The belated AFL preview

I got a message from a reader the other day asking why I hadn’t done my usual preview of the AFL season. Well, I forgot, that’s why. I don’t know if it still counts as a preview one round in, but here it is now.

For a start, let me just say that last season was the most disappointing season I’ve ever watched. I’m not pointing any fingers because there were plenty and obvious reasons for that. Let’s face it, it was a shit year all round.

The disruption to the season caused by Covid did a lot of things. Obviously, it broke the season into two parts. It impacted players fitness, and consequently, on the football quality, and the shortened quarters made it feel a bit Micky Mouse to this hardened follower’s eyes. On top of all that, coaches’ ongoing defensive mechanisms made it a drab and low-scoring spectacle.

I’ve been watching footy for a while, and I reckon that footy has dropped off quite a bit. Everyone raves about Richmond, but I think they’re winning in an era where there’s not a lot of quality competition. The game itself is less interesting to watch – dourer, less skilled. For my money, there was no more entertaining decade of footy than the 1990s, but no greater quality than the first decade of this century (Essendon, Brisbane, and Geelong much superior to any team coming since).

So, I’ve had my grizzle and rant; now I’m about to say something more positive. I know we’re only one round in, but I reckon I saw a few games on the weekend better than anything I saw last year.

The games are now back to regular minutes, making a big difference, but the real change has come to some heavily criticised rule changes that I’m all-in with.

After many years of talking about it, the rules committee has finally dropped interchange rotations from a maximum of 90 to 75. It may not sound a lot, but it means that players fatigue sooner, that structures break down, and the game becomes more open.

The other rule change had everyone complaining in the pre-season. I held off on my criticism to see how it played out in the season proper when players have adjusted to it. Judging by round one, it’s a real winner.

The big change is that once a defensive player has settled on the mark, he can’t shift from the spot until the umpire calls play on. This gives the player much greater freedom to play on, take ground, and generally generate speed in the game. It’s a change that encourages teams to be more daring and expansive in their play. It worked a treat.

Like last year, Richmond and Carlton played off in the first game of the season. The score deviated just one point from last year – but the game was a completely different spectacle. Last year it was boring and unadventurous – this year, it was a racy game of give and take. There was still plenty of pressure, but it was more individual than structural, and it seemed to me that the skills were better in their absence.

Even my team managed to kick 8 goals in a quarter.

So, to the actual preview. I have no hard or fast opinions this year. I’m not sure if last season is a great guide for several reasons. But I have to go on something.

If I was to tip a premier now, I’d go Port Adelaide. They went close last year, and they’ve improved their side since. I suppose I should put Richmond up there, but I still think they can be found out. I reckon St Kilda will surprise a few teams and challenge at some point but aren’t ready for top honours yet. I wonder if Geelong fired their last shot last year. They’ve loaded up on quality veterans in the off-season, but I reckon they’re too old. West Coast – I can’t get a bead on them, though I’m sure they’ll look mighty good at some point. Very dangerous on paper.

Brisbane is a team that looked good last season, and many pundits are tipping them this year. I’m not so sure. Certainly, they’ve lost their status as preferred finals team since they acquired JD, who I now despise. I’m not sure they have consistent quality across the field, though they’re well-coached, and Joe is dangerous. The Bulldogs are my smoky. They’re a funny side. Very strong in the midfield, much weaker in defence, and with a so-so attack. They rely on slick ball movement and their midfield cutting opposition to pieces. Not sure if it’s a combo that can sustain finals success, but it could be fun to watch.

I think Collingwood will slide after a horrific off-season. They’ve lost some quality and seem incapable of kicking goals. Personally, I think they might do better with a less dour coach. Speaking of coaching, can’t see GWS being anything until they get rid of Leon Cameron. He’s driven a team of stars into the ground.

Of the rest, I don’t think there’ll be any great surprises. Swans have recruited very well and had one of the best coaches in the caper. Won’t make finals, but expect a solid year. Hawthorn – no; North Melbourne – definitely no; Adelaide – no, but with some promise. If Freo gets a fit side on the park, then they’ll have some good wins. Hard to know which way the Suns will go, but they’re improving.

As for my team – Essendon – I’m not as pessimistic as I’ve been in recent times. I think the coaching changes are positive, and we’ve recruited very well. We lost some top-line players over the off-season, but I think we’ve got some up-and-coming young players too. We’ll have some good wins this season but finish down the ladder. We’re building for a challenge in a couple of years, and with more development and more high draft picks, I’m optimistic for 2023.

That leaves Melbourne (I’m not commenting on Carlton). Never really know what to make of them – I think most of their supporters feel the same. I picked them to go close to winning it a couple of years ago, and they tumbled down the ladder. This year? I think they might make a charge in the back half of the year and possibly sneak into the eight. They’ve got some quality players, but they’ve struggled on the outside and up forward. Think Brown will be a good get when he’s fit, and the outside is better.

So, my tips:

Port Adelaide (premier)

WCE

Richmond

Bulldogs

St Kilda

Brisbane

Geelong

Melbourne

Carlton

Freo

GWS

Collingwood

Swans

Essendon

Suns

Hawthorn

Adelaide

North Melbourne

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