The ten things I am looking forward to most in 2019

1 – Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

How many of us tipped West Coast to win the flag in 2018? More to the point, how many non-Eagle supporters thought they were a chance of being there that deep in finals?

I’ll put my hand up and say that I didn’t, and though I didn’t make any Robert Walls-ian type of cock ups, it was an obvious error from me. I underestimated West Coast, as I think many did. They defied the experts and swooped in to take the flag.

In 2019, the hunter becomes the hunted, and teams will gear up for the clash against the Eagles next season as they did against Richmond this year, and the Bulldogs in 2017.

The question will be around how the Eagles respond. Injuries aside, why wouldn’t they respond well? I had someone tell me, point blank as though they were reciting fact, that the Eagles had a charmed injury run in 2018. I actually didn’t answer for a few moments, as I was awaiting the punch line.

It never arrived.

This idiot (and I feel comfortable calling him an idiot, because I know him personally, and he is already painfully aware that he’s an idiot) had no idea of the time missed by both Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy in 2018. The absence of their two forward line stars absolutely rocked the Eagles, but they were able to compose themselves and rally to hit the finals with a list ready to play.

With the standard 11 games in Perth, and a couple of excellent wins at the MCG in 2018, the Eagles should be ready to gear up for another crack at it. Maybe it’s the distance, but I have heard so much less chatter about going “back-to-back” from West Coast supporters this off season. It’s actually been refreshing after 11 months of Richmond fans doing the exact opposite.

2 – The return of Joe Daniher

I wrote a column last week where I was espousing the great job Essendon have done in rebuilding their club after the turmoil that surrounded them earlier this decade. It is praise well deserved irrespective of what naysayers offer to counter it. Their recruitment and drafting have been excellent, and they now sit on the precipice of returning to the Promised Land.

Yes, I am aware that many prophesized that this would be the case last season, but with three new prominent faces entering the team, there was bound to be teething problems. I just didn’t expect those problems to take half a season to iron themselves out.

And then there was Joe.

If we are looking to be succinct, Essendon can only go so far into September as Joe Daniher will carry them. I know they have stars, and I know they have options – the second half of 2018 proved that, but Joe Daniher has the potential to be the best forward in the game as early as next season. Hell, I thought he’d take that step in 2018, and he may well have taken it had he been healthy.

With a fit and firing Daniher roaming the forward 50, Essendon look like a legitimate threat in 2018, but without the big fella, that threat diminishes greatly. Stringer as a second or third option up forward is brilliant. Stringer as the number one option is reason to cast doubt over the Bombers’ campaign.

3 – Can North Melbourne rise to the challenge… again?

I was going to write a whole article on this, but will try to fit it in here.

North picked up Jared Polec and Aaron Hall, both of whom will add great run to the Roos’ midfield in 2019. Combining with Shaun Higgins, Ben Cunnington, the reinvigorated Jed Anderson, and the emerging Trent Dumont, the Kangas look solid through the middle.

But it’s their forward structure that worries me.

I read this morning that Ben Brown will have a delayed start to the pre-season due to hip surgery. Though the procedure was minor (I read that… I didn’t diagnose it myself) it means that he won’t train properly until after Christmas. That’s red flag number one.

The second red flag is the absence of Jarrad Waite. When Waite was playing last season, Ben Brown was able to find more space – opposition teams that chose to zone off Waite were made to pay. In his first nine games, Waite kicked three or more goals on six occasions. North were 4-2 in those games. He forced the defence to be accountable, and if they chose to help out on Brown, he’d drift out the back and make them pay.

It’s no coincidence that whilst Waite was out there in the first half of the season, Ben Brown was able to snag 33 goals, to be the clear leader in the Coleman Medal race. After Waite’s injury, defences were able to collapse on Brown and force him further away from goal to get clean hands on the ball in space. Upon Waite’s return in Round 20, Brown was banged up (he injured that his in Round 17, apparently) and the structure that worked so well early didn’t quite function the same.

So what is the answer to North’s possible forward line issues? Is it Jack Ziebell? I’d love to say yes, as I love the way he goes about it, but the captain is much better suited to the role of third forward. Although he is solid overhead, having him as the second marking target probably won’t be sending shivers up the spines of opposition defenders.

The other option will probably send those shivers up the spines of North supporters.

Mason Wood… your time is now.

Unless this bloke starts to fulfil his potential, I can see the North Melbourne forward line sputtering and grinding to a halt in 2019. It is probably unfair to place this much pressure on Wood to perform, but I genuinely believe that if North is to go another step further, it has to be with a marking target at forward 50 actually taking marks and demanding that the opposition pay him some respect. He is not a kid anymore – he is 25 years old. Injuries and excuses get old by about this stage.

Can Mason Wood do it? North fans would want to hope so – I reckon their season could be riding on it.

4 – Dayne Beams in the Pies’ midfield. At what cost?

With all the talk about just how good Collingwood will be in the guts next year, no one is really asking who the odd man out will be.

Whilst Adam Treloar was running riot through the midfield in the first half of 2018, it seemed to me that Taylor Adams was largely placed on the backburner. In a slightly diminished role, I felt as though he was the fourth mid at best. Yet when Treloar went down with his double whammy hammy injuries, it was Adams that really stepped up his game, at times putting the Magpies on his back. Surely you cannot relegate him to alesser role after the  influence he had on the midfield in the second half of 2018?

Dayne Beams’ second half of 2018 was electrifying for the Brisbane Lions. Still not good enough to win their Best and Fairest award (how Zorko continually win
s this award despite hardly ever dealing with the close attention of opposition taggers even remotely well is completely beyond me) but still, he racked up the sort of numbers that simply cannot be ignored.

In the 10 games from Round 14 onwards, Beams racked up 32.6 touches per game.

So, can you see him slotting into being the fourth or even fifth wheel in the Pies’ rotation? Unlikely. With Brayden Sier using his big body in the middle the way no other Pie can currently, and Jordan de Goey pinch-hitting when his efforts up forward aren’t paying dividends, there is bound to be someone whose role changes, and in 2019 that man could be current captain, Scott Pendlebury.

Still a class above almost all players of his vintage, Pendlebury made the All-Australian squad of 40, but failed to make the actual team for the fourth straight year. Sidebottom was in there this year in what appears to be a clear changing of the guard.

With Pendlebury spending time as the sweeper across half back, the Pies rebound becomes all the more dangerous. They are now in a position where they don’t need Pendles to be the best player on the ground for them to win. They almost won the flag with their captain compiling his second lowest statistical output of the season. There is a saying in business that a good manager makes himself redundant. He does that by empowering those under him to perform better. He raises their game to the point they’re doing his work for him. That’s where we now find Pendles – in a midfield where he’s no longer required.

I’m sure we’ll still find him drifting through the guts to add a touch of class to the Magpie on-ball division at times, but the days of him consistently being the best player in the team are now gone. Pendlebury at half back works, and it has to if this star-studded Collingwood midfield is to function.

5 – The Adelaide renaissance

How quickly we forget.

Around 14 months ago, the Adelaide Crows were the talk of the football world. They were the flag favourites and a formidable team by anyone’s measure. They had power forwards in Jenkins and Walker, a little bloke kicking amazing goals in Eddie Betts, a midfield to salivate over, and a stingy defence led by Daniel Talia and Jake Lever.

And then the wheels fell off.

We’ve all heard the stories. Players leaving, captains being grumpy, camps being run, and approaches being all wrong. Yes, they made for great clickbait, but make no mistake  – injuries killed the Adelaide Crows season in 2018. Not camps. Not mind training. Injuries.

In our assessment of their 2018 season, I wrote that of the 10 top finishers in the 2017 Adelaide Best and Fairest, only one of them was able to play an entire season in 2018. The rest of those nine players combined to miss a total of 80 games. No top team can withstand that magnitude of injuries. Look at Richmond when they had just a couple of players banged up in the preliminary final. What happened there? Dusty wasn’t himself and Grimes wasn’t 100%, and the Magpies obliterated them in the first half.

Basically, Adelaide were playing catch up all year in 2018. They had a late start to the pre-season, playing in the Grand Final, and they were not prepared t the level they should have been. Consider it a lesson learnt. In 2019, they’ll have had the extra time to get their stars right, and they’ll be back.

The loss of Mitch McGovern may be significant in name value, but as an impact player over the journey, he hasn’t impressed me. He bobbed up in a few crucial moments here and there, but as a whole, he was missing more than he was present. Whilst his loss is lamentable, it’s not as significant as people are making it out to be. He was a good role player, and as Adelaide learned when Tom Doedee replaced Jake Lever, no one is irreplaceable.

There are a couple of teams I’m bullish about in 2019. Essendon and Adelaide will be the sides I keep my eye on. If things go right for both these teams, we may be seeing either of them push for a top four berth.

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6 – Hello, old friend

I like to read reddit here and there to both steal ideas for columns (at least I admit it!) and to see what people are thinking when it comes to certain footy-related topics. Interestingly, among young bucks trying hard to be anonymously edgy, someone asked the question as to whether people actually care about players going back and playing their former clubs. It was interesting, as, to me, it has always mattered.

My mind drifted back to Brendon Goddard’s post-game interview after his first game against St Kilda, where tears welled in his eyes and the emotions flowed. It mattered to him, and if it matters to the players, then it matters to me. Buddy against the Hawks mattered, Ablett against the Cats mattered, and if you cast your mind back a bit further, how much did Carey against the Kangaroos matter?

This season there’ll be a few games that will matter on the basis of emotion alone (the Carey v North game obviously had some additional spice to it). Wingard against Port in Round 10, Shiel against GWS (which we’ll get to see in Round one), Lynch against the Suns in Round 16, Hogan against the Dees in Round 14. The personal drama just adds that additional story line makes those games special.

If you’re asking me if it matters, the edgy answer would be no – to some people nothing matters. But my answer is hell yes it matters! It is these little story lines and wrinkles that compels me to tune into a specific game. I’d love to see Callan Ward get stuck into Dylan Shiel. I’ll be watching which Port players target Chad Wingard, and whether Ryan Burton lines up a former teammate or two – maybe he’ll give one the Shaun Higgins treatment? And then I’ll watch how Touk Miller handles himself as almost the self-appointed leader of Gold Coast, when their fixture against the Tigers rolls around.

Watch the players when they play against someone who was once one of them. Footy may be a business, but that does not make it exempt from genuine emotion. Playing against your former teammates matters. It always will.

7 – Will we finally see a decline?

I am warily writing this, as these are the things that come back to bite, but could we finally be seeing the demise of the three teams that have dominated the past decade of finals action?

In 2018, we saw the Hawks go out in straight sets, and even though they’ve added Wingard, and by way of some pretty impressive smoke and mirrors, Tom Scully, I may be the only one thinking that the Hawks played above themselves last season. Whilst there is some good organic growth to come from Worpel and Morrison, the Hawks were unable to address the pressing concern
of Jarrod Roughead.

If Rough can manage to string together a better season than the one just past, the Hawks may hold their window open a little longer, but if he can’t, they face a similar problem that North Melbourne do, albeit with probably better players in other positions.

The Swans welcome back Callum Mills which will add plenty to their team off half back, and their retention of their preferred kicker from half back, Jake Lloyd, was a signing not given the attention it deserved. But the Swans looked old and slow in the midfield at times last season. Josk Kennedy finally started to slow down, Kieran Jack went backwards and Dan Hannebery moved in slow motion so often, the Swans were fine with him taking his talents to Moorabbin.

But the Swans are a Buddy Franklin injury away from disaster. His ineffective final against Phil Davis emphasized just how much the Swans rely on him up forward. If it’s Buddy or bust in 2019, there’ll be a lot of hearts in mouths should the big fella sustain an injury.

And then there’s the Cats. Sneaking in to take the final spot in the eight last season, everyone is a year older, and with a midfield containing three all-time greats and one young buck in Tim Kelly, you have to wonder what the plan is?

With the big three in at clearances, the Cats didn’t gel as well as they were supposed to, and how Tim Kelly fronts up to his 2019 campaign after being denied the chance to return to Western Australia (or a particular section of it) will tell a real tale.

Can Gaz raise one more gallop to stick it up those who think he’s past it? Will he spend more time as a forward to ease the pressure on Tom Hawkins? Can Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield drag the Cats back to the finals again? And can they do some damage this time?

Imagine a finals series with no Cats, Hawks and Swans? It hasn’t happened since 2002, when they finished 9th, 10th and 11th but watching these teams late last year, we might be about to see it again.

But these teams do have a habit of refusing to go quietly into the night. I don’t expect them to start now.

8 – More marquee games

There’s been some unrest from those outside Victoria regarding the allocation of the big ticket games over the past few years. Anzac Day belongs to the Bombers and Pies. Easter Monday is the domain of the Hawks and Cats. The Tigers and Bombers made the Dreamtime game their own. And so it goes.

Whilst the teams in Western Australia and South Australia have their own huge “cross-town” rivalries, and the hatred in those clashes far surpasses anything I’ve seen at suburban level in Melbourne, there is the general feeling that these clashes have not been given the stage they deserve. Stashed away in twilight games, these local derbies are every bit as deserving of the big stage as any game for the year.

Moreover, the lack of interstate representation in the AFL’s marquee games has become a growing concern. It appears as though the AFL is finally listening to fans outside of shouting distance, with the West Coast Eagles set to host Port Adelaide on Good Friday, and Brisbane set to return to the limelight, hosting Collingwood on Easter Thursday.

It’s about time

In addition, Tassie fans are set to see two big Victorian clubs go head to head, in Carlton and Hawthorn for only the second time in Tasmania, as well as perennial heavyweights Sydney taking on North Melbourne. Maybe the lure of seeing Buddy turn it on will draw the crowd? (Thirteen!!!)

Northern Territory fans will see West Coast and Melbourne clash in what should be a ripper, and the Dogs will get Adelaide in Ballarat. The AFL appears to be starting to learn that even the big boys have to travel and appear on stages both big and small interstate for the good of the game.

The only real concern for me is that at least one of the adelaide v Port Adelaide, and West Coast v Fremantle games deserved the Friday Night spotlight. Though is appears as though at least three of the clashes will get a Saturday night treatment, these games deserve prime time, showcase coverage. If you doubt that, cast your eye over the games themselves over the past few years. If you’ve missed them, you’ve done yourself a disservice.

9 – Green Shoots

I know you’re probably starting to get a little sick of that term, and yet here I am using it myself. Green shoots here, green shoots there… green shoots everywhere.

Well, if these green shoots are anything like the ones I spot in my garden about this time of year, it won’t be long til they’re all dead. Hopefully these teams have a little more luck than my own green shoots did when I took some poor advice and tipped “worm juice” on them last summer. Don’t ask…

Brisbane looked bullish at times last season, and the addition of Lachie Neale was supposed to be the move that pushed them out of the bottom third of the ladder. Of course, then Dayne Beams decided that everything he said about wanting to stay with the club at the Best and Fairest award was a bit of a porkie pie, and up and left. So basically, instead of drastically improving their midfield, they basically replaced Beams with Neale. It’s a break-even.

So where does this huge improvement occur? Harris Andrews, Hugh McLuggage, Alex Witherden, Cam Rayner and Daniel McStay should all elevate their play, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will. Jarrod Berry is the one I like most. He should continue to run with, and learn from the best in 2019, which will hold him in good stead for the move into a more damaging role eventually.

And just as I am writing this, word has come through that Gold Coast have delisted Jarryd Lyons and it looks as though Brisbane will be picking him up for absolutely nothing. Great get for Brisbane – the bloke was equal third in clearances per game in 2018 – but what is going on at Gold Coast?

How about those shoots at Carlton? Charlie Curnow, Paddy Cripps, ZacFisher, Paddy Dowthe returning Sam Docherty, and the addition of Mitch McGovern… the Blues are actually starting to look like they’ll be competitive.

They retained Marc Murphy, but I reckon that was because no one else was willing to shell out big dollars for him, and if they can get Harry McKay clunking a few marks to support Charlie C, the Blues may just cause an upset here and there.

Of course, we won’t get too far ahead of ourselves with Carlton just yet. People did that at quarter time of Round One last season. How’d that end? As long as Blues fans see some improvements, they won’t be pulling out the garden sheers just yet.

And then there’s Freo. Underrated by everyone, the Dockers won eight games in 2018. Of those, seven were played in WA. They play well at home, but they need to pick up a couple of wins on the road as well.

Nat Fyfe was in All-Australian form before doing his hammy, and Andrew Brayshaw was really starting to shine before having his teeth punched into his throat by Andrew Gaff. Michael Walters has re-signed and the development of Connor Blakely should see him move into
the midfield in 2019. Cerra will only be better, and Bailey Banfield will continue to develop into a good tagging player.

With Jesse Hogan up forward, Cam McCarthy gets to play the role he was born to play – second fiddle. Sadly, I reckon Hogan was also born to play that role, and against good teams, goes missing.

So whilst there are green shoots in all three teams, I expect some to become a little brown and withered at times as the season progresses.

10 – The eye of the Tiger

This might sound a little harsh, but after being the best team of the home and away season, Richmond not making the Grand Final makes their season a complete failure.

Don’t think so? 100K members is a success, right? If that’s your gauge of success, then I think you should perhaps recalculate the formula you’re using to gauge what success actually is.

Players play to win flags, and Richmond were in the box seat all season. They fell over at the second to last hurdle, and how they respond will be a story all of its own. Are they to be known as one-and-done wonders? Will they have a resolve about them now? How will their forward line adapt to accommodate the talents of Tom Lynch, and does their set up change dramatically to ensure he feels a part of proceedings right from the get-go?

And how does this affect their high-pressure forward line? I’ve never really looked at Lynch’s pressure as a key to his game – that’s not to say it can’t be.

Richmond are a fascinating 2019 case. They’ve lost depth players but gained a star. Their resolve is now tested. I wonder if the Tiger Train will be as packed as it was last season?

And what about The Mongrel in 2019? At the moment we’re putting in place plans to cover more games in different ways. We will retain the good, Bad and Ugly format for some games, but we’ll be looking at developing new game review formats along the way. Maybe we’ll use some interpretive dance or something to re-enact certain plays. It could work…

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