West Coast are a title contender… on paper

Dan Lonergan Columnist

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    In the AFL pre-season, every side as expected is spouting that they are flying and have never been fitter, with everyone available and healthy. Unfortunately that doesn’t last long, with most teams never able to field their best side.

    Mind you, some teams suffer such a bad spate of injuries that their season is ruined before it even gets started, ensuring their supporters will be in for a long hard winter as well as the usually bitterly cold one. It would be fantastic if sides could actually take the field with their best side.

    At this time of the year, before a ball has been kicked in anger or a goal scored, many of the so-called media experts (including me) try and pick the best 22 on paper of all the 18 clubs.

    It can be a fascinating exercise and if games were played on paper, Sydney deserve to be premiership favourites.

    Their best 22 has talent everywhere. Any side that can fit Goodes, Franklin and Tippett in one forward line with Lewis Jetta at their feet is going to be hard to beat.

    I also have Sam Reid on the bench with the exciting trio of Tom Mitchell, Luke Parker and Gary Rohan, who would all probably be in the starting 18 of every other team.

    Now on that small SCG ground the Swans may be slightly unbalanced with those three talls in the same forward line, but they are automatic selections. When all are on song, opposing backlines will be under pressure.

    West Coast had a poor year last season, mainly caused by injury, but when their list is up and running and their best 22 can be selected, they deserve to be in the premiership.

    They may lack one classy outside midfielder, but a forward line of Josh Kennedy, Mark LeCras and Jack Darling along with the two ruckmen – Nic Naitanui and Dean Cox – changing in the forward pocket would challenge the Swans.

    They have three solid key defenders in Eric Mackenzie, Will Schofield and the veteran Darren Glass, the rebounding class of Shannon Hurn and one of the toughest defenders in the game in Beau Watters.

    Unfortunately he is often too courageous for his own good and has missed many more games due to injury than he’s played, but when fit, would be one of the first picked in all teams.

    The Eagles’ new coach Adam Simpson has got a terrific list at his disposal. If he can keep them on the park they will be hard to beat, especially at Subiaco Oval, which needs to become a fortress for the Eagles again.

    Club legend John Worsfold had probably run his race after 12 years as coach, but in his final season he was haunted by losing seven of his best players in Watters, Naitanui, Hurn, Scott Selwood, Luke Shuey, LeCras and the now retired Daniel Kerr for large chunks of the season.

    Their depth was badly tested and exposed, as any side would be when losing players of that calibre for a decent period of time.

    When fully fit, an Eagles interchange bench of Xavier Ellis, Elliott Yeo, Jamie Cripps and Mitch Brown – all top 30 draft picks – show they have plenty of talent at their disposal.

    Hawthorn, having come off a premiership, has an outstanding best 22 even without Buddy Franklin. They were preparing last year for life without him and although he still kicked 60 goals and that amount is never easy to find, he wasn’t the dominating force of past years.

    They have decided to play David Hale as a permanent forward, so traded for former St Kilda ruckman Ben McEvoy.

    They have hardly any holes on their list and also welcome back a couple of handy defenders from knee reconstructions in Matthew Suckling and Ryan Schoenmakers to compliment Josh Gibson, Brian Lake, Grant Birchall and Ben Stratton. Wow!

    The bottom three teams of last year, St Kilda, Melbourne and GWS,  also look good on paper when their best 22 can be selected – somewhat surprising when you consider how much they struggled in 2013.

    Melbourne have a potentially strong forward line with the three talls in Mitch Clarke, Chris Dawes and the teenager, Jesse Hogan, who will play his first AFL season this year.

    It’s ridiculous for the Demons to think Hogan will star straight away, but he has shown in the VFL that he has what it takes to be a player.

    Dawes and Clarke missed most of last year with debilitating injuries, but have proven in the past with Collingwood and Brisbane respectively that they can be more than handy.

    There’s also the exciting Jeremy Howe and the yet to make it No.1 draft pick, Jack Watts, who could be ready to finally take the competition by storm under new coach Paul Roos.

    All Melbourne need is a quality small forward and that may eventually be provided by 2013 draftee Jay Kennedy- Harris.

    Like Hawthorn and West Coast, they have solid key defenders in Colin Garland, James Frawley and Tom McDonald.

    The midfield also has some maturity about it now with the inclusion of former Bulldog, Daniel Cross and ex-Crow, Bernie Vinc,e along with Dom Tyson from the Giants, who was a top three pick in 2011.

    Melbourne urgently require some direction and will get it with Roos.

    GWS have all those early draft picks and have added the top two from last year as well in Tom Boyd and Josh Kelly, but they were wiser this time in selecting their experienced players from other clubs.

    Heath Shaw and dual Geelong premiership player Josh Hunt – along with Swans ruckman Shane Mumford – should give them more steel and maturity.

    And the Saints, despite a turbulent start to the pre-season in which they sacked coach Scott Watters at the beginning of November and only appointed Alan Richardson a fortnight later after pre-season training had started, have a more than competitive best available combination.

    They still have club greats in Lenny Hayes and Nick Reiwoldt, who on reputation alone are legends.

    There’s also Leigh Montagna, Sam Fisher, Adam Scheinder and Sean Dempster – all wonderful servants – along with their best young player in Jack Steven and talented emerging ruckman Billy Longer, who left Brisbane because he missed the Victorian Capital.

    The Saints actually stack up quite well if Alan Richardson can keep them on the park.

    The side to me that has the least amount of class is the Western Bulldogs. Adam Cooney and Ryan Griffen along with Robert Murphy are class with a capital C, but that’s where the match winners stop.

    The Bulldogs are mainly recruiting hard-nosed, big-bodied grunters like Tom Liberatore, who is fast becoming elite in that area. He will help set up a win, but probably not decide it.

    The good news for the Bulldogs is footy matches are not won on talent alone and most certainly are not decided on paper, but they still seem a fair way off from the Swans, West Coast and Hawks when all things are equal.

    Dan Lonergan
    Dan Lonergan

    Dan Lonergan is one Australia's most respected and versatile commentators. In more than 16 years on ABC Grandstand he has covered AFL footy (including four Grand Finals), cricket, tennis, and three Olympic Games, including London 2012 where he commentated 16 sports.