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AFL Oracle: They just missed the eight last year - but can any of these teams turn it around in 2024?

4th March, 2024
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4th March, 2024
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It’s footy’s ‘no-man’s land’ – the lost space between the bottom rungs of the ladder, where high picks in the draft are coming, and the top of the ladder where the giants roam, it’s often described as the worst place to be in footy.

For the five teams who sat between 9th and 13th in 2023, their journeys to the mud heap have been widely disparate. Richmond and the Bulldogs arrived on their way down from elimination final exits in 2022; Essendon and Adelaide rose rapidly to both be well and truly in finals contention until Round 23; and Geelong were the reigning premiers before capitulating in dire fashion.

The stats show that, for the most part, at least one team makes it through to the finals the year after arriving in no-man’s land – and indeed, that at least one non-finalist has made it to a preliminary final 12 months later 20 of 24 times since the McIntyre final eight finals system was introduced.

All the evidence suggests one of these teams, or maybe even two, will make the leap, shatter the glass ceiling and be September bound in 2024.

The only question left to ask is… who?

Richmond

13th, 10-1-12, 93.6%

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For the first time since probably 2017, virtually no one has any expectations of Richmond heading into a season – and we all know how that year turned out.

Under the new management of Adem Yze, the Tigers have already showed signs this pre-season they will be radically different from Damien Hardwick’s outfit, and it will be fascinating to see how a team for whom the majority of players have only played under one coach will react to the sudden change, particularly the old firm of Dustin Martin, Nick Vlastuin, Dylan Grimes and co.

If things all gel, then there’s enough talent on Richmond’s list to make a shock return to finals plausible: a midfield of Martin, Shai Bolton, Dion Prestia, Jacob Hopper and Tim Taranto has a great mix of inside grunt and outside skill, while Tom Lynch will be an extremely handy inclusion in attack after a foot injury wrecked both his and his team’s 2023.

That Yze is confident enough to start his reign with a position change as stark as shifting defensive lynchpin Noah Balta to the forward line is both a sign of his priorities as coach, and his confidence in youngster Josh Gibcus, fresh off his own long-term injury woes, to develop into the future of the backline under the guidance of old stager Grimes.

But with that being said, the Tigers are in rebuild mode: after 13 years at the helm, both Hardwick and the club needed the reset button by the end. It’s gotten hard to fathom during this era of success that the Tigers were once staples near the bottom of the ladder, but for now at least, that’s where it seems they’ll be heading.

Adem Yze.

Adem Yze is Richmond’s new senior coach. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

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Prediction: 15th

Geelong

12th, 10-1-12, 112.6%

I wrote again and again in 2023 that Geelong simply weren’t going to miss the finals – and I believed it right up until their Round 23 loss to St Kilda last year ensured they’d be the first minor premier in six years to fall all the way out of the eight.

In many ways, last year was the Cats’ and Chris Scott’s annus horribilis: beset with injuries to crucial players, their depth, especially in midfield, was exposed, especially at the end of the season. With their quietest off-season in many a year, bringing in no players and eventually shipping Esava Ratugolea off to Port Adelaide, their usual go-to rebuild plan of recruiting a generational talent to springboard them back up the ladder isn’t happening either.

People have been predicting a significant Cats’ drop-off for years, with two finals misses since 2007 sticking it to the doubters: but could 2024 officially be the year they fall out of premiership contention for good?

Personally, I’m not convinced: it’s ladder predictor poison to expect the Cats to be down for long, no matter their ageing list profile, no matter their dearth of prime-career midfielders. This is a team that just wins, and if they suddenly stop doing it, they halt, fix the problem, and then start back up winning again.

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Jeremy Cameron is still as dynamic a key forward as there is in the game; Tom Hawkins surely has another year of bullying undersized defenders around; Patrick Dangerfield isn’t the type to go quietly into the night. Mark Blicavs is back after missing most of the Cats’ horror last month which resulted in their 2023 finals miss, and everyone knows the quality of star stalwarts Tom Stewart and Mitch Duncan.

Add to that the impressive pre-season of breakout contender Max Holmes, another year’s worth of pre-season into the legs of Tanner Bruhn, Ollie Dempsey and Jhye Clark, a coach in Scott with a masterful home-and-away record, the most significant home ground advantage in the country courtesy of GMHBA Stadium, and a whopping 2023 percentage of 112.6 – the second-highest by a non-finalist since 2014 – and it’s easy to see the Cats still winning plenty of games of footy.

In fact, I’ll go even further – they’re the likeliest team to miss the finals last year to make it back in this time around. And for that reason, the GMHBA factor and the fact a non-finalist has made the top four in 20 of the last 24 seasons, I’m sticking the Cats back in their accustomed spot – near the top of the ladder.

Jeremy Cameron of the Geelong Cats celebrates.

Jeremy Cameron celebrates Geelong’s 2022 grand final win. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Prediction: 4th

Essendon

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11th, 11-12, 89.7%

For all but two rounds of 2023, Essendon were in the race for finals up to their eyeballs: so the fact their season crashed and burned like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs anyway was both a grim finish to a promising campaign, and a cause for optimism that they were able to keep their heads above water for so long.

The Bombers did plenty right in Brad Scott’s first season at the helm, though issues became more and more prevalent the longer the year went, particularly in defence. But there now appears to be a proper structure behind the ball, which, when combined with a flashy but dangerous forward line and a midfield led by a star in Zach Merrett and a rock-solid second seed in Darcy Parish, led to some truly memorable wins.

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Jordan Ridley’s absence to start the season due to a quad injury is a bitter blow for a side which has always needed a strong start to a campaign to get them going, and while off-season recruits Jade Gresham, Todd Goldstein, Xavier Duursma and Ben McKay all strengthen the team, the first three at least don’t particularly address areas the Bombers were badly lacking in to begin with.

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Often under new management, a team will lift in their first season, getting a rush from the new blood at the helm coursing through their veins; then stagnate or even go backwards as the challenge to improve further becomes too much.

I’ve got the Bombers in the latter category, though I’ve most likely been too harsh on them in predicting a fall all the way down to 17th. But I can’t shake just how poor they were in the last seven rounds of 2023, with an average losing margin of 63 points and only narrow wins over lowly West Coast and North Melbourne to their name, and suggest Dons fans brace for another season of more pain than gain.

Essendon players react to their loss to the Western Bulldogs.

Nick Cox reacts to an Essendon loss. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

Prediction: 17th

Adelaide

10th, 11-12, 116.8%

I was ahead of the curve when I tipped this time last year that the Crows would leap from 14th in 2022 to the finals in 2023: fresh off only narrowly missing September via the most controversial goal umpire decision in years, they are the pundits’ favourite to be the team from outside to crack the eight.

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With a forward line blessed with talent both tall and small, from the ageless Taylor Walker through to pocket rockets Izak Rankine and Josh Rachele, through to the superstardom of captain Jordan Dawson and accumulator Rory Laird in midfield, the Crows were breathtaking to watch at their best last year. Slicing through the corridor with precise, penetrating kicking and giving their attack an overwhelming amount of quality entries to score from, an eventual percentage of 116.8 – the highest by a non-finalist since 2014 – is a better reflection of their rank than an 11-12 win-loss record.

So it might surprise you that I’ve got the Crows stagnating in 2024, and narrowly missing the finals once more. And here’s why.

As brilliant as their best was last year, the Crows have issues in defence, especially given a spate of injuries affecting their key backs: this was always their weakness, and now it’s a gaping hole in their line-up that quality sides should expect to expose and inferior opposition should sense as their chance to take them down.

There’s a ceiling to how much even the best attacking teams can accomplish without a watertight backline in modern footy, and as well as Matthew Nicks coached in 2023, he’s yet to prove he can create a structure strong enough to make a patchy unit personnel-wise into a miserly defence as a Ross Lyon has done in years past.

An ageing Walker is still the focal point of their forward line, and he’s now another year closer to the end; Rory Laird, too, is entering his twilight years, while Brodie Smith’s lethal right boot won’t be pinging it out of defence for much longer either.

The Crows lost five games by six points or less last season, including twice to eventual premiers Collingwood despite holding late leads. It’s entirely natural to have them as the frontrunners to jump inside the eight from outside in 2024 – but I’m far from convinced their strengths are powerful enough to mitigate those weaknesses.

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Adelaide Crows players.

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Prediction: 11th

Western Bulldogs

9th, 12-11, 108.7%

Let’s get this out of the way to start with: the Bulldogs missing finals in 2023 was one of the most remarkable choke jobs in modern AFL history.

With a superstar midfield led by the great Marcus Bontempelli and his Robin Tony Liberatore, the All-Australian ruckman in Tim English, two of the most promising key forwards in the game and a rank as the fifth-best defence of last home-and-away season, the Dogs five times butchered winning leads to narrowly lose in 2023, produced the most dismal loss in the game’s history to an abysmal West Coast, and by the time Geelong gave them a gift by wheeling out a second-string team for Round 24, their destiny was already out of their hands.

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It’s for this reason that I can’t tip the Dogs to reach the eight again with a straight face: an off-season full of hiring and firing in the club’s brains department should bring with it some fresh ideas to try, but a) there’s no guarantee they’ll be a success and b) Luke Beveridge has shown repeatedly over his long tenure that he wants to do things his way.

The Dogs will win games in 2024, of that much is certain: Bontempelli should provide one or two off his own boot, and with Nick Coffield arriving to shore up the defence and James Harmes to add some midfield mongrel, the team is probably in better shape despite Bailey Smith’s season-long absence with a knee injury.

arcus Bontempelli and his Western Bulldogs teammates look dejected.

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

But can a side which loves throwing games away they had by the collar cuff really be counted on not to blow it again?

Perhaps the most important factor for the coming season will be whether the Dogs still play for Beveridge – despite all the right messages publicly, the team that fronted up against the Eagles and Cats last year looked utterly devoid of life or inspiration, and that rests squarely on the coach’s head.

I’m a natural pessimist, but I can promise you this: if the Dogs end up finishing where I’m tipping them to, Beveridge will find it almost impossible to survive.

Prediction: 12th

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