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Who's leading the AFL flag race after 14 rounds?

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Roar Guru
25th June, 2019
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1188 Reads

After Round 6, the AFL landscape was taking shape, but it’s been seven rounds since then, so it only makes sense that the situation has changed as we head into the post-bye run.

First, the bad – AFL journalism (worse than ever), the bye rounds (six games and still playing on Thursday night? C’mon Gill), Gill (making Andrew Demetriou look like Adam Silver), commentary (seriously, there is another column or eight there because we as fans could mount a class action against the quality and quantity of commentary, and the league would be screwed) and behavioural awareness officers (because footy is a game best viewed in total silence).

But I am in a glass-half-full mood so let’s look at the ladder and see what we can make of the first 14 rounds.

First, the rabble. Carlton took a positive step by changing coach, with David Teague realising that Charlie Curnow is a talent who should be given every chance to thrive and not be trained into becoming a foot soldier.

Their depth and list issues persist, but with Curnow, Patrick Cripps and Sam Walsh they have three studs around which to build.

They rank second last in disposal differential and third-last in both tackle differential and inside 50 differentials. There are no statistical silver linings, but Teague gets a good chance to stake a claim for the full-time gig over the next nine weeks.

The Suns have the least talent of any team in the league and won their three games by a total of nine points earlier in the season. They have lost nine straight and the light at the end of the tunnel may well be a freight train.

Strangely, Stuart Dew deserves a fair amount of credit because apart from being dissected by the Giants, they have been in every game and with a bit more polish could have a few more wins on the board.

Worrying they rank last in both inside 50 and tackling differential, as well as one percenters and metres gained differentials. The game plan is to try and keep their opponents from handling the ball as much as possible, but it is not working. If Carlton are anything but anaemic for the remainder of the season, the Gold Coast win the wooden spoon.

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Melbourne were seen to be the next big thing based on a six-week explosion late last season but the preliminary final against West Coast should have told us what we needed to hear.

The footy industry loves the Demons story, but Simon Goodwin has not proven to be adept at this coaching caper and this year has been an abject failure.

They rank second in both clearance and inside 50 differentials, mainly due to Max Gawn’s ruck dominance, but they are streets ahead of the league in clanger differential – they have no problems getting the ball, but butcher it.

They are a good case in point for why we shouldn’t anoint players as stars until they have proven to be above league average for more than a dozen games. A bottom four spot awaits them, and Goodwin’s job must be under question.

(AAP Image/Stefan Postles)

The group on five wins – Bulldogs, North, Sydney, Hawthorn – seem to be going in various directions, but the immediate future isn’t necessarily as bright as some would have you think.

The Swans have been plucky of late, as is their way, and some of their young players look to have good futures but the statistics are damning. They rank second last in contested possession differential and inside 50 differential and third last in clearance differential.

They have become an uncontested possession team but lack the class to use the ball, which they need to rectify. The Swans have defeated one team in the top ten, and despite having an easy draw coming home, they will finish on eight to ten wins with more questions than answers.

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The Bulldogs are set to become the first team in more than 40 years to miss the finals for three consecutive seasons after winning a flag, and it’s an incredible turn of events. If you watch them, they are bold and rank third in effective disposal differential and total disposal differential and have some of the most skilled players in the competition.

They rank third in clearance differential and inside 50 differential despite being shredded week after week in the ruck. If you want a safe bet, take the Dogs covering the line against any decent side.

But where are they going? Is it as simple as fixing the forward line? They will win eight to ten games and waste another year of prime Marcus Bontempelli. They haven’t progressed much at all in 2019.

The Hawks are nearing the end of the most incredible era we have seen in modern times, but Al Clarkson might jump before the ship sinks because the young talent is simply not there.

They have gotten a pass in most media circles, and rightly so, but there might not be two or three teams with worse immediate futures than the Hawks. They are missing Tom Mitchell at the clearances, and really struggling to kick a winning score.

To write them off would be foolish, but you get the feeling they will not be recognisable on the field or in the coaches box in 2020.

North Melbourne sacked the polarising Brad Scott, but Scott did a marvellous job of making it look like he stepped down. One of the highlights of Scott’s coaching career was the cheap shot on David King, who he mistook for a young Nick Riewoldt.

Reports that he will walk into another head coaching job are quite frankly remarkable. He fell on his own sword with list construction over the last few seasons, and his much-vaunted war chest failed to get the big names promised.

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Rhyce Shaw has gotten some life out of a list that has many flaws and lacks depth, and they are very middle of the table in most statistical categories. They handball more than most and have unearthed a budding stud in Tarryn Thomas, but they are likely to be as irrelevant under a new coach as they have been for the best part of a decade under Scott.

Brad Scott

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Essendon and St Kilda are the next two sides on the ladder but don’t take on face value – neither side would be happy with where they are at and will likely find themselves playing for new coaches before the end of the season.

The Bombers were a popular pre-season flag fancy of many, but the club seems stooped in a mire of cruise control. The acquisitions of Dylan Shiel and Devon Smith were great moves, and the list quality seems to be there, but it is not clicking.

There seems no real statistical reason for the struggle – their defence was the second best in the competition from Rounds 4-12, but the midfield is middling and the attack is scatter gun.

Last season they flew home when the season was dead. To do so again would offer nothing to its fans, and possibly make them more frustrated.

St Kilda will point to injuries, but I will point to having a coach who has been there for five years and not made finals nor ever had more than a fleeting moment when any impartial footy fan saw a future in his side.

They are bottom six in inside 50 differential and effective disposals, while having the fourth worst attack and fifth worst defence. To watch a game is to see arguably the lowest percentage of skilled ball users of any side in the league. That is not something that should be said of a side with as many high draft picks as the Saints.

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Alan Richardson is on borrowed time, and the new coach will need to work some magic to get this side anywhere close to finals in 2020.

Richmond sit ninth. This isn’t a joke, but their season is in doubt of becoming one. Their propensity to embrace chaos and pressure has been admirable over the last few seasons, with Dustin Martin and Jack Riewoldt being the cream on a hard-working cake.

Sydney Stack has shown promise, but the cream is missing, and the league has caught up with the Tigers. They rank last in contested possession differential, and second last in uncontested possession differential and clearance differential.

The players who have been so good as supporting pieces are not up to taking a bigger role in the absence of some stars, and despite a charmed run home they are making up the numbers if they make finals. They have been hard hit by injuries but have led a charmed existence over the last two seasons, and have some decisions to make on some key players if the season heads the way it looks like it will.

Fremantle, Brisbane and Port Adelaide have swung between rough flag fancy, easy first round finals opponent and solid mid-range team and we don’t know where the three of them will land.

The Dockers have a strong list, but unavailable key players are catching up with them. Michael Walters is borderline elite, but as a leader probably shouldn’t be headbutting opponents with his team at the crossroads.

They will steel themselves for the second Derby, but a loss may begin a freefall towards a middle of the table finish.

Port Adelaide dominated draft night with Xavier Duursma, Connor Rozee, Zac Butters and Willem Drew and the Geelong win was impressive.

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They lead the league in clearance and inside 50 differential and are a danger on any given day but are unreliable. Finals are on the agenda, but it’s tough to see them going past the first week unless things go their way.

Brisbane are this season’s bolter, with quality across the field and an impressive recruiting haul that added Lachie Neale and Jarryd Lyons to a midfield that needed bolstering. This has allowed Dayne Zorko to become the game’s pre-eminent pressuring small forward.

They have gotten by with a very inconsistent forward line and turn for home with one hand on a finals spot. The run home is not easy, with four games against fellow top eight teams (three of which are away) but they should hold on to a spot in the lower reaches of the eight, which will make for a remarkable 2019.

Cam Rayner

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

And we are left with five teams capable of winning the flag.

Adelaide are the flimsiest of the bunch but get the ideal opportunity this Friday night to stake their claims as a real contender. All three areas of the field are laden with quality, and they are starting to get their troops back after a variety of injuries.

They have the best attack in the land outside Perth, and a midfield with more top-end talent than most. Taylor Walker cops plenty and deserves very little of it. He is the cream on the cake and will be much better for having Tom Lynch back and fit.

West Coast are equally criticised, chastised and considered a threat and it’s not clear which of those narratives is true.

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They are bottom four in inside 50, total possession, uncontested possession and effective disposal differentials, often sleepwalking through games and expecting a skilled forward to line to dominate without much structure.

The premiership side from last year is intact, and they will add Andrew Gaff, Brad Sheppard and Nic Naitanui. Hunger is a very real query, as it is with most teams defending their flag, but it would be a brave man or lady to bet against the Eagles going back to back in such an open season.

The next six or eight weeks will determine whether they have a switch they can flick or a level to go to when the pressure is on – if they don’t, they may look at this as being a wasted flag defence.

The Giants are stacked with pure talent, as will happen when you are pumped full of top ten draft picks until no more can fit.

Their midfield talent is unprecedented, and they are dominating the competition in both effective possession and uncontested possession differential. Their skills make it very hard for the other side to get the ball back once the Giants have it.

Their MCG form remains a concern. They might be one key back away from holding the very good sides, when their midfield is not dominating.

If they can finish top two and don’t need to travel, it positions them very well, but their lack of quality away wins means they might be a step short come crunch time.

Jeremy Cameron

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

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The Magpies, like the Eagles, seem to be in a state of flux – perhaps it’s their later start to pre-season, a confidence that they can claim a top four spot without much effort or something else.

The Dayne Beams gamble has proven a poor one, but overall, they have a strong list of available players.

Jaidyn Stephenson is considered a major loss, but a glance of his career stats against top eight sides (hint – he doesn’t get a kick) makes you wonder whether he will truly be missed.

Brodie Grundy is the best all-round ruckman since Dean Cox, and their attacking options are plentiful, but this is the third best side in the mix now, at best.

Now we get to Geelong. Last week’s loss to Port Adelaide was predictable as this is what Chris Scott-coached teams do – lose post bye.

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The statistics are a mixed bag and don’t tell us much – they rank second in contested possession differential, 12th in inside 50s per game, 13th in clearances but first in tackles.

They have unearthed some cracking rookies and some good recruits, and will waltz to a top two spot on the back of an incredible home ground advantage and a charmed run home – they play just three top sides currently in the top ten between now and the end of the season.

Scott’s greatest challenge may be keeping his side mentally and physically ready for finals, with Carlton in Round 23 and the pre-finals bye when they have likely secured top spot.

They have the best defence by some margin, a varied forward line and strong midfield. As we stand after Round 14, it is Geelong’s flag to lose but come September, the ghosts of recent finals past will likely play on their minds.