So here we are. Footy’s back! So its time for our annual AFL Season Preview & Predictions Team by Team.
After such a wild ride through the 2016 season, culminating in Western Bulldogs’ emotional, drought-breaking victory, what will this season deliver? Of course, we can only guess what may transpire. But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?
TEAM BY TEAM SNAPSHOT FOR 2017 HOME & AWAY SEASON
After a superb 2016, the Crows should play finals, but there is a questionable depth of A-graders in the midfield that likely prevents them from the top four. They are more vulnerable for midfield injury then the other teams from last year’s top six.
The Lions are in total rebuild mode and won’t win too many. Most likely, they’ll finish bottom two. The real test lies in whether coach Chris Fagan and football boss David Noble can develop an exciting young group that everyone believes in.
Carlton will find it difficult to exceed last year’s seven wins, six of which came in the first 11 games. The Blues are in total rebuild mode and as such, their progress must be measured not in ladder position — they will be in the bottom four, likely bottom two. Rather, they should be on these measures: The development of a young group led by Jacob Weitering, Patrick Cripps, Caleb Marchbank, Charlie Curnow and Sam Petrevski-Seton, as well as through creating a competitive culture and environment.
The Magpies’ chances of making the eight — and saving Private Buckley — rest on whether the Pies and their coaches can emulate Luke Beveridge, by using a deep and talented midfield to paper over deficiencies at each end. It’s a fair test of coaching acumen. With the rocky start to the year they’ve had, my guess is they just make it.
There is no historic precedent for a team regaining 10 players after a 12-month hiatus when none have been injured. Given that unique circumstance, Essendon would appear to be the season’s great uncertainty. But a more forensic examination of the Dons’ list suggests that they have gained four very good players — Michael Hurley, Dyson Heppell, Cale Hooker and Jobe Watson — plus six others of varying quality. So they will improve substantially, but the quality quartet is being added to a team that won just three games. Thus, finals are unlikely but they are a club deep in tradition and I can’t count them out.
The return of Nat Fyfe, Aaron Sandilands and Michael Johnson and the recruitment of Bradley Hill and others will ensure the Dockers improve. But I doubt that will be enough for them to make the finals.
The Cats have to wean themselves off their unhealthy dependency on ‘Dangerwood’ if they are to contend. The onus is on Cam Guthrie, Mark Blicavs, Mitch Duncan and Steve Motlop to make the leap. Otherwise, they’ll make up the numbers in the final eight, which they should make. Contention seems less likely.
GOLD COAST SUNS
This will be a year of significant improvement for the Suns, with a slew of senior players, including Pearce Hanley, coming in. Finals seem beyond them, but they should win many more games and demonstrate their vast potential.
Barring significant injuries, the Giants should be top four and on the basis of talent are the logical flag favourite. Did that loss to the Dogs sting them enough to go all the way? Maybe. But if they don’t win it, it won’t be for any structural weakness.
It is difficult to see Hawthorn contending for the premiership given the erosion of experienced talent since 2015. That said, Jaeger O’Meara is a jet and Tom Mitchell will improve a contested ball problem. Their forward set-up remains potent and efficiency will keep them in the eight’s lower regions, assuming a reasonable run with injuries.
We haven’t had optimism at this level among the Demons for at least a decade. A dominant ruckman and key forward, solid key defender (Tom McDonald), a platoon of hard-heads in the midfield and, now, Jordan Lewis providing outstanding leadership and direction. The only query is on whether they can close the gap between the better angels of their nature and the not-so-good version, which lost to Carlton. They should play finals — just.
North Melbourne underwent possibly the most dramatic transformation of the post-season, considering the culling and retirements of veterans. The Roos have shifted abruptly — almost overnight — from attempted contention to a rebuilding program that will see them miss the finals and focus on ushering in younger players. Brad Scott’s task is to manage this transition, while remaining highly competitive. They’ll have their moments, but the bottom six is probable.
The Power will regain Paddy Ryder and, one would hope, some of their mojo. But it is difficult to have faith in a group that lacks consistency and depth of talent. Expect more of the same.
Last year was a disaster that has put Damien Hardwick in the firing line. But the Tigers can only strive for improvement and a slight shift into development mode. Prestia and Caddy will more than offset the loss of Brett Deledio and bring a more competitive season, but finals are unlikely. I think they’ll win about 10 or 11 games.
St Kilda has done a lot right under Alan Richardson and the pass mark this year — for the first time since 2012 — is finals. Their forward set-up is impressive, while Jake Carlisle is a critical acquisition down back. The midfield, though, remains workmanlike, rather than polished. If they don’t make the eight they will be millimetres outside and their range of potential season outcomes is pretty narrow.
An exceptional team and football operation. They did little wrong in 2016, and were luckless on the big day. The only major issue is that their talent — like their player payments — is concentrated among eight or so guns. But unless they lose a few they’ll be in the final four again.
WEST COAST EAGLES
In Sam Mitchell, out Nic Naitanui — that change should balance out. Overall, the Eagles are well-placed and they’re capable of pushing into the top four, even if their team has less midfield strength than a few other sides. In market terms, I’d buy.
It’s strange to begin a season with A) the reigning premier — a young side that has achieved prematurely — not being the most fancied team, and B) that team being the Bulldogs. Bevo’s boys have the advantage of not being burdened with typical premier expectation. Their flag was an outlier on scoring, age, lack of key-position players and injury. To do it again, they will need to improve efficiency in attack — thus the great Cloke question. If the Sydney teams appeal more to this pundit, the Dogs should still be snapping at them in the top four.
The premier will be… GWS
They fell in the prelims last year, but are a seriously hot tip to at the very least make the grand final. Some people have been getting carried away with talk about unbeaten seasons, but regardless of the hyperbole, the Giants are the real deal.
Behind GWS are local rival Sydney, followed by West Coast and the Western Bulldogs. I guess that’s our top four then?
The biggest improver will be… St Kilda
Given how close the Saints were to the finals last season, we must be pretty bullish about a significant jolt into the finals. And with good reason too — the Saints boast some electric young players and some invaluable experience, and most importantly play a great brand of contested, free-flowing footy.
Essendon and Melbourne must also be considered as big improvers, whichever of these three teams misses out on the finals it won’t be by much.
The biggest slider will be… North Melbourne
The Kangaroos clearly switched into rebuild mode late last year as they limped into the finals. In pensioning off four club stalwarts, it was obvious the Roos wanted to inject youth into their squad and earmark a premiership challenge in the longer-term.
The strategy is a sound one, but it will likely lead to a tumble down the ladder this year. The Roos have a good spread of young talent, but it’ll be a case of one step back to take another couple forward later on.
The wooden spoon will be won by… Brisbane
Only percentage saved Brisbane from taking the spoon home last year, but with Essendon surely to improve this season the Lions loom as the most likely candidate, new coach or not.
It seems plenty are concerned about the Blues’ prospects too, perhaps suggesting the improvements Brendon Bolton brought about last season are either insufficient or unsustainable.
The Brownlow will be won by… Marcus Bontempelli
It’s hard to believe the Western Bulldogs star is still only 21, such is his poise, leadership and impact on games. Bontempelli isn’t a 30-possession-game midfielder like some, but he can single-handedly lift his team to victory and his consistency is ridiculous.
While he will have to vie with a host of vote-stealing teammates, he secured 20 votes last season, not far off the minor placings behind runaway winner Patrick Dangerfield. He can only improve.
Rising Star winner … Aaron Francis.
The Bombers may excited about their gold-plated No. 1 draft pick from last year in Andrew McGrath, but one of the running defender’s teammates may trump him for this year’s rising star award.
Francis, pick No. 6 in the 2015 draft, only played three senior games last year but the Dons are bullish about his prospects as a rangy, mid-sized defender with attitude. He takes the game on, takes intercept marks, kicks the ball beautifully and may eventually move into the midfield. While Francis suffered a minor ankle injury in an intra club match in early February, if he stays fit, he could announce himself as one of the league’s premier young guns.
AFL PREMIERS 2017
|West Coast Eagles||8.00|
|Gold Coast Suns||81.00|