You can just about taste it now. It’s almost that magical time of the year when the football feeling is about to reignite the faithful across the country. But before we have any of that, certain housekeeping matters need to be attended to. While, traditions such as the daytime Grand Final may well be on the canvas, some are not up for negotiation. It’s time for the yearly ladder predication.
A football is yet to be kicked, in the real stuff at least, but fans still need to know if they are winning or losing. Are they sliding or rising heading into another campaign? I don’t know – but I’m going to tell you anyway.
It’s been ten years since the lowly Lions have seen September, and due to last year’s Demon resurrection, Brisbane are now bearing the cross as the team with the longest active finals drought. A lot has changed since 2009. Back then, Leigh Matthews had just ended his extraordinary coaching career that included three consecutive flags for Brisbane. The club still had an abundance of premiership icons such as Jonathan Brown, Simon Black, Luke Power, and Daniel Bradshaw on the field as well as one leading them from the coach’s box in triple premiership skipper, Michael Voss.
While they were not the powerhouse they once were, they were still very much basking in their glory. Since then two coaches have been sacked, including Voss and his former teammate Justin Leppitsch after a shambolic three seasons at a 21% winning rate. Chris Fagan came in 2017 and was hailed as the man to turn the club around from that very first year - they finished dead last.
It’s time for the Lions to actually deliver. Signs and pointless late seasons wins are not going to cut it. Finals may well be a stretch but they have the capacity to improve to become at least a finals contender, which I think they will be in 2019. My tip is that Brisbane will be this year’s big improver.
It’s Round 16 last year and the champagne corks are popping at Alberton. The Power were sitting pretty in equal second spot on the AFL ladder. With a month and a half to finals the talk is double chances and top two finishes around the Port Adelaide water coolers. Coach Ken Hinkley was the messiah again.
A couple weeks go by and Port Adelaide land their twelfth victory, putting them 12-6. They were home, and finals beckoned. Nobody has ever missed the finals in history from that position. They only needed to win one of their last four games for goodness sake.
What happened next was a series of unfortunate events. It was highlighted – or lowlighted by a Jeremy McGovern goal after the siren goal, an errant Showdown score review, a last quarter fade out against the Magpies and a capitulation against the Bombers in the final round. With a more favourable draw and the return of Hamish Hartlett and Matthew Broadbent, the inclusion of Scott Lycett and Ryan Burton and impressive draftees Connor Rozee and Zak Butters, expect the Power to return to pre-Round 20 form.
This is despite the significant loss of Jared Polec and the departure of Chad Wingard who was becoming too detrimental to the club’s culture.
Didn’t expect this, did you? Write the Swans off at your peril. But many have put themselves into this perilous position this off-season, proclaiming that Sydney will fall out of the eight this season. I’ve gone the other way.
Hindsight reveals that Sydney had the third hardest fixture in the competition last season. In fact, they were the only team to qualify for finals out of the teams with the eight toughest draws. This shows just how much influence the fixture can have on a team’s fate.
Sydney’s awful elimination final performance against cross-town rival Greater Western Sydney seems to have seriously diluted the Swans in the eyes of several punters and experts. It must be remembered that Sydney were good enough to achieve a home final last but their season was eventually derailed by their downright odd record at the SCG. Sydney strangely lost more games than they won at their former home fortress last year, including an extraordinary loss to the largely uncompetitive Gold Coast Suns.
It’s a record that I struggle to see repeating again this season, especially considering their long-standing strong form at home. The previous three seasons, Sydney have average nine wins in Sydney. If the Swans can retrieve these four lost games, they’d probably be top of the ladder and therefore, right in the premiership mix - as they have been for just about every season for the last fifteen years.
The October trade period fire sale hardly alludes confidence in the Giants this year. It was quite frankly a disaster and showed that GWS either botched their books or were all-in on ensuring that they would already have a premiership in the bank by this stage. They don’t. So the pain of losing gun midfielder Dylan Shiel, star wingman Tom Scully (for practically nothing – albeit not in mint condition) and Rory Lobb (who is set to be more important under the new rules), is laid bare and not at all eased by a prior flag.
The evenness of the competition, especially in the middle part of the table, is spoken about ad nauseam, so clearly losing three significant first-picked players (notwithstanding Tom Scully barely played last year) can have a big effect on a where a side sits. We are going to find out this year, how deep the talent at their disposal really goes. To make matters worse, GWS also have a much tougher draw this year. Therefore, they will be kicking against the breeze in their attempts to again sneak into the eight.
My general rule of thumb for North Melbourne pre-season is that they are always better than people think they’ll be. But I’m going against my own rule here. The Kangaroos had the easiest draw in the league last year and still they failed to even make the finals. This year I suspect we are going to get a more accurate representation of where they truly sit. I don’t think it will be the doomsday wooden spoon scenario that hovered over them last pre-season, nor the finals contenders they’ve been built up as being this time around, but rather somewhere in between.
While, the criticism of North Melbourne’s failure to land a so-called “big fish” has been over the top, it has been costly, as they have been forced to pay new recruit Jared Polec the big fish big bucks. Jared Polec is unquestionably a good player, but he probably is not the big fish required to transform this side into a finals outfit. However, new recruits Aaron Hall and Jasper Pittard are also set to be good pickups.
Okay, let me explain myself here. In some quarters the Demons are this year’s premiership favourites. But calls to schedule a long overdue red and blue premiership parade throughout the heart of Melbourne are a tad premature.
We learnt in the second most important game of the year last season, that Melbourne are a long way off being competitive preliminary finalists, let alone premiers. It’s an improvement that they could make over the summer, but it’s going to be very tough. Especially considering they have lost their best forward in Jesse Hogan. While, Hogan was injured come the pointy end of the season, he was in career best form earlier in the year. Melbourne also have to encounter the second hardest draw in 2019, a massive jump from having the second easiest draw in 2018.
TOM BASSO’S 2019 LADDER PREDICTION
2. West Coast
6. Port Adelaide
14. North Melbourne
15. St Kilda
17. Gold Coast
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