Once again a new season brings with it a ‘glass-half-full’ approach for each AFL club, with all of them owning some sense of belief in their ability to hoist the cup this September. Realistically we know there are only a handful of teams that will genuinely contend for this year’s premiership, but that doesn’t mean the upcoming campaign is a lost cause for the 17 teams that fall short. Whether it be rising up the ladder, tightening the screws defensively or re-igniting an underperformer, here’s how your club can still emerge from 2021 as a winner.
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In 2021 Adelaide needs to: Keep Rory Laird in the midfield
Over the past few seasons, Rory Laird has split his time between the midfield and the backline for Adelaide, making two All-Aus teams as a member of the back-6. However, with Brad Crouch departing for St Kilda, there is a gaping hole in the Crows engine room that Laird can adequately fill. In the back half of the 2020 season, Laird was deployed closer to the pill and responded by averaging 27 touches and five clearances in Adelaide’s last seven contests. The club will want to give greater opportunities to the likes of Jackson Hately and Harry Schoenberg, but that doesn’t mean Laird can’t shine alongside them.
In 2021 Brisbane needs to: Solve their accuracy woes in front of goal
Brisbane have been one of the best scoring teams over the past two seasons, with lethal threats Charlie Cameron and Eric Hipwood doing the heavy lifting while being ably supported by their versatile midfielders. For all their offensive dominance Brisbane failed to convert accurately in front of the sticks last season, leading the league for shots on goal, but registering the 2nd worst accuracy in the AFL. Recruiting Joe Daniher gives the Lions another dangerous target in attack, but he’s also been plagued with inconsistency, kicking 18.20 in his past three seasons. Brisbane has a squad capable of challenging for the flag, but if they can’t increase their goal kicking efficiency they seem destined to fall short once again.
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In 2021 Carlton needs to: Crack the top-8
Jarrad Waite, Chris Judd and Jeff Garlett were the driving force behind Carlton’s last finals appearance back in 2013 and there is a roadmap to success that could see the Blues break their postseason drought this year. They improved five places on the ladder last season, but an 11th placed finish won’t be acceptable for a Carlton team that now boasts depth across the board. I have concerns over their ability to kick a winning score, but the additions of Zac Williams and Adam Saad to a core that boasts Patrick Cripps, Marc Murphy, Sam Docherty, Jack Martin and Sam Walsh should be enough to drive the Blues further up the ladder and into the finals.
In 2021 Collingwood needs to: Reignite Jordan De Goey
While a lot will be made about how Collingwood approaches the 2021 offseason, their on-field accomplishments this year is what I’m focusing on. Youngsters will be called upon to cover the losses of Adam Treloar, Jaidyn Stephenson and Tom Phillips, but there is still plenty of class in this Magpies team to help them contend. One key contributor who had his colours lowered last season was Jordan De Goey, with the dynamic match-winner averaging a career-low 13.5 touches and kicking just 14 goals from 10 games. The Pies may look to deploy De Goey further up the ground to compensate for their midfield loses, however, for Collingwood to succeed this season, they’ll need him firing on all cylinders in front of goal.
In 2021 Essendon needs to: Improve defensively
Last season didn’t go the way Bombers fans would’ve liked, with the Dons winning just six games as their defence struggled to slow down opponents. Only three AFL teams gave up more points than Essendon in 2020, but what may be more alarming is they also ranked in the bottom handful for opponent disposals and marks. If they allow their foes to play free-flowing footy again this season, then it’s hard to envision a surge up the ladder from the Bombers – a team that also allowed their opponents to record the second-fewest clangers on a per-game basis. Having not won a final since 2004, Essendon has got to tighten the screws if they want to snap their streak.
— Days Since Essendon Have Won A Final (@FinalsEssendon) February 2, 2021
In 2021 Fremantle needs to: Kick more goals
This one is simple. It’s no accident that Fremantle’s finals drought has coincided with a lack of firepower, with the Dockers struggling to kick a winning score for years now. Since 2016, Freo have finished in the bottom three for scoring every season, including last year when Matt Taberner took a step forward in his development to finish 5th in the Coleman Medal. This preseason, there has been plenty of buzz around Nat Fyfe and Michael Walters spending more time in the forward line to improve their potency up front, but they still lack a true spearhead inside-50. Maybe they can get by without such a player, but either way, the Dockers need to put more points on the board if they’re serious about taking the next step.
In 2021 Geelong needs to: Once again, flag or bust
Gary Ablett missed out on the perfect swansong last season and with aging veterans littered throughout their list, Geelong is running out of time. Following their dynasty that featured three premierships between 2007-2011, the Cats have failed to win another flag with 2020 marking the only other occasion they made the Grand Final. Qualifying for the big dance is a hard enough task within itself, let alone going one step further, but Geelong is once again primed for a tilt at a premiership. With lauded recruits, Isaac Smith, Jeremy Cameron and Shaun Higgins joining the cause via free agency, the time to capitalise on their premiership window is now.
Gold Coast Suns
In 2021 Gold Coast needs to: Finish 11th or higher
The Suns were one of the feel-good stories last season with a bunch of their up-and-coming talents announcing themselves to the competition and generating a lot of positive buzz for the club. Those positive vibes translated to a much more competitive Gold Coast outfit, one that went on to post their highest percentage since 2014 – the season that the Suns had their best finish on the premiership table clocking in at 12th. This season, with another summer of work into the legs of their exciting, youthful core, the Suns MUST maintain their upwards trajectory. Climbing three rungs up the ladder might not sound like a lot, but their highest finish in a home and away season will only continue to motivate the league’s perennial cellar-dwellers.
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Greater Western Sydney Giants
In 2021 GWS needs to: Throw their support behind Stephen Coniglio
Last year was one to forget for Greater Western Sydney, free-falling from Grand Final participants to a team with a losing record. While a lot of fingers were pointed at multiple culprits, Stephen Coniglio coped more than his fair share of flak for the Giants’ shortcomings. Cogs signed a mammoth seven-year extension in the 2019 offseason, but his first year as skipper will be remembered for him being sensationally omitted from GWS’ side following an embarrassing loss to the then 1-13 Adelaide Crows. I have faith that Coniglio can refind his mojo, but the Giants will need to have his back if he’s going to achieve his full potential as captain – on and off the field.
In 2021 Hawthorn needs to: Reverse the clearance trend
It won’t shock you to learn that during Hawthorn’s three-peat during 2013-15, the Hawks were a juggernaut in the middle of the ground. In those three premiership seasons, Hawthorn finished 6th, 1st and 5th for total clearances, fuelled by champion midfielders Jordan Lewis, Sam Mitchell and Brad Sewell. Fast forward half a decade and the Hawks are coming off a season where they ranked dead last in total clearances. With Tom Mitchell on ice in 2019, Hawthorn once again struggled to win the ball out of the middle, finishing 17th in the league for clearances. Multiple factors need to swing Hawthorn’s way if they are to ascend up the ladder, but it starts with winning the ball from stoppages.
In 2021 Melbourne needs to: Find the right role for Angus Brayshaw
What a difference two years can make. At this point of the calendar in 2019, Angus Brayshaw was coming off a breakout campaign for the Demons that saw him average a career-best 26.1 disposals and help Melbourne storm into a preliminary final. Regression has reared it’s ugly since then with Brayshaw not just dipping in production, but now looking like a shell of the player who polled 21 votes in the 2019 Brownlow count. Whatever the Dees did in 2019 clearly worked and whether Brayshaw is better suited to playing as an inside mid, out on a wing, as a half-forward or in a variety of roles, Melbourne needs to put the talented Demon in a position to succeed or he could ask for a change of scenery this summer.
North Melbourne Kangaroos
In 2021 North needs to: Get 15-20 games into Will Phillips & Tom Powell
For North Melbourne, 2021 is all about building the foundation for future success at the club. There’s a chance they can capture lightning in a bottle and storm up the ladder, but it’s hard to picture that given the talent the Roos have to work with. That’s why it makes sense for North to turn the keys of their midfield over to their recent draftees; Will Phillips and Tom Powell. The 3rd and 13th picks from last years draft were both dominant ball-winners at junior level and while throwing them to the fire may be viewed as dicey, getting 15-20 AFL matches under their belt will only help fast forward the Roos’ rebuild.
Port Adelaide Power
In 2021 Port needs to: Maintain their residence as a top-4 side
A COVID-impacted season didn’t suit every AFL team, but Port Adelaide certainly seized the opportunity chaos created. Rising from 10th to minor premiers in the space of 12 months, the Power were one kick away from competing in the Grand Final and there are no indications they’ll slow down in the upcoming campaign. Boosted by the acquisition of Aliir Aliir and Orazio Fantasia, Port now possesses one of the deepest lists in the league, setting them up well for another top-4 finish in 2021. Given their depth across the board, I can’t see the Power falling out of the finals equation, but securing a double-chance is a target the club should have their sights set on.
In 2021 Richmond needs to: Complete the three-peat
Richmond have already cemented themselves as a dynastic outfit over the last four seasons, with a Mason Cox cameo the only thing halting the Tigers from a potential four-peat. Having avenged that preliminary final loss with two straight flags, Richmond is now on the verge of a rare premiership treble – a feat that only Hawthorn (2013-15) and Brisbane (2001-03) has accomplished in the last 60 years. The Tigers have earned the right to be considered the annual favourites until they stumble, so anything less than the title of 2021 premiers would be considered falling short.
St Kilda Saints
In 2021 St Kilda needs to: Prove last year was no fluke
Dan Butler, Dougal Howard, Paddy Ryder, Bradley Hill and Zak Jones all arrived at St Kilda in 2020 with heavy expectations, poised to help the club turn their misfortunes around. Jumping eight spots on the ladder and winning an elimination final against the Bulldogs means the Saints earned a massive tick for their accomplishments last season, but now they have to back it up. The last time the Saints strung consecutive finals appearances together they were still contending for flags in the early 10’s and with Brad Crouch, James Frawley and Jack Higgins now joining the cause, there’s no excuse for them to fall out of the top-8.
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In 2021 Sydney needs to: Get Lance Franklin’s body right
No offence Sydney fans, but I don’t expect a dramatic rise in production this year with plenty of holes still across your roster. So despite the recent reports of a calf ailment season 2021 is all about Lance ‘Buddy’ Franklin. The champion forward has managed just one match in the last 18 months and with 300 appearances under his belt, the 34-year old will undoubtedly be close to pulling the pin on his AFL career. Calf problem aside, Franklin appeared to be travelling well this pre-season, so if I’m running the Swans, I’m getting as many bums on SCG seats by unleashing a healthy Buddy (even if it is only for say the final six weeks of action) in what could be his final pro season.
West Coast Eagles
In 2021 West Coast needs to: Find the ‘Robin’ for Nic Nat/Batman
Deploying Nic Naitanui in bursts is a recipe the West Coast Eagles used to great success last year, with Nic Nat arguably the biggest X-factor in the entire AFL. The West Australian icon has had his career marred by knee issues which means durability isn’t his forte, however, that doesn’t mean the Eagles need to panic just yet. Tom Hickey was shipped off to the Swans in the trade period, leaving Nathan Vardy and Bailey Williams as the only other recognised ruckman on West Coast’s list while Oscar Allen helped shoulder some of the ruck burden last season. If one of that trio can step up and emerge as the Eagles No. 2 hitout specialist, they could form a potent one-two partnership with Nic Nat to aid West Coast’s quest for their 5th flag.
In 2021 the Western Bulldogs need to: Cement themselves as the No. 1 scoring side
They’ve got the targets inside-50 and they DEFINITELY have the class in the midfield to spoon-feed their forwards – now it’s time for the Bulldogs to pounce. The addition of Adam Treloar and No. 1 overall pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan has Footscray fans salivating at the potential point totals they can amass, with no side producing more shots on goal than the Bulldogs in 2019. That rank slipped slightly last year, but the Dogs still finished 4th in scoring shots, a ranking I only expect to trend upwards in the coming season. Mitch Wallis showed that he can be a viable small forward last season and Aaron Naughton now has support in attack in Josh Bruce and Ugle-Hagan. If their midfield is as good as advertised I expect them to consistently hit the scoreboard too – making it hard to foresee a version of the Bulldogs that doesn’t dominate offensively.
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