AFL Pre-NAB Cup Power Rankings

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A busy trade period resulted in the trafficking of various key players in the AFL, where clubs that believe they are situated within the ‘premiership window’ conversation sought to further strengthen their lists. With the league in such a competitive state, it is hard to effectively gauge team positions, particularly between positions 4-12. As it has been echoed throughout the media in 2012, I cannot recall a time where it has been more difficult to gain a finals berth in such an evenly balanced league. The continued development of the expansion clubs will further complicate this situation in later years, but as for now Gold Coast and GWS are the only ‘safe’ picks within these rankings as they are undoubtedly still a work in progress.

This is to be the first of many power rankings throughout the 2013 season, which will provide a brief analysis on the week-by-week performance of each club.

1. Hawthorn (2012:Runners-up)

The runners up appear to have strengthened their already deep squad by adding former All-Australian Brian Lake to their solid backline. Losing Clinton Young to Collingwood was a blow however this allows the likes of Sucking, Savage and Smith to step into a greater role and fill the void that Young left through his rebounds from the wing and backline. The squad is remarkably balanced, littered with All-Australians, including one of the most formidable forward lines seen in the modern era. Puopolo, Hale, Gunston and the ever consistent Breust complement the star trio of Franklin, Rioli and Roughead who are unbeatable when they are on song. The Hawks have plenty to prove following their grand final failure last year and you can be rest assured that players of the calibre of Mitchell, Franklin and Hodge will be hell-bent on lifting the cup in 2013.

2. West Coast (2012: 5TH)

Another strong performance resulting in a second consecutive top 4 placing has seen the Eagles establish themselves as the second premiership favourites amongst bookies in Australia. Remarkably they achieved this despite having a depleted forward line, missing key players Mark LeCras, Mark Nicoski and Josh Kennedy for long periods of the season. The young brigade of Selwood, Gaff and the ever impressive Jack Darling stepped up to fill this void, ensuring that West Coast is well-placed to challenge within the next few years. Sharrod Wellingham will provide further depth into an already talented midfield and high hopes are placed upon outside players Cale Morton and Jamie Cripps who were also picked up in the trade period. The main injury concern for John Worsfold’s team is the groin surgery for Nic Naitanui who is expected to miss the first two months of the season. Other than that, the Eagles finally possess a relatively injury-free list and are firmly placed to travel deep into September.

3. Sydney (2012: Premiers)

While last year’s triumph came as somewhat of a surprise, it is clear that Sydney have assembled their squad so that it will be able to contend for a long period of time. The next generation of Swans, including Hannebury, Kennedy, Jetta, Jack and Reid are ready to take over the mantle, as the veterans approach their final years. Sydney’s much lauded trade movement manoeuvrings again resulted in the addition of another established player to the squad, albeit in dramatic circumstances. Although Kurt Tippett cannot play until round 12, the Swans have landed themselves a key forward who at only 25, will partner with Sam Reid to form a two-headed attack that will help them both this year and into the future. The Swans have been built to contend and with their premiership window remaining wide open, expect them to again be firmly in the race for a top 4 position.

4. Collingwood (2012: 4TH)

Nathan Buckley’s first year in charge of player movement resulted in some key personnel changes, as Collingwood were arguably the most aggressive team in the trade period. Out went premiership players Wellingham and Dawes, replaced by established players Jordan Russell, Quinten Lynch and Clinton Young. Collingwood are well aware that they are firmly within their premiership window, boasting arguably the land’s best midfield including Pendlebury, Swan and Beams. Dayne Beams’ breakout year eased the load on his fellow teammates and now it becomes an opposition’s nightmare deciding whom to tag. Luke Ball’s return to the midfield will be significant, as his extracting ability and blue-collared approach in the centre square was sorely missed last year, particularly in the finals. Injury-wise, Collingwood are relatively healthy, barring Dale Thomas who enters the year under an injury cloud after wearing a moon-boot for much of the preseason.  Despite the improvement of other lists, it’s hard to overlook Collingwood and I expect them to be firmly entrenched within the eight, competing for another top 4 position.

5. Fremantle (2012: 6TH)

By stunning Geelong in last year’s elimination final, Fremantle established themselves as a force to be reckoned with and as another year approaches with Ross Lyon in charge they seem poised for a rise up the ladder. Anthony Morabito’s injury has put a sour note to the beginning of the year; however the addition of Danyle Pearce from the Power could turn out to be a bargain, as I fully expect him to flourish under Ross Lyon’s tutelage.  Fremantle’s list is certainly talented enough to make the top 4; however further improvement must be made, particularly by winning more games away from Subiaco.

6. Adelaide (2012: 3RD)

It wasn’t the best Summer in Crow town, as the Kurt Tippett saga unfortunately dampened an otherwise fairy-tale story of their resurgence in 2012 under Brenton Sanderson. Analysing the move, a big hole is obviously left in their attack and it will be interesting to see how Taylor Walker handles being the #1 focus for opposition key defenders. His confidence is unquestioned, highlighted by sticking with the outrageous thing he views as a ‘haircut’, however Walker’s performance this year will tell the football world whether Adelaide really are ready to contend and prove that last year was not just an anomaly. With players of the ilk of Scott Thompson, Patrick Dangerfield and the emerging Rory Sloane expect the Crows to cement a spot in the finals but I just don’t see them grabbing a top 4 spot again.

7. Essendon (2012: 11TH)

The addition of Brendon Goddard should provide immediate benefits for the Bombers, despite the fact that they likely paid too much for him. Michael Hurley appears poised for a breakout season and with Hird stating that young gun Dyson Heppell is lined up for more time in the midfield, the Bombers have two of the most talented young players in the land. A full season from David Zaharakis will further ease the load on Watson and Stanton in the midfield. The spotlight is firmly upon injury prone forward Scott Gumbleton to provide another marking target up front, and much of the Bomber’s fortunes will rest upon whether they are able to convert inside 50. We cannot expect a start to 2013 similar to that of last year, however surely they will have solved their soft-tissue injury dilemma in the offseason. This team at their best are within the top 8, however much of their fate in 2013 will rely upon whether they are able to put a healthy team on the field.

8. Geelong (2012: 7TH)

After being outplayed on their home soil in the elimination final to the Dockers, the cats finally showed signs of ageing to suggest that their great era of dominance is finally coming to an end. Chris Scott acted quickly in the trade period, bringing in Hamish McIntosh and Jared Rivers, as well as winning the fight for Josh Caddy which should help prevent the slide down the ladder. Tom Hawkins proved that his 2011 grand final performance was no joke, booting 62 goals last year as the focal point up forward. Adding Travis Varcoe who missed the entirety of last season will further aid a forward line that is beginning to lean on Hawkins. One interesting stat was that the Cats had the most debutants last year, blending in new talent to ensure that they avoid the free fall down the ladder that is inevitable to strong teams, a la the Bulldogs last year. On paper the Cats are still very strong, however a top 4 position appears to be out of reach and appear most likely to be fighting for one of the final positions in the eight.

9. Carlton (2012: 10TH)

Will the real Bryce Gibbs please stand up? Another year held together by the likes of Judd, Simpson, Scotland and Betts was not enough to gain a finals berth, as those three were part of a select few that enjoyed consistent seasons. The emergence of Marc Murphy into the elite batch of AFL midfielders was one positive in an otherwise forgetful year, highlighted by the sacking of Coach Brett Ratten. Players have teased at Carlton for too long, whether it’s the lack of impact from high draft picks (Kreuzer, Gibbs), the effect of constant injuries (Yarran, Jamison) or a mixture of both injuries and an ability to never learn from experiences at the tribunal (Waite). A tough team to gauge right now, it will be interesting to see the impact that Mick Malthouse has upon this group and whether he can reignite the fire within the vast array of underperforming players that are within this still talented list.

10. St. Kilda (2012: 9TH)

The saints haven’t really done anything wrong over the offseason; it’s just that their list appears to be on the decline with the likes of Riewoldt, Dal Santo and Hayes all approaching the twilight of their careers. While losing Goddard will certainly hurt in the short term, I believe they dodged a huge logjam in their future salary cap by avoiding overpaying for him. The sacking of Jason Gram will also hurt significantly in the short-term, as now they sorely lack rebounding defenders especially with Jamie Cripps defecting to the Eagles. Recruiting Tom Hickey to support McEvoy is a massive boost with the Saints now possessing a solid young ruck tandem for the coming years. The number one priority in the offseason (void of a key backman) was not filled, despite their efforts to recruit Mitch Brown. This will force the likes of Gwilt and Simpkin to handle the key forwards, whilst also compromising key playmaker Sam Fisher’s role from the half back line. If the next generation of Saints including Steven, Armitage, Ledger and Ross are able to ease the load on the veterans, the Saints could surprise many. Expect another competitive season and for them to be one of the teams challenging for the final spots in the 8.

11. Richmond (2012: 12TH)

Is this the year the Tigers finally crack the 8? After knocking on the door for the last few years but faltering at crucial times of the season, the Tigers list is well-placed to make their first finals appearance since 2001(!). New captain Trent Cotchin will lead a team that is capable of beating anyone at their best, evident by their big win over Hawthorn last year. Dustin Martin will look to rebound after a poor 2012 with many touting 2013 to be his ‘breakout year’ – a speculation that is hard to discount based on his talent. Surrounding Riewoldt with other options in the forward is always vital, as too often Richmond is reliant upon him kicking bags of goals to remain in games. Hardwick’s men are poised for another top 8 challenge; however they appear to be in no better shape than the rest of the teams in the middle-tabled logjam.

12. Kangaroos (2012: 8TH)

The achievement of a finals placing was wiped out by being completely embarrassed by West Coast in the first elimination final and sent packing. 2012 was a hugely positive year otherwise, with significant improvement coming from their middle-aged players such as Ziebell, Wright, Bastinac and Harper. Some big wins over quality opposition confirmed North Melbourne’s resurgence, however consistency remained an issue as the season progressed, as the Roos were often unable to play at the same level during those big wins. With the likes of Harvey, Firrito and Petrie near the end of their careers, the younger brigade at the Roos need to take responsibility and ensure that they do not fall again towards the low teen mark in the eight. The biggest concern with the Roos list is that they do not seem to possess bona-fide star talent, capable of winning games off their own boot. While the likes of Wells, Swallow and Petrie have occasionally provided this brilliance, the Kangaroos lack certain star power that many of their counterparts fighting for a spot in the eight possess.

13. Brisbane (2012: 13TH)

2013 is a massive year for the Lions as they need to establish whether they can challenge for the eight or remain in their ‘best of the rest’ status, towards the end of the ladder. The Lions possess a promising midfield with the perfect balance of speed and toughness where the likes of Rockliff, Redden and Zorko will ensure that they remain competitive in that area of the ground. The key issue for the Lions is that they are in dire need of key forwards to take the massive burden off Jonathon Brown which he has shouldered ever since the retirement of Daniel Bradshaw. 2012 saw the Gabba return to being a stadium where no opponents enjoyed easy wins and the Lions need to capitalise on establishing home-ground dominance there in the same way that is employed by the likes of the Eagles, Swans, Crows and Dockers at their home grounds.

14. Melbourne (2012: 16TH)

Melbourne were busy in the trade period bringing in premiership players Chris Dawes and Shannon Byrnes, who both should slot straight into their best 22. Father-son recruit Jack Viney enters the season heaped with the pressure of a fanbase craving a talented youngster to pin their hopes on, which has been stewing ever since the Scully saga. He should add further depth to a fairly weak midfield, which often is the area of Melbourne’s undoing in recent seasons due to their lack of leg speed around the ground. The key player for the Demons is Mitch Clark, as whether he can stay injury free will go a long way towards determining Melbourne’s fortunes in 2013. If Dawes and Clark can gather some form then the Demons will boast an impressive forward duo that will stretch even the deepest of defences. I expect a few more wins from the Demons; however they are still clearly not in contention for a position in September.

15. Port Adelaide (2012: 14TH)

Port Adelaide’s offseason turned out to be quite successful, mainly due to Travis Boak’s unexpected resigning for two years by rejecting an offer from the powerhouse at Geelong. New president Kochie is faced with an uphill battle to re-energise a dying franchise and supporter base; however things are as positive at Port Adelaide as they have been in years. The instalment of Ken Hinkley should provide immediate dividends for a club in dire need of a cultural shake-up, as he enters the coaching frame with big wraps on his previous efforts, particularly at the Gold Coast. Fingers are crossed that Hamish Hartlett can complete his first full year in the AFL, as paired with the likes of Boak, Ebert and Trengove, the Power have a solid core of young stars to build around. The addition of Angus Monfries should aid a developing forward line, where high hopes remain on the development of key forward John Butcher. I expect the power to improve significantly in 2013 and don’t be surprised if they trouble some of the big teams, especially at AAMI stadium.

16. Bulldogs (2012: 15TH)

The Bulldogs are firmly in re-building mode and have been the club most clearly affected by the lack of youngsters being blooded during their dominant years of 2006-9. Losing Brian Lake to Hawthorn is not a major concern as this further opens up another spot on their list, which showed some bright young talent during an otherwise forgettable 2012 season. Mitch Wallis enjoyed a stellar season while Dalhaus, Liberatore and Smith showed signs that the future is in good-hands provided continued development. Expect the dogs to again lean heavily on the solid core of veterans that remain, especially on the likes of Boyd, Cross and Griffen, who continue to remain part one of the most consistent trio of midfields in the league. Robert Murphy is expected to spend more time up forward this season which is exciting for fans, as he has often been deployed in the backline in a precautionary role; such is his importance to the club. He will be one player to watch this season as he still possesses the ability to turn games around single-handedly, something the Bulldogs will sorely need if they are to remain competitive against stronger opposition.

17. Gold Coast (2012: 17TH)

After a disappointing campaign in 2012, the Suns are faced by the possibility of being overtaken by the Giants on the ladder, due to the slower than expected development of their young players. Highly touted young stars including the likes of Swallow, Smith, Dixon and Prestia failed to ease the load off workhorse Gary Ablett, with their development seemingly faltering throughout a long and arduous season. The Suns young players need to return the faith that Guy McKenna has shown in them by taking that next step in what is often touted as the ‘breakout year’ for many players in their third year in the AFL system. The biggest improvement came from former number two draft pick Harley Bennell, as he was able to not only a provide goal-scoring touch but also displayed a strong ability in congestion and in his tackling, an area which he struggled mightily during his rookie season. Suns players need to take note of his performance and can no longer rely on the brilliance of their captain to keep them competitive in matches, otherwise they face the dreaded prospect of being overtaken by the pressing Giants.

18. GWS (2012: 18TH)

2013 will simply be viewed as another opportunity to get more games and experience into the supremely talented young list that the Giants have assembled. Announced as Kevin Sheedy’s final year in charge, expect a similar effort from the Giants from last year, as their youngsters took the AFL world by storm displaying an unexpected toughness and hardness around the ball. Despite their efforts they will continue to remain percentage boosters for teams within and around the eight, as they still cannot simply match the bigger bodies of opposition clubs. Boom-recruit Jaegar O’Meara is finally eligible and is the hot favourite for the rising star, while big Jon Patton should continue to develop up forward, barring further injury setbacks. Losing key veterans Brogan and Power will hurt in the short-term, but expect Sheedy to blood new youngsters to fill their void. The Giants are well-poised for a period of success but that still appears to be some 3-4 years away, so expectations are to be kept low.

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