This trend is likely to continue in 2006, with the super spine of St Kilda and the dream midfield of West Coast to be joined by a team of eternally potential-stars in Fremantle and the flashy brilliance of the young Bulldogs in adding some spice to the finals series.
After two grand finals without Victorian representation, the home of football is ready to bounce back by occupying five of the top seven positions. But the flag will not return to Victoria.
1. Adelaide – The 2005 minor premiers will put their finals experience to better use. A tough side, with a good spread of goalkickers, up-and-coming midfielders in Vince and Reilly, and the best defence in the AFL make them hard to beat.
2. St Kilda – The Saints have been promising big things, especially with Riewoldt, Ball, Dal Santo, Koschitzke, Hayes and Goddard ready to take the competition by storm. They were close last year and will go a step further in 2006.
3. Geelong – The preseason premiers have been thereabouts for a couple of years, gaining finals experience while topping up their list with the likes of Ottens. But can he play enough games to help Kingsley create a forward line capable of winning the biggest games?
4. West Coast – The stellar midfield almost won the Eagles a premiership last year. But they still lack something special up forward, with this especially so after Matera’s retirement. It is hard to see the improvement coming from their midfield, but it just might have to.
5. Kangaroos – As usual, the Kangaroos will surprise those who expect them to slide down the ladder. Laidley has been committed to developing the youngsters, and he should now reap the benefits as Harris, Wells and Hale spend more time in the middle. Topping up the side in key areas, such as fullback with ex-Hawk Hay will ensure more than the Shinboner spirit keeps the Kangas playing in September.
6. W. Bulldogs – Like the Saints, the Doggies are ready to cash in on years spent at the bottom. They showed glimpses of what could be with impressive wins in the second-half of last season, with a young, fast side running over teams. Expect a big, vote-catching year from Cooney.
7. Melbourne – The one-year-up, one-year-down curse has been broken. The Demons were flying until the last two months of the season, and while the speed of their descent is reason for concern they do have the basis for a top side. Unfortunately, that is a year or two away as Sylvia, Miller, Rivers and Davey must further develop.
8. Fremantle – Can this talented team finally show belief and heart in big games? History says they wont, but the Dockers weren’t too far off last year despite playing kids like Mundy. If Pavlich can have another awesome year and players like Headland and Polak can find consistency they could push the top-four.
9. Sydney – The most even side to win the flag in recent memory did so because of commitment, desire and playing as a ‘team’. But can the Swans rediscover that desire? The new rules aimed at speeding up the game will help teams around their defensive tactics, but a side with the likes of Goodes and O’Loughlin could surprise again.
10. Brisbane – The decline was inevitable, but the wilting under pressure was never expected. Admittedly this was due to battle scars on the toughest senior players like Scott and Voss, but the side has not got any younger. Brown will win games off his own boot, but not often enough.
11. Port Adelaide – Williams has admitted this is a development year, and while the likes of Tredrea, and the Cornes and Burgoyne brothers should ensure the Power are competitive, they will need to play alongside kids this year.
12. Essendon – Lloyd should step up in his first year as skipper, but a lack of quality tall defenders may see Lucas down back again, breaking up the imposing strike force. The Bombers have some exciting youngsters, but a workmanlike midfield will not improve the side enough.
13. Hawthorn – The Hawks have been looking to the future, with ten top 26 draft picks in the last two years. But their best players like Hodge, Mitchell and Williams will have to wait a couple of years before those youngsters help them up the ladder.
14. Richmond – The exciting thing for the Tigers is that their best players are very young — Deledio, Krakouer and Tuck. But they have lost their leader in Campbell and the spine is still filled by the likes of Gaspar, Richardson and Stafford.
15. Collingwood – What seemed the team of the future just a couple of years ago has been exposed for a lack of depth. Still reliant on the aging Buckley, the Pies need players like Fraser to get on the park if they are to be competitive.
16. Carlton – Despite languishing at or near the bottom for a few seasons now, the Blues are still suffering from the salary cap punishment of missed drafts. This will be rubbed in even more when they see 2005 No.1 draft pick Murphy walk straight into the side. The rebuilding starts now.
Round 1 (tips in bold) —
Thu: WCE v St K
Fri: W.Bull v Rich
Sat: Geel v Bris, Ess v Syd, Port Adel v Kangas
Sun: Haw v Frem, Melb v Carl
Mon: Coll v Adel