The first bounce of the 2012 AFL season hits the deck this Saturday night, as the brand new GWS Giants line up against the Sydney Swans.
As the countdown ticks away, it’s time to take a look at how your club will fare this season. Below is a prediction of where the 18 clubs will finish at the end of the home and away season.
1st – Hawthorn
The only teams the Hawks couldn’t beat last year went by the names Geelong and Collingwood. The good news of that is they know how to win, the bad news is they can’t beat the best. Nonetheless, with Geelong and Collingwood expected to rest players to peak at September, you suspect the regular season dominance will be left to the Hawks. Sam Mitchell went close to “winning” the Brownlow last year and we all know what Buddy Franklin can do, but there’s also improvement to be had. Cyril Rioli won’t deliver a mere 29 goals two years in a row. The back line was hit by injuries last year. A big year is on the cards.
2nd – Geelong
The 2011 premiers are out to win their first back-to-back flags as a group. Retirements to key players like Brad Ottens and Cameron Ling will need to be covered, but Chris Scott loves bringing in the kids (think Mitch Duncan, Allen Christensen and Daniel Menzel last year) and the Cats are great recruiters so rule nothing out. Where will improvement come from? The prospect of a consistent Tom Hawkins is an interesting one and Joel Selwood may take his game to another level as captain.
3rd – Collingwood
This will either end really well, or really badly. The Pies have lost Leon Davis and Leigh Brown, and Andrew Krakouer and Brent Macaffer are gone for the season. Yet, like last year’s flag winners, they have a new coach that may reinvigorate them. Plus, there is the motivation that comes with missing out on the ultimate prize despite being the standout of the premiership season. You can never really write off a side with this much talent.
4th – Sydney
Get around the Swans. They are remarkably consistent, so making it to September won’t be a problem. But improvement is very possible from players like Alex Johnson and Nick Smith in defence, Keiran Jack, Dan Hannebery, Luke Parker, Gary Rohan and Lewis Jetta in the midfield, plus Sam Reid up forward. If these young guns improve, and the important of duo of Adam Goodes and Ryan O’Keefe continue to have an impact, watch out.
5th – West Coast
Everything went right for the Eagles last year, which makes you instantly suspicious that they’ll be able to back it up this year. Already Mark LeCras has gone down for the season but to be fair, a slide seems highly unlikely. Players like Nic Naitanui, Andrew Gaff, Chris Masten et al can get better. They have the best ruck combo in the league, and are top eight-worthy in most areas of the ground. This suggests 2012 will see them either consolidate or drop off slightly.
6th – Adelaide
NAB Cup winners and the in-vouge tip to rise up the ladder in 2012. New coach Brenton Sanderson has reinvigorated the Crows and their relatively easy draw should get them over the line for September: Geelong is the only 2011 finalist they play twice, plus they get GWS, Gold Coast and Port Adelaide twice.
7th – North Melbourne
So decimated by injuries were the Kangas at the start of last year, their only wins after ten rounds were against Port Adelaide and Melbourne. That won’t happen again. There’s still not enough A-grade talent, but after finishing ninth the past two years, it’s time for finals footy.
8th – Carlton
This might seem low, but when you consider Chris Judd is underdone and several key players won’t play Round 1, that winless NAB Cup campaign starts to become a worry. Last year improvement came from Laidler, Duigan and Yarran being added to the backline, plus a few career-best years, but where will it come from this year? Kreuzer has upside, but there’s not much else. Fremantle of 2011 are examples of a semi-finalist that could missing finals altogether the following season. Things likely won’t get that bad, but they’ll have to fight for a finals spot.
9th – Fremantle
Like Carlton, a lot of people are tipping the Dockers to make it to the top four this year. Expectations need to be tempered, however. It took St Kilda a year to adjust to Ross Lyon’s game plan when he came in and while you can argue Freo have more talent than that Saints side, an instant rise up to premiership contention seems out of reach for now.
10th – Richmond
With guys like Deledio, Cotchin and Martin in the middle, and a bloke named Jack Riewoldt up forward, the future looks bright for the Tigers. Still, the young list has had some queries over it. Inconsistency, a leaky defence and the lack of a decent ruckman have held them back under Damien Hardwick. Some handy recruits will help fix the second and third problems, but will they be consistent? We’ll have to wait and see on that one.
11th – St Kilda
There’s still plenty of quality at the top of the Saints’ list, but the fear is that the bottom half just isn’t quite as good as the rest of the top eight. That there hasn’t been a huge number of young kids coming through makes this problem even worse. It’ll be a challenging year for new coach Scott Watters.
12th – Essendon
They rode the wave of momentum that came with James Hird’s arrival last year, but 2012 should be the year things settle down. The need for more elite midfielders, and the fact the side leaks way too often defensively to be a regular finals side, will make it hard for them to return to September.
13th – Western Bulldogs
New coach Brendan McCartney has mixed things up a bit and the Dogs have been playing a fresh, high-possession brand of footy in the pre-season. The question is, though, will it be enough to hold off the inevitable decline? The Dogs do have an ageing list and have lost some huge pieces the past two years in Barry Hall, Callan Ward, Jarrod Harbrow and Brad Johnson. There’s enough talent to ensure they won’t bottom out just yet, however.
14th – Brisbane Lions
A very decent looking midfield is brewing at the Lions. The back line is injury-prone and the forward line will either be great or lousy, depending on whether Jonathan Brown makes it on to the field. If key players stay on the park then watch out. Just remember though, this was a four-win team last year. There’s a long way to go.
15th – Port Adelaide
Port impress in the pre-season every year, but it was interesting to see that they won three NAB Cup games and their two losses were against eventual finalists Adelaide and West Coast. Boak, Gray, Trengove and Hartlett will be joined by some decent recruits in Ebert and McCarthy. Surely the only way is up.
16th – Melbourne
Mark Neeld should be great for the Demons in the long run, but the early indicators are that he’s completely transforming the way they play. The toughest team to play against in the AFL is his vision. Adjusting to a new game plan takes time and while there’s a lot to be said about “new coach factor”, this isn’t Geelong – we’re not talking about experienced players and we’re not talking about only minor changes.
17th – Gold Coast Suns
It’s still early days. On paper, bigger bodies and a year’s worth of AFL experience will see the Suns improve this year. But second seasons have proven challenging for many young guns and a lot still rides on the older players.
18th – GWS Giants
Will they win a game? Of course. It’s bound to happen at some point. Will they win enough to avoid the spoon? That’d be an almighty task. Will they be a fun team to watch? You bet.
Michael DiFabrizio is a journalism student at the University of Wollongong. As an AFL writer, he has been an expert columnist at The Roar since 2009 and has appeared in The Age and on ABC television and radio.