The AFL season is returning in a week’s time and there is a sense of unpredictability about it.
With no action for nearly three months and only a limited amount of time training as clubs, the opening part of the season could produce anything from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Heading into 2020 Part 2, there are six headlines that stick out as fascinating stories to follow.
Advantage West Coast
Popular opinion suggests that the Queensland hub is enormously disadvantageous to the four teams it will house, and particularly the two teams from the west, who must relocate immediately.
The benefits of a rolling fixture will mean that a fortnight into the season, the AFL will be able to have its eye on government announcements and assess the landscape in WA before deciding its four-week schedule.
Clearly the best of the teams in the hub is West Coast, and contrary to popular belief, the unique opportunity that has arisen is sure to benefit the strongest club in the competition.
The Eagles are a well oiled machine both on and off the field, and having at least a month straight in the same state with conditions not completely unfamiliar to them will surely provide stability.
Only one of these matches is listed as a home game for the Eagles, and the uproar surrounding it is over the top.
West Coast host Richmond in Round 5 at Metricon Stadium, which many feel robs the club of the opportunity to host the game in Perth.
Richmond, however, face a five-day break with same-day travel against a team that is playing at the same venue in the same conditions with no travel to concern themselves with.
It gives the Eagles a slight advantage against their main rivals, and the fact it comes early in the AFL year means the stilted start to the season could be an added negative for the travelling Tigers.
West Coast have a strong opening month full of potential to get off to an excellent start, and acclimatisation will come quickly and naturally to the powerhouse.
There is no reason why the Eagles cannot finish the opening part of the season with five wins before the fixturing changes a little, which will only give the club a greater stranglehold in the eyes of the AFL and fans.
Until it’s shown otherwise, the negativity is unsubstantiated and the Eagles can be well on their way to securing a top-two spot on the AFL ladder after a period spent in Queensland.
The year Connor rose to stardom
The hype around Connor Rozee is real and it’s perhaps the most justified excitement seen over the last couple of seasons.
A fantastic first season playing mainly as a forward with flashes of excellence higher up the ground was backed up by a superb showing in Round 1 against Gold Coast.
Rozee had 21 disposals, ten contested possessions, eight inside 50s, six marks and a goal in a display that oozed absolute class, looking like a different level of player to all others that featured in the game.
Showing great cleanliness below his knees in slippery conditions, as well as a willingness to win the contested ball, Rozee looked every bit a star in what was just his 23rd game in the AFL.
Port Adelaide has a great opportunity this season to finally make a bit of a jump into a dangerous finals team, after a couple of smart years of drafting.
Now is the time to be bold and maximise the talent at its disposal.
We should see Robbie Gray and Brad Ebert continue to spend the majority of their time in attack and Steven Motlop should exclusively hover across half forward to allow Rozee to play a 65/35 split in the midfield.
In just his second season, Rozee is the club’s most skilled player and he is ready to step up.
There were plenty of comparisons to a young Nat Fyfe in his first season, who had a true breakout season in his second year.
It isn’t out of the equation that Port’s young star follows a similar trajectory if given the appropriate opportunity.
Should the midfield time eventuate, it wouldn’t shock me to see Rozee finish in the top ten of the Brownlow Medal in season 2020.
Give Goody time
The pressure is on Simon Goodwin after the capitulation and devastation of a horrific 2019 season.
It’s unclear whether this or the excellence of the 2018 season was an aberration, which means this season was to be a vitally important step in both Goodwin’s coaching career, and the club as a whole.
The issue is that the recruitment during the off-season wasn’t suited to the shortened games of 2020, which immediately puts the Demons a step behind.
Ed Langdon and Adam Tomlinson were the headline acts and justifiably so, as they are two really strong and underrated options on the wing.
Both have games built on endurance and work rate. Langdon and Tomlinson add an element of sustained effort to a Melbourne midfield that failed to run out games last season.
Given the tactic was likely to run in waves and stay in the contest for the entire four quarters in a test of will, there is no advantage for Melbourne this season.
A lot of importance will be placed on the fitness of Steven May and Jake Lever, who are sure to benefit in 2020, and creating a much tighter defensive group will ensure the Demons are far more competitive than they have been in the last 18 months.
However, a lack of emphasis was placed on fixing the forward line, which will end up coming back to bite the club.
Combatting and neutralising strong interceptors will be important in 2020 and there isn’t enough depth and aerial impact in that Demons forward line to be successful.
Tom McDonald will need to show some consistency in his game as the key player, Sam Weideman will need to fast-forward his development and there is significant pressure on Bayley Fritsch to be a regular goal-scorer, despite showing that his clean kicking would be well suited to a wing if Melbourne had their forward line sorted.
Even then, the Demons would be breaking even with their defence rather than being able to post big scores.
Melbourne have set their team up for the long haul, but a running adjustment in this mini pre-season will have needed to be implemented.
Any success will come from the defence, and the Demons must be playing the likes of Marty Hore to ensure they can do both the negating and intercepting aspect of the game properly.
Simon Goodwin will have questions to answer throughout the season, but a return to normality will be of more benefit to the Demons, along with the fixture a lowly rated side was scheduled to have.
Leave the bolter for next season
In having a 17-game season, the obvious advantages afforded to the worst teams of the previous year have been removed.
Without a fixturing advantage and a form line that is able to be read into, it’s difficult to imagine that there will be a bolter from base of the 2019 ladder.
St Kilda’s recruiting caught the eye of many, however the intangibility of team chemistry and perhaps the subconscious lack of connection between the five new players in their best 22 with the existing 17 raises questions.
Their Round 1 loss against a similarly rated opposition hurts when there aren’t any games to make up.
Natural improvement can be expected of some teams, like the Demons as well as Carlton, Sydney and Fremantle, while a team like Adelaide is expected to fall.
However it is clear that only two teams that missed finals last season are really expected to challenge, and they happened to be the unlucky ninth and tenth placed teams.
Hawthorn are a genuine premiership contender, and having beaten Brisbane in the first round, they face three difficult games that will test the team’s mettle.
With Geelong (away), Richmond and GWS (away) in the first few matches after the extended break, if the Hawks can win at least one of these and sit with at least two wins in the opening month of the season, they will be well positioned for a top-four push.
The enigma that is Port Adelaide can be impressive one week and a farce the next, but if they make small adjustments, such as the move with Rozee into the midfield, then the Power will push into the top eight.
This season will be built on mental fortitude and riding the wave of momentum, both of which require a strong squad with well defined game plans to maximise their efforts in shorter games.
While there may be much to like about the Saints, Blues and Dockers, we have seen nothing to suggest they are ready to make the most of the opportunity that presents itself in 2020.
The Lions must jump hurdles
On paper, Brisbane have an absolute dream run to set themselves up for a successful season.
Four home games in a row against interstate teams should help the club offset the first-round loss.
The issue for the Lions is that they will need to prove they didn’t overachieve last season in perhaps more difficult circumstances than could have been predicted.
The club’s four home games have ultimately saved them one trip to Perth and one trip to Adelaide.
It means the Lions avoid playing West Coast, Fremantle, Port Adelaide and Adelaide away, which may come at a disadvantage to the team.
Brisbane would not have had any issues playing any of the Dockers, Crows or Power away from home, with the ability to beat two of those teams handily at least.
Two home games used up by the two extra teams in the Queensland hub that wouldn’t have otherwise happened could cost the club two wins if forced to play against quality opposition in Victoria.
What may have otherwise been a home game against the Bulldogs or Essendon could be difficult challenges to face at the Victorian venues the Lions have historically had their struggles at.
While the AFL will look after their young cubs and not force Brisbane to play all of Richmond, Collingwood and Geelong interstate, the front-loaded home-game structure could come back to bite the Lions.
Brisbane may have dropped down a notch or two this season, potentially fighting for a spot inside the top six rather than a home qualifying final.
This team now faces a situation where they must prove that 2019 wasn’t an aberration, with a flurry of games against Victorian opposition away from home, where they’ve struggled in the past.
It will be interesting to see how Brisbane handle the uniqueness of 2020, perhaps more so than other clubs.
Hopefully the fact they only play one 2019 finalist between the second and fifth rounds of the season will give them a boost.
A new type of Coleman Medalist
The winner of the Coleman Medal in 2020 will not be a key forward.
Not since the 1990s has the competition’s leading goal-kicker been shorter than 190 centimetres and even then, the likes of Tony Modra and to a lesser extent Gary Ablett Senior played more traditional key forward roles.
Shorter games will equate to fewer overall goals, but it won’t affect the averages of the winner – pushing the three goals a game mark will be enough.
It’s the style of play, though, that may be more friendly to the smaller players impacting the scoreboard, with teams looking to implement resolute defences around the best key forwards in the competition.
Of the 18 players to kick three or more goals in the first round of the 2020 season, only four were key forwards and three of these (Jeremy Cameron, Jack Riewoldt, Brody Mihocek) are known for their work ethic and ability to push higher up the ground and work back towards goal.
With a focus that is likely to look to sharpen up the defensive end first, clubs will play in either a direct manner while possessing the ball, in a West Coast or Collingwood style, or they will run in waves and look to crowd contests and pick up the loose ball, as Richmond have implemented successfully.
This opens the door for the more agile and creative players to have an impact in 2020.
We saw how damaging Brisbane became when Charlie Cameron was the focal point of their forward line, as he became the hardest forward to stop in the competition with all the strings to his bow.
Of course Jordan de Goey has played as Collingwood’s full forward for a couple of seasons with great success and with early-season questions over the fitness of Brody Mihocek, his importance cannot be understated.
As good as he was in the midfield last season when GWS were depleted, Toby Greene has long been one of the best attacking-half players in the competition.
In the two seasons of 2016 and 2017, Greene kicked 89 goals in 42 matches, being held goalless on just six occasions and averaging more than one goal assist per game.
Then there’s Isaac Heeney, who many fans have been begging to see play in the midfield for years now, but with Lance Franklin injured, it might be time to let go of those thoughts.
As a full forward, Heeney gives us shades of the old school Modra with his leaping and ability to read the play.
These players all have the ability to play one-out in the forward 50 and win more contests than they lose, while also playing around 75 metres out from goal to be involved in link up play and use their work rate to find space inside 50.
This adaptability and positional awareness, in a period where clubs will be defending high balls and contests to lower the scoring, provides a genuine point of difference compared to other seasons.
While there’s something entertaining about watching the power forwards taking contested marks, or the likes of Jeremy Cameron and Lance Franklin use their athleticism to take control, 2020 looks to be the season of the damaging mid-sized forward.
The left-field tip of Isaac Heeney or Toby Greene taking home the Coleman Medal sits well.