By Liam Melrose, Ollie Nash and Josh Farrell
Steven May and Christian Petracca had career best seasons in 2020 for the Demons. Photo: Matt Turner/AFL Photos
It's that time of year, and the AFL finals are finally upon us! However for the 10 clubs that missed the eight, it's back to the drawing board for 2021. This is how we graded them.
2020 Ladder Position: 9th
Once again, Melbourne teased their fans and very nearly found themselves in the finals in 2020 but fell just short. You cannot help but feel sorry for the diehard Demon fans, so starved of success. Throughout the year Melbourne showed glimpses but failed to string together consistent performances. Big wins against the Crows, Kangaroos and Magpies were followed the next week by a comfortable loss to the Bulldogs, two similar teams but two vastly different performances. Simon Goodwin appears to be creating a game plan that suits his team, but just needs to find the final pieces of the puzzle to truly challenge in 2021.
MVP: Christian Petracca
Petracca finally showed AFL fans exactly how good he is, the 24-year-old was a shining light this season. Petracca earned his maiden All Australian blazer also winning his first Best and Fairest for the Demons, providing some welcome support for stalwarts Nathan Jones and Max Gawn. Petracca elevated himself to elite levels with nearly all his statistics either Elite or above average, becoming one of the games pre-eminent midfielders. He is just moving into the prime of his career perfectly to help lead the Demons towards paradise in 2021 and beyond.
Surprise Packet: Ed Langdon
Langdon had a breakout season for Melbourne providing some welcome class to the Demons midfield. He may have been slightly lost playing in the West for a struggling Fremantle team, but his change of scenery has seen him go from strength to strength, finishing fourth in the Melbourne Best and Fairest in 2020. Providing strong defensive running for the Demons midfield, he also added solid outside class for the Demons, which complimented midfield bulls in Christian Petracca and Jack Viney.
Best Win: Round 12 vs Collingwood
Melbourne’s best win came against old rivals Collingwood in round 12 when they knocked off the Magpies by 56 points. For years, the Demons have had to play the Magpies on Queens Birthday while Collingwood have been a premiership contender. This victory was particularly sweet as they pumped the Magpies. The spread of goal kickers excited Demons fans, with five players kicking either two goals or more. Angus Brayshaw recaptured his form that saw him finish third in the Brownlow Medal in 2018, and Christian Salem was electric off half back.
2021 Barometer: 4th-10th
Melbourne simply has to play finals in 2021 and anything less is a complete failure. Simon Goodwin must get the Demons deep into September, this list can clearly play well as we saw in 2018, but they must show some consistency next year to get as close to a flag as possible.
2020 was a Giant disaster for GWS. Photo: AFL Photos
Greater Western Sydney
2020 Ladder Position: 10th
A Giant disaster. It’s hard to know where to start with Greater Western Sydney in what was a terrible year for the club after making the Grand Final in 2019. Are the Giants still haunted by last year’s Grand Final loss to Richmond? For the most part of 2020 GWS looked lost all over the ground. Both their forward and defensive transition simply didn’t work, and they struggled miserably moving the ball from one end of the ground to the other, ranking last in the competition. They also lacked forward pressure in their attacking 50, as clubs diced through their zone, moving the ball out of the Giants forward 50 with ease. Going into the year they were amongst the flag favorites, with the club still well and truly entrenched in the premiership window. However, fast forward 12 months and they’re not featuring in the finals and at risk of losing a number of key players in the off-season.
MVP: Lachie Whitfield
In a year where not a lot went right, Whitfield was his consistent self, constantly trying to drive the Giants off half back after being moved there in the second half of the year. Regardless of where he was in 2020 he was a strong point for the Giants, ranking in the elite categories for disposals and marks at 22.9 per game and 6.5 respectively.
Surprise Packet: Jake Riccardi
Riccardi made his debut in round 13 with the mature age recruit booting six goals across his first two games. He was able to come straight into the team and make an immediate impact as a key forward, providing another tall target inside 50 and taking the pressure off Jeremy Cameron who had a tough year. The Werribee VFL product looks like an absolute steal for the Giants.
Best win: Round 8 vs Richmond
The Giants defeated the Tigers by two goals in the Grand Final rematch. It was a game where GWS had to perform after a complete disaster of a big dance in 2019, where they were embarrassed kicking the lowest score in the clubs history. Toby Greene was the standout for the Giants kicking five majors in one of the Giants’ best performances of the year.
2021 Barometer: 4th-10th
After a horror 2020, I can’t see a list as deep as GWS’s missing the finals for consecutive seasons. They have the ability to bounce back and sneak into the four, while they also could just miss the eight.
Sam Walsh was awarded Best Young Player of the Year by the AFL Coaches Association. Photo: Chris Hyde
2020 Ladder Position: 11th
I was surprised by the narrative surrounding Carlton this year. They put themselves in finals contention and because they didn’t make it, fans and experts saw it as a failed year. That baffles me. This is the team that sacked their coach mid-way through last season and finished 16th. In a shortened season, they won the same amount of games, climbed five ladder spots and were two and a half games off eighth spot. That’s the natural progression of a young team on the rise. Similar to the Suns, there were winnable games that could’ve changed their season. Round two against Melbourne, round seven against Port Adelaide and round 16 against GWS were all within their reach. Add some class to their midfield and a fit Charlie Curnow up forward and the Blues will be in the finals hunt in 2021.
MVP: Jacob Weitering
Sam Walsh can probably count himself unlucky, but Jacob Weitering deserves some props for his All-Australian calibre season. He competed in 83 one-on-ones in 2020 and his loss rate was second lowest in the league to teammate Liam Jones at just 15 percent. He continued to improve his intercept game as well, racking up 96 intercept possessions with just under six a game. A great season and one of the main reasons the Blues were in finals contention in 2020.
Surprise Packet: Tom De Koning
I was big on Tom De Koning after his form in the VFL last season, but his immediate impact at AFL level this year was still surprising. The 203cm big man established himself as Carlton’s ruckman of the future, with eight disposals, two score involvements and 12 hit-outs per game. He was one of the few players to jump over Nic Naitanui this year, so I can see with another few pre-seasons of ruck craft under his belt, these numbers will only grow.
Best win: Round 3 vs Geelong
The Blues two-point win over Geelong at GMHBA Stadium in round three not only put them on the right track but was history-making. The Cats had won 35 of their last 41 outings at the venue heading into the game, but Carlton’s young group held on for a big win. They led 78-43 at three-quarter time and despite Geelong kicking 5.4 in the last term, the Blues kept them at bay.
2021 Barometer: 6th-10th
2021 is where the pressure starts to build for Carlton. Their young players have another pre-season under their belts, from all reports Zac Williams will join the club and Charlie Curnow will return. I see finishing sixth as their maximum but a finals birth is their expectation.
Young Docker Caleb Strong was crowned the 2020 AFL Rising Star. Photo: Ian Hitchcock/AFL Photos
2020 Ladder position: 12th
Fremantle exceeded all expectations this season. A change in coach always brings about an expected downturn in the following season, but the Dockers improved their ladder position in 2020. Early in the season the Dockers played a bland defensive style of football, almost attempting to not score and keep the opponents to next to nothing. As the season progressed however, they began to play an exciting brand that would be a refreshing sight for Dockers fans, who had grown tired of Ross Lyon’s defensive coaching style. Longmuir was cultivating a game plan that almost led the Dockers to a shock finals birth, while also showing the potential they have in coming seasons.
MVP: Luke Ryan
Fremantle’s lone All-Australian is the obvious choice for MVP, and the 24-year-old is deserving of the praise. The young defender dominated in defence for the Dockers in 2020, and was given the scope to play as a third defender and in turn utilised his intercept marking, and took control of the young defensive unit. Ryan was elite in disposals, intercept possessions and metres gained whilst being above average for intercept marks is nothing to ignore. As cross-town rivals the West Coast show, having a strong intercept marker in defence is pivotal in creating an impenetrable defensive 50. The Dockers are building an ominous team with a strong spine, and they are going to be damaging for years to come.
Surprise packet: Matthew Taberner
Taberner had a breakout season for the Dockers, it was reminiscent of a young Mathew Pavlich and would have excited Dockers fans who have been longing for a dominant forward again. Taberner finished fifth in the Coleman medal race with 29 goals, and became a spearhead for the Dockers forward line. He averaged nearly two goals a game and was averaging almost four score involvements as well. He also made the All Australian squad for the first time this season, which was a welcomed accolade for the key forward, and it is clear he is set to thrive under Justin Longmuir.
Best win: Round 9 vs Collingwood
The Dockers best win came against the Magpies, as it kick-started the second half of the season and in turn showed how competitive they could be. It was the young brigade of the Dockers which lead the way with players such as Matthew Taberner, Luke Ryan, Caleb Serong and Andrew Brayshaw playing well against a much more fancied Collingwood team. Taberner’s four goals was an exhibition on All Australian Centre Half-Back Darcy Moore, and Luke Ryan maintained his strong season with 25 disposals. David Mundy continued to show that he is aging like a fine wine, picking up 23 disposals against a strong Collingwood midfield. This win against the Pies is a win that fans will look back on in years to come, as the game where Longmuir’s game plan really came to the fore.
2021 Barometer: 6th-14th
I genuinely believe that if we see a Dockers team that we saw in the second half of this season for the full year next year, they have the potential to play finals. Whilst they would be a few years ahead of time, they showed plenty against teams stronger than them and beat many of the teams around them such as Melbourne. The Dockers should be at least expecting improvement again next season as their young team matures and players can better hone their skills in the pre-season.
2020 was a year to forget for the Bombers. Photo: AFL Photos
2020 Ladder Position: 13th
Not a lot went right for the Bombers in 2020. A club that had their sights set on finals failed miserably. Many were optimistic about how far Essendon could go this year after they won five of their first seven games, however they managed only one more win after round eight. The Bombers were riddled by a number of injuries to key players, as well as well as what seemed to be confusion around a new game plan they were trying to implement. It looks as though a few key players may be on the way out during the player movement period, with current question marks over Joe Daniher, Adam Saad, Orazio Fantasia, Cale Hooker and Michael Hurley. On a more positive note, Andrew McGrath continued to improve, stepping up and playing mostly out of the middle of the ground for the first time in his career. It also looks as though the Bombers have found an anchor down back for the next 10 years in Jordan Ridley.
MVP: Jordan Ridley
Essendon’s 2020 Best and Fairest winner, Ridley had a breakout year and looks to be a defender Essendon will be able to rely on for many years to come. His intercepting was his greatest strength averaging 5.2 intercept possessions per game, as well as 6.5 marks per game which places him in the elite category of the competition. For a Bombers backline that was constantly under attack for the most part of the year, Ridley consistently performed and was a great user of the ball, with a disposal efficiency of 87.5 percent for the year.
Surprise Packet: Irving Mosquito
Mosquito burst onto the scene in the annual ‘Dream Time’ game, kicking two goals in his debut, and looks like he will be the next cult hero at Tullamarine. His exciting flair around goal and eye-catching smile make it look as though he just loves his footy. The small forward went on to play three more games for the year before an ACL injury ended his season in round 16.
Best win: Round 14 vs Hawthorn
The Bombers trailed the Hawks by six goals at halftime before turning the game on its head in the second half, kicking 11 goals to three to win the game by 16 points. Superstar forward Joe Daniher starred in his first game in 467 days kicking four goals in what was the Bombers only win to come post round eight.
2021 Barometer: 8-16th
With a number of list changes expected at the Bombers it’s hard to get a gauge on where they’ll be in 2021. With Ben Rutten taking the reigns as the sole head coach it’s hard to predict whether they improve or remain in a similar position to where finished up in 2020. I’ve got them best case scenario in 8th position simply making up the numbers in the eight. However, realistically I’d expect them to finish anywhere from 10th-16th based on what we saw at the back end of this year.
Matt Rowell lived up to the hype in 2020. Photo: AFL Photos
Gold Coast Suns
2020 Ladder Position: 14th
This was a massively successful year for the Gold Coast Suns. From embarrassing to competitive and relevant in 12-months. A record of 5-1-11 with a percentage of 90.6 is a big improvement from 3-19 and 60.5 percent in 2019. The 11 losses included many winnable opportunities. Round six to Melbourne, round eight to the Bulldogs, round 10 to St Kilda, round 11 draw with Essendon and round 12 to Richmond were all very winnable games. Still a long way to go for the Suns, but there is so much young talent, and the fact they were competitive in almost every game is a big step forward.
MVP: Jack Lukosius
This was a tough one to pick. There were no obvious MVPs in my eyes, just a bunch of role players that gelled well as a team, which is what made them so hard to play against this season. I ended up going with Jack Lukosius. He is the best kick in the team and kicks it 60 metres off one step. He provided so much run and line-breaking kicking off half-back and continued to improve his one-on-one defending.
Surprise Packet: Sam Collins
Sam Collins broke onto the scene last season and became a regular in the Suns backline as a lockdown defender. In 2020 he continued to improve and catapulted himself into All-Australian squad consideration. He continued to evolve his game, becoming top five in the league for intercept possessions with seven and averaged almost six spoils a game. At just 26, he’ll be the Suns number one key defender for the next six to seven years.
Best win: Round 2 vs WCE
This was arguably one of the best wins of any team for the season. On the back of young-gun Matt Rowell’s 26 disposals and two goals, the Suns led from start to finish to run away 44-point winners. Completely unexpected, but a win that helped the Suns bridge the gap between them and the league’s best for the remainder of the season.
2021 Barometer: 9-12
It’s about gradual improvement each year now for the Suns. In 2021, if the league is back to 22 games next season and the Suns can double their wins to 10, that’d be another successful season. This would put them in the nine to 12 range on the ladder and set them up perfectly for 2022 and beyond.
Hawthorn started 2020 on fire before bottoming out and finishing in the bottom four. Photo: Ryan Pierse
2020 Ladder position: 15th
Hawthorn had an up and down season which was jarring for the rusted-on Hawthorn fans who are so used to success and were optimistically expecting a finals berth this season. They started the season with strong wins over both Brisbane and Richmond, but they lost to teams they expected to beat in Fremantle and Adelaide. This season proved one of the most testing for Alistair Clarkson, and it appears he did not have the answer. On paper the team is strong, with Brownlow medallist Tom Mitchell, elite defender James Sicily, and up and coming midfielder James Worpel. Hawthorn fans would be disappointed with this season as they simply were not competitive and did not live up to expectations.
MVP: Jack Gunston
Gunston was the quiet achiever in the competition, finishing third in the Coleman medal and making the All Australian squad. In a forward line that struggled to function efficiently, Gunston averaged almost two goals per game and was the one shining light for the Hawks. They will be desperate to hold onto him as Collingwood chase him this trade period. Gunston will be pivotal in the development of the Hawks forward line in seasons to come, the Hawks must attempt everything they can to keep him on their list to ensure the growth of the club.
Surprise packet: James Cousins
Since coming into the Hawthorn line up in round 13, Cousins really added to the Hawks midfield and promises to be a strong contributor in coming seasons. The young Hawk averaged 19 and a half disposals and was classified as elite for score involvements. In what is already a star-studded midfield, the Hawks may have found another gun to contribute for years to come. Cousins will reap the benefit of future pre-seasons which should see him learn from some strong midfielders around him.
Best win: Round 18 vs Gold Coast
Hawthorn’s best win came in the final round of the season, in which they provided a fitting send off for Paul Puopolo and Ben Stratton. Whilst the Suns clearly limped to the finish line, the Hawks decided to flex their muscles and show their fans that they have a lot to look forward to in 2021. Tom Mitchell was back to his ball winning best, and Jack Gunston kicked four goals to show the competition that he is still in the peak of his career. This win is one of the important ones for a club that is looking to improve, as it demonstrates that they are moving in the right direction for the future.
2021 Barometer: 12th-18th
Hawthorn will be looking to improve and truly reflect the talented list that they have. The pressure will be well and truly on Alistair Clarkson, a coach without his credentials may have been shown the door after a season like the one they just had. It’s now up to Clarkson to see whether he can create a game plan that suits this team and the strong group of players they have.
Sydney's young talent was a highlight in 2020, while Tom Papley put together a career best season making the All Australian squad. Photo: AFL Photos
2020 Ladder Position: 16th
Sydney continued their swift rebuild in 2020, while remaining competitive in almost every game. While they won only five games, they lost a further five by just nine points or less. In the second half of the year we saw a much-improved Sydney team from what we saw earlier on in the year. This included a new game-style, as John Longmire began playing to the strengths of his young team. Using their exciting pace, the Swans looked much more attacking utilizing the likes of Justin McInerney, Ollie Florent, Nick Blakey, and Dylan Stephens to their best advantage. Injuries hit Sydney hard, as they were without superstar forward Lance Franklin for all of 2020, as well as other key players such as Isaac Heeney, George Hewitt and Sam Naismith for a majority of the year. Whilst Dane Rampe and Josh Kennedy also missed a number of games through injury. Expect Sydney to continue to improve and win a few more games in 2021 as this group of cygnets begin to flourish.
MVP: Luke Parker
The midfield bull played every game in 2020, at times being the only Swan over the age of 25 in the middle of the ground. Surrounded by an inexperienced midfield, Parker shouldered a bulk of the inside work for the Swans. Averaging 22.2 disposals per game as well as 11.3 contested possessions per game, he was a consistent performer throughout the year.
Surprise Packet: Justin McInerney
McInerney was in and out of the team to begin the year, playing four of the first five games before not returning until round 14. However, returning to the senior team, the young wingman cemented his place in the Swans lineup, playing the final five games of the year and lifting to another level. His outside run was a key part of Sydney’s attack in the second half of the year, and his ability to run into open space and kick goals were a big tick against his name. At the raw age of 20 he still has a lot of room for improvement, which is great for the Swans' future.
Best win: Round 12 vs GWS
The Swans took on their cross-town rivals in Perth, the first time the two clubs had met outside the harbor city. Sydney were way too strong for the Giants, using the widths of Optus Stadium to their advantage, running rings around the Giants keeping them to just three goals, which all came as a result of free-kicks. The Swans looked fitter and faster than GWS in their most complete performance of the year.
2021 Barometer: 8-15th
It’s a very open bracket for Sydney in 2021. It all comes down to how much their youth improves, as well as if they pick up anymore key established players in free agency and the trade-period. They also have a number of important players to return from injury, including Lance Franklin and Isaac Heeney who missed the majority of 2020, and if they can stay fit in 2021 there is no reason why Sydney won’t climb up the ladder.
It looks as though it may be the beginning of another rebuild at North Melbourne after a horror year. Photo: Getty Images
2020 Ladder Position: 17th
We can’t sugar-coat it; this year was a disaster for North Melbourne and this is why. They started the year 2-0, with a come-back win over St Kilda in round one and a 20-point win over Greater Western Sydney in round two. They then proceeded to lose 14 of their next 15, including embarrassing losses to Gold Coast and Fremantle by 63 and 64 points respectively. Pre-season they were a finals contender and they preached that internally. As soon as the losses came, they changed their narrative to one of a re-building side. Sorry North, that’s not how it works.
MVP: Todd Goldstein
Jy Simpkin and Luke McDonald also had great seasons, but it was Todd Goldstein that got the nod for MVP. The big man was consistent all year, collecting 15 disposals per game, four score involvements and 28 hit outs (fifth in the league), seven of which were to advantage. Despite turning 32 in July, the big man is ageing like a fine wine and playing some of the best footy of his career.
Surprise Packet: Jed Anderson
With Ben Cunnington missing majority of the season through injury, North needed a tough, in and under midfielder to replace him. Enter Jed Anderson. Fans already knew how hard and competitive he was, but Anderson took his game to another level this year. In shortened games, his disposal numbers, clearances, contested possessions and inside-50s were all up, and alongside Jy Simpkin, he kept this midfield afloat.
Best win: Round 2 vs GWS
The Giants were coming off a 32-point belting of Geelong and were the early flag favourites. Yes, the COVID-19 lockdown hit, but returning in round two to beat them by 20 points was huge for North Melbourne. The Rhyce Shaw appointment seemed to be working wonders and the players were responding. If only they knew what was coming.
2021 Barometer: 15-18
Whenever you delist 11 players in one hit, the following year can’t have too many high expectations. North have bottomed out and will re-build, which is fine and something they need to do. It does mean 2021 won’t be an enjoyable one for North fans, I see them finishing bottom three again.
The Adelaide Crows claimed their first ever wooden spoon in 2020. Photo: Getty Images
2020 Ladder Position: 18th
Adelaide had the worst season in its history, claiming their first ever wooden spoon. The Crows lost their first 13 games, with it looking as though they may finish 2020 without a win. Fortunately for Adelaide they showed big improvements to win three of their last four games. The wins showed us they’d come a long way from the Crows we’d seen during the early part of the season. Victories over Hawthorn, Carlton and GWS provided Adelaide fans with signs there is a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel as the seeds are planted for the future.
MVP: Reilly O’Brien
O’Brien put his name amongst the best ruckman in the competition in 2020. He finished the season top five in hit-outs as well as hit-outs to advantage. For a team that struggled he was a shining light, and has a big future ahead of him if he can continue to improve around an Adelaide midfield that will grow with him. He played all 17 games in 2020 and competed week in week out.
Surprise Packet: Shane McAdam
McAdam looms as one of the competitions most exciting small forwards. His flair around goal as well as his ability to fly high and take exciting marks make him a pleasure to watch. The mature-age recruit kicked 12 goals in 13 games in 2020 in what you could say was a learning year for the SANFL product. There is no reason why we won’t see a breakout year from McAdam in 2021, as the Crows hope to move back up the ladder sooner rather than later.
Best win: Round 15 vs Hawthorn
The Crows had lost 16 straight games if you include the back end of 2019. Staring down the barrel of becoming the first team since 1954 to finish a season without a win, Adelaide defeated the Hawks by 35 points at Adelaide Oval in what was a great day for the club.
2021 Barometer: 12-18th
I still have the Crows in the bottom six for 2021. It’s likely they will improve especially after their strong finish to 2020, however this Adelaide team still has a long way to go. At best they could finish as high as around the 12th mark, however I wouldn’t be surprised to see them amongst the bottom couple of teams in 2021.
Cover Photo: Getty Images