Mongrel Expectation Meter – Part Two

The Mongrel Expectation Meter – Part Two

You can read Part One here.

Across the AFL industry you will hear many pundits (and indeed, some of us here at the Mongrel Punt) write about their expectations for each club in the 2024 season. And with the season less than a month out, that makes sense, right?

As a footy fanatic, you want to know who will be where, is he going to be the surprise packet? Who’s going to jump into the top 4? Top 8? Who is going to drop out? However, the question we should be asking is what are the expectations like within the four walls of AFL clubs? What are THEIR expectations, and what are they wanting to achieve?

All pre-season long, we will hear coaches say they are putting “no ceiling” on the performance in the upcoming season, in their obvious, and sometimes unrealistic pursuit of the premiership. But what do they actually think? Well don’t worry, because at the Mongrel we will give you the insider take with the Mongrel Expectation Meter.


Hawthorn: Jump out of the bottom 4

The post-Clarkson era at Hawthorn has been anything but what major stakeholders would call “successful”. Clarkson, like so many successful coaches tried to re-generate his list and avoid the drop. Unfortunately for the Hawks, this proved relatively unsuccessful, bar a fourth-placed finished in 2018, which ended in a straight sets exit.

Since then, the Hawks have more or less committed to a full rebuild, with the exit of Clarkson accelerating this process. Since the 2018 season, and narrowly missing the finals in 2019, the Hawks have never really looked likely to threaten. There were signs, however, in 2023, that the Hawks were on the improve, despite a 16th placed finish with a 7-16 record.

The highlight of these signs was an impressive win over eventual premiers Collingwood late in the season, where the Hawks showcased a manic, pressure induced game style that meant the Magpies turned the football over through the corridor, allowing easy passages to goal. With all this being said, the Hawks should be expecting more of the same, on a more consistent basis.

Sam Mitchell, on early impressions, seems to be the right man to take the Hawks forward; whilst a lot of his learnings would come from his time under Alistair Clarkson, there is clearly a different philosophy from Mitchell. He would expect his young group to continue to strive forward in 2024; what this should mean is that the Hawks should be causing a few more upsets in 2024, and really pushing,a and sometimes beating teams who are challenging for the 8.

The re-acquisition of Jack Gunston I personally see as a positive – Gunston should be able to bring experience and knowledge to work with the likes of Mitch Lewis, who, if the Hawks are fair dinkum about making the 8, will need to have a breakout year.


Melbourne: Flag or (almost) bust

To me, in 2023, the Demons were by far the biggest disappointment of those clubs who are in the window.

Expectations were understandably high for the Demons in 2023, after many thought that the year prior they were still the best team in it going into the finals series. Yet here we are, two seasons following their drought breaking 2021 premiership, and the Demons are coming off consecutive straight sets exits from the finals.

What is evident for Melbourne is that their brand of football IS consistent enough to bank the wins throughout the Home and Away season; three consecutive top 4 finishes is enough to prove that. And this would be good enough for a lot of clubs, but for Melbourne, the expectations are considerably higher, and rightly so. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that after Round 10 in 2022, the Demons appeared unstoppable at 10-0, and sitting pretty on top of the AFL Ladder.

With these outstanding performances, however, come lofty expectations. Now for whatever reason, since that point of the 2022 season, the Dees haven’t really got that consistency back. The key here, more so than any other team is connection in to the forward line, and for some reason, the Demons really haven’t been able to find that consistency within said forward line. If they could, the Dees would most likely be the best side in football – as all the other key indicators suggest that they should be.

Therefore, Simon Goodwin will have two goals in mind to ultimately result in a premiership tilt; fix (or re-locate, more like) the forward connection that they have lacked for the better half of two years, and to capitalise on the golden years of the likes of Petracca, Brayshaw, and Oliver, who hopefully will be in the right mental space to perform week in, week out.

On paper, the Dees look every part a team that can match it with the very best every week; they just need to put that together when it all matters, which since that drought breaking flag, they have failed to do.


North Melbourne: Hope, just any hope

Much has been made of North Melbourne’s past few years, and really how fruitless they have been. When you put together the Roos’ record since the 2021 season, it makes for genuinely dismal reading; they have a record of 9-57 with one draw thrown in for good measure. The best record has been a 4-17-1 finish in 2021.

I think any football supporter would agree that the last few years North have experienced are about as tough as it can get, because more weeks than not, you roll into the footy with the almost common knowledge that your team is more than likely going to get rolled. And, when it is North Melbourne, it seems as though there are plenty coming from all corners to sink the boot in; speaking of anything from dwindling home crowds, JHF exiting after one year, and of course the old re-location trope (Tassie Kangaroos, anyone?).

Alastair Clarkson taking the reins last year was something to be positive about, but even that was short-lived when Clarkson had to step away to look after his own mental health one third of the season.

That said, 2023 provided a couple of shining lights that will have North fans at least a little bit optimistic about their prospects in 2024. Firstly, Nick Larkey’s 2023 has been largely undersold by the wider football media. Larkey finished with 71 goals, only seven short of eventual Coleman medallist, Charlie Curnow, and five behind Taylor Walker, whom you could both argue pumped up their numbers by feasting on a sometimes deplorable West Coast, a luxury that Larkey certainly did not have.

What will be interesting to see is what happens in the other key positions; the loss of Ben McKay will sting, as the Kangas would have seen him as a long term player. The other intriguing area is the Ruck/Resting forward position created by Todd Goldstein; not much has been made about Callum Coleman-Jones, who signed on for relatively big money for what he had done to that point in footy, and the stakeholders at North Melbourne will be expecting him to step up in to this role.

So, whilst Clarkson will be setting no expectations on his group, as no coach ever does, I think that he will be aiming to get five wins on the board this season. If the young midfield rotations of Davies-Uniacke, Sheezel, Wardlaw, Powell and Phillips come on as one , five  wins may very well be attainable.


Port Adelaide: Grand Final or…?

There has been so much commentary around Port Adelaide over the last 12 months, and not necessarily by design. From the Jason Horne-Francis trade, to the never-ending media circus that was Ken Hinkley’s contract, to Ken signing on, to an eventual finals failure, to a litany of off-season moves that….well, to me, didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense for the Power.

Each of the off-season moves made by Port Adelaide had the right thinking in mind – the signing of Esava Ratugolea was to fill a very blatant need in the backline; whilst Tom Jonas has been a more than serviceable over the years, his lack of height left him sometimes fighting losing battles when sides had two monsters to throw at Port Adelaide’s defensive structure. On this front, the trade for Brandon Zerk-Thatcher makes sense – providing a little bit more defensive suitability and versatility. The trade that has really perplexed me is the trading for both Jordon Sweet and Ivan Soldo; players who struggled to get a game at their respective clubs. It makes sense to replace this need – Scott Lycett had seemingly lost the pace and ability to cover the ground, causing him to fall out of favour with Hinkley. Looking at these trades in isolation, what these players presented in prior years doesn’t seem to match up well with what the Power already have.

Ratugolea, being re-purposed last year at the Cats, played a more intercepting, drop off, spare defender role than anything else; something that Aliir Aliir has mastered in his time at the Power. Sweet is hard to make a call on, 11 games in 5 seasons at the Bulldogs, he is the most unknown quantity, whilst Soldo, a 2019 Premiership player, never seemed to be able to cement a spot in Richmond’s 22 ahead of, or alongside, Toby Nankervis.

What is the biggest unknown with the Power is how Ken Hinkley is going to deploy this new wealth of relatively unknown talent; he will be hoping that Zerk-Thatcher and Ratugolea will sure up perceived defensive frailties, whilst Sweet and Soldo will be sort of cookie cutter rucks that will do a job for the Power; split the contest and allow the young, star-studded midfield of Butters, Rozee and Horne-Francis to do their work.

Hinkley will know that finals success is what is required at this point in his tenure; the positive for Ken is, he is no stranger to the pressure. Anything less than this, and he could be finding the exit; although that’s been said before, hasn’t it?


Richmond: No ceiling, right?

I will say this from the outset – I am biased here, however, I’m not sure how much this bias will affect what I’m going to write; but here goes.

I really don’t know what to make of the Tigers this year, and they have all the hallmarks of the dynasty that no longer lives. The retirements of Jack Riewoldt and Trent Cotchin, such familiar faces to the Tiger faithful over the last decade and a half, seemed to be the cherry on top of that cake. This league-wide awareness has seen condemnation of the Tigers by the football media to the lower rungs of the ladder; including Josh Jenkins stating that the Tigers are contenders to finish on the bottom, albeit in the context a bit of classic SEN shock-statement punditry (straight out of the Kane Cornes school of radio talkback).

To me, Richmond are one of those clubs that have the potential to be anywhere between seveth and the bottom two – there is a lot of unknowns about the Tigers, and with new coach Adem Yze at the helm, there is going to be a distinct and rapid change of game plan.

A lot of the Tigers’ success this year will be driven by how quickly the playing group catch on to Yze’s new game plan, along with the health of key players. The likelihood is that Tom Lynch is only going to become more injury prone than less, Dustin Martin is not getting any younger, and there are a group of young players who have shown signs, but are also not quite there yet (think Samson Ryan; a long term prospect to replace Lynch, but still very raw).

On the flip side, there are still quite a few good players running around for the Tigers – the likes of Tim Taranto, Jacob Hopper and Shai Bolton are players who can be genuine stars at their best. All in all though, it feels as though for the Tigers to achieve at the higher end of the seventh to 18th bracket, pretty much all of the above variables have to swing the Tigers’ way. Only one of those variables going the opposite direction knocks the Tigers down the estimations considerably; the key concern being the fitness of Tom Lynch, and his ability to give newly signed Jacob Koschitzke a chop out. The fact that Lynch is alreabeetouch-and-go for the Opening Round is more than slightly concerning.

We saw how dysfunctional the Tigers’ forward line was last year when it was just Riewoldt contesting as the key target; the Tigers desperately struggled to score. Adem Yze will be the picture of a “no ceilings” coach this year, although if he told us what he really thought, I dare say it would be closer to a development year than anything.


St Kilda: Make the 8 again

Few clubs had as topsy-turvy a season as St Kilda in 2023. Not many remember that the Saints were sitting top after Gather Round, and despite some truly average form throughout the middle of the year, they never dipped outside the top 8, and at the very least, gave themselves a shot at a home final.

For the life of me, why that final was played at the MCG instead of the Saints’ home ground at Marvel is beyond me, but that’s a story for another day. Maybe one of those infamous MCG deals?

The Saints change in style and game plan, thanks to Ross the Boss, had them stingy defensively, whilst not always racking up big tallies themselves. A noteworthy example of this last year was a particular game against North Melbourne; played at Marvel in perfect conditions the Saints squeaked home against the Roos 8.16 64 to 4.10 34, in a game that won’t be stored in the archives for long. Some have put it down to the considerable lack of pace that the Saints had at their disposal; apart from Brad Hill, there wasn’t a hell of a lot of outside run from St Kilda, except for the young Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera. This was clearly the same feeling internally, as the Saints went out of their way to lure Liam Henry away from Fremantle, who somewhat quietly had a breakout back half of the year – and was very handy to have in your AFL Fantasy for this reason.

Personally, I don’t think the Saints will make it – that being said, I would’ve said the same thing this time last year had you asked me. For all those casual punters who knock him about lacking finals results, generally a Ross Lyon team gets regular season results, bar that horror 2016 season and on from there at Fremantle, following a minor premiership in 2015. Ross the Boss will be hoping that the injection of Henry, and therefore a bit of pace, will allow his defensive game plan to make the ground even smaller for opposition sides. Add this in with a further year of development to the likes of Phillipou, Owens, Sharman, Wanganeen-Milera and hopefully a usually fit Max King, the Saints have plenty to be optimistic about. Ross will be coy with the media, as always, but he would be expecting a similar result to last year, but targeting an unlikely top 4 berth.


Sydney: Return to the top 4

Many would argue that 2022 was too early for the young Swans to be at the pointy end, and that this showed on Grand Final day of that year.

The Swans didn’t exactly fall off a cliff last year, and a bit of smoother ball movement at the back end of the Elimination Final could have seen them going up against Melbourne rather than Carlton (and we all remember how that ended). Much was made last year of Sydney’s perceived drop off; that they weren’t instantly challenging again. Once again, this is a hallmark of a young team, and I feel as though John Longmire will be feeling this as well.

The signing of former Pies teammates Taylor Adams and Brodie Grundy screams of a team that believes that it’s premiership window is right here and now. There is plenty of reason to believe this; Horse Longmire will be expecting 2022 to become the rule and not the exception.

Whilst some might think that the younger Swans need a couple of more years, there is one thing that we can count on, and that is that Longmire will bring a game plan that will generally give them every opportunity to win. With the sound ability of producing a game plan that will achieve what they need it to, Longmire will be expecting nothing short of a top 4 position. If the Swans can achieve this, he will know better than most, that almost anything can happen.


Western Bulldogs: Closing time for Bevo?

It feels as though there is a little bit of unrest at the Bulldogs – none of this was more exemplified than with the exit of Rohan Smith from the coaching panel, and Beveridge being overruled by the Bulldogs hierarchy on this.

Funnily enough, the Bulldogs of 2023 would have felt very similar to the Swans this year. 2 years prior, the Bulldogs were in front at half time of the Grand Final before capitulating in the second half. Luke Beveridge would have been in the same boat as Longmire is in 2024 – a few off-season signings of experienced players ready to make a difference.

Looking back 12 months on, it now feels like that the 2021 season was the anomaly, more than the rule; and it has left a lot of pundits sceptical about the Bulldogs, and with good reason. Not many, if any, top 8 predictors have put the Bulldogs in their respective preseasontfinals brackets.

It seems to me that the Doggies just can’t seem to be trusted.

Apart from that 2021 Grand Final, the Bulldogs have made the finals three times – all for Elimination Final losses since that drought-breaking 2016 Premiership. Luke Beveridge earnt an almost never ending supply of good will from winning that flag, ending a 62-year absence of glory; however, seven seasons later, it appears that good will is wearing a little bit thin.

Perusing social media comment sections is never a good habit, but looking at them after Bulldogs losses in 2023, there was almost universal confusion and disillusionment with Beveridge’s selection and game plan. However, we know that Beveridge is a reflective coach, and will almost constantly be reflecting on his actions and decisions from 2023 (unless of course he runs into Tom Morris).

I still think that the Dogs sit in that 6-12 bracket in 2024; whether that is enough for Beveridge to keep his job through the year is another thing altogether, as change appears to be the order of the day at the Whitten Oval. And as we’ve seen, the Bulldogs hierarchy are not afraid to override those in the football department.


West Coast: For God’s Sake, get away from the bottom

West Coast were a genuine garbage fire in 2024.

There was a comparison at one point to this being the worst team in an AFL season since the final Fitzroy Lions of 1996, and for how outlandish that may sound, the statistics were scarily accurate for that comparison. Fitzroy finished that season with a solitary win and with a percentage of 49.5% in 1996. At Round 15, West Coast also had a solitary win, and had a percentage of 47.3%, and had to deal with absolutely none of the hardships that the Fitzroy players of 1996 did.

How Adam Simpson kept his job is one of football’s modern miracles. However, I need to straighten up here; this is not about whether Adam Simpson should keep his job, but what he would be expecting of his side seeing as he is still at the helm.

Considering the above comparison, the Eagles will be focusing on developing their young list; it wouldn’t shock me if they stole a few games at home here or there.

The Eagles have 22 players under the age of 22, and a lot has been made in the West of Harley Reid, and how much of their hopes they can put on his talented shoulders. Reid will be a superstar, no doubt, but there can be a habit of putting too much expectation on Number One draft picks too early; and this risk is heightened in a football cauldron like Perth, where the Eagles rule the roost. I’m not sure how many days in the lead up to and after the draft Harley Reid was on the back page of the West Australian, but my tip is that it was a few.

So, Adam Simpson will be expecting to implement and teach his proven game plan to his young charges; and who knows what can happen when you do that.

West Coast will be looking to jump off the bottom of the ladder and show glimpses of the team that they will be in years to come; and hopefully now the decision has been made that Adam Simpson is the man to steer them forward, he is given the leeway to concentrate on the job and develop this young list towards the Eagles’ next premiership.