If you’re not in the premiership window, you damn sure better be building a very good list. That’s the harsh reality of life in the AFL. If you find yourself stuck in the middle, you’re in trouble and in need of a rebuild.
With that in mind, perhaps it is time to have a look at the window, those perched outside it waiting to get in, and those falling from it, ready for the impact of hitting the deck.
IN THE WINDOW
The premiers would be feeling pretty good about themselves, wouldn’t they? Their list boasts the best young player in the game (Nick Daicos) and has a very good mix of experienced players who still contribute heavily, to stars in their peak years, to players who have made their name and still have plenty of years left.
To add some icing to the cake, they remain a “destination club” as evidenced by the recent additions of both Lachie Schultz this year, and Bobby Hill and Dan McStay last year. If we rewind a few years, this club was being hammered for their recruiting and trading efforts after off-loading Treloar and trading a future pick. Now, everything seems to be coming up black and white again.
Sickening, really. Haha.
Jokes aside, the way this club has re-established themselves at the top of the tree is an example of how to define what you are as a team, and not allow the external forces to do that for you.
Wide open for this mob, and it has been for several years. They were a kick short in 2023 and will be thereabouts again in 2024.
Unlike several teams that have been up for years, the Lions’ list still boasts a great mix of established stars (Neale, Daniher, Cameron) with players coming into their peak seasons (Rayner, Bailey, Coleman) and they have the foundation for their next group of stars to carry the load (Robertson, Ashcroft, Fletcher, Wilmot).
Coming into writing this article, I thought Brisbane might be one of the clubs to slip, but I am content being wrong about that. Upon having a closer look at their list, they’re going to remain a pretty big deal in the competition for a while. Excellent list management and a couple of star father/son selections make Brisbane a continued force.
The defence still lives and dies by the actions of Harris Andrews (best key defender in the comp, irrespective of what AA selectors think), but the forward line is as potent as it gets.
The monkey is off the back at Princes Park and the Blues would be feeling their best is good enough to mix it with anyone. They finished in the top four (post-finals) and at the time of writing, have only two players aged 30+ on their list. Those two players are Sam Docherty and Nic Newman, both playing excellent footy.
What does that mean?
It means this push toward success should be a sustained one – they are no flash in the pan.
Stars in their peak years include Charlie Curnow, Patrick Cripps, Jacob Weitering, and Harry McKay, with Sam Walsh, Tom De Koning and Adam Cerra about to hit their peak years, as well.
In terms of their new stars coming through, the Blues have opted not to go to the drafted heavily over the past couple of seasons, building on a list they believe can contend… and really, it should. They’ll be drafting to supplement positions of need, now, and with a couple of finals wins under their belt, are a legitimate flag threat.
I think I might be the only bloke outside Bulldogs supporters who thinks this mob can still win a flag. Of course, I wouldn’t admit it to the Bulldogs-crazy school-crossing lady who admonishes me for being in a hurry to get my kid to school on time, but I’ll admit to you… you probably won’t hit me with that orange stop sign.
Some would say they have the best ruck in the game, in Tim English. I reckon Max Gawn still holds that mantle, but Big Tim does punish teams around the ground. They have a defence that is stronger with Liam Jones patrolling the back 50, have arguably the best player in the game in Bont, and have so many mids that they have to cram them in anywhere and everywhere else. I’m not sure that’s a positive, to be honest.
With Jamarra Ugle-Hagan improving in 2023, I expect him to draw level with Aaron Naughton, and possibly even go past him in 2024. He is a fantastic talent and I’ve loved his work overhead. He is expected to sign one of the richest deals in the league either during, or after this coming season, so there is a heap to play for when it comes to his value.
Jamarra is 21, Cody Weightman is 22, as is Bailey Smith, whilst Aaron Naughton is just 24.
Younger still, Jedd Busslinger is yet to debut and Sam Darcy showed enough in his seven games in 2022 to indicate he could be something special, as well. At the other end of the age spectrum, Adam Treloar and Rory Lobb are now 30, whilst Jack Macrae will reach that age by season’s end. Libba, Johannisen, Keath and Jones are already there.
And also, I love the addition of James Harmes to this team – could be a difference-maker.
WINDOW STARTING TO CLOSE
Port have loaded up. They know they have a list capable of contending for the flag and would be devastated that their 2023 season ended with the dreaded back-to-back losses. The nay-sayers are dying to knock this team, but with a nucleus of Rozee, Butters and Horne-Francis in the middle, the Port midfield is set for years of being in top handful in the game.
They have bolstered the key position roles in defence that they struggled with, and retain Marshall, Dixon, and Finlayson up forward, with Mitch Georgiades due back from his ACL.
Players like Miles Bergman have come on, and waiting in the wings are Josh Sinn, and Jase Burgoyne.
I do worry about the impending loss of Travis Boak, and at 29, I reckon we have seen the best of Ollie Wines as well (he has not been the same since his heart issue before the 2022 season). Charlie Dixon moves like a corpse, at times, as well.
My biggest concern is that Esava Ratugolea and Aliir Aliir both need to play the role f attacking the contest and leaving their man to have maximum impact. It will be interesting to see how they gel together.
The team has been belted this off-season, with plenty pointing fingers at Simon Goodwin, Clayton Oliver, Joel Smith, the bootstudder, the CEO, and likely someone who once parked illegally near Casey Fields… hell, anyone with a connection to the place has had their character questioned.
I wonder whether this pressure galvanises the group, or acts as a wedge between them?
List-wise, they managed to hang on to Harrison Petty, who may end up being the answer to the question the Dees have around their key forward position. With Bayley Fritsch and Kysaiah Pickett at his feet, they may be dangerous. The defence possesses one of the best one-two punches in the business, with May and Lever, and the wings are wonderful, with Lagdon and Hunter one of the best pairings in the game.
They still possess the best ruckman in the game, but at 32, he may start to slow a little and they don’t have the backup they did last year.
Petracca is still a beast, a fit Oliver is a complete menace, and with Jacob Van Rooyen and Judd McVee emerging as excellent young talents, the Dees have enough in place to give things a shake.
In terms of position, this is the spot Collingwood were in prior to the 2023 season, coming from the clouds to make the Prelimthe year before and just getting pipped at the post. Can the Giants take that same momentum and finally deliver the team’s first flag?
List-wise, there is no reason they can’t.
For many years, GWS has had an embarrassment of riches all over the park, and they continue to cultivate a list that is the envy of most clubs. If you look at the top three in each age group, it soon becomes apparent how good they are, and can be.
Veterans – Toby Greene, Stephen Coniglio, Callan Ward
Prime – Josh Kelly, Harry Himmelberg, Lachie Whitfield
Next Gen – Sam Taylor, Toby Bedford, Connor Idun
Kids – Aaron Cadman, Tom Green, Finn Callaghan
Hell, they have blokes like Lachie Ash, Kieren Briggs, Isaac Cumming, and Jack Buckley I didn’t even fit in.
With the right coach, and Adam Kingsley seems like he has harnessed the minds and spirit of this team, they could be the team to beat in 2024.
Might be a bit harsh, having them in this group, as they were runners-up just over a year ago. However, they lost a bit in attack and defence (Buddy and Paddy McCartin) and will be without Callum Mills for the majority of the season, as well.
That said, I love the youth this team possesses.
At 23 or under, you have Tom McCartin, Nick Blakey, Justin McInerney, James Rowbottom, Chad Warner, Braeden Campbell, Errol Gulden, Logan McDonald, and Angus Sheldrick. That is a high-quality crop of kids that should be able to carry the load for the Swans for years to come.
Up in the old folks’ home, Dane Rampe is 33, whilst Luke Parker is 31 (but I don’t think it has slowed him, at all), whilst Joel Hamling, at 30, is injury insurance.
Players like Tom Papley and Isaac Heeney are absolutely in the prime of their careers, and call me crazy, but I reckon it just might be time we start seeing Peter Ladhams earning his pay this coming season. The talent is there – the physical tools are outstanding. Upstairs… I hope he starts realising just how good he could be.
Nobody expected the Saints to do much in 2023. After all, this was Ross Lyon’s introductory season to his new/old team. Well, things changed quickly at Moorabbin and I expect they’ll be pretty eager to build on what they commenced this year.
The Saints have five players on the list over 30, with Brad Crouch soon to join Tom Campbell, Seb Ross, Jimmy Webster, Brad Hill, and Mason Wood.
In their peak years are Jack Sinclair, Rowan Marshall, Jack Steele, Cal Wilkie, Dan Butler, and Jack Higgins, the latter of whom is still just 24.
It is down at the young end of the list that the Saints will be most excited about. Max King is 23, as is Cooper Sharman. New recruit, Liam Henry is 22, Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera (who is one of the best kids in the caper), Marcus Windhager, and Mitch Owens are 20, whilst Mattaes Phillipou, who played 24 games in his rookie year, is still 18 years of age. Mark my words… he will be a star.
There is no reason that this team cannot contend in 2024. None.
We all know the story of the goal that was a point and how the Crows should have played finals in 2023, but every season, there is a team that comes from outside the eight to give things a mighty shake, and the popular pick to do that in 2024 is Adelaide.
Before I continue, I just want to point out the work Tex Walker has done for this team over the last couple of years. Hell, without him buying Darcy Fogarty and Riley Thilthorpe the time they needed to develop without pressure to carry the forward line, I am quite sure these blokes would have been copping it from the media for not performing. Anyway, there is a standalone article in this over the next few days.
Tex is now 33, but is playing such good footy that his presence remains vital. As I said, Fog and Thilthorpe have been bought the time they need, and at 24 and 21, respectively, it is time they eased the burden on the Texan.
At the peak of his powers is Jordan Dawson, whilst Rory Laird continues to be a workhorse, and the no-name defence of the Crows suddenly looks like a potent unit. Milera has started playing good footy again, Mitch Hinge has broken out, whilst Jordan Butts and Nick Murray have developed beautifully as a key position pairing.
Izak Rankine, already a star, is on the precipice of being one of the most potent players in the game, and not far behind him is Josh Rachele.
I love what the Crows have built. Love it. And if they’re not knocking on the window, they might just smash their way in as the year unfolds.
If there is one thing I like about the Essendon list, it’s that they’re built to win now. Whether they do or not… that remains to be seen, but they’ve given themselves every chance with their off-season acquisitions.
They carry just three players over 30 into the season, with Todd Goldstein looking as though he will be playing back-up ruck and resting forward for a year. Dyson Heppell is 31, whilst Dylan Shiel will also turn 31 before the season starts, but they’re no longer reliant on those two. The next oldest is Jake Stringer, who turns 30 in April.
In the window of playing their peak footy, the Bombers are stacked! Zach Merrett, Jayden Laverde, Peter Wright, Kyle Langford, Darcy Parish, Jade Gresham, Ben McKay, Mason Redman, Andrew McGrath, Sam Draper, and Jordan Ridley all sit in the 25-28 years of age group. That is the age group that carries teams to success.
Is that group good enough to do it?
The 21-and-under group are just as tantalising – the unicorn, Nik Cox, could be anything, but whether he will be or not depends largely on what he does this year and where he plays. Archie Perkins seems poised on the verge of something big, whilst I love what Ben Hobbs brings to the table. Further down, you have the Davey boys, and Elijah Tsatas to keep an eye on, as well.
Look, Essendon fans don’t want to be sold hope – that shit got old a long time ago and they’re tired of buying it. However, in terms of list profile, if you’re going to make a move, you’d wanna get on with it. I’m not sure you can get a list more primed to win.
Oh yes, very dangerous to write off the Cats, I know, but you know what? I reckon it’s time to do it.
They were smashed with injuries in 2023, so that has to be taken into consideration, but they’ve been up so long and after missing the finals in 2023, I am not sure I can see them contending again any time soon.
Hawkins is now 35 and will likely be confined to 30 metres out from goal in 2024, which is fine, because he is such a monster. However, he’s also nearing Michael Tuck-levels of longevity. Dangerfield turns 34 in April, Tuohy will be 34 before the season starts.
They’re going to need that next group to really step up. Brandan Parfitt has been so disappointing, Jack Bowes has a year under his belt at the Cattery, Tanner Bruhn has to make the step, and more is needed from Max Holmes to bridge the distance between what was, and would could be in this midfield group.
The upside is that Ollie Henry paid dividends in 2023 (a similar season to Jye Amiss at Freo, without the big wraps), Sam De Koning looks like an All-Australian in-waiting, and the pair of Gryan Miers and Brad Close offer plenty of craftiness and creativity.
With so many games at half-finished stadium, they should make finals, particularly with Cam Guthrie returning to support the midfield, but really, they should have made the eight in 2023.. and they didn’t.
I want to like what this team is doing. I really do, but I have reservations stemming from the lack of stability with the list. I probably shouldn’t, as the Dockers have let a few players go without a fight for a reason (Hamling, Tucker, Lobb, Blakely… all could be counted as losses that didn’t matter too much) but the departures of Griffin Logue, Blake Acres and this year, Lachie Schultz really sting.
Anyway, in terms of their list, there is a bit to like. Just three players sit at 30 or over – Michael Walters, who bleeds purple, Nat Fyfe, who we may have to face facts on sooner rather than later, and Matt Taberner, whose best is very good, but we never see it for long enough.
In the important 25-28 window, Brennan Cox, Luke Ryan, Sam Switkowski, James Aish, Alex Pearce, and Sean Darcy should all be cherry ripe to play their best footy, whilst Andrew Brayshaw (24) is poised to take one more step in becoming a legitimate star of the game.
In terms of the kids, Caleb Serong is the standout at 22, but with Hayden Young and Luke Jackson both the same age, Freo have a wonderful trio to build with. Add in Jordan Clark (he turned 23 a few weeks ago) and the Dockers don’t look bad, at all.
They also possess one of the brightest young forwards in the game, in Jye Amiss, who reminds me a bit of Jack Riewoldt in the way he leads at the footy and uses his body. Not a bad player to draw a comparison to.
The Hawks still have a way to go, just yet, but with a very young, yet strangely experienced squad, the clean-out at the end of the 2022 season has afforded them a list with both youth and relative experience.
Will Day just won a best and fairest at age 22, Jai Newcombe and Josh Ward are 22 and 20, respectively, whilst Cam Mackenzie and Josh Weddle combined for 31 games in their first year. The Hawks also added Jack Ginnivan to the mix, and he is just 20.
The question will be around key position players, with Denver Grainger-Barras struggling to live up to expectations thus far. The Hawks look pretty thin for tall defenders. Mabior Chol comes in to replace Jacob Koschitzke and the Hawks will be hoping they get the 2022 version and not the 2023 version, who spent most of the year in the VFL.
In the 25-28 year olds, Hawthorn boast James Sicily, Jarman Impey, Karl Amon, Mabior Chol, Blake Hardwick, Conor Nash, Mitch Lewis, and Jack Scrimshaw. Just outside that bunch at Changkuoth Jiath, James Worpel, and Dylan Moore at 24 years old, so whilst this team waits for the high-value kids to develop, they will have enough experience to generate some wins – let’s face it, 2023 should be the last time the Hawks have a top three draft pick for a while.
It’s like this mob are stuck on the staircases in Hogwarts. They start climbing to where they want to be, and the staircase moves, leaving them staring across at their destination, wondering when they’ll arrive there.
And it seems like they’ve been climbing for ages.
Their 30+ crew, featuring five at the moment, is a great mix of experience, with Witts, Casboult, Day, Swallow, and Ellis all capable of making a difference (except Day… he has been banged up for too long), whilst under them, Alex Sexton will turn 30 within a month, and Sam Collins will do the same in June.
In the important age bracket, Touk Miller will be raring to go after his injury-riddled 2023, Ben Ainsworth should be at the peak of his powers, and Darcy McPherson has created a new role off half-back.
But, I am sorry to do this… I know, you’ve heard it all before – the real talent is in the 23 and unders. Ben King, Jack Lukosius, Noah Anderson, Matt Rowell, Sam Flanders, all the way down to Bailey Humphrey, who is 19. This is the group that have to step up early and be the drivers of the Suns’ push into September. This team cannot rely on those in the peak years as they are too few.
It’s a lot to ask, but damn it, Damien Hardwick is gonna ask it, anyway.
WAITING TO HIT THE GROUND
This time last year, I copped a bit from Tigers supporters. I questioned whether selling the farm (and by “the farm”, I mean two first-round draft picks) to get their hands on Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper would pay off or hurt them in the long run.
I reckon the Tigers had to make finals to make it worth their while, and they didn’t.
Now, we find the Tigers with a bunch of premiership heroes on the wrong side of 30. Dusty has been amazing, but he’s 32 – what more can you expect from him? Dylan Grimes is 32, as well. Dion Prestia and Tom Lynch both just turned 31, and with their injury histories, you’d be worried about how much footy they’ll play. Nathan Broad is 30, Kamdyn McIntosh and Nick Vlastuin his the big 3-0 in April and Nank gets there in August.
In the peak form window, Taranto and Hopper sit with Jayden Short, Daniel Rioli, and Jack Graham.
Just outside that remains the key. Shai Bolton is a star, but he needs to be a consistently dominant superstar if this team is to avoid oblivion.
Because the 22-and-under brigade will be hit-and-miss.
Josh Gibcus having this level of hamstring issues at such a young age is a worry. Noah Cumberland may well prove to be something special, but he seems so scattered and over-eager at times, Maurice Rioli is promising as a small forward, Judson Clarke has found a spot, Thompson Dow may become something, and Ryan Sampson will get an opportunity with Ivan Soldo and Jack Riewoldt gone (as will Jacob Koschitzke).
The Tigers need a couple to jump out of the box, but I am damned if I know who they could be at this stage.
ONE FOOT OFF THE GROUND
North have one player over 30 on their list, and even at the end of the season, there won’t be any more.
As such, the key to this team, obviously, lies in the kids.
In the high-performance 25-28 years category, North have a few players who are proving their worth. Nick Larkey came of age in 2023, and along with Cam Zurhaar, and Jy Simpkin, they will drive the standards at the club. Zac Fisher, at 25, joins them and will be at his optimum right off the bat, making him a great addition.
But it will be how quickly that next generation progress that dictates how and when North start their climb. Harry Sheezel, George Wardlaw, Paul Curtis, Josh Goater, Will Phillips, Tom Powell, Jackson Archer, Miller Bergman… they’re all 21-or-under and whilst North will have patience with them, I have no doubt Clarko will be hoping that some follow Sheezel’s lead and accelerate quickly.
And if LDU decides to become the North Melbourne version of Christian Petracca, then business might start picking up a little earlier than expected.
With pick two and three (or possibly pick one) joining the crop listed above, North will eventually be scary. But they are still hurting and without big, mature bodies. I mean, who are their key defenders?
SITTING ON THE GROUND, STILL HURTING FROM THE LANDING
The Eagles endured the year from hell, and whilst many will expect them to be better, where that improvement comes from will be a matter to dive into a little more deeply.
Their five players over 30 are all still best-22 players, which is a worry. McGovern, Darling, Cripps, Gaff, and Yeo will all suit up for Round One if healthy, but none will be there when the Eagles finally start trending upwards on the ladder.
The key to the Eagles is the group in the 22-and-under range. At this stage, signs are good, but the road ahead looks looooong.
Speaking of long, Noah Long showed a fair bit, as did Elijah Hewett, with Reuben Ginbey the standout of the kids at West Coast. They’re all still 19 – see what I mean about that road? If they add Harley Reid to the mix, that gives them the nucleus of their next successful midfield, but there is a hell of a lot of work to do, and a heap f draft picks coming their way.
Brady Hough has shown a bit, I like Rhett Bazzo, and Tyler Brockman will find a home alongside Liam Ryan up forward.
In that 25-28 group, Dom Sheed, Liam Ryan, Liam Duggan, Tom Barrass, Matt Flynn (good pick up), Alex Witherden and Jamaine Jones will be expected to carry a lot of the load. It may prove to be pretty bloody heavy.
Oh, and Tim Kelly turns 30 in July. Late bloomers… they only bloom for a short while.
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