Flag contenders leading into 2013 AFL season

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The AFL season is not far away now. This is the first in a series of articles which will lead up to the season opener between Adelaide and Essendon next Friday night.

I’ll begin by taking a look at the big three contenders for this year’s flag, Hawthorn, Collingwood and Sydney.

Hawthorn’s 2012 snapshot

Last season: first (regular season), second (after finals series)
Best-and-fairest: Sam Mitchell
Leading goal-kicker: Lance Franklin (69)
Most recent premiership: 2008

In 2007, Hawthorn launched the ‘Five2Fifty’ plan. That was, to achieve two premierships in five years and sign up 50,000 members.

They were on track to achieve the second premiership last year, having won it in 2008, but the Sydney Swans stopped them in last year’s grand final, and the Hawks just failed to achieve that objective.

This led to Kennett apologising to their fans by saying, “The objective of the ‘Five2Fifty’ plan was not achieved and I apologise to the members for that because I feel as though I’ve failed, and we’ve failed, to deliver.”

Last year’s grand final aside, Hawthorn is a side that is dominant and relentless. Last year was one of their best seasons in a very long while, even more dominant than the side that won the 2008 premiership.

They did score the expected crushing victories over the GWS Giants and Gold Coast but also suffered disappointing losses to Geelong (twice), Richmond and Sydney (in Launceston) last year.

If the Hawks are to remain a dominant team this year, they must not only try to eliminate those losses I just mentioned, but also maintain their mentality for long enough, especially against the Cats.

The Hawks’ last two defeats (against the Cats in round 19 and the Swans in the grand final) last year occurred because the team was not good enough for long enough. And it could be crucial moments like these which will cost the team some wins this season.

Collingwood’s 2012 snapshot

Last season: fourth (regular season), third (after finals series)
Best-and-fairest: Dayne Beams
Leading goal-kicker: Travis Cloke (50)
Most recent premiership: 2010

Collingwood proved last year that there is life after Mick Malthouse, as the transition from Malthouse to Buckley went by very smoothly.

The dominance of the team still remained, even though the Pies were initially slow to get going, losing two of their first three matches (though both of them were against Hawthorn and Carlton) and finishing fourth at the end of the season after two consecutive minor premierships.

Travis Cloke continues to live up to the hype, as do Dane Swan, Dale Thomas and Scott Pendlebury. They are seen as the backbone of the Collingwood team as they are among the hardest workers in the side.

Without them, the Pies are weakened, but not significantly. Cloke is the Pies’ main man for goals, and Pendlebury is a frequent user of the ball.

There are others in the side as well who continue to work hard and keep Collingwood in the match especially during crucial moments when the side is behind or just in front.

Collingwood scored crushing victories over GWS and the Gold Coast by a combined 217 points, and also had victories over fellow top four sides Sydney and Adelaide last season.

But they did have two losses each to rivals Hawthorn and Carlton, as well as against North Melbourne and West Coast at the back end of the season.

The Pies will once again be dominant in 2013, and should finish in the top four as they push for a record-equalling 16th premiership (which would tie them with their two biggest rivals, Essendon and Carlton).

But whether they can actually win the big one is another question.

Sydney’s 2012 snapshot

Last season: Premiers, third (after regular season)
Best-and-fairest: Josh Kennedy
Leading goal-kicker: Lewis Jetta (45 goals)
Most recent premiership: 2012

The Sydney Swans were one of the greatest stories of last season. Not one AFL expert at the beginning of the 2012 season forecasted a premiership for this side, which was moving on from the successful Paul Roos era which netted the 2005 premiership and its narrowly unsuccessful defence in 2006.

But the Swans are a side who never need to spend time at the bottom of the ladder to rebuild a club. They utilise the AFL draft wisely, and look towards players from unwanted clubs to build their premiership team.

The club have used their recycled players very well, and it has proven in the past. Barry Hall (St Kilda), Jason Ball (West Coast Eagles), Darren Jolly (Melbourne) and Nick Davis (Collingwood) all did not start their careers in Sydney, yet they combined to be a part of Roos’ 2005 premiership winning team.

From last year’s premiership side, Ted Richards (Essendon), Mitch Morton (Richmond, West Coast), Martin Mattner (Adelaide) and Josh Kennedy (Hawthorn) were all unwanted at their respective clubs, and they instantly became key players in the Swans’ side last year.

In fact, the Swans’ successful utilisation of recycled players can be traced back to the mid 1990s.

Even though Tony Lockett never won a premiership during his playing career, he changed the sport in Sydney forever and with him he brought success to the club, which was non-existent until they made the grand final in 1996.

He is seen as one of the main reasons why Sydney have been successful in recruiting players from other clubs.

Sydney’s brilliant 2012 season was highlighted by a nine-match winning streak amidst the redevelopment of the Sydney Cricket Ground, which reduced match day attendances very significantly.

This year, they have been given a dream draw, which will include two winnable matches to start the year.

They have three Friday night matches (two at home against Geelong and Carlton, and a blockbuster in Melbourne against Collingwood) a second match against the Giants and in the final round and a potential prelude to this year’s AFL finals series with a grand final rematch against Hawthorn at ANZ Stadium.

The Swans will finish in the top four again, but defending their premiership will be difficult, as there has not been a successful premiership defence since the Brisbane Lions’ hat-trick of flags earlier this century.

In my next article this series, I will have a look at Geelong and Carlton, and what they need to achieve this season if they want to return to their former glories.