We run the rule over the field ahead of opening bounce.
Gaps will close. Teams crowding the mid-rungs will challenge hard. Teams at the bottom have suffered as a result of the booty given to expansion clubs. They'll stay thereabouts. The eight is harder to predict this season, but here goes Inside Sport's stab at predicting the finishing order of this year's AFL premiership race ...
HAWTHORN – 1st
Three in a row, the deepest list going around, a coach at the peak of his game, a boundless band of bounding men who kick goals, a powerful, dynamic midfield and, these days, a snappily rebounding backline. They’ve held the office of champion so long now, they’re capable of turning games with efficient, nuanced exertions other teams can only aspire to. They’re dangerous, with a knockout punch. It will take a mighty contender to upset them. They might concede a few – after all, they’re a little older – but they have nous and personnel. Last season the spread of goal-kickers was astonishing: Gunston, Breust and Roughead all topped 50, Rioli bagged 42. Hodge and Mitchell still appear to have at least two seasons left as game changers, and men like Rioli and most of the above-mentioned are still whippersnappers. Players knocking at the door to senior selection like Will Langford have already tasted title success. The retirements of Lake and Hale open spots for fringe players. It gives them the opportunity for just enough renewal. Apart from the 2015 qualifying final, there were no cracks, and no one to create any. The only unpredictable is sudden ageing. They have recruited sensibly. If they finish top four it’s hard to see anyone beating them.
WEST COAST EAGLES – 2nd
What impressed last season was not the fact they made the grand final, or toppled the Hawks in that qualifying final, but that they did it all after losing key defenders before the season began. They had a new coach, and no one expected them to vault straight to the top. This season, Naitanui will be that little bit better. We know of his athleticism, his leap, his skills around the ground, but as a tap ruckman he’s proving a very quick learner. Last season Priddis, Shuey and Marston were the beneficiaries. Josh Kennedy again looms as a Coleman Medal favourite, and they have those defenders returning. Kennedy is surrounded by sharpshooters such as le Cras, Cripps, Hill, Shuey and Darling. Added to all that is the line-breaking pace of Lewis Jetta now, too. The Eagles have an abundance of talent, and, a bit like Hawthorn, a high number of high performers sharing the burden. Last season, Best and Fairest winner Andrew Gaff got a cosmic 738 touches, but Priddis wasn’t far behind with 711. The fact they were handed a lesson in the grand final is no shame. Lesson learned. Hawthorn will be hard to knock off, and many say the Eagles’ 2015 form was a one-off. But Adam Simpson seems too smart to allow them to slip now he knows he has the personnel to challenge.
FREMANTLE – 3rd
Many feel they threw away the best opportunity they’ll ever have when they lost at home to Hawthorn in the preliminary final, after the Hawks had been “exposed” by the Eagles. The Dockers have had a horrendous run of injuries to key personnel, and good players like Ballantyne and Walters missed a lot of game time, but under Lyon’s strict, defence-oriented system, they keep performing. It is difficult, though, to ignore a tendency to miss shots at vital moments. Lachie Neale will continue his golden vein of form, and Fyfe, injury permitting, will prove he deserves his accolades since last year’s Brownlow. Pavlich is keen to prove he has another season or two of productive football – or better – left. Aaron Sandilands will continue to be a massive influence. Harley Bennell from Gold Coast Suns will add grunt as a midfielder/forward, and he’ll flourish under the Lyon method. Bennell’s presence might also provide another bonus: it affords Fyfe the ability to play up front. This, in turn, will offer Pavlich much-needed support. The Dockers’ overall defensive pressure is the best around, their one-to-one defenders peerless, and their rebounding a true example of the way it should be done. They should win more games than anyone, again, in the regular season. What they do after that is hard to predict. Their dour but efficacious style was once considered “typical” finals football. Teams like Hawthorn, Collingwood 2010 and the recent Geelong teams showed that it takes a little more. The only question is whether Lyon’s true talent is producing bridesmaids.
RICHMOND – 4th
If ever a team looked ripe to step into a higher state of being, it’s the Tigers. The momentum they gained as last season progressed was formidable. They beat the Hawks on the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Their loss to North in the elimination final was a bitter disappointment. Sadly, the 2016 campaign began badly, with Dustin Martin investigated and fined for an incident in a Chapel Street takeaway. Martin had a magnificent 2015. He can shred a team. They need him. Trent Cotchin also had a very good season, and Brett Deledio proved that, when on the paddock, he’s a class act. They need two-time Coleman medallist Jack Riewoldt firing up front, but their dangerous, if sometimes erratic, midfield needs to deliver. Chris Yarran adds elastic to their defence, alongside Bachar Houli and Alex Rance. The Tigers could suddenly emerge as a frighteningly good outfit. We should actually be rating them higher. However, as is often the case with them, the problems that impact on their football might be non-football related.
PORT ADELAIDE – 5th
Port’s attacking style was deciphered after a good 2014, in which they just missed a spot in the grand final. But Travis Boak, Hamish Hartlett, Brad Ebert and Robbie Gray all played very well in 2015 against the odds. They had a good spread of goals and showed in patches that they were dangerous if their artillery was pointed in the same direction. Angus Monfries, Jay Schultz, Justin Westhoff and Gray were all big contributors to the goal tally. Charlie Dixon from Gold Coast changes the dynamic. The big, bearded tall will add much-needed forward versatility and presence. Ruckman Paddy Ryder failed to gain momentum in 2015 but with Dixon as a target he might be able to concentrate on what he does best. The Power has a very good list and an adaptable coach in Ken Hinkley who had a long off-season to tinker with their out-and-out attacking style. They have a dangerous small forward in Chad Wingard and a vigorous midfield. They might be ready for an assault.
GREATER WESTERN SYDNEY – 6th
They trailed off last season after threatening to be the first expansion side to play finals. Their fade was due mainly to injury. They’ve lost Adam Treloar, who had an exceptional 2015, to Collingwood, but they’ve gained Stevie Johnson. If he’s as rejuvenated as we think he might be, Johnson will give GWS some valuable X-factor. He has a couple of seasons left, he’s a freak when on song, and the Giants are the perfect fit as they prepare their finals launch. Heath Shaw still offers dash up back, and Callan Ward is a tough ball-getter. They’ve solved their ruck problem with the resurgence of Shane Mumford, who will be ably assisted by Patton. They have a good blend of young talent and experience, ferocity and finesse, and have caused enough upsets – witness their wins over Hawthorn and Adelaide last season – for those sorts of victories to be expected. The Giants have used recruiting opportunities intelligently, and continue to curve upwards. They’ll play finals footy.
COLLINGWOOD – 7th
They have an amazing midfield and have made judicious acquisitions. The ’Pies need to overcome a problem that’s almost assuming the status of a trademark: they start extremely well, then fade. With another season under their belt, and an excellent fitness coach, they should step up a notch. They have a lot of youngsters like Jordan De Goey who seem capable of accelerated development. Recruits such as Taylor Adams and Jack Crisp showed enough promise. Varcoe had a good season. Pendlebury and Swan are still greedy ball-getters capable of damage, but the ’Pies have been let down again by forwards who seem unable to goal. Jamie Elliott was their leading goal-kicker in 2015 with 35. However, with this in mind, they’ve included Jeremy Howe of Melbourne and Adam Treloar of the Giants. Darcy Moore, son of the great Peter, exploded onto the scene late in the season, giving fans something else to salivate about. They love a good historical connection. Last season they were 8-3 for the second season in a row before falling away. The difference in 2015 was close losses to top sides. Ultimately, the only arbiter is the scoreboard, and they need to convert if they’re going to exhaust themselves getting it up there. Their defence is coalescing, Frost operating at an extremely high efficiency level. But as long as the colossi at both ends, like Cloke, Brown and Reid, fail to perform, or fall to injury, the small forwards and midfield must take on strenuous workloads.
GEELONG – 8th
We persist with them for good reason. They still have the nucleus, and many have the lingering taste of premiership success. Tom Hawkins might have a big year with the midfield he now has feeding him a glut of ball, as will Mitch Duncan. The union of the remaining Selwood brothers should be a bonus. If Daniel Menzel’s fortified knees hold up he’ll live up to his immense promise. And let’s not forget the recruiting elephant in room 2015: Patrick Dangerfield. Joel Selwood’s ball-getting effectiveness will increase noticeably with a man of his calibre around. Add Lachie Henderson, who should flourish surrounded by champions. They have a slight deficit in defence, but Henderson, a strong swingman, will be a boon alongside Harry Taylor and Tom Lonergan, and he’s determined to prove himself after the Blues’ all-round wretched year. Steven Motlop is another wise acquisition, as is Zac Smith. Mitch Clark, previously doubtful, has been preparing well. Their best side looks good. If anything, their depth might be tested with key injuries and they’re still susceptible to the ball turning over as they maintain their relentless forward momentum, but they’re ready to be contenders again.
SYDNEY – 9th
Not done yet. They had a good year, finishing fourth, and season 2015 suffered the terminal blows of the Goodes saga and the loss of Lance Franklin at a critical moment. Like Geelong, they haven’t allowed themselves to slide far before regaining traction. Hannebery and Kennedy had extremely good seasons, and Tom Mitchell emerged as a voracious possession-getter. Parker, McVeigh and Jack all played near their best and show signs they’ll be there again. Two young prospects, Heeney and Mills, might start in the first 22. Mills is a hard-bodied footballer at 18, determined and prolific. The Sydney defence has been hit hard by retirements and defections the past few seasons, but the addition of Michael Talia from Western Bulldogs should fortify the back-end. Last season their forward line was reliant on Franklin, Tippett and Goodes. Goodes has left, but it’s believed Franklin will emerge better after his self-imposed rehabilitation. He and Tippett are yet to work out a way to be mutually complementary. If they do, and their midfield does what it should, it could be an interesting year.
ADELAIDE CROWS – 10th
We cannot but admire the way they rallied after the death of coach Phil Walsh last year. Walsh had built a solid platform and once they regained their composure they squeaked into the eight and won a tough, blow-for-blow elimination final against the Bulldogs. They’ve been plundered at the trade table in recent years but still have plenty of excellent performers. The Crows’ front half is redoubtable, with forwards like Tex Walker and Jenkins striding around and dangerous smalls like the ever-alert Cameron and the irrepressible Eddie Betts on patrol. Betts’ 63 majors in 2015 showed what damage a talented small forward can do if mobilised properly. The lack of Dangerfield might mean a loss of ability to win contested ball, which will expose their back-end deficiencies, and that’s the main reason we have them out of the eight.
WESTERN BULLDOGS – 11th
It’s hard to say whether the Bulldogs are cherry-ripe or still have a year or so of development. Coach Beveridge has them ticking along nicely. They’re entertaining and can score via strikers like Crameri, Dickson and Stringer, who bagged 56 last season. Their team is full of dynamic and ambitious youngsters. However, oldsters like Liam Picken, Matt Boyd and of course Bob Murphy were their most consistent performers last season. Murphy’s leadership goes well beyond his playing. Bontempelli is a midfield champion, and possible immortal. Easton Wood, who won their B&F, was a revelation. Matt Suckling from Hawthorn is just the sort they need. They’re coming along, but that doesn’t mean they’ll play finals in 2016.
NORTH MELBOURNE – 12th
This might be their last year of defiance. But who can complain about age when Brent Harvey plays the way he does at 37? Harvey now needs 18 to stand alone as AFL football’s record-holder for most games. Petrie and Waite are going on 33, but playing their best football – yet they need consistency. Dal Santo is still a big influence and in Goldstein they have an imposing ruck. They have some of the best mano a mano defenders around in Thompson, Firrito and Adams. The ’Roos are everyone’s other second-favourite side (alongside Western Bulldogs) and their ability to keep from slipping down the ladder, even during their gloomiest years, has been admirable, as has been their ability to pull off the odd upset kayo. They have to start winning every game they should win, which means dropping that inexplicable tendency to coast/panic/miscalculate against sides they should easily defeat.
GOLD COAST – 13th
Ablett’s return means everything. Can he regain his intimidating momentum? After poor performances on and off the field in 2015, they need him as a linkman, healer, leader and driver. With this crucial piece falling into place, their best youngsters, like Jaeger O’Meara, will blossom. Kade “the unpronounceable” Kolodjashnij proved a consistent ball-winner, as did veteran Michael Rischitelli. The losses of Bennell and Dixon are huge. The Coast has to start winning the winnable games and, simply, kick more goals. There was an enormous gap in 2015 between their best goal-kickers – Thomas Lynch and the now-departed Dixon, who both collected over 40 – and the rest; the next was Matera with 18. They seem to have further to go than they did when Eade took over as coach – though it’s probably too early to blame Rocket just yet.
MELBOURNE – 14th
They’re young, and recent fiery baptisms might prove advantageous. Jesse Hogan proved he wasn’t mere pinchbeck (the Dees have had their share), kicking 44 goals in his debut season. Strong in contests and accurate, he’s capable of many more. Jeff Garlett proved what a smart, acute small forward can achieve even in a lowly side, with 40 goals. Coach Roos knows what he’s doing, and his patience with such an inexperienced and, at times, incompetent side has been seen, wrongly, as weakness. The Demons are now breathtakingly quick on transitions and defend stoutly. Roos has pieced together a promising side for Simon Goodwin, who assumes control in 2017. Their trustworthy captain Nathan Jones had a very good 2015, as leader and player, and Viney and McDonald both had breakout seasons. Melksham, Bugg and Kennedy are excellent additions. Their young bodies can only improve.
ST KILDA – 15th
Saints played error-ridden football in 2015 and need to improve on their passage to goal, and through it, if they are to rise. They engaged in exciting shootouts even when losing. A mere six wins was to be expected. Some wins were notable, their losses noble. Certain players surprised. The commanding Josh Bruce led the goal-kicking with a hefty 50. Jack Steven, who was prolific, bagged their B&F award. David Armitage proved a ball-magnet. Many young players provide a margin for improvement, such as Minchington, Hugh Goddard, Jake Billings and Paddy McCartin. Watch for the latter two, in particular. Jake Carlisle and Nathan Freeman are good gets. Saints are refurbishing with judicious recruiting to go with good coaching from Alan Richardson. Nick Riewoldt captains for the 11th year, in what is possibly his final season. Let’s hope he leaves them on the upturn.
BRISBANE – 16th
The best thing to be said about the Lions is that they have a courageous captain who leads by example, and a nice contingent of smaller players like Rich, Taylor and Zorko. Dayne Beams remains one of the best mids around, and Pearce Hanley, if uninjured, runs rampant. Beams and Mitch Robinson turned out to be face-saving additions to a club which struggled in almost every department last season. Players like Christensen, Martin and Paperone stepped up valiantly but there’s no getting around it: 2015 was dismal. Of their new recruits, Ryan Bastinac, from the Kangaroos, looks the most promising in this set-up. Their leading goal-kicker Josh Green collected a meagre 25 last season. They have a long way to go before they begin an ascent.
CARLTON – 17th
It’s difficult to see the Blues going anywhere. Good players have left because they saw no future with the personnel around them, and they have a core of mediocrity. The way to goal seems no clearer. They have the depth of a car park puddle. Hopefully they’ll stick with Brendon Bolton. They’ve brought in 15 new players, some of whom will be thrown into seniors. There are small pinpricks of light: Patrick Cripps is an exciting prospect. Marc Murphy, despite the opprobrium he draws even from his own fans, is a good leader and has returned to something resembling his best. The Blues sought key position players in the draft, and one of them, Jacob Weitering, is able to walk straight into the senior side. Others, like Son Of SOS, Jack Silvagni, Curnow and McKay, need a little maturing but are good prospects. The big question is whether Carlton can drop the “zero tolerance for failure” attitude that has led to so much ... failure, and endure the seasons ahead with intelligence and forbearance.
ESSENDON – 18th
New coach or no, there seems no good reason for them to climb out of the basement. We hope we’re wrong ...