2010 - another Cat cup?

Geelong 2009 premiership - are they headed for another cup? Photo: Craig Abraham

After round nine, the races for finals places, and the top four, have been reinvigorated, with several underperformers of the first half of the year showing signs they are hitting form, and could be major contenders from here on.

Which teams are really turning the corner, and which are wannabes about to become has-beens? Which teams will make the 2010 final series?

Geelong, 1st, 7-2, 153%

Next four: Melb (Skilled Stadium), WCE (Subiaco), Ess (Etihad Stadium), St K (MCG)
Record v current top four: 1-1
Games against current top four in run home: 2 – Collingwood (R19), Western Bulldogs (R20)
Games against current top eight teams in run home: 5 - St K (Rnd 13 MCG), Syd (R18 ANZ), Coll (R19 MCG), WB (R20 ES),  Carl (R21 ES)
Important injuries: Joel Corey 2-3 weeks, Brad Ottens 3-5 weeks, Max Rooke indefinite.
Best win so far: v Collingwood, round nine, 36 points. Withstood patches where it was contained in its own half to deliver emphatic reminder to the competition of its primacy.

The premiers are short favourites again after disposing of 2010’s previous pacesetter Collingwood in round nine. The Cats have added dangerous forward James Podsiadly to their forward line and specialist kicker Josh Hunt has returned to the backline, and have another elite midfielder in Corey and ruckman, Ottens, to return later in the season. Without an obvious weakness, they should be untroubled to finish on top, and seemingly tough games in three of the last four rounds should tune them up for their title defence.
"Eight point game": v Western Bulldogs, round 20, Etihad Stadium. The Dogs should be back to their top as a challenger by then. Their recent bogey side Carlton should provide an interesting assignment in round 21, as well.

Collingwood, 2nd,  7-2 134%

Next four: Bris (Gabba), WB (ES), Melb (MCG), Syd (ANZ)
Record v current top four: 2-1
Games against top four in run home: 2 - Western Bulldogs (R11), Geelong (R19)
Games against current top eight teams in run home: 6 - WB (R11 A), Syd (R12 A), Port (R15 A), St K (R16 H), Carl (R18 H), Geel (R19 H)
Important injuries: Paul Medhurst, test.
Best win so far: Fremantle, Rnd 8, 36 points. Stamped themselves as a cut above a strong challenger for a top four berth with hard-running and great teamwork.

Collingwood has failed badly at its two attempts against last year’s grand finalists, their skills and forward line breaking down under extreme pressure. However, their backline and midfield are top notch, and with young players in key positions, and plenty of depth, they are still well placed to finish high up the ladder and see if they can’t improve their recent record against the best when it matters. Collingwood’s four interstate games on the road come between rounds eight and fifteen, before a string of games at the MCG leading into the finals. Those flying visits should decide if the Magpies can consolidate a top four position with time to plan for the finals.
"Eight point game": v St Kilda, round 16. Need to prove they can score against elite teams with zone and man on man pressure, and beat a competitor for a top four place.

Fremantle 3rd, 7-2, 122%

Next four: North Melb (H), Adel (A), St K (H), Carl (A)
Record v current top four: 1-1
Games against top four in run home: 1- Western Bulldogs (Rnd 17)
Games against top eight in run home: 6 - St K (Rnd 12 H), Carl (Rnd 13 A), Port (Rnd 14 H), WB (Rnd 17 A), Syd (Rnd 20 H), Carl (Rnd 22 H)
Important injuries: Greg Broughton - 3-5 weeks, Des Headland - 6 weeks, Luke McPharlin 7-9 weeks
Best win so far: v Essendon, Rnd 2, 44 points. Buried the first of three road hoodoos to set the tone for a ground-breaking first half of the season.

Unfancied Fremantle have had a superb start to 2010, playing with discipline, spirit and intelligence to establish a great record in the first nine weeks. Maintain this intensity (and a fit Matthew Pavlich, league leading goalkicker, up front) and they are on target for their finals series, and their first since 2006. With a midfield cobbled together from a mature-aged rookie Michael Barlow, rebadged defender Paul Duffield, and a rejuvenated winger David Mundy, they have capitalised on dominant ruckman Aaron Sandilands, and an underrated defence led by Chris Tarrant. Injuries to Broughton and McPharlin will damage that unit, but if replacements Antoni Grover and Nick Suban can hold up, the Dockers look assured of September action.
"Eight point game": v St Kilda, Rnd 12, Subiaco. Beat direct top-four competitor St Kilda and the finals dream is becoming a reality for the Dockers, which faces lower ranked opponents between rounds 14 and 20.

Western Bulldogs 4th, 6-3, 128%

Next four: Ess (H), Coll (H), WCE (A), Haw (A)
Record v current top four: 0-1
Games against top four in run home: 3 - Coll Rnd 11 (H), Frem Rnd 17 (A), Geel Rnd 20 (H)
Games against top eight in run home: 6 - Coll Rnd 11 (H), Carl Rnd 15 (H), Port Rnd 16 (Darwin), Frem Rnd 17 (A), Geel Rnd 20 (H), Syd Rnd 21 (A)
Important injuries: Brad Johnson 2 weeks, Robert Murphy 1-2 weeks, Callan Ward 1-2 weeks
Best win so far: v Sydney, Rnd 8, ACT, 38 points. Took on the Swans in Canberra when the Swans still had pretensions to top-four status themselves, and comprehensively outclassed them, led by former Swan Barry Hall, who booted five goals. A formidable reminder of Bulldog skill and cohesion.

The Bulldogs went into the season as favourites for the premiership with many pundits, after taking out the pre-season title with a fit and firing Barry Hall kicking bags of goals. Reality bit hard early in the season, with the convincing round one loss to fellow top-four rival Collingwood. Their form thereafter was not dismal, but not up to expectations, and they were extremely fortunate to scrape out of the wet slog against Melbourne with a win in round seven. That narrow win put the Dogs ahead of the ledger, and comprehensive beltings of pretenders North Melbourne and Sydney in subsequent weeks showed that the team is starting to hit its straps. After injuries to Matthew Boyd, Brad Johnson, Callan Ward and Robert Murphy, amongst others, the Bulldogs have exposed some promising talent to game time, including Brodie Moles and Jarrad Grant. Should look to round 11 re-match with the Magpies as the kickstart to a run at the finals.
"Eight point game": v Carlton, Rnd 15, Etihad Stadium. With winnable looking games either side, this shapes as a pivotal clash. Beat the Blues and they could reduce the battle for top four slots to five teams. Another crucial clash is the game against Fremantle at the same venue in round 17.

St Kilda, 5th, 6-3, 117

Lost an uncharacteristic three games out of four after their usual systematic opening to the year, but regained their mojo the hard way against a committed West Coast at Subiaco in round nine. Though still struggling to adapt to life without super forward Nick Riewoldt, the Saints will win many more games than they lose from now, with a tough, talented midfield, and a group of methodical half-back rebounders. May have been proved susceptible to a pacy team executed an extreme run and carry game style, but that doesn’t describe too many competitors for a top four slot. With a friendly draw, will most likely grind their way back into the top four, and prove extremely hard to displace. May be even more resilient later in the year, after having confronted some demons and learned how to win without Riewoldt. And Saint Nick may be ready later in the year…
"Eight point games": Rnd 12 v Fremantle (A), Rnd 13 v Geelong (H), Rnd 16 v Collingwood, (MCG)
Games against current top eight in run home: 4 - Frem Rnd 12, Geel Rnd 13, Coll Rnd 16, Port Rnd 19.

Carlton 6th 5-4, 110

Excited their fans with exciting wins over last year’s grand finalists Geelong and St Kilda, when they played with flair and dash. But, lacking depth, they have struggled when confronted with a heavy schedule, injuries to senior players, or motivated arch-rivals. Possessors of a high class midfield, the Blues appear caught between playing styles. Their high-risk, high reward play-on-at-all-costs dynamism has won them games, but attempts to play a slower ‘tempo’ football have usually come unstuck. Capable of beating any team in the league on their day, they are also vulnerable to unexpected losses. Should win their next three to set up a run at the upper echelons, but need luck with injuries, and improved consistency from their young and/or inexperienced forwards.
"Eight point games": Rnd 13 v Fremantle (H), Rnd 15 v Western Bulldogs (H), Rnd 18 v Collingwood (MCG), Rnd 19 v Essendon (MCG), Rnd 21 v Geelong (Etihad), Rnd 22 v Fremantle (Subiaco)
Games against top eight in run home: 6 - Frem Rnd 13, WB Rnd 15, Syd Rnd 16, Coll Rnd 18, Geel Rnd 21, Frem Rnd 22

Sydney 7th 5-4, 107%

Brilliant 5-1 start to the year has quickly unravelled once key injuries hit and they started playing the better teams. Debilitating loss to Geelong away undermined their confidence as a contender, and they struggled the following week against the Dogs and last week against Fremantle at home. Brave but ageing midfield lacks pace and game-breaking skill, and forward line appears reliant on recruit Daniel Bradshaw, who is becoming injury-prone. Bright lights have included the return of half-back dasher Tadgh Kennelly, before he was sidelined by a knee injury, the pace, if not finishing, of first-year tyro Lewis Jetta, the continued development of key back Heath Grundy, and the superb start to the season of ruck recruit Shane Mumford and underrated small man Ben McGlynn. But the Swans need their best team on the park to challenge their competitors for a final eight berth.
"Eight point games": Rnd 10 v Hawthorn (A), Rnd 11 v Essendon (H), Rnd 12 v Port Adelaide (A). No time like the present for the Swans, who can put a space between themselves and rivals snapping at their heels if they can stop the rot in the next three weeks. Mumford returns from suspension, and Ben McGlynn is close after a quad strain.
Games against top eight in run home: 6 - Port Rnd 12, Coll Rnd 13, Carl Rnd 16, Geel Rnd 18, Frem Rnd 20, WB Rnd 21.

Port Adelaide 8th 5-4, 89%

After seven rounds, Port Adelaide fans would have been rapt with their charges, who had surprised the footy world by reaching 5-2. All the wins had been tight and hard-fought, including a tough triumph over the Saints in the wet, and a win in a Derby slog against Adelaide. However, much that was gained has been lost in the last two weeks. First, they had Carlton at their mercy, before being over-run at home in round eight, then they were lacklustre against Melbourne in Darwin, a big last-quarter too little too late to snatch a win. Now back in the milling pack fighting for a final’s place, Port can look forward to the rest of their season by concentrating on the positives of the season so far – their renewed team spirit and determination, the re-emergence of David Rodan, Danyle Pearce and Paul Stewart, the onset of ruck option Jackson Trengove and small forward Cameron Hitchcock, and the continued development of Troy Chaplin, Alipate Carlile and Travis Boak. Poor percentage is a real concern.
"Eight point game": Rnd 11 v Hawthorn (A) Stop the resurgent Hawks in this game and they may shore up their final eight chances at the expense of their most dangerous rival. They will also need wins sooner rather than later with a tough run against top teams from rounds 14-16. Rnd 21 v Melb (H) Conceivably could decide a position in the eight.
Games against top eight in run home: 5 - Syd Rnd 12, Frem Rnd 14, Coll Rnd 15, WB Rnd 16, St K Rnd 19.

Melbourne 9th 4-5, 100%

The year’s most surprising team, and their season could have been even more startling, if one and three-point losses to top four sides Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs had been reversed. After a round one loss to Hawthorn reminiscent of the weak, listless Demons of the past two seasons, Melbourne pushed the Magpies to the brink, and produced exciting wins over Brisbane and Port Adelaide. Lacking dominant key forwards, Melbourne has been reliant on exuberant run through the lines, and consequently their form has been erratic, with off-colour performances against North Melbourne and West Coast amidst their better efforts. But the best the Demons serve up is threatening to most teams, and they can now cope with a big turnover of personnel to produce competitive performances more regularly. To make the finals, they will need Nathan Jones and Brent Moloney to continue their improved form on the ball, kids Tom Scully, Jack Grimes and Jack Trengove to continue adding run and verve to the midfield, late-blooming ruck Mark Jamar to keep providing a presence at stoppages, and the excellent defence, led by James Frawley, to keep rebounding as much as they blanket opponents. With forward Liam Jurrah, Austin Wonaeamirri and Jack Watts likely to help the evergreen Brad Green in attack in the second half of the season, Melbourne could still be a chance to jump from 16th in 2009, to the finals in 2010.
"Eight point game": Rnd 15 v Essendon, MCG. A horror patch awaits the Demons, with three games against top eight teams followed by an away game to the improving Crows. Will need to beat fellow top eight contender Essendon to keep their finals hopes alive.
Games against top eight in run home: 7

Essendon 10th 4-5 93%

Up and down season for the enigmatic Dons. No longer as pacy as the outfit that eschewed defence to blitz teams last season, they are still at their best when running hard and taking the game on, as evidenced by their exciting win over St Kilda in round eight, and their round six eclipse of Hawthorn. Have struggled  against the best teams this season, with the St Kilda win at home easily their most impressive scalp. Should continue to improve throughout the season as key position prospects Cale Hooker, Tayte Pears, Scott Gumbleton and Michael Hurley get more game time. Veteran backman Dustin Fletcher is having a stellar season, as is new skipper, midfielder Jobe Watson. Big men Paddy Ryder and David Hille are starting to exert influence commensurate with their talents, and new on-baller Jake Melksham is all quality. But Essendon’s fortunes probably rest with the output of a raft of midfielders and flankers, such as Brent Stanton, Brent Prismall, Jason Winderlich, Ricky Dyson and Mark McVeigh, who have all struggled to influence games as much as they have in the past. If these experienced mid-range types can complement the tall options with regular supply, the Bombers will win more than they lose.
"Eight point game": Rnd 19 v Carlton, MCG. With both sides likely to be fighting for either top four, or top eight positions, the Bombers will need to continue their recent dominance of their old rivals.
Games against top eight in run home: 7

Brisbane 11th 4-5 91%

Started in excellent form, with the twin towers in attack, Jonathan Brown and high profile recruit Brendan Fevola, in fine form, but have entered a steep nosedive, with five successive losses, injuries to Brown, Fevola and many other key players, and comcerns about the hardness of the surface of their homeground the Gabba. Currently missing key backman Daniel Merrett, rebounding playmaker Josh Drummond, combative ruck Jamie Charman, defensive midfielder Jed Adcock and dynamic midfielder Jared Brennan, Brisbane have found themselves reliant once more on the youngsters that coach Michael Voss tried to shelter with the recruitment of several experienced players at the end of last season. One of those kids is the shining light of the Lion season - first-year small forward Todd Banfield (13 goals, 40 tackles) has been a standout. And while Jack Redden (averaging 14 possessions and five tackles per game) has been handy, too often too much has fallen to too few, especially in the Lions midfield. With Luke Power now moving to roles in defence, and Simon Black often heavily tagged, only Michael Rischitelli has stepped into the breach as a consistent ball-winner. Of the senior recruits, Fevola is kicking goals, despite showing signs of frustration with a groin injury, and Matt Maguire has been a wonderful acquisition as a key backman, but Andrew Raines, Amon Buchanan, Brent Staker are not having a big influence. Yet another team whose best is formidable, but which struggles when hit by injuries, the Lions must arrest their current slump immediately, and record a win or two, or they will be overtaken by hungry, fit competitors just behind them on the ladder.
"Eight point game": Rnd 16 v Hawthorn, Launceston. The Lions won this fixture last season, and it helped catapult them into the finals at Hawthorn’s expense. A repeat effort may be necessary to thwart the Hawk juggernaut this year.
Games against top eight in run home: 6

North Melbourne 12th 4-5 76%

Uncompetitive so far against top teams, North Melbourne appears unlikely to win enough games to compete in September, but as an improving young team, could help shape the final eight. Yet to beat a team in the eight, North has shown glimpses of a promising future with its impressive defeats of fellow bottom-half teams Adelaide, Hawthorn, Melbourne, and West Coast. Hamstrung by the loss of vital key position tall Drew Petrie before the start of the season, North Melbourne has relied on an inexperienced but spirited midfield, led by Liam Anthony (now injured) and Andrew Swallow, to create scoring opportunities. This division has simply been outbodied at times against the older, better on-ball units, but its spirit has rarely faltered. Scott Thompson and Nathan Grima should lead the defence long into the future, and veteran Brady Rawlings has been outstanding since going to half-back from a tagging role in the midfield. Inexperienced midfield goers Ryan Bastinac, Jack Ziebell, Leigh Adams and ruckman Todd Goldstein continue to excite long-term hope.
Games against top eight in run home: 7

Hawthorn 13th 3-6 94%

Never has an ugly, battling three-point win over a bottom-placed, winless Richmond ever meant so much. Two rounds ago, Hawthorn’s Campbell Brown predicted that the four points taken from the Tigers were just what his team needed to kickstart its season, and after a comprehensive belting of Carlton the following week, much of the footy world suddenly agrees. Suddenly, the injury-ravaged Hawks have only three first choice players out, and have got games into the likes of Shaun Burgoyne. Weaknesses in the ruck and backline persist, but with a midfield featuring Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Jordan Lewis, Cyril Rioli and Shaun Burgoyne, and a forward line with Jorrdan Roughead and Lance Franklin, they could take advantage of a soft draw in the next few weeks to build some dangerous momentum. Needing to win probably eight of their last twelve games to play finals, Hawthorn may have pulled out of their form trough just in time. Either that, or their poor star, lack of depth and failure to adapt to 2010 football will confine them to another disappointing finish just outside the finals.
Games against top eight in run home: 9

West Coast 14th 3-6 85%

The poor percentage reveals the lack of class of this Eagles outfit, which is improving its competitiveness, but appears ill-equipped to record enough wins to make the finals. Their last game against St Kilda at home showcased their dogged spirit, but they simply could not withstand the efficiency and cleaner ball-handling of the Saints, a scenario that has been repeated throughout the season so far. Without an elite midfield division to capitalise on the tap work of rucks Nic Naitanui and Dean Cox, the Eagles often struggle to get good supply to their inconsistent forward line. Thankfully, the good form of Josh Kennedy (25 goals, 54 marks) and Mark Le Cras (18 goals) has compensated for indifferent output from Quinten Lynch, Ashley Hansen and Ben McKinley, but too often the Eagles do not get reward for effort in attack. In defence, stalwart and captain Darren Glass has played hurt and is now sidelined, exposing raw prospects Eric McKenzie and Will Schofield. 2010 is another development year for the Eagles, who need some potency to emerge from a pack of midfield prospects including Brad Ebert, Chris Masten (now unfortunately injured), Scott Selwood, Tom Swift, Patrick McGinnity, Brad Sheppard, Luke Shuey (also now sidelined), Ashton Hams, and Bradd Dalziell.