The AFL ladder after 23 rounds gives us the possibility of something we've never seen before - a Western Derby grand final between the Dockers and Eagles.
But since 2000, the top two have gone on to reach the decider only seven times out of 15. This means the odds are decent that Hawthorn could crash WA's party and make the side's fourth straight grand final, or could it be Sydney that defies expectations and the critics once again? The last team to make the grand final from outside the top four was Carlton in 1999, but some pundits say this year could be one where the bottom half of the eight are not there just to make up the numbers. Could we see the Adelaide Crows repeat their heroics of 1998 when they won the flag from fifth, can the men from Tigerland win for the first time since 1980, can the Western Bulldogs end a 61-year drought with their second-ever title, or are the Kangaroos able to make a run from eighth? Only the next month of football will give us the answers. Click the links to check out the title prospects of the eight AFL finalists. This is the best chance for the Purple Haze to breakthrough for a first-ever flag, but as ever the question remains - can they kick enough goals to get the job done? Fremantle : The Dockers' defence has remained stingy, but the rest of the league has caught up - last year Sydney was 68 points clear of Fremantle in overall points conceded, which was 122 points better than the third best team, Port Adelaide. This year Hawthorn, Fremantle, Richmond, West Coast and Sydney are all within 30 points of each other. Losses to finals rivals Hawthorn, Richmond, West Coast during the year also mean the number one seed is not seen as invincible. However, Ross Lyon's player management means the team goes into finals fully rested, and if Aaron Sandilands and the tough midfield unit - with David Mundy, Lachie Neale, Michael Barlow and Stephen Hill - hit form early, they will be difficult to stop. But a lot will depend on how the most important midfielder of all, Nat Fyfe, recovers from a leg injury that has meant he has missed four out of the last six weeks. The Dockers are not a one man team, but the difference between a fully-fit Fyfe and a player who's a step below his best could make the difference for Fremantle.
The Eagles have finally fulfilled their potential in 2015, and they stand on the brink of a return to the grand final for the first time since their last flag in 2006.
The rise from ninth to second has been driven by improvement on both sides of the ball. West Coast has conceded nearly 200 points less than last year, despite a horrendous run of injuries in the backline. Up forward, the Eagles' range of options are second to none. Coleman Medallist Josh Kennedy leads the way, supported by goalsneak Mark LeCras, tall target Jack Darling and ruck-forward Callum Sinclair. The speedy Josh Hill, swingman Elliot Yeo and midfielder Andrew Gaff can also chip in with goals. But the X-factor in the Eagles line-up is clearly star Nic Naitanui. The athletic ruckman is hard to beat in the air, and he also has the capability to go forward and kick two or three goals a game, which makes him invaluable. Just as with Fremantle, West Coast has had a big win by avoiding an early trip to the east coast to play finals. A win against the Hawks and a week's break would make them short odds to get to the grand final, and if they meet the Dockers they will have the advantage of a 24-point win in the most recent Derby. If it is an all West Australian affair, however, anything could happen.
The number one side in attack and defence, the champions of 2013 and 2014 are going for their fourth straight grand final under Alastair Clarkson. The familiar experienced names crop up everywhere - Josh Gibson, Sam Mitchell, Shaun Burgoyne, Jarryd Roughead, Jordan Lewis, Jack Gunston to name a few. Former Demons defender James Frawley has shown in recent weeks that he can play swingman and kick goals for the Hawks, which adds yet another threat up forward. The injury to Isaac Smith could prove important, as the Hawks are not flush with speed, and will need Rioli and Bradley Hill to have a big finals series. The possession game that Hawthorn excels at makes them very hard to stop - at their best, it is difficult to see any side in the finals withstanding the Hawks' onslaught. However, a 2012 loss to Sydney shows they are capable of putting in a bad one in the big game.
The Swans finished fourth, and are one win away from a preliminary final.
But most pundits have them well down the list of flag favourites, particularly compared to the three teams above them. The injury list is not looking good, with the loss of co-captain Kieren Jack for three weeks a big blow to the midfield on top of the earlier loss of Luke Parker. Add in the question marks over the state of star forward Lance Franklin's back, and you have a sizeable list of problems facing coach John Longmire. If Sydney gets pumped by the Dockers at Subiaco in week one, then the team's flag hopes will rest on a win against the Tigers or Kangaroos, followed by a likely second trip west to face the Eagles. On the plus side, the Swans have kicked more than 125 points in their last three games, giving them more of an attacking threat even with Franklin struggling for form. The key could be swingman Sam Reid - if Sydney's number 20 can find his kicking boots to go with his prodigious contesting and marking ability, the Swans could prove dangerous.
This is the year that Richmond has to take a step forward.
Finals flameouts in 2013 and 2014 have given the Tigers September experience, but left them with a fierce need to get some wins under their belt if they are to be taken seriously. Damien Hardwick's men have toughened up on defence, going from the eighth-best unit last year to third-best in 2015. The Tigers could not quite match their 10 straight wins to close out the season from last year, but 13 wins from the last 16 games means they have confidence coming into finals. It is not just the familiar faces - Dustin Martin, Brett Deledio, Alex Rance, Trent Cotchin, Jack Riewoldt - that are leading the way for Richmond. Much-maligned tall forward Ty Vickery is making a case that he could be the surprise packet, with 15 goals in his last four games. It will all mean nothing if the Tigers cannot beat North in week one, but a win there could set up a chance against a wounded Sydney and a spot in the prelim.
No one saw this coming - certainly no one outside the Western Bulldogs.
From being tipped as possible cellar-dwellers to finishing two games out of the top four, Luke Beveridge's men have stunned the league with their improvement in 2015. The key has been attack - from 12th-best last year to fourth-best this season, the Bulldogs' young kennel has played some irresistible footy on the way to the finals. The likes of Jackson Macrae, Lachie Hunter, Mitch Wallis, Mitch Honeychurch, Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Redpath and Jake Stringer have all impressed with the ability either to set up the play, kick goals or both. Veteran Bob Murphy's ability to rebound the football off half-back will be important, and if the Dogs can avoid giving too much latitude to Taylor Walker and Eddie Betts up forward, they have a reasonable chance of getting past Adelaide. This may be a year or two too soon to see the best of this group, but they are well capable of giving some fancied teams a fright.
It is amazing that Adelaide has made it to the finals, the asterisk on the team's 2015 record a reminder of the tragic death of coach Phil Walsh that has overshadowed the Crows' season.
Despite the emotional load, the Crows have won six of the nine games played since the events of July 3. Adelaide has impressed with its attacking game - the Crows are not favoured in tight, defensive battles, but they are well served with their ability to spread the ball through Patrick Dangerfield, Rory Sloane, Scott Thompson and Richard Douglas and attack with the likes of Taylor Walker, Eddie Betts, Tom Lynch and Josh Jenkins. Their first final against the Bulldogs should be a beauty. If Dangerfield is to leave for Geelong, he cannot be faulted on his performance or his determination for the Crows. His recent performances have been stellar, and if he and Walker both fire in September, then Adelaide is capable of doing damage in the finals.
The team's frustrating inability to string wins together has left North Melbourne on the outer edge of the eight, where many had tipped the club to finish top four before the season started, based on last year's march to the preliminary final.
Wins over Geelong, Richmond, West Coast and Fremantle have showcased their potential, but losses against Collingwood, Gold Coast, Port Adelaide and Sydney show why they have not reached higher up the ladder. The Kangaroos have the dominant ruckman in the league in Todd Goldstein, although they fail to take advantage at clearances and stoppages. Recruits Shaun Higgins and Jarrad Waite have improved North's attack, and old hands Lindsay Thomas and Drew Petrie could also be effective. Two losses going into finals does not speak well for their chances, but their ability to beat Fremantle at Docklands in round 21 to secure a finals spot was impressive. Overall, the lack of consistency means you cannot see the Kangaroos going beyond week one, but based on this season who knows?