With the Aussie Rules football season right on our doorstep, The Good Men Project’s very own Dave & Dave bring you up to speed on the 2014 Top 8 and their chances this year.
Only one club, the Brisbane Lions in 2001-2003, has won three straight AFL Premierships since the late 1950s. Should the Hawthorn Hawks pull it off again in 2015 and attain the three-peat, the team would rightfully sit alongside the rough, tough and formidably talented Hawks of the 80s, the most dominant club in modern football history, who appeared in seven straight Grand Finals, winning four of them. But let’s start at the other end of last year’s finals contenders.
The Tigers kick off the season proper Thursday night against the Carlton Blues at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and it promises to be a beauty. After making the finals playoffs for the past two seasons only to be eliminated in the first week, their feisty and outspoken supporters will have high expectations of success in season 2015.
Richmond’s midfield, including skipper Trent Cotchin, the menacing and exquisitely skilled Dustin Martin and former No.1 draft pick Brett Deledio will be seeking to prove they’re reliable as well as just classy. With All-Australian defender Alex Rance and superstar full-forward Jack Riewoldt firing, you start to see why Richmond is potentially capable of big things if it all goes their way.
However, making a third successive finals series is going to be a bigger challenge than before. The bottom half of the eight is going to get crowded this year, with the Gold Coast Suns and Greater Western Sydney seeking some September action for the first time (September is when finals, or post-season, is played). Leaving aside the self-generated hype, Richmond was frankly lucky to scrape into the final eight last season. The Tigers will want to bring their A-game every week if they want something more to show for their post-season than a trip to Vegas or Bali.
Life just got a little bit brighter for the Bombers. On Tuesday, the AFL anti-doping tribunal ruled that 34 former and current Essendon players were not guilty of using a banned substance – thymosin beta-4 – clearing them to play in this week’s opening round.
This draws a line under a saga involving allegations of a systematic program of injecting players with performance enhancing substances, which has engulfed the club, its players and coach James Hird, for the past two years. In short, it was the biggest scandal Australian Rules football has ever seen.
With Tuesday’s decision behind them, the players will be keen to let their performances on the field be the focus of public attention.
So where are they at? The reality is that despite having the cloud of an investigation and potentially widespread bans hanging over their heads, the Bombers have been remarkably resilient. They made the finals last season and must surely be in the running this year as well. Alongside All-Australians Jobe Watson, Dyson Heppell and Cale Hooker and the formidable Brendon Goddard, Essendon managed to entice Adam Cooney from the Western Bulldogs in the off-season. With Jake Carlisle and Michael Hurley fit, don’t be surprised if the Bombers improve on last year.
6. NORTH MELBOURNE
The Kangaroos are everything that a lot of other smaller clubs – and some bigger ones – should be. They appear to run on the smell of an oily rag, never attracting the membership of cross-town rivals like Hawthorn or Collingwood. It’s as if coming into money would sully their image as blue-collar heroes. Yet this enigmatic outfit from Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs always seems to be floating around at the business end of proceedings and there’s a lot to admire.
They haven’t won a premiership flag since 1999, but last year was typical of the ‘Roos – they just got on with the business of winning, beating every other team in the top six and lifting themselves to a sudden death preliminary final playoff. The team list has a healthy smattering of elite players, including captain Andrew Swallow, Daniel Wells, Nick Dal Santo and power forward Drew Petrie, not to mention the ageless “Boomer” Harvey suiting up for his 20th season as a pro player.
The question is whether coach Brad Scott can, as the cliché goes, take them to the next level. On paper the ‘Roos look mighty fine. However, Hawthorn, Sydney and Port Adelaide are all just that little bit better at this point, and North Melbourne may just have to content itself with another dream run in the early stages of the finals, before yielding to superior outfits in a preliminary final.
This Fremantle Dockers have a bit in common with the Seattle Seahawks: a game plan built around watertight defense; parochial and highly vocal fans; and, well, they’re both from the west, right?
Ross Lyon took the Dockers into the big time a couple of years back when they faced off against Hawthorn in the 2013 Grand Final. Notwithstanding the phenomenal noise the “Purple Haze” – their fanatical supporters (the Dockers’ uniforms are purple) – generated around the MCG, the team flopped, with stars such as Hayden Ballantyne missing in action.
Last year the team went backwards, losing both finals and exiting the post-season in humiliation.
Things have got off to a less than wonderful start this year, with tagger Ryan Crowley possibly facing a lengthy ban after testing positive for a banned substance last year. And the team is also getting old: some of Freo’s lynchpins including captain Matthew Pavlich, seven-foot-tall ruckman Aaron Sandilands and gun defender-cum-midfielder Michael Johnson are now on the wrong side of 30.
The Dockers are hard for anyone but their own fans to love. Football purists who abhor the dreary, low-scoring, and at times, downright ugly game that Fremantle is notorious for may will the Dockers to slide into obscurity this year.
But Lyon isn’t there to win friends or admirers; he came to win the premiership he never quite pulled off at St Kilda and to ensure Fremantle, an expansion team in the 1990s, is a force to be reckoned with. Don’t assume they’re on the slide. Expect them to avenge last year’s ignominious exit and be a top four contender.
Since the national draft was introduced in the 1980s, it has become increasingly difficult for any team in the AFL to stay at the top for more than a few years. These days, strong teams enjoy a “premiership window” – it opens for three, maybe four, seasons, and then closes – roosters become feather dusters within a matter of years, and then (they hope) rise again.
Nobody told Geelong this. Over the past decade, the Cats have become league heavyweights, appearing in four Grand Finals since 2007, winning three of them. Not only that, they have regenerated year after year, moving on experienced players who’ve given great service, replacing them with youngsters or discards in a way that haunts their previous clubs and leaves rival list managers scratching their heads and asking, “How do they do it?”
All this from a club that resides in a small city some 70 miles south of Melbourne, a sort of Green Bay Packers of the AFL.
For the past few years, skeptics have predicted their imminent demise. Granted, many of their superstars such as Jimmy Bartel, Steve Johnson and Corey Enright are well into veteran class. However, these predictions just amount to wishful thinking. Scary to think the likes of key forward Tom Hawkins and captain Joel Selwood are still only in their mid 20s; it feels like they’ve been around forever. Not to mention the resurgent Mitch Clark who arrived at the club after overcoming his demons in more ways than one – and a young draftee named Nakia Cockatoo who has the media drooling already.
(For those who caught it, a “super goal” is scored when a player kicks a goal from outside 50 yards. This is awarded nine points. This type of score is only available in pre-season trial games. All goals are worth six points in the regular and post-season no matter what distance they are kicked from)
Whether the Cats still have the firepower to remain in the top four this year remains to be seen. It’s getting tough at the very top. But don’t expect to see these guys spiraling into darkness quite yet. A top four finish is still within their grasp.
3. PORT ADELAIDE
Is this the year the Power go all the way? In just two seasons, coach Ken Hinkley has taken an unfancied team from oblivion to genuine contender. Last year, they missed out on a Grand Final berth by three points after a spirited final quarter assault on Hawthorn. If things go well, the Power is arguably the biggest threat to Hawthorn’s dominance.
There is some breathtaking talent at the Power. Chad Wingard last year demonstrated on a weekly basis what a precociously gifted footballer he is, while 2014 All-Australian Robbie Gray, skipper Travis Boake and influential midfielder Hamish Hartlett are all expected to take up where they left off last season. Add to that a top level full forward in Jay Schulz, ably backed up by Justin Westhoff and emerging ruckman Matthew Lobbe and it’s a formidable outfit.
And now that Angus Monfries, along with his former Essendon team mate and new Port recruit Paddy Ryder, have been cleared by the anti-doping tribunal, there’s seemingly nothing in the way of the Power’s ascent. Anything other than a Grand Final appearance in 2015 will be considered unacceptable at Alberton Oval, Port Adelaide’s storied home base. It’s a far cry from their moribund performances only three years ago.
Like Geelong, the Swans have defied gravity, staying at the top or near it for a decade now. Critics will grumble that generous salary cap concessions from the AFL give them an unfair advantage in being able to attract expensive superstars to Australia’s most populous (and expensive) city. Such gripes are a little churlish when viewed in the broader scheme of things. Sure, they lured the scintillating Lance “Buddy” Franklin to the Harbor City at the end of 2013, as well as fellow key forward Kurt Tippett from Adelaide. But, as many a lesser club has proved over the years, raw talent accounts for nothing without good administration and solid football infrastructure to harness those gifts.
Sydney has worked furiously to stay near the top of the league, calling time on champions, but replacing them wisely and making new recruits play above themselves. Whether coach John Longmire, who won a flag in his first year in charge in 2012, can keep the Bloods in the running for another year remains to be seen. One thing you can be sure of is they will be tough and relentless. And there’s many a neutral supporter who wouldn’t begrudge veteran and 2014 Australian of the Year Adam Goodes another chance of a premiership. In summary, it’s hard to see them besting Hawthorn, but it’s just as difficult to conceive of a top four this season without the Swans.
Who’s up for a three-peat? The Hawks won their second straight premiership in 2014, with a thumping victory over the Sydney Swans in the Grand Final last September, following on from their dismembering of Fremantle in 2013. It’s a brave punter who’d bet against them taking the flag this year too.
Having overcome the loss of Buddy Franklin to Sydney at the end of 2013, coach Alistair Clarkson’s team didn’t break stride last season, putting the Swans to the sword in a game that was effectively over midway through the second quarter.
If anything, the Hawks are even stronger in 2015. Difficult as it is to imagine the premiers squeezing any more elite talent into their roster, Hawthorn somehow managed to sign disaffected Melbourne Demons defender James Frawley as an unrestricted free agent. Despite his indifferent form last year, it’s the sort of signing that leaves the also-ran clubs seething, wondering why they can’t lure such marquee talent. Who could blame him for wanting to jump aboard the Hawthorn bandwagon after the ignominy of his years at Melbourne?
With a list of stars too long to mention, the Hawks are the team to beat again in 2015. We won’t be betting against them.
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