There is a loose consensus about the likely top three – Hawthorn, Sydney and Fremantle. The 18 AFL captains nominated only these three teams as possible grand finalists (other than their own) in their annual survey, which is remarkable.
Remember West Coast, the pre-season favourite of 2013? Vanished without trace. So it is worth remembering we can all get this horribly wrong.
Sydney was an excellent team in 2013, made a preliminary final and has added Lance Franklin.
Buddy has one of the longest contracts ever signed in the AFL, which seems to have coincided with football people – especially in Melbourne – to downgrade his worth. But let’s filter that down.
He has just turned 27, he is a sensational athlete, and he has kicked at least 60 goals in each of the past seven seasons; precisely 60 last season despite being used farther up the ground and playing the whole season under the pressure of his impending free agency and the hullabaloo surrounding it.
Aside from Gary Ablett, he is the best player of the past decade, and there were three clubs (GWS, Hawthorn and Sydney) prepared to pay him a million bucks a season from this year.
I can see him leading the Swans to a premiership or two before that nine-year contract becomes an issue for his new club. Imagine the gnashing of teeth (particularly around Hawthorn) if he does.
Who gets fourth spot?
This is where it gets tricky, to say the least. You can argue that there are up to half a dozen teams with a shout for a top-four position, with Richmond and North Melbourne among the popular picks. I like Richmond, which has made incremental improvement under Damien Hardwick with astute drafting and clever trading.
The Tigers have a terrific midfield group and options at either end, too. While round one is a challenge in itself, a trip to the Gold Coast without Ivan Maric’s ruck skills, I can see them winning 16 games or so and taking another step forward after their first appearance in the finals for so long last year.
North Melbourne has been building steadily under Brad Scott and was a few near-misses away from playing finals in 2013. The Kangaroos lost 10 games by 16 points or fewer last year, a league record. The merest improvement in composure this year puts Scott’s team deeply into the mix. Recruit Nick Dal Santo, with his smarts and smooth finishing, can only help the Shinboners’ cause.
At the bottom end there are several teams, such as Adelaide and West Coast, who had poor years with injury in 2013 and who are widely tipped to jump up this year. But I also like the way the Western Bulldogs are tracking with their terrific father-son selections, headed by the ball magnet Tom Liberatore.
St Kilda has chosen its poison. In allowing Brendon Goddard and Nick Dal Santo to take free agency and leave over the past two seasons, the Saints are in reboot mode. This is as it should be, but there is a world of pain ahead in the short-term as they find the young men to replace the people who took the club to the 2009-10 grand finals.
Off the field, the Essendon saga can potentially blot the sun again if ASADA delivers infraction notices over the Bombers’ 2011-12 conditioning program under the controversial Stephen Dank. With the likelihood of legal challenges there may well be a couple of years of life remaining in this one.
On the field, the state of the game will cause furious debate. The pre-season games revealed a preference among clubs for a numbers-back, counter-attacking game style that makes Australian football more like soccer and the rugby codes with their off-side rule. Players are fit enough, and rested enough (with at least 120 interchanges per game) to cover the whole field; this means 36 players around the football. It is a festering sore.
Triple Brownlow medallist Gary Ablett has a certain ring to it, don’t you think? The little master is still the best player in the game and I reckon before he stops, he will have three ‘Charlies’. Scott Pendlebury is captain of Collingwood now and surely will win one sometime, while my sleeper is Tom Liberatore of the Bulldogs, whose father won the medal a couple of decades ago. The guy brings his own football; the umpires cannot help but notice him.
Kurt Tippett is the man, here. He has a knee issue right now, but he is a superstar player, a man mountain. In the 12 games he managed last season he kicked 35 goals and he will be up front in one of the best teams this year. So long as his body stands up, he could kick 75 goals and then, just maybe, television and radio people will stop calling him ‘Kirk’.
Jarryd Roughead, last year’s winner, will be in the running and Travis Cloke is the best contested mark in the competition. Jack Riewoldt’s pre-season media ban on himself is a worry — what’s he thinking? — but he is a lock to kick at least 65 or so and more if his head is on.
Martin Blake’s ladder
5. Port Adelaide
6. North Melbourne
12. West Coast
13. Western Bulldogs
14. Gold Coast Suns
16. Greater Western Sydney
17. Brisbane Lions
18. St Kilda
Martin Blake can be heard on ABC Radio and SEN.