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Opinion

Which bottom four side can make the biggest leap in 2021?

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Editor
3rd March, 2021
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After what felt like an eternity of an offseason (which doesn’t make sense given it was actually shorter), the AFL is back in just two short weeks.

That means it’s time for preview articles! Rather than going team-by-team in 2021, we’ll group the teams together based on where they finished last season.

Today, I’ll take a look at last year’s bottom four, before moving onto the rest of the non-finalists (Tuesday), the non-top four finalists (next Thursday) and, finally, the reigning top four (the following Tuesday).

Last year’s lowest echelon comprised two fallen sides retooling after years at the top alongside two teams in the midst of scorched earth rebuilds. Who’s the best chance at climbing this year?

Hawthorn

15th, 5-12, 84.1%
Ins: Kyle Hartigan (ADE), Tom Phillips (COL), Denver Grainger-Barras, Seamus Mitchell, Connor Downie, Tyler Brockman, Jack Saunders (draft)
Outs: Isaac Smith (GEE), James Frawley (STK), Conor Glass, Ricky Henderson, Paul Puopolo, Tom Scully, Ben Stratton (ret.), Will Golds, Harry Jones, Darren Minchington, Jackson Ross, Matthew Walker (del.)

Hawthorn were incredibly poor after their surprising start to 2020, losing 11 of 13 after opening with 3-1. Their comfortable wins over Brisbane and Richmond early in the year look nice, but if you can tell me you’d tip them again and keep a straight face, you belong in Madame Tussaud’s.

After those two upsets, their only triumphs were a four-point ordeal over the hapless Kangas, a 31-point comeback win over the flaky Blues and a final-round demolition of the Suns. If you thought Melbourne’s 2018 finals appearance was an aberration, the Hawks finishing in the top four that year looks even more ridiculous.

Even more worrying is the talent that’s left since. They weren’t getting any younger, but ex-skipper Stratton, Smith, Frawley and Scully all played significant roles last season and will be hard to replace so quickly.

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The back six look particularly vulnerable, with Sam Frost, ex-Crow Hartigan, Michael Hartley and Ben McEvoy the pick of the key defenders.

With roughly seven members of the best 22 currently 29 or over, it’ll be intriguing to see how the Hawks go getting the balance between staying competitive and blooding youngsters right.

Surely an Alastair Clarkson-coached side that boasts Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara in the middle can’t win the wooden spoon? They’re not the favourites, but they’re very much in the conversation.

Ben McEvoy of the Hawks celebrates a goal

New Hawks skipper McEvoy has his work cut out for him. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Sydney Swans

16th, 5-12, 82.6%
Ins: Tom Hickey (WCE), Logan McDonald, Braeden Campbell, Errol Gulden, Malachy Carruthers, Marc Sheather (draft)
Outs: Aliir Aliir (PA), Zac Foot, Michael Knoll, Jack Maibaum, Harry Reynolds, Brady Rowles, Ryley Stoddart, Elijah Taylor, Jackson Thurlow (del.)

Despite finishing lower on the ladder, I’m slightly more impressed by how the Swans went compared to Hawthorn last season. Their average losing margin was a full goal-per-game lower – with five of their 12 losses coming by under ten points – and they were still a somewhat difficult side to play against, conceding the third-fewest points of any non-finalist.

Impressive, given they did it without Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy, Isaac Heeney or (the vastly underrated) George Hewett for either all or the overwhelming majority of the season.

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On the flip side, they found scoring incredibly difficult and the biggest goal for this season needs to be a way to reliably produce majors off the boot of players not called Tom Papley.

Coming into 2020, Swans fans were dreaming of a future with Nick Blakey roaming the half-forward area and kicking them from everywhere, with Tom McCartin parking himself in the goal square and clunking mark after mark. Now, Blakey looks destined for the wing and McCartin may shift down back – leaving a huge hole in the key forward position.

Logan McDonald will be a superstar, but he’s not turning things around this season and Sam Reid has proven he can’t get it done as the lone option.

Still, a cleaner bill of health and more games from their impressive young guns could see them narrowly escape another bottom four finish, but anything higher than 12th would be a stunner.

Oliver Florent and Nick Blakey of the Sydney Swans

There’s a bit to like about the Swans, but there’s plenty of work ahead too. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

North Melbourne

17th, 3-14, 71.2%
Ins: Atu Bosenavulagi, Jaidyn Stephenson (COL), Aidan Corr (GWS), Lachie Young (WB), Will Phillips, Tom Powell, Charlie Lazzaro, Phoenix Spicer, Eddie Ford, Patrick Walker, Connor Menadue (draft)
Outs: Ben Brown (NM), Shaun Higgins (GEE), Paul Ahern, Joel Crocker, Majak Daw, Sam Durdin, Lachlan Hosie, Ben Jacobs, Jamie Macmillan, Tom Murphy, Jasper Pittard, Ed Vickers-Willis, Marley Williams, Mason Wood (del.)

No team was more delusional about where they stood coming into 2020 than North Melbourne and it’s no surprise to see them entering this season with their third coach in three seasons following one of the most dramatic sets of delistings in recent memory.

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I like what the Kangaroos have done – the exception being the way they bungled Ben Brown’s departure and lowering his trade price. Stephenson could wind up being an absolute steal if he gets back to 2019 form, while their other acquisitions came cheaply and are relatively risk-free.

But there is an absolute mountain of work to do. The Kangaroos were utterly hopeless last year and you’d suspect that if the home-and-away season had gone the full 22 matches, Adelaide would’ve surpassed them and they’d be the reigning wooden-spooners.

A full year out of Tarryn Thomas will make a difference, but is a forward group spearheaded by Cam Zurhaar and Nick Larkey really going to do anything? Who can be trusted in the midfield beyond Ben Cunnington now that Jack Ziebell’s moving down back?

Todd Goldstein is playing very well for his age and the back line doesn’t look catastrophic, but how this team plans to move the ball and put goals on the board remains a mystery.

It was only a scratch match, but a 91-point loss to St Kilda bodes incredibly poorly. In my books, they’re the heavy wooden spoon favourites.

David Noble poses during a North Melbourne Kangaroos AFL media opportunity

New coach David Noble has a mammoth task ahead of him. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Adelaide Crows

18th, 3-14, 64.4%
Ins: Jackson Hately (GWS), Mitchell Hinge (BL), Riley Thilthorpe, Luke Pedlar, Brayden Cook, Sam Berry, James Rowe, Tariek Newchurch, James Borlase (draft)
Outs: Rory Atkins (GCS), Brad Crouch (STK), Kyle Hartigan (HAW), Bryce Gibbs (ret.), Ben Crocker, Jordan Gallucci, Riley Knight, Myles Poholke, Ayce Taylor, Patrick Wilson (del.)

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As impressive as the Crows were over the last month of the home-and-away season, they were also diabolical for much of the home-and-away season. Was their three-game winning streak a flash in the pan? Or was it a sign of the wheel turning?

Adelaide came last in just about every statistical category last season and, at times, it was like watching Saudi Arabia at the Winter Olympics.

This team is a multi-year work in progress, although they at least appear to have settled on a big group of young players they can start pumping games into. They have a whopping 29 players on the list under the age of 25 (19 of whom have made their debut), with Chayce Jones, Darcy Fogarty and Elliott Himmelberg the trio I’m most excited to watch this season.

Brad Crouch leaving will hurt, but it’s a big opportunity for someone like Hatley or Ben Keays to show us what they’ve got. There is no silver lining accompanying Wayne Milera’s serious knee injury, on the other hand.

It’ll be another experimental year for the Crows as they test out their young guns, but I expect them to remain firmly entrenched in the bottom four.

Brodie Smith of the Crows in action

It’s a long road ahead for the Crows. (Photo by Matt Turner/AFL Photos via Getty Images)