RON REED thinks it’s time for the premiership to be shared around once again, in keeping with recent history, with the hugely-talented Greater Western Sydney ready to improve on successive preliminary final defeats. He is also hoping for meaningful improvement in the old dark navy Blues:
- GEELONG: The Gazza factor can surely only improve a team that has finished top two for the past two years, with the premiership window still open. That said, other than Gary Ablett their recruiting doesn’t look to be anything flash and they have lost a couple of good ones in Andrew Mackie and Steven Motlop. So, they will need plenty, again, from the usual suspects, Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood, Mitch Duncan and Tom Hawkins.
- RICHMOND: The long-awaited premiership team remains intact, both in playing personnel and the coaching staff so there is no reason to suggest they will be anything but extremely hard to beat again. The most important question is whether the man who won everything, Dusty Martin, can be just as dominant again, especially in the under-sized forward line. If he has another big one, the Tigers are capable of going back to back.
- GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY: The Giants have been threatening to win their first premiership for two years now – preliminary finalists both times — and this is the year they need to take that final step to glory. There is no doubt they are equipped to do so, although the retirement of gun ruckman/enforcer Shane Mumford leaves a hole that will not be fully filled by the emerging Rory Lobb. They have genuine stars in every area of the ground, with young Josh Kelly a stand-out last season and the brilliant but problematic Toby Greene among the matchwinners.
- SYDNEY: The Swans have yet to miss the finals in coach John Longmire’s seven-year reign – even after losing their first six matches last year – and there is no reason to suspect that is about to change. They still have arguably the competition’s most reliable matchwinner in Buddy Franklin, who is reportedly keener than ever – although admittedly not getting any younger – and who will start favorite to top the league goalkicking for the fifth time. They have lost Kurt Tippett to retirement but have plenty of star power in all areas.
- MELBOURNE: Having missed the finals by the proverbial bee’s appendage last year, the Demons are the most obvious candidates to take a meaningful step forward – and many believe the flag is within reach now that a hugely talented list appears to have matured significantly. They boast a plethora of young stars such as Christian Petracca, Angus Brayshaw and Clayton Oliver coming into their prime, while the acquisition of Jake Lever from Adelaide should be important. Their best is good enough – if they can produce it with greater consistency.
- PORT ADELAIDE: Not sure if they’re contenders or pretenders, but this season might provide a better answer to that than last year did. They made the finals comfortably, finishing fifth, but were unconvincing and quickly eliminated. However, no club has had a busier recruiting drive – netting Tom Rockliff, Steven Motlop, Lindsay Thomas and Jack Watts – and that should make them significantly better.
- ADELAIDE: The beaten Grand Finalists – and beaten so comprehensively that fans are entitled to wonder whether they have the steel to contend again – have plenty to prove, but should be well in the mix again. They have lost a couple of good players in Jake Lever and Charlie Cameron but have picked up Carlton’s accomplished Bryce Gibbs, so the trading ledger is in slightly negative territory. The Crows will be looking for more leadership from their captain Tex Walker than they got in the Grannie – his input will be crucial.
- ESSENDON: The Bombers drew a line under their period of purgatory by making it back to the finals last year but were seen to be imposters at that level when they were thrashed by Sydney in the eliminator. But a busy off-season has landed some biggish fish in controversial Western Bulldogs premiership star Jake Stringer, GWS forward Devon Smith and Gold Coast defender Adam Saad, and have a lot of young talent still developing. They averaged 95 points a game last year, one of the best in the league, and have a potential Coleman medallist in the high-flying Joe Daniher, who kicked 65 goals.
- HAWTHORN: Under the constant re-invention of master coach Alistair Clarkson, the Hawks are always dangerous as they proved with a strong bounce-back from a horror start last year, plus a debilitating run of injuries. They have lost bulk experience and leadership with the departures of Luke Hodge and Josh Gibson and will rely on another huge performance from gun midfielder Tom Mitchell. Should finish no worse than mid-field.
- CARLTON: After two educational but not very successful seasons under coach Brendon Bolton, it’s time the Blues gave their long-suffering supporters – yep, that’s me – something a bit more meaningful. They look ready to step up to at least some extent. They will miss the injured All-Australian defender Sam Docherty and the departed Bryce Gibbs enormously, but will hopefully get full contributions from key mid-fielders Patrick Cripps and Ed Curnow, who missed a fair bit of footy with injuries. As always, kicking enough goals will be the problem Bolton has to solve.
- WESTERN BULLDOGS: The premiership hangover struck with a vengeance last year and the Bulldogs have a lot of ground to make up, having missed the finals. The talent to do so is still there, led by the exciting Brownlow medallist in waiting Marcus Bontempelli, but a few others, such as Tom Liberatore, Luke Dalhaus and Shane Briggs need to bounce back hard, while premiership star Tom Boyd is hopefully over form and mental health issues. Finals might be a bit of a stretch.
- WEST COAST: The Eagles are a popular pick to make way for someone else in the eight, having lost Brownlow medallists Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell, premiership player Sam Butler and ruckman/forward Drew Petrie, all to retirement. But the return of athletic ruckman Nick Natanui should be a bonus, while the consistency of gun goalkicker Josh Kennedy should ensure they continue to be more than competitive.
- ST KILDA: The retirements of Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna leave a serious hole in a list not over-populated with matchwinners, and lacking experience. They trod water last year, winning 11 and finishing 11th, the first time they have gone backwards (from 9th in 2016) in coach Alan Richardson’s four-year tenure. It’s hard to see them improving much on that unless they can find more reliable avenues to goal, which is a common deficiency is most middle-order sides.
- COLLINGWOOD: The not-so-mighty Magpies have been in free-fall for the entirety of coach Nathan Buckley’s six-year reign and there is no obvious reason to suggest that this is about to go into reverse. They have revamped the football department but not recruited any cattle of note, and will rely again on their prolific midfielders, captain Scott Pendlebury, club champion Steele Sidebottom, Adam Treloar and Taylor Adams, possibly with a fuller contribution from Daniel Wells. Buckley will be under enormous pressure – again. But at least he’s used to it now.
- BRISBANE LIONS: Despite “winning” the wooden spoon, the Queenslanders looked to be improving last year under new coach Chris Fagan – but they still have a big job ahead to make significant progress. They should benefit from the arrival of one of the competition’s best and most experienced and inspirational figures, former Hawk captain Luke Hodge. They also have acquired Adelaide forward Charlie Cameron and have high hopes for No 1 draft pick Cameron Rayner, so they already look stronger.
- FREMANTLE: The Dockers are a bit of a mystery team as coach Ross Lyon orchestrates a rebuild after two seasons spent marooned in the lower reaches of the ladder, 16th and 14th. Unless Lyon can unearth a goalkicker or two – recruit Cam McCarthy was their best with just 25 majors – they will struggle to get any higher. The return of star forward Michael Walters from a late-season knee injury will help. Brownlow medallist Nat Fyffe should start in better shape than he did last year – although he still starred – while dominant ruckman Aaron Sandilands needs better luck with injuries after hamstring problems ruined his 2017 campaign.
- NORTH MELBOURNE: The Kangaroos have been shedding experienced players for two years now and, in the middle of a complete rebuild, don’t appear to have the cattle to challenge for a finals spot – indeed, they might struggle to stay clear of the bottom four. It would help if one-time all-Australian ruckman Todd Goldstein can return to his best, and they will need big forward Ben Brown to continue his development as one of the genuine stars of the competition.
- GOLD COAST: The Suns endured a horror 2018, losing 10 of their last 11 games, sacking coach Rodney Eade and waving goodbye to their best player Gary Ablett. So, rookie coach Stuart Dew has a massive challenge ahead – made even trickier by having to play exclusively on the road while the Commonwealth Games are on — and will do well if he can even avoid the wooden spoon. Co-captain Tom Lynch will need to shrug off speculation about his impending free agency and provide the high-calibre presence in the forward line that wasn’t quite there for much of last year.
BROWNLOW MEDAL: Lance Franklin
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.