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Opinion

Which top-four side is most under threat this year?

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15th March, 2021
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Can you believe it? We’re just two days away from the footy season kicking off.

That means it’s time for the fourth and final piece in my preview series, where I’ll be examining last year’s top four.

If you haven’t already, check out the bottom four, the other non-finalists and the rest of the top eight in the other parts.

A surprising fact I discovered while writing this piece is that 2020 was the first season since 2014 that a top-four side from the previous year didn’t crash out of the finals altogether.

In 2015 it was the Cats who took a dip before bouncing back with Patrick Dangerfield, 2016 saw Fremantle’s spectacular fall from grace, Hawthorn have done it twice (2017 and 2019), while 2018 saw Adelaide put in one of the all-time disappointments.

Collingwood came very close to joining the list last year, but didn’t. Will any of last year’s sides restart the streak?

Richmond

1st (3rd before finals), 12-4-1, 129.9%
Ins: Samson Ryan, Maurice Rioli Jr., Mate Colina, Rhyan Mansell (draft)
Outs: Jack Higgins (STK), Oleg Markov (GCS), Alex Rance (ret.), Luke English, Fraser Turner (del.)

Can anyone stop the Tiger train this year?

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Their eventual triumph last season was the most inevitable a premiership has felt since Hawthorn in 2015 and, incredibly the recent flag hogs show no sign of slowing down.

An unfathomably large percentage of their list is in the prime age group so, while the cupboard of youngsters is virtually barren, there looks to be almost nothing that can get in their way this year.

Losing Markov and Higgins during trade week – the latter of whom they were actually very keen to keep – shaves a smidgeon off their depth, but they’ve still got it in bucketloads.

No Markov to cover injuries down back anymore? No problem, we’ll just turn to Liam Baker, Nathan Broad or Noah Balta. No Higgins to crumb what doesn’t get gobbled up by Tom Lynch and Jack Riewoldt? Kane Lambert, Jason Castagna, Daniel Rioli or Shai Bolton should be able to get the job done and, failing that, they can always pop Dustin Martin in the square for ten minutes.

It looks like it’s going to take someone coming up with a whole new style of play that the Tigers can’t deal with if they’re to be stopped.

Are they unbeatable? No. Brisbane and Port Adelaide both knocked them off at one point last season and have brought improved reinforcements in, while the Cats have also added oodles of talent.

The way the Tigers have played for what will soon be five years means they deserve to start the favourites against anyone they come up against. That said, I’ll pick them to finish inside the top four once more, but go down in a prelim.

The Tigers celebrate with the premiership cup after winning the 2020 AFL Grand Final

Catch them if you can. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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Geelong Cats

2nd (4th before finals), 12-5, 136.8%
Ins: Jeremy Cameron (GWS), Shaun Higgins (NM), Isaac Smith (HAW), Max Holmes, Shannon Neale, Nick Stevens
Outs: Nakia Cockatoo (BL), Lachie Fogarty (CAR), Gary Ablett, Jack Steven, Harry Taylor (ret.), Jacob Kennerley, James Parsons, Blake Schlensog, Jake Tarca (del.)

Geelong have pushed all their chips, the wads of cash from inside their jacket and the keys to their shiny car outside into the middle of the table.

They’ll be carrying a record number of 30-year-olds into a fair few matches this year, but most of their crop (who’ll actually get picked) haven’t shown any signs of slowing down.

Then, of course, there’s the addition of Jeremy Cameron. The only leading goalkicker in Giants history will don the hoops now and he immediately makes the Cats a much scarier prospect up forward.

We saw it in black and white over the course of the finals that you simply can’t beat Richmond relying on one good key forward. Tom Hawkins dominated the home-and-away season, but couldn’t find room to breathe in the grand final. You can copy and paste that story with Charlie Dixon in the prelim too.

I wrote before the grand final last year that the Cats should’ve considered getting Josh Jenkins or Esava Ratugolea in the side just to give the Richmond defence someone else to mark. The only times they’ve gotten close to the Tigers since the start of the 2017 finals is when they’ve had a second tall forward.

Now, they’ve got the perfect man for the job and are perfectly capable of going a step further. It’s grand final time.

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Jeremy Cameron of the Cats handballs

If this doesn’t scare you… (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Port Adelaide

3rd (1st before finals), 14-3, 136.4%
Ins: Aliir Aliir (SYD), Orazio Fantasia (ESS), Lachlan Jones, Ollie Lord, Tyson Goldsack, Taj Schofield (draft)
Outs: Brad Ebert, Jack Watts, Justin Westhoff (ret.), Joe Atley, Wylie Buzza, Tobin Cox, Riley Grundy, Jake Patmore, Cam Sutcliffe (del.)

Ken Hinkley comes into 2021 under more pressure than any reigning minor premiership coach in recent memory.

The Power were just one kick away from a spot in last year’s grand final – as they were in 2014 – but a similar collapse compared to last time will not be tolerated.

Fantasia should give their forward line a bit more oomph, while Aliir could be a game-changer down back – so long as they’re not relying on the majority of their defensive exits to come via his foot.

They tick just about every box on the stat sheet and played so well over the course of 2020, so there’s not really any reason to predict they’ll fall away – but I don’t have the same optimism about Port that I did coming into last season.

I really, really like what they’re building and I’m supremely confident they’ll avoid the fate that befell them last time. I just wonder, however, whether they’re in for an ‘easing’ year they slide back into the pack just a touch.

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A bit like West Coast, the age of their list is mildly concerning. Obviously Ollie Wines at 26 (how is he only 26?) and John Cahill medallist Darcy Byrne-Jones are the exceptions, but a lot of their most important players seem to be either over 30 or under 22.

Robbie Gray, Travis Boak, Tom Rockliff, Charlie Dixon and Tom Jonas fall into the former camp, while Connor Rozee, Xavier Duursma and Zak Butters are in the latter.

There’s a lot to like about the list, but the Power could be, like West Coast, in for one of those ‘not quite there’ years.

I’ve got them finishing just outside the top four.

Karl Amon of the Power celebrates a goal

(Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Brisbane Lions

4th (2nd before finals), 14-3, 124.9%
Ins: Nakia Cockatoo (GEE), Joe Daniher (ESS), Blake Coleman, Harry Sharp, Henry Smith
Outs: Mitchell Hinge (ADE), Stefan Martin (WB), Alex Witherden (WCE), Allen Christensen (ret.), Jacob Allison, Cedric Cox, Matt Eagles, Corey Lyons, Sam Skinner, Toby Wooller (del.)

The preliminary final was a huge disappointment, but Brisbane still deserve enormous credit for going from a straight-sets exit one year to beating the reigning (and eventual) premiers the next.

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Now, they’ve addressed their biggest weakness in adding Joe Daniher to the key forward stocks – and he’s looked sharp in the pre-season. The pressure is on to produce, but even just giving Eric Hipwood some free space will make a big difference.

The Gabba will need to install a defibrillator in every bay in case either has a set shot to win the match, but what Daniher brings to the line-up can’t be glossed over – especially as it’s been their Achilles for two years.

Cam Rayner’s injury absolutely sucks but, while some Lions fans may see is the catalyst to a catastrophic chain of events that eventually leads to the AFL withdrawing from Queensland, I think it could be what galvanises the group to go up a gear in 2021.

The Lions have arguably the best key defender, best pure midfielder and best small forward in the game. They’ve got a strong mix of veteran heads and young bodies and can play hard and contested or free and open under the guidance of an excellent coach.

They’re ready to fire and I’m going to buck the early trend and name them my premiership favourite.

Joe Daniher of the Lions celebrates a goal

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

My 2021 ladder

With the preview series now done, it’s only fair I put my predicted ladder out there. So, here it is.

1. Brisbane Lions
2. Geelong Cats
3. Richmond
4. St Kilda
5. Western Bulldogs
6. Port Adelaide
7. GWS Giants
8. Melbourne

9. West Coast Eagles
10. Carlton
11. Gold Coast Suns
12. Fremantle
13. Sydney Swans
14. Collingwood
15. Essendon
16. Adelaide Crows
17. Hawthorn
18. North Melbourne

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