Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – An AFL Pre-Season Prediction

 

I’ve been mulling over the best (and most fun) way to write a pre-season wrap for the last few weeks and have found myself reading just about every one out there. Some have been good, others not so, but I always find there’s something in them that’s lacking a little. Lacking what exactly I can’t quite put my finger on – analysis, humour, knowledge in some circumstances? Here at The Mongrel Punt I like to think we pride ourselves on thinking and writing about football a little differently to other outlets. We try and find a bit of humour in tough situations and approach the football as a fan – not an AFL-affiliated journalist with vested interests in mind.

 

I love Westerns; the sprawling landscapes, the morally complex characters, the battle between good and evil. It’s equal parts thrilling and challenging, allowing the viewer to enter a world of grey – where good choices lead to bad results. As a teenager, I saw the 1969 classic film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and immediately fell in love with it. For those of you who have not seen it (and I truly pity your upbringing if this is the case), the movie tells the story of outlaws – Butch Cassidy and Sundance (and their gang ‘The Wild Bunch’). After a train robbery goes awry, Butch and Sundance find themselves on the run from a posse of lawmen and escape to Bolivia to try and evade capture. Fair warning – there are some spoilers ahead!

 

As I read the pre-season predictions of other writers, an idea came to me – what if I were (like Bill Simmons before me) to use quotes from one of my favourite movies to sum up a team’s predicament leading into the new season? Delightfully devilish, Seymour! The tale of Butch and Sundance is never far from my mind, and I believe their story has some parallels with football – the top clubs (Richmond, Geelong etc) are trying to stay one step ahead of the posse that’s hot on their trail (Bulldogs, St. Kilda etc), while the bottom clubs, like the Wild Bunch, are just trying to stay alive long enough to execute their next score.

 

The logic of this process will become apparent (I hope) as we go – on with the quotes…

 

ADELAIDE

“Butch: What happened to the old bank? It was beautiful.

Guard: People kept robbing it.

Butch: Small price to pay for beauty.”

 

Remember when Adelaide were good and Victorian teams used them like a farm system? It didn’t seem to matter how many players Adelaide lost, the next guy would come in and they’d get better again. Lose Jack Gunston to Hawthorn? That’s fine, they’ve got Tom Lynch and will soon draft Mitch McGovern. Lose Kurt Tippett to the Swans? No worries, they’ve got Taylor Walker and Josh Jenkins. Lose Patrick Dangerfield to the Cats? It’s all good, they’ve got Rory Sloane and the Crouch Brothers. This approach seemed to work as long as they drafted and traded well. Then the infamous camp happened. I don’t think that we’ll ever truly know what occurred, just that whatever it was, it broke the team and nearly the club itself.

 

The old Adelaide was beautiful, and now it’s not. Yes, they’re young and re-building and maybe that already have some parts that will play in a premiership for the club later on, but they’re going to be bad this year, leaving their fans pining for the days when they were beautiful.

 

BRISBANE

“Butch: You didn’t see Lefors out there, did you?

Sundance: Lefors? No.

Butch: Oh, good. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble.”

 

Am I the only one who’s a bit worried about Brisbane this year? They will never get a chance to win it all like they had last year, and to say they just ‘stumbled’ at the final hurdle is being generous. Off a week’s break, they got hammered by Geelong in the Preliminary final last year, and had the Cats kicked straight it would have been a lot worse. They’ll make the finals, of course, but I can’t help but think that their season starts in September.

 

Off-season acquisitions of Nakia Cockatoo and Joe Daniher may help, or they may both be out of commission come the end of the season. Their midfield is good, as is their defence, but they’re going to need more out of the likes of Eric Hipwood up forward if they’re going to challenge the Tigers. The question for the Lions will be, like Butch and Sundance in the climactic scene of the movie, will they face their enemy head-on, or wilt under the pressure?

 

CARLTON

“Sundance: Well, I think I’ll get saddled up and go looking for a woman.

Butch: Good hunting.

Sundance: Shouldn’t take more than a couple of days. I’m not picky. As long as she’s smart, pretty and sweet, and gentle, and tender, and refined, and lovely, and carefree …”

 

For the last couple of years, Carlton have entered the season promising to be like the girl Sundance is looking for. A young, talented group that seems full of potential and ready to bloom before our eyes. Unfortunately for their supporters, they have fallen short of the mark in both 2019 and 2020, winning seven games each season (albeit in a COVID-shortened 2020). As 2021 approaches, again Carlton appear to be promising greatness, however pre-season injuries to Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay have left them short on tall targets and ultimately reliant on the questionable accuracy of Levi Casboult to kick them a winning score.

 

Can Carlton make good on their promise this season and return to finals after a seven season absence? Maybe. They’re probably 12 months away from living up to the ideal set out by Sundance, but maybe.

 

COLLINGWOOD

“Butch: What’s the matter with you?

Sundance: I CAN’T SWIM!

Butch: (laughing) Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.”

 

The biggest laugh line of the movie (and surely the most quoted line) goes to Collingwood. After an off-season from hell, everyone is predicting a fall this year. And like all good falls, it’s not really the destination that matters, but the fall itself that will be most harmful. They’ve lost arguably their best mid in Adam Treloar, promising youngsters in Jaidyn Stephenson and Atu Bosenavulagi (yes, I had to google how to spell it), their President in Eddie McGuire, and a court case hangs over the most damaging player in Jordan De Goey.

 

Considering all of this, a fall seems inevitable, but as we get closer to the start of the season I find myself questioning this logic more and more. They’ve still got a super talented midfield, a decent enough backline, and if key parts remain healthy, a good enough forward line. Maybe I’m crazy, but I can definitely see a world where Collingwood plays finals this year. If they start the season poorly though, expect to see questions raised about Buckley’s job by any AFL journalist worth their salt.

 

ESSENDON

“Butch: Kid, there’s something I ought to tell you. I never shot anybody before.

Sundance: One hell of a time to tell me.”

 

I’ve chosen this quote for the Bombers as I have a big question mark over their forward line. Both James Stewart and Jake Stringer will miss the first round (Stringer may return in round two), and with the off-season loss of Joe Daniher, I don’t know where their goals are coming from. “Daniher has barely played for us the last three years” you yell at your phone/computer screen. Yes, that’s true, but how have Essendon gone the last three years? Missing a key forward? They’ve tried to make up for this, trading in former Gold Coast Sun Peter Wright, but I’m unsure if the answer to their troubles lies with two-metre Peter.

 

The lack of a key forward is made worse by the fact that they’ll start the season without one of their best tall defenders – Michael Hurley. This is going to place a lot of pressure on a defence which was already amongst the bottom four in the league last year. Their midfield group looks good, but they’re going to have to do a helluva lot of heavy lifting if the Bombers are going to make much of this year. I can’t help but think the Bombers are going to be adding a few hundred more days to the ‘days since Essendon won a final’ count.

 

FREMANTLE

“Butch: I think they’re in those trees up ahead.

Sundance: In the bushes on the left.

Butch: I’m telling you they’re in the trees up ahead.

Sundance: You take the trees, I’ll take the bushes.

Garris: Will you two beginners cut it out.

Butch: We’re just trying to spot an ambush, Mr Garris.

Garris: Morons. I’ve got morons on my team. Nobody is going to rob us on the way down the mountain. We have got no money going down the mountain. When we’ve got the money, on the way back, then you can sweat.”

 

Fremantle enter 2021 at the best stage of their journey. Their line-up has plenty of young talent, an established core that’s ready for another run at success, and minimal outside expectations. Opposition clubs will spend most of their time trying to quell the influence of superstar Nathan Fyfe, meaning that their young mids should get shielded from the burden of being tagged for another season at least.

 

As it has been since Matthew Pavlich retired, their tall forward stocks look most likely to stymie any great advances. Pre-season injuries to Rory Lobb and Sean Darcy have depleted their tall stocks, meaning that the Dockers may need to rely on Matthew Taberner and the untried Lloyd Meek and Josh Treacy as their ruck and tall-forward options to start the season. Perhaps it’s me, but I remain unconvinced that Taberner represents anything more than a ‘nearly’ footballer (has most of the tools for success, but never quite puts it together) and with their tall talent down the other end they may have to try a player like Alex Pearce forward.

 

Nevertheless, this is a year for the Dockers to trial things and get some answers – can Fyfe play forward 40% or more of the time, and kick 30 goals? Can the young trio of Cerra, Brayshaw and Serong hold up the midfield in his absence? Can they stop getting injuries?

 

GEELONG

“Butch: Maybe there’s a way to make a profit on this. Bet on Logan.

Sundance: I would, but who’d bet on you?

Logan: Sundance, when we’re done, and he’s dead, you’re welcome to stay.

Butch: Listen, I don’t mean to be a sore loser, but when it’s done, if I’m dead, kill him.”

 

I get the sense that Geelong are a little like Logan in this scene of the movie, while Richmond are like Butch. Logan is a member of Butch and Sundance’s gang, but is a little perturbed with their recent direction. As a result, he challenges Butch to a fight for the leadership – a fight he ultimately loses (despite a hefty size advantage). I don’t mean to predict that Geelong are going to lose a final to Richmond again this year, but rather to point out that every move they made in the off-season seemed geared specifically to beat Richmond. They outscored us? Ok, we’ll get one of the best tall forwards not already in our colours (Jeremy Cameron). They outran us? Ok, we’ll get one of the best runners in the game (Isaac Smith). We lost our x-factor? Ok, we’ll get another one (Shaun Higgins).

 

Over the last two seasons, Geelong have appeared to be Richmond’s greatest threat (maybe along with West Coast, but they need to make it past the second week of the finals to be a true part of this conversation), and they look to have recognised that this may well be their last chance, considering the ages of two of their recent acquisitions. As the season goes on, questions will surround whether Joel Selwood can go around again and how much great footy the likes of Tom Hawkins and Patrick Dangerfield have left in them. If they don’t make it to the last Saturday in September, and Richmond do, I reckon the Cats will just want someone to beat them.

 

GOLD COAST

“Woodcock: You’re the Wild Bunch, Mr Cassidy. I understand that, but you gotta understand that Mr. E. H. Harriman himself of the Union Pacific Railroad gimme this job and I never had such responsibility before and since he entrusted me to get the money through, I got to do my best, don’t you see?”

 

Like the hapless Woodcock, Gold Coast just need to get through – through one more season, 12 more months – before they become elite. Their young talent is probably the best in the game, but just need some more time together to build a brand that stands up to the best teams. I thought they were much improved for most of last year until the inevitable decline happened, and had last year gone the full 22 rounds they probably wouldn’t have added any more wins.

 

While the more jaded amongst us may feel we can predict the season ahead for the Suns (probably six or seven wins in the first 10 games, before a decline ensues to finish the season with seven or eight wins), I think they need to better for longer this year. An injury-free season for the likes of Matthew Rowell, Izak Rankine and Ben King will make the Suns must-watch entertainment – a trend they hope will continue into the dog-days of July and August.

 

 

GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY

“Butch: Do you believe I’m broke already?

Etta: Why is there never any money, Butch?

Butch: Well, I swear Etta, I don’t know. I’ve been working like a dog all my life and I can’t get a penny ahead.”

 

The Giants have always been fighting an uphill battle. Plonked in the middle of Rugby League heartland, the pressure was on to be successful quickly. Blessed with a bevy of early draft selections, the Giants accumulated an eye-watering amount of elite young talent – young talent that began delivering on their potential early. When these players sought adequate payment, the Giants founds themselves a little short on funds, meaning that they needed to trade some out to keep others. Rinse and repeat for a few years, and now we find ourselves in a situation where the group of players the Giants have traded away would probably beat those who stayed.

 

As they enter their 10th season, few would believe that this group is without a premiership, yet here we are. Following an off-season where they were again pillaged, losing Jeremy Cameron and Aidan Corr, questions surround the Giants ruck stocks and their ability to generate enough scoring. You get the feeling that they are going to live and die by whether a forward line of Harry Himmelberg, Jeremy Finlayson and Toby Greene can kick a winning score.

 

HAWTHORN

“Sundance: You remember the time you and me and Etta went to Denver one summer for a vacation?

Butch: I’m glad you brought that up, Kid. That’s an important topic, considering our situation.

Sundance: The night we went gambling, you remember?

Butch: We had dinner at the hotel. Etta had roast beef and I had chicken, and if I can remember what you had, I’ll die a happy man.”

 

Yes, Hawthorn are going to be bad this year. Probably really bad. I can’t help but picture the above conversation happening between Hawks supporters this year “You remember when we were good and winning premierships? Quiet, I’m trying to concentrate on a game we’re losing by ten goals.” Are they going to be bad enough that they might forget the three-peat of 2013, 2014 and 2015? I don’t think so.

 

This could well be the most important year in their development. Get the likes of Tom Mitchell and Chad Wingard back to playing their best football, get James Worpel back to his form of 2019, keep Jaegar O’Meara healthy, get games into Denver Grainger-Barras, keep a certain player out of female influencers’ DM’s – you never know, the Hawks may win five or six games!

 

MELBOURNE

“Butch: You know, when I was a kid, I thought I’d grow up to be a hero.

Sundance: Well it’s too late now.

Butch: What’d you say something like that for? You didn’t need to say something like that.”

 

Maybe, just maybe, this is the year for Melbourne. Maybe Max Gawn will have a career year. Oh, that’s already happened? Maybe Christian Petracca will deliver on his promise. That’s happened too, huh? Hmm… maybe it’s Clayton Oliver’s turn? What’s that, he’s been doing it for the last three seasons? I dunno then, maybe better production from their fringe players? Oh, that happened in 2018 and they haven’t been back to the finals since? Maybe they should recruit a full forward who can kick them 60 goals a year. Crap, they did that too? And now he’s injured and out for the first month? Well…

 

Everyone knows that Melbourne have most of the ingredients to be a good team, but they are coming extremely close to being one resigned to a footnote of history. If everything comes together, like it did in 2018, they might make the finals. Maybe.

 

NORTH MELBOURNE

“Sundance: What I’m saying is, if you want to go, I won’t stop you. But the minute you start to whine or make a nuisance, I don’t care where we are, I’m dumping you flat.

Butch: Don’t sugarcoat it like that, Kid. Tell her straight.”

 

I imagine that this conversation could take a place a few different ways – the AFL as Sundance talking to North Melbourne about moving to Tasmania; North talking to their supporters before round one; even North’s management talking to Ben Brown last year. They’ll want to see improvement from their young players, Nick Larkey and Cam Zurhaar making the forward line their own, and Robbie Tarrant getting six years younger.

 

Like Hawthorn and Adelaide, North Melbourne aren’t going to be any good this year, but I hear they’re stocking up one heck of a war-chest!

 

PORT ADELAIDE

“Butch: How many are following us?

Sundance: All of ‘em.

Butch: All of ‘em? What’s the matter with those guys?”

 

The last time Port Adelaide approached a season like this was 2015 – the situation is eerily familiar. Fresh off a heartbreaking preliminary final defeat at the hands of the eventual premiers, Port went into the season one of the favourites for the flag. The result? 12 wins and a ninth-placed finish. It’s true that Port’s list is in a better position now than it was then – young players like Connor Rozee, Zak Butters, Xavier Duursma and Mitch Georgiades seem to ensure the future remains bright – but if 2015 proved anything, it’s that Port are great when they are the hunters, not so when they are the hunted. Will this season prove different?

 

Their off-season recruitment of Aliir Aliir looks like a great move, and they don’t appear to have too many weaknesses. I just get the feeling that Port are at their best when no-one believes in them, when their backs are to the wall. They’ll have to make the running this year – we’ll see if they can.

 

RICHMOND

“Butch: Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”

 

Richmond just appear like they are a step ahead of the competition. They have a proven game style, good young talent, an elite core of stars that have shown they can deliver when it matters and Dustin Martin. Yes, they’ll lose games this year. Yes, people will probably start to write them off. But when September comes around, and the whips are cracking, you bet the Tigers are going to be there in the thick of it. They know that the finals are a different game, and they know that they are the best at it.

 

There really isn’t a hell of a lot more to write about the Tigers. They seem impervious to outside issues, and are arguably the most stable club onfield. No-one seems to have really come up with a coherent way of beating them, and short of someone Tonya Harding-ing Dustin Martin, I’m not sure anyone will.

 

ST KILDA

“Butch: I couldn’t do that. Could you do that? Why can they do it? Who are those guys?”

 

I suspect that these questions will either be asked about or by St Kilda fans this year. You look across their team, and at full-strength there doesn’t appear to be too much wrong with it. They have a promising defence, enough talent in their midfield to worry most teams, and a dangerous forward line that will keep most defenders up at night. The only question that surrounds the Saints is whether they can withstand the pressure that’s going to come their way. They’ve loaded up with established talent, and must strike while the iron is hot.

 

A pre-season injury to ruckman, Rowan Marshall, and the unavailability of their other first-picked ruck-man Paddy Ryder places a great deal of pressure on their midfield, and they will be hoping that Brad Crouch’s introduction doesn’t adversely affect their chemistry.

 

SYDNEY

“Butch: Once they divide up, we take them, no trouble, right?

Sundance: Maybe.

Butch: Boy, for a gunman you’re one helluva pessimist.”

 

Every time I watch Sydney, I find myself getting frustrated – they just seem to be so conservative. Maybe that’s me and I’m watching them wrong, but I really want them to pin the ears back this year and take some chances. Play Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills in the middle. Play Logan McDonald deep forward every chance you get. Play Nick Blakey on a wing all year. Play an attacking game style. Any issues of style can easily be alleviated if Buddy Franklin gets back on the park, but with an ageing body and muscles that appear to snap any time he comes within shouting distance of an AFL ground, the chance of seeing him play again seem remote.

 

I could be on my own, but I think if things break a certain way, Sydney could win between eight and 10 games this year. I hope they do, and they do it with some dare.

 

WEST COAST

“Butch: He’ll draw on you, he’s ready now and you don’t know how fast he is.

Sundance: That’s just what I want to hear.

Butch: Face it, he doesn’t look like he intends to lose.

Sundance: You’re really building up my confidence.

Butch: Well, I’m over the hill, it can happen to you. Every day you get older. That’s a law.”

 

The last two years have been disappointments for West Coast and they know they can’t afford another one this year. As a team that is reliant on the form of, amongst others, a handful of players aged 30 or older, the Eagles know that this could be their last dance before they have to sit for a few years. If the concern about the availability of Elliott Yeo stretches into May and June, the rest of West Coast’s midfield will be under significant pressure to re-capture the form of 2018.

 

You expect that they will be around the mark when questions are being asked, but whether they are capable of winning when it matters will be what decides their season.

 

WESTERN BULLDOGS

“Butch: Hey-hey, let’s enlist and go fight the Spanish. You and me in the war. Listen, we got a lot going for us: experience, maturity, leadership.”

 

The Dogs certainly do have a lot going for them, and adding Adam Treloar to their midfield, and number one pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan to their forward line, might just be the missing ingredients. I can’t help but make parallels between the Dogs of ’21 and the Hawks of ’13 – both teams were coming off a premiership five years earlier, followed by a period in the wilderness while they accumulated a truly scary amount of talent.

 

The only issue that appears to be facing the Dogs is one that any other club would love to have – too much talent in the middle of the ground! Just a little bit of luck with injuries, and I wouldn’t at all be surprised to see the Dogs salute on the last Saturday in September.

 

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