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Opinion

One thing each non-finalist needs to do before next season

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21st September, 2020
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The 2020 season finally came to a close for ten of the AFL’s 18 clubs last weekend.

In any other year, making it through to the penultimate weekend of September would be cause for celebration, but this year it means you missed the eight. Sorry about that.

Some teams are clearly on the up, some have a lot of work to do and others have big question marks, but they all have one thing in common: they’re not playing finals and they’ve got at least one pressing issue that needs sorting before 2021.

Without further ado, let’s put 2020’s also-runs under the microscope.

Melbourne

9th, 9-8, 107.8%

Get stronger mentally. Melbourne should be very disappointed with missing the eight in 2020 – they had a finals spot in the bag but fluffed it after unacceptable back-to-back losses against the Swans and Dockers. The Sydney loss was particularly baffling – they looked outclassed in the first half and ruined their own comeback with awful set shots and horrendous turnovers.

I wrote earlier this year that the Demons were back on track, and I still stand by it, but this makes it three years out of the last five they’ve had a golden opportunity to play finals and thrown it away.

Everyone remembers 2017’s final-round capitulation against Collingwood, but they also dropped a sitter against Carlton in the second-last round of 2016 in addition to this year’s flop.

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They’re far from perfect, but they seem to have finally found a key forward pairing that works in Bayley Fritsch and Sam Weideman, their midfield can compete with anyone on their day and the backline is serviceable.

But the simple fact is you can’t trust the Dees to get it done against anyone. Until they get it right between the ears, they will never be a contender.

Simon Goodwin

Simon Goodwin’s Demons don’t have the psyche to contend. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

GWS Giants

10th, 8-9, 95.6%

Get a proper ruckman to get the midfield working again. I love Shane Mumford – I really do – but the fact he’s still in the best 22 for a team that considered themselves contenders this season is an indictment. He’s been past it for so long and their attempt to replace him with Sam Jacobs this season ended up being a disaster.

The simple fact is that throughout their short history Greater Western Sydney have made finals whenever they’ve had a positive clearance differential (except for 2015) and they’ve missed the finals whenever they haven’t.

The inside midfielders have kept their heads above water despite Mumford getting blasted in the hit-outs for some time, but this year they simply couldn’t keep it going. They had the second-worst hit-out differential of -9.9 – it was only -3.6 last season – and it saw their clearance differential tumble from +3.6 to -1.1.

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It’s not the only item on the Giants’ suddenly large to-do list – and it sounds like a cultural change is required – but it’s something they can sort out before 2021 begins.

Carlton

11th, 7-10, 94.3%

Spend the offseason on skills. The ’30-point swing’ has been doing the rounds in footy media lately and it looks like David Teague’s honeymoon is ending quickly, but let’s get real: this was a solid season for Carlton.

They matched last season’s win tally of seven despite playing fewer matches – with their win percentage of 44 and points percentage of 96 both the club’s bests since 2013’s finals appearance – and they did it despite a poor year from Patrick Cripps and without the services of Charlie Curnow.

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They’re clearly on the right path, but they do need to urgently work on their skills. Their disposal efficiency in 2019 was a league-worst 66.9 per cent and they averaged a whopping 49 clangers per game.

The Blues won’t take the next step until they sort this part of the game out.

Patrick Cripps of the Blues smiles after victory

(Photo by Graham Denholm/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Fremantle

12th, 7-10, 93.7%

Get more support for the forward line. Justin Longmuir’s first season in charge at Fremantle was a huge success. He led Freo to their highest win tally since 2015’s minor premiership (despite the shortened season) and, even more incredibly, made Matt Taberner a Coleman contender.

Unfortunately, he played a lone hand in the Dockers’ forward forays as they finished with the third-lowest total score this season, ahead of only North Melbourne and Adelaide. Michael Walters did his part, slotting 15 goals from 14 games, but Rory Lobb’s return of ten goals was disappointing and Jesse Hogan’s absence hurt again.

They’ve got a glut of key defenders and a strong midfield corps – if they can land some forward support in the trade period, they could rise up the ladder quickly.

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Matthew Taberner

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Essendon

13th, 6-10-1, 79.2%

Decide whether they’re coming or coming. Essendon have traded aggressively over the last few seasons and, while I defended John Worsfold a while ago by noting simultaneous retirements meant expecting a quick rise was folly, this season was a particularly disappointing one.

It was particularly worrying in the last few weeks when, despite finally assembling their vaunted midfield of Dyson Heppell, Dylan Shiel and Devon Smith together, they got blown off the park in embarrassing fashion by the sides they want to be contending with.

The trades certainly prevented a more dramatic fall down the ladder in recent seasons, but you don’t toss multiple first-rounders around to be a decent side; you do it to be a contender.

When a 26-gamer takes out your club’s best and fairest, fans have the right to ask just what the expectations should be for the next few seasons, and the Dons, with a new coach incoming, need to hammer the three-year plan out.

Ben Rutten, Senior Assistant Coach and Team Defence of the Bombers addresses his players

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Gold Coast Suns

14th, 5-11-1, 90.6%

Stay the course. Had it not been for a final-round hammering at the hands of Hawthorn on the weekend, Gold Coast would’ve finished 2020 with the best percentage in club history. It’s not an achievement they’ll be hanging from the rafters, but it’s easy to forget they were the unanimous spoon pick before the season began.

In Round 2’s expert tipping article I was told making West Coast the Shoe-In of the Week when they played the Suns was cheating. The Suns of course won that match by 44 points.

Gold Coast have a young midfield and forward line to get excited about, their backline is solid and they boast one of the AFL’s most underrated ruckmen in Jarrod Witts. They’ve been linked with Nathan Broad for a defensive boost from the trade table, but I wouldn’t begrudge them at all for sitting back and seeing what a full year of Matt Rowell can do for them in 2021.

Matthew Rowell of the Suns celebrates a goal

(Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

Hawthorn

15th, 5-12, 84.1%

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Make some tough calls. Ben Stratton and Paul Pupolo are already hanging them up, but this year proved beyond doubt that Hawthorn’s recent list management strategy has failed and it’s time to try something new.

Their 15th-place finish and percentage of 84.1 were the lowest since 2005, Alastair Clarkson’s first year in charge. It’s not like they’ve been a contender in recent years either, with both of their most recent top-four finishes resulting in straight sets exits.

The Hawks haven’t won a final since the 2015 decider.

Do out-of-contract veterans like James Frawley, Isaac Smith or Ricky Henderson still have a place? Could Luke Breust be flipped to a contender while he still has value? How much should Ben McEvoy and Tom Scully be playing next season?

Clarko is of course the first man you’d back to get the Hawks on the rails again, but this season was not what they were expecting or building towards and they need to be ruthless to arrest the decline.

Alastair Clarkson

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Sydney Swans

16th, 5-12, 82.6%

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Sort out the fade-outs. Like Gold Coast, Sydney don’t appear destined for success in the short term, but they do look to be on the right track with little in the way of list management gaps to fill.

Let’s not forget they navigated this year without the services of Isaac Heeney, Josh Kennedy, Lance Franklin, Dane Rampe and George Hewett for large chunks, or the entirety, of the season.

One thing that is concerning is the number of times they ran out of steam in the second half or last quarter in 2020. The Swans were held goalless in the final quarter on a whopping four occasions, while also scoring just one goal in the final quarter another five times.

That doesn’t include their last quarters against Brisbane (when they got within two before losing by 32), and Geelong (when they gave up five unanswered across the third and fourth quarters to go down after leading by 17).

It might just be a case of young bodies needing bigger preseason to build up the fitness base, but it happened a bit too often in 2020 and it’s something they’ll need to address.

John Longmire Sydney Swans AFL 2017

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

North Melbourne

17th, 3-14, 71.2%

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Give the list a proper scrub. I asked before the season resumed why North Melbourne had a similar list profile to Richmond but were clearly not in the same class and it appears the footy bosses have figured out the answer: they just weren’t good.

The 11-man list cull was a good start, and while they should extract a decent price for Ben Brown, the Kangaroos should be taking calls on everyone on the list. They’ve said Todd Goldstein, Shaun Higgins, Jack Ziebell and Ben Cunnington are off the table, but I’d even let members of that quartet walk if the price were right.

This season was an unmitigated disaster and there’s nothing to be gained by not properly taking the plunge.

Rhyce Shaw

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Adelaide Crows

18th, 3-14, 64.4%

Get creative at trade time. Despite the ladder indicating the Crows and Kangas are in an identical position, it wouldn’t be silly to say Adelaide are a year ahead in their rebuild despite finishing lower on the ladder. They had their trade exodus last season and, although there could still be some departures this time around, I’d like to see the Crows do what Gold Coast did last season and be a buyer rather than a seller.

There are fringe players out there who could yet make a difference – Jack Graham is rumoured to be on the outer at Richmond, Orazio Fantasia could still be wooed to South Australia and there are a handful of ruck prospects the Crows have their eye on, none of whom should cost the club their two first-round selections.

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They pumped a lot of games into their youngsters this season but, with time catching up to some of their bigger names, filling the gaps with some ready-made recruits would be a smart move.

Shane McAdam of the Crows celebrates after scoring a goal

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)