Three rounds into the AFL season and already it’s easy to identify four premiership contenders that look likely to set the pace in the first half of the season as well as a fifth team that is the most watchable in the league right now.
Geelong needed to hit the ground running in 2019 given how difficult their draw looked on paper, and they showed signs in the JLT Series that they would do exactly that. In this case JLT form held true.
The Cats have accounted for Collingwood at the MCG, Melbourne at Kardinia Park and Adelaide away on their way to a 3-0 start. Three different teams, three different venues and three different types of victory.
Against the Pies they had to grind it out in a bit of a low-scoring slug-fest after trailing for much of the night. Against the Dees they got off to a flyer, won all four quarters and kicked 20 goals. Against the Crows they were able to establish enough of an early lead to have something in hand when the inevitable challenge came.
Geelong has much more balance to their game style in 2019. A new-look forward line compared to the vast majority of 2018 has Gary Ablett, Esava Ratugolea, Gary Rohan, Luke Dahlhaus and Gryan Miers offering support to Tom Hawkins. Previously a weakness, forward pressure is now high.
The midfield balance is also better after having too many hunters in there in 2018. Tim Kelly is a primary ball-winner, Patrick Dangerfield is spending more time at the coalface given how many more viable forward options are available now and Joel Selwood has been moved out to a wing. Charlie Constable has provided great depth in his second year and Brandan Parfitt has been given more responsibility.
Down back, Tom Stewart has continued to be supreme and Harry Taylor is back in form, Mitch Duncan and another newcomer, Jordan Clark, have been providing the class off half back.
They look sharp and exciting, the Cats. They’ve always had the talent, and they are now being coached accordingly.
West Coast has also asserted some authority over the competition after a downer in Round 1 up in Brisbane, towelling up GWS and Collingwood in consecutive weeks.
The defensive mainstays are all still at the Eagles and in great form. When they have their system up and working in rhythm they are very hard to break down.
Oscar Allen has been a revelation up forward as tall support for Kennedy and Darling, and Jack Petrucelle has certainly caught the eye with almost supernatural bursts of speed. The future of the forward line is in good hands.
Dom Sheed has continued on from his fine September, Andrew Gaff returned from his eight-match suspension with a 35-disposal game, and Jamie Cripps kicked four on Saturday night in his return from injury.
It seems certain the Eagles will be finishing in the top four once again.
Collingwood are sitting 1-2, having lost to both of the aforementioned teams, but they were far from disgraced on either occasion and have done nothing to dispel thoughts they would be a contender again.
The Pies started the season slowly last year too, sitting 3-3 after six rounds.
Their defence is shaping up okay, with Darcy Moore looking the goods and Jeremy Howe in fine form as the intercept players.
Pressure through the midfield isn’t going to be a natural strength given they have so much pure talent in there, but the return of Taylor Adams will help that. Steele Sidebottom and Tom Phillips haven’t been winning the quantities of outside ball we know they can, with Dayne Beams taking some of that off them.
What’s letting Collingwood down at the minute is forward-line chemistry and the connection between the midfield and that part of the ground.
Jordan De Goey is in ominous form already and Brody Mihocek has been good as a marking presence, but the balance is out at the moment. Jamie Elliott has had moments only and has been missing for large sections, Josh Thomas is struggling for consistent impact and Jaidyn Stephenson and Mason Cox have been just okay.
The Pies have had a big win over Richmond and honest losses against what looks like two of the best teams in it. They’ll be fine.
Like Collingwood, GWS also have a dominant win against the Tigers and a loss to West Coast on their early season resume, but they also have that outstanding victory over Essendon in Round 1 to their name.
Jeremy Cameron looks in career-best form and may finally put it all together in a way he has threatened to do in the past but never quite done. Brent Daniels looks a find as a small forward, and the Stephen Coniglio-Tim Taranto midfielder-forward rotation is doing damage in both areas of the ground.
Jacob Hopper looks to have taken his game to another level, as has Lachie Whitfield, even though he’s coming off an All Australian year. Josh Kelly has only had one game back after an interrupted preseason, Toby Greene hasn’t played since Round 1 and Callan Ward is yet to be seen.
The Giants are playing with greater cohesion than we have seen at times in the past, and while they were dismantled by the West Coast kicking game in Perth, that’s hardly calamitous, and they have time to work through that if faced with it again in September.
Brisbane is the feelgood club of 2019 and holds the mantle of everyone’s second-favourite team if indeed there is such a thing.
The Lions are the only team to top 100 points in all three matches so far, and they sit second on the ladder as the only unbeaten team other than Geelong. All their wins have had merit too – at the Gabba they’ve beaten West Coast and Port Adelaide, handing those two teams the only losses they’ve had so far, and they also have an all-important road win against North Melbourne.
They’ve been savagely effective late in those games too, kicking at least the last three goals on each occasion, twice turning close matches into comfortable wins.
The Lions have been playing a kick-and-mark game where possible but haven’t been lacking on the inside, with Lachie Neale leading the way. While Neale has been the inexhaustible star of the midfield, Brisbane have had eight players averaging between 19-25 touches per game in support.
Up forward the goals have been shared around too, with half a dozen players registering multiples and seven players averaging at least a goal per game. Importantly, they’ve kicked straight, with tallies of 15.12, 16.11 and 16.11.
It all adds up to a mature, well-rounded, well-coached outfit. And this from the second youngest list in the competition.
The one certainty of any AFL season is that many preseason predictions will be thrown off the top of a mountain after a few weeks. At the moment every game is crucial because the pecking order is nowhere near settled and there is still much to learn.
Long may that continue, but for the moment these five teams have caught the eye.