More than four months since the Sydney Swans lifted the 2012 premiership cup, the footy is not far from returning. The NAB Cup is just around the corner and this week I will preview each of the six pools and determine which teams have the best chance of winning.
Most AFL teams do not take the NAB Cup seriously, as most coaches use this time to experiment with new players and rest experienced ones in order to reduce the risk of coming into a new season under-prepared.
The NAB Cup also allows most of the senior players to gain valuable match practice ahead of the season proper, which starts on March 22.
Pool one: Essendon, Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs
Finals certainties one day, finals casualties the next. Essendon were flying at 8-1 after Round 9 but injuries and poor form started to plague the club and they would only win three more matches for the season.
It could be argued that the club over-trained in an effort to improve from its elimination final showing from 2011. Now, with Brendon Goddard on board, and an improved training regime, there is no excuse for Essendon not to perform this season.
The pre-season is the best way for Essendon to begin the long climb back to where they deserve to be, and that is playing finals in 2013.
Collingwood didn’t have a good pre-season last year, as evidenced by losses to Melbourne and Adelaide, as well as struggling to beat a Greater Western Sydney side that was not up to AFL standard yet.
One reason could be was that the Magpies wanted to rest their stars ahead of the season proper. The poor pre-season explains it all – they went on to make the finals for the seventh straight year but fell one match short of a third straight AFL grand final.
Last year was about rebuilding for the Western Bulldogs as they struggled to adjust to a new playing style after six-and-a-half years under the moderately successful Rodney Eade scheme.
Brendan McCartney endured an unsuccessful first year (though this is a convention among most first-year coaches, even Alastair Clarkson didn’t have a good first year at Hawthorn). This resulted in the Bulldogs finishing 15th at the end of last year, the club’s worst season since 2004.
Now in his second year, he knows what the pressure is like to deliver success to the club. The NAB Cup is the perfect opportunity to start delivering results.
Pool two: Fremantle, Geelong and the West Coast Eagles
Fremantle enjoyed a successful home-and-away season last year, reaching the second week of the AFL finals and ending the Cats’ premiership defence. Despite this, their pre-season was poor in 2012, winning just two of their four matches as they struggled to adjust to playing under Ross Lyon.
The Dockers did enjoy wins over the Cats and Eagles last year so they should win at least one of their two allocated pool matches.
Geelong endured its worst season for a long time last year, and this came on the back of a relatively poor pre-season which saw the club get beaten by Richmond in the third round (though they would beat the Tigers when it mattered most, and that was in the proper season).
On the basis of what we saw last year, there is a lot of work to be done at the Cattery if they want to continue the trend of winning a premiership every odd year (after premierships in 2007, 2009 and 2011).
And with Matthew Scarlett gone, as well as many others, it’s clear the club’s greatest era is about to come to an end. Last year, the Cats went 0-3 against both the Dockers and Eagles, and were convincingly beaten by the Purple Haze in last year’s finals as their premiership defence came crashing down.
Despite making the final of last year’s NAB Cup, the West Coast Eagles didn’t enjoy a successful proper season by their standards, despite finishing fifth on the premiership ladder.
This year, they will be without Quinten Lynch who has defected to Collingwood, so any chances of the Eagles pushing for a top-four spot will be dented. But they have come very far from the dark times of 2008-10, when they crashed from being premiers in 2006 to claiming the wooden spoon in 2010.
The year after the low of 2010, they finished one game short of the grand final, and that was backed up by a solid season which saw them finish just outside the four. And I can’t see any reason why the Eagles cannot improve in 2013.
Pool three: Adelaide, Port Adelaide and St Kilda
Adelaide enjoyed a very successful pre-season last year, winning all of its matches including the grand final against the West Coast Eagles.
This was followed up with its most successful season since 2006, but any chances of the club challenging for the premiership in the next two-to-three years may have to wait, after the Kurt Tippett controversy during the off-season and its loss of much needed draft picks which could have potentially been used to recruit his replacement.
Nevertheless, this will be the Crows’ best chance to prove that there is life after Kurt Tippett and their best chance to blood some new talent.
Port Adelaide endured yet another unsuccessful year, once again finishing near the bottom of the ladder. Coach Matthew Primus was sacked.
They are the only team to have lost to each of the AFL’s infant clubs (Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney) but last year they got one back on the Suns at their home ground and they did beat Carlton.
As far as 2013 is concerned, it’s a fresh new start under a new coach, Ken Hinkley. What he brings to the club will be valuable as he tries to rebuild a club from the bottom up. And the NAB Cup is once again the perfect opportunity to do this.
St Kilda endured a very disappointing pre-season last year, and this was backed up by a disappointing regular season in which they missed the finals for the first time since 2007.
A match against Essendon scheduled for Wangaratta last year did not go ahead (though an intra-club match was played in its place instead) and the Saints were thrashed by West Coast and Collingwood in their two other matches last year.
A bad pre-season will usually result in a bad regular season, so the Saints should start performing now or risk missing the AFL finals for a second-straight year. And this will be made harder given Brendon Goddard is no longer at the club.
Pool four: North Melbourne, Melbourne and Richmond
North Melbourne enjoyed one of its most successful seasons last year, as Brad Scott made good on his promise to deliver results to the club. The Roos had a mixed pre-season last year, but two of the losses were to the eventual AFL grand finalists Hawthorn and Sydney, so perhaps the Roos were very unlucky with the draw.
However, they have four relatively winnable matches this year, not only against Melbourne and Richmond, but also against the Gold Coast Suns and the Geelong Cats, who they beat in the regular season last year.
I can see North Melbourne making lots of progress in the NAB Cup.
Last year, Melbourne beat Collingwood during the pre-season but couldn’t convert any of that form during the regular season. The Dees were always expected to struggle during 2012 and it showed, with the club finishing at the bottom of the ladder (not taking into account Gold Coast and GWS).
Since they last made the finals in 2006 there has not been a bright year for Melbourne supporters, and things could start to get worse with the ongoing tanking investigation. They picked up Tom Scully and Jack Trengove in the 2009 draft after finishing the season with just four wins.
Melbourne fans should prepare for yet another difficult season on-and-off the field.
Finals have proved elusive for Richmond since 1982 and it’s no surprise they missed out again last year, following yet another season of disappointment in which they finished 12th, which followed a pre-season of promise.
Last year, they defeated Geelong by 59 points at Simonds Stadium before the season even started, but couldn’t repeat in the season proper. But they did beat Hawthorn in the pre-season and the season proper, in a season which saw them finish outside the top eight for the eleventh year in a row.
The Tigers should set certain goals for this season, and that shouldn’t necessarily include trying to break the Gold Coast curse which has plagued the club in recent years. If they can put together a solid pre-season, then it will lay the platform for some overdue success which fans have craved for decades.
Richmond have not featured in the AFL finals series since 2001, the longest drought of any club today.
Winner: North Melbourne
Pool five: Gold Coast, Hawthorn and the Brisbane Lions
The Gold Coast Suns took too long to get their season started last year, and this followed a very poor pre-season which included a loss to Greater Western Sydney.
At one stage it looked like they would go more than 366 days without a premiership match win, until they ventured to the venue of one of their best wins from season 2011 (which was against Richmond at Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns).
They stared down defeat with 30 seconds left, falling ten points behind, but some smart decision making saw them escape with a victory and spark a run of three wins in the last seven matches, which ultimately meant they avoided the wooden spoon.
I’m expecting the Suns to continue to struggle this season, but they need to be very competitive against both the Hawks and Lions otherwise it could be yet another long season. Difficult matches against the Roos and the Swans are also on the menu for the young Suns.
Hawthorn will go all out in its bid to win the premiership they should have won last year, and that bid should start with two easy wins.
The Hawks will also enjoy a winnable match against the Western Bulldogs later on, before getting a chance to settle a score against Richmond, who spanked them in the regular season.
Additionally, Hawthorn’s only defeat in the pre-season last year was also against Richmond. Had that defeat not occurred, Hawthorn would have made the NAB Cup final for sure. There’s no excuse for the Hawks not to perform this year.
The Brisbane Lions enjoyed a relatively successful 2012 season last year, despite winning only 10 matches, a big improvement from four in 2011.
Last year, the Lions smashed the Blues by 64 points for their best match performance in the pre-season, but they couldn’t beat them when it mattered most (two losses in the regular season).
This year, after their pool matches against the Hawks and Suns, they play Greater Western Sydney and Collingwood, two matches that should test how far the Lions have come since 2011. They should beat GWS, but Collingwood will be a big test.
Pool six: Greater Western Sydney, Carlton and the Sydney Swans
In the pool matches last year, GWS gave Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs big scares and only lost narrowly. That alone showed how much the Giants meant business in their debut year, but they ultimately struggled in the season as expected with the long travel taking its toll.
They have added new talent to the club, but they won’t take the Giants any higher on the premiership ladder this year.
But what it means for Kevin Sheedy is that he can continue to work with the kids in what will be his final year in charge of the Giants before handing the clipboard to Leon Cameron in what I think is a smart move for a team that showed a lot of promise in its first full AFL season.
They have two very tough pool matches, against a Carlton side now coached by Mick Malthouse and the Sydney Swans, who thrashed them by am average of 78.5 points in two matches last year.
Carlton went winless in the pre-season last year, and the form showed in the pre-season continued into the new season and it ultimately cost Brett Ratten his job.
Now they are a much wiser and smarter club than they were last year, and now they have a new coach, Mick Malthouse, on board.
The Blues’ first hit-out under Malthouse should guarantee a win, given it’s against the GWS Giants, who they beat by 67 points last year before the downfall started.
But the Sydney Swans will be a big test, despite the fact Malthouse is undefeated against the Swans since 2005 (dating back to his Collingwood coaching days). With two more scheduled matches, against Fremantle and Adelaide, after the pool matches, we can determine whether the Blues will be contenders or pretenders in 2013.
The Sydney Swans enjoyed a stellar regular season last year, one which culminated in a fifth premiership and second in eight years.
Though I don’t expect them to repeat their 2012 success this year. They should enjoy another solid season but their first test will come against the now Mick Malthouse-coached Carlton Blues.
They should also beat their young neighbours, before another tough test comes in the form of St Kilda followed by what should be another winnable match against the Gold Coast Suns.
If the Swans can put together a good pre-season, it’ll set the platform for another successful season. I can’t see Sydney suffering a decline anytime soon, they still have at least another two-to-three good years of football left in them.
Winner: Sydney Swans