There’s no footy. Richo and Browny are resorting to calling Xbox simulations of AFL fixtures. And Brian Taylor’s commentating on traffic. What better time to seek out some off-kilter and slightly unhinged reasons to watch each club in 2020?
Eighth spot on the AFL ladder can reflect a side that is in team-building purgatory.
Generally, the eighth-placed team is one who is unlikely to contend for a premiership and nor will they get access to a valuable top-five pick.
However, recent seasons have shown that the eighth-placed team can be reflective of something greater.
The Western Bulldogs’ premiership in 2016 from seventh place demonstrates that a flag is not purely the domain of the top four and that a lower-half finals team can still be victorious if the cards fall right.
Eighth on the ladder can also demonstrate a team that is ready for a push into the next level. In 2017, a transitioning West Coast Eagles side struggled with an aging list into eighth but some shrewd recruitment decisions and a high-quality core of players enabled them to win the premiership in 2018.
Geelong also finished last season in eighth place but are well on their way to a top-two position and are a genuine premiership contender.
With that in mind, which of the four contenders for eighth – the Bulldogs, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and Adelaide – have the best chance of making a splash in this year’s finals, and which of them is best placed for the future?
The Bulldogs’ convincing victory over the Giants demonstrates a team who has the ability to compete now.
They have a quality midfield, headlined by Marcus Bontempelli and ably supported by Lachie Hunter, Jack Macrae and Josh Dunkley.
Their key weakness heading into the season was the lack of a true leader in their forward line. Whilst that is still the case, the Bulldogs have created a very even forward line that supports the team well and shares the load.
The stats also paint a picture of a team who can mix with the best. The Dogs are the only team in the AFL who rank in the top four for clearance differential and meters gained differential. This is indicative of their ability to win a game in the trenches, but who are also comfortable moving the ball in open play.
The Doggies are also in a promising place for the future. Entering the season, they had the sixth youngest list in the competition. More importantly their elite players are still yet to finish their peak.
Their four most important players – Bontempelli, Hunter, Macrae and Dunkley – were all younger than 25 at the start of the year. They also don’t have too many vital older players, with Easton Wood being their only top-level player over 29.
Finally, they have a solid coaching team led by a man in Luke Beveridge who knows what it takes to win a flag.
After 14 matches it did not feel like the Hawks were a genuine contender. They had a record of 5-9 and looked like a long shot to make the eight. Since that point, they have five from seven, including wins over Collingwood, Geelong and GWS.
The Hawks are an unusually built team in that their strengths are at either end of the ground. Hawthorn are a poor clearance team, who rank second last in the competition for both centre clearances and general clearances.
However, they are a top-ranked contested mark team, which is reflective of the marking prowess of players like James Sicily, Ben McEvoy and James Frawley. They also are a high-differential inside-50 tackle team, which indicates their ability to both keep the ball locked in their own forward and but transition out of their defensive 50 quickly.
The challenge they will have in the finals is that most teams at the top end of the comp will be better placed to punish Hawthorn’s struggles to win the ball out of contested situations. However, if the Hawks can break even in the midfield, they are a tough team to beat.
The Hawks probably are in a difficult position for upcoming seasons. For a few years, they have been transitioning away from their older players, but they still have the oldest list in the AFL.
Too many of their best players, such McEvoy, Frawley, Ricky Henderson and Ben Stratton, are older than 30. As such, it does not feel likely that the Hawks will be a serious contender in coming years unless their younger players reach a higher level.
Whether or not the Power are a contender this year depends on what week you get them. One week, they are capable of comfortably beating the Cats or the Eagles. They are also equally capable of performances like last-week’s 86-point loss to North Melbourne.
Their strengths are their pressure at the ball-handler and their transition from the back line. These are team traits that give them the chance to succeed against other finalists, but it is precisely their reliance on those skills that can make them vulnerable. If Port’s pressure drops off from a high level, then the opposition can move the ball easily against the Power.
This inconsistency is a problem for the Power now, but it may be reflective of hope for the future. Port have the fifth youngest list in the AFL and are reliant on a high number of younger players including draftees Connor Rozee, Xavier Duursma and Zak Butters.
Continued improvement from these players has the potential to elevate the Power to being serious contenders next year. The only worry for the Power is that they have a list which is lacking in quality players in their mid-20s. Players like Robbie Gray and Charlie Dixon are still amongst their important players, but are getting older.
The Crows are a team struggling right now and in an awkward position for the future. Their best performance in the last five weeks was a close loss to West Coast in Perth. Other than that, they have lost to Carlton and Essendon, and got beaten soundly by Collingwood last week.
Adelaide’s biggest issue as a team is that they lack a real unifying sense of purpose or identity. There is no single element of the game in which they perform at an elite level. They are a middling contested team, uncontested team and scoring team. As such, even if Adelaide can beat the Bulldogs and make their way into the finals, it is unclear what they can do to succeed against the other teams in the finals.
Adelaide also have the third oldest list in the competition and rely heavily on a number of players over the age of 29, including Rory Sloane, Taylor Walker, Eddie Betts and David Mackay.
It is likely those players will be out of the competition in the next one to two years, which will leave gaps for their younger players to fill.
They also have the greatest coaching uncertainty of these four teams. Don Pyke is at least partly responsible for the Crows’ lack of identity and may well pay for that with his job.
Only one of the four teams above will be able to make the finals this year. Out of those, it is probably the Bulldogs that have the best shot of repeating their own 2016 success and making a splash from the bottom half of the eight.
The long-term picture is a little different for those four. The Bulldogs are in an encouraging place for the coming few years, but Port Adelaide also have a strong hope of turning their promise into something a little more real.