The AFL season commences in five days, and as usual we’ve seen a mixed bag of preparations.
The NAB Cup saw some dazzling football from Hawthorn and Adelaide, the inaugural senior football victory of GWS, and shaky beginnings for anticipated contenders in Carlton and Collingwood.
Apart from the Blues, every team had at least one victory, while the Crows are the only team yet to taste defeat in 2012.
While many find it difficult to read anything into pre-season form, and Carlton people in particular are singing from that hymn book at the moment, it can be a pointer to the business end of September.
It’s worth noting that five of the six NAB Cup grand finalists of 2009-2011 were still alive come preliminary final weekend some six months later.
Either way, it’s prediction time, and here are the teams that I fancy can book holidays at the completion of 22 rounds.
18th – Greater Western Sydney
No great revelation here, and only the most optimistic or foolhardy GWS supporters will have them finishing anywhere but last. Two 74-point defeats in the Nab Cup at the hands of Hawthorn and Richmond are realistically the type of results we can expect to see this season.
But as with the Suns last year, there is plenty of young talent to get excited about. The Giants will be well and truly stumbling out of the gates with senior players Tom Scully, Luke Power and Dean Brogan missing round one through injury, and we can expect the Swans to win by triple figures come Saturday night.
17th – Gold Coast
Four of the Suns’ five heaviest defeats last year came inside the first six rounds, so despite only winning one of their last 16 matches, they improved throughout the season.
They impressively ranked fourth in clearances, but were terrible at kicking goals, and couldn’t help but concede them in abundance.
Shifting senior men Nathan Bock and Campbell Brown into attack will help with the former, and playing Jared Brennan and ex-Demon Matthew Warnock down back will help the latter.
They’re still a long way away, and five wins is the most we can expect, but it will be no surprise if they reach that number.
16th – Brisbane
The Lions battled their way to four wins last season, and suffered the ignominy of losing the first ever Q-Clash against the fledgling Suns.
But they were mainly competitive against the tide in 2011 and will regain important bookends Jonathan Brown and Daniel Merrett this year, if the skipper can stop breaking his face on whichever player happens to be running past.
However, too much will be left to these two, Simon Black, and young guns Tom Rockliff, Jack Redden and Matthew Leuenberger. Coach Michael Voss believes a premiership side can be built around the latter three, so the extended future is not all grim.
15th – Port Adelaide
It will shock most to learn that the Power won three pre-season games, and lost their other two against NAB Cup finalists Adelaide and West Coast by a combined six points. Not bad from a team that was a laughing stock for almost every minute of last year.
Matthew Primus seems to have injected some much needed spirit and enthusiasm, as well as a defensive press, but one gets the sense they were playing closer to 100 percent intensity than most throughout their games, and will still struggle in the home and away rounds.
Pearce to half-back helps, Gray and Hartlett stepping up to help Boak in the middle will also be of benefit, and mature-age ruckman Jarrad Redden was their best player over the four rounds, sure to find himself in almost every fantasy football team in the land.
14th – Western Bulldogs
Some have the Dogs rebounding from last year on the back of regaining Brian Lake, Adam Cooney and Ryan Hargrave from injury.
Others find it difficult to see the Dogs covering the loss of Barry Hall and Callan Ward. The latter opinion is the popular one, but like all teams I’ve ranked from seventh to 14th, it won’t completely surprise to see them in the conversation for the finals in the later rounds.
Hardness certainly won’t be an issue with the experienced Boyd and Cross leading the fresh Liberatore, Wallis, Smith and cult hero Luke Dahlhaus, while Giansiracusa, Murphy and Higgins will look to provide the class.
Ryan Griffen provides both in equal measure, and is far and away the best and most important player on the list – if he goes down for a lengthy period, the Dogs could finish lower than this.
13th – Melbourne
The ‘Demon blood’ was well and truly pumping after the Dees dismantled the Pies in round two of the NAB Cup.
They were committed, hungry and eager for the contest, attacking ball and man fiercely, and locking it in their forward line for lengthy periods – essentially, they looked more like Collingwood than Collingwood did.
A 79-point loss to the Hawks and a more galling eight-goal loss to Port soon had that same blood slowing to a trickle in their supporters’ veins.
Add in a six week injury to Melbourne’s most dynamic player in Colin Sylvia, and the outlook is less friendly than it once was.
New coach Mark Neeld will demand hardness but not always get it from a notoriously fickle playing group.
The addition of Mitch Clark from Brisbane will add a crucial dose of physicality to the forward line – opposition defenders haven’t normally required an ice bath after playing the Demons in recent times.
This will be a learning year for coach and players, but expect a sharp rise in 2013.
12th – Essendon
The Bombers are one of many teams that are difficult to place, but their horrid run home put them lower than most, as they won’t have the consistency to win all the games they should before round 17.
We can be confident that if Hurley, Heppell and Zaharakis haven’t already ‘arrived’, they’re not far away, but the names that could, should and might take the next step are familiar to all – Ryder, Monfries, Dempsey, Reimers, Carlisle, Melksham, Colyer.
If this group can improve to the extent that Zaharakis did last year, and help superstar captain Jobe Watson to shoulder the load, then Essendon can hold onto their spot in the eight, and surge higher.
The Bombers went from one of the hardest teams to score against at the start of 2011 to one of the easiest by the end, so it will be interesting to see if James Hird and his brains-trust have found a way to respond to such a dramatic fall from grace.
11th – Fremantle
Fremantle are the easy team to tip a dramatic rise up the ladder for in 2012, and many pundits have been falling over themselves to declare it so.
It absolutely could happen, and any team combining the talent of Sandilands, Pavlich, Mundy and Fyfe with the tactical acumen of Ross Lyon must be taken seriously.
All agree how important Sandilands is, but with only 13 games last year and zero so far in the pre-season, I’m not sure we can take for granted that he will continue to be a dominant force.
The Saints took a year to get used to the Ross Lyon game plan and the hard yards required to implement it, and something similar wouldn’t shock here.
Look for them to fall away in the second half of the year as the physical and mental toll of working for the new coach takes effect.
10th – Richmond
It’s not hard to ascertain that Richmond are on an upward curve, but with the third youngest list in the AFL (only six players older than 25) there is still a long way to go.
The extension of coach Damien Hardwick’s contract will provide a boost, but it will be needed with an extremely difficult first five rounds.
The Tigers needed to address their inability to stop being scored heavily against, and looked to have done so in the pre-season with a more defensive edge to their game plan.
Their clearance work was also abysmal last year, ranking in the bottom two both in the centre and around the ground.
The scalps of Hawthorn and Geelong in the NAB Cup won’t hurt their confidence, and if all else fails, well, they have Dustin Martin, and no one else does.
9th – St Kilda
According to Champion Data rankings the Saints have 19 players ranked either Elite, Above Average, or Average for their positions. Of these 19, only three are under the age of 25.
It will shock no one to find out that they are the oldest team in the competition and after years of finishing at the top end of the ladder, they have a new coach and are expected to slide.
Sound familiar? It should, because all of the same factors were true of Geelong in 2011. Will Scott Watters and St Kilda come back refreshed to be this year’s fairytale, or are the experts on the money?
The latter for mine, but a soft opening five rounds could see them unbeaten, confidence regained and a long-awaited premiership in their sights.
If they are any worse than 3-2 after taking on Port, Gold Coast, Bulldogs, Fremantle (at Etihad) and Melbourne, then it’s going to be a long year. The form of Nick Riewoldt in particular will be watched closely over this period.