There’s a strange air of acceptance heading into the 2017 season. After one of the most even seasons in recent memory, there is near-consensus that this year will belong to the league’s youngest club, Greater Western Sydney.
It’s an understandable view, the talent on the Giants’ list is intimidating. They’re tall where they need to be, fast where they need to be, tough where they need to be – it’s a beautifully balanced line-up with class everywhere.
Just for kicks, they added talented and versatile veteran Brett Deledio during the trade period and snared goal-kicking midfielder Tim Taranto with the second pick in the draft.
It’s hard to foresee a future in which they don’t finish in the top four. They deserve to be premiership favourites, but it’s not a fait accompli.
The reigning premiers should certainly have a say in things. The Bulldogs team that ended the Giants’ 2016 season on preliminary final weekend was on average 200 days younger than GWS and had almost 500 games less experience across the board. They’ll also get their talented skipper back. There’s improvement in these Dogs and you’re braver than I if you’d bet against Luke Beveridge finding it.
Last year was only the fourth time since 2001 the grand final didn’t feature a grand finalist from the previous season; the last time it happened twice in a row was 1996-97. Make of that information what you will, but history suggests one of Sydney or the Dogs will be back on the biggest stage in late September.
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The grand final defeat will have burnt for the Swans all summer. Over the course of the season, they were the league’s best team, but the only team they couldn’t beat in 2016 were the Bulldogs.
John Longmire’s men conceded a miserly 66.8 points a game last season – best in the league – and were fourth for scoring at better than 100 points per game. The loss of accumulator Tom Mitchell isn’t ideal, but there is still oodles of class in the midfield, superstar Lance Franklin leads the attack, and Heath Grundy and Dane Rampe are the core of a formidable defensive unit. Sydney should again be there when the whips are cracking late in September.
Expectations remain high at the two clubs eliminated by Sydney. For Adelaide and Geelong, their ordinary final outings stained what were otherwise terrific seasons.
Both have spent the preseason addressing what they see as their Achilles heel. For the Crows, that means trying to find more midfield depth. Their move of Charlie Cameron on to the ball looks a winner, while the Cats’ bid to turn gun defender Harry Taylor into a tall forward target is less convincing.
It’s a strange obsession for Geelong. The Cats were the second-best defensive team in 2016 and third for scoring. They had an impressive 8-2 win-loss record against finalists during the home-and-away season and averaged better than 96 points in those games.
West Coast and Hawthorn’s seasons will be inextricably linked, after four-time premiership Hawk Sam Mitchell was traded to the Eagles for a bottle of LA Ice Cola and a half-eaten Curly Wurly.
The Hawks’ willingness to part with the champ is understandable, given it allowed them to bring in Ty Vickery, Jaeger O’Meara and Tom Mitchell, but Mitchell appears a perfect fit for the Eagles, who are entitled to consider themselves a premiership challenger.
The two most likely outsiders to crack into the top eight are St Kilda and Melbourne.
The Demons are the sexier of the two teams due to their exciting young midfield and power forward Jesse Hogan. Melbourne were a powerful stoppage team last season, fourth in clearance and centre clearances differentials (behind only the Dogs, Giants and Cats). With the addition of Jordan Lewis and the maturity of Jack Viney, Christan Petracca, Clayton Oliver and Angus Brayshaw, there’s no reason to think that won’t be a strength again.
The Saints are a bit more reliant on mature bodies. 34-year-old Nick Riewoldt is still their best player, Jack Steven, 27, and David Armitage, 29, are in their primes and new skipper Jarryn Geary, 29, is ever-reliable. The forward line is powerful and versatile. They need to tighten things up defensively – Jake Carlisle and Nathan Brown could help there – but the biggest change needs to come on the road. St Kilda lost their four interstate games to non-Victorian teams by an average of 11 goals, including a woeful 40-point loss to the Suns.
Collingwood, Port Adelaide, Richmond, Essendon and even Gold Coast would all have eyes on a top-eight finish, but all are flawed, perhaps fatally so. Weird things happen in footy though, so it’d be foolish to write them off completely.
North Melbourne aren’t a threat, but nor should they be dismissed. Even after their dramatic list turnover, the Roos still have plenty of grown-ups. Todd Goldstein, Robbie Tarrant, Jack Ziebell, Ben Cunnington, Shaun Higgins… the list goes on. Mature players are generally consistent. North should be competitive for decent chunks of games and decent chunks of the season.
That leaves just Carlton and Brisbane. The Blues turned over their list in the offseason, becoming significantly younger. They’re at ground zero now – just like the Lions. There will be pain, but they’re on the right track. For both Brisbane and Carlton, this season is all about the future: find out who can play and who can’t, play the right way, get the experience into the good kids.
Last season was a year without a great team, which made for a compelling September. The Giants threaten to tower over everyone this season, but there are enough contenders to make things interesting.
Five players to watch
Nathan Hrovat (North Melbourne): There’s no replacing an all-time great like Brent Harvey, but Hrovat should slot into Boomer’s role as forward-half ball-winner. When he was healthy at the Dogs, Hrovat had a habit of finding the ball in dangerous positions, he could be an important player for North.
Jack Billings (St Kilda): Billings comes with great expectations, the slick forward-midfielder was taken one pick ahead of Marcus Bontempelli in the 2013 draft. Now in his fourth season, he needs to become more consistent – the talent is there.
Cam McCarthy (Fremantle): The Dockers got their man a year later than they hoped, but at a drastic discount. McCarthy was outstanding in 2015, booting 38 goals in 20 games in just his second season. The 21-year-old will likely be Fremantle’s No.1 forward target and if he’s not too rusty after a year out of the big time, he could prove a difference maker.
Jeremy Howe (Collingwood): Howe has been around long enough that we should know who he is by now, but there’s something tantalising about him in defence. He reads the ball well and his aerial ability as good as it gets. His 2.3 intercept marks per game last year were only a fraction less than intercept masters Dane Rampe and Easton Wood. If the Pies are going to be good, they’ll need Howe to be.
Charlie Cameron (Adelaide): Cameron looks pegged for more time around the footy this season as Don Pyke searches for more midfield options. That should suit Cameron just fine, he’s tough, a terrific tackler, a good ball user and effective in congestion.
2. West Coast
4. Western Bulldogs
9. St Kilda
12. Port Adelaide
15. Gold Coast
16. North Melbourne
17. Brisbane Lions
Tom Lynch (Gold Coast)