With the trade period over and draft occurring soon, it’s time to try some early speculation about the season ahead.
This shapes as one of the most intriguing seasons yet as there could be some real movement into and within the top eight. Using seafaring terminology, here is a look at how the ladder could pan out in 2021.
Full steam ahead
Richmond and Port Adelaide stand out in this leading category. It is hard to go past Richmond, although continuing the voyage is a difficult one. With admirable depth in their list and arguably the greatest Tiger of all in Dustin Martin, a well-established game plan and strong leadership on and off the field all make for a happy mix.
Of course, a three-peat would really put them in rarefied air up there with Hawthorn, Brisbane and much further back the powerhouse Melbourne teams. Key constraints for Richmond are obvious ones: complacency, satisfaction with success and lack of hunger and injuries to key personnel, something that could bedevil all teams. They were able to deal with and put aside off-field dramas, the sign of a well-functioning outfit.
In this category, although not to the same extent, is Port Adelaide. 2020 was full of promise and the Power should be smarting at their narrow loss in the rain-sodden preliminary final, especially at home. The further blossoming of their younger players and some shrewd recruitment during the trade season bodes well.
A nice tailwind
There are three teams in this camp and they could go all the way if things go well: Brisbane, Geelong and St Kilda. These teams did well in 2020 winning at least one final, which should hold them in good stead. However, there are a few questions over them.
How much did Brisbane benefit from the non-travel factor in 2020 given that their record in Melbourne is not strong? Will the younger players, many of whom did not play particularly well in the semi-final, continue to develop and what impact will Joe Daniher have?
For Geelong, the acquisition of Jeremy Cameron is a good one but potentially at a hefty long-term price. Will this ageing list be able to have one more shot in the locker?
For St Kilda, much like Brisbane, can the younger players continue the upward movement? While not as prolific in this trade period compared to the last, there is a sense that this list is building nicely, requiring more refinement rather than drastic surgery.
This next and largest group is the most intriguing and has the most questions. In this group are Collingwood, GWS, Essendon, Melbourne, West Coast and the Western Bulldogs. These sides could perhaps make their way into contention for high honours or slide down the table.
For Collingwood, much has been said and written about their messy trade period. A lot is being left to making sure that this upcoming draft really counts, especially for key forwards and midfield replenishment, and as everyone knows drafting can be hit and miss. Added to this is the unknown intangible impact on the team morale and fabric associated with the contentious departure of some key players. They have been thereabouts but not quite good enough for the last few seasons.
GWS is somewhat of a mystery. It is surprising that a team which lost the 2019 grand final could not rise to the occasion in 2020 and indeed fell away sharply. To what extent the dropping of the captain contributed to the poor season is hard to assess, although the season was well and truly on the rocks before that happened. Possibly they have been overrated as a club, as observers have been seduced by the sheer volume of early-season draft picks.
For Essendon, it is hard to gauge whether it is on the right side of the ledger post-trade. The loss of Adam Saad and Daniher may or not be offset by some acquisitions and a very strong draft hand.
Melbourne is a perennial underachiever and while they have recruited quite well and look to have a balanced list, they need to find a way to address their habit of losing key and winnable games late in the season. It appears that a changed mindset is the key.
West Coast stumbled early in the finals for two years running, and its core A-graders are mostly veterans. It is perhaps unclear whether there is enough young emerging, exciting talent.
The Bulldogs went close to winning their final against St Kilda, and their best is strong. They look to have the most all-around, diverse and complete midfield in the competition, which Adam Treloar’s speed will add to. However, the bookends remain a concern.
This group consists of the Gold Coast Suns, Fremantle and Carlton. Any one or more of these could catapult into finals contention.
In particular, Gold Coast and Fremantle have potential galore with young lists, rising star nominees and some of the competition’s most exciting, emerging talent such as Matt Rowell, Izak Rankine and Caleb Serong. In addition, both have tactically astute coaches and the home-ground factor is real. A bit of steadiness under fire and experience are the keys.
For Carlton the future must be now. They have been promising for a while, and have been mainly through drafting but also some astute trading and slowly stockpiling talent especially in key positions. Time for the green shoots to flower.
Hawthorn are an intriguing story. Arguably, they are on the precipice of falling right way and looking at a total rebuild or somehow managing to stay in touch with the top eight. Their 2020 season was a very mixed bag. Retirements and Isaac Smith’s move to Geelong could be felt more deeply than anticipated.
Sydney are an interesting case. They do have some emerging talent but rely too heavily on Tom Papley for scoring. They are confronted with demographic issues of replacing their older brigade. Whether Lance Franklin can be the same force again is also a major question.
The fact that it took Adelaide until Round 15 in 2020 to record their first win might send shivers down the spines of supporters. However, there were signs of promise and their younger brigade including the likes of Elliot Himmelberg could take the next steps.
Early indications suggest a bleak year in 2021 for the Kangaroos. The loss of the coach, a radical de-listing exercise and the loss of experienced and talented players in Ben Brown and Shaun Higgins suggests that things have gone awry. However, the appointment of David Noble, who appears to be a mentoring coach in the mould of Chris Fagan, could be exactly what this young group needs.
The recruitment of Jaidyn Stephenson (the 2018 version) could be pivotal now and for the future. However, at the moment it’s not quite there for the Kangaroos.