We’re ostensibly halfway through the AFL season, and the pieces are moving into place.
There look to be about five or six tiers of teams in the race for September glory, and the gap between some of them is stark.
Of course, a number of them are well out of the race.
West Coast, Richmond and Melbourne are the teams setting the pace at the halfway mark, not just occupying the top three spots on the ladder, but clearly playing the best football in the competition.
The Eagles and Demons are the momentum sides, having won ten in a row and six in a row respectively off the back of scintillating ball movement, mastering their kicking games, and harnessing offensive power.
West Coast has Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy sitting third and fourth in the Coleman medal, while Melbourne has averaged 129 points per game through their winning streak.
Both teams have plenty of time for a lull, which they will have, before peaking again in September.
The Tigers play a relentless pressure and forward handball game, while also understanding the value of kicking it long into their front half. Once there, and the ball hits the deck, the small forwards can get to work.
We know what Richmond can deliver, and if any had forgotten, they delivered a masterclass against Essendon on Saturday night.
Sydney and Geelong occupy the next tier of teams, both clubs doing what they always do with their blend of professionalism and star power, each defensively sound but sometimes lacking potency in attack.
As ever, they’ll finish around the 14-16 win mark, but do they have enough dynamism to win three or four finals against the best teams in the league? Recent history suggests not, and neither is seen as a particularly successful MCG team.
Frankly, I’d be staggered if either won the flag.
North Melbourne and Collingwood are the risers who few had contending for the top eight, let alone well entrenched there by the halfway mark of the season, a game and percentage clear of ninth.
Both the Roos and Pies have proven themselves as super honest competitors, committing to team play which has lifted them above the levels we saw last year. Friendly draws have also helped, which is offered to them based on poor performance last year.
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Collingwood has only played two top eight sides through 11 rounds, while North has played four. Neither club has much to fear with their fixture in the second half of the year either.
They’ve got confidence and unity, which will continue to carry them through, but will ultimately lack the class to go all the way.
Port Adelaide, Adelaide, Hawthorn, Greater Western Sydney and Essendon make up a larger tier of clubs that share some similarities in that internal and external expectations were high coming into the season. In all five cases, we’ve been met with inconsistency – some excellent performances but also some very poor.
It looks like the majority of these clubs won’t play finals this year, and in each case it will be rightfully seen as an abject failure.
The Power have had mixed success integrating Steven Motlop, Jack Watts and Tom Rockliff, and are finding it hard to shake their tag for flakiness. The Crows have been decimated by injuries, but finding themselves outside the eight this deep into the season wasn’t part of the plan. They’ve now dropped three out of their last four as it all catches up with them, and are losing touch with the double chance.
The Hawks lack a bit of midfield depth outside Tom Mitchell, and don’t quite have the class of their premiership years. James Sicily has been a revelation down back, but they aren’t a contender.
GWS are another who have been cursed with injury, but this has been a common problem in recent years, and their list management has left them in a hole given no depth to handle it.
That said, their win over Adelaide on Sunday in one of the matches of the season could spark them to rise up the ladder in the second half of the year. They are a ball movement side, but when they bring the pressure too they are far harder to break down. It’s hard to trust them to deliver it always.
Essendon have been the disappointment of the year and with only four wins are going to have to do everything right to play finals from here. They turned the corner in Round 9 against Geelong, but were put back in their place by a powerful Richmond on Saturday night. They’ve lacked cohesion and confidence overall.
Fremantle, Western Bulldogs and Gold Coast are poor teams that have been able to pick up wins against each other or the rabble below them, but are in various stages of rebuild.
The Dockers have a huge gap between their top players and those on the rungs below. The Suns have started to unravel after a good start to the year, having lost their last three matches by an average of 65 points. The Dogs have gone down an unconventional path since their flag, consistently putting out the youngest team in the league.
St Kilda, Brisbane and Carlton are the aforementioned rabble. It might be a bit unfair to lump the Lions in with the other two, given they have played some bright football. The Saints have played some of the worst football of the year, while Carlton have been irrelevant for so long it’s a surprise they haven’t been demoted to the VFL.
As it stands, there are three primary chances for the flag, with everyone else playing catch-up. They don’t hand out premierships in June, but this is the time of year when the contenders firm up their position for a September assault.
West Coast, Richmond and Melbourne are miles ahead.