There is a feeling in the air at this time of year. It is a combination of excitement, hope and fear, and as we head to Round One. We do so knowing that, for many teams, two parts of the above combination could be replaced in short order.
Excitement and hope are sold to us by all clubs, irrespective of where they sit on the ladder at season’s end.
“The kids coming through are amazing,” they tell us.
“We’re a piece or two away from a premiership,” say the recruiters and list managers.
And we buy it. Every year, we buy it. We love our clubs – we want to believe they are doing their utmost to secure that elusive premiership all players, teams and anyone associated with an AFL club strives for.
Yet, just like Connor McLeod of the Clan McLeod in Highlander, we’re all well aware there can be only one. As an aside, I still reckon that Spanish Peacock should have cut Christopher Lambert’s head off when he had the chance – it was a tournament of immortals and you’re helping this nobody get better instead of getting better, yourself? Bloody Sean Connery and his Scottish/Spanish accent – what a foolish character. Made me barrack for The Kargan…
Got a bit lost there, didn’t I? It happens…
Back to it – we want to believe at this time of year, but even in Round One there are games that can completely deflate expectations and even derail an entire season. As we look the fixture up and down, there are a couple of clubs that are looking down the barrel in their season opener without even setting foot on the field.
This is not meant to be a “prophet of doom” article. Not by any stretch, but what we’re dealing with here is reality, and the reality is that several teams will struggle in the 2021 season, and they’re heading into Round One games against opponents looking to make a statement. What do they sell if they are on the end of a belting?
Last year’s bottom four have to get season 2021 off on the right foot. Three of the bottom four are pitted against top four teams from the 2020 season. The draw has not been kind to them, but how they perform in the first weekend of footy may well dictate how competitive they’ll be all year.
With that in mind, let’s have a gander at the Round One matchups pitting the bottom four from 2020 and how they might fare in these contests.
The Cats have reloaded after a season that saw them right in it up to their eyeballs until Dustin Martin turned it on in the style only Dustin Martin can. He single-handedly turned the tide of the 2020 Grand Final, leaving the Cats with a pain that may never heal. They can go all the way and win it this year, but the memories of that loss will live with them forever.
Listen to the players who lost the 2008 Grand Final to the Hawks – they went on to win two flags in the next three years, yet the pain from that loss lingers.
That’s how the Cats will be feeling, and they cruise on into Adelaide on a mission.
Adelaide’s preseason form was uninspiring – back to back losses, albeit to a highly-polished Port Adelaide team made them look like witches hats at points. The Power had their way with their crosstown rivals, with only a few players standing up.
There are two games that really have me concerned for teams, and this is one of them. The Crows are in complete rebuild mode – the team they trotted out against Port in the AAMI series had me checking websites for players’ names and histories. What was more concerning was the lack of desire and drive. They made ‘The Dude’ from The Big Lebowski seem like he was a rather intense kind of fella. Geelong will feast on that kind of performance and embarrass a team that presents like that in the season opener.
So, how do the Crows prevent themselves from being slaughtered like a goat at my old neighbour’s house?
It’s all about intent and closing down the corridor. The Cats used it well against the Bombers in the AAMI series and looked very potent when they were able to run and carry through the guts. Adelaide will need to force them wide and get back in numbers to help out a seriously undermanned defence. Daniel Talia is injured and even if Tom Doedee gets up, the Crows are trying to contain the last two Coleman Medallists in one forward line – it’s a huge ask.
A tight defensive press will not make for a great spectacle, but it does not matter – a blowout will undo any of the work Matthew Nicks has put into this group since the tail end of 2020. Adelaide channelled some real aggression in the last four weeks of the season, yet it has fallen away in the preseason.
They need immediate lifts from blokes like Chayce Jones (who might be lucky to get a game given his preseason form), Darcy Fogarty (ditto) and Lachie Murphy. They need Rory Sloane to play like the player he was a couple of years ago, they need Matt Crouch to pick the best option and not the easiest and they need to give Rory Laird some help – he was brought into the middle to help the others, but has shouldered a huge load at stoppages.
That’s a lot of things they need to do. How many do you think they can tick off?
NORTH MELBOURNE KANGAROOS
This is the second game that could get ugly.
I have a soft spot for the Roos, and believe they are nowhere near as bad as every other bloke seems to think. They played almost the entire 2020 season without any decent small forward, lost their best midfielder and full-forward, and were reliant on a then-22-year-old (Simpkin) and a then-20-year-old (Davies-Uniacke) to keep them competitive in the midfield. No wonder they got whacked.
But even with troops returning and a new coach, they are coming up against a potent weapon who sat atop the ladder all season in 2020 and were a kick from making the Grand Final. This could spell real trouble.
Port will be missing Connor Rozee, but their small forward stocks are elite – it is here that Orazio Fantasia needs to make a mark and prove his value to his new club. The pre-season form is lovely, but it’s an opening bout for the fights to come. And Port are looking to land some big blows early in the 2021 season.
North need to prevent themselves from being used as a punching bag.
Speaking of punches, it is fortunate that Ben Cunnington is returning to the fold for the Roos. He makes this team walk taller, and though they may be missing Robbie Tarrant, they’re a much better team with Cunnington standing up in the middle of the ground.
The Port Adelaide defence is elite, and they have got bigger, and possibly better with the addition of Aliir Aliir to the line-up. With North struggling for legitimate forward targets – Nick Larkey and Josh Walker are unlikely to strike fear into the hearts of the Port defenders – they need to get a heap of production from their mid-size/small forwards. Players like Tarryn Thomas, Curtis Taylor, Kayne Turner and Jaidyn Stephenson absolutely have to be on the ball and cause panic once the footy hits the deck.
The Power have the air covered in defence – Aliir, Jonas, Clurey… they will be tough to beat, but at ground level, the quick North forwards just have to lock the ball inside 50 for them to have any chance.
North are up against it here, but they have avenues to goal that may surprise Port. I can’t see them beating the Power, but if they don’t bomb it long and hope (which is an exercise in futility unless someone clunks 4-5 marks inside 50, they could make a game out of this.
I am a believer in the Swans. I like what they’re building and I like the kids they’re bringing through – they’re a fantastic mix, but they’re another bottom four team from 2020 who have drawn a top four team in the first week of the season.
What are the AFL doing to these teams?
They must travel to the Gabba to face a team with a new-look forward line, featuring a player looking to re-establish himself. I suppose it is a good thing they have a very solid defence.
Is it stupid of me to think that the Swans could cause the Lions a little bit of trouble? They’ll need to be on the ball at stoppages, but with Lachie Neale having an interrupted preseason, there is a chance that he may not be at his absolute best early in the year… maybe just the 35-38 touches instead of 40+ in Round One. The second-tier Brisbane mids are solid, but unspectacular, and if they can get Neale under control, the likes of JPK, Parker, Hewett and Rowbottom can mix it with Lyons, Berry, Zorko and Bailey.
It’ll be the matchup on Hugh McCluggage that will intrigue me most. Can Ryan Clarke take on the defensive role, get hold of him and keep him to around 15 touches? If so, the Swans may be in with a show.
If they play both Logan McDonald and Braeden Campbell, Sydney inject two kids into the mix that could have an immediate impact. McDonald had nine touches and snagged a goal in the second half of the Swans’ loss to GWS in the AAMI series, but looked like a natural, whilst Campbell had 18 for the game and looks every bit a Swan in the way he plays.
Call me crazy… call me dumb… (just call me, please) but I smell a bit of an upset here. Papley, Hayward, Heeney up forward, a powerful inside midfield contingent and both Rampe and McCartin available to stifle the Daniher/Hipwood tall combination – this could be very interesting.
Of course, there is still Charlie Cameron to contend with. And that’s enough to sway me solidly back to the side of the Lions. I reckon he kicks four to break some hearts.
Ah yes… my Hawks.
There is a world where I would be rabid in terms of my anticipation for this game. Hawthorn v Essendon games always get me going. I picture Derm burning Essendon jumpers in the build up, the rivalry through the eighties, the line in the sand… they all project images of a fiery clash between two teams who simply do not like each other.
But this year, I’m not rabid. If anything, I feel resigned to the fact that my team is going to be ordinary, and I don’t even feel terrible about it. I know it’s a means to an end, and I am happy to give Hawthorn another year of securing a high draft pick in order to build back better (ohhhhh, some Great Reset stuff from The Mongrel… maybe I am part of it all?).
I am excited for the game, however, for reasons that other Hawthorn supporters would shame me for – I want to see this running machine known as Essendon, and how far this game style can take them.
Of the whole preseason, the one thing that made me sit up and take notice was the high-octane gameplan from Ben Rutten, of all people. The Bombers just took the game on against the Cats, and really, if you think they were not the better team in their AAMI Series clash, I don’t know which game you were watching. They played the kind of footy I wanted to watch – it was exhilarating!
And now that we’ve seen it, it will be up to the “Master Coach” to shut it down.
Alastair Clarkson has been known to swing changes during breaks between quarters to reverse the momentum, and having seen what Essendon is capable of doing with this new man on the mark rule, I have an expectation that he will be the best at adapting to work it to his advantage, both offensively, and defensively. You don’t get a reputation like his by sitting on your hands.
I’m eager to see how Denver Grainger-Barrass slots in – he sounds like a cross between a dinosaur from a children’s show and a port-sipping member of the Melbourne Club, but his tandem with Will Day will an important component of the Hawks for the next ten years. James Worpel needs to find the form he left in 2019, whilst Jacob Koschitzke would be incredibly unlucky not to find himself in the Round One team alongside Tyler “Kent” Brockman, who may have some news to deliver to the Bomber defenders.
Though Hawthorn fans could go into this game feeling optimistic, I reckon it is the Bombers who have a bit to prove here, with the likes of Merrett (who I think could win a Brownlow), Caldwell and Shiel enough to give Essendon some good use through the middle and cause some problems for the inexperienced Hawthorn defence.
So, as a takeaway, I’d love to see DGB slot in and not appear over-awed and over-matched, Worpel find the footy, Tom Mitchell play and win clearances (something that was missing from his game in 2020) and a few really good inside 50 entries to give the young fellas a chance to lead at the footy and take a mark.
Oh, and Tim O’Brien holding an overhead contested mark would be a bonus. Enough of the “kicks to O’Brien… almost!” line on commentary. I’m sick of hearing it.
So, yes. The Crows and Kangas are up against it, the Swans look like a better side with a few back from injury and some great kids coming through, whilst the Hawks have a chance against the Bombers, but I don’t believe it is in their best interests to start actually winning games early on.
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