Highly regarded young midfielder Tom Mitchell. If the Swans can keep him in the fold, he could be a cornerstone of future flag challenges. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Every now and again, a club that has been consistently vying for premierships suddenly and dramatically falls down the ladder.
It happened to St Kilda in 2012, Hawthorn in 2009, West Coast and Port Adelaide in 2008, and Brisbane in 2005.
Port Adelaide was arguably a home and away season over-achiever in 2007, and it was little surprise its squad suffered a negative reaction to its grand final annihilation. The Hawks were young and considered to have arrived early in taking out the 2008 flag.
Collingwood's hopes of avoiding a further slide rest with untested talent such as their first-round draft pick, Matt Scharenberg. Photo: Getty Images
But in most other cases, teams that plummet out of the eight after being involved at the pointy end have pushed their senior talent as far as it can go, at the expense of getting games into the next generation.
In the AFL, he not busy being born is busy dying. The Lions' list in 2005 included many famous names: Michael Voss, Jason Akermanis, Simon Black, Nigel Lappin, Justin Leppitsch, Jonathan Brown. Only Alastair Lynch, Shaun Hart and Craig McRae were missing from their losing 2004 grand final team.
But some inverse momentum, a few key injuries, and the inevitable letdown felt by a sliding team which has been at the pinnacle … and they finished 11th, ending their season with three humiliating thrashings, which foretold an upcoming decade of banishment from the top eight.
Some great teams plummet once their premiership hopes depart. Photo: Jamie Brown
The mission statements of many clubs now include explicit references to avoiding this syndrome. Successful clubs are aiming to defy the "natural cycle" intended by the salary cap and draft by identifying and developing replacement talent to regenerate their list and remain in contention.
The recent retirements of great older players remind us that the end can come quickly, and unpredictably, once a player passes the age of 30.
Geelong has not missed the finals since 2007, and once since 2003. Collingwood has been in the top eight since 2006; and Hawthorn since 2007 (but for its 2009 lapse). Sydney last missed the eight in 2009, but before that, it was 2002.
Can George Horlin-Smith, left, help replace Steve Johnson, right? Photo: Pat Scala
Are any of these teams at risk of not making the eight in 2015?
Star factor: Lance Franklin is as big a star as exists, and after a slow start, he is proving he is worth every cent to the Swans. Stars include fellow forward Kurt Tippett, who averages almost three goals per game for Sydney when he gets on the park, and elite midfielders Dan Hannebery, Josh Kennedy and Jarrad McVeigh. The other "star" at Sydney is the depth of competent, experienced foot soldiers across every department. Unheralded players like back pocket Nick Smith are dependable and more individually talented than they are given credit for.
Gifted young Hawk Brad Hill. Can he help fill the void which will open once Luke Hodge, Shaun Burgoyne and Sam Mitchell depart? Photo: Pat Scala
Players currently over 30 (7): Nick Malceski, Ryan O’Keefe, Adam Goodes, Mike Pyke, Ted Richards, Lewis Roberts-Thomson, Rhyce Shaw.
Potential retirees after 2014 season (4): Adam Goodes, 34, played 11 of 16 games in 2014; Lewis Roberts-Thompson, 30, 5 games; Ryan O’Keefe, 33, 4; Rhyce Shaw 32, 13.
Midfield profile, including current ages: Josh Kennedy, 26; Luke Parker, 21; Jarrad McVeigh, 29; Kieren Jack, 27; Dan Hannebery, 23; Craig Bird, 25; Ben McGlynn, 29; Harry Cunningham, 20; Lewis Jetta, 25; Tom Mitchell, 20; Brandon Jack, 20; Zak Jones, 19.
Key positions: Ted Richards, 31; Heath Grundy 28; Sam Reid, 22; Kurt Tippett, 27; Lance Franklin, 27; Lewis Roberts-Thomson, 30.
Up and comers: Luke Parker, Dan Hannebery, Harry Cunningham, Tom Mitchell, Brandon Jack, Zak Jones, Sam Reid, Dean Towers, Jake Lloyd, Gary Rohan.
Verdict. The likely retirees will not reduce Sydney’s strength considerably. The Swans have learnt not to rely on Goodes, whose injuries are making him a bonus rather than a staple; and O’Keefe has been out of the reckoning since early in the season. Shaw is a valued competitor, and if the out-of-contract Malceski also departs, there will be some pain, but if Sydney has anything it is a factory capable of producing quality back flankers. Sam Reid can effectively take over the swingman role formerly occupied by Lewis Roberts-Thomson. Twice-injured defender Alex Johnson will slot straight back if fully fit. The Sydney engine room is young and overflowing. Its prime movers are still on the rise, with possible Brownlow medallist Josh Kennedy at the helm, and Kieren Jack, Luke Parker, Daniel Hannebery and Craig Bird all 25 or under. They will be pushed by the younger types, including likely elite draftee Isaac Heeney. The star forwards should have at least two highly fruitful years ahead of them, though Tippett’s ongoing fragility is a concern. Like most teams, any more than one injury to a key defender would hurt, but Grundy and the evergreen Richards are exceptionally hardy.
Worst case scenario: Injuries to talls at either end and to a couple of engine room stars might hold the Swans back, but they will struggle to lose enough games to miss the eight. This is a young, well-balanced list, still on the improve, which looks able to cover most contingencies
Possible Sydney Team 2015
B Smith, Richards, Rampe
HB McVeigh, Grundy, Laidler
C Jetta, Kennedy, K. Jack
HF McGlynn, Franklin, Bird
F Reid, Tippett, Cunningham
R Pyke, Hannebery, Parker
I Lloyd, B. Jack, Meeney, Mitchell
E Rohan, Jones, Johnson
Star factor: Joel Selwood, Steve Johnson, Jimmy Bartel. They are the most prolific ball-winners at Geelong, and their gritty brilliance and versatility remain absolutely central to the team’s continuing excellence. Tom Hawkins and Harry Taylor are the best in the business as key big men at either end of the ground.
Over 30 (5): Jimmy Bartel, 30; Corey Enright, 32; Steve Johnson, 31; James Kelly, 30; Tom Lonergan, 30. Mathews Stokes, Andrew Mackie, Hamish McIntosh and Jared Rivers will be 30 later this year.
Potential retirees: Corey Enright.
Midfield profile: Joel Selwood, 26; Steve Johnson, 31; Jimmy Bartel, 30; Mitch Duncan, 23; James Kelly, 30; Cameron Guthrie, 21; George Horlin-Smith, 21; Steven Motlop, 23; Josh Caddy, 21.
Key positions: Tom Lonergan, 30; Harry Taylor, 28; Tom Hawkins, 25; Josh Walker, 21; Shane Kersten, 21; Mitch Brown, 23; Mark Blicavs, 23.
Up and comers: Mitch Duncan, Cameron Guthrie, George Horlin-Smith, Steven Motlop, Josh Caddy, Jordan Murdoch, Mark Blicavs, Allen Christensen, George Burbury, Jed Bews, Billie Smedts, Shane Kersten, Jesse Stringer, Josh Walker, Nathan Vardy, Daniel Menzel.
Verdict: Geelong has been busy phasing out stars and giving game time to promising youngsters for a couple of years. It is a testament to just how many great players they assembled in the noughties that they still face big issues. There’s no replacing messrs Johnson, Bartel and Kelly in the engine room, but the good news is the Cats might not have to do that for another year. The stay of execution is the same in the big man ranks, with Tom Lonergan probably right for another year, and Harry Taylor probably three years off the danger zone. Geelong has developed talent as well as could be expected, but, apart from Motlop and Christensen, the ranks of the emerging players lack the brilliance of their forebears and will struggle to match the likes of the Gold Coast Suns' running brigade. The 2016 season could be difficult, but the Cats will get another chance to defy the precipice in 2015, with competent kids maturing at the same time as all-time-greats make their last hurrah.
Worst case scenario: An injury to Tom Hawkins exposes the lack of experienced, consistent tall forward targets; the Cats struggle to maintain their daring run and gun skill-based counter-attack from defence and through the midfield. The result is that Geelong starts to lose more of the close games which it is winning out of habit in 2014.
Possible team 2015:
B Rivers, Lonergan, Mackie
HB Guthrie, Taylor, Varcoe
C Motlop, Selwood, Christensen
HF Bartel, Hawkins, Johnson
F Murdoch, Vardy, Duncan
R McIntosh, Stokes, Kelly, Horlin-Smith
I Smedts, Blicavs, Caddy
E Hunt, Simpson, Bews
Possible team 2016:
B Bews, Brown, Smedts
HB Guthrie, Taylor, Varcoe
C Motlop, Selwood, Christensen
HB Burbury, Hawkins, Kersten
F Murdoch, Vardy, Duncan
R Simpson, Horlin-Smith, Caddy, Hunt
I Bews, Stringer, McCarthy, Schroeder
E Hartman, Thurlow, Sheringham
Star factor: Jarryd Roughead, Luke Hodge, Cyril Rioli, Sam Mitchell, Brian Lake, Shaun Burgoyne, Grant Birchall, Luke Breust, Jack Gunston. That’s how you win multiple flags within a decade: a key forward, several top-line midfielders, a key defender and two 40-goal plus goalkickers. Elite talent across the lines.
Over 30 (7): Sam Mitchell, 31; Shaun Burgoyne, 31; Brad Sewell, 30; Brian Lake 32; David Hale, 30; Josh Gibson, 30; Luke Hodge, 30.
Potential retirees (2): Brian Lake, Brad Sewell.
Midfield profile: Sam Mitchell, 31; Jordan Lewis, 28; Shaun Burgoyne, 31; Luke Hodge, 30; Brad Hill, 21; Liam Shiels, 22; Cyril Rioli, 25; Brad Sewell, 30.
Key positions: Brian Lake, 32; Ryan Schoenmakers, 24; Josh Gibson, 30; Matt Spangher, 28; Jarryd Roughead, 28; David Hale, 30; Sam Grimley, 23; Tim O’Brien, 20.
Up and comers: Jack Gunston, Brad Hill, Liam Shiels, Ryan Schoenmakers, Will Langford, Jonathan Ceglar, Angus Litherland, Mitch Hallahan, Jed Anderson, Billy Hartung, Tim O’Brien, Luke Lowden.
Verdict: The Hawks, like the Cats, might get enough games out of their ageing stars to stave off a dramatic decline in 2015, but with the end looming for so many great players, there will be huge changes to this list in the near future, and a big risk of a drop-off. Already in 2014, Lake, Mitchell, Sewell and Gibson missed huge chunks of the year, which inevitably have affected performance. The Hawthorn midfield, despite diligent efforts to vary its mix, relies upon greybeards come finals time. Imagine it without Hodge, Burgoyne and Mitchell, and you see the extent of the development challenge. The dearth of quality key position options in defence, sans Lake, has been covered by a stellar line-up of half-backs. But such deficiencies eventually bite over the course of a long season. Has the athletic, exciting Ryan Schoenmakers matured enough to become a bulwark as a key position tall, or is he to remain merely a handy third tall/swingman? Can Hill, Shiels and Rioli carry the on-ball brigade? The Hawks have developed an encouraging array of emerging players, but are any of them good enough to carry the load as a key backman or primary ball-winning midfielder at the level of their predecessors?
Worst case scenario: Injuries and retirements strip the Hawks of several of their finest players at once, thrusting a raft of competent, but not brilliant, fringe players into the front lines. Though there is still a core of fine talent, performance cannot possibly match the stellar deeds of the past four years, and the slide begins.
Possible team 2015:
B Stratton, Gibson, Birchall
HB Hodge, Schoenmakers, Suckling
C Shiels, Mitchell, Hill
HF Breust, Gunston, Rioli
F Hale, Roughead, Smith
I Ceglar, Lewis, Burgoyne, Puopolo
E Duryea, McEvoy, Spangher
Possible team 2016:
B Stratton, Birchall, Duryea
HB Suckling, Schoenmakers, Litherland
C Shiels, Hill, Smith
HF Breust, Gunston, Simpkin
F Puopolo, Roughead, Rioli
R Ceglar, Lewis, Langford
I McEvoy, Hallahan, Anderson, Hartung
E O’Brien, Lowden, Spangher
Star factor: Scott Pendlebury, Travis Cloke, Dayne Beams, Ben Reid.
Over 30 (3): Luke Ball, 30; Quinten Lynch, 31; Dane Swan, 30.
Potential retirees (2): Luke Ball, Quinten Lynch.
Midfield profile: Scott Pendlebury, 26; Dayne Beams, 24; Dane Swan, 30; Steele Sidebottom, 23; Luke Ball, 30; Jarryd Blair, 24; Brent Macaffer, 26; Taylor Adams, 20; Josh Thomas, 22; Tim Broomhead, 20.
Key positions: Nathan Brown, 25; Ben Reid, 25; Jack Frost, 22; Lachlan Keefe, 24.
Up and comers: Taylor Adams, Tim Broomhead, Jamie Elliott, Alex Fasolo, Nathan Freeman, Matthew Scharenberg, Jack Frost, Tom Langdon, Marley Williams, Brodie Grundy, Jarrod Witts, Ben Sinclair, Paul Seedsman, Adam Oxley, Ben Kennedy, Patrick Karnezis.
Verdict: Collingwood only qualifies for this analysis as they have made the finals every year since 2006. The fact is, the Pies have already slid off the mountain-top, rebuilding while still making the finals, and their line-up is already youthful. Collingwood is an example of what faces Hawthorn and Geelong as newbies take over roles from premiership-winning incumbents. The Magpies’ future depends on the improved output of players already in place, and the contribution of injured junior stars yet to play. Of senior talent getting a regular game, only Luke Ball and Dane Swan are likely to depart in the near future. Collingwood has traded well for draft picks, but its recruitment of senior talent – Quinten Lynch, Clinton Young, Jesse White, Tony Armstrong – has been less successful. It means that avoiding a further slide depends on improvement from within via the likes of Ben Kennedy, Taylor Adams and Tim Broomhead. There will be even higher hopes that the unplayed Matt Scharenberg and Nathan Freeman are more skilful than many of their young peers. The Magpies badly need to find some elite ball-users, star quality and luck with injuries. With Ben Reid and Jamie Elliott alongside Travis Cloke in attack, and Nathan Brown back in defence, they have a far more formidable appearance. But to become a premiership contender once more, they will need some classy midfielders to emerge. Otherwise, they will be left hanging by their fingernails from the precipice.
Worst case scenario: If the Magpies’ poor luck with injury continues, and they field a team similar to the outfit which ran out against Essendon in round 17, 2014 – featuring a tiny, inexperienced defence, a sloppy midfield overly reliant on three top-liners, a feckless young ruck brigade, and a forward line with one legitimate threat - it will not just miss the eight, it will plummet.
Possible team 2015:
B Williams, Frost, Toovey
HB Seedsman, Keefe, Scharenberg
C Sidebottom, Pendlebury, Freeman
HF Elliott, Reid, Fasolo
F Goldsack, Cloke, Kennedy
R Grundy, Beams, Adams
I Macaffer, Broomhead, Lumumba, Witts
E Langdon, Brown, Oxley