In just 69 days the AFL world will rejoice after what has been an intriguing off-season.
Once again, Carlton and Richmond will kick-start the season on Thursday 23 March in front of an expectant packed MCG crowd, while Collingwood have the honours of hosting reigning premier the Western Bulldogs on the following night.
Many football fanatics have been piecing together their thoughts on what may transpire in 2017 just days after last year’s grand final, so with a thorough look through my crystal ball, these are the results I have come up with. After all, who doesn’t love a bit of pre-season speculation.
3. Western Bulldogs.
4. West Coast.
7. Gold Coast
There are a few aspects of this top eight prediction which are certain to raise some eyebrows in the country. The Crows to finish on top of the Dogs, Melbourne finishing above Sydney and the Gold Coast leap-frogging glamour clubs Hawthorn and Geelong are the interesting estimations.
On average, each season we tend to see two changes in the top eight from the previous year, so based on that statistic there have only been two changes. Yes, there could have been more but I tried to remain realistic.
North Melbourne are almost certain to miss the finals this year after ridding its experience and losing some class in the trade period. They now become one of the younger sides in the competition and Brad Scott will be under the pump trying to handle an unfamiliar young list.
To not name Hawthorn in the top eight for 2017 just doesn’t feel right, but who else are you supposed to drop? Geelong has its question marks going into this season but for Hawthorn to be named in the top eight is far more risky.
The Hawks won all six of their games last season which were decided by less than a kick. Experience and luck is the only reason they were victorious in those matches and losing Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis doesn’t help. You can’t remain lucky forever, after all, raise your hand if you knew the Dockers would miss the finals in 2016. Didn’t think so.
The tough part was deciding which teams will Newley enter the top eight for 2017, and while I can guarantee people are sitting behind their computers/phones laughing their heads off at the addition of the Suns, let there be an explanation.
Firstly, a lot of people are suggesting that St Kilda should play finals in 2017, but for them that is premature. They may have finished ninth, and only missed out by percentage, but they were the luckiest team in the competition on the injury front in 2016. With a full list to pick from, any side below them could have done the same. Not including the Blues and the Lions of course.
Melbourne finished the season with a higher percentage than St Kilda despite winning two less games, which is a better indicator of overall team quality. Don’t jump the gun on the Saints, they ain’t at all playing finals in 2017. Instead they’ll make it in 2018 with Nat Fyfe leading the midfield.
The McDonald brothers have cemented their spots as a key defensive pair, while Hogan and Sam Weideman will have Demons fans kicking their lips for years to come.
The addition of ex-Hawk Jordan Lewis comes with many benefits. Not only is he another hard nut midfielder and bullish around the contest, he brings to the club some much needed experience, an asset Melbourne have been craving for quite a while.
Michael Hibberd joins an already solid defence and his elite kicking out of the backline will be just what they need to kick-start their attacks.
Grand final: GWS v Adelaide
Adelaide finishing in the top four is inevitable. Had they defeated the Eagles in round 23, the Crows would not have had to travel to Sydney for the semi final. Statistically last year they were the best attacking team in the competition, and they can only improve under the second season of Don Pyke. If their exciting brand of footy is set to continue then they will at least win 16 games, which should be enough for a top four finish this season.
The Giants? Well, with a bit of luck on the injury front the Giants shouldn’t lose a game this season. Only inexperience will stop them but even then, the club has been around for six years now.
GWS are spoiled for choices in the forward line. With a potent midfield and a classy defence, the overall talent they have at their disposal is huge. This side was one kick away from a grand final in 2016 and they will learn from that loss. Oh yeh, and their depth is enormous.
Big improvers: Gold Coast
After six seasons in the AFL the Suns are still without a finals berth. They have struggled with a host of different issues both in and away from the club which has overall affected their output.
2016 can be put down to injuries, but other seasons? They have just been outright poor. What makes matters worse is comparing them with the Giants who are another expansion team. The Giants haven’t battled as much with player retention as the Suns, however the culture and chemistry the players have built for each other is fast making them a destination club.
I do believe something will change in 2017 for the Suns and it’s more than just a wild hypothesis. In the games that Gold Coast won last season, frequently did they kick a score above 100 (only once did they win in the 90’s). Even in some matches they lost, the Suns were able to kick 12-15 goals despite not coming away with the four points. This shows that the scoring power is there and with another pre-season soaked into Peter Wright and Tom Lynch we could see them become the best one-two punch in the competition.
There are signs of improvement from 2016 which included a spirited loss to the Hawks in a game which the Suns dominated in the first half, a 40-point win against the red-hot Saints and two heart-breaking single-digit losses in succession to the Demons and the Giants.
The Gold Coast have a spine and a ton of players who are ready for finals action. They also drafted extremely well in the off-season, with two of the acquisitions Ben Ainsworth and Jack Scrimshaw on track to being selected very early in the season.
They now have the right mix of young talent and experience.
If David Swallow and Gary Ablett can stay fit and lead a polished midfield for the duration of the season then I can see them winning plenty of games.
Then there’s Michael Barlow who knows nothing less than to accumulate plenty of the ball through the midfield. And Pearce Hanley knows how to kick a footy, too.
Breakout player: Kade Kolodjashnij
Brownlow winner: Patrick Dangerfield Runner-ups: M.Bontempelli – S.Coniglio – A.Treloar
Ken Hinkley sacked, Buckley to keep his job despite missing finals:
The story of Port Adelaide is one that ebbs and flows, and in 2017 further speculation will occur regarding why they have gone backwards since their shock finals appearance in 2013.
It’s difficult to see where the improvement is going to come from this year and with many clubs fighting for finals you need to have clear confidence with the list they are building. Not much happened with the power in the off-season and they’ll be relying on home-grown talent, a list prominently identical to that of 2016.
Following the footsteps of Richmond isn’t a good idea, Port. I don’t expect Hinkley to remain at the helm beyond this season. The club needs to perform.
Nathan Buckley is also a heavily-spoken about coach in the AFL given he labelled 2017 as “finals or bust”, thus allowing the media and the public to put pressure on his coaching position.
As mentioned before, there was a third change that could have been made to the top eight, and that change involved Collingwood.
The Pies had high expectations going into 2016 but registering just nine wins for the season meant they had once again gone backwards under Buckley’s reign. Injuries, lack of consistency and personnel, a Dane Swan injury in round one – it all went pear-shaped quickly for Collingwood.
They have a host of inclusions for the 2017 season which will be beneficial, but their lack of defensive stability was more than noticeable last season, so we’ll need to see how their new-look defence performs in the pre-season competition.
Collingwood will win more games in 2017 and the club will know better than to show Buckley the door.
The baby curse continues:
The Bombers in the 90’s, the Hawks in ’08 and the Dogs in 2016. The curse will strike again.
The Western Bulldogs pulled off a miraculous grand final victory last season and it’s a premiership fairytale that will be remembered for an eternity. But getting carried away is the worst thing for the Bulldogs.
While the flag is for obvious reasons worth celebrating, the situation the Dogs were in makes it a far more spectacular win, and good on them, they now have the bragging rights.
This doesn’t take away the fact that they won the flag prematurely, and if they go back-to-back then it will go down in history as purely remarkable.
The Dogs had their injury problems last season and will head into round one with a much better team on paper, but this is the team that is now being chased and hunted. Will they be able to cope with the added pressure of now being premiership-fancied all year long?
Rest of the ladder:
11. St Kilda
12. North Melbourne
16. Port Adelaide
Brisbane are putting together a strong young list for the future as long as they can hold onto their players. The future is looking bright but it is going to take some time for them to remain competitive with the rest of the competition. Wooden spooners.
Look away Tiger fans, but I can sense another year of disappointment. Richmond are another club, similar to Port Adelaide, where improvement is hard to notice. They come into 2017 without arguably their best player Brett Deledio, and despite gaining Dion Prestia and Josh Caddy to strengthen the midfield, there is simply no support from either end of the ground.
With other clubs set to rise up the ladder with youthful squads, the Tigers are going to struggle to keep up with the top eight for most of the year.
Fremantle and Essendon are two clubs people seem to rate highly for 2017 but one has to make assumptions for them to be speculated as a finals chance. Half the Essendon’s list are coming back from a doping ban and haven’t played in 12 months, so it is unknown as to how the players will gel together on the field. It could take time.
The Dockers have enough talent in the squad to do some damage to a lot of the competition, but Ross Lyon’s game plan has forever been dull, and in the fast-evolving game of AFL today, I don’t see them kicking enough winning scores to appear in September.
Grand final time slot: Twilight.