Coleman battle going down to the wire

THIS year’s premiership race is shaping as the most unpredictable in a long time. The same could be said for the Coleman Medal.

After 19 rounds, there are four leading contenders for the flag – Sydney (1st on the ladder), Adelaide (2nd), Collingwood (3rd) and Hawthorn (4th) – separated by not much, and then a sleeper (Geelong, 6th) which would have to come from a long way back. You would probably keep West Coast (5th) in the mix too.

If there is one club standing slightly above the rest, Hawthorn is it, provided the Hawks can put it all together when it counts.

Draw, then, the parallels with this season’s leading goalkickers.

There are four main contenders – Matthew Pavlich (55), Drew Petrie (52), Lance Franklin (51) and Jack Riewoldt (49) – with four rounds remaining.

The sleeper also comes from Geelong – Tom Hawkins on 47 – who will have to come from a long way back, and you would probably keep St Kilda’s Nick Riewoldt (46) in the mix too.

If there is a favourite, he also comes from Hawthorn – Lance Franklin – provided he gets back on the park and stays injury-free.

Even St Kilda goalsneak Stephen Milne (44) and Collingwood powerhouse Travis Cloke (42) are still close enough if they went on an end-of-season rampage.

There is nothing in it, and no one keeps a closer eye on how tight these things are more than the bookmakers.

”It’s certainly been one of the more intriguing and, can we say, challenging markets for us to operate this year,” TAB Sportsbet’s Adam Hamilton said.

Franklin was the man a month ago, and with the Hawks still to play crisis-hit Port Adelaide in Tasmania on Sunday and Gold Coast at the MCG the following week, he looms large in the run home.

Yet the superstar left-footer is no certainty to play this week and while he has been sidelined with a hamstring injury in the past month, others such as Pavlich and Petrie have made their move.

Pavlich has kicked 44 goals in the past nine games, which accounts for 38.5 per cent of the Dockers’ goals in that period – a staggering dominance of a forward line.

After round nine, he had just 11 goals and was a $251 shot for the Coleman. Now, he is equal favourite with Franklin.

Two-time Coleman medallist Fraser Gehrig said that Pavlich – regarded as perhaps the most versatile player in modern football – had benefited from coach Ross Lyon leaving him inside forward-50 this year.

”He’s always had it in him to win a Coleman Medal, it’s just now they are playing him a lot closer to goal,” Gehrig said.

”He is getting a bit older as well, so it is probably a wise thing to do. They might get a few more years out of him.”

As for Pavlich’s sudden burst of goals, Gehrig – who played under Lyon at St Kilda – said he believed the Dockers were starting to understand the new coach’s game plan, and how to use their superstar spearhead to better effect.

Fremantle has, on average, gone to Pavlich inside forward-50 10 times a game in the past nine matches – up from seven for the season overall – and the Dockers have been able to isolate the six-time All-Australian one-out more often. Former Melbourne captain David Neitz, who won the Coleman Medal in 2002 in a tight and low-scoring race similar to this year, said he would love to see Pavlich win the Coleman.

”It’s ridiculous that you could say this, but in some ways he is still an underrated player,” Neitz said.

”If he was able to continue with the form he is in and win the Coleman, I think there would be a lot of people that would be pretty pleased for him.”

Petrie has also come from nowhere to put the heat on Franklin and Richmond’s pre-season favourite Jack Riewoldt. Not even listed in betting markets at round one, he is now second in the Coleman Medal race and has kicked an astounding 23.3 in the past four matches.

Then there is Hawkins, who booted a career-high six goals in a match-winning performance against Hawthorn last Friday night and is also running hot with 14 in his past three games.

Don’t forget the Riewoldts, either, particularly younger cousin Jack. He is still only six goals behind Pavlich despite an average season by his standards and has games against non-finals contenders Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide to come.

Gehrig said he believed the draw would come into it ”big time” in the run home. ”If you are playing some of the weaker sides you can certainly kick some big bags and that will change things significantly in a year like this where it’s so late in the season and there is only a handful of goals between the top six,” he said.

”To be honest, there are not too many great defenders out there at the moment that are six-foot-four and 100 kilograms that can defend one-on-one. You’ve got a lot of guys that are only 90 kilograms and six-foot-three playing full-back, and it makes a difference because the big monster forwards can tear them up if they get the opportunity.”

Neitz agreed, adding that the wafer-thin gap between Pavlich and the rest could be closed ”very quickly”. ”I don’t think there would be any one of those six who would be feeling comfortable at this point. A couple of good weeks and you can make a big surge,” he said.

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