placed Tigers at Optus Stadium.

The Matchup

Despite Richmond's dominance throughout the past four years, West Coast have managed a rather competitive recent record. Over their past six games, West Coast have split the games 3-3, remaining one of the best contenders with the league's benchmark side.

The two sides know what it takes to win, between them winning the last four premierships. After their 2018 flag, the Eagles have struggled to consistently be one of the league's top teams. Finishing fifth in the two years after has led to disappointingly shallow finals campaigns, with a spectacular loss to Collingwood at home in last year's elimination final leaving a sour taste in the mouths of many.

Looking for redemption in 2021 hasn't always gone to plan. An impressive win against Port Adelaide in Round 3 seemed to be the win Eagles needed to kickstart their push for the top four. But that was quickly undermined by a disappointing away loss to St.Kilda, allowing the Saints to kick the last eight goals of the game to complete a 33-point comeback.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MAY 20: Elliot Yeo of the Eagles looks to pass the ball during the round nine AFL match between the West Coast Eagles and the Richmond Tigers at Optus Stadium on May 20, 2018 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Since that loss, the Eagles have been struggling to field a full-strength side and it has caused some less than flattering results. A humiliating 97-point loss to Geelong as well as a shock home loss to the young Bombers have held the Eagles back from pushing into the top four.

Despite fielding an inexperienced lineup for a majority of the season, the Eagles have done enough to remain cemented in the top eight. For now. And after a win against the Blues, they travel home full of confidence.

For many casual footy fans, Richmond have had a surprisingly slow start to the season. Sitting in eighth position on the ladder at the halfway point, you could be forgiven for thinking they are vulnerable. And they might be.

However, the position Richmond find themselves in after 12 rounds this season isn't foreign. Through eight rounds last season, the Tigers were "struggling" with a record of 4-1-3 and outside the eight.

The champs looked vulnerable midway through the season. But ultimately, a team that never peaks early was able to come home strong with momentum into finals. And of course as we all know, they came home with the chocolates.

After taking care of business against bottom sides Carlton and Hawthorn through the first two rounds, Richmond were made an example of by a rampant young Swans outfit. A shock to many, the Tigers had no answer after being jumped early by 40 points at half-time.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 06: Luke Edwards of the Eagles celebrates victory with team mates after the round 12 AFL match between the Carlton Blues and the West Coast Eagles at Sydney Cricket Ground on June 06, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

The reason some have questioned where the Tigers are at this season is due to their inability to beat other top eight sides. Through the first 12 rounds, Richmond have managed just one win against a current top-eight side with an admittedly impressive win against the then-undefeated Bulldogs side.

However, they have also lost five games against the Swans, Power, Demons, Cats and Lions. A record that doesn't flatter the reigning premiers, it has been largely due to fielding inexperienced players due to their own issues with injury.

FEATURE: The incredible numbers behind Essendon’s turnaround

Winning two games on the trot when hit with scoreboard adversary has caused the belief of the group to grow. A scintillating last quarter against the Bombers, who took the lead midway through the last quarter, is a prime example of that. The momentum they bring will play a huge role in what they believe to be a very winnable game on Sunday.

Both sides go into this week's matchup feeling the brutal toll of injury, with big names being forced to watch from the sidelines. Primary ruckman Toby Nankervis will remain on the sidelines, leaving a tall task for Mabior Chol who will face Nic Naitanui in the ruck, whilst Dion Prestia will be back on the sidelines after re-aggravating his hamstring late in last weeks win. Tom Lynch will also be missed as he is recovering from his knee injury.

The Eagles will still remain without key players Luke Shuey, Tim Kelly and Jeremy McGovern who have all faced extended stints on the sidelines, whilst Brad Sheppard will also be out after suffering from concussion in a sickening contest against Carlton.

The Eagles forward line does welcome back some tall timber, with Josh Kennedy and Oscar Allen returning and set to cause headaches for Richmond's back six.

Richmond go into the match in better form and with more personnel than the Eagles, but as many teams usually find it is rare to travel to Optus Stadium and take four points away from the flat track bullying Eagles, no matter the circumstances.

In what will be a riveting game for 120 minutes, the repercussions will last a lot longer after the final siren.

The Repercussions

Both teams will be heading into their mid-season byes after the final bell on Sunday night. No matter the result, both have plenty of planning and review to undertake in preparation for the back-end of the season. However, for the victors, they will be sleeping a whole lot better.

The equation is simple. The winner of Sunday's blockbuster will head into the bye in a great position to compete for a spot in the top four, earning themselves the double chance come finals. Both the Eagles and the Tigers have the potential to do so, but a win on the weekend is a vital first step to getting into that conversation.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 07: Dustin Martin of the Tigers looks dejected after a loss during the 2021 AFL Round 08 match between the Richmond Tigers and the Geelong Cats at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on May 07, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

For the loser, life becomes a lot, lot tougher. Not only will aspirations for top four be virtually unreachable, but they will also likely slip only one game ahead of teams outside the eight gunning for their spot in finals.

With both teams byes the week after, the ladder is a little misleading as there are teams below who have played a game less. That leaves this week's loser incredibly vulnerable to getting jumped by teams below at the conclusion of the bye rounds.

OPINION: The most memorable celebrations ever seen in the AFL

The draw for the Eagles is tough, with consecutive games facing the Bulldogs and Swans straight out of the bye. The Tigers have a string of very winnable games before back-to-back games against the Lions and Cats look to clamp down their season once again.

The importance of this Sunday's clash can not be overstated. Both can make a strong push for top four contention if able to win, but also leave themselves incredibly vulnerable to the teams below fighting for the final spot in finals. And those teams are ready for either West Coast or Richmond to slip up.

The Teams Ready to Pounce

GWS sit in the shadows of the top-eight, ready to pounce on any opportunity they can to make the final spot in finals. Although currently sitting in 10th position, the Giants have a game in hand after having their bye during Round 12. Of all the teams gunning for finals from the outside, they are the only team that has this slight advantage.

They will look to take advantage early, with what should be a walk in the park first game post bye against the cellar-dwellers, North Melbourne. Not only will a win be (surely) certain, but the Giants will take the opportunity to build upon their 93.3% after taking a big hit against the Lions in Round 11.

They then have the hapless Blues followed by the 17th-placed Hawthorn in what should be a pivotal three-week stretch that will likely sit them equal eighth and a much improved percentage. Big names including Toby Greene and captain Stephen Coniglio are also set to return during the back end of the season, looking to bolster a Josh Kelly led side that has performed well in their absence. The Giants will be charging toward the eight in hopes of rectifying their disaster 2020 campaign.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 26: Stephen Coniglio (left) and Lachie Whitfield of the Giants look dejected after a loss during the 2018 AFL round 23 match between the Melbourne Demons and the GWS Giants at The Melbourne Cricket Ground on August 26, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

It is no question that Essendon have overachieved in 2021 so far. Their running rebuild that includes a number of first year players was never supposed to translate into winning football this early. Despite this, Essendon currently sit in ninth position on the ladder after 12 rounds of the season.

An opportunity to already be in the eight was left begging after their Dreamtime loss to the Tigers. But nonetheless, if anything was evident though after last Saturday's game, it is that the Bombers have every right to be in the finals conversation.

Darcy Parish is have a breakout season, with numbers that are simply out of this world. Although the injury to Andrew McGrath hurts the dynamic of the Bombers' midfield, Essendon have the luxury of experimenting with their young guns who have already shown incredible versatility. Said experimentation due to the early injury to Dylan Shiel helped coach Ben Rutten discover the true potential of likely All Australian Darcy Parish. Who knows what he will discover in the absence of McGrath.

The Bombers face the battling Hawks, looking likely to rectify what was a horror loss to them in the first round. Thereafter the draw gets difficult, with a tough back-to-back trip against the Demons and Cats to follow before relief in the form of a matchup against the Kangaroos. The Bombers have shown plenty of heart this season to be in the position they are today, but still have the potential to sneak their way into finals contention if presented the opportunity.

Two less likely sides that need a lot to go their way to make finals are Fremantle and St.Kilda. Although both sit the same amount of games outside the eight as Essendon and GWS, the quality of football both have displayed have not shown enough consistency and competitiveness to warrant the same hype.

St.Kilda have been largely disappointing after promising another finals birth to back up last year's surprising run. And their embarrassing percentage of 77.6% illustrates that, thanks largely to enormous losses that include 111, 84 and 75-point losses to the Bulldogs, Tigers and Bombers respectively.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 03: Jack Steele and his Saints team mates look dejected after losing the round 3 AFL match between the Essendon Bombers and the St Kilda Saints at Marvel Stadium on April 03, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

With their own opportunity to keep tabs with the eight left begging after a tight loss full off missed opportunities against the Swans, the Saints need a huge lift post-bye to be worthy of contention.

Fremantle were a chance to push for finals. Although within reach, it looks unlikely for them to bridge the gap between themselves and whoever will sit eighth after the byes.

Some last quarter injury carnage against the Dogs saw captain Nat Fyfe dislocate his shoulder, Brennan Cox tear his hamstring and Brennan Cox strain his hamstring. With key players added to the Dockers already long injury list, it will most likely take a small miracle for Fremantle to compete for finals.

This Sunday's clash looks to be a season definer, with huge upside for the victors and even bigger ramifications for the loser. Who do you think will win the clash? Richmond or West Coast? And do you think any team currently outside the eight can sneak their way into finals? Let us know in the comments below!