On Monday we looked at sides that I didn’t believe were going to make the finals this year. Considering the closeness of the AFL competition, my analysis was dependent on conceding chances to several of those teams if things went their way and misfortune was to befall those above.
This year is going to be a special one, with almost every club expecting genuine improvement, be it through regaining personnel, a coaching or tactical change, or natural improvement from a young list of exciting players.
For a great majority in the middle rungs, the top eight will await those who can turn that improvement into wins instead of just offering up competitive losses.
Here are the teams that I think have enough of the right factors going their way to play finals football in 2012:
8th – North Melbourne
As ever, the Kangaroos are not a sexy pick to play in the finals, but they have shown enough in finishing ninth over the last two seasons that they are ready to return to September action.
Missing only Brady Rawlings from their best 22 of 2010, they have been able to inject plenty of games into a core group of young midfielders.
They will be hoping to emulate Geelong from the early 2000s to present day by growing and keeping their core team together on the road to a premiership.
With an elite ruck/rover combination in Goldstein and Swallow, Drew Petrie up forward who is ready for a career-best season, and the silk of Harvey and Wells to pinpoint targets inside fifty, the Roos can take a step up this year.
7th – Sydney
When people talk about wanting fresh blood in the finals race, it could well be code for saying “We’re bloody sick of Sydney.”
Finalists in eight of the last nine years, they’re not going down without a fight this year either.
Adam Goodes and rising superstar Sam Reid provide an avenue to goal with Ben McGlynn snapping at their heels, Shane Mumford is up with the very best ruckmen in the competition, and Josh Kennedy has no peer as a clearance specialist, complemented by a host of inside on-ballers that just itch for the going to get tough.
Outside run is a slight query, and nor do they have the really big bodies to contain the best key forwards in the AFL.
Gary Rohan and Lewis Jetta are expected to step up to help with the former, while Heath Grundy, Ted Richards and Alex Johnson will do their best with the latter.
Another finals appearance it will be, and it could well be higher than this.
6th – Adelaide
Say what you want about pre-season form, but the Crows were the undefeated last team standing in the NAB Cup. They beat three of last year’s top five teams while doing it.
The young brigade of Patrick Dangerfield, Rory Sloane and Taylor Walker have led the way, and the first two as midfielders have the all-important taste for a goal that separates good from great.
Bernie Vince is back to his best-and-fairest form, and the wowsers out there in the media should take note that you can have a beer and a laugh and still play good footy.
Sanderson has implemented a long, direct, attacking brand of footy when in possession, but Adelaide will not suffer defensively, and their set-up when defending a kick-in will be extremely difficult to penetrate.
Recent history suggests the NAB Cup winner can look forward to a fruitful season, and with a friendly draw, the Crows will be no exception.
5th – Geelong
I hate having the same top five as last year, and was tempted to drop Carlton on the back of pre-season issues, but didn’t want the same top-four either.
The end can come quickly in sport, and the fall can be brutal, but the Cats aren’t there yet. An issue for them has to be motivation, as there can be no doubt their predicted demise by all and sundry in 2011, due to the defections of Gary Ablett and Mark Thompson, cut deeply and drove this proud and mighty team from deep within.
Losing premiership warriors Ling, Milburn, Ottens and Mooney will have an impact on depth, even if only two of them played in the winning grand final.
David Wojcinski is on his last legs and will have limited effect, and one has to ask how much last year took out of champions Chapman, Scarlett, Johnson and Corey.
Do they band together like a gang of thieves in an old-time western for one last heist?
I could never rule out any side with the irrepressible Joel Selwood as captain, and the ever-impressive Chris Scott as coach, but a little tumble is on the cards in 2012.
4th – Carlton
I had the Blues higher before a shaky 0-5 Nab Cup campaign, and while you could never write a team off and completely change a prediction based on the pre-season competition, confidence can surely be dented.
Carlton has risen over the last five seasons with a sense of arrogant entitlement (supporters would say destiny). Their improvement has been gradual and measurable, free of any rapid rises or unforeseen surges.
Chris Judd’s record needs no embellishment, Mark Murphy and Bryce Gibbs have joined the elite, Kade Simpson and Heath Scotland have been there for a while, and Mitch Robinson, Chris Yarran and Matthew Kreuzer aren’t far behind.
The Blues have been assiduously developing their depth in a problematic backline, and the multi-pronged attack has much to recommend it, although no secret has been made of the importance of a fully fit and firing Jarrad Waite.
All of these elements suggest a premiership tilt is on the cards, but after settling at the rear of the field in the initial stages, they’ll need to finish like Makybe Diva to get there in time.
3rd – West Coast
If you can get and keep your best players fit, then you’ll be stealing a march on the rest of the competition, and this was a key component of how West Coast leap-frogged eleven clubs in 2011.
The other influential reason was a manic forward press that was able to capitalise on frequent clearances.
The Eagles’ game-plan was deceptively simple, and only able to be carried out with elite tap ruckmen and hard-bodied, contested possession midfielders.
With Cox and Naitanui staking their claim as the most imposing ruck duo in decades, hardball specialists Matt Priddis, Daniel Kerr and the rising Luke Shuey were able to bang the ball in long to marking tall forwards Josh Kennedy, Quentin Lynch and Jack Darling.
If these guys didn’t take the grab, ground level sharks Mark LeCras and Mark Nicoski fed like dogs at a BBQ.
The predictability of such a system gave the rest of the team confidence to press up hard towards attacking fifty, and West Coast were well set up to defend any opposition backmen that did happen to get their hands on the ball.
With Darren Glass and Adam Selwood marshalling the defensive troops, including impressive young talls MacKenzie and Schofield, this was an outfit to be feared.
And this year? Well, they’ll be doing it all again, but will be more experienced and better at it. Write them off at your peril.
2nd – Collingwood
While we are still marvelling at Geelong’s triumph against all odds last year in one of the truly great AFL performances of our time, and amid all of the talk surrounding a Buddy-led Hawthorn for this years flag, it is easy to forget something remarkable – after 23 rounds last year Collingwood sat atop the AFL ladder having lost only one game for the year and boasting a percentage of 181.
At that stage they had only lost two of their previous 37 matches and were expected by many to continue unabated.
But as can be the ruthlessness of sport, they lost two of their next four, and the back-to-back premiership glory that seemed theirs for the taking was stolen away.
With a heady combination of current and seemingly future elite players on every line (Swan, Pendlebury, Cloke, Shaw, Reid, Thomas, Ball, Beams, Sidebottom, Jolly and the list goes on), the only question mark about the Magpies is the change of coach from the much-loved and revered Mick Malthouse to the driven intensity of Nathan Buckley.
I sense the transition won’t be as smooth as Pie fans would like, and we may have seen signs that opposition clubs are figuring out the feared Collingwood press.
If so, will the rookie coach have a back-up plan, and just as important, will he have the player depth at the bottom end to implement a changing game plan on the fly?
Serious questions for serious people indeed. Their top twelve will carry them a long way if nothing else.
1st – Hawthorn
Everyone is in love with the brown and gold express this pre-season, and I’m not shy about saying I’m one of them.
We know they’re well coached. We know they’re highly skilled. And we know they have the pain of last year’s preliminary final defeat seared into their memories and burning away at the lining of their stomachs.
Lance Franklin is about to have his best year, Cyril Rioli could be the most captivating player in the league and is still getting better, while Sam Mitchell continues to prove there will always be a place for an old-fashioned ‘footballer’ among the athletes.
Luke Hodge as captain eats bricks for breakfast, while Jordan Lewis and Brad Sewell do the same, but sprinkle metal filings and razor blades on top.
Shaun Burgoyne, Matt Suckling and Brent Guerra provide the class out of the backline, and a few handy types like Jarryd Roughead, Jack Gunston and David Hale are a handful for any defence.
The Hawks also have depth in spades, with several premiership players likely to struggle for senior games
Put simply, Hawthorn in 2012 is a perfect storm of top end talent, hardened experience, and burning desire, all wrapped in the neat little bow of coaching acumen.
Some teams hope they can win the premiership. Some teams think they can. The Hawks know they can. And so do I.