Richmond would be close to the pick of the 18 clubs without Lynch ‘‘supporting’’ Jack Riewoldt in what should be the AFL’s most imposing front half. The Tigers have an exceptional defence and a midfield that, while lacking the depth of Collingwood, Adelaide and the Giants, boasts Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin.
West Coast heads the pack of challengers, if a defending premier can be called challengers. If the Eagles have not added to their squad in the manner of Richmond, Melbourne or Collingwood, they’ve got a handy treble who missed the finals last year: Andrew Gaff, Brad Sheppard and a fellow called Naitanui who can jump a bit. The Eagles are destined to be undersold by the Melbourne punditry. They were 13-0 last year when Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling played together, didn’t lose in Melbourne and won the flag without the aforementioned trio. By many measures, they were superior to the Tigers.
Still, the addition of Lynch and inherent difficulty of repeating premierships – particularly for a team that must travel vast distances – puts the yellow and blacks a centimetre ahead.
Adelaide, Collingwood, GWS and the heavily hyped Demons are the other clubs with major claims on the flag.
In their diabolical 2018 – marred by injuries to the Crouch boys and Rory Sloane and from player dissent that followed a cultish camp – the Crows still managed to win a dozen games. This year, they’ve been handed a generous fixture, have few injuries thus far, and will regain Brodie Smith. I believe they’re primed to make the top four.
Collingwood, conversely, has been lumbered with a nasty draw (the Pies play the top four of ‘18 twice) and, on that basis, will probably need to be two games better than Adelaide to win the same number.
That said, the Pies have perhaps the best depth in the competition and if Moore can stand upright in defence and their elite aren’t hurt, they’ll contend again.
I’ve placed GWS and Melbourne fifth and sixth respectively. GWS has the list to win it all, albeit they will need to avoid injury, since players ranked 25-30 aren’t as capable as other contenders. Many will have the Demons higher than sixth.
My reasoning is that young teams that make the great leap up the ladder often stagnate or even decline slightly the following season, though they eventually become juggernauts (see Geelong in 2005-6).
Melbourne, with the best ruckman in the game, an emerging champion in Clayton Oliver, plus Steven May in defence and Tom McDonald in attack, has most bases covered. But the experience gap remains.
Essendon and Geelong round out the eight.
The Dons have improved their midfield with Dylan Shiel’s arrival, which should offset what one hopes is a temporary absence of Joe Daniher. They are talented enough to play finals, assuming Daniher returns soonish.
The Cats are difficult to read. On occasion last year, they looked capable of the top four, yet were smashed by Melbourne in the finals. A team with Dangerfield, J.Selwood and Hawkins (and with Luke Dalhaus coming in cheaply) won’t fall far, if at all.
Hawthorn, North, Port and Sydney can all play finals, if all goes well. But none appears flag-capable.
The Hawks won’t be crippled by the absence of Tom Mitchell, as Jaeger O’Meara – a Brownlow chance if he’s fit – should fulfil his destiny. But they don’t have enough players.
North, too, will be close to the eight and can make it. Much will hinge on their new outside runners, particularly Jared Polec. Port has, as I’ve said, too much talent to be poor, but not enough to be really good. I think they miss the eight.
The Swans, meanwhile, are caught between generations – there’s an exceptional group of veterans (Franklin, Kennedy, McVeigh, Jack, Grundy, Smith) and a talented group of youngsters headed by the academy stars (Heeney, Mills, Blakey), but too little in the crucial middle 20s demographic.
The Doggies might surprise, as Tom Liberatore returns and Marcus Bontempelli reasserts his stature as a dominant midfielder/forward. They, however, will still be fielding awfully young teams, and I can’t see them making a massive vault upwards.
The rest won’t play finals. Fremantle aren’t skilled enough, despite the daring acquisitions of Jesse Hogan and Rory Lobb, and remain in semi-rebuild mode. The Lions, vastly improved, are too inexperienced, though they’re dangerous and will be enhanced by Lachie Neale.
Carlton, St Kilda and the Suns shape as the bottom three, with the AFL’s troubled 17th team short odds to finish 18th after losing their co-captains Lynch and May and starting a rebuild of a failed build.
The Blues and Saints must improve significantly – both were unacceptably poor in 2018 – if their coaches are to be retained.
St Kilda’s Alan Richardson, alas, has been beset with everything bar locust plagues in pre-season as first Jake Carlisle then Jack Steven, Dylan Roberton and the hapless Paddy McCartin have suffered setbacks of varying magnitude.
How they’ll finish in 2019
2. West Coast
10. North Melbourne
11. Port Adelaide
13. Western Bulldogs
17. St Kilda
18. Gold Coast
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age. He writes news, commentary and analysis on a variety of other sports.