One month out from the AFL season opener, players, coaches and supporters of each team are optimistic about the year ahead. Every club is bristling with ‘February Flyers’ – players who are fit, tanned and toned, each one a ball of health and muscle. Every coach speaks confidently of the new tactics they have implemented, and supporters are sure that ‘this is the year’ their young guns will take the competition by storm.
But not all of these hopes and dreams will come into fruition for every team. The harsh reality is that some will suffer a sobering fall down the ladder, despite their best intentions.
So who are the candidates for collapse in 2012?
I believe the Western Bulldogs will suffer the greatest fall this year, tumbling five spots from 10th to 15th.
For a team that began a slide down the ladder last year, they are ill-equipped to lose their leading goal-kicker and best young midfielder, which has happened through the retirement of Barry Hall and the defection of Callan Ward to GWS.
With Barry in the side last year the ‘Dogs were largely competitive, winning almost half their games. When he wasn’t there they could only win two out of eight, those victories coming against lowly Richmond and Adelaide. Losing Hall’s sure hands, threatening presence and 3.6 goals a game will be something they can’t recover from.
His ninth placing in the best and fairest despite only playing fifteen games underlines how important he was.
The recent appointment of 21-year-old Callan Ward as a co-captain at GWS shows that not only did the Bulldogs lose a young gun who averaged 20 hard-won touches a game in 2011, they also lost a leader and arguably the player being groomed as their next skipper.
With his fourth placing in their Best and Fairest standings, he was one of only two players in the top-seven under the age of 28 (Griffen, at 25, was the other).
Yes, Matthew Boyd is a very good player, albeit lacking in class. Yes, Daniel Cross and Dale Morris are courageous and honest. And yes, Robert Murphy had a fine season at half-back. But none of these players are going to improve at their age, and pickings underneath these veterans are slim.
Compare their outlook to that of Richmond, which won only half a game less last year, and whose top seven players didn’t contain anyone over the age of 24!
Given those age profiles, which team would you rather be on?
The last point proves that the outlook for the ‘Dogs is grim, and not just for this season. AFL football is a winter sport, and the team from Melbourne’s west is in for a long, dark, cold time over the next half-decade.
Essendon is another team that I expect to slide. Although getting off to a flyer last year, making the final of the NAB Cup and sitting third after eight rounds, I believe their output from that point onwards is a truer reflection of their standing within the competition.
With a draw in 2012 that includes a savage finish to the season, I can see something similar happening again, except this time with no bonus of valuable finals experience at the end of it. From round one onwards, the Bombers play Geelong, Hawthorn, Adelaide away, North, Carlton, Richmond and Collingwood, each of whom I expect to finish above them. With the exception of the Tigers, they are all likely to be finalists.
It is widely known that Essendon lack midfield class outside of Jobe Watson, and I think this will be another year of James Hird finding out more about the young players on his list. David Myers and Kyle Reimers are entering their fifth and sixth seasons of AFL football without making a consistent mark.
The class of the ’09 draft has been a disappointment so far. Jake Melksham, Travis Colyer and Jake Carlisle were all top-30 picks from that year, and are all categorised as ‘below average’ in Champion Data’s rankings at this stage of their careers. Of this group, Carlisle looks the most promising, but having key position players is the one area where the Bombers are actually well stocked.
So in summary, Essendon fans can have no fear about planning holidays for this September (the Gold Coast is lovely in the spring), and Western Bulldogs supporters may look at spending their winters abroad in the coming years.
The outlook for them is bleaker than No. 1 ticket holder Julia Gillard’s future as Prime Minister.