Carlton fell well short against Port Adelaide and face three in-form teams in the next month, with coach David Teague saying they must seize their opportunity.
Carlton and the Western Bulldogs both finished season 2019 strongly, setting expectation high for both sets of fans in 2020.
The Dogs made a run from 15th on the ladder after the bye rounds to play in the finals, while the Blues won six games after sacking Brendon Bolton having only tasted victory once before Round 12.
Are the Dogs ready to contend again after three years in post-flag wilderness? Can Carlton finally rise out of the lower reaches of the ladder?
Common wisdom dictates that the Bulldogs won a flag early with their storied 2016 premiership, a young side blazing a trail through the finals with four underdog victories. Given they haven’t finished higher than seventh on the ladder in Luke Beveridge’s five years in charge, it’s a reasonable line of thinking.
Hawthorn in 2008 is the obvious comparison, but Alastair Clarkson had that side back contending in the third season after that flag, with a preliminary final berth. With seven wins in their last nine home-and-away matches last year, it could well be the Dogs’ time to strike again.
Bulldogs best 25
B: Caleb Daniel, Zaine Cordy, Easton Wood
HB: Jason Johannisen, Alex Keath, Hayden Crozier
Foll: Tim English, Jack Macrae, Josh Dunkley
C: Bailey Smith, Marcus Bontempelli, Lachie Hunter
HF: Bailey Dale, Aaron Naughton, Toby McLean
F: Sam Lloyd, Josh Schache, Josh Bruce
Int: Tom Liberatore, Mitch Wallis, Matthew Suckling, Ed Richards
Em: Patrick Lipinski, Jackson Trengove, Taylor Duryea
Off the list from 2019 go premiership heroes Dale Morris, Liam Picken, Tom Boyd and Fletcher Roberts, with three retirements and a delisting, but these four only played three games between them last season.
Into the club come Josh Bruce and Alex Keath to provide yeast in the key-position ranks.
Beveridge loves to swap and change his players across the field and with Bruce, Aaron Naughton, Zaine Cordy and Jackson Trengove he has four talls that have played at either end in their careers. The former two should be up forward with Josh Schache to provide a multi-pronged attack of considerable height, while Cordy will play down back with Keath. Trengove may be hard-pressed keeping his spot.
Naughton is probably the most exciting tall prospect in the competition, alongside the young King brothers, and he really could be anything. He eviscerated the eventual premiers in the clash last year.
The Dogs also have mid-sized marking power down back through Easton Wood and Hayden Crozier, and plenty of run from Jason Johanissen, Caleb Daniel and Matthew Suckling.
It’s a similar story up forward with Sam Lloyd and Tory Dickson, who may find himself squeezed out of the team. Bailey Dale went on a tear once in the side from Round 18 onwards in 2019, kicking 20 goals in his seven games from that point on.
Of course, it’s the midfield where the Bulldogs’ power lies.
Marcus Bontempelli is a top-five player in the comp, Jack Macrae is an elite ball-gatherer, Josh Dunkley caught fire on the ball in the tail end of the year, Lachie Hunter is a pure wingman, Bailey Smith shows great promise with both offensive and defensive intent, while Tom Liberatore and Mitch Wallis have battled injury problems but provide great rotation depth.
The Dogs have assembled a strong squad, with players outside the named 25-man squad above like Dickson, Lin Jong, Billy Gowers and Bailey Williams, who have all shown they can be effective AFL players.
When the Dogs get their ball movement going they are pleasing to the eye, and when they get on top at clearances as well they are almost unstoppable. The talent and depth are both there to contend once again. Beveridge would do well to leave his team as stable as possible, and let them shine.
Predicted finish: fifth
The Blues haven’t truly been in contention for the premiership in almost 20 years, a long cold winter for a club that had been a regular flag-winner through the previous four decades.
The green shoots that were sown under Brendon Bolton didn’t grow as hoped under his guidance, and in fact the team went backwards year after year while he was at the helm. But a new coach brings fresh hope, and the question now is how well-founded it is.
Carlton best 25
B: Lachie Plowman, Liam Jones, Nic Newman
HB: Sam Docherty, Jacob Weitering, Kade Simpson
Foll: Matthew Kruezer, Ed Curnow, Marc Murphy
C: Sam Walsh, Patrick Cripps, Jack Newnes
HF: Mitch McGovern, Charlie Curnow, Sam Petrevski-Seton
F: Eddie Betts, Harry McKay, Jack Martin
Int: Levi Casboult, Zac Fisher, David Cuningham, Jack Silvagni
Em: Matthew Kennedy, Paddy Dow, Will Setterfield
There were wholesale changes at the Blues after the 2019 season, with plenty of de-listings and retirements. Dale Thomas was the biggest name to depart, even though he had a solid year, but no-one that left will be overly missed.
Eddie Betts returns to the club after six seasons at Adelaide, Jack Newnes arrives from St Kilda, Marc Pittonet from Hawthorn, and Jack Martin was picked up in the pre-season draft after six fruitless and underwhelming years at the Suns.
On paper, the Carlton forward line looks incredibly dangerous, with exciting young talls like Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay alongside Mitch McGovern, surrounded by Indigenous talent like Betts, Martin and Sam Petrevski-Seton.
But Betts is well passed his prime, Martin is inconsistent, Curnow is out for a long period of time, and McKay has been battling injury too.
Patrick Cripps leads the way in the middle, a ball-winning and clearance machine. Hopefully he gets to spend more time forward this year, to prove he can be as dangerous in front of goal as the other best midfielders in the competition like Dustin Martin, Patrick Dangerfield, Nat Fyfe and Bontempelli.
Much was made of Teague putting Marc Murphy and Ed Curnow back in the middle once he took the helm last season, which should continue on. Sam Walsh will no doubt continue to impress, but it is a thin area of the ground for the Blues.
Sam Docherty will be welcomed back from two knee reconstructions to help marshal the defence, alongside evergreen veteran Kade Simpson. Nic Newman will also provide drive from the back line, while Jacob Weitering and Liam Jones are coming off good seasons and form an effective key position duo.
Carlton have developed some depth, with plenty of competition for the bench spots. If some of these lesser players can make a leap of improvement, it can start to drive the team up the ladder. Zac Fisher and Paddy Dow are two that could do it.
After six consecutive years of bottom-six finishes, another one is probably on the way. But it’s not out of the question for the Blues to aim a little bit higher.
Predicted finish: 14th
1. West Coast
5. Western Bulldogs
9. North Melbourne
10. St Kilda
11. Port Adelaide
18. Gold Coast