It’s easy to make pre-season predictions on who you think might be a premiership contender, who might have certain weaknesses. But you can never be certain what’s going to happen until Round 1 gets underway.
There are always sides that jump up from the bottom eight and start to contend for top-four positions, and you’ll never be too sure what kind of changes any teams have made until you see them in Round 1. So, getting any sort of bold prediction correct isn’t easy – it can make you look a bit silly, too.
That said, there are five teams I’ve got my eye on this year; clubs who’ll be right in premiership contention.
After winning so many games last year, it’s no surprise Richmond are a strong chance of staying right up at the top of the ladder in 2019.
What stands out as a real strength of theirs is how well they’ve developed a game plan around their list – they play it to a tee.
By all reports, they’ve had an injury-free run at the pre-season with close to 40 players on the track. That makes such a difference; with everyone fit, you can start to hone in on the adjustments and improvements you want to make to your game plan, and they’ve already got a very good one. When they’ve got players fit and firing, they’ll be damaging.
Of course, they’ve managed to add an unbelievable player to their list in Tom Lynch. Given he’s been able to play to such a high level at the Suns, even when they were really struggling, expect him to have an excellent year with Richmond.
Lynch will fit well in their system, as they like to kick long inside 50 and provide a contest. Jack Riewoldt does that really well already, and Lynch will add another dimension on that front, giving them two of the best key forwards in the game who suit their game plan. If they’re not marking the ball and kicking goals, they’ll bring it to the feet of some pretty elusive small forwards, so he’ll slot in nicely.
The ex-Gold Coast skipper’s arrival is just another reason they’ll be the hardest team to beat this year.
Melbourne are another team that, with their natural progression and development, are looming as a strong contender.
Their real area of strength is in the middle of the ground; their midfield looks as good as anyone else’s. They’ve got Clayton Oliver, Angus Brayshaw, Christian Petracca and Nathan Jones, and Max Gawn, one of the two best ruckmen in the competition, to go alongside them.
The new 6-6-6 starting position rules could give the Demons a big advantage, given there’s going to be a lot more space around centre bounces. Opposition forwards are not going to be able to come in and help out as much, because they’re further back inside 50, and teams can’t start with a number behind the ball now.
That’s significant – a lot of sides used to throw a spare man in defence straight away against Melbourne because Gawn gives his midfielders first use. With a bit more space opening up in the middle of the ground now, they’re probably the team that’s going to get that early field position more than any other.
On top of their midfield strength, Melbourne also have their key positions covered at both ends of the ground. Their backline is strong, with Michael Hibberd and now Steven May, Tom McDonald has turned into a genuine gun forward, and there’s some development to come from the likes of Bayley Fritsch.
They’re just a dangerous team right across the park.
Collingwood probably played to a level even they wouldn’t have thought themselves capable of last year. They’ll take a lot of confidence out of that, and will be setting their sights really high for 2019.
Much like Melbourne, the Magpies have an exceptional midfield-ruckman combination. Brodie Grundy is right up there alongside Gawn as one of the top two ruckmen in the competition, then you’ve got Adam Treloar, Taylor Adams and now Dayne Beams working around him.
Again, with more space in the middle of the ground thanks to the rule changes, they’re going to get great field position from the centre bounce. With a team that can spread really hard away from the contest, look for them to really open up the game this year.
And I’ve said that without even mentioning Scott Pendlebury and Steele Sidebottom.
I never had to match up against Sidebottom much, but I did spend a bit of time playing on Pendlebury, and for a fair period he was my favourite opposition player.
With his ability to find targets out of traffic, you can’t afford to give him half a metre. But what’s underrated about him is he’s a really strong two-way runner. He’s damaging when he’s got the ball, but also accountable to his opponent – that’s exactly the type of player you need to win big games.
A lot of people probably question where the Swans will head, given we didn’t pick up too many, or any, high-profile players over the off-season.
But we had three or four important guys missing for the majority of last year: Sam Reid, Sam Naismith, Callum Mills and Lewis Melican, who’s an underrated player – he’s going to be a really strong key defender for a long period of time.
If we can add those players back into the team, it’s like picking up four new recruits.
One other player who everyone will want to hear about is Lance Franklin.
He amazed me last year, knowing what he was going through with his body. There’d be times, late in the week, when we’d be thinking, “Well, we can’t possibly play him,” and then he’d come out and dominate. He ended up being named All-Australian captain, and it really is astonishing given the challenges he had to overcome.
Buddy’s coming off a pretty significant bit of surgery post-Christmas, so it’s been a slow build-up to the season. But he’s capable of coming back from a very limited pre-season and still playing at a very high level, and is progressing well from his injury.
On top of our experienced players like Lance, there’s also the natural progression of younger players who’ve played a lot of footy in the last couple of years to factor in, too.
The Swans have had almost 20 players make their AFL debut in the last three years, and a lot of them have already got a fair few appearances under their belt – just look at guys like Ben Ronke and Tom McCartin. Then there are some new draftees who are impressing out on the track – James Rowbottom and Justin McInerney spring to mind there.
A lot of people will think Sydney have been up for a long period of time and they’ve got to drop down, we think that there’s still a lot of improvement left in the list, and that our best 22 looks as good as most others.
The Giants are another team that you can’t rule out given the number of quality players they still have on their list. Everyone’s been talking about the losses they had during the trade period with Tom Scully leaving for Hawthorn and Dylan Shiel heading to Essendon, but they’ve been developing a lot of younger players underneath that top tier of talent.
On top of that, they still have some real A-graders on their list – just look at the likes of Stephen Coniglio, Josh Kelly, Toby Greene, Jeremy Cameron and Callan Ward.
If they can all stay healthy, their best 22 looks just as good as anyone else’s. Of course, that’s been an issue for GWS recently – they’ve been smashed by injuries in the last three seasons or so. But if they can keep their best team together, or even something that closely resembles that preferred line-up, they’ll be hard to beat.
The Giants’ real strength is their ability to cover the ground. They’ve got some truly elite runners who, in addition to having a great tank, are also skilful.
They’ve always been a naturally formidable attacking team, but as the years have progressed – and there’s no doubt their coaching staff are driving this really hard – they’ve improved the defensive side of their game.
At some stage, that’s going to get to a point where they’ve found the right balance between both sides of their game, and when they’ve perfected that, they’ll be even more of a force to be reckoned with.
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