If there’s been a more bizarre lead-in to an AFL season, then I can’t remember it.
The games are due to kick off in front of empty stands in just a matter of days, though even that possibility seems tenuous – if a player tests positive between now and then, it’s probably over.
However if, like me, you need a distraction, let’s stick our fingers in our ears, ignore the frightening reality that is life in 2020 and plough forward with some of what might unfold in this alleged football season.
Reigning premiers Richmond enter season 2020 as premiership favourites, and it’s tough to quibble with that label. Alex Rance is gone, but he’s not been on the field for a good while now anyway.
Of their premiership 22, only Bachar Houli, Shane Edwards and Jack Riewoldt are on the wrong side of 30, and they’re not far on the wrong side.
There’s still probable improvement in the likes of Daniel Rioli, Liam Baker, Shai Bolton and Sydney Stack.
They should be in the thick of it for a long while as they chase dynasty status, with a third flag in four years.
The Giants, too, will have a big say in things. They’ll have felt the sting of their grand final humiliation for much of the summer, but I think their gutsy preliminary final win said a lot more about them.
It’d be a big surprise if they didn’t end up in a fifth straight finals campaign and a fourth prelim in five years is probably the least we should expect from them.
The team on the wrong side of the Giants’ prelim win would be itching to right the wrongs of that day. Collingwood come into the season with shockingly little fanfare given they are, in fact, Collingwood.
The Pies lost a grand final by five points and then a preliminary final by four points. They’re beautifully balanced across the field and although they’re probably a little more vulnerable to injuries in the key posts than the other uber-contenders, they’re my tip for the flag.
The same can’t be said for the other preliminary final losers. The Cats pushed the Tigers deep into the final term despite missing two of their best – and most important – players in Tom Hawkins and Mitch Duncan.
Geelong finished on top of the ladder and their percentage of 135.7 was more than 17 percentage points better than the next best team, and yet it seems like no one outside of Geelong believes in them.
Joel Selwood has 295 brutal games under his belt, Harry Taylor looked like he had a fork in him for most of the season, and Patrick Dangerfield is starting to look mortal for the first time in a long time.
Tim Kelly’s departure makes the midfield group look troublingly thin, and unless someone steps up, very dependant on new arrival Jack Steven, who managed just seven games last season.
Kardinia Park should be enough get them through to September, but as the 2017 Hawks and 2019 Swans showed us, when it goes, it goes quickly – and some good teams will (hopefully) be making the trip to the Cattery this year.
Kelly’s new side was eliminated from last year’s finals series by his old side, and expectations for the Eagles are sky high after adding the brilliant onballer in exchange for a bootload of draft picks. West Coast have stars everywhere, and if Nic Naitanui can recapture his best footy, their midfield might be the best in the competition.
I can see scenarios where enough things go wrong for the other contenders to fall out of the eight, but I can’t see that scenario for the Eagles. They’ll be up to their ears in it.
Brisbane were last year’s surprise packet, but after a season defined almost as much by their good health as their good form, a couple of injuries came at the worst possible time – Mitch Robinson and Charlie Cameron – and they went out in straight sets.
Seeing as the Lions’ current injury list consists of exactly no one, it’s reasonable to think that their healthy list is at least as much due to good planning as good fortune.
They finished the home-and-away season in second spot, without every really looking like the second best team. There’s improvement here – Andrews, McCluggage, Hipwood and Rayner are yet to hit their prime – but I expect Brisbane to be in the scrap for the bottom half of the eight.
The Bulldogs are the popular pick as the new contender in 2020, and with good reason given the age and make up of their list, their strong finish to the 2019 home-and-away season and the additions of Josh Bruce and Alex Keath.
Marcus Bontempelli leads one of the league’s best midfields and Keath and Bruce will make them better at each end, but I’m not as convinced as others that better will be good enough. A lot of things fell their way for them to play finals in 2019 and they were humiliated when they got there.
They should be good, but great might be a stretch.
The other elimination final losers could hardly be more on the nose.
The Bombers coughed and sputtered through most of 2019 with the odd glimpse of brilliance and then meekly exited September in week one.
A coaching handover is under way and Blake Caracella’s Richmond-influenced fingerprints have been all over the Dons in the preseason.
They’ve got plenty of good but not great players and could finish sixth or 16th and neither would be a surprise.
Hawthorn and Port Adelaide were just on the outside looking in in 2019 and both have reasons to be optimistic.
The bandwagon is overflowing with those expecting the Hawks to play finals this year and I’m happy to hang onto the side of that.
Port are tougher to get a read on. Their veterans – Gray, Boak, Jonas, Westhoff, etc – are rock solid, but they depend a bit too heavily on kids and Charlie Dixon to have any confidence in them. Throw them in the too-hard basket with the Bombers.
North and Adelaide were each 10-win teams in 2019. They’ve both got enough top-end talent to compete with good teams on their day. They’re both very thin for talent once you get about 10-deep into their list. The Roos have more upside. I don’t expect either to play finals. Things could quickly get ugly for both of them.
The Saints and Dockers might have been similar sides in 2019, but they had very different summers.
The Saints pushed their chips in for established, quality players in a bid to end a finals drought of almost a decade.
The Dockers, who already had one of the league’s youngest lists, managed to get younger – only the Suns are younger or less experienced.
Both should be better in 2021, but the Saints have much more to be optimistic about in 2020.
The Swans somehow finished 15th with a percentage of 98 last season. It was as much a testament to the club’s ability to remain competitive as it was to the evenness of the competition.
Sydney look a completely average team again this year, which means they’re the same as about 10 other sides and injuries and luck will play as big a part in where they finish as talent.
Most of those same words can be used to describe Carlton, but for the Blues, “average” is a welcome sign of improvement.
Patrick Cripps is finally starting to get a real football team around him, and that will make them better most weeks. Just how many wins that equates to is the big unknown – progress is rarely linear. Double-digit wins isn’t an unreasonable target.
Jacob Weitering should be in the All-Australian mix this year, he’s going to be a super player.
Melbourne. Yikes. The season from hell is behind them – and the year from hell is upon all of us – and if they repeat it, it’ll mean the axe swings.
There are no excuses for Simon Goodwin’s side to do anything but push for finals this year.
Gold Coast have a lot going for them – a good coach, a heap of highly rated young players and low expectations. Good coaching will keep them in plenty of games and special talent might even see them pinch a few.
But they’re extremely young, and young teams run out of steam. This is a team built for the future.
That’s that. I don’t know what to expect in the next week. By the time you read this, the games might already be cancelled.
Sport seems a pretty silly thing to care about at a time like this. If nothing else, it’s a nice distraction.
Look after yourselves and each other.