For all the weirdness that was footy in 2020, here we are in a familiar place, with the seemingly indestructible Tigers ready to unveil another flag.
Seeking to become the third team in the AFL era to threepeat and the first to bag four premierships in five years, their list is still surprisingly young.
Jack Riewoldt, Shane Edwards and Big Game Bachar Houli are all on the downside of 32, but none of them is irreplaceable. Trent Cotchin and David Astbury are the only other Tigers older than 30.
Despite a difficult offseason it’d be foolish to bet against them, perhaps madness when you consider that Dustin Martin is involved.
Surprisingly young, last year’s runners-up are not. The Cats said goodbye to Harry Taylor and Gary Ablett Jr as well as Jack Steven and brought in Shaun Higgins (33), Isaac Smith (32) and star forward Jeremy Cameron, who will turn 28 next month and is smack in the middle of his prime.
Geelong enter the season with a real ‘wake me in September’ vibe. They’re the team to beat, but their struggle against Richmond will be a thing until it is not.
Port Adelaide and Brisbane both have a point to prove and reason to think they can be better.
The Power added Aliir Aliir to bolster an already excellent defence as well as Orazio Fantasia, who if fit, makes their already dangerous forward line more so.
Travis Boak might be ageing like a fine wine, but at some point it all turns to vinegar. Port will want to make the most of their window that sees young guns Connor Rozee, Zak Butters and Xavier Duursma overlap with the late prime of Travis Boak and fellow ageing star Robbie Gray. Charlie Dixon’s ability to stay on the park is crucial to their success.
Speaking of fragile key forwards, the Lions brought in Joe Daniher, who you might have forgotten is a genuine game-changer when healthy. Good health is something the Lions have been blessed with for the past two seasons. Fingers crossed the crummy Cam Rayner injury isn’t a sign of that luck turning.
Health is unfortunately the headline at the Saints right now as well.
St Kilda have recruited smartly and with purpose in recent seasons and were last year rewarded with their first winning final in almost a decade.
But 2021 hasn’t started so well. Dylan Roberton’s career is over, Ben Paton’s season is over, skipper Jarryn Geary and gun big man Rowan Marshall are hurt, key recruit Brad Crouch is suspended, James Frawley suffered the least surprising hamstring injury in the history of hamstring injuries, Dan Hannebery is once again a few weeks away from being a few weeks away, Paddy Ryder has taken some time away from footy and now there are doubts over young gun Max King. Ooph.
Ooph pretty much sums up the Magpies’ offseason.
This side suddenly looks a bit thin, particularly the once-vaunted midfield. There’s still a high upside if the kids click and their stars stay healthy, but Collingwood suddenly look much more middle of the road than a contender.
West Coast and the Western Bulldogs will both fancy themselves as challengers.
After starting the 2020 season among the premiership favourites, the Eagles fell well short of expectation.
But despite the disappointment, they finished outside the top four on only percentage.
They still have A-graders at each end in Jack Darling and Jeremy McGovern, and Nic Naitanui, Luke Shuey, Elliot Yeo, Tim Kelly, Andrew Gaff and Dom Sheed form one of the league’s best midfields.
Adam Simpson has shown enough to suggest he’s among the league’s better coaches, and they never lack for resources. This team should contend.
The Dogs, like the Eagles, boast a powerful on-ball brigade. If you ignore the ruckman, it’s the best and deepest in the competition. Of course you shouldn’t ignore the ruckman. They’ll be hoping Stef Martin is more competitive against the league’s bruisers than the talented but often overmatched Tim English.
The forward line looks solid enough – Mitch Hannan is a nice addition – even if Josh Bruce and Aaron Naughton seem allergic to easy kicks, but it’s in the back third that they’ll be most tested.
Still, the talent in the middle and on the flanks means another elimination final loss shouldn’t cut it.
GWS, Melbourne, Carlton and Fremantle form the quartet of those most likely to break into the eight.
Fremantle, after a plucky season under new coach Justin Longmuir, have become the trendy pick.
Nat Fyfe’s role is one of the most fascinating subplots of the season. If the Dockers can compete in the middle without him, he could be the answer to their forward troubles. It’s a big if.
Carlton and Melbourne too have major issues in the attacking third. Both are well served in defence by good to great key backs and, in Carlton’s case, some high-quality and damaging back flankers.
What Melbourne lack in that department they make up for on the ball, where Max Gawn and Christian Petracca form a one-two punch as good as this league has – Clayton Oliver is none too shabby either.
Both want for targets in attack, and injuries are helping neither cause.
The Blues partly overcame their limitations with aggressive ball movement last season, and the addition of Adam Saad and Zac Williams is unlikely to slow them down.
Melbourne – who knows what the hell Melbourne are doing.
Following the trend, the Giants now have a gaping hole in their forward line after Cameron’s move to the Cats.
Still, the GWS squad remains chock-full of talent and they’ve played only 17 games since being in a grand final.
Stephen Coniglio is much, much better than he showed last year, and Toby Greene, Josh Kelly, Nick Haynes, Lachie Whitfield – even Phil Davis when fit – are right at the pointy end of players at their position.
Tim Taranto, Tom Green and Harry Perryman are just three young Giants with huge upside.
There are constantly questions about their coach, and another disappointing season might result in answers Leon Cameron doesn’t like.
The Suns are tough to get a read on. They were much more competitive last season before a pathetic finish to the year against the Hawks. There are high-upside young guys everywhere and they appear to be playing with a purpose under Stuart Dew.
Was their 5-1-11 record more indicative of their ability or their percentage of 90.6?
I suspect it’s somewhere in between. Double-digit wins is a reasonable target for this side, and finals certainly aren’t out of the question.
Ben King was top 15 in the competition for goals last season. He doesn’t get the same level of attention as twin Max, but his future is bright. That Rowell kid looks like he might be okay as well.
The Swans have not so quietly been reloading their list for a few seasons now. They still look a season or two away, but Sydney’s infrastructure seems to raise their floor every year. Please let Buddy get another run at it.
The Hawks, Bombers, Kangaroos and Crows are the near-consensus bottom four.
One of them at least will likely surprise, but picking which one with any confidence is almost impossible.
GWS in 2012-13 were the last team to win consecutive wooden spoons, and they were an AFL team in name only. Before that it was the Demons of 2008-09, and I suppose the same could be said of them.
The Crows won’t want to join that club after finishing last for the first time in 2020.
It’s tough to predict change in this competition. None of last year’s top-four sides has any obvious reason to drop off, but at least one of them almost certainly will, and there’s a good chance it’s a team from outside the eight that takes their place.
Fingers and toes crossed we can get through a season without hubs and quarantines and game postponements – and please don’t let there be empty stands.
Below is how the ladder definitely won’t look five months from now and a few other predictions. Bring on the season.
Tom Lynch (Richmond)