Year in Review - AFL
The Sydney Swans defied the odds to win the 2012 AFL premiership. Photo: Getty Images
It was a season that started and ended in mourning and was marked by dramas, some that will spill into next year.
The death of Melbourne great Jim Stynes from cancer in March meant the year begun amid an outpouring of grief. It ended the same way, after the shock death of Port Adelaide and former Collingwood player John McCarthy in Las Vegas in September.
There were sackings: Richmond's Daniel Connors and St Kilda's Jason Gram. There was the forced resignation of Adelaide recruiter Matt Rendell amid hotly disputed claims of perceived racism.
Crows chief executive Steven Trigg will sit out the first six months of next year and ex-Adelaide forward Kurt Tippett, now with Sydney, the first 11 rounds, after the player, officials and the club were found guilty of draft and salary-cap breaches.
Ongoing investigations into alleged 2009 tanking by the Demons mean that club could also face heavy sanctions.
The Demons also lost forward Liam Jurrah, who was charged with assault over an alleged machete attack in March and faces court in Alice Springs next March.
Amid the dramas, there was some memorable football, most notably on the season's final two weekends, when Hawthorn survived a preliminary final near-upset from Adelaide before being rolled by Sydney in the decider.
Bold recruiting moves have the Swans and Hawks primed to challenge again, Sydney stunning many in the industry by finding the space in their salary cap to swoop on Tippett. But for some of the competition's strugglers, a new year will only bring more pain. Here's a look at what's in store for the 18 clubs:
They've been fined, lost draft picks, had officials suspended and lost Tippett for nothing. Before that, they were the season's surprise packets. Tippett was a key in their preliminary final near-triumph. With Taylor Walker still in attack and a strong midfield, led by Patrick Dangerfield and Scott Thompson, they'll remain a threat next year.
Since their early 2000s golden era, the Lions have played finals once in eight years. But there are reasons for hope. They won six games in the second half of the season. Former Demon Brent Moloney will bolster a midfield boasting young guns Daniel Rich, Tom Rockliff and Jack Redden and evergreen Simon Black. And the expected return of talented young ruckman Matthew Leuenberger will help, too.
Huge expectation surrounds Mick Malthouse's coaching comeback. But high hopes are standard at Carlton and haven't been realised for years. Injuries to many talls, most significantly Jarrad Waite, hurt this year, as did midfield stars Marc Murphy and Chris Judd missing substantial stints. Judd has stepped down as captain and Malthouse wants Bryce Gibbs to have more midfield time.
Veteran ruckman Darren Jolly will shoulder enormous responsibility next season, making Ben Hudson's rookie drafting smart thinking. Injury comebacks by Luke Ball and Lachie Keeffe will be important. Travis Cloke must improve on a modest season. Ex-West Coast big man Quinten Lynch needs to be a better forward-ruckman than Chris Dawes was. Regardless, a star-studded midfield boasting Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan, Dayne Beams and Dale Thomas means the Magpies remain premiership contenders.
The jury won't judge the Bombers for a long time next year. Their first seven rounds this year were excellent, their mid-season stretch OK and their final seven rounds dire, as soft-tissue injuries galore took a toll, so it's all about staying power next season. Prize recruit Brendon Goddard will ease the heavy load on Brownlow medallist Jobe Watson.
Fremantle would have had excuses for a poor year - a new coach and two of their best players, Nathan Fyfe and Aaron Sandilands, missing for long periods. That they still notched the third finals win in their history augurs well. With more time under Ross Lyon, midfield keys David Mundy and Michael Barlow coming off strong season finishes and speedster Stephen Hill yet to fully tap his huge potential, expect a further Dockers climb.
It's dangerous dismissing the Cats as premiership contenders but, given their meek finals exit, fair enough. Linchpin Matthew Scarlett has retired. Key players Paul Chapman, Joel Corey, Corey Enright and James Podsiadly are over 30. The flipside is the fast-improving Tom Hawkins is already possibly the game's top power forward, while experienced recruits Hamish McIntosh, Jared Rivers and Josh Caddy will help.
Forget Suns chairman John Witheriff's wildly optimistic declaration the Suns will win the flag within three years. There's no guarantee they'll play finals by then. Gary Ablett can't do any more than this season and Harley Bennell showed he is a rising star, but there wasn't much else to inspire confidence. If Michael Rischitelli, David Swallow and Nathan Bock can have better injury runs, the natural development of youngsters should mean rapid improvement, but from a very low base.
GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY
They've lost their most marketable figure in Israel Folau, but that won't hurt on field. Budding young key forward Jeremy Cameron had an excellent debut season and last year's No.1 draft pick Jonathon Patton should be ready to provide more support. Former Hawk Stephen Gilham and former Blue Bret Thornton will bolster an inexperienced defence. But while the wooden spooners added another bucketload of potential in November's draft, it's years from being realised.
The recruitment of ex-Western Bulldogs two-time All Australian key defender Brian Lake is a huge coup, fixing the Hawks' biggest weakness and setting them up to start the year as flag favourites. They would be reigning premiers already if not for inaccuracy, having had five more scoring shots than Sydney in the grand final. They still boast enormous attacking potency and a reliable midfield, but would love a bigger year from captain Luke Hodge.
A horror year on and off the field has more pain to deliver, in the form of potential severe tanking penalties. The Demons are trying to rebuild fast, recruiting Collingwood's Chris Dawes to join last year's prize recruit Mitch Clark in attack. They've added the likes of Shannon Byrnes, David Rodan and father-son pick Jack Viney to their midfield. But with Jurrah among some notable departures, another difficult year awaits.
Their first final in four years resulted in a 96-point belting from West Coast. But there were good signs late in the year with classy wins over Essendon and Collingwood. The Roos boast a nice blend of experience and youth, ball-winning ability and pace. Key forwards Robbie Tarrant and Lachie Hansen have emerged to aid Drew Petrie in attack. Much rests with No.1 ruckman Todd Goldstein.
Dealing with the emotional toll of McCarthy's death is not new coach Ken Hinkley's only challenge. The Power have managed just eight wins in two years, the worst two seasons in their history. They're struggling financially and crowd-wise, and lost Troy Chaplin and Ben Jacobs to rivals, although they did snare Essendon's Angus Monfries.
The Tigers have continued their successful strategy of the past two years, recruiting AFL-experienced players - Port backman Troy Chaplin, North Melbourne forward Aaron Edwards and Adelaide's Chris Knights. While Richmond faced off-field issues this year, sacking Connors and suspending Dustin Martin, in new captain Trent Cotchin they have a fine role model.
Nick Riewoldt wanted this year to be his last as Saints captain. But with his most obvious successor, Brendon Goddard, gone, that might change. A worry for the Saints is that their two oldest players, Lenny Hayes and Stephen Milne, were their best and fairest and leading goal-kicker. The Saints have bolstered one problem area, recruiting young Gold Coast ruckman Tom Hickey.
Tippett's signing adds ruck depth, frees star Adam Goodes for more midfield time and lifts pressure from rising star forward Sam Reid. With lightning-quick Lewis Jetta having emerged as a game-breaker, Gary Rohan to return from injury and ball-winning stalwarts Josh Kennedy, Jarrad McVeigh, Ryan O'Keefe and Jude Bolton soldiering on, the Swans can eye another flag.
The Eagles deserve to be battling the Swans and Hawks for premiership favouritism. They reached a semi-final this year despite huge injury handicaps. Mark LeCras and Mark Nicoski didn't play and Josh Kennedy managed just nine games, after that trio combined for 147 goals last year. There's a rock-solid defence and excellent midfield blend. Capping that is the AFL's best ruck double act in Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui.
It's a long haul for the Bulldogs. They lost their last 11 games this season, most by huge margins. They've recruited some discards and bright draft prospects but no one is likely to make a huge difference. Knee problems have made Adam Cooney a shadow of the 2008 Brownlow medallist. Star defender Brian Lake is gone. Dale Morris is coming off injury. Young midfielders Mitch Wallis, Tom Liberatore, Clay Smith and Luke Dahlhaus have shown promise.