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Big four a dream scenario

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Gough Whitlam was prime minister. The Sydney Opera House was yet to be opened. Television in this country was still a black-and-white affair. It was 40 years ago, 1973, and in the context of football's development, an eternity.

That's how long it's been since the then VFL clubs who came to be known as the big four - Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon and Richmond - all competed in the same finals series. But a long wait seems more and more likely to be ended.

And you can almost hear the rubbing of the hands of the AFL in glee, not to mention the ringing of the cash registers. For the league, we're heading for a finals series straight from heaven.

For these days, it's not just a big four but, throwing giants of recent times Hawthorn and Geelong into the mix, a heavyweight half-dozen who are all going to be playing a part. And if that seems a little parochial, the strong presence of two other states, via the legitimate flag claims of Sydney and Fremantle, should placate the champions of game development.

Yes, it's an early call. But after having claimed a couple of weeks ago that we might already have our top four of 2013, I'm inclined to think we've now just about got our final eight locked away.


The current ladder doesn't necessarily reflect it - Port Adelaide is back in the top half after a superb, gutsy win over the Swans on Saturday, and a game ahead of Carlton and West Coast, who are locked on six wins and six losses - but scan the run home of all those clubs for their remaining 10 games, and there's a fair argument the dye is cast.

Ken Hinkley's Power has clearly recovered the ''oomph'' it lost between rounds six and 10, beating up on Greater Western Sydney the weekend before last, and against Sydney, completely dominated the second half in general play and, eventually, on the scoreboard.

Emerging star Chad Wingard was instrumental, as was Brad Ebert and veteran Kane Cornes in shutting down Sydney star Daniel Hannebery. But given what lies ahead for the Power, it's going to have to maintain this standard weekly.

Port's great win was only the first leg of a quadrella of big games which, over the next three weeks, takes in Collingwood, Essendon and Hawthorn. And four of its last five assignments are challenging to say the least - another Showdown with cross-town rival Adelaide, and away games against Geelong and Fremantle at, arguably, the two most unfriendly venues in the AFL. Port's final game is against Carlton.

West Coast might just have turned a corner, despite its loss to Hawthorn on Friday night. The Eagles pushed the Hawks hard, though their comparative lack of pace is increasingly apparent, and perhaps an explanation for an unusually poor record of 2-4 in their own backyard.

But, again, if the Eagles are still to play a part in September, they're going to have to get much better. Six of West Coast's final 10 games are against sides in the eight, and there's two more against the still-capable Adelaide, immediately beneath it on the ladder. Essendon twice, Sydney, Geelong, Fremantle and Collingwood - one thing's for sure, if the Eagles do still get there, they will have earned it.

Carlton, meanwhile, has its challenges, too. But it does have eminently winnable games against St Kilda, North Melbourne, Gold Coast and Western Bulldogs, and more encouragement in its consistent competitiveness this season - none of those half-dozen losses by any more than 17 points.

At the moment, I have Richmond and Carlton filling the final two places in the eight with 13 and 12 wins respectively, both less than the 14 required last year, but enough in a season in which the top couple of teams have grabbed more of the spoils than in 2012.

If what has to be the AFL's preferred final eight does eventuate, it brings its share of logistical difficulties with it, none the least the distinct possibility of four finals in Melbourne in week one.

If Hawthorn, Geelong and the other four local participants were all to make it, we'd have one final at Etihad Stadium. And if that was to feature the Hawks against an interstate side, given the presence of the Magpies, Bombers, Tigers and Blues, you would rightly hear plenty of squawking from Waverley, given the Hawks copped the short end of the stick in terms of grand final preparation last year.

But that's flak the AFL would be prepared to cop if the trade-off was the league's most popular local clubs all taking part in the most important time of the year.

Much of the world, let alone football, has changed significantly since the days of the early '70s.

But the pulling power of the game's biggest clubs hasn't. And if all the big guns are there, the league will have a memorable finals series on its hands before it has even started.