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
By Liam Melrose, Ollie Nash and Josh Farrell
Hawthorn sent off their premiership heroes in style with a 51-point win over the Gold Coast Suns. Photo: Getty Images via AFL Photos
Hawthorn give legends a proper send off
Hawthorn have continued the multi-year celebration of its stars from its 2013-2015 three peat, farewelling Ben Stratton and Paul Puopolo against the Gold Coast Suns. The Hawks finished off what was one of their toughest seasons in recent memory with an emphatic win over a tired Gold Coast.
Puopolo chipped in with three goals and Stratton kicked just the second goal of his career, warming the hearts of even the most staunchly anti-Hawthorn fans around. However, the problems remain for the Hawks as Alistair Clarkson has to find a way to make this team into one that can compete in 2021.
It is evident that Hawthorn cannot play the same controlling style of football that proved so successful for a number of years. It will be a test for Clarkson as he must mould a game plan around a team without the same skills as teams he has had in the past.
The Hawks should take some confidence into next season with a commanding win on Sunday, the powerful engine room with Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara and James Worpel will need to carry the team next season as they will miss James Sicily and Jonathon Patton for most of the year.
If Hawthorn can capture the form they showed against the Suns going forward, their fans should be excited about the future.
Let’s give Brett Ratten some respect
We’ve got to give credit where it’s due. St Kilda has delivered on their off-season expectations and will play finals footy for the first time since 2011. Their head coach Brett Ratten is a key reason for this success.
The man can coach, it’s as simple as that. He coached Carlton to the finals in 2009, 2010 and 2011 before a surprise sacking after the 2012 season. The two seasons he missed the finals, the Blues were 10-12 in 2008 and 11-11 in 2012.
Now he has the Saints back in the top eight after going 3-3 as their caretaker coach last season. Huge props to Ratten who has proven second chances are valuable in the coaching sector.
Has Jeremy Cameron played his last game for the Giants? Photo: Getty Images/AFL Photos
A Giant Problem
This time last year GWS were preparing for a Grand Final. 12 months later they won’t even feature in the finals. The Giants had to defeat the Saints by a big margin on Friday night if they were any chance of playing finals. Taking nothing away from St Kilda, the Giants looked disinterested after half time as the Saints piled on seven goals to zero.
They have one of the most talented lists in the league, however they’ve dropped off considerably in 2020. The Giants now go into the offseason with question marks over the futures of a number of players. Defenders Zac Williams and Aidan Corr have already informed the club they will explore options in free agency, while it is believed talks between superstar forward Jeremy Cameron and the club are a fair way apart, as rival clubs circle.
The Giants three first-round picks from the 2018 draft are also out of contract in Jye Caldwell, Jackson Hately, and Xavier O’Halloran with a number of clubs interested in their services.
It was clear GWS were struggling in 2020 throughout the year, were they haunted by their humiliating Grand Final loss in 2019?
Regardless, after an incredibly poor year and with a number of players out of contract they suddenly have a giant problem.
Did Geelong time their pounce too early?
Going into their clash with Richmond in round 17 it looked as though the Cats were timing their run perfectly. They’d won six games in a row and besides their come from behind win over the Western Bulldogs, they’d won all six games by at least 28 points or more.
However, alarm bells sounded once again for the Cats after Richmond took care of them with ease. Going into the match many dubbed it as the Grand Final preview, however Geelong looked a long way off, as the Tigers went back to their frantic pressure that the Cats have struggled to handle in recent years.
On Sunday, they were playing for a top-four position against a young Sydney team. Like Richmond a week earlier, the Swans dominated the match for the most part of three quarters. If Sydney had capitalised on their chances in front of goal early in the game, it’s likely they would have put the game out of reach like the Tigers did, and given Geelong their second straight loss.
Fortunately for the Cats, Sydney failed to make the most of their opportunities leaving Geelong in the game. However, the most alarming thing out of the game was the lack of urgency the Cats had for the first three quarters with a top-four position on the line.
They looked lethargic and with their form declining this late in the year, Geelong fans would be nervous as they've struggled at the business end of the season in recent years, winning only four of their past 15 finals.
Gary Ablett, Dan Hannebery and Shane Edwards all returned in terrific form in Round 18 following their two weeks training in the 'Transition hub'. Photo: Quinn Rooney
Edwards, Ablett and Hannebery haven’t missed a beat
There is always the narrative for players returning from a stint on the sidelines that they might need a couple of weeks in the reserves or a solid amount of training. However, when you’re the calibre of player like a Gary Ablett Jr., Shane Edwards or Dan Hannebery, you don’t need any preparation.
The three trained in the 'Transition hub' together after flying to Queensland earlier this month. Returning to their respective teams after finishing quarantine, the three looked comfortable immediately.
Edwards was best on ground in his return game against Adelaide, if not he will at least get the two votes. Dan Hannebery didn’t set the world on fire with his 13 disposals, but boundary reporter Luke Hodge, one of the best in the business, raved about his defensive running and support around the ground. Ablett was back to his line-breaking best, 16 disposals and a goal to his name. They’re the upper-echelon of the competition and they proved it in round 18.
Dogs find their bite in the run into finals
Sunday’s twilight game loomed as a danger game for the Western Bulldogs in the run into finals, as a loss to the Dockers would have seen them drop out of the top eight. The Dogs instead showed us that they are in dominant form, dare I say 2016 form.
Lachie Hunter is playing some sparkling football, finding the ball 35 times, whilst Tim Liberatore had 41 pressure acts to go with his 25 possessions. Caleb Daniel continued his stellar season with 14 high impact disposals, and looms a vital cog in the Bulldogs machine moving towards October. The dogs are finding form at the right time and if Aaron Naughton can get his body right for the finals, they have the potential to go deep into October.
Tim English is shaping up as one of the most important players for the Bulldogs at the right time of the year. His 20 hit-outs and 14 disposals prove how dangerous he can be once the ball hits the ground. He has the potential to become a fourth midfielder. English is above average for disposals and score involvement. You can’t ask for much more from your 205-centimetre ruckman.
Josh Bruce will need to have a big finals series for the Dogs, after what has been an inconsistent 2020. He needs to provide support for both Naughton and English, or worst-case scenario he is going to have to be the spearhead in the forward line if Naughton is unavaliable. English and Bruce hold the key for the Dogs as they head towards another tilt at a flag.
Cover Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
By Matthew Hughes
The Gabba will host the 2020 AFL Grand Final on Saturday October 24. Photo: Jono Searle/AFL Photos/Getty Images
The recent announcement that the AFL Grand Final will be held outside Victoria for the first time ever was something most people didn’t expect to see in their lifetime.
Two years ago the Victorian Government signed a 40 year agreement with the MCG, which guaranteed them the showpiece event every season until 2057 (it has since been extended to 2058 after losing it for this year).
However, the extreme circumstances surrounding COVID-19 in 2020 left the AFL with little choice but to look interstate, and the Gabba was the right option after all Queensland has done to accommodate the league this season.
All of a sudden Queensland has a literal “once in a lifetime opportunity”, to showcase the benefits of playing the penultimate game at more than one location.
Now I usually consider myself a traditionalist, but in some cases, tradition has to make way for the greater good. After all, I’m sure if it weren’t for changes Australian rules football would look a lot different to the game we play today.
After living in Melbourne for the last four years, there’s nothing more that I love than seeing 100, 000 + screaming fans packed into the MCG every year, and all the festivities that go with it. I love the parade and the buzz that engulfs the city.
However, there is one thing that even the most naïve fan would be forced to admit. Holding the Grand Final permanently in one location gives an advantage to the home team.
The MCG has had its Grand Final contract extended until 2058. Photo: Justine Walker/AFL Media
Whether it’s the home crowd support, less travel time, or more familiarity with the ground there is an advantage, however slight it may be.
From the years 2014-18 interstate teams that finished higher on the ladder were forced to play the Grand Final against a Victorian team at the MCG. In all these seasons except one (2018) the interstate team lost the game, and interestingly enough in all five games the interstate team lost or drew the free kick count.
Now I’m not saying if any of these Grand Finals were played interstate it would have changed the result, but don’t we think if there is to be any advantage on Grand Final day it should go to the team who finished higher on the ladder?
I know most people will argue the game’s greatest spectacle should be played at the biggest stadium, but there’s no reason we can’t have a great contest inside a packed 40,000-60,000 seat stadium. The NFL regularly holds the Super Bowl, one of the world’s most viewed sporting spectacles, in 60,000–70,000 seat stadiums.
Now I am aware that it may not be viable to hold the game at say Giants Stadium if GWS were to qualify first, but maybe a deal could be struck where the game was at least played in the biggest stadium in that team’s state.
Australian sports are lucky in that we have a finals system, with a winner-take-all game. In sporting leagues like the Premier League in England, it is the team that wins the minor premiership that takes home the ultimate prize. Even in sporting leagues like the NBA where the NBA Finals are one of the great spectacles, they play a best of seven series where the higher ranked team gets more home games.
Just like these leagues the AFL is far from amateur and is worth billions of dollars. A premiership for a club makes a huge difference in its ability to prosper and therefore no one should be given an undeserved advantage.
It has been 38 years now since South Melbourne relocated to Sydney to become the league’s first non-Victorian team, and 30 years since the VFL was renamed the AFL. For the AFL to become truly national the Grand Final cannot be permanently played in one location. Good luck to the Gabba in holding the first interstate grand final next month. I only hope I live to see the second.
Cover Photo: AAP/Darren England
By Liam Melrose, Ollie Nash and Josh Farrell
The Tigers were back to their September best on Friday night against the Cats. Photo: AFL Photos
The Tigers know how to hunt in September
Richmond have been building all season as a group regardless of who has been in their 22 each week. When the Tigers play with that frantic pressure that has won them two of the past three premierships, they’re incredibly hard to stop.
It has become a trademark style for Richmond over the past three years, and when their style is in full flight you almost feel as though you’re watching a pack of vicious Tigers chasing and attacking their prey. They hunted Geelong down on Friday night, making the Cats look second rate in what many were dubbing the Grand Final preview.
While the Tigers still haven’t got their best 22 available due to injuries, if they bring that brand of football into the finals you wouldn’t want to come up against them. They’re the clear premiership favourite in my eyes right now.
Will Scott’s Cats ever win a flag
Having been a Geelong supporter my whole life I have been privileged to follow one of the most successful teams in the modern era, seeing three premierships in five years and regular finals appearances. In recent years however, the Cats have consistently failed at the final hurdle. They have dominated the regular season year after year, but never look likely to challenge for a premiership.
Chris Scott has coached Geelong for nine years delivering a premiership in his first season with a star-studded team who knew how to play a winning brand of football. It has been nine seasons since Scott won that premiership, which is one less than Nathan Buckley who is under immense pressure to deliver a premiership for his beloved Magpies. The question must be asked whether Scott has a game plan that will stand up in the big games, or whether it just makes for a good home and away team.
On Friday night we saw a Geelong team that once again will not stand up in big games against the competitions best teams. Superstar forward Tom Hawkins has been dominant all season but was kept desperately quiet, with many commentators saying that 'Richmond unlocked how to stop the Cats when going forward.' The Cats midfield was unable to stop a rampaging Richmond, as they simply powered through the middle of the ground, with the Tigers kicking 7.15 for the match. Whilst the game against Richmond is an outlier in the scheme of the season, it is an all too familiar sight for Geelong fans in September.
The Cats struggled to diversify moving forward, without a strong number one ruckman Esava Ratugolea is forced into the midfield, and the cats lose options going forward. The midfield continued to pump the ball long into Geelong’s forward 50, and after almost every attempt the Tigers would rebound from defence and put themselves into a scoring position. Geelong must look to create more options or be more flexible, not simply relying on Hawkins when moving forward, because he clearly can be stopped by a strong defence.
Brisbane confirmed a top-two finish after defeating Sydney at Cazaly's Stadium in Cairns on Sunday night. Photo: AFL Photos
Lions roaring at the top of the jungle
After Sunday’s win over Sydney, Brisbane have confirmed a top two finish, which brings at least two home finals and well and truly sets them up for a tilt at a premiership.
The Swans made the Lions earn their victory, kicking the first two goals of the final quarter, bringing the margin back to just two points. However, the Lions remained composed under pressure and showed us why they’re a premiership threat, piling on six of the last seven goals to runaway 26-point winners.
The Brisbane midfield showed they’re also more than a ‘one-man-show’. With Lachie Neale well held by Swans tagger Ryan Clarke, the door opened for Jarryd Lyons to steal the show. The talented midfielder finished with 20 disposals and a goal, showing fellow premiership contenders they’ll need to put time into Lyons as well as Neale if they’re going stop Brisbane in the finals.
Is 2020 finished yet?
We’ve reached that time of the year where teams know they’re not playing finals and to be honest, you can tell they’ve mentally checked out. The ladder position tells you the story for the most part, but the performances in the last three to four weeks tell an even deeper story.
North Melbourne look as if they’ve given up. Seven losses in a row by an average of 40.5 points and Rhyce Shaw is searching for answers. The Roos are praying for the end of 2020.
John Worsfold and Essendon are a close second behind the Kangaroos. Back-to-back 50-point losses to Port Adelaide and Geelong, with the Bombers giving no contest in either game. Dons fans are growing very impatient, so the end 2020 couldn’t come fast enough.
The Hawks have joined the club in the last few weeks. People forget this team dismantled Richmond at the MCG in round three by 32-points. Fast-forward to the end of round 17 and they’re 16th on the ladder with seven straight losses to their name. The back of 2020 looks nice to the Hawks.
Premiership heroes Ben Stratton and Paul Puopolo will play their final game for Hawthorn on Sunday. Photo: Getty Images
A thanks to Ben Stratton and Paul Puopolo
Hawthorn skipper Ben Stratton and small forward Paul Puopolo have called time on their exceptional AFL careers. Both three-time premiership players with the Hawks, the two have earned a farewell game to say goodbye.
Both players were mature-age recruits and great stories of perseverance. Stratton was pick 46 in the 2009 draft after playing three seasons in the WAFL. Puopolo was pick 66 in the same draft after playing 68 games for Norwood in the SANFL.
Key parts of one of the best teams in AFL history and from the outside looking in, they seem like good blokes too. Sit back and enjoy a few beers in retirement boys.
Eagles continue to get a passing grade
Ask anyone who follows the AFL who the most talented team is, except for a few one-eyed supporters, most would say the West Coast Eagles. With the addition of Tim Kelly, the midfield is one of the best in the competition with talent almost overflowing. The Eagles however have failed to truly put their stamp on the season, and the game against St Kilda was another example of that.
Whilst the Saints have played well this season they are in no way challenging for a premiership just yet, and they seriously pushed the Eagles staying within touching distance all game. As many commentators say, the most important part of a premiership team is not its stars, but those last five or six players selected. The quality of these players heavily dictate the strength of the team.
Tim Kelly, Andrew Gaff, and Nic Naitanui all dominated as usual, but once you move from there the Eagles quickly lose their quality that they have at the top. Those three players accounted for over 33 percent of the Eagles disposals for the game, half of the team had ten disposals or less. In big finals games, especially games away from home, relying on a small contingent of players to win the game for you is fraught with danger. The Eagles need more from the ‘lesser knowns’ if they truly want to contend for a premiership in 2020.
Cover Photo: AFL Photos
By Liam Melrose and Ollie Nash.
Essendon produced one of their most disappointing performances of the season. Photo: Getty Images
Bombers way off the mark
Going into 2020 I was optimistic about Essendon, I didn’t have them as one of the competitions best, but I said they could finish anywhere between 5-14 on the ladder.
Obviously, the Bombers have been without a number of stars for a majority of the season through injuries including Dyson Heppell, Joe Daniher and Jake Stringer and this has definitely hampered their progress. However, for a team that hasn’t won a final in almost 20 years, with their season on the line against Geelong on Sunday they lacked any fight at all.
While I didn’t expect them to win the game, it would’ve been a promising sign to see Essendon compete with one of the competitions best in Geelong. Their first half in particular was horrendous. They struggled to provide any pressure all over the ground, and lacked intensity in one of their most important games of the year, as the Cats piled on 12 goals to two.
It’s hard to see a rapid improvement going into 2021, and unless major changes are made Essendon will continue to be that mediocre team that hovers around the middle of the ladder.
The Eagles’ Gold Coast hoodoo 2-1
West Coast are 1-4 at Metricon Stadium this season. I’m not reading anything into it, because they’re still one of my flag favourites, but is there a hoodoo there for the Eagles?
A 44-point loss to the Gold Coast, a 48-point loss to Port Adelaide, a 27-point loss to Richmond and a two-point loss the Bulldogs. They were able to grab an impressive 34-point win over Sydney, but it’s not a happy record for Eagles fans.
What really matters is there record at the Gabba where the grand final will be held. They’re 2-1 there this season, with wins against Essendon and Adelaide and a loss to Brisbane way back in round three. Not panic stations for them but need a win this week to keep that top four dream alive.
Izak Rankine has already experienced the tough nature of AFL media. Photo: AAP - Brendon Thorne
Don’t turn Izak Rankine into a robot
David King decided to turn Gold Coast’s loss to Brisbane into the “bring Izak Rankine down a peg” show on Wednesday night. Now that the dust has settled on the small forward’s exciting start to his career, this has been creeping into the media each week.
With all the talk about the state of the game, we need Rankine to keep his flair and put bums on seats. That’s an easy fix to the apparent entertainment problem in the AFL.
Secondly, go back and watch the three sets of vision that King was critical of. I don’t see any issue with any of them.
The first instance he went to give the handball to Noah Anderson, who had an opponent on his tail, so he tried to get out the other side into the space and turned it over. Skill execution error, not trying to be flashy as King suggested. Second instance, he flew for a hanger that he almost took and was well within in his rights to fly for. King tells him to focus on playing his role. The third instance, he tapped it between his and his opponents’ legs to a teammate that he knew was there, but apparently that wasn’t the high percentage play.
All three were the right decision. Even if they weren’t, let him play. The Suns need it and the AFL well and truly needs it.
Melbourne have featured a number of times in our six packs to date in 2020, however is there a club in the AFL that is more disappointing than Melbourne? They’ve got the list to compete with the best in the league. We’ve seen they can do it, take one look at their finals run in 2018, progressing all the way to a preliminary final.
However, was that run just a peak of form at the right time? Was it a fluke? If you remove the 2018 season from the equation, the Demons have done nothing in 15 years. Melbourne fans are impatient and rightly so. They’ve been to the draft multiple times, they have constantly rebuilt the list, however they’re staring down yet another year without making the top eight.
Most people had Melbourne as a lock to make the finals with two of their remaining four games against teams below them on the ladder in Sydney and Fremantle. However, they lost both, meaning they’ll have to rely on other teams around them on the ladder to lose if they’re any chance of still making the eight.
They play GWS and Essendon to finish the season, and with both of those teams also struggling, they’re every chance to win and scrape into the finals. However, it is Melbourne, and they’re just as likely blow those games and cause their fans to spit out the camembert and pinot, while watching the finals from their Buller Chalet once again.
Alastair Clarkson has been in the news for the wrong reasons in 2020. Photo: Getty Images
Clarko needs to chill out
I’ve been watching football for a long time and I can’t remember a coach criticising the opposition team that just beat them because he doesn’t think their style of play will hold up in finals. That’s what Alastair Clarkson did however, post-game after his sides’ 14-point loss to St Kilda on Sunday.
All the stats point towards the kick/mark style that the Saints played being successful. The only team in the top eight now that doesn’t dominate in this area is Port Adelaide. Every other top side plays this way.
I didn’t mind him commenting on the holding the ball rule, that’s an AFL issue. But he has now twice taken aim at opposition clubs this season, and was unprovoked to do so. It’s a weird flex from a coach whose team sits 16th on the ladder with just four wins, and has lost six on the trot.
Crows soaring into 2021
Adelaide have struggled in 2020 losing their first 13 games before finally getting a win. However, they’ve suddenly won two straight and with two games remaining their finishing the season on a high note. Even if they don’t get another win for the year there’s promising signs at Adelaide.
Elliot Himmelberg and Shane McAdam were impressive against the Giants looking as though they’ll be a key part of the Crows forward structure for years to come. Adelaide have blooded nine debutants in 2020, with all of them showing they’ll be an integral part of the club’s future.
Strong momentum to finish the season is vital going into 2021 as the Crows look to soar back up the ladder. They take on Carlton and Richmond to finish the season, and even if they don’t manage to find another win, for a club that looked as though it might have the first winless season since 1964, their past two matches have been massive for the confidence of their young list going forward.
Cover Photo: Getty Images
By Liam Melrose, Ollie Nash and Josh Farrell.
The Adelaide Crows round 15 win over Hawthorn was their first victory in over a year. Photo: Getty Images
One year between wins makes this one all the more sweet
Adelaide is the pride of South Australia once again after breaking through for their first win of the season over the Hawks. The Crows have been under immense pressure all season, each week it seems a new player wants out, from the Crouch brothers to Rory Atkins. Matt and Brad Crouch put all of the outside noise aside against the Hawks, and carried their team to a win with 32 and 27 disposals, respectively.
On Tuesday night it was clear the Crows did not want to hold the record for the longest period between wins. Rory Laird re-discovered his best form, and Taylor Walker was back kicking the big goals in front of the raucous Adelaide fans.
The future appears bright for the Crows following in the footsteps of Sam Jacobs, Reilly O’Brien collected 19 disposals and finished with 26 hit-outs. The big man has come a long way after his notes on superstar Nic Naitanui were leaked. Young midfielder Ben Keays is continuing to show the Adelaide faithful that the midfield is full of potential. The ecstasy from the players was obvious after the game, along with the coach as they belted out the song. That first win in over a year may point to signs the Adelaide culture is slowly beginning to improve.
“I’m not angry, just disappointed,” says every Tigers fan
Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones getting in an altercation after being in a Gold Coast strip club, breaching COVID-19 protocols, is just the thing Richmond didn’t need. After a year full of headlines, this is an avoidable situation that has bought further unwanted attention on the club.
As a Tigers fan for over 21 years now, I’ve seen the club have its fair share of ups and downs on and off the field. In the public eye, we were a laughing-stock when we were down the bottom of the ladder, and now everyone wants to bring us down after recent success. No problems there, it’s the cycle of being a good team.
This is a bad down though. One that is easily avoided, but happened due to two players blatantly breaking the rules and putting their club and the league in danger. Every young man has made mistakes, me included, my parents can attest to that. I’m not angry, just disappointed in their decision making.
Liam Ryan was at his best against the Bombers, kicking a career best four-goals. Photo: Getty Images
Flyin’ Ryan helps fly Eagles home
After losing to Richmond in round 14 by 27 points, West Coast entered their round 15 encounter with Essendon in what was a must win game to keep their top four hopes alive.
The Eagles were without superstar key forward Josh Kennedy (concussion), meaning someone had to step up and help Jack Darling carry the load up forward. Enter Liam Ryan. In a year where small forwards have been strong, Ryan continued the trend, playing out of the goal square to kick a career best four-goals, as the Eagles defeated the Bombers by 15-points.
With Kennedy expected to return for Sunday’s game against the Western Bulldogs, it’s something Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge will seriously be thinking about. With Liam Ryan showing us just how strong he can be if left one out inside 50, suddenly the dynamic Eagles forward line got even more unpredictable.
Giants young guns quietly building
Much of the conversation surrounding GWS in 2020 has been the fall from grace after they made the Grand Final last season. Unlike Adelaide from 2017, the Giants have endeavoured to do a partial reset of the list, to go again in a couple of seasons and attempt to win a premiership.
The average age of the Giants team that played Carlton on Thursday night was 23, whilst the blues had an average age of 24. Two 20 year olds in Bobby Hill and Jake Riccardi played extremely well in the forward line kicking one and two goals respectively, with Riccardi showing that if Cameron were to leave the Giants, they have plenty of players to fill the void.
Throughout the season players such as Brent Daniels and Jacob Hopper have grown in leaps and bounds to become vital members of the Giants midfield. Tim Taranto and Harry Himmelberg continue to show that they have the potential to become star players, and are of the utmost importance to the Giants moving forward. All that can be said is, do not think of the Giants as just another Adelaide Crows.
Justin McInerney was amongst Sydney's best on Thursday night in just his seventh AFL game. Photo: AFL Photos
If you’re going to re-build, be like Sydney
Sydney were competing for premierships for a long time. 2016 was their last appearance in a grand final and even as recently as 2018 they were in the finals. Fast forward to 2020 and they’re in a genuine re-build.
As a long-time Richmond fan, I know the pain involved with this process. All you want is competitiveness, to be consistently hard to beat, bring effort and show growth. If you do those things, wins like their round 15 victory over Melbourne come along, and there’s some reward for your efforts.
There are a few outliers, as there always is with young sides. But for the majority of the season, they’ve made themselves hard to beat. As a Swans fan, that’s all you can ask for, and if you’re a team re-building, that’s the mould you have to follow.
Dockers reminding us the importance of the Draft
While Fremantle will miss the finals in 2020 the youthful Dockers have improved immensely, setting the club up for a big future.
The young Dockers brigade consisting of Andrew Brayshaw, Adam Cerra, Caleb Serong and Luke Ryan all continued their strong seasons on Wednesday night, taking it up to one of the competitions best in Richmond. Three of those players are under 21 and would each be in Fremantle’s best 10 players right now.
Under new coach Justin Longmuir, the Dockers are thriving with a new system that's full of youth. With another year of development under their belt, expect this team to climb up the ladder in 2021 and contend for finals for the first time since 2015, as their young core continues to grow.
Cover Photo: Getty Images
By Ollie Nash
A fourth quarter fade out cost the Blues against GWS. Photo: Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/Getty Images
Carlton will not be playing finals in season 2020. If I was to say that in any of the last four seasons you wouldn’t be surprised. However, after a competitive year, the top eight was well within reach for the Blues.
In the last two rounds against Collingwood and GWS, their season was in their hands. Win both, and finals is almost locked in, win at least one and they give themselves a chance. Two heartbreaking losses after being in control for both matches is what they presented though.
It’s post round 14 against the Pies that I want to discuss though. The aftermath of their loss proved that the narrative of an AFL football team can change in one quarter. That’s how quickly it can go from good to bad or vice versa.
Carlton went from borderline favourites against Collingwood and a finals threat, to their season being written off, and the young players development being questioned. That’s how quickly it can change.
On the other side of the coin, in the same round, in the first half of Essendon and Hawthorn, the Dons season was over, and their list was doomed. Fast forward to the end of the game after a 52-point turnaround and an unlikely win, and the Bombers were back in finals contention and Joe Daniher needed a 10-year contract extension.
Did the Blues miss an opportunity? Of course. They were in control for three quarters of both games. However, what that game and this season has proved is that they are still young and they are still learning, but they will get there. You can’t beat the Cats in Geelong, who had won 35 of their last 41 games at home at the time, and not be on the right track.
Carlton's win over Geelong in round three was one of the upsets of the year. Photo: AAP: Dylan Burns
Footy commentators, particularly Kane Cornes, questioned the Blues development of their young players, especially their high draft picks. I couldn’t agree less. Maybe stats don’t prove it, but watch a game like last night, where Harry McKay took three contested marks, the most on the ground, and then tell me he hasn’t improved.
Carlton have a great core of young key position players and supporting cast. This is the first year they’ve become competitive. Try and make an immediate impact when you’re getting belted every week as they have for the last couple of years, it’s hard. So many of these guys are still growing into who they will become on the field, so we can’t jump on them just yet.
Cornes questioned whether individual young players had improved year on year. I think it’s clear that they have in 2020. They’ve won six games already, one less than 2019, and they have three games to go. They are on track to win more matches, in a shortened year. So, while stats may not say they have improved, watch a game and then tell me that they haven’t. These young players are growing, they are more comfortable on the field, playing a game-plan effectively and not getting blown-out every week. Patrick Cripps is having a bad year, and they’re still in finals contention. That proves to me that everyone has improved that 10 to 15 percent, and the team as a whole is reaping the rewards. Watch a game and you’ll see it too.
What Carlton are missing is some midfield help. They have the other pieces, as I am going to discuss, but midfield depth is what they are missing.
Look at the graphic below and you’ll see what I mean. The Carlton spine is set. They’ve been able to challenge and beat some of the top sides this season, and they still have Charlie Curnow and Caleb Marchbank to come into the side.
Weitering and Marchbank are going to be the key backs of the future. Weitering is in All-Australian form, and Marchbank has shown in his 48 games that he can make an immediate impact when he returns from injury. For the meantime Liam Jones is a handy replacement, but there is also a case to play all three of them in the coming years, with Marchbank being slightly undersized.
In the ruck, Marc Pittonet and Tom De Koning have shown plenty in their short AFL careers to date. The latter especially has a bright future. The list of players to jump over Nic Naitanui for a clear ruck tap is short, but De Koning is one of them.
Up forward is where it’s most promising for Carlton. Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay will set up camp in the forward 50 for the next 10 years. Yes, Curnow has missed a lot of footy in the last two seasons, but we know what he is capable of. For his career, he averages nearly a goal and a half per game, and almost two contested marks. McKay has been inconsistent to start his career, but is very similar in these statistical areas. At the age they are, to be doing these things in a bad team is promising. Put them in a good team with more experience under their belts and these numbers only increase.
Mitch McGovern is the ideal third tall, like a Brody Mihocek type. A lot has been said about McGovern’s contract and if he is worth it. Everyone seems to forget that he played this exact role at Adelaide and was celebrated for it, because they were challenging for a flag. He doesn’t rack up many possessions but is a matchup nightmare and impactful. Look no further than Gary Rohan at Geelong. Praised for his role at a premiership contender, I wonder how he would be judged if he was at Carlton? McGovern’s numbers are down slightly at Carlton, but he competes in the air, tackles at ground level and uses the ball well. Not much else you can ask of your forward that is playing undersized. Did they pay overs for him? Yes, but you have to do that to get these guys to move.
The problem with these key position players is that they do take longer to develop and can be inconsistent, which we’ve seen this season, so Carlton fans need to be patient. Too often we’re expecting them to be at the top of their game four years into their career. Some do, however it’s a very small percentage that do so. 26, 27, 28 and onwards is usually when a key forward reaches their prime.
The supporting cast is pretty set at the moment. This group seems settled in their roles, so now we can watch them grow as a unit. When a team starts to improve, the individual growth isn’t as important, it’s their role in the team that matters. Are Jake Kolodjashnij and Jed Bews improving year on year? I don’t think so. But they’re vitally important to the Cats’ success. That’s the level that guys like Zac Fisher, Tom Williamson and Sam Petrevski-Seton need to get to. The graphic below outlines the likely starters down either end, but there’s plenty of guys in the sheds that will step up too.
The midfield is where they need the most help and this is where I think they can take themselves over the hump from an average team to a top eight team. Patrick Cripps and Sam Walsh are the guys locked in to lead the midfield group for the foreseeable future. From there, they need to bring in some elite talent to help out the remaining core. Ed Curnow, Jack Newnes, Will Setterfield and Paddy Dow are good AFL players, but they need a lesser role.
Off-season movement is important for Carlton. If they can pick up one or two star midfielders, then all it does is take pressure off everyone else. Cripps doesn’t have to shoulder the burden and the supporting cast don’t need to play out of their skin every week.
Brad Crouch, Zac Williams and Andrew Gaff are the three players that stand out to me in the upcoming free agency period. Crouch and Williams will become restricted free agents, while Gaff will be unrestricted. At the end of 2021, Rory Laird (restricted), Cam Guthrie (unrestricted), Dom Sheed (restricted) and Marcus Bontempelli (restricted) will all be available. These seven players are what Carlton need in the middle. The ability to win it inside, but the pace and skill on the outside too.
Patrick Cripps and Sam Walsh will be Carlton's leaders in the midfield for the future. Photos: AAP/Robert Cianflone/Getty Images
Two of these guys makes the difference this year for Carlton. One probably would have even been enough. Two losses by three points or less. A second quarter fade out against the Hawks after kicking the first five goals of the game. Then last round against the Pies where they failed to register a goal after halftime while the game was in their hands. Help in the midfield wins them three of those games and the narrative is a lot different for the Blues.
Let’s not forget the man at the top, David Teague, who was responsible for Adelaide’s offensive game plan from 2015 to 2017. All the goals in the goal square from Josh Jenkins from slick ball movement up the field was thanks to Teague. In those three years, they were knocked out in a semi-final in 2015 and 2016, then made the Grand Final in 2017.
That was with an already established list. Watch Carlton, and you can see glimpses of that game plan. It’s not the finished product but it is there and it’s working for long stretches. What the Blues and we as fans need to do is be patient. Watch the existing core grow over the next three to four years with some added polish in the midfield, and greener pastures will be on the horizon for Carlton.
Cover Photo: AAP - Richard Wainwright