A prospective top-two finish and all the advantages that come with it could well be on the line for both Hawthorn and Sydney when they square off in an AFL grand final rematch on Saturday night.
The Hawks are riding a six-match winning streak and are clear favourites to win a third straight flag for the first time in their proud history.
But having dropped four games early in the season – including shock losses to Essendon and the GWS Giants – the Hawks are walking a tightrope if they are to work their way back into the top two at the end of the home and away campaign.
A top-two finish is rewarded with two home finals – potentially allowing the Hawks to avoid a September trip to Perth to tackle Fremantle or West Coast on their home deck.
Third-placed Sydney sit one spot above the Hawks and boast a superior 11-3 win-loss record, but they have a far inferior percentage and a tougher run home, making Saturday night’s clash just as vital for the home team.
The Hawks will be strengthened by the return of key forward Jarryd Roughead, little more than two weeks after having a melanoma removed from his lip.
“It is such a delicate thing that he has been through over the course of the last two or three weeks,” said Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson.
“It has pretty much been out of our hands from a footy point of view.
“We are obviously delighted with his return, but more particularly we are delighted he has got a tick in regards to his heath and what that means for him for many years to come and not just the next few weeks.”
The Hawks have finished first and second at the conclusion of the home and away round in their two most recent premiership campaigns, but Clarkson was loath to look too far ahead this year.
“It’s just four points, it’s an important game but we don’t really focus on anything other than trying to stick to those things we know we need to do to beat the Swans,” he said.
“If we do those really well then the result will look after itself.
“But in terms of what happens at the end of the home and away season – that’s still seven or eight weeks away.”
The Hawks flexed their muscles last week with a 72-point drubbing of ladder leaders Fremantle in Launceston.
“We were really pleased with the way we played last week,” said Clarkson.
“It’s really just churning through this stage of the season, just trying to get wins.
“We are more interested in making sure that we are playing out best football in September than we are right now.”
The Swans will welcome back fullback Ted Richards, who missed a week after being concussed by Jay Schulz in a tackle which the AFL belatedly acknowledged should have resulted in the Port spearhead being charged by the match review panel.
Young Sydney ruckman Toby Nankervis has been called up to fill in for Mike Pyke, who misses with a knee complaint.