Is this the real life…

You know how the rest of that goes, right? Is this just fantasy…

Listening to footy fans, there is a definite leaning toward allowing fantasy to infiltrate real life. Sometimes the pre-season makes it worse, and other times the Marsh/JLT/Practice games are like a reality slap in the face with a wet fish.

We’ve got 24 days until the commencement of the 2020 AFL season with the “traditional” Carlton v Richmond game at the MCG.

Maybe it’s time we started separating what is fantasy, and what is the cold, harsh reality of the 2020 AFL season as it looms just around the corner like one of Joe Ganino’s girlfriends looming around the fridge at feeding time.

 

FANTASY OR REALITY?

 

BY MAKING NO BIG OFF-SEASON ACQUISITIONS, COLLINGWOOD IS A MORE SETTLED AND STRONGER TEAM

REALITY – Chemistry takes time to develop at a footy club. We saw how the Collingwood Football Club floundered when the change in coaching occurred all those years ago. It was unsettling, and several players went backwards, or eventually out the door.

Now, with Nathan Buckley entrenched like a parasite beneath Joe Ganino’s skin, the Pies’ only real moved this off-season have been to trade for Darcy Cameron as a back up to the iron man, Brodie Grundy, and allowing James Aish to explore opportunities on the other side of the country to free up a bit of cap space.

But is that enough to maintain a spot at the pointy end of the ladder when other teams have made real efforts to improve?

The Pies are a classy unit (something I never thought I’d say about anything connected with Collingwood), with top-tier talent spread all over the field. Health to the usual suspects (de Goey, Moore) will be so much more important than anyone they could have brought on board this season.

Collingwood sat and watched as the decks reshuffled during trade week. Was it a good move? I believe that it was.

 

THE BRISBANE LIONS WILL EASILY COVER THE LOSS OF LUKE HODGE.

FANTASY – You don’t just replace a player like Luke Hodge, and though it was just a pre-season game, you could see Chris Fagan attempting to find a solution to the problem of no general in the back half.

Grant Birchall was given a run, but doesn’t seem to have trust in his kicking just yet. Callum Ah Chee was thrown the keys to the car and subsequently stalled it, and I’m not sold that either of Alex Witherden or Daniel Rich has the leadership to command that back six the way Hodge did.

So much of the responsibility will fall onto the shoulders of the All-Australian full back this season, and as he battles the monster forwards of the competition, Harris Andrews may also have to really establish himself as the leader of the Brisbane defence, not just in name, but in spirit as well.

Can they effectively replace Luke Hodge. No guys… you don’t just replace a player like Luke Hodge. You can only hope to somewhat compensate.

 

2019 WAS THE ANOMALY FOR MELBOURNE

FANTASY – There were positive signs in their first pre-season hit out, with Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver and Jack Viney all looking fantastic against the Crows, particularly without Max Gawn to give them first use.

But are the ghosts of 2019 that easy to put to rest?

Yes, they had a mountain of injuries to deal with, and yes, they had a deep finals run in 2018 to give them a later start to pre-season. But so did Richmond, and Collingwood and West Coast. They were afforded no excuses and no pardons for any poor form they displayed.

If there were a few seasons of sustained contention, it would be easy to write off the Demons’ 2019 season as a blip on the radar, but this is a football club that has not exactly set the world on fire in recent years. One taste of relative success and the Dees seemed to think it was all going to happen again.

There’s plenty of good news, with unsung players from their 2018 campaign fronting up to play in the Marsh series – Aaron vandenBerg and Alex Neal-Bullen will provide some real grunt, whilst the loss of the captaincy could either work wonders for Jack Viney, or have him questioning his place on the team.

The first four rounds will dictate whether Melbourne are able to recapture that which propelled them to a game short of the Grand Final in 2018. They have West Coast on the road, GWS at the ‘G, Freo at the ‘G and St Kilda at Marvel. Anything less than 2-2 after a month of footy will see Simon Goodwin starting to feel pretty nervous.

 

FREMANTLE WILL BE ABLE TO COVER THE LOSS OF BRAD HILL AND ED LANGDON.

FANTASY – Righto, I know there will be some Fremantle supporters who don’t like it, and that’s fine, but when watching the first ten minutes of the St Kilda v Hawthorn Marsh Series clash, it become apparent just how much the Dockers had lost in the off-season.

Yes, they still possess arguably the best player in the game, in Nat Fyfe, but the support around him in the midfield is painfully thin.

Unless Michael Walters becomes a full time midfielder, the Dockers will be forced to once again rely on the old fella, David Mundy, to carry a weight he really shouldn’t have to at this stage of his career. Coming off a broken leg, part of me wonders whether he can get back to the level we’ve become accustomed to seeing from him.

The Dockers have threatened to move Connor Blakely into the middle, and would be hoping for a significant leap from either Adam Cerra or Andrew Brayshaw. Perhaps they’ve got their fingers crossed that Blake Acres starts the season like he’s been shot out of a canon, or that Stephen Hill can find fitness and contribute.

But they are all real unknowns, and when the foundation of your midfield is built on one man and a whole heap of hope, I’m not sure how much you can realistically expect from them.

Too many “ifs” and a little too much hope required for this midfield for me to think that they can replace those two blokes adequately.

 

THE STANDARD OF AFLW HAS IMPROVED

REALITY –  Here’s the thing; AFLW expanded this season and it’s probably a little too early for them to do that.

The skill level has improved – some of the passages of play moving the ball out of defence, then switching into the middle, have been wonderful, and would prove to be eye-opening for critic if they actually watched instead of bagged it out. The top end of talent is excellent. The bottom tier… not so much.

Unfortunately, for every Maddy Prespakis and Ash Riddell running around, there is an equivalent number who, in an eight-team competition, wouldn’t be playing, and they tend to drag the overall standard down a couple of pegs as a result.

That said, watching Gemma Houghton, Kiara Bowers, Jaimee Lambert and Eb Marinoff plying their trade is plenty good enough for me… and I have to admit, there is a little part of me that enjoys Marinoff preying on those unsuspecting handful of players who are making up the numbers and mowing them down in tackles.

Yes, the standard has improved, and yes it will continue to.

 

STEVEN MOTLOP IS READY TO BECOME A CONSISTENT PLAYER

FANTASY – I can just picture Geelong fans giggling at that statement. Quiet, you cheeky buggers.

Steven Motlop has a habit of making people believe. He’s like a carny, in a lot of ways. He shows you what is possible – he is a man demonstrating the task at a sideshow, tempting you to part with your coin. It looks like he can do it easily, so you bite, but as soon as you step up and give it a try, it’s a lot harder than it seemed.

He pockets your coin and moves onto the next sucker.

Motlop had his way in the first Marsh Series hit out, and truth be told, if he was able to conjure that kind of form in 10-12 games this season, Port would be bloody hard to beat.

But he doesn’t do that. He takes a balloon, fills it with hope and just when you’re about to take it and play with it, the balloon pops, and much like Joe Ganino’s love life, all you’re left with is regret and a useless piece of rubber.

If he proves me wrong, well… Port fans can throw it back in my face. I’ll actually be happy for them, but at 29 years of age, you reckon he may have demonstarted some consistency by now.

 

MARCUS BONTEMPELLI HAS ANOTHER LEVEL TO GO TO.

REALITY – Ask North Melbourne whether he has another level; they saw it, for the most part, last Friday night.

Bontempelli is an impact player, who is probably most closely linked to nat Fyfe in terms of playing style, only with a beautiful, laser-like kick to accompany those silky skills and hard-ball winning attributes. He reads the play wonderfully, and can either play the role of extractor, or first release at a stoppage, taking off and creating space for himself, opportunity for teammates and absolute panic for the opposition.

It was interesting that Bont shortened considerably for the Brownlow after destroying North Melbourne in the first Marsh Series outing. He looks like a man on a mission, and whilst we saw some ripping form from Bont in 2019, I get the feeling that we may be about to see something truly special from one of the best players in the league.

And the great thing is – he has support around him to enable it to happen!

 

THE GOLD COAST SUNS WILL WIN MORE GAMES IN 2020 THAN LAST SEASON.

FANTASY –  Don’t come at me, Suns fans… it’s not necessarily a shot at your team. I think you’ll be better. I think you’ll be harder for longer and there is no way you’re going to cop hidings like you did in the back half of 2019.

I’m just not sure that’ll translate into wins. Not this year, anyway.

The Suns got the jump in 2019. After an exodus of players, including their co-captains, the remaining group entered the season with a chip on their shoulder, and could have easily sat at 4-0 after the first month of football.

Whilst the likes of Hugh Greenwood, Brandon Ellis, Izak Rankine, Matt Rowell, Noah Anderson and Damn Sam Flanders should have a huge impact on the culture at the club, and help shape it into a winner, I’m not so sure the Suns gets that sort of start again.

Their first four weeks see a home opener against Port, then a date with the Cats at Kardinia Park, the Swans at Metricon and the Dockers in WA. I think they have capacity to pinch one of the games from Port or Freo, but will most likely sit at 1-3 after four weeks.

Where the next couple of wins come from will be interesting.

I’d love to see them win 5-6 this season, but the cynic in me… even though he believes they’ll be a better team, he’s pretty convinced we could be looking at another 3-4 win season.

 

TIM KELLY WILL BE THE RECRUIT OF THE YEAR

FANTASY – No pressure or anything, Tim, but you’re viewed as the missing piece to a premiership puzzle. In the eyes of many, that’s the pass-mark for the Eagles.

The talent is brimming over, the expectations are sky high, and Tim Kelly joins a team looking to swoop on a second flag in three seasons. But are we going to get the same output from TK in blue and gold as we did in the hoops? And will the Eagles need it?

Kelly is now surrounded by class. Shuey, Yeo, Gaff, Sheed, Redden… all highly capable midfielders crammed into a West Coast unit that has stars everywhere. Kelly has gone from sharing the number one midfield role with Patrick Dangerfield, to sharing it with three others who are some of the best at what they do.

Is he the icing on the cake? Is he the cherry on top? Nope, he is just another ingredient in what is a spicy little recipe Adam Simpson has cooked up in WA.

In terms of impact, I think we might actually see a little less from Kelly, statistically speaking, in 2020. If you’re looking for individual standout performances, I’d be more inclined to focus on Dougal Howard at St Kilda, or Hugh Greenwood at Gold Coast.

Of course, a premiership could sway that opinion… quite easily.

 

THE BLUES ARE BETTER IN 2020

REALITY – Look, we’ve been through it all before. We all knew they were coming in 2009, and we smelled what they were cooking in 2010. Remember that? They’re still on the way, apparently, and hopefully whatever they’re cooking doesn’t stink the place up this time around.

There is a wave of momentum around Carlton at the moment; an air of positivity that hasn’t been felt in… well, I can’t even remember how long.

The Blues ended up winning seven games in 2019, despite a mid-season coaching change and a number of injuries to key personnel. With Sam Docherty (fingers crossed) able to get on the park, Cripps coming into his peak (scary) and some quality both in the midfield (Walsh), up forward (McKay and hopefully Charlie Curnow if he can avoid tiled flooring) and a solid defence led by Jacob Weitering, Carlton looks like it is FINALLY ready to make a move.

With the talent they have, and a coach who seems to have won the players over quickly, the long, torturous wait for the bagger fans may finally be at an end.

I don’t think they’ll make finals this season, but this year, we may actually start thinking they’ve arrived, and what they’re cooking might be something pretty appetising this time around.