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Top four is easy to predict except for one

Date

Which team will rise above mediocrity and make the top four?

Illustration: Mick Connolly.

Illustration: Mick Connolly.

Sydney, Hawthorn and Fremantle are everyone's box trifecta this year but the fourth estate is having great difficulty in ranking the fourth team of 2014.

Moreover, it's not just the media that is struggling to round out the top four. In their annual market forecasts, the AFL captains named only three teams (besides their own) that would make the grand final. Result: Hawks 10 votes, Sydney 5, Freo 3. That is an extraordinary conformity, in a competition with margins slighter than Josh Bootsma's shoulders.

If you talk to officials in the ''industry'' you'll find similar uniformity about the projected top three and near-universal agreement (outside the relevant clubs) that the Saints, Demons and Greater Western Sydney will fill the bottom three slots, though some are warming to the idea that the third-year Giants will make a significant leap.

There's a school of thought that the ''Leppa'' Lions will be down in the dungeon, too.

The perception is that the top and bottom trios - the aristocracy and the downtrodden - are predictable, but that everything else is highly volatile. The middle class is broader than ever: it could stretch from fourth to 14th. Ironically, in a season in which ''equalisation'' is the big reform, the playing field itself shapes as unusually equal. The bottom pair of 2013, GWS and the Dees, will be much better - they might win five to seven games each - but still mired in the bottom sixth.

Hawthorn and Sydney should be locks for the top four, barring injuries, and most club folk rate Freo up there. It's quite conceivable that one of the fancied three will fall and miss the final four, but it's impossible to predict which one, since that will be decided by unpredictable variables - the bodies of Luke Hodge/Sam Mitchell/Luke McPharlin/Matthew Pavlich/Kurt Tippett, plus the attitude of Buddy Franklin.

Hawthorn's hunger, which was an issue after the 2008 flag, doesn't appear to be a problem; these days, one measure of ''hunger'' is skinfolds (hungry teams eat or drink less). Unlike the flabby hungover Hawks of '09, the class of 2014 has passed the pre-season pinch test.

The task of guessing a final eight is daunting because 12 to 14 teams can make it. But the greater riddle comes once you've put down the names Sydney, Hawthorn, Fremantle in whatever order. Then comes?

Could it be … Geelong? The Cats were within a kick of putting the Hawthorn people in a padded cell in the 2013 prelim final. They have young talent, they have Hamish McIntosh actually playing, they have the prospect of Tom Hawkins playing fit. They have Joel Selwood and a settled, strong defence.

Every year the Cats are supposed to decline. Like Andrew Demetriou's resignation, eventually this prediction will happen. But this time there are compelling reasons - not just hunches - to justify a downgrade of Geelong's AAA on-field rating.

Joel Corey and Paul Chapman last year weren't what they were but they were still mighty and the ranks of retirees is reaching is a critical mass.

While Geelong is replenishing with impressive youth, injuries have hit in pre-season. Nathan Vardy is gone and Allen Christensen will miss about half the season and the electric Steven Motlop missing the opening two to three games.

So we cannot be confident about Geelong as the fourth team.

Could it be … Essendon? If not for Stephen Dank, peptides and ASADA the Dons would be contenders. They were top two as late as July. They have excellent talls, with Dyson Heppell bringing a classier element to a hitherto B-grade midfield dominated by Jobe Watson. They have a sound defence that will include, hamstrings willing, Michael Hurley. They have wunderkind Joey Daniher. They've added a happy Chapman.

But the case against is bleeding obvious, too: They lost draft picks and trading opportunities, they're still in ASADA limbo and we don't know how this will play on players' minds. They have a problem kicking goals, since most of those talls - besides Daniher - seem more adept in defence. We can't put the house on the Dons, either.

Could it be … Richmond? The Tigers have been rising with each season under Damien Hardwick. They have finals experience. They have a quick and classy midfield, headed by Trent Cotchin and Brett Deledio. They have Dustin Martin and Ty Vickery ready to make steps. They have Brandon Ellis and Nick Vlastuin … their depth is greatly enhanced this year.

But we can't trust Richmond. Not yet. The Tigers don't defend when the opposition rolls, as Carlton did in that final. They haven't got an A-grader in defence, despite Alex Rance's gains. There is no big-bodied power forward, since Jack Riewoldt isn't that large.

Could it be … North? The Roos lost so many games by so little. They've added Nick Dal Santo to the mix. They have structure at both ends, their midfield is strong. At their infrequent best they're an attacking, skilful side that looks the top four part. But within that exhilarating team lies the doubt. The loose Roos kept blowing leads for a reason. They don't defend first, they run and stun themselves, like deer in headlights. Brent Harvey and Drew Petrie are old. There is a doubt about this team's mettle.

Could it be … Collingwood? The Pies own the equal of any midfield, headlined by Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan and Dayne Beams, with Taylor Adams added. Travis Cloke is the game's most imposing forward and few defences can deal with him and Ben Reid. Alas for the Pies, sports science hasn't progressed to the point of cloning Reid and they have relinquished A-graders Dale Thomas and Heath Shaw. They are in quasi-rebuild mode.

Could it be Port Adelaide, which made such improbable progress? Yes, it could and no, probably not. Could it be the Blues? One thinks not. Carlton's list restricts its range from 6th to 13th, methinks. It could be West Coast, which embarrassed many of us last year, when talked up as a flag pick, only to flop, under the weight of injuries and a stale coach.

By this column's reckoning, seven middle-class teams are capable - if all went swimmingly - of snatching a top four spot. We've seldom seen so many applicants for a situation vacant near the top.

25 comments so far

  • So in other words the competition is more even than ever, yet we need "Equalisation".

    Commenter
    Former Landlord
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    March 09, 2014, 6:01PM
    • Teams like the roos, bulldogs, saints demons etc will need help for a long time. It was said a few years ago teams need at least 40,000 members to survive. By the way. The journalist is talking about the evenness of teams re playing talent. That is way different to a clubs financial strength.

      Commenter
      Armchair Selector
      Date and time
      March 09, 2014, 7:05PM
    • Even if the competition weren't "more even than ever", "equalisation" is rubbish. Saw president of Port Adelaide whinging about their lack of finances saying they needed more money to be really competitive. Perhaps rather than asking for handouts they should be consulting with Colingwood and Hawthorn to see how they became wealthy and able to spend more on their football departments. Collingwood was broke when Eddie McGuire took over in the early 90s. The AFL abandoned Hawthorn and wanted them to amalgamate with Melbourne but the supporters had other ideas. Why should clubs who have built up solid memberships be supporting clubs who just want handouts? I'm sick of whingers complaining about successful clubs.

      Commenter
      Teaman
      Date and time
      March 09, 2014, 9:33PM
    • The competition is more equal than ever as you say in some ways , but only some. Bulldogs and Hawks both entered the old VFL in 1925. First to win a Flag was Footscray in 1954 , Hawthorn's first flag was in 1961 . Bulldogs haven't won a Flag since then , not even made the Grand Final. Hawks have won 10 more Flags and lost a few G.F.'s. I'm a Hawthorn supporter , my mate goes for the Bullies. We met at school in 1961 . I'd like to see him happy on the last Sat. in Sept. for a change. Saints also , just one Flag. Demons none since the 1950's. That's what equalisation is about .

      Commenter
      Daniel
      Location
      rural NSW
      Date and time
      March 10, 2014, 6:18AM
    • "Equalisation" has resulted in the competition being more even than ever. It's not like it's just been introduced. Take it away and then we may as well watch EPL.

      Commenter
      Dave
      Location
      Perth
      Date and time
      March 10, 2014, 12:14PM
    • Teaman, Collingwood had at the time they were nearly broke probably the strongest supporter base in the comp despite the long gap in Premierships. Collingwoods supporter base was built up over the first half of the VFL when they dominated and won 14 flags and most non flag years played Finals. Hawthorn came from being a laughing stock with no flags to winning flags and playing finals from the 70s to now. That success saw their supporter base build as young kids chose to support the new VFL on field powerhouse. If Power were to win a few flags quickly their membership will grow with Port Adelaide SANFL supporters joining up. Ports supporters got so use to dominating SANFL they will not become members when Power are struggling. By the way Eddie has done a brilliant job getting supporters to become members. IMO Pies supporters are the most loyal in Australia. Even when struggling the drop in membership is not as severe as other clubs

      Commenter
      BlueGirl
      Date and time
      March 11, 2014, 7:03PM
  • Can't believe North have not easily got the highest % in the votes. They lost so many games by less than 2 Goals last year. Had they have won them could have finished 2nd. People must be voting for their own teams and are ignoring the logic.

    Commenter
    BlueGirl
    Date and time
    March 09, 2014, 7:08PM
    • Nothing wrong with a bit of wishful thinking. Doesn't achieve anything but it makes you feel a bit better.

      Commenter
      Matt
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      March 09, 2014, 11:18PM
    • would have could have should have chokers

      Commenter
      Rod
      Date and time
      March 09, 2014, 11:49PM
    • Ignoring the logic by ignoring North? Yeah, I don't think so. Sounds like you might be doing what you're accusing the rest of us of.

      Commenter
      Bum McFluff
      Location
      Anywhere but Geelong
      Date and time
      March 10, 2014, 8:01AM

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