As I sit here on between Christmas and New Year, pondering the goings-on of the world… and quickly deciding to switch to something more cheerful, the footy lover in me comes to realisation that there are only 78 days to go until the first bounce of the 2022 AFL season.

Just 78 days…

And, if we want footy a little earlier, the AAMI preseason series starts in 62 days.

There’ll be scratch matches, plenty of news from training and so on, and then there is AFLW to get you through, starting in just 10 days.

Good times, huh? And what better way to get the good times rolling along even faster than a bit of Mongrel positivity? You see, as much as I am painfully aware that the negative headlines and stories get the most reads and most clicks – shame on you – I like to look forward with optimism, and drill down on some opportunities for the coming season. I like to focus on how those opportunities could impact teams, players, and yes, you.

So, without further ado, the Mongrel puts on his best smile, nods his head, and looks forward to some of the potential good news stories of the 2022 season.

 

BEN KING RE-SIGNS WITH THE SUNS

This is the contract that makes or breaks the Suns. It’s as simple as that.

It’s probably unfair to place the weight of an entire club on the shoulders of one signature, but the importance of Ben King to this side ongoing is absolutely vital. You know the offers will be ready the longer 2022 drags on, and you know that the rumours will swirl. Ben King has the opportunity to silence them early and give his team a reason to walk a little taller.

With 47 goals in 2021, King’s future looks tremendous. He has been the focal point of this Gold Coast forward setup since day one, and has managed to succeed in a team that has done the polar opposite. The re-signing of Ben King is worth more than both the signatures of Jack Lukosius and Izak Rankine, together. Losing either one of them wouldn’t be great. Losing both would be bad.

But losing Ben King would be a disaster.

Pen to paper from Ben King makes 2022 a success for the Suns – it gives them the platform of a dominant young big man to work with, and given their young talent, that platform is the type of foundation success is built on.

 

CHARLIE CURNOW PLAYS 20 GAMES

Remember the days before Charlie Curnow would injure his knee doing anything other than playing footy?

The Mongrel remembers – they were great times. The young duo of Curnow and McKay were set to spearhead the Blues to an era of success. And then…

… Curnow managed just four pretty ordinary games in two seasons, hurting himself playing basketball, falling over on some tiles at a relative’s place, and then lifting weights at home.

Whilst McKay has matured and his contested marking game helped carry him to a Coleman Medal, the devastating duo Blues fans were hoping for is still just that – a hope.

But things can change in 2022.

There have been no unexpected (or expected these days, I guess) stories about Curnow getting hurt in the preseason. There has been no cause for alarm – not for the Blues, anyway. The health of Charlie Curnow, and the fulfillment of the promise he once showed as the young, hard running, high marking forward, could finally make Carlton the improver they’ve been threatening to be for a few years, now.

And if they don’t, I just want to see Charlie get through a year without another setback.

 

CAM RAYNER MAKES THE BRISBANE FORWARD LINE POTENT AGAIN

I am a little reluctant to place too much weight of expectation on Rayner. Knee reconstructions are supposed to be a 12-month injury, however, the confidence in your body takes a little while longer to re-establish.

2021 was supposed to be the big year for Rayner – remember that? All the predictions in the lead up were about him finally having the season that would propel him into the superstar bracket. Sadly, that injury in the preseason ended his year before it got started. As such, expectations were put on hold. Is he ready to pick up where he left off, or are we be a little too premature with those expectations?

If Rayner gets through the first six or seven games without incident, perhaps then Brisbane supporters should start expecting more. Once he regains the confidence in his body and starts to take a chance or two, we may see him start impacting the team in the way they require.

The Lions have Joe Daniher and Charlie Cameron – both coming off very good seasons, with Daniher playing every game; something many thought was a long shot. They have Eric Hipwood due back at some stage and with those four (and Daniel McStay, I guess) patrolling the forward fifty, the Lions may finally have their ideal forward set up ready to go. Having Rayner ready to round into form by the mid-point of the year would position the Lions for a serious run at the title.

 

JEREMY CAMERON REPAYS THE FAITH

You always give a player 12-months grace when they join a new team, but by his standards and, hell… by my standards, Jeremy Cameron was bloody ordinary in 2021. Hamstring injuries and underwhelming form meant that the one-two punch from the Cats’ forward powerhouses was reduced to Tom Hawkins swinging haymakers and Jeremy Cameron, tagging in only occasionally.

Cameron had only one game where he failed to register a goal, but his ability to work up the ground and back seemed way off from where it was two years ago. Sadly, it did seem on par with his 2020 efforts where he phoned it in half the time. That cannot happen again, and I do not think it will.

Hawkins will always deliver – the bloke is a beast of a man who puts his hand up every week. 2022 should see Cameron do the same. When not injured (he played 15 of 25 games), he was a shadow of the player that saw him win a Coleman in 2019, but if he can avoid those dreaded hamstring twangs, that one-two punch may result in some pretty heavy knockouts.

Cameron was the man that was supposed to put the Cats over the top in 2021. He was unable to get anywhere near that level, but after a season where he learnt exactly what not to do, he will be wiser and part of a team that can hear the clock ticking. Will it be a career-best season? No… not at all, but it should be a far cry from what he was able to conjure in 2021, and that should be enough to see the Cats become a much more potent forward fifty team.

 

JAMES SICILY WINS A BEST AND FAIREST

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Sic. I mean, he doesn’t love me, or hate me… or know me, but I have mixed feelings about his career at Hawthorn to date.

I love the passion. I love that he plays on the edge. And it drives me nuts when he falls over the edge and takes the Hawks with him. If you’d like an example of that, cast your mind back to 2019 against the Dogs – remember that one?

The Hawks were up by five goals heading into the last quarter and it looked all over. A goal each in the first five minutes and it had the feeling of a game that was going to peter out. Nup… the Dogs had other things in mind, and used the temper of Sicily to help alter their fortunes. Baiting him, the Dogs were able to milk a free kick after snagging a goal, leaving the Hawks in disarray, to run out 19-point winners.

It should have been a big lesson for Sic, and after injuring his ACL in 2020, he sat out the 2021 season despite being cleared to return late in the season – putting him in cotton wool was a wise move.

Here’s the deal – he is now 26 years old, has never been named to the AA team and has not picked up a Peter Crimmins Medal. It’s time he changed that.

Usually, I am pretty lenient with players returning from long-term injury, however, with Sicily able to return in 2021 but opting to wait until 2022 to make his way back into the team, he has had the extra time to get himself right (mentally, as well as physically) and irrespective of whether he plays forward or back, this season should provide the platform for him to finally get to the next level.

 

FREO PLAYS AT CLOSE TO FULL STRENGTH

This is like a wet dream for the Dockers. Just look at the level of the players that found themselves on the sidelines with significant injuries in 2021. Nat Fyfe, Joel Hamling, Alex Pearce, Brennan Cox, Griffin Logue, Rory Lobb, Matt Taberner… all easily best-22 players and vital to the structure of the team. That is basically the entire spine.

The backline was decimated and when the shoulder injury hit Fyfe, any chances of the Dockers making the finals dissipated.

What are Freo capable of with even just a decent run of injuries? What does a settled back six mean for a team who has not really had one for three seasons? What does a pair of marking targets across half forward who are permitted to play plenty of games together mean to the club?

Freo have been destroyed by terrible luck in recent seasons, and it is about time they got a bit of of reversal in fortune. A team with Pearce, Hamling, Cox, Logue, Lobb, Tabs and Fyfe all playing 18+ games makes Freo a finals side.

For the sake of their supporters, I hope Freo are able to stay healthy.

 

JACK HIGGINS HAS A CAREER-BEST SEASON

Can I share something that many glossed over in 2021? I mean, they justifiably glossed over it because in the end, the Saints gave their fans very little to get excited about, and no one really wanted to talk in-depth about St Kilda’s season, but the play of Jack Higgins should have been something the team hung their hat on.

Quietly, Higgins went about compiling his most complete AFL season thus far. Think about that for a moment – he was coming off the casual bout of BRAIN SURGERY (!!!) and managed to elevate his goals-per-game average to 1.42. His previous best was 0.75 in his rookie season of 2018.

Higgins’ road has been a long, hard one, but right now, we are looking at a young man who loves his footy, playing with the club he grew up supporting, and poised to really make a run at a 40-goal season.

Yep, I reckon he has forty goals in him in 2022, and if he can do that, and the Saints get a lift from Dan Butler as well, people who wrote the Saints off in 2021 may want to start thinking again.

There is a part of me that believes I am just barracking for Higgins to have a great year because it makes a good story. Yeah, maybe that is influencing me a little, but after enduring the garbage “Missy Higgins” stuff after one inaccurate game – he kicked 1.6 in a loss against the Swans – Higgins went onto compile 27 goals and 16 behinds in 2021, he has done a fantastic job of establishing himself as a player of merit at Moorabbin.

Hopefully, 2022 sees him elevate his game a little more and we all bear witness to the player he can be.

 

CHAD WARNER EMERGES AS THE GEM OF THE SWANS’ YOUNG CREW

It’s hard not to take notice of the young crew in red and white. Campbell, Gulden, McDonald, Rowbottom, McInerney… it’s a formidable bunch. However, nestled in amongst them is a player who has a ton of x-factor about him, and when he wasn’t in the team, the Swans missed his ability to create and hit the scoreboard.

Still just 20 years old, Warner was often overlooked when people spoke of the young Swans cohort that was so prevalent in their 8-4 record over the first 12 weeks. Whilst the Swans ended up winning seven more games without him, his run from the wing and through half forward gave the team a wonderful option that often left defences guessing as to what to do.

Warner will once again enter the season as a lesser light, with players such as Gulden really capturing the imagination of footy fans in general, but those who watched Warner in 2021 know what he is capable of, and would not be at all surprised if he emerges as one the stars of the next generation of Swans.

Right now, I’d be backing him to be one of the genuine breakout players of the season.

 

MITCH WALLIS BULLIES HIS WAY INTO THE DOGS’ FORWARD LINE

Names vice-captain before the commencement of the 2021 season, things did not really play out the way Mitch Wallis intended. A heart and soul player, he was the Dogs’ best forward in 2020 and looked as though he would form part of a very potent trio, along with Aaron Naughton and Josh Bruce.

Yet, 2021 saw him play only six games, unable to make a significant impact in five of those contests.

With the possibility of a move to another team seeming like a possibility, Wallis opted to re-sign with the Dogs in a mutual demonstration of faith. Let’s hope both parties see the faith repaid.

Wallis is a second generation Bulldog and wants to be there at the Whitten Oval. He is a son of the west and bleeds red, white, and blue.. After a season on the outs, his talents inside 50 – his pressure, his ability to create a 50-50 contest when seemingly beaten, and is tenacity would be a welcome addition as Josh Bruce continues on his road to recovery.

 

OSCAR ALLEN MOVES FROM NUMBER THREE INTO THE TOP TWO

This is both positive and negative, as when a player moves up, another player moves down.

It is painfully apparent to me that the future of the West Coast Eagles forward line lives and dies by the development of Oscar Allen. With Josh Kennedy going around again, and Jack Darling the bridging player between the Kennedy era and whatever comes next, it will be up to Oscar Allen to force his way into the role he is destined to one day occupy.

And if he does that, it’ll be Kennedy that is forced into the role of third forward, only without the same versatility that youth provides Allen.

Can it work?

Well, if you’re an Eagles supporter, you would be hoping that Allen is able to take the next step. Teams that have a player jump out of the box often start to make their team play through them, and when they do, the team can start stringing wins together. For all the talent West Coast possess, it will be what occurs in the forward fifty that will shape their 2022.

The Eagles with Kennedy and Darling combining for 80+ goals is expected, but  if Allen can match them, and produce career-best numbers in front of goal, then the Eagles suddenly become very tough to cover.

 

So, I will continue to find the good news amongst the garbage as we head toward the 2022 season. My fingers are crossed that we will see less disruption and borderline panic in 2022, but then again, fate doesn’t often consider the way I feel.

Fingers crossed we get to see the best the game has to offer in front of packed houses again. I reckon we deserve it.

 

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