Eagles to soar highest
FOR AFL players, the pre-season cliche of choice has always been “fitter than they've ever been”. In the game of football punditry, meanwhile, the equivalent is “anyone's flag”. Which makes 2013 rather unusual, because in a business not short on hyperbole, this year it's actually true.
Take, for example, a reigning premier which this time last year resided in few top fours. Or a runner-up which, but for some poor execution on the day that mattered most, might have worn the crown.
Or take a September perennial in Collingwood, shooting for its eighth successive finals appearance, topped up with more senior experience and a determination to eke out more than one premiership from a group that might have delivered more.
Eagles ruckman Nic Naitanui will have an impact in the marathon that is an AFL season. Photo: Pat Scala
Take two West Australian rivals climbing fast to the top of the tree, an Adelaide outfit which surprised perhaps even itself in 2012, a Carlton ready to atone for a sizeable hiccup last season with a coaching legend in Mick Malthouse at the helm, and a Geelong not quite ready to call curtains on one of football's great eras.
Never has an AFL season had so many feasible flag chances. As for the top eight, it's a far simpler exercise to talk about those that can't make it than those that can.
North Melbourne, having reached September last year, has obvious claims. So does St Kilda, having finished 2012 officially best of the rest. Richmond has even more weight of expectation hanging over it than usual given its gradual improvement, the important addition of more seasoned types such as South Australian club pair Troy Chaplin and Chris Knights, and no fewer than 10 games last season lost by 22 points or less.
Essendon, the potentially massive distraction of an Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority investigation into its training regime aside, has plenty of hope with the arrival of its first big-ticket recruit in decades, former Saint Brendon Goddard. Even the Brisbane Lions, who finished 2012 a lowly 13th but significantly with 10 wins under their belt, can launch a relatively sound case to back up their September credentials.
The gap between at least the top dozen teams is wafer thin, making the likely recipient of this year's flag simply the one that can best stay fit, healthy, and consistently exploit its advantages, before – as Sydney demonstrated with aplomb last year – peaking at the perfect moment.
And in 2013, I believe West Coast is best placed to take that opportunity.
The Eagles' time is now. It might well have been last year had injuries not cut a swath through their list before proceedings had even begun, with their forward set-up deprived of Mark LeCras and Mark Nicoski, then losing key target Josh Kennedy early, as well as midfielder Andrew Embley.
Even so, coach John Worsfold's side was still good enough to shrug the major handicaps and finish just a few goals short of a second successive preliminary final.
The Eagles haven't been untouched this pre-season either. Potential superstar ruckman Nic Naitanui is without a decent preparation after groin surgery, and veteran Daniel Kerr's knee is a problem. But no longer are they necessarily fatal blows.
The marathon that is an AFL season allows Naitanui time to have an impact when it matters most, and his ruck tandem with Dean Cox is the most potent in the game. And Kerr, these days, is just icing on the midfield cake.
West Coast's pronounced home-ground advantage at Patersons Stadium gives it a significant head-start. In 2013, so might its depth.
Take even a Kerr-less midfield. Try the following on for size – Embley, Matt Priddis, Scott Selwood, Andrew Gaff, Luke Shuey, Matt Rosa, Chris Masten – at least four of that group still clearly on the improve.
West Coast's stocks of tall timber around the ground and in attack – even with Quinten Lynch having departed for Collingwood – remains an awesome weapon. This season, Kennedy and Jack Darling, Cox and Naitanui, and the medium-sized Josh Hill, get LeCras and Nicoski back for support.
And while the Eagles' defence is popularly viewed as their most vulnerable area, the reality is different. The rock of skipper Darren Glass now has the support of tough-as-nails Beau Waters, improving pair Eric Mackenzie and Will Schofield, and class rebounder Shannon Hurn.
The stocks of talent are impressive, and the balance of youth and seasoned campaigners perfect, with West Coast ranked fourth for age and games experience. Just a little more luck on the injury front in this most even of seasons, and I think a fourth AFL premiership is headed Perth's way.
Mind you, the destination of that flag could just as easily be about 20 kilometres down the road.
Fremantle's finish to 2012 was no less ominous than its cross-town rival. In the second half of the season, the Dockers found the scoring potency to complement the defensive steel already drilled into the list by Ross Lyon in his first season as coach.
With another pre-season to learn the Lyon lore, the Dockers, the second-most miserly outfit in the AFL last year, should have his teachings down pat. And there's still huge scope for improvement on the offensive front.
Matthew Pavlich's superb second half of 2012 was responsible for much of Fremantle's firepower, but the Dockers' scoring set-up looked more potent the longer last season went, and could pose plenty more problems for opponents this season, with the likes of the rapidly emerging Michael Walters, the lively Hayden Ballantyne and vastly improved Chris Mayne.
Ruck colossus Aaron Sandilands has been curbed again by injury pre-season, but in Zac Clarke and Jonathon Griffin, Fremantle has at least capable replacements at hand until Sandilands is ready.
And while another knee reconstruction for Anthony Morabito is a blow, the Dockers are hardly short on X-factor. Nathan Fyfe, absent for half of last year, is ready to explode to superstar status, and Stephen Hill and recruit Danyle Pearce the cream on top of an already very solid midfield core of David Mundy, Michael Barlow and Ryan Crowley.
But it's Hawthorn that remains premiership favourite, rightly given it was the pacesetter for the bulk of 2012 and, but for a few missed shots at goal, would probably be the defending premier.
Speculation about Lance Franklin's future is likely to be more of a perceived distraction than a real one to a list intent on landing the flag it should already have locked away.
Franklin isn't the be all and end all for the Hawks, though. His absence at stages last season merely allowed the light to shine brighter on a range of scoring options. There's a nice balance about Hawthorn's forward set-up, with key men Franklin and Jarryd Roughead, an improving third target in Jack Gunston, and goalsneaks of the calibre of Cyril Rioli and Luke Breust.
My only queries on Hawthorn are its scope for improvement relative to its rivals, and the draw from hell.
Brian Lake is certainly an important addition to the defensive ranks, his strength and nous taking some necessary heat from the overworked Ryan Schoenmakers. But what the Hawks will need just as much, apart from a full season from skipper Luke Hodge and the usual consistency of Sam Mitchell, Brad Sewell and Jordan Lewis, is more of its rank and file to go to another level.
Gunston is one who can make a big difference, as could Isaac Smith and Ben Stratton. Shane Savage and the still relatively unseen Brad Hill offer plenty of hope on the same score.
Hawthorn's fixture, meanwhile, is as testing as any top team has ever been dealt. Its first seven games come against every other member of last year's top eight, and its five return games in 2013 are also all against fellow finalists from 2012.
The Hawks are quite capable of rising to that monumental challenge, but will clearly need to start this year in much better touch than last, when they were a mediocre 5-4 after nine games. A repeat of last season's pedestrian beginning, and Hawthorn will be too far back to contemplate a tortoise and hare story.
Sydney, meanwhile, just bowls along, its magnificent team ethic still its strongest suit, but even with a flag under its belt, sometimes masking the sheer stocks of talent at coach John Longmire's disposal.
This year, there's a very large addition to the pile too in former Crow Kurt Tippett – once the big key forward has served his half-season suspension, the legacy of the post-season Adelaide salary cap drama.
No one will appreciate Tippett's arrival more than fellow key target Sam Reid, who had his problems last season. The sizeable Swans midfield contingent of Josh Kennedy, Dan Hannebery, Jarrad McVeigh and veterans Jude Bolton and Ryan O'Keefe will doubtless be salivating at the prospect of Tippett in red and white too.
Familiarity might have bred more than a little contempt for Collingwood with the pundits after so long in the upper echelons of the ladder, but the Magpies remain a very serious flag threat.
Nathan Buckley's side is unlikely to have nearly so many injury problems again this year, its midfield is as deep with class as any, thanks to the names Pendlebury, Swan, Beams, Thomas and, in 2013, Luke Ball once more. The Pies were still good enough to win 10 games in a row last season and finish a game short of a grand final, despite the considerable hiccups. No reason a better run of luck won't end in a better result.
Collingwood's influx of experienced talent won't attract the sort of focus that Tippett will for Sydney, but could have every bit the same impact. Quinten Lynch can play two valuable support roles for the Pies; up forward alongside Travis Cloke, and in the ruck to Darren Jolly.
His strongest suit, his prodigious kicking, not to mention that of fellow arrivals Clinton Young and Jordan Russell, should have the Magpies playing faster, more fluent football this year.
And perhaps the most interesting side to watch this year might be that led by Buckley's predecessor as Collingwood coach. Opinions about Carlton differ markedly given its status as a big disappointment last season, but one cruelled by injury.
Still, there's plenty of ifs about the Blues under Malthouse. Can Jarrad Waite get some continuity in his football? Can Bryce Gibbs make himself into a top-notch midfielder? Can either Robert Warnock or Shaun Hampson become a consistent No.?1 ruckman and consequently, help Matthew Kreuzer perhaps become another genuine forward target?
The two things most likely under Malthouse, however, are that the Blues will become a more defensively solid and reliable team, less likely to wilt when things aren't going their way, and that a number of so-called lesser lights will rise to their master's voice and offer more support to the names Judd, Murphy, Betts and co.
Carlton's supposed annus horribilis still produced a 50 per cent winning record. It won't take a huge amount of toughening up for that to translate into something far more in keeping with a top-of-the-ladder team. All things being equal, of course. Which, as the Blues know as well as anyone after their woes of 2012, that is rarely the case.
Injuries, timing and plain old luck will have their say on who wins the premiership. And unlike most seasons, one club's stumble in 2013 won't be merely one or two rivals' fortune, but a good half-dozen of them.
ROHAN CONNOLLY'S 2013 LADDER
Greater Western Sydney