It’s that time of year when you start hearing the regular kind of mutterings from supporters.

“So and so is flying!”

“So and so is in the best shape he’s ever been.”

We’ve heard it all before, and in terms of talking up a team or individual, I have been just as guilty as anyone. I mean, we all speculate; some more often than others. So, in the interest of fairness, here are a couple of my thoughts from around this time last season that ended up being… at the very least, slightly incorrect.

I thought Adelaide were a chance for the flag. I know, I know, Captain Hindsight; it was a silly thought given where they were at, and where they ended up. I got sucked in to thinking that 2018 was an anomaly, and that the fallout from this camp business wasn’t quite as bad as everyone thought. I was wrong.

I speculated that the Tom Lynch-Richmond marriage might not be all wine and roses, and that there may be some teething problems in year one. Yep…wrong again. In my defence, Lynch is a bit of a freak. I usually think all players that jump to another team will take a year to adjust to a new system and new teammates, but not Lynch. He had a dream season after a bit of a nightmare 2018, and is now a premiership player. My hat goes off to him, and I’m not even wearing one.

What else did I get wrong? I thought Essendon would be better than they were, I didn’t really buy into Brisbane being the big improver, and look, we could sit here all day and talk about the things I was wrong about. It’d be like sitting down and having a chat with my ex!

But now, we look to the future, and whilst it is still way too early to make any bold predictions, the more I think about the upcoming season, the more I have started talking myself into things, and out of things.

Here’s where I’m at right now.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF INTO NORTH MELBOURNE

Do I think they’ll win the flag? No, I don’t, but I think we will see marked improvement from the Kangaroos this season.

Recently, I took a long hard at the team lists and was pleasantly surprised with how many North Melbourne players I rated as elite, or potentially elite. I was most impressed with some of the kids coming through, such as Cam Zurhaar who I have a bit of a man crush on, Nick Larkey, who has displayed a wonderful pair of hands and could be the second forward North have needed since Jarrad Waite made Ben Brown an even more dangerous weapon a few years ago.

In regard to those two, I want you to consider this; the football world rightfully lost its marbles about how good Sam Walsh was in 2019. They were also in raptures, again quite rightly, over the way Connor Rozee went about it at Port Adelaide, and whilst I was one who marvelled at the way Rozee navigated a tough position on the ground, his best return was five goals.

Both Zurhaar and Larkey did that as well.

Twice each.

Throw in names like Luke Davies-Uniacke, Jy Simpkin, Trent Dumont, Tarryn Thomas, and Bailey Scott and you have the nucleus of the next generation of stars at Arden Street. And I reckon they’re just about ready to produce results.

North’s list also boasts Shaun Higgins, who keeps compiling higher and higher stats, Ben Cunnington coming off a career-best season and the most underrated captain in the game. Jack Ziebell. If they can get both Majak Daw and Ben Jacobs on the park, there’ll be a lot of pundits wondering where North have come from in 2020.

Of course, any prediction remains at the mercy of the injury Gods, but right now, I’m buying stock in the Kangaroos.

Also, I wouldn’t mind throwing a few dollars on Jared Polec for the Syd Barker Medal this season.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF OUT OF LANCE FRANKLIN

It all seemed to be falling into place for one last big season for Buddy, and look – it still may pan out that way, but a knee injury and subsequent arthroscopic surgery on it has set Lance Franklin back.

Again.

Buddy’s career over the past three seasons has been wracked with injury. He limped through 2018 after injuring his heel in the first round, and struggled to remain on the park in 2019, his body betraying him. He returned for game 300 in the final game of the year and started pre-season early this time round; something he hadn’t been able to do in his time in Sydney.

Watching from the outside, it appeared Buddy was finally taking his preparation seriously. His early return to the track signalled a man who now knew the clock was ticking on his career, and realised that he had to get in the best shape possible.

And now this.

Early reports suggest that Franklin will resume full training in ten weeks, but as pointed out by one of my astute fellow Mongrels, this has all the hallmarks of one of those injuries that ends up taking longer.

Buddy turns 33 this year. Those legs are carrying 105 kilograms (that’s what’s listed – he looks bigger to me) around the park. 1000 goals is still 56 majors away. I’ve talked myself out of him reaching it in 2020, but I really hope I’m wrong.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF INTO HAWTHORN

So, I was looking at the Hawks a while back, and started to think just how far below their best they played in 2019. I came to the conclusion that the loss of Tom Mitchell was probably about the biggest single loss a team could sustain outside Carlton losing Cripps or Freo losing Fyfe. It placed huge pressure on Jaeger O’Meara, who battled on, but got too much of the footy under pressure, and resulted in a career-low disposal efficiency of just 61%

But Adam Treloar apparently still wastes the footy…

Anyway, poor usage from O’Meara – the Hawks’ second best ball-winner, hurt the looks the forwards were used to getting, and that resulted in a combined 46 goals less for the pair of Jack Gunston and Luke Breust. There were to be no All-Australian guernseys for those two in 2019 as they struggled to adapt to life without decent supply.

Then there was the rapid deterioration of Jarryd Roughead that was probably a little more dramatic than anyone thought, leaving the Hawks to rely on Mitch Lewis to carry the load as the marking forward target. He was good, but they needed more.

But what sells me on the Hawks this season?

Mitchell returns. Even if his output is 90% of what it was, it still has him averaging around 31 touches per game. Chad Wingard, like a good horse, should be better for the first-up run with the brown and gold, as should Tom Scully, who nobody expected to play again, let alone get back to his running best.

So, with additions from Mitchell, Wingard, Scully, Gunston, Breust and the residual improvement to O’Meara, the Hawks look like a side that won’t just contend for the top eight, but SHOULD contend for the top four. Whatever they get from Jon Patton and Sam Frost in their first years will be a bonus, and if James Worpel can produce anything like he did in 2019 again, the Hawks will be contending.

It’s been a while between flags, I guess…

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF OUT OF CARLTON

There are a few who expect the organic growth of the kids at Princes Park to vault the Blues up the ladder. Coupled with the return of Sam Docherty and the additions of Eddie Betts, Jack Newnes and Jack Martin to a forward line that had to rely on Michael Gibbons in 2019 as their best sneaky small man, there is some genuine optimism around the Blues.

But where else does the improvement come from? Cripps? If he gets any better, he’ll be canonised by the Carlton faithful. Mitch McGovern? Well, let’s face it – he couldn’t really get any worse than he was in 2019. Sam Petrevski-Seton? Flashes in and out, but as a consistent star… I can’t see it happening.

The Blues supporters have been more than patient. They have been in the football wilderness for too many years  and have endured too much heartbreak. Carlton are right now in the midst of their longest premiership drought in history, but I think they’ll extend it for a few years yet.

So, where do they improve? Sam Walsh is all class, and will underpin any resurgence as he develops. I read with interest Kane Cornes stating that he doesn’t believe Walsh will be a superstar; but more akin to an Andrew Gaff-type player, running all day and being incredibly consistent. I watched Walsh a little more intently after that and think he may be more like a cross between Gaff and Lachie Whitfield once he settles down and uses the ball a little better.

Docherty’s return adds some solidity across half back (Newman, Simpson and Doc should provide great run feeding off Jones, Weitering and Plowman) and Harry McKay will be better again after looking like a marking machine at one point (without Charlie Curnow cramping his style). Zac Fisher has looked good in patches and Ed Curnow is a trusted warrior in the midfield.

So, why don’t I trust them to get better?

Players like Paddy Dow, Lochie O’Brien, Cam Polson, Matt Kennedy, Jack Silvagni were all best 22 at stages in 2019 and would have struggled getting a run elsewhere. If they’re still in the mix this season, I can’t see the Blues elevating too much with that many passengers.

I don’t know where Caleb Marchbank fits in this team at the moment. As a third tall defender, I often found him getting in the way of Weitering and Jones in 2018 (when they weren’t getting in the way of each other) and he spent a fair whack of time out in 2019.

It looked as though Carlton decided Levi Casboult was a defender in 2019. Coming off a pretty good run as a contest-killer, does he make Liam Jones’ role redundant? Or vice versa? Maybe that’s just a great thing in terms of depth?

I suppose I just have a lot of questions about the Blues, and whilst I am sure there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, they’ve still got a bit of deadwood to cut. If they end up above 13th on the ladder I’d be very surprised, but that’s not to say they won’t have a few moments to give fans some hope for the future.

Then again, if I were a Carlton supporter, I’d be pretty tired of hoping for the future by now.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF INTO A WEST COAST V RICHMOND GRAND FINAL

I don’t barrack for either, but this is what I want to see. The 2018 champions v the 2019 champions in a game to rival their clash last season. You remember that game, right? It was the best game of the season. And their 2018 clash was a ripper too, for the record.

With Tim Kelly joining the fray, the Eagles are star-studded and have the weapons to go head-to-head with the Tigers. Look at their team from end-to-end; Sheppard, Hurn and McGovern in defence, Kelly, Shuey, Yeo and Gaff in the middle, and Darling and Kennedy up forward. On paper, they are the only team that looks as though they could trade punches with the manic Tigers and win.

Richmond play a style that is in complete contrast to West Coast. While the Eagles can be precision, the Tigers look to apply the kind of pressure that breaks down a team’s offence, and they rebound better than anyone.

Precision v Pressure

The 2018 champs v the 2017/19 champs.

Yeo v Dusty

McGovern v Lynch

Grimes v Darling

If only there was a bit of Rioli v Rioli in the mix as well.

If we arrive on that last Saturday in September with these two teams eyeing each other off as some Bozo sings the national anthem, I will not be at all disappointed.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF OUT OF ESSENDON

What a difference 12 months makes. I ignored the painfully obvious lack of a quality inside-mid this time last year, thinking that the combination of Heppell, Shiel, Merrett and Dev Smith were good enough to overcome it.

I was wrong.

Losing Smith was huge. Whilst he is not the prototypical inside-mid, his attack on the man and tackling ability enabled repeat stoppages, and you know what – he’s a bit of a mongrel, and Essendon genuinely lack mongrel. When they needed centre stoppage wins in 2019, they were throwing David Bloody Myers in there, or robbing the forward line (already without Joe Daniher) by throwing Jake Stringer into the middle. Hats off to Stringer – he always gave a good contest in there, but we all know where his best work is done…

I really thought they had the opportunity to rectify the lack of inside presence this off-season, with both Cam Ellis-Yolmen and Hugh Greenwood looking to leave Adelaide, yet here we are headed into a new season, and it looks as though the Bomber faithful will be hoping (for that’s all they can do) that Darcy Parish or Kyle Langford emerges as a big-bodied mid to rely on. Can you honestly see that happening?

The Bombers need one of their star defenders (Hurley or Hooker) to have a genuine All-Australian season, and they need a bit of help for Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti up forward. If that help comes from Orazio Fantasia, all the better.

This may sound harsh, but Fantasia has had a disgusting last 12 months. He played like he was disinterested in 2019 and backed it up with the “will he/won’t he” drama of the trade period. His 2019 season was best remembered for three things – dyeing his hair, people pronouncing his name incorrectly, and being pinched by Ben Stratton. Oh wait; four things. The last one was going down like a sack of spuds and staying down after being bumped into by Robbie Gray (after trying and failing to clean Gray up moments before). He is too good to be the player he was in 2019. Enough sizzle from Orazio – it’s time for some steak.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF INTO NAT FYFE AS AN ALL-TIME GREAT

With his team registering just eight wins in 2019, Nat Fyfe collected his second Brownlow Medal, and looking at the Dockers’ list right now, I cannot for the life of me see anyone on it other than Michael Walters that will take votes off him in 2020.

Brad Hill has wandered off, as has Ed Langdon, whilst they’ve gained Blake Acres and James Aish in what would have to be looked at as a net loss for the immediate future. There’s noise about Adam Cerra moving into the midfield, the possibility of Connor Blakely making good on his reported transition from defender into midfielder (that hamstring injury kind of screwed that up in 2019) or Griffin Logue proving why he was such a high pick but really, when Freo get a win, it will be on the back of Fyfe’s brilliance.

So, is a third Brownlow in play here? If he plays 20 games, you’d have to think he’s a chance. Put it this way – in three of the last four times he’s played 20+ games, Fyfe has taken home either the Brownlow or MVP award. Keep him on the park, for God’s sake!

Ian Stewart, Dick Reynolds, Bob Skilton and Haydn Bunton are the only others to ever win three Brownlows. All are now at locked in as Legends in the AFL Hall of Fame.

And Nat Fyfe is ready to knock on that door as well.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF OUT OF OLLIE WINES

A one year term as co-captain.

Given their time over again, do you think Port Adelaide would have broken a long tradition of having one captain to hand the role to Ollie Wines, only to see him nosedive whilst water skiing, and then proceed to have the most uninspiring year a captain could possibly have?

Seriously, I would have taken Callan Ward’s year as co-captain of GWS over Wines’ efforts for Port.

He played 12 games, had his lowest disposal, tackle and clearance stats in five years, and as captain, inspired absolutely nobody.

To top it off, rumours of him wanting to move to Carlton filtered through during trade period, which were denied, but you know… where there’s smoke…

Wines needs a season of redemption, and the Power need him to have one. Their best players are either 30+ years old, under 21, or named Darcy Byrne-Jones. They need something from the man who would be king, and they need it in 2020.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF INTO BEN BROWN FOR THE COLEMAN

Look, I really hope Gold Coast is better this year.

Why am I leading a section about Ben Brown with a comment about Gold Coast? Well, you see, it is against the Suns that both Jack Riewoldt and Jeremy Cameron have secured the last two Coleman Medals, passing Ben Brown in doing so.

Brown has been runner up in the last two Coleman Medal races, and Jeremy Cameron’s nine-goal bag against the Suns in 2019 not only cost Brown the position as the number one goal kicker in the game, but also probably cost him his first All-Australian selection as well. Imagine winning the Coleman and NOT being All-Australian? Yep, Brown got shafted.

I try not to openly barrack for a player in my columns and game reviews, but I reckon it might be hard not to barrack for Brown this season, even if he is a dirty vegan. He is the only bloke playing to have 60+ goals in each of the last three seasons, and I like seeing consistency rewarded. I hope he goes for 70+ in 2020 and takes his place as the best full forward in the game.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF OUT OF JOSH KELLY AS THE BEST MIDFIELDER AT GWS

This might come back to bite me on the backside, but…

… I look at that GWS midfield and it is as good as any in the game. Stephen Coniglio has emerged as their leader, but the work of players like Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper really impressed me over the course of 2019. As Josh Kelly struggled with injury (second straight year with 18 or less games), the Giants looked more to their young stars to produce.

And they did.

Lachie Whitfield continued his rise into the upper echelon of AFL stars, and as we enter 2020, I would have both him and Cogs ahead of Kelly in the midfield pecking order. That was almost unthinkable 12 months earlier, when Kelly was viewed as the hottest property in the game. Now, with the form of Taranto in particular, he may even be somewhat… gulp… tradeable?

I expect Kelly to go all out in re-establishing himself as an elite mid. He is no longer a young player on the rise. He will turn 25 as the season progresses and should be entering his prime years right now. Taranto is just 21, Hopper 22. They are now the future. Kelly has to be the now.

Callan Ward will return to bolster their on-ball brigade, but it will be worth watching Josh Kelly and how he responds to two seasons where so much has been expected from him, but not much has really delivered.

 

I’VE TALKED MYSELF INTO GARY ABLETT PLAYING AROUND 15 GAMES

Did you see ‘The Little Master’ against Brayden Maynard in the finals? Did you watch him look frustrated and tired as Maynard tightened the screws on him?

He had very little left to give.

At 34 years old, he played 24 games in 2019. The last time he did that was 2010.

Why?

What was the need to run him into the ground when Geelong was comfortably sitting in top spot and clear after ten or so games? Did they really need him to be out there against Gold Coast in Round Ten? Could they have given him a week off against the Saints in Round 17? I really don’t see the point of working a bloke into the ground at that age even if he claims he is good to go. The team – the coach and selectors have a responsibility to the greater success of the team. They made poor decisions with the management of Ablett.

Geelong had a real shot at the flag in 2019. For a long while they were the best team in the game, and they had this footballing genius running around the forward half, wreaking havoc , but when push came to shove, Gaz looked every bit of his 34 years in the finals.

Chris Scott and his match committee need to be a bit smarter with Ablett in 2020. It’s okay to make the best decision for the long-term and not just for the week ahead. Get Ablett his rest during the season, and ensure he has a bit left at the pointy end. It’s what a smart team would do.

 

Oh, I am just getting started on these things. The next one will probably be a members-only post, so no complaining… you’ve been warned. If you’re enjoying this, please consider becoming a member and supporting our site as we grow. Embrace The Mongrel, and The Mongrel will embrace you – click the pup below.

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