Several clubs with promising lists are well placed to surge into finals contention next year.
But for other teams, they face a possible slide down the ladder.
Foxfooty.com.au assesses all 18 clubs and predicts whether they’ll be in the top-eight race or experience a dip in fortunes.
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THE FLAG CONTENDERS
Brisbane and Hawthorn’s 21st century dynasties ended with three flags – but you sense this Richmond line-up is perfectly placed for a crack at a fourth premiership in five seasons. The Tigers were disappointed to lose Jack Higgins to the Saints and Oleg Markov to the Suns – particularly Higgins, who they invested heavily in by selecting him with Pick 17 three years ago – but it’d also become clear the pair weren’t part of the club’s best 22. So it means the benchmark team’s best players have remained and the list post-trade period hasn’t weakened – a scary proposition for 17 other clubs.
On the subject of teams that haven’t weakened, Geelong appears to have thrown the short-term gauntlet in search of premiership glory. Not only did the Cats give up three first-round picks to acquire the hottest free agent in Jeremy Cameron, they also picked up 32-year-old Shaun Higgins and 31-year-old Isaac Smith to solidify their standing as the oldest list in the competition — and with no 2020 first-round draft picks. Chris Scott’s men will be in the flag mix again in 2021, but you sense anything less than a flag will be met with ample external scrutiny considering the list path the club has taken.
Hot on the heels of the Tigers and Cats will be Brisbane and Port Adelaide, who’ve surged into premiership contention over recent years – and won’t be going anywhere in 2021. On paper, Joe Daniher is the ideal addition for the Lions – and if it clicks for him, he could help the team take a step or two further. The Power are just as well placed to challenge again. They’ve got some of the best young guns in the competition playing in a Ken Hinkley system viewed by many as the league’s most reliable and sustainable. Orazio Fantasia and Aliir Aliir will only help, too.
And even though their 2020 campaigns ended earlier than they would’ve hoped, it’s hard to see either St Kilda or the Western Bulldogs sliding out of flag contention after their respective trade periods. The Saints landed the ball magnet they were after in Brad Crouch, Jack Higgins’ true potential could be unlocked and Shaun McKernan could be massive for Max King’s development. The trio join an already united, team-orientated group that plays for the jumper and its coach. As for the Bulldogs, they were widely regarded as the biggest winner of the trade period after retaining Josh Dunkley, acquiring a genuine star in Adam Treloar, addressing one of its most pressing needs by bringing in experienced ruckman Stefan Martin and keeping ample draft points to match a bid on academy prospect Jamarra Ugle-Hagan whenever that comes.
THE FINALS CONTENDERS
The core of the West Coast Eagles’ 2018 premiership side remains – and as long as that group is there, the Eagles should be in the finals mix. Whether they have edge to push them into the flag mix, however, remains doubtful. Following the Eagles’ 2020 finals exit, St Kilda great Leigh Montagna urged coach Adam Simpson to consider adjusting the way they play as they often rely on efficiency – which can be hard to sustain – rather than winning groundballs and locking the ball in their forward half, to win games.
Then there’s the chasing pack of teams that missed finals last year but will enter 2021 with real hope and promise.
Carlton arguably headlines the list. The Blues during the trade period added Zac Williams from the Giants, Adam Saad from the Bombers and Lachie Fogarty from the Cats to an already promising list with ample first-round draft talent. It all came after their seven-win 2020 campaign where they ranked equal-fourth for total quarters won (39) and pushed flag contenders like Brisbane, West Coast and St Kilda. If they hadn’t faded out so often, they could’ve been in the top eight mix in the final rounds. Dual premiership Kangaroo David King on SEN Breakfast predicted the Blues could take a “giant stride” in 2021. Dare we ask: Can you smell what the Blues are cooking?
Melbourne, arguably, should’ve made this year’s finals series – based on their percentage, anyway – only to blow it late in the season with two costly losses to the Swans and Dockers. But the Demons have a list and on-ball brigade that should not only be pushing for finals, but featuring in them. Club supporters are thrilled with the acquisition of Ben Brown, who’ll provide Simon Goodwin with a genuine goalkicking option that’ll help ease the burden on Sam Weideman.
Fremantle is another club that finished this year outside the eight but emerged with plenty of positive vibes under first-year coach Justin Longmuir. Their lack of recent trade activity – outside of offloading Jesse Hogan to the Giants – suggests the Dockers are happy with how they’re placed. You can understand why, too, after winning five of their last eight games of 2020 and finishing with a healthy percentage of 93.7. Their young midfield is very promising.
Percentage is often a more accurate guide to how well a team is performing. That’s why it’s important to look at the Gold Coast Suns’ 2020 campaign with a half-glass full attitude after they finished with a percentage of 90.6. Yes they ended up 14th on the ladder and won just one of their final 10 games, but that record could’ve easily been four of 10 considering the close results against the Bulldogs, Saints and Bombers. They’ve added some outside dash in Rory Atkins and Oleg Markov to a list filled to the brim with young talent and will only improve with the more games they play together.
We’re putting Sydney in this category too. The Swans’ group of 20 to 24-year-olds, which includes the likes of Dylan Stephens, Nick Blakey, James Rowbottom, Will Hayward, Ollie Florent, Jordan Dawson, Callum Mills and Tom Papley, is mightily impressive. Next year they’ll get Isaac Heeney back from a long-term injury – possibly Lance Franklin too – while they could also add three first-round draftees: Academy duo Braeden Campbell and Errol Gulden, as well as the player they select at Pick 3, widely tipped to be WA key defender Denver Grainger-Barras. Fox Footy’s David King made a big call on the last night of the trade period: “They’ll come with a rush, and I think they’re finals next year. With a little bit of luck with (Lance) Franklin, they’re contenders.”
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While the core group of a really good side is still there, you could argue the Giants have been forced into a mini reset-on-the-run after losing six players – if you include Jackson Hately, who’ll become a Crow via the pre-season draft – during the AFL exchange period. The Giants are still in a good space long-term from a list demographic perspective, but it’s hard to overlook that 2020 post-season exodus, which makes you question how disruptive it’ll be in the short-term.
As aforementioned, percentage is often a truer indication of how well a team is tracking – and that’s why for us Essendon slides, pardon the pun, into this section. The Bombers won just one of their final 10 games of 2020, meaning they finished 13th on the ladder. But their percentage of 79.2 – a result of big losses to finalists like the Bulldogs, Lions, Saints, Cats and Power – was the third-worst in the competition. Now they’re without one of their most important players in Adam Saad, while Orazio Fantasia and Joe Daniher are also at rival clubs. Yes they have three consecutive draft picks in the top 10, while Peter Wright and Jye Caldwell looms as promising additions in the long-term. But in the short-term it’s hard to see the Bombers improving on last year.
Which brings us to Collingwood – the most heavily-dissected club before, during and after this year’s trade period. The losses of Adam Treloar, Jaidyn Stephenson and Tom Phillips to rival clubs – without much compensation – has “almost committed Nathan Buckley to starting a rebuild”, according to David King. The Pies are hopeful the likes of Callum Brown, Tyler Brown, Josh Daicos and Brayden Sier can improve their outputs with the extra exposure they’ll receive next year. But the Pies’ inability to score was their biggest concern during 2020 – an issue that wasn’t addressed during the trade period. Buckley now faces one of his biggest challenges as a coach to reunite a heavily-scrutinised playing group over the summer and push again for a premiership after Grand Final, preliminary final and semi-final losses in three straight seasons. Realistically, it’s hard to see the Pies making the eight again after barely scraping in this year.
IN A HOLDING PATTERN
The Hawks, Kangaroos and Crows occupied three of the bottom four spots on the AFL ladder last season. While there’s obvious potential for ladder improvement in 2021, don’t expect it to be significant.
Hawthorn saw five players aged over 30 depart the club at season’s end, yet topped up with a 29-year-old (Kyle Hartigan) and 24-year-old (Tom Phillips) during the exchange period. The key to the Hawks’ success in 2021 will be if Jon Patton can remain fit, as well the ability of on-ballers like Tom Mitchell, James Worpel, Jaeger O’Meara, Liam Shiels and Phillips to click and work together effectively.
At least both Adelaide and North Melbourne fans know where their respective clubs are at. It’s hard to see either of their teams venturing out of the bottom four in 2021, but there’s enough hope for supporters to grasp onto beyond next year. The Crows are well stacked for the first round of this year’s draft with four picks inside the top 23 selections, while they’ll pick up Giant Jackson Hately for nothing at the pre-season draft. And after acquiring Aidan Corr and Jaidyn Stephenson – two players who’ll walk into their best 22 line-up – during the AFL exchange period, the Kangaroos enter next month’s draft with two top-11 picks.