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AFL preseason trends predict a top-eight shake-up

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Expert
10th March, 2020
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The AFL’s preseason competition has wrapped up for another year, each of the 18 clubs having played two matches as a lead-in to the season proper.

When I wrote two weeks ago about the optimism Melbourne and Port Adelaide might take from their early wins, one commenter replied: “it’s just trial game form… doesn’t mean anything”.

They would not be alone in thinking so.

It is foolish to assume preseason form will translate into the regular season. But while February effort certainly doesn’t tell you everything, it’s just as big a mistake to assume it says nothing.

Let’s look at what past preseason results suggest we can predict, and the clubs it might have an impact on in 2020. Since this is the third year of the current preseason format, we’re working from the last two seasons of results.

The preseason, of course, tends to be the most optimistic time of the year, because you can read into it however much you choose.

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If your team does well, then take become excited for the year ahead. If your team does poorly, who cares! It doesn’t mean anything.

While this at first appears a selective way to think, the numbers actually support it.

Of the 11 teams in 2018-19 who took two wins from two preseason games, seven of them – roughly two-thirds – went on to play finals in the season that followed.

And of those same 11 teams, only one suffered a decline of three spots or more down the ladder – West Coast in 2019, dropping from second (after-home-and-away) to fifth.

Meanwhile, teams who go winless in the preseason are no more likely than their 1-1 rivals to miss finals or suffer a significant decline.

What 0-2 preseason sides should instead look out for is poor momentum. The 2018-19 results suggest getting at least one win increases the chances of a good start to the season proper.

Over the last two years, 72 per cent of teams who won at least a single game went on to a positive record in their first five matches, while only 45 per cent of sides who go winless in preseason achieve the same.

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So what does this tells us about 2020? Let’s spend some time on each of the sides who went 2-0 this year.

Melbourne Demons
The early positives from Melbourne’s first-up win over Adelaide were only added to this week when they beat Hawthorn convincingly.

After playing their roles solidly in the first match, new wingers Adam Tomlinson and Ed Langdon both starred against the Hawks, covering the ground well and racking up touches. Tomlinson, in particular, had 32 disposals.

Steven May also looked the best we’ve seen him in red and blue, blanketting Jon Patton in defence and getting his hands on the ball regularly.

Max Gawn played a half of football without any problems, suggesting the newly-crowned captain will be fine to line up for Round 1.

All things considered, the Dees’ preseason has gone almost perfectly to script, and it looks like they will start off with all of their most important players available.

Optimism is like a cactus to this club’s fans; your curiosity wants to know what it feels like but your brain knows it will only hurt you. Still, there’s cause for excitement.

Port Adelaide Power
While there’s no such thing as a big scalp in preseason, Port would have been pleased to walk away from the Marsh series with wins over two 2019 finalists in Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs.

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Charlie Dixon’s form was continuing to inspire optimism against the Dogs but an unfortunate twist was to come, with both he and Scott Lycett finishing the match injured.

Coach Ken Hinkley said he thinks both will be okay to play in Round 1, but given Dixon’s injury history in particular, you’d want to be keeping your fingers crossed.

Sam Powell-Pepper was another noticeable performer, with 23 and 25 touches in the two matches, after a difficult 2019.

Sam Powell-Pepper

Sam Powell-Pepper (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Greater Western Sydney Giants
It’s no surprise that last year’s runners-up would bank two wins, but a good sign for their fortunes after a demoralising grand final loss.

Sam Jacobs is probably their biggest recruit figuratively (and definitely their biggest literally), and his strong performance against Richmond this weekend has him locked in for Round 1.

However, probably most exciting was the impressive performances of midfielders Jackson Hatley and new draftee Tom Green.

Hatley had 25 touches and a goal against the Swans before 29 and a goal against Richmond, Green had 21 touches and two goals first up then 16 and a goal to follow.

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With Tim Taranto suffering a shoulder injury likely to cost him the first half of the year, and Callan Ward not expected to return until partway through the season, there’s room for both to stake their claim in the Round 1 side.

Essendon Bombers
The Dons’ early form under Ben Rutten, now their senior coach seemingly in everything but name, was impressive with wins over West Coast and Geelong.

Most eye-catching was the form of Darcy Parish, who looks ready to take the next step after seeming to plateau in recent years.

Andrew Phillips was also quietly impressive and with Tom Bellchambers’ fitness perenially uncertain, he is a solid option as chief ruckman.

2017 premiership Tiger Jacob Townsend also bobbed up for three goals against the Cats – we’ll wait and see if that earns him a crack in Round 1.

Unfortunately we didn’t get a look at Mitch Hibberd due to injury – he could have an impact for Essendon this year when he becomes available, one to watch.

Brandon Zerk-Thatcher also played well against the Cats and seems likely for next weekend.

Gold Coast Suns
Gold Coast moved to a 5-1 record under Stuart Dew in preseason games over the last three weeks, with wins over Geelong and Adelaide.

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The Suns also have a 6-4 record under Dew in Rounds 1-5 of the season, but have only won a single game under his tutelage in Round 6 or later – last year closing out the season with 18 consecutive losses.

That suggests we should probably wait until the season is at least two months old before we decide whether they have turned a corner, but certainly the optimism is palpable.

Matt Rowell produced mature performances in both outings and is a lock to debut, with Noah Anderson, Jeremy Sharp and Connor Budarick all firmly in the mix also.

Hugh Greenwood was in fine form against Geelong, Darcy Macpherson continues to be prolific and underrated, while Will Brodie and Ben Ainsworth are both breakout candidates.

Zac Smith won’t be overtaking co-captain Jarrod Witts for the No.1 ruck spot anytime soon, but his form against Adelaide suggsts he’ll be a solid option if Witts is unavailable.

Unfortunately there was some bad news, with the Suns’ most dangerous forward option Alex Sexton suffering a hamstring injury against the Crows.

We also didn’t see Izak Rankine due to a shoulder injury, and while he’s expected to be fit for Round 1, he may start in the NEAFL.

Fremantle Dockers
The Dockers nabbed wins over Carlton and West Coast – the latter coming through a behind from Michael Walters to put them one point up at the finish – but for all the positives, they would be frustrated by fresh injury concerns.

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New recruit Blake Acres was brilliant against the Blues, with 31 touches, only to suffer a hamstring injury at training which will delay his start to the season.

Stephen Hill, after an injury-riddled 2019, suffered a calf injury in the win over West Coast which has many questioning if we’ll ever see him get back to his best.

Sean Darcy seemed to suffer an ankle injury against the Eagles but played out the match, which is mightily lucky given that the Dockers’ spine has already been dealt massive blows with Alex Pearce, Joel Hamling and Jesse Hogan all unavaiable.

David Mundy will also start the season on the sidelines with no confirmed timeline for his return as yet.

Still, there were positive signs from Lachie Schultz, who kicked six goals across two games, James Aish starred against Carlton, and Andy Brayshaw was impressive versus West Coast.

Caleb Serong did enough against Carlton to suggest he’ll debut in Round 1, while Hayden Young and Liam Henry didn’t feature but could both still be in the mix if they club deems them fit to play.

St Kilda Saints
St Kilda’s forward-line mix was promising in wins over Hawthorn and Collingwood.

Much-hyped key forward Max King kicked goals in both games and while he’s not going to be an overnight Coleman contender, seems to have done enough to be a regular in 2020.

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Jack Lonie kicked eight goals across two games, Tim Membrey was in fine form, Rowan Marshall floated forward to boot two against Hawthorn, and new recruit Dan Butler brought great pressure.

Overall the Saints look to have a nice mix of dangerous talls and smalls, and if they look to play a high-scoring brand of footy in 2020, might find some success there.

Brad Hill, Zak Jones and Dougal Howard all performed well in the win over Collingwood also, as did Ben Long, playing in a new role off half back.

Perhaps most exciting is that, as of this moment, the club is going into 2020 with a completely blank injury list – a sight rarer than hen’s teeth.

Dylan Roberton

Dylan Roberton (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

That makes seven teams to go 2-0 and if the trend of two in three (let’s round down and say four in seven) making finals continues, we’ll have a most interesting top eight.

GWS, Essendon, Melbourne and St Kilda are the four most likely out of that mix, but which sides would drop out to make way for the latter two?

Richmond and West Coast – as the clear flag favourites – obviously have to be counted in, even if neither of them managed to get a win on the board in the Marsh series.

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The Bulldogs went 1-1, but strong games from new talls Alex Keath and Josh Bruce, plus promising signs of development from Tim English, suggest they’ll have a nice spine this year. It’s hard to see them not taking a step forward.

Brisbane and Collingwood show no signs of fading away however and while Geelong appear vulnerable right now, they’ve been written off many times before only to flourish.

The Magpies in particular would be pleased that Darcy Moore seems fit and in form, while new recruit Darcy Cameron impressed against an undermanned Richmond.

Jack Steven looked in good condition in the Cats’ last game and Quinton Narkle could have a breakout year. Darcy Fort’s development and the addition of Josh Jenkins look set to make Geelong’s ongoing rucking conundrum all the more migraine-inducing.

The other side of the coin is the teams who went 0-2.

In addition to Richmond, West Coast and Geelong, we also saw winless preseasons from Adelaide, Carlton, Hawthorn and Sydney.

If we’re picking over half of these sides to accrue a losing record across the first five rounds – as per the trend – I’ll nominate the Crows, Blues and Swans, with the Cats or Hawks possibly to be split by their Round 4 encounter.

Sydney saw some promise out of new recruit Lewis Taylor against North, but were absolutely blown away in their first hit-out against the Giants. With Lance Franklin still weeks away, they could be in for a rough start.

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Carlton need more out of their young midfielders but didn’t really see anyone step up to the plate other than Will Setterfield with a strong effort against the Lions.

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Throwing Ed Curnow and Marc Murphy back in the middle was a boost for David Teague last year, but it can’t be the long-term solution. Sam Docherty got through both matches without issue, which is a bloody good sight to see.

One last player to watch: Curtis Taylor took a great hanger for North against the Bulldogs, then had 21 touches and two goals against Sydney.

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And for a fun fact, Tristan Xerri – who also played well for the Roos – is in line to be the first AFL player whose surname starts with X.