We are seven rounds into the AFL season and not only does the top eight seem set, but all eight of those teams have claims on being premiership contenders.
So who has claims on being the premiership favourite? Is North’s 7-0 record a reflection of how well they are really going?
Is Sydney feasting on an easy draw, or have they rebuilt on the fly? Can Paddy Danger lead Geelong back to familiar territory? Or are we still headed towards a historic four-peat for the Hawks? Let’s take a look.
North Melbourne (7-0)
The Roos haven’t put a foot wrong in being unbeaten and are not dominating any statistical category other than the scoreboard, which renders all other categories meaningless.
They have played five teams outside the top eight and their road games have been against Brisbane and Gold Coast, neither of which was particularly impressive. Their versatility in attack with Jarrad Waite, Drew Petrie and Ben Brown has been a real strength but the lack of a competent small forward may hurt them when the fixture gets harder and the long-term loss of Shaun Higgins is a huge blow.
From Rounds 10-14 they play Sydney (away), Geelong, Hawthorn and Adelaide (away). Having started so well, they allow themselves some latitude so splitting those games will put them well on the road to securing a top four spot.
However they are in a strange spot in some ways; having made the preliminary final the last two years from outside the top four in the past two seasons they don’t necessary need the double-chance.
In any case, this team looks undoubtedly better but is still lacking the midfield star power to win the flag.
The Cats were expected to improve this season, as much on the back of an easy fixture as their improved playing list. The Round 2 loss to the Giants asked questions, but they have since answered with a five-game winning streak.
They remain dominant at the Cattery, and have taken care of business in their other games. Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood provide the league’s best midfield one-two punch, and with games against the Crows, Giants, Roos and Bulldogs to follow before their mid-season bye we will find plenty out about where this team should finish as they have thrived from a soft draw so far.
The development of Steven Motlop and return of Daniel Menzel give this side cream on its cake and the defence is holding opponents to fewer points than any team other than the Bulldogs.
With management and resting likely to be the order of the day, and confidence of being able to beat the other contenders, this side looks primed for a legitimate assault on the flag if it avoids major injuries.
Do we ever give Sydney the credit they deserve? They have comfortably beaten fellow top eight contenders the Giants and Eagles and were on the losing side of an epic clash with Adelaide in Round 4, having otherwise not set a foot wrong.
Sure, they have feasted on some poor sides but they are kicking goals (third in the league in scoring) and stopping the other team from doing so (third in least scoring conceded). They are monopolising the football, ranking second in contested possession differential and fourth in uncontested possession differential and are strong at clearances ranking fifth in clearance differential.
Their defence remains a massive question mark, as Adelaide proved when they separated the defenders and allowed skill to take over. Perhaps the biggest advantage they have is #23. Love him or hate him, no one can do what Lance Franklin does and he is locked in.
As long as he plays, the Swans are in the flag conversation and games against Hawthorn, North Melbourne and Greater Western Sydney in the next month will provide more evidence one way or the other as to their legitimacy.
Western Bulldogs (5-2)
The Dogs have fought injuries to their three best running defenders in Jason Johannisen, Matt Suckling and skipper Bob Murphy but remain in the top four due to their ability to control the ball.
They easily lead the league in total possession differential, contested possession differential, uncontested possession differential and clearance differential. The only thing stopping them from being unbeaten is lack of goal kicking consistency.
Due to a fixturing quirk they are yet to play away from the comforts of Etihad which is an interesting discussion point. Whether they can win big games at venues that hold finals at is yet to be proven.
By dominating the ball as much as they do and going inside 50 more than 19 times more than their opposition they give themselves every chance of success if they can increase their scoring consistency. Relying on the likes of Tom Boyd to deliver the goods is dangerous practice so Tory Dickson and Jake Stringer become critical success factors. The Dogs should be good enough to finish in the top four and make a legitimate assault on the flag.
Greater Western Sydney (5-2)
The footy world has been waiting for the expansion teams to make finals. The Suns are looming as competition deadweight but their southern counterparts are primed for success. The talent was never in doubt, and the mix of veterans and youth seems just right.
Wins at home over Geelong and Hawthorn have highlighted a blistering start by a side that ranks top three in both uncontested and contested possession differential. They have a top four attack and a top four defence and also rank second in clearance differential.
Apart from long-term injuries to Ryan Griffen and Devon Smith, this is a healthy list and there is argument for ruckman Shane Mumford being the most valuable player in the AFL.
Following what should be any easy win against the Suns this weekend, they face the Bulldogs, Adelaide (away), Geelong (away) and Sydney – if they can split those games and be 8-4 after 12 games a spot in the top four will be theirs to lose as they only face two top eight teams in last ten rounds.
The footy world seems intent on finding reasons why Hawthorn won’t win the premiership. They lack leg speed. They lack hunger for contested footy, and those two factors plus their game style averse to footy as it is played in 2016.
Let’s be real though, they remain the prohibitive favourites. They will get Luke Hodge and Jarrad Roughead back from injury around mid-season and will manage the likes of Sam Mitchell.
They play just one top eight opponent before their bye, won three consecutive elimination games last season and have won nine of their last ten finals. Hunger remains a question, which is human nature but for all the statistics you can provide the fact remains they win when they need to win. The road to the flag still goes though the Hawks.
West Coast (4-3)
The Eagles have won one of their last nine away games against fellow finalists, but have not lost to a non-finals side since mid-2014. They decimate most opponents at home, dominating every statistical category and force feeding arguably the most talented forward line in the AFL.
They play the Western Bulldogs and Adelaide away in the next six weeks but their remaining road games are against lower ranked teams. They will win at home, that’s a given and have a clean bill of health as far as their list is concerned.
They have played the hardest three away games in league but must leaned from their failings and address their problems once they hop on a plane. They must finish top four and win through to a home preliminary final to have a chance of going one better than last season, but that seems a tall mountain to climb with the sides currently in front of them.
The league’s most difficult draw gets no better for ‘the pride of South Australia’. They play Geelong, West Coast (away), North Melbourne and the GWS in next six weeks – that is pure brutality.
Their attacking prowess and efficiency with the ball keeps them in every game. They rank in the bottom half of possessions per game, possession differential and inside 50 differentials yet they are the best forward line in the league having not kicked less than 97 points in a game.
Captain Taylor Walker is a gun but he needs to lift, and they need Rory Laird back as they need all hands on deck to win big games. No side will deserve a top four side more than the Crows if they rise up the ladder, but it seems a tough road.
Of the others, Melbourne look primed for success in 2018 but are not finals ready just yet, Port Adelaide are far too flaky to win against the best sides on a consistent basis, and the rest of the teams are either building (Carlton, St Kilda), treading water (Brisbane, Essendon), in strife (Richmond, Gold Coast) or rebuilding (Collingwood, Fremantle).
So what should the 2016 premiership market look like then?
Hawthorn – $5.00
Sydney, Geelong – $6.00
North Melbourne, Bulldogs – $11.00
West Coast – $13.00
Greater Western Sydney – $17.00
Adelaide – $21.00