Another boring NAB Challenge over, another exciting AFL season begins. Turning over a new leaf from the infamous ‘Essendon drugs scandal’, Andrew Demetriou will be hoping the season’s headlines will focus more on the on-field action rather than off-field. There are many questions to be asked this season; will Hawthorn successfully defend their premiership? Can Paul Roos turn Melbourne’s misfortune around? Will Lance Franklin fit in at Sydney? We’ve looked into the crystal ball to answer these questions with this team-by-team analysis.
Adelaide Crows: The Crows will be thanking their lucky stars seeing Taylor Walker back on the park in 2014. Add veterans James Podsiadly and Eddie Betts, and suddenly the toothless forward line of 2013 has some bite. If Sam Jacobs can recapture the form of 2012, a hardworking and deep midfield will be greatly improved. Combined with a solid defence led by young gun Daniel Talia, the Crows will look to challenge again for the finals.
Brisbane Lions: Mayday, Mayday! Is anyone left in Brisbane? A slowly developing list was decimated this offseason, with many high draft picks from previous years leaving the club. It will take time to repair those gaping wounds, but the Lions can take heart in the fact they still have Matthew Leuenberger feeding a young midfield of Tom Rockliff, Pearce Hanley, and Daniel Rich. If the key position players can stand up and give Jonathan Brown a hand, the Lions might not be completely awful.
Carlton: Chris Judd is overrated. There I said it. Moreover, Carlton can’t afford to rely on him to the same extent they have in previous years. The theme this season is that youngsters have to take the wheel when the seniors need their power nap. Carlton is no exception. If his teammates can pick up their share of the weight when Judd’s knees get weak then the Blues might maintain their token spot in the finals.
Collingwood Magpies: With the ‘rat pack’ successfully exterminated, Nathan Buckley has seemingly rid himself of all the problem children he dealt with in 2013. Jesse White and Taylor Adams will be a big boost. Teaming White, Travis Cloke, and Ben Reid will create problems for opposing defenders, and with an elite midfield, the Pies will once again be in the mix.
Essendon: Last year, the ongoing ASADA investigation at Essendon didn’t appear to affect players’ performance on the field. That was, until they were banned from finals and James Hird was suspended as coach until the end of this season. Mark Thompson has stepped up to take charge of what is hopefully a brighter chapter. It remains to be seen whether or not they will be able to put the turmoil of last year behind them, and reclaim a place in the finals.
Fremantle: Ross Lyon undeniably proved his tactical prowess last year, taking Fremantle to their first Grand Final. While St Kilda fans remain dirty at him for the way in which he departed the club, his unique lockdown style of play exceeded expectations by beating 2011 and 2012 premiers, Geelong and Sydney in the finals, before stumbling at the last hurdle to Hawthorn. There is no reason they can’t reach the same heights this season.
Geelong Cats: Paul Chapman is a Bomber, Josh Hunt a Giant, and James Podsiadly a Crow. Luckily they know how to recruit at Kardinia Park. The fringe players will have to lift this season to make up for some heavy absences. Youngsters like Mitch Duncan have shown their talent but aren’t as reliable as Steve Johnson or Jimmy Bartel. Should Geelong’s golden era continue, the new generation will need to step up.
Gold Coast Suns: It’s a big year for the Suns – can the boys stand up and become men? 2014 is the year the Suns stop hiding behind the ‘development’ excuse (albeit valid up to this point) and make a challenge for their first September. A list overflowing with potential has made steady progress over the past three seasons, and this season could well be the year they finally arrive in September. Gold Coast is the team to watch in 2014.
GWS Giants: Following a second year of development, the Giants enjoyed one of the more profitable recruiting seasons in the league. Another great draft delivered Tom Boyd, Josh Kelly, and others. The Giants also picked up Shane Mumford, youngster Jed Lamb, as well as the biggest name in free agency, Heath Shaw. The challenge for GWS will be to follow Gold Coast’s example in their third season, before hopefully loading up for a finals campaign in 2015.
Hawthorn: What do we make of our reining premiers? This year they are without their star forward, Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin, who has left the nest to fly over to Sydney on a monstrous $10 million contract that makes him a Swan until 2022. Shane Savage has also departed, meaning their firepower has been reduced somewhat. Pressure will be mounted on Jarryd Roughhead and the ‘delicious’ Cyril Rioli now. Expect them to deliver, and the Hawks to fly high as always.
Melbourne Demons: If the NAB Challenge can be considered a reliable indicator of form, the Dees could be the most improved side of the year. It would’ve been hard for them to get any worse though. Paul Roos has undoubtedly reinvigorated the side; Nathan Jones, once the only shining light in a bleak Melbourne midfield, has now been joined by Dom Tyson, Bernie Vince and Daniel Cross. Results may not come immediately, but they will at least look like they belong in the competition.
North Melbourne: The Kangaroos have developed a reputation for being that team that flies under the radar throughout the entire season despite all the hype pre-season. In short, should they make the eight, they’re only there to make up numbers. Nick Dal Santo is a big inclusion this year that may just see them sneak in…provided Brent Harvey keeps doing what he does every year.
Port Adelaide: Port were the fairytale of 2013, going from a laughing stock to a young and exciting semi-finalist. Prospects like Brad Ebert, Chad Wingard and Hamish Hartlett became consistent performers. Jared Polec arrives from Brisbane, who is yet another young midfield star for Ken Hinkley to take under his command. Nonetheless, it may be difficult for Port to match 2013’s efforts, purely because of the improvements from other teams coming up.
Richmond Tigers: It’s impossible not to have a soft spot for the Tigers. We all felt a tinge of pride when they finally broke their finals drought after so many near misses and nestled safely into 5th place. With no key inclusions, or exclusions for that matter, there is no apparent reason for them not to do it again. Their placing depends on the teams around them.
St Kilda: Saints fans are in for a long season. Their best chances to win come in the opening two rounds, where they face Melbourne and GWS. New boss, Alan Richardson has not appeared to instill a great deal of enthusiasm in a team that is as low on morale as it is in depth. Shane Savage could be a handy pick-up from trade week, but it is an otherwise fledgling side that could be too reliant on a few seniors that are past their best.
Sydney Swans: A frightening thought; last year’s preliminary finalists boast the best inclusions this year. ‘Buddy’ Franklin joins a forward line with Kurt Tippett, Adam Goodes, Leroy Jetta, who experienced interrupted 2013 seasons. The loss of Shane Mumford and emerging players Jed Lamb and Jesse White will hurt, but not many teams come close to matching the firepower of the Swans. Expect yet another contending season.
West Coast Eagles: Many experts tipped West Coast to go deep into September in 2013, before injuries and poor form derailed their season and ultimately cost John Worsfold his job. The Eagles enter 2014 with far less hype around them, but don’t be surprised to see them exceed expectations. With key players, Nic Naitanui, Mark LeCras, and Shannon Hurn fit again, and an emerging midfield taking on greater responsibilities, West Coast shape up to be the bolter of 2014.
Western Bulldogs: Despite finishing 15th in 2013, the Bulldogs came a very long way in a year. Bleak expectations were replaced by feelings of hope following last season. Brendan McCartney will be hoping his team will continue to come on in 2014. While not yet ready for finals, the Dogs are building an impressive midfield, headed by captain Ryan Griffen. If players at either end of the field can put their hands up, Dogs fans will have fun watching a young team improve.