It’s the time of year when anticipation for the AFL draft is at fever pitch. Journalists, fans and clubs are all desperate to find out the order in which the names will be read out later this month.
The 2016 AFL home-and-away season produced many highs and lows. There were classic matches, some fantastic football, and of course, more human drama and raw emotion, which underpins why the AFL is still the most popular sport in Australia.
These are some of the best and worst things about 2016. Although there are finals still to be played, the home-and-away season had enough highs and lows to warrant its own piece.
The return of attacking footy
AFL, from as far back as 2009-10, has been criticised for being far less aesthetically pleasing than in previous eras. The prevalence of Ross Lyon-inspired, dour, defensive, rolling floods have seen scoring go down to levels not seen since the early 1960s, and the footy itself was far less open, with huge numbers at stoppages, less clean possession, and numbers crowded behind the ball.
2016, although only seeing a two-point increase in total points per game (88, up from 86), saw the return of high-scoring, attacking football in some games, particularly early in the season. The quality of play was far higher too, and footy looks like it’s going in the right direction heading into 2017. Defensive footy is absorbing, but not on a weekly basis. The 100-point barrier is there to break, and the Western Bulldogs versus Adelaide match was a particular highlight.
The emergence of future key forwards
This article plugs traditionalism, doesn’t it? A highlight of the home-and-away season was seeing the emergence of key forwards whose numbers will be on the backs of supporters for years to come. What was particularly inspiring was that the best of them came from non-finals playing clubs.
Joe Daniher kicked 43 goals in what must be the worst Essendon side to ever take the field, and, with improved service next season, looks set to be a 60 goal-plus player. Tom Lynch already is that ilk of player, ably supported by Peter Wright, and led the AFL in contested marks.
St Kilda was the scene of Tim Membery’s breakout season, while Paddy McCartin (when he gets on the park), will be a star. Although younger, 17th-placed Brisbane discovered No.2 pick Josh Schache, who finished in the top 20 contested markers in his first season in the league, and Eric Hipwood, who is an excitement machine.
If these clubs want to push into September in the next few years, those big men will be the key to their charge.
An even top eight
Just two games separated first from seventh, while eighth-placed North Melbourne and ninth-placed St Kilda, as well as Port Adelaide and Melbourne, finished thereabouts of each other. The evenness of the league meant that everyone from first to 11th could beat each other, splitting the finals race wide open.
The bottom four
The consequence of such an even league is that there were four teams – Essendon, Brisbane, Fremantle, and the Gold Coast – who finished well adrift of the others. Although Essendon will bounce back next season, the other three clubs are three of the smallest, least supported clubs in the league, and have perennially struggled to come back from these positions in the past.
It could be a race to the finals for the Lions and Suns, with the loser paying the price for Queensland appearing to only be able to support one AFL side.
The Rising Star
Callum Mills was a deserved winner and Caleb Daniel had an admirable season, but the season lacked a real emerging A-grader. What was worse, however, is that none of the talent that featured in the award came from struggling sides, with the possible exception of Jacob Weitering (depending on how you grade Carlton’s season). If the game is to be in balance, it needs good kids in poor sides. These guys are the Vosses, Hirds and Franklins of the future – premiership winning stars.
The bye week
The AFLPA desperately wants a second bye during the season. The AFL responded by scheduling one at the end of the season. Not only does it derail the momentum of finals-bound teams, it dampens the hype around the finals series. The first week of the finals feels less shiny than years gone by. Not only this, it denies more than half the league that coveted second bye. A poor move by the league.
Overall, AFL in 2016 was refreshing, filled with more joyous than dour moments. Hopefully, the finals series can keep the high-quality action going.