Brisbane were undoubtedly the darlings of the AFL in 2019, enjoying a meteoric rise from 15th to 2nd after nine seasons out of the top eight.
Between two euphoric victories and one lifeless disaster, Melbourne had everything fans would want and not want from a finals campaign.
The two wins, over good but not great teams, built a premature confidence that at the time didn’t feel all that premature.
The most emphatic loss possible followed, one of those ‘over after five minutes’ affairs, as the Demons felt the fire and ran away as far as they could.
They never fought and were never really there. The team that imposed its will and talent on Geelong and Hawthorn, as well as West Coast in Perth a few weeks earlier, was battered by those same Eagles and left to look over-awed and unprepared.
Those three finals sat together in a perfect little basket that confirmed one popular idea about Melbourne: all the talent in the world, breathtaking at times, but something unquestionably lacking in the bones.
This year, the Dees can dispel that narrative. They made a leap last year – a real one after countless false starts – and as a result they no longer find themselves in the trendy, completely-unproved-sleeper-contender zone (the ‘Essendon zone’).
They’re just a contender now – second or third in the premiership market, with anything short of (at least) a better showing in a preliminary final constituting a failed season. This is the cost of suddenly being really good.
The Demons have all they need. The only glaring personnel weakness in the back end of last year was a key defender, and in Steven May and (when he returns) Jake Lever, they have that sorted.
If Jayden Hunt isn’t the answer, dash of half back will remain a question, and much relies on the mostly unproven (but engrossing) talent of Sam Weideman. Jordan Lewis might be finished. Melbourne could use superior foot skills in midfield, but this, like for all their ‘issues’, is nitpicking. The team is loaded.
The team’s trademark is its physicality around stoppages. The Melbourne midfield plays with force – a combination of quick-twitch strength, speed and collision-art unmatched in the competition. Their midfielders have huge bodies and minds that don’t hesitate. At every stoppage, you feel the physical presence of James Harmes, Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver, Angus Brayshaw and Jack Viney.
They may not always have finesse by foot, but they do by hand, experts (particularly Viney and Oliver) at weaving into narrow spaces and unleashing deft handballs out into space.
The forward line is exceedingly modern, with a pair of mobile, versatile talls aided by a fleet of pacy, tackling finishers, best embodied by Jake Melksham. Weideman is perhaps the biggest swing-piece this season in terms of an unknown, but Tom McDonald is the most important player on the team outside of Max Gawn.
Outside of John Worsfold’s late realisations (why didn’t he just play Adam Hunter forward from the start in all those finals against Sydney), the defender-going-forward trick rarely works. It usually ends up in the confused space that Harry Taylor has found himself in.
There has been no confusion with McDonald, just brilliance. He does everything that a key forward should, most notably: finishing his work. Without a firing McDonald, combined with the absence of Jesse Hogan, the Melbourne forward line would lack a focal point and require reinvention.
Melbourne’s time is now. They’re too good to be drawn back into the gaffes of 2018 – all those meltdowns and attempted meltdowns, be it blowing significant late leads in Geelong, or trying to in Adelaide. Last season they didn’t always run both ways – exposed by disciplined teams like Sydney at the MCG, who bridged a significant talent gap with hard work and composure.
The Dees need to build those intangibles this year – they’re too talented to keep bothering with defeatism (which, if it’s not in the blood, might be in the walls). The team is young but windows rarely stay open as long as they should.
In a season with no clear favourite, the Demons’ ability to hold their nerve and be as good as they should be will shape 2019.