AFL 2013 Season Preview

Image courtesy of dailytelegraph.com.au/Phil Hillyard
The Swans celebrate winning the 2012 premiership. Image courtesy of dailytelegraph.com.au/Phil Hillyard
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ADELAIDE CROWS  



Plenty of stones were aimed at the Crows at the end of the home and away season. They finished in second place on percentage, but there was no shortage of chat about a soft draw that helped them rack up 17 wins for the season. The fact of the matter is, though, they outlasted in-form Freo in the second week of the finals and produced a stunning final quarter to almost shock Hawthorn in the prelim.

The big reason for this was Adelaide’s ability to win the ball in tight. Ranked 11th the year before in contested possessions, new coach Brenton Sanderson added a hard edge to the Crows’ game and consequently they led the AFL in that statistical category. The biggest beneficiary of that was Patrick Dangerfield , the speed demon who had a breakout season racking up 23 Brownlow votes along the way. If teams try to neutralise him, then the likes of Scott Thompson , Rory Sloane and Co. can still cut opposition teams to ribbons.

Question Mark: How will the Kurt Tippett saga affect Adelaide? The Queenslander provided a one-two punch up forward with Taylor Walker , but big Tex will be the focal point of defences this season. He booted 63 goals last season, despite a three-game suspension, and could move in to Coleman Medal territory if the Crows find a foil for him. That may well come in the shape of 197cm ruck-forward Josh Jenkins, who showed a fair bit of promise in 11 matches last season.

Prediction: 4th 

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



BRISBANE LIONS


The NAB Cup run has excited fans in the River City, but it’s the home and away season where this team will be marked. Michael Voss’s outfit finished well winning its last three games, and they should benefit from the return of elite ruckman Matthew Leuenberger. While Brisbane against has a good draw, if the Lions don’t improve against the top teams, they’ll be starting their holidays in September again.

Ten wins last year was certainly a good start, but only two of those came against top 12 teams. Both of those were heart-stoppers against West Coast and Adelaide when they appeared to be in second gear, at times. Considering how hard at the footy Voss was, that it one area the Lions have struggled with, relying far too much on ageing veteran Simon Black . Ex-Melbourne mid Brent Moloney should certainly help with the dirty work, while the three Rs – Tom Rockliff , Jack Redden and Daniel Rich – still have plenty of room for improvement.

Question Mark: How long can Jonathan Brown carry the Lions’ forward line? He may not have to, with Aaron Cornelius threatening to finally break out as an AFL-standard forward. He has a great leap, strong hands and is a good set shot. He was excellent in the NAB Cup, and with Brown spending more time up the ground last season, he has a chance to make the Lions’ forward 50 his own in 2013.

Prediction: 11th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



CARLTON BLUES


Whether Mick Malthouse is the Messiah remains to be seen, but it’s hard to see the Blues not improving on last season’s disappointing 12th -place finish. There’s no doubt injuries played their part; any team which loses players of the ilk of Mark Murphy , Andrew Carrazzo , Jarrad Waite , Jeremy Laidler and Robert Warnock for large chunks of the season will struggle. They were flag favourites after three matches in 2012, but their season reached its nadir losing to the Suns on the Gold Coast by 12 points in embarrassing fashion in round 21.

For a team that seemed to lack a distinct game plan at times last year, Malthouse is almost certainly going to bring structure to Carlton’s play. He has a super midfield rotation to work with and hopefully Chris Judd won’t be lumped with as much responsibility as he enters the twilight of his career. The Blues have a very soild backline and a top-shelf goalsneak in Eddie Betts , but if Waite continues to be seen more on the physio’s bench than in the goalsquare, Carlton will need to find a reliable target up forward.

Question Mark: How long can Chris Judd keep going for? The 2011 Brownlow Medallist dropped away in several statistical categories last season including disposals, contested possessions and tackles. Murphy’s shoulder injury left opposing teams with one less ball-winner to worry about, and much of the attention switched to Judd. He’s 29 years of age, but after being the centre of attention at the Eagles and Blues for so long, Malthouse may have to find a way to get the centreman through the season without taking the same physical pounding each week.

Prediction: 8th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon


Picture: George Salpigtidis/theaustralian.com.au
Chris Judd has handed over the captaincy of the Blues to Mark Murphy.  Image courtesy of theaustralian.com.au/George Salpigtidis



COLLINGWOOD MAGPIES


After losing on Grand Final day in 2011, the Magpies could only be described as being marginally off the pace last season. The naysayers were after Nathan Buckley when the ‘Pies lost two of their first three, but in the end the Collingwood of 2012 wasn’t that different to the Mick Malthouse version from the year before, and they went all the way to the preliminary final. The forward press may have gone missing when Malthouse departed, but Collingwood still hugged the boundary line, still had the best engine room in the competition, and still had a big bloke named Travis Cloke wrapping his mitts around the Sherrin deep in the forward line. Cloke’s ongoing contract negotiations proved to be an unnecessary distraction, but by the end of the finals he looked like he was focused on football again.

The ‘Pies have drafted incredibly well over the past half-dozen years, but this off-season they’ve opted for experienced recruits. Quinten Lynch is almost a direct replacement for Chris Dawes who had a poor final season for the club, Clinton Young provides premiership-winning experience on the wing while Jordan Russell has the ability to provide plenty of rebound from defence. They also have Luke Ball returning, which must be like getting a new recruit after his injury problems.

Question Mark: Will Dane Swan’s future be the big talking point during the season? Last year the media became obsessed with Travis Cloke and where he would be penning his signature. Dane Swan inked a deal which will keep him at Collingwood until the end of 2014 – when he has said he will walk away from the AFL – but the marriage between the ‘Pies and the No. 36 has taken a turn for the worse. He was suspended for drinking last season, has tried to palm off rumours of a drug problem, and recently copped a fine from the club for doing a television interview without management’s approval. If he keeps his head on straight, then the Magpies are in with a big show at the premiership.

Prediction: Premiers

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



ESSENDON BOMBERS 


It’s a shame the ASADA investigation has overshadowed Essendon’s pre-season because we should be talking about a team that is on the cusp of moving well up the table in 2013. Injuries cruelled the ‘Dons in the back-half of last season, but it’s not the first time the Bombers have struggled to run out the year. Over the past three seasons, they have only won 11 games after round 10. Take the Stephen Dank investigation out of the equation, and you still have a team that needs to learn how to play in the back half of the season before you’ll see it lining up in September.

Jobe Watson was an out-and-out star last season, and this year he’ll be joined by another player in that elite category, former Saint Brendan Goddard . While he has been down slightly on form over the past couple of seasons, he remains one of the league’s best, regardless of whether he’s playing down back or in the midfield. With the likes of Michael Hurley and Patty Ryder still developing, Jake Carlisle ready to take Dustin Fletcher’s mantle as the main man in defence, and Father/Son pick Joe Daniher a ready-made star, there is plenty to be positive about at Windy Hill. Well, there would be, if there wasn’t a Dank smell in the air at Essendon.

Question Mark: How will Essendon cope with the ASADA investigation? This is the greatest unknown heading in to the season. Only a clairvoyant would think they could predict the outcome of this mess with any certainty. If the rumours are correct, the Bombers could be without a fair chunk of their playing squad for part of the season. On the other hand, an issue like this could galvanise the playing squad. Cronulla has produced a couple of backs-to-the-wall efforts in the NRL, but to maintain an ‘us against them’ mentality week after week could prove to be very difficult.

Prediction: 12th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



FREMANTLE DOCKERS


The Dockers finished last season as well as any team in the league. They won eight of their last nine home and away matches then ended the reigning premiers’ season with a 16-point win over the Cats at the MCG. The man who engineered that victory was Fremantle’s most decorated player, Matthew Pavlich . His six goals in the game came at the end of a golden run for the six-time All-Australian; he booted 58 in his last 14 games of the season after pushing up forward permanently. After playing all over the field over the past 13 years, he looks set to spend the twilight of his career in the forward 50.

Danyle Pearce is a superb pick-up for the Dockers. Given Freo’s silky set of on-ballers, he won’t get nearly the same attention he did when he was one of Port Adelaide’s prime movers. After missing 12 games last year with a shoulder injury, Dockers fans will be hoping they get a full year out of Nathan Fyfe . He was simply superb after coming back in round 18 showing his ability to read the game and displaying great overhead skills, as well.

Question Mark: How will Aaron Sandilands’ injury affect the Dockers? The last thing you expect to bring down a man who stands 211 centimetres tall is a toe injury, but that kept the Dockers’ giant off the field for 10 matches last year. 2013 hasn’t started any better, with a hamstring issue sidelining him for at least two months. Fremantle was 6-4 without him last season, and with the likes of Jonathon Griffin, Kepler Bradley and Zac Clarke around to fill the breach, it isn’t all doom and gloom. That is, unless your Sandilands. A 30-year-old ruckman who is set to embark on his third straight injury-plagued season doesn’t normally have too much time left in the game.

Prediction: 7th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



GEELONG CATS


The most dominant team in football over the past six years came back to earth with a thud last season when Fremantle completely destroyed Matthew Scarlett’s last game in a Cats uniform in the teams’ elimination final at the ‘G. Whether it’s the start of the seemingly inevitable slide for great outfits, or a mere blip on the radar, will be discovered this season. While plenty of the old heads remain, 2013 will be something of a season of renewal.

The Cats have loaded up as well as any team in the competition. Josh Caddy hardly produced Gary Ablett-like numbers on the Gold Coast, but he looks like a proper ball-winner in the middle, and he probably couldn’t get a better role model than Joel Selwood . Hamish McIntosh and Jared Rivers are both quality players who would fit in just about club’s top 22, while Travis Varcoe has set the world on fire in the NAB Cup after returning from a foot injury that allowed him to play just one AFL game last year. The Cats have some seriously talented youngsters, including the likes of George Horlin-Smith, Jordan Murdoch and Billie Smedts, who all made their debuts in 2013.

Question Mark: Can Geelong eke out another premiership out of its senior players? Matthew Scarlett pulled the pin last season, much like Cameron Ling the year before. The Cats have five premiership players aged 31, so there will be more retirements to come, sooner rather than later. The good news is that the likes of Corey Enright, Steve Johnson and Paul Chapman had statistically very good seasons, even though the latter did finish the year playing permanently in the forward line. It will require excellent man management from Chris Scott, but this legendary Cats group may have one more charge left in it before the new brigade takes over.

Prediction: 6th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



GOLD COAST SUNS


There were concerns the Suns had regressed in 2012 after a promising enough debut season which reaped three wins. They were certainly more consistent last year, but it took until round 16 before they entered a score in the win column, after an amazing comeback victory against Richmond in Cairns where league convert Karmichael Hunt kicked the game-winner after the siren. Gary Ablett stood head and shoulders above the rest and wasn’t far off stealing the Brownlow Medal off Jobe Watson, but the real shining light for the club was the emergence of Harley Bennell , who showed why the Suns took him with the No. 2 pick in the draft. At just 20 years of age, if he improves again this year, he’ll be moving in to elite territory.

Another young gun Gold Coast is banking its future on is Jaeger O’Meara. He looked at home in the NAB Cup last year as a 17-year-old and has added further bulk to his frame after playing a half-dozen games in the NEAFL in 2012. Opposition skippers have voted him a red-hot favourite to take out the Rising Star award this season, but with the Suns lacking depth in the midfield, he’ll receive more attention than the average teenager.

Question Mark: Can the Suns break the three-win barrier this season? The short answer is probably not. The Suns won three of their last eight in 2012, including a shock 12-point win over the Blues which ended Carlton’s finals hopes. They did run Essendon, Fremantle, North Melbourne and Brisbane close at Metricon Stadium and fell apart after leading the Bulldogs at the long break in Darwin. The young group is another year older, but whether they have the class to win those tight ones – outside Gary Ablett - is another matter. Getting Nathan Bock back from a broken leg will help, though.

Prediction: 17th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon


Picture: Getty Images/couriermail.com.au
Gary Ablett almost won last year's Brownlow Medal despite the Suns winning just three games.  Image courtesy of couriermail.com.au/Getty Images



GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY GIANTS


You only have to look at Melbourne to realise a stash of high draft picks doesn’t equal success in the AFL, but on first impressions the GWS Giants have taken a stellar group of teenagers, and that’s without even seeing 2011 top pick Jonathon Patton in full flight after his debut year was hindered by a knee injury. The Giants loaded up on midfielders and look to have found some gems with the likes of Stephen Coniglio, Toby Greene, Adam Treloar and Dylan Shiel, among plenty of others. Under 18s standout and No. 1 draftee Lachie Whitfield joins the group this season as the Giants look to add to their two victories in 2012.

Despite the emphasis on centremen, probably the most impressive young gun at the club last season was forward Jeremy Cameron, who kicked 29 goals and was strong in one-on-one contests, despite his relatively light frame. Add to that mature-age pick-ups Callan Ward and Jonathan Giles, who came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the best ruckmen in the competition, and the Giants list looks to have plenty of promise. The reality is, though, they were beaten by 90-plus points on six occasions from round 15 onwards. They’ll more than likely be trying to avoid the wooden spoon again, but watch out in five years’ time.

Question Mark: Will Tom Scully finally live up to expectations? Scully isn’t the only No. pick to underwhelm when turning out for the Demons, and he didn’t exactly set Blacktown alight last season. His disposal numbers have remained static across his three seasons in the league, but he only has to look at teammate Callan Ward to see a player that has improved every year. Ward was rightfully named the Giants’ Best and Fairest for 2012, and if Scully can take his lead, he may finally have a breakout season in 2013.

Prediction: 18th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



HAWTHORN HAWKS


Since Lance Franklin debuted in the 2005 season, Hawthorn has consistently been among the contenders for the AFL flag. Despite having a list that, at times, has been the envy of most clubs in the league, the Hawks only have the 2008 premiership to show for it. Yes, the Swans put them under incredible pressure in last year’s decider, but given their weight of possession and forward 50 entries, Hawthorn should have executed far better than it did.

To shore up their backline heading in this campaign, the Hawks swooped on former All-Australian defender Brian Lake, but that gain was offset by the loss of Matt Suckling to a season-ending knee injury in the NAB Cup. His raking left boot set up plenty of forward movements from the back half of the field, and Lake won’t provide the same rebound, despite his brilliant aerial ability. Alastair Clarkson won’t want any more injuries to backline starters having let go of Stephen Gilham and Tom Murphy in the off-season.

Question Mark: Do the Hawks have another premiership in them? They have the third oldest list in the competition, but like Geelong, the core of this team doesn’t have too many more seasons left together. Any forward line featuring Franklin, Jarryd Roughead , the brilliant Cyril Rioli and fast-improving Luke Breust will be able to kick winning scores, as shown by their competition-leading 122 points per game last season. The backline looks relatively secure and they have the hardest bunch of midfielders in the competition. The one drawback is lack of pace, so if youngsters like speedster Bradley Hill kick on this season, the Hawks may be reinvigorated enough to again challenge for the flag.

Prediction: 3rd

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



MELBOURNE DEMONS


They had a new coach last season, but it was the same old sad story for Dees fans who haven’t watched their team play finals footy since 2006. Apart from the performance of Mitch Clark , who played a lone hand up forward, and Jack Watts, who finally looked capable of fulfilling the promise that comes with being a No. 1 draft pick, there was little to encourage fans for the future. Nathan Jones had a standout season in the midfield and Jeremy Howe provided half-a-dozen Mark of the Year candidates, but it seems as though Melbourne is back at square one.

The on-field performances show Melbourne’s draft strategy has been poor over the past half-dozen years, but finally there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. Jack Viney has come to the club as a Father/Son pick, and seems set to step in to the midfield straight away and contribute at AFL level, as does another South Australian, Jimmy Toumpas. It’s a start, but the Dees have a long way to go before they start pushing for a spot in the eight.

Question Mark: How good can Mitch Clark be? He only played 11 games last season on a bad team playing a new style of football under a first-year coach. Even so, before a foot injury ended his year, Clark managed to boot 29 goals, which was a phenomenal effort. He was only held goalless once, and few players catch match his ability to beat defensive opponents in one-on-one contests. If he gets better service and he gets a full season out of his body, then there are definitely worse value Coleman Medal picks.

Prediction: 15th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



NORTH MELBOURNE KANGAROOS


The Kangaroos are a young team, as evidenced by the fact captain Andrew Swallow is just 25. But if the back half of last year is anything to go by, this is a team on the rise, albeit it one that will have to battle a far tougher draw this season after sneaking in to the top eight in 2012. They went 10-2 to finish the home and away season before a humiliating loss in Perth at the hands of West Coast in the elimination final.

Any team with young talent like Jack Ziebell , Ben Cunnington, Ryan Bastinac and Shaun Atley who are 22 years or under is off to a good start. Throw in a marking forward like Drew Petrie , the class and experience of Daniel Wells and Brent Harvey, and a solid backline led by All-Australian Scott Thompson, and there is the makings of a perennial finals outfit. The only problem is they take on Hawthorn, Collingwood and Adelaide twice this season, which makes the Roos the only team forced to tackle three top-four teams home and away. Ouch!

Question Mark: Can Jack Ziebell and Ben Cunnington go from good to great midfielders this season? Both of these boys need to work on their endurance before moving anywhere near the elite category of mids in the AFL. Cunnington spent far more time in the centre last season, thanks in part to Ziebell’s mid-season suspension, and he stood out like a sore thumb during the Kangas’ winning run. Ziebell’s contested possession numbers were brilliant, and if he can build on his fitness base, he could join his skipper amongst the top band of centremen this season.

Prediction: 10th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



PORT ADELAIDE POWER


There was a monumental shift at Alberton over the off-season with stalwarts Danyle Pearce, David Rodan, Steven Salopek, Troy Chaplin and Jacob Surjan moving on for various reasons. The cleanout isn’t as dramatic as it seems, with a new group of talented youngsters moving in to senior roles with the likes of Travis Boak , Hamish Hartlett and Brad Ebert making up the core of the Power line-up for, hopefully, many years to come.

One thing they don’t have is a big man in the middle to feed them the ball. Port has probably the weakest ruck division in the competition, and last season it limited the ability of the team’s impressive young midfield. They didn’t make any moves in the off-season to bring in an experienced ruck operator, so new coach Ken Hinkley will have to make do with what he has until 2014. The shocking death of Power player John McCarthy in Las Vegas will obviously have some sort of effect on the players, but playing for their fallen friend will only get them so far.

Question Mark: Was Travis Boak worth the fight to keep him? The answer is yes, although Port could do with him moving up a cog in the rankings of the league’s top midfielders. Geelong, North Melbourne and Carlton were all in the mix to grab the former No. 5 draft pick, but in the end he pledged his allegiance to the Power. He is their main man at stoppages and averaged almost 24 disposals per game last season, but there is room for improvement with his scoring impact after he booted just nine goals in 2012.

Prediction: 14th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



RICHMOND TIGERS


It’s hard to believe that a team which beat both of last year’s grand finalists in 2012 could also lose to the Gold Coast Suns and draw with Port Power. That is the enigma that is Richmond, though. Even with wins in those two games, it wouldn’t have been enough to grant Tigers fans a rare taste of September action. The big problem came with the team’s inability to close out tight contests. Six times Richmond missed out on the premiership points when they lost by less than two goals. Convert some of those narrow defeats in to wins this year and Damien Hardwick’s men will be lining up for only the club’s ninth final in the past 34 seasons. A sobering thought.

The Tigers are young but undoubtedly on the rise. Trent Cotchin lifted to become a star last season, and this was reflected by his deserved second-placing in the Brownlow Medal count. After moving back in to the midfield from defence, classy Brett Deledio had an All-Australian season. Ivan Maric was the buy of the season after coming over from Adelaide and giving Richmond first use of the ball consistenly in the ruck, while Shane Tuck finally found his niche in the AFL as one of the competition’s best inside players. Richmond’s list isn’t as deep as other top eight contenders, so they did well shipping in the likes of Troy Chaplin, Aaron Edwards and Chris Knights in the off-season.

Question Mark: How many goals can Jack Riewoldt kick this season? Love him or loathe him, Jack Riewoldt is one of the elite forwards in the AFL. The Tasmanian won his second Coleman Medal last season booting 65 goals, which was 13 less than when he was the competition’s leading goalkicker back in 2010. Riewoldt was the most used target in the forward 50 across all clubs last season, so if Aaron Edwards plays and acts as a foil, it could lessen the defensive pressure on Jumpin’ Jack and free him up. On the flip side, Riewoldt’s scoring opportunities may drop, but that’s unlikely given his superb work in the air and love of a contest. He’ll be up there in the Coleman again this year, barring injury or suspension, but he has played all 22 games the past three seasons.

Prediction: 9th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon


Image courtesy of perthnow.com.au
Trent Cotchin has taken over the captaincy of the Tigers.  Image courtesy of perthnow.com.au



ST KILDA SAINTS


After four straight finals series and a couple of grand finals (three, if you count the replay with Collingwood), the Saints had an early finish to their campaign in 2012 ending up in ninth position. It was a changing of the guard at Moorabbin last year, though, with new coach Scott Watters coming in, and elder statesmen like Nick Riewoldt , Lenny Hayes , Leigh Montagna and Nick Dal Santo edging closer to retirement while Ben McEvoy, David Armitage, Jack Steven and Rhys Stanley will soon usher in a new era at the Saints.

The issue last year was the club’s inability to beat good teams. St Kilda beat just one top eight side, albeit that came against flag-winner Sydney, but that won’t be good enough to reach the final eight this season. Despite a couple of below-par seasons for his lofty standards, Brendon Goddard is a massive loss for the Saints. Much like Port Adelaide, the Western Bulldogs and Brisbane Lions, the Saints could well be staring down the barrel of a long rebuilding phase after a number of years of sustained success.

Question Mark: How much longer can St Kilda’s senior players go on for? Hayes missed all bar two games of the 2011 season after a knee injury finished him for the year. The time off seemed to rejuvenate a man who has been one of the game’s great competitors over the past decade, but at 33, time is not on his side. Much like Matthew Pavlich, Riewoldt remained stationed inside the forward 50 for most of the season, and improved his goal tally from 36 in 2011 to 47 majors in 2012. He’s nowhere near his numbers from the grand final season of 2009 when he split the sticks on 78 occasions. It’s gradual, but Montagna and Dal Santo’s numbers are receding and unlike a fine wine, they won’t be getting better with age.

Prediction: 13th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



SYDNEY SWANS


For years the Swans got the best out of their abilities thanks to the coaching of Paul Roos. The Bloods haven’t missed a beat since John Longmire took over and, if anything, last year’s premiership win may have been even more impressive than their stunning win in 2005. Looking at their respective lists, Sydney had no right to beat Hawthorn in the GF, and on weight of possession, the Hawks shouldn’t have lost. But as it had done all year, the Swannies’ defence absorbed everything the Hawks could throw at them. Draft steal Alex Johnson is gone for 2013 with a knee injury, but even without him, it’s hard to see their backline missing a beat, and you can expect they’ll keep teams to around the 73 points per game they managed last year.

The Swans’ guts was still a key, and Josh Kennedy deserved far more Brownlow votes than he received, but it was the pacy players in Sydney’s line-up that made the difference last campaign. The likes of Nick Malceski, Rhyce Shaw and Lewis Jetta all stood out for their ability to run with the football. That operation worked well in 2012, but things might change mid-season this time around when the big body of Kurt Tippett appears for the first time as a Blood.

Question Mark: How will Kurt Tippett change Sydney’s game-plan? The Swans operated for the most part with Sam Reid at half-forward and Adam Goodes spending the majority of his time inside the arc. A lot of the time, though, the Swans played with an open forward line, and of Lewis Jetta’s 45 goals, plenty came with him using his lightning pace to run on to the ball in space. Reid hasn’t quite developed in to the power forward that he threatened to after a very good 2011, so there is space for Tippett to be a leading forward. The unlucky man might be Canadian Mike Pyke, who genuinely impressed last season as a second ruckman behind Shane Mumford.

Prediction: 5th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



WEST COAST EAGLES


If there is one team that seems to have everything pointing towards a grand final appearance this season, it’s West Coast. The Eagles have the two best ruckmen in the game with Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui working in tandem, a backline which has a mix of ball deniers and ball users, and a forward set up which will welcome back from injury its two focal points from 2011. There is a blend of youth and experience which most other clubs would envy.

The boys from the west finished their season in the second week of the finals going down to Collingwood by 13 points. You have to wonder what might have been had Josh Kennedy , Mark LeCras and Mark Nicoski been able to provide further options up forward. Jack Darling became the first 19-year-old to kick 50 goals in a season since Lance Whitnall, and even without the departed Quentin Lynch, that multi-faceted attack will be hard to stop in anyone’s language.

Question Mark: How will Nic Naitanui’s injury affect the Eagles? After undergoing groin surgery in the off-season, Naitanui will definitely miss round 1 and how long after that is anyone’s guess at this stage. The past two seasons West Coast has won three of the four matches it has played without Nic Nat in the line-up, but that defeat was a humbling 61-point loss to Essendon. The Eagles had several out that night along with the Flying Fijian, so the evidence suggests that West Coast can survive with Cox going it alone in the ruck.

Prediction: Grand finalists

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon



WESTERN BULLDOGS


It’s hard to believe the way they finished the year, but at one stage between rounds 4 and 8, the Bulldogs win four out of the five games they played. Unfortunately the opposition was Melbourne, GWS, Gold Coast and North Melbourne, and the rest of the season confirmed what many had suspected; the kennel is bare out west and Brendan McCartney has a lot of work to do. Right now, the Dogs are sitting on an 11-game losing streak in the home and away season. Eight of those losses were by 50 points or more, so the Bulldog pups will no doubt be looking forward to the next time they get to sing the club song.

Speaking of the pups, there is some talent coming in the midfield in the form of Father/Son picks Tom Liberatore and Mitch Wallis. With Will Minson serving the elite pairing of Matthew Boyd and Ryan Griffen , there is something there to work with in the centre, but it’s the other areas of the field that are a concern. The backline lost its most experienced and talented member when Brian Lake jumped ship to Hawthorn, while the forward line was almost non-existent last season. Small forward Daniel Giansiracusa led the club with 28 goals, but even his production was down. If you’re going to bomb it long into the forward 50 on a regular basis, you need a marking forward, and the Doggies just don’t have that. They really would have expected more out of No. 5 draft pick Jarrad Grant by now.

Question Mark: Are the Bulldogs destined for the wooden spoon? You would like to think that a team which has players like Boyd and Griffen who regularly pick up leather poisoning would be a cut above newbies the Suns and Giants. Going on their difficulties of their schedules using last year’s win-loss figures, the Doggies have the fourth most difficult draw in the AFL, while the Giants have the 14th and the Suns 17th. They play both teams just once, and both times away from home. McCartney’s team would want to pick up a win here and there against other outfits, otherwise they will be in a dogfight for the spoon.

Prediction: 16th

Betting: Premiers Final 8 Wooden Spoon


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