We know there’ll be a surprise. We just don’t know who from.
As we head towards actual AFL pre-season games, the footy world is entering ladder prediction season – and there are some key factors to consider.
For a start, everyone always plays it too safe. There are always at least two changes to the top eight, and on average it’s closer to three; which is what we got last year as Collingwood, Fremantle and Richmond replaced Port Adelaide, GWS and Essendon.
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But the other pattern, and one that’s almost impossible to predict, involves the yearly leaper.
On average since the AFL expanded from 16 teams, one club has made the jump from the bottom 10 all the way into the top four – from irrelevance to premiership contention.
Some, like Richmond in 2017 and Melbourne in 2021, went all the way from missing finals to a flag, while others like Collingwood in 2018 and West Coast in 2015 stormed into a grand final.
THE LADDER LEAPERS (Bottom 10 the year before to top four)
2022: Collingwood (17th to 4th)
2021: Melbourne (9th to 1st)
2020: Port Adelaide (10th to 1st)
2019: Brisbane (15th to 2nd)
2018: Collingwood (13th to 3rd) and Hawthorn (12th to 4th)
2017: Richmond (13th to 3rd)
2016: Geelong (10th to 2nd) and GWS (11th to 4th)
2015: West Coast (9th to 2nd)
2014: Nil (Best – North Melbourne 10th to 6th)
2013: Nil (Best – Richmond 12th to 5th)
2012: Adelaide (14th to 2nd)
2011: West Coast (16th to 4th)
Average since expansion to 17 teams = 1 leaper per season
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Last year it was Collingwood, equalling the biggest rise in ladder history by going from 17th to 4th, with their incredible run of close victories we’ve written so much about.
But even if the Magpies hadn’t beaten Carlton in that final-round thriller to make the top four, we would’ve had a different bottom 10 to top four bolter – Fremantle, who instead climbed from 11th to 5th, and then stormed back to win their elimination final.
Few would’ve tipped either team to contend for the top four in the pre-season, but that’s the point. There’s always one.
Sometimes it’s just the team that simply finished ninth the year before; sometimes it’s the out-of-nowhere side. But either way, if you’re picking a ladder that doesn’t have a top four bolter, you’re almost guaranteeing you’ll be wrong. (Plus, it’s more fun to pick a bolter, because then you can tell all your mates you tipped it.)
All of this tells us that the AFL has an impressive level of parity, with eight different teams making the Grand Final over the last five seasons (only Geelong and Richmond repeating). In the NRL that figure is six teams.
This upcoming AFL season is particularly intriguing because you can very easily make a case for any of the teams that finished between 9th and 12th last year – but those sides were quite a lot better than the bottom six.
Let’s run through the cases for the contenders to be 2023’s bolt from the blue – starting with the Blues themselves.
In 2022: 9th, 12-10, 108.3%
Notable Ins: Blake Acres (trade with Fremantle), Oliver Holland (first-round pick)
Notable Outs: Will Setterfield, Liam Stocker, Jack Newnes
Sitting seventh at 12-6 with a month left last season, the Blues were closer to the top four than they were ninth. Yet they coughed up their two-game advantage with a winless last month, concluding in the most dramatic of circumstances against Collingwood.
And so a year that came with finals-or-not-quite-bust expectations gives way to a year with legitimate finals-or-bust ones. With minimal changes in the off-season, the exception being the targeted addition of Blake Acres to fill their wingman void, it’s pretty clear the Blues feel their list is ready now after years of building.
Of course, the Sam Walsh injury doesn’t exactly help. Their young superstar, absent from that Round 23 loss to the Magpies with a back issue, is still recovering from that problem and will miss at least the opening month of the 2023 campaign – almost certainly more.
That hurts when the Blues’ first two games are against Richmond and the premiers Geelong, though with four 2022 bottom six sides plus St Kilda on the docket between Rounds 3 and 7, perhaps it’s a period they can afford to fight through without him.
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Many will have Carlton in their top four this year and it does feel like their time is finally arriving. Last year’s wins over Sydney, Fremantle and Richmond in particular showed reasons to believe, and while the Cats’ Cameron-Hawkins key forward duo is hard to beat, the Blues do have the last two Coleman medallists with Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay.
Just making September and winning a final for the first time in 10 years would please most Blues fans, but they’ve been building for long enough that we have to place legitimate expectations of contention on this club at some point – ideally before all of their young stars get too expensive to keep a strong side around them.
Plus, it’s hard to ignore the similarities between this group and the young, promising Melbourne side that came five years earlier.
Those Demons missed the 2017 finals on percentage after a final-round loss to Collingwood and made a prelim 12 months later. Doesn’t that sound like a reasonable pattern for the Blues?
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In 2022: 10th, 11-11, 99.3%
Notable Ins: Ross Lyon (coach), Zaine Cordy (Western Bulldogs, free agency), Mattaes Phillipou (first-round pick)
Notable Outs: Brett Ratten (coach), Ben Long (trade with Gold Coast), Paddy Ryder (retired), Jarryn Geary (retired), Dan Hannebery (retired)
A few years back, the Saints were a middling side, and made a decision – we will try our hardest to go up now, rather than going back down.
You would have to be generous to say it worked. After several big trades and free agent signings, Alan Richardson quit, Brett Ratten went from interim to full-time coach and led the Saints to the finals in the shortened 2020 season… and then they went back to being middling.
And so in comes Ross Lyon, with the hopes that he can be the hero that puts all of the pieces together and turns St Kilda into a flag contender for the first time since his last stint.
But it’s worth remembering when Lyon’s last stint began. Back in 2007, the Saints were enjoying the fruits of being terrible, with 2000-02 draftees like Nick Riewoldt, Nick Dal Santo, Leigh Montagna and Brendon Goddard all entering their prime together. They were the superstar core that were bolstered by enough talent, and strong coaching, which pushed the club ever-so-close to its second flag.
Things are much different for Lyon 2.0. The Saints haven’t spent the last six off-seasons adding top young talents through the draft – Max King excepted – they’ve instead spent them trying to be good now, not later.
Well, ‘now’ might be starting to run out. Paddy Ryder is gone and Dan Hannebery came and went with minimal impact; new superstars like the Jacks Steele and Sinclair, both born in 1995, are in their physical primes.
If you’re building around players like them, now should be the time to strike, but unless Lyon can find the proverbial change in the couch cushions, it doesn’t feel as if the Saints are suddenly going to emerge as a flag contender – and that’s what we’re talking about when we’re asking which teams can make the top four.
Can the Saints be good? Of course. But great?
They haven’t been bad since 2019, when they finished 14th – since then they’ve been 6th, 10th and 10th.
Doesn’t that sound like their right ladder range for 2023, as well? Good, but not great.
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In 2022: 11th, 10-12, 110.3%
Notable Ins: Jason Horne-Francis (trade with North Melbourne), Junior Rioli (trade with Wet Coast), Francis Evans (ex-Geelong, delisted free agent)
Notable Outs: Karl Amon (Hawthorn, free agency), Robbie Gray (retired), Steven Motlop (retired)
If you read this year’s Pythagorean wins article, you already have an idea of our expectations for the Power in 2023 – and Ken Hinkley appears to share them.
“We can be as good as anyone,” he told The Age this week. “What can we achieve? Who knows in a really tight, tough competition. You need a little bit of luck along the way.
“But I would imagine there’s 10 or 12 teams today, maybe more that really think they can push up high in the ladder. We’re one of those teams.” (Wow, Ken, we should get you to write this article next time.)
As Hinkley alludes to there, luck has played a reasonable role in Port Adelaide’s performances last two seasons – from their second-place finish in 2021, to missing the eight entirely last year.
They went 5-0 in close games in 2021, and 2-7 in close games last year; that five-win gap doesn’t totally explain their fall, and they were definitely a worse team in many respects, but not that much worse.
Robbie Gray is gone but the Power are hoping the continued elevation to superstardom of Connor Rozee and Zak Butters, plus the huge trade for 2021 No.1 pick Jason Horne-Francis, can help fix what ails them.
Up forward, a full season of Charlie Dixon (48 goals in 2021, 16 goals in 2022) wouldn’t go astray either, even if Todd Marshall lifted in his frequent absence (24 goals in 2021, 45 goals in 2022), and their other big move for Junior Rioli will help the Power on the scoreboard too.
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It’s not hard to imagine Port Adelaide surging into the top four because we just saw them host a preliminary final in 2020 and 2021. They have been that good with almost the exact same core of players, and the same coach, in very recent history.
They’re not exactly a sexy pick, because all most people remember is how they were smashed in the 2021 preliminary final against the Bulldogs and then last year’s disappointment – plus, the general view of Hinkley seems rather negative.
He has been a successful coach, with last year’s 11th his lowest finish – especially when you consider how the club was struggling when he signed on – but similarly to Chris Scott at Geelong before the 2022 flag it’s a case where being good but not great just ends up frustrating your fans even more.
Still it seems incredibly unlikely that the floor completely falls out from under this group, so they should at least contend for the top eight. From there, it’s not a huge jump to be back threatening the top four.
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In 2022: 12th, 10-12, 102.8%
Notable Ins: Ben Long (trade with St Kilda), Thomas Berry (trade with Brisbane), Bailey Humphrey (first-round pick), Jed Anderson (ex-North Melbourne, pre-season supplemental signing)
Notable Outs: Izak Rankine (trade with Adelaide), Jack Bowes (trade with Geelong), Josh Corbett (trade with Fremantle), Rory Thompson (retired)
This is the point of the Suns’ story we’ve reached once before. Going any further would be uncharted territory.
Back in 2014, they had slowly risen from the depths of expansion to a legitimate top-eight contender. With Brownlow medallist Gary Ablett Jr leading the way, they spent almost three months in the finals places.
But then came Round 16, and the Collingwood game, and that shoulder injury – and while they won by five points, their season spiralled down the drain with a late loss to Essendon realistically ending their year. The Suns finished 12th.
Last year, the Suns looked ready to complete their slow rise from the depths of needing more AFL handouts. With Brownlow contender Touk Miller leading the way, they couldn’t quite crack the top eight, but were right in the finals mix.
But then came Round 16, and the Collingwood game. Thankfully Miller stayed healthy, but this time they lost by five points, and their season spiralled down the drain with a late loss to Essendon realistically ending their year. The Suns finished 12th.
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Last time they fell back into bottom four purgatory but you’d like to think it won’t be the same for the freshly-resigned Stuart Dew. While Izak Rankine’s loss is incredibly untimely – he was just emerging as the X-factor player he’d been billed as since his draft year, and those types of players are hard to find – there is still a bunch of young talent on this list.
Gold Coast is always going to struggle to sign top-end free agents or get them to request trades north, so it’s all about the draft for them.
It certainly feels like they’ve done better in the last few years, with Matt Rowell, Noah Anderson, Jack Lukosius and Ben King all showing plenty of promise – and a healthy King will only bolster a forward line that worked shockingly well without him in 2022. The early signs are promising out of last year’s first-round pick Bailey Humphrey too.
There’s never going to be a time where you sit back and go “yep, Gold Coast is ready right now, I’m definitely going to put them in my top eight”. It’s always going to feel early, because they’ve simply never been there before. Whenever they make it, it will be a surprise.
So why not 2023? The Suns are very clearly getting better, going from a percentage of 76.8 in 2021 to 102.8 last year – the latter suggests they were a legitimately average club. And for them, average is an achievement.
That next step to being good or great is a tough one to make, but we see teams make the leap with a core of young talent all the time. The Suns are as legitimate a contender as any of this foursome.
OR, IF YOU’D LIKE TO BE BOLD…
Last year there was a reasonable gap between the bottom six and the rest of the competition.
While almost everyone from the Suns (12th) up had a percentage of 100 or better (other than the Saints who were two goals off), everyone from Hawthorn (13th) down had a percentage below 90.
The Hawks and Adelaide won eight games but appear to be going in different directions – the former really moving into their rebuild, the latter trying to finally climb out of theirs.
Essendon was a major disappointment and their coaching saga was an absolute mess, but will be hoping to climb back into the finals under Brad Scott, while yet another trade period exodus has GWS looking younger once again with new coach Adam Kingsley.
Of course the Bombers and Giants were still miles ahead of West Coast (who had the very fair excuse of Covid early, and injuries all year) and North Melbourne (who were just awful).
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Perhaps if you’re an optimist you could see the Crows finally breaking out under Matthew Nicks and making the eight. Maybe the Bombers can return to that middle-of-the-pack range they’ve inhabited in recent years – given they’ve made an elimination final in an on-off cycle since 2017. Heck, maybe the core of the Eagles has one last run in them, if healthy.
But any of these six teams making the top four seems absurd.
In the last decade only Collingwood (last year) and Brisbane (2019) have gone from the bottom four to the top four – perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s more common for teams who only just missed the finals to rise up the ladder.
But the Magpies still had a strong core, which had led them to three consecutive semi-final or better appearances before 2021’s collapse, while the Lions had a mass of talent and were clearly ready to break out.
So if your two archetypes are ‘Perennial Contender Who Collapsed’ and ‘Young Team Finally Gets Good All At Once’, do any of last year’s bottom six find a home? You could maybe put the Crows in the latter. Maybe.
But hey, in the words of Principal Skinner – kids, prove me wrong!
Story Credit: foxsports.com.au