The Power has gone from a finish of 14th less than two years ago to flag contender. Photo: Getty Images
While debate may continue in 2014 about the state of the game and the AFL's handling of the competition, one thing becoming increasingly clear is that the top of the ladder is as competitive as it has been for a long time.
Some seasons can seem like a two-horse race a long way from home. Others throw up the odd false dawn before natural order is restored. This one, nearly halfway through, has in my view five very legitimate premiership chances unlikely to be budged anytime soon.
In no particular order, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide, Sydney, Fremantle and Geelong I believe have the 2014 flag between them. Each has had at least some sort of setback, but has also shown enough of its best to prove that standard is a cut above the rest of the competition.
Provided it goes into September with a double chance, this is still Hawthorn's flag to lose. Photo: Getty Images
Perhaps Collingwood might be worthy of consideration, too. But of three games to date against members of the above-named five, the Pies have won just one, a grinding affair against a Sydney far from its best in terms of personnel or form. Could the Pies beat the Swans of today? I doubt it.
So here's how the contenders stack up in terms of strengths and the odd if less-visible vulnerable spot.
Perhaps the only remaining doubt about the Swans is in the ruck, where the loss of Shane Mumford continues to linger. Photo: Anthony Johnson
Yes, it’s hard to get your head around the Power having gone from a finish of 14th less than two years ago to flag contender. Yes, there’s still some sceptics out there.
But those remaining do so out of stubbornness rather than logic, because Ken Hinkley's team could have done nothing more to prove its credentials.
The Power's strongest suits are their run and pace, a midfield which has in equal measures solid bodies and defensive capacity (ranked No.1 for contested ball differentials), plus dash and dare, and a multi-pronged forward set-up, Jay Schulz leading the AFL goalkicking, and Chad Wingard, Justin Westhoff and Robbie Gray all going at better than a goal per game.
Geelong is still being led by the most impressive senior group in the competition. Photo: Pat Scala
Their defence doesn’t have the big names of other contenders, but is also acquitting itself well, the Power ranked fourth for points conceded.
A game clear on top and having knocked over both Geelong and Fremantle, as well as having dipped its toe in September waters with two finals last year, Port is a very serious flag chance indeed. Those who think otherwise certainly can’t be doing so based on facts.
Fremantle's A-grade defensive game is still the best in the competition. Photo: Getty Images
The Hawks' best this season, most notably their round-three demolition of Fremantle, set a standard that probably hasn't been matched. Fortune on the injury front certainly isn’t favouring them, though.
Skipper Luke Hodge should return for this week’s big clash with Port Adelaide. But Brian Lake and Cyril Rioli look set to miss at least another month, Sam Mitchell up to two months, and critical defender Josh Gibson perhaps three.
That’s some toll, and leaves Hawthorn’s task to battle through that period with enough steel to retain its top-four status. Its draw, however, isn't too bad, playing only one of this group of five (Port) in the next eight games. With the Hawks' depth better than it's been since the 1980s, that’s a manageable task.
Alastair Clarkson's side probably has a better balance between offence and defence than any rival. It can play the tough, contested game as well as anyone, scoring heavily from clearances, and is devastating on the rebound, averaging 123 points per game, a clear No.1.
Its precision kicking is a potent weapon, which so far only Geelong and Sydney have been able unpick with relentless pressure. The casualties will be back. And provided it goes into September with a double chance, this is still Hawthorn's flag to lose.
At 1-3, many pundits (including this one) were asking whether the Swans were serious contenders any longer, and had they sacrificed too much of their hard game in the search for run and carry.
It's fair to say the response has been emphatic both in win-loss terms and on the latter count. Sydney has piled on five wins in a row from that moment, looking increasingly ominous with each successive victory, a run which has included both last year's grand finalists.
Last Friday night's beating up of Essendon was at times awesome, the Swans midfield led by Josh Kennedy, Dan Hannebery and Kieren Jack in full cry, the forward tandem of Lance Franklin and Kurt Tippett combining for their 13th goal in the past two games.
Just how opponents cope with that sort of armoury up forward (in addition to Adam Goodes and Sam Reid, plus the second-largest spread of goalkickers in the competition) is becoming a huge issue.
Perhaps the only remaining doubt is in the ruck, where the loss of Shane Mumford continues to linger, much being asked of Mike Pyke and rookie Tom Derickx, the Swans ranked only 17th on the differentials for both hitouts and hitouts to advantage.
Some will question the assessment of the Cats as flag-worthy, but is that as much about the cynics getting sick of an era that never seems to end?
Their two defeats were at the hands of two sides in Port Adelaide and Fremantle at the very top of their defensive games. Their win over Collingwood came in one of the most hotly contested games of the season, and yet another victory over Hawthorn speaks for itself.
The fact is Geelong is still being led by the most impressive senior group in the competition in Joel Selwood, Jimmy Bartel, Corey Enright, Steve Johnson, James Kelly, Andrew Mackie and Harry Taylor, the Cats’ capacity to lift their team to another level when it matters an obvious ace up the September sleeve.
The younger likes of Cam Guthrie, George Horlin-Smith and Jordan Murdoch continue to blend in well and make a contribution, and in terms of personnel, the upside remains considerable, Matthew Stokes back this week, and Allen Christensen and Josh Caddy a month after that.
It used to be said of Hawthorn in the 1980s, and it's no less applicable now … never, ever write the Cats off.
It's been a funny sort of season by the Dockers' recent standards, Ross Lyon's team superb against Collingwood, Essendon and Geelong, horrendous against Hawthorn and outgunned by Sydney and Port Adelaide.
So why do the Dockers still deserve to be in this mix? Because, as demonstrated against the Cats last Saturday night, their A-grade defensive game is still the best in the competition, Freo conceding only an average of 10 goals per game despite having lost four of their nine games.
The midfield, led by David Mundy, Nat Fyfe, Michael Barlow and serial pest Ryan Crowley, is as hard as they come, and the defensive unit remains fortress-like, the Dockers having conceded only eight marks inside 50 per game.
The doubt is the perennial one – scoring power. Michael Walters has been a huge loss to the forward set-up, and key position recruit Scott Gumbleton is still at least five weeks away.
Can he play a part in 2014? If he does, he has the capacity not only to take on some of the pressure currently heaped upon skipper Matthew Pavlich, but improve the Freo forward line’s function well beyond his own goal tally. And that could well be the difference between a Fremantle flag or not.