Flying high: Hawk Cyril Rioli. Photo: Mal Fairclough
Coming into this season, nearly every team, except for a handful of building and re-building clubs, will feel it has a legitimate chance of playing finals. But 12 or 13 teams just doesn't go into eight.
So which players will make the difference when it comes to your club forcing its way into the finals?
These are the players who could give a club that little extra. It could be a player recruited from another club or a bloke on the comeback trail after injury. It may be a player usually rated as ''above average'' who, for whatever reason, only had an ''average'' year in 2013 and is ready to re-discover his best.
New Blue: Former Pie star Dale Thomas. Photo: Getty Images
Simply put, here's a list of the men who need to step up and make their mark at your club this year.
Buddy ripper: Lance Franklin. Photo: Getty Images
Games Disp Eff i50s
2013 14 24.5 72% 3.1
Getting back: Melbourne forward Mitch Clark. Photo: Getty Images
The Crows now know just how good the 20-year-old could be. The quality of Crouch's debut season did not get as much coverage as Jaeger O'Meara's, but the Crows would be extremely satisfied with their pick. Crouch played just four games in the first 13 rounds but then cemented himself, averaging the most disposals of any Crow and also ranking second for score involvements in that period. In fact, he averaged the most disposals per minute of game time across the whole season. Few would have the Crows winning this year's flag, but they will feel finals are in reach, and Brenton Sanderson's job is to show that his team is on an upward trend. Crouch needs to become a regular fixture this year in a midfield that still has the quality of Dangerfield, Sloane and Thompson. This would see the Crows get back on track.
Gms Disp Eff Goals
2012 20 21.7 67% 20
2013 16 18.5 72% 13
Rich at his best is exciting to watch, and the Lions got some of it last season. But if Justin Leppitsch's new reign is to get off to a positive start, then they need more. The 2014 Champion Data Prospectus ranks Rich as ''Average'' - two rungs below elite. It's not all about the numbers, but we all know Rich is better than that. The Lions would love to see their vice-captain go from good to very good this year, if not great. He has already shown how important he is to this team. In the six games Rich missed last season, the Lions won just two and got blown out by the top teams. His return then coincided with the team winning seven of its last 12 games. Dealing with taggers is the challenge. After a stellar NAB Cup campaign, the shutdown men came for the 23-year-old early last year and cut off his supply. Rich had only five games where he had more than 20 touches, down from 16 in 2012. The Lions know they need to find their raking left-footer more of the ball, for there are few more damaging with it. Rich led the team for scoreboard impact after round 12 last year and topped the league for distance with each kick.
Gms Disp Eff Goals
2012 20 21.7 71% 22
2013 5 21.8 75% 0
An obvious one, but at least he is a known quantity. The Blues are looking hard at their key forwards, but in terms of offering an element they didn't have last year, it seems more a matter of structure than personnel. Lachie Henderson could turn out to be a permanent solution, but even if so, the Blues couldn't ask too much more of Henderson than what he gave last year. Same goes for Jarrad Waite, when he wasn't injured or suspended. There could be another emerging difference-maker on the list at the key forward post, or Matthew Kreuzer might also be another answer if Cameron Wood can hold down the ruck, but it is too hard to tell at this point. Thomas, of course, is not a key forward. But we all know the difference he could make. In full flight, he can have a significant impact on the way the Blues score from the midfield or high half-forward, either by kicking goals or setting them up with blistering 80-metre run-and-kick passages. How the Blues fans would love to see the Daisy of 2011-12 playing in their jumper - the player Fremantle coach Ross Lyon nominated as the best in the competition. He was a difference-maker. But his ankle is the only concern.
Gms Disp Mks Goals
2012 3 9.7 4.0 2
2013 15 12.7 4.8 20
From a pure structure and list point of view, a stable second key forward to support Travis Cloke is the big issue that lingered last season after emerging the year before. Quinten Lynch started in the role but couldn't make it his own and using a second ruckman in the post wasn't a sustainable option either. Only when Ben Reid shifted forward did the set-up look dangerous enough to go all the way. Yet Reid playing forward doesn't appear to be the long-term plan, either, otherwise why trade for White? Keeping Reid in defence means the Pies are flush for talls - Nathan Brown, Lachie Keeffe, Alan Toovey, Tyson Goldsack, Nick Maxwell and Reid - and the midfield is top shelf with the likes of Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan, Dayne Beams, Luke Ball, Steele Sidebottom and now Taylor Adams. Cloke is a monster at the No. 1 forward spot, he just needs a tag team partner. If White can perform that role as well as he did for the Swans in the second half of last season, his influence could be the factor that pushes the Pies from finals contender to genuine top four threat. At 26, White is in his prime and he's versatile, too. He can play a number of different positions, including back-up ruck.
Gms Disp Mks Goals
2013 5 12.2 5.4 3
Only a second-year player, which makes it a speculative choice. Perhaps there was not enough in his debut season to warrant such a selection. But the 20-year-old is a blue-chipper, and will be a star eventually. The question is how much impact, if any, can he have in 2014? It is true that big guys take longer to evolve, but the buzz around Daniher in the pre-season has been noteworthy, and he has added much-needed bulk. More importantly, Mark Thompson doesn't need a full evolution from the boom father-son this season. The Bombers, remember, sat second as late as round 18 last year, so most of the pieces are there. A little X factor from Daniher could go further than some realise. There are two parts here. We have seen how Daniher can man-handle defenders in the VFL. If he can produce anything near that form, he picks himself and the Bombers benefit big time. The other side to it is that, at least for the first quarter of the season, the Bombers need him to step up - in place of injured ruckman Tom Bellchambers. In may be that after that point Jake Carlisle, Paddy Ryder and Bellchambers can handle the key forward-ruck posts, but what if one of them goes down? Or one of the key defenders gets injured and Carlisle has to go back. With Scott Gumbleton gone, Daniher is first on deck this year.
Gms Disp Mks Goals
2012 6 9.7 4.0 11
2013 7 9.6 5.3 12
This could have just as easily been Colin Sylvia. Gumbleton has been a potential star plagued by injury for so long. It's hard to say with any certainty that he will a) stay healthy long enough to be a factor; or b) even if he is fit, be good enough to hold down a key forward spot in a team that made last year's grand final. So this is more what he could provide. The Dockers have been chasing another key forward for some time, but do they want Gumbleton as injury insurance for Matthew Pavlich in the No.1 spot, or is the plan to go with a Pavlich-Gumbleton twin tower set-up and release Chris Mayne as a dangerous third, roaming tall? It's probably a little of both, and has plenty to do with how well Gumbleton performs. If the 25-year-old can continue to have games like the 12 grabs and four-goal effort against St Kilda last year, then he will play regularly. He will also make Ross Lyon's team a more complete unit.
Gms Disp Marks Goals
2012 7 15.7 4.4 7
The former North Melbourne big man is the ace the Cats haven't played yet. It seems like every new player that comes into the Geelong system instantly becomes better. McIntosh was pretty good to begin with, but so far injury has prevented him from seeing how much better he could become playing with the likes of Joel Selwood, Jimmy Bartel and co. Fortunately, the Cats have got by comfortably without him - they led last year's premiers by three goals at three-quarter-time of the preliminary final, remember. But with a few of the veterans getting older or gone altogether, the emergence of another classy ruck-forward this year capable of taking the load off Tom Hawkins would be timely. The last time McIntosh played a full season - 22 games back in 2009 - he ran close to the All-Australian ruck spot. Granted, he is now 29, but the likes of Luke Hodge, Lenny Hayes and others have shown that being forced out of the game for a long period can sometimes re-invigorate players. And the general tone out of Geelong during the pre-season has been one of optimism, although cautious, that the Cats might see some return on their investment this year.
Gms Disp Marks Goals
2012 4 15.0 6.0 2
2013 2 5.5 2.5 2
The Suns have their eyes set on September. To get there, they need some more reliability in the key posts, and that's what Bock could give them. Rory Thompson was a consistent performer last year, leading the league in spoils and emerging as a sound one-on-one defender. And the Suns will continue to be patient with he and the other young talls. But for 2014, Guy McKenna's team needs to find another four wins to force its way into September. At 30, Bock as already been to the places the Suns want their young guns to get to. And he can give McKenna impact at either end. He will be desperate to do it, too, having played just six games in two seasons where injury and controversy out of the supplements scandal have hung over him. It is so easy to forget just how good Bock was in Adelaide, and how significant it as for the Suns to snare someone of his calibre. He came back from the broken leg to play two games last season. The approach with Bock this pre-season has been measured but that's only because the club knows how valuable he could be.
Games Disp H/Os H/Os Ad
2012 17 10.3 27.0 7.0
2013 22 11.1 26.4 6.2
The search for a proven ruck at the right age has been high on the GWS recruiting radar since it entered the league. So it stands to reason that, now it has secured a ruckman of Mumford's quality, the Giants are expecting him to make a big difference. Forget about finals, wins and losses. The Giants just want to be competitive, and to start to see the general improvement in game style and individual development that was so evident in year one. Mumford can be a key to that. He is a big presence. Just having his bigger body and enormous appetite for the contest will no doubt make the Giants feel more comfortable. Leon Cameron's team needs some help at the initial stoppage. It was 17th in the AFL for scores from clearances and scores from centre-bounce clearances. Winning more take-aways and having Mumford bullock a clearer path for the emerging midfield group might at least help the Giants get some cleaner ball on the outside and make it easy to implement the coach's attacking method. He also stops the opposition from getting clean take-aways. He was No.1 for pressure acts by ruckmen last season.
Gms Disp Tkls Goals
2012 23 15.7 5.3 39
2013 15 15.0 4.2 19
That the Hawks won the premiership in a year one of its best players was hampered by injury is a good sign heading into 2014. Rioli suffered a severe hamstring injury in round six, and when he returned in round 15 he wasn't the same player. He only kicked multiple goals in one of the next 10 games and never had any big 20-plus disposal games. He was still good, and he tackled as hard as ever playing his role in the flag, but he just wasn't at the elite level he had been prior the injury. In the first five rounds of last season, he averaged 19 disposals, six inside 50s and two goals - outstanding numbers for a small forward. That is the impact fans have to look forward to this season. There could be a drop-off factor for some players on the Hawks list (after staying up long enough to win the premiership the previous year) but at least Rioli is one name ready to pick up some of that slack.
Gms Disp Mks Goals
2012 11 12.6 4.8 29
2013 4 8.8 3.5 7
It is tempting to choose Jesse Hogan for much of the same reasons as Clark. But there is no exposed form. Dom Tyson, too, comes with big expectations attached to a deal that involved the Demons parting with the prized No.2 draft pick. But no one at the Demons can impact on matches like Clark, and that's what Paul Roos needs more than anything this year. No one will expect the Demons to challenge for finals, but the fans will want to see their team win some games, certainly more than the two they saw last year. To that end, even during two injury-cursed years at Melbourne, Clark has proven his influence on the team playing well. In the four games he did get on the park last year, the key forward was a magnet for the ball, drawing the second most one-on-one contests (on average) behind only Collingwood's Travis Cloke. He was hard to beat, too, averaging the second-lowest losing percentage in those contests and he also led the Demons for scoreboard impact in those games. A full season of that kind would be a major boost for Roos' re-build. His impact, though, is subject to injury as he has played only 15 of a possible 44 matches for the club.
Gms Disp Goals G.Ass
2012 19 24.9 10 11
2013 5 12.6 1 0
Time for one out of left field. Nick Dal Santo obviously fits the difference-maker bill nicely, but Anthony showed in 2012 that he had something valuable to give the Roos that he wasn't able to in 2013.
In 17 out of 19 games in 2012, he amassed 20-plus disposals. Only Andrew Swallow averaged more during a season where Anthony became an integral part of the Roos run-and-gun midfield. Last season, though, he lost his place in the side early and wore the subs vest in three of the five games he did play. Swallow's injury has elevated the need for other on-ballers to make their mark for the Roos this year, and yes, Dal Santo is the first name on the list. But the Liam Anthony of 2012 would be handy, too.
Gms Disp Mks Goals
2012 8 7.4 1.8 11
2013 8 8.4 2.6 9
With the Power unable to secure a key forward to help Jay Schulz, the heat on Butcher to start fulfilling the promise he showed when he burst onto the scene in 2011 has come this pre-season. He looked so good two years ago, some of his teammates dubbed him the ''Future". Unfortunately, the short-term future for 22-year-old Butcher since that point has meant only 16 games in two seasons and two hip operations. The Power are aware that other key forwards who have had double hip surgeries in the past have taken a while to get over the setback. But they have got over it, and Ken Hinkley is optimistic that the Future can turn into a current-day weapon. Butcher playing well enough to tandem with Schulz would also have the added benefit of releasing Justin Westhoff into a roaming forward role outside the arc.
Gms Disp Goals G.Ass
2012 20 22.4 23 8
2013 23 24.2 23 13
Martin is already good. Very good in fact. And there was nothing wrong with what he did in 2013 - he finished runner-up in the best and fairest to Daniel Jackson. But you just get the feeling the super-talented 22-year-old could be ready to make the final step and become one of the game's elite players this year. An off-season of controversy where the tactics used by both sides in his contract negotiations were questioned has no doubt raised the stakes, and Martin will be desperate to repay the club and fans that have stuck by him through off-field dramas. On the field, he has already produced play that belongs in the elite category, but not with the same reliability or regularity as players already in that zone. Doing so this year, or making improvement in that direction, could earn Martin his first All-Australian jumper and give the Tigers another rise as they aim to go deeper into September.
Gms Disp Eff Scr Ass
2012 7 12.3 76% 3
2013 18 15.2 74% 12
Difficult to pick out of a list in such heavy transition, but one thing the Saints do need is some excitement in general and, from a pure football point of view, some line-breaking dash out of defence. Newnes showed he could provide both last year and he has been the standout of the pre-season so far, suggesting the Saints' second-round pick in 2011 could be ready to take his game to another level in his third season. The club has already declared its hand to supporters, investing heavily in the draft and bringing in a new coach. So the difference Saints fans will be searching for this year is encouraging signs for the future in players like Newnes and this year's No.3 pick Jack Billings.
Gms Disp Mks Goals
2012 19 18.4 5.8 69
2013 21 15.7 4.1 60
Measured against his lofty standards, 2013 was an average year for Franklin. But having turned 27 this week, the former Hawk is now the same age that a clutch of great forwards, in the past, have elevated their output and produced a ''career'' year. His days of kicking 100 goals are probably over, but Buddy's best is much more than just goals - for his athleticism can influence the game in and outside the arc. His ability to mark overhead seems to have waned in recent years, which is of concern. But if John Longmire can orchestrate a game plan in which Franklin can maximise his impact as well as Kurt Tippett's, then the Swans could have a one-two punch capable of riding them over the preliminary final hurdle. There will be plenty of people who hope the Buddy deal flops, though, if only for its sheer audacity. So the pressure is on.
Gms Disp Mks Goals
2012 22 13.0 3.0 24
2013 11 11.0 2.3 8
Another easy one. Naitanui started 2013 as an All-Australian and the Eagles as flag favourites. Then injury hit. He played only half the season and the Eagles missed the finals. OK, so it wasn't that simple, but the point is clear. The Eagles still have the list to be a threat, but only if they can bash out the dents that teams made in their game style last year. The Eagles were a different team at the contest, down on key clearance numbers. More than any player, a healthy Naitanui, 23, can have an immediate effect on this - both with his tap work and sheer presence at stoppages. But staying healthy is the rider. He could play round one, but his pre-season has been far from smooth. Still he is off contract this year and the next one he signs might be the biggest of his career. Right time to shine.
Gms Disp Mks Goals
2012 2 13.0 6.0 3
2013 3 8.0 2.5 1
Could have been a raffle between Stewart Crameri, Liam Jones or Shaun Higgins. But what the Dogs need more than anything is a reliable key forward that can impact on the game every week. Williams showed he can be that type of player at the other end of the ground, until injury struck. Now he will try to do so at the front end this season, with both the player and club deciding he is a natural forward. At 27, he is still in his prime. If the Dogs could mark down one of Jones, Williams or Crameri for a 60-goal season, they would do so tomorrow. But the plan seems to be to get contributions from all three and the smalls in a versatile forward attack, with Crameri a play-making high half-forward. A full season of Williams roaming inside the arc would be different, not least because he has managed to play over 20 games only once in seven seasons.