With the season less than a month old, already significant movement has occurred within the list of favourites to challenge for the 2019 premiership.
During the pre-season, excitement was mostly concentrated around the likes of Richmond, Melbourne, Adelaide. While the season is still in its infancy, each of these teams would be disappointed with how the first stage of the year has played out. On the flipside, several less fancied teams have flexed their considerable muscles and the footballing public are hastily scrambling to revise their March predictions as Geelong, GWS and reigning premier, West Coast surge to the top of the ladder.
As alluded to already, 2019 is still virtually anyone’s to win, especially clubs as experienced and battle hardened as 2017 grand finalist Richmond & Adelaide, however dramatic form slumps and injuries to key personnel early in the year have seemingly conspired to send both of these teams crashing to the rank of “also-ran” in this campaign.
Richmond’s stunning 2017 success was a result of a ferocious game plan built on a selfless commitment to relentlessly win the ball. This was supported by an almost unparalleled injury-free list, almost as though they were exempt from missing any A-graders for more than a game here and there. When fans are musing about their upcoming prospects they often pose the question, ‘which of our players could we least afford to lose to injury?’
Diabolically, the Tigers has been struck by lightning not once, not twice, but an unbelievable four times, with Rance, Riewoldt, Cotchin and Martin all missing games early this year, the former two for extended periods. The meritorious win last weekend against a perennially disappointing Port outfit notwithstanding, Coach Hardwick will need to pull a metaphorical rabbit out of his hat to transform a game plan that looks to have been usurped, but does have an ace up his sleeve in the form of prized recruit Tom Lynch who has 16 goals already and looks to be improving each week.
Since Adelaide’s breakthrough dual-triumph at the height of former coach, Malcolm Blight’s genius, the Crows have promised more than they’ve delivered, several times falling short as the season reached it’s apex after being firm favourites for much of the year. After a brilliant 2017 season was derailed at the final hurdle, 2018 was a disaster. Cult-gate followed by injuries and unexpected form lapses saw the ‘pride of South Australia’ tumble out of the top eight.
2019 was considered an opportunity for redemption, and the return of Smith and Crouch from long term injuries to add to an already imposing team list (on paper) was seen to be somewhat of a fait accompli. To date, home losses to a mediocre Hawthorn, a flying Cats team, and away to the previously winless North has only been separated by a close win against a stuttering Sydney, and questions are now being asked of the coaching panel and leadership group.
High profile recruit, Bryce Gibbs was the victim last week, banished to the SANFL despite what appeared from an outsider’s viewpoint to contradict an excellent form line, while similarly big names like skipper Walker, Lynch, Jenkins, Betts (curiously all coach favourites) avoided the chop, but must be nervous about a tap on the shoulder should their poor form continue.
Seemingly everyone’s prediction to improve upon their exciting preliminary final run from 2018, the Demons had the list profile and finally the desire to end their premiership drought of 55 years, the longest current streak in the AFL. However, it appears as though the old adage of ‘success being earned not given’ has eluded the coaching instruction thus far. The off-season trade that saw wantaway tall forward Jesse Hogan shipped home to Fremantle for Gold Coast captain Steven May has reaped more public embarrassment than on-field results, and even though young stars Oliver and Brayshaw continue to rack up impressive numbers, their impact has been minimised.
Excuses have been a common theme from the coach in the first few games as they slipped to a perilous 0-3, but the resurgence of their behemoth Gawn last Thursday (no doubt helped by the selection of Preuss to lessen the burden from opposition coaches looking to physically wear down the Melbourne superstar) and a return to form of Captain Jones sees a glimmer of hope the ‘Grand Old Flag’ can still make good on their building promise.
A strong argument could be made for Collingwood to firm as a contender, especially when you take into account their demolition of Richmond in prime time, their crushing of the highly-touted Brisbane Lions, and that their only two losses have been against the Eagles and Cats, who have both stamped their authority on the rest of the competition this year. Something appears to be missing though with the Pies, and I suspect it is due to the teething problems surrounding the addition of Dayne Beams to an already bountiful midfield rotation.
The major casualty thus far has been Steele Sidebottom, clearly marginalised by the return of the former Brisbane star and relegated to a secondary role on the wing and running around half back. Brayden Sier, wasting away at the Lexus centre, is also notable by his absence, and up until last night, Stephenson’s youthful exuberance was missing as well. Coach Buckley appears to have the least concerns of the four clubs mentioned herein, and with Darcy Moore excelling, Jordan Roughead a more than adequate replacement for the unlucky Lynden Dunn, and talismanic Jamie Elliott returning to terrorise defences, the Pies are still well placed for an assault on the cup.
With a star studded list of clubs faltering under the increased spotlight of expectation (and the scourge of injury), there has been no shortage of teams lining up to take their place as the front-runners in the title race, surprisingly headlined by the reigning champions, the West Coast Eagles, but also including the Cats and Giants.
The term ‘surprising’ accompanies the Eagles in this article, as it appeared counter-intuitive to this scribe that a side that was so accomplished on the biggest stage of all throughout September, and welcoming back the likes of Gaff, Naitanui and Sheppard with the only notable omission of the retiring Le Cras, should be anywhere other than on the top line of betting to again claim the crown this year – however that was not the case in the minds of many pundits.
Adam Simpson has drilled his team relentlessly, and the role players that support the work of twin towers Darling & Kennedy up forward, and Barrass and McGovern down back coupled with an imperious midfield of Norm Shuey, Jack Redden, Elliot Yeo, Andrew Gaff, Chris Masten and Dom Sheed all in the prime of their football lives must give nightmares to opposition coaches.
Tom Hickey, surplus to needs at (of all places) St Kilda, has proven a revelation, and is presently doing much more than keeping the seat warm for the hopeful mid-year return of the incomparable Nic Nat, and Liam Ryan elevating his all-round game to the next level along with an injection of youth from Rotham, Petruccelle and Allen have firmly positioned the ‘big birds’ as the team to beat.
They may not quite be Giants yet, but are becoming a very big deal as they regroup after the supposed death knell of losing Dylan Shiel. Their dismantling of Richmond, performed with surgical precision, and a coming of age victory at the impenetrable GMHBA Stadium – the type that can build a culture of winning, is the type of mindset that can become infectious across the playing list.
Obviously the loss of their inspirational captain, Ward will hurt in the short and long term, when coupled with the defection of Shiel, Adams, Hoskin-Elliott, and Treloar, most teams would rightly be on their knees.
But this Greater Western franchise is not most teams.
The loss of those highly talented individuals may have just allowed them to flourish as the likes of Hopper and Taranto complement the established trio of Coniglio, the sublime Kelly, and a rare player who might just be the best of the lot, Lachie Whitfield. The return of Mumford has provided the grunt and an injury free Jeremy Cameron might just be ripe to truly own the competition in the manner in which he’s threatened since his debut. Littered with budding stars and hard-nosed role players, discount the Giants at your peril.
No stranger to success in modern times, Chris Scott might just have finally taken heed of the lightbulb moment which ‘Blind Freddy’ could see that placed too much responsibility on the shoulders of a highly capable but ageing top end, to thrust the Cats back into genuine premiership calculations.
If recent additions, who are importantly playing leading roles, Kelly, Miers, Dahlhaus, Stewart, Clark, and Atkins can continue to influence results, then Dangerfield, Selwood, Ablett and Hawkins can go about doing what they do best; playing outstanding football.
Then maybe that woeful finals record since the 2011 flag might just start to head north again.
Like what you’re getting? Want more? We have additional content weekly on our Patreon Service. Become a Mongrel Patron, and you can get more of this kind of… stuff
And hey… if you’d like to support us, you could head over to our Mongrel Shop and purchase one of our hideously overpriced hoodies or notebooks. We even have a place for donations now. ORRRRRR, get one of the more moderately priced stubby holders or bumper stickers. Keep The Mongrel alive.