I can hear you already. "You've got to be kidding," and "what are you talking about, Connolly".
Sorry, folks, it's water off a duck's back these days. One, because I get that regularly from my own loved ones. Two, because I've done a lot of these things now. And three, because I defy a single person to attempt the exercise of putting together a predicted AFL ladder and not have a few miscalculations.
Particularly this year. I like to think I'm a pretty conservative tipster. In virtually every season I can recall, I've never felt there were more than three, or at tops, four sides legitimately capable of winning the premiership.
But in 2021, I have seven who I firmly believe all have realistic flag claims. That says enough about how tight this competition is now.
"Okay, smart guy. Who are they?" you snap, cynically.
Well thanks for asking. They are...
Anyone who expects the Tigers to have had their fill in 2021, after three premierships in four years, might be sorely disappointed. This is a club which has acquired a taste for winning after nearly 40 years in the wilderness, is still very much in the sweet spot in terms of age and experience demographics (only the fourth-oldest list and the fourth-most seasoned), and perhaps, most importantly, gets it done more on the basis of a very successful and as yet unsurpassed style of game rather than on simple individual talent. Not that there isn't a heap of that - some of which still isn't appreciated fully beyond names like Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin, Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch. Richmond's capacity to introduce lesser lights into the mix and have them comfortably fulfill their roles has been outstanding. And the likes of Sydney Stack, Jake Aarts, Mabior Chol and Jack Ross, still to get their premiership fill, should keep selection pressure on the incumbents high.
I've got the Dogs at least reaching the Grand Final this year, and who knows from there? It's hardly a big call, either, given they've been finalists the past two seasons, but now I think they clearly have the competition's best and deepest midfield group, a very underrated and creative defence, and a star in Adam Treloar. But that's not all. There's also important ruck back-up in Stefan Martin, another handy forward in Mitch Hannan and a hugely-rated key forward in Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, capable of offering immediate support to Aaron Naughton and Josh Bruce on the goalkicking front. Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Macrae, Treloar, Bailey Smith, Lachie Hunter, Tim Liberatore and Josh Dunkley represents some sort of on-ball division, and that's just the leads. In terms of pure talent, this is a markedly more complete lineup than the one which won the 2016 premiership.
The Cats just keep loading up on established talent in trying to nab that elusive flag, and in 2021, Jeremy Cameron, Shaun Higgins and Isaac Smith are as good a trio as any club has landed in one hit in the modern era. Will it make the difference? Every chance. Yes, Geelong will soon have a dozen players aged 30 or older, but that will comprise -- in Tom Hawkins, Mark Blicavs, Patrick Dangerfield, Mitch Duncan and Sam Menegola -- five of the top six in last year's best and fairest, so their veterans are hardly on the slide. This is a team which led last year's Grand Final by 22 points a tick before half time, was the highest-scoring team, the most efficient, and had the fourth-best defence. Perhaps pace is an issue, but Smith and a couple of the Cats' kids can help fix that easily enough. As always, they're a big chance.
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Some observers are a little concerned by the Eagles' age and durability. I'm not one of them. Both St Kilda and Geelong have older lists, for starters. As this season starts, West Coast will have only five players older than 30. One of them, Nic Naitanui, just won a best and fairest. Another, Josh Kennedy, won the club goalkicking for a seventh occasion. Another, Luke Shuey, is a Norm Smith medallist and probably West Coast's second-best player behind Nic Nat. Where does the improvement come? I like the addition of former Giant Zac Langdon to an already potent forward mix. Beyond that, it's as much about (fingers crossed) not having to endure hubs again, and avoiding the odd mental lapse which has seen the Eagles surrender a top four berth in both the past two years, which significantly dented their flag chances.
Power fans might rightfully look at this and ask: "Why do you have us slipping?" The answer is that while I might superficially, I won't be at all surprised if Port wins its second AFL title. So tight is this year's flag race it might well be a handful of points which spell the difference between a flag or Grand Final berth, and a finish in the bottom half of the eight. After all, the Power did spend an entire season on top of the AFL ladder and lost a preliminary final last year to the eventual premier by just six points. I like their additions, too. Aliir Aliir gives Port that extra big defensive body to help combat the key forward tandems of the likes of Richmond and West Coast. Orazio Fantasia, provided he can stay on the park, kicks goals and is all class. The only "if" I have is can veterans like Travis Boak, Charlie Dixon and Tom Rockliff deliver the same sorts of quality seasons they did in 2020?
This flag fancy might surprise a few. It certainly banks on a few "ifs" on the durability front, and it could be a bumpy start for the Saints given fitness concerns over Rowan Marshall, Dan Hannebery, James Frawley and Jarryn Geary, Max King's tangle with an errant golf ball, Ben Paton's loss for the year, with Paddy Ryder on leave. That said, this is a marathon, not a sprint. The success of last year's five senior imports indicated this is a group that has a buzz around it, and to that end, I think the latest inclusions in Brad Crouch and Jack Higgins could fit in similarly well. St Kilda took the game on admirably last year, and after 12 months now under Brett Ratten's tutelage, you'd expect game style to be down pat now. They also knocked over two top four teams in Richmond and Port Adelaide last season, and lost to another, in Brisbane, by just two points. Don't sell the Saints' chances short.
Yes, the Lions blew an opportunity to win a premiership in their own backyard last October. But they also became only the second team to beat Richmond in a final in a dozen attempts over the last four years, pretty emphatic evidence they can win when the heat is on. As Geelong has proved, you simply need to keep knocking on the door, and despite a couple of finals flops, the Lions have nonetheless won 30 of 39 regular season games in the past two years and have a coach in Chris Fagan the players clearly love. Sure, they've taken a calculated punt on injury-prone Joe Daniher, but the thought of him fit and firing alongside Eric Hipwood, with Charlie Cameron at both their feet, does make an already effective enough forward mix look even more potent. The Lions have done their apprenticeship. there's no reason they can't frank that graduation in 2021 with a flag.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST?
My other member of the top eight, I'll concede is a bolter: Sydney. I really liked the way the Swans finished off last season. I think they have a few kids in the shape of Dylan Stephens, Sam Wicks, Matthew Ling and especially Justin McInerney who can really catch opponents off guard in 2021, and I liked the look of draftees Logan McDonald and Braeden Campbell in pre-season. That's in addition to Nick Blakey, James Rowbottom, Ollie Florent and Will Hayward. And without even mentioning Lance Franklin.
Collingwood could embarrass me, but the Pies did finish the regular season eighth in 2020, so ninth would hardly be a stretch. Fremantle is coming, but I still think they may be relying a little too heavily on its very best players. And I'm worried about GWS. I can't see exactly where that bounce back for the Giants is going to come from.
Others? There's something amiss at Melbourne, and it's seemingly still good enough connection between the midfield and forward line. I like Carlton's attempt to get quicker via Adam Saad and Zac Williams, but the Blues' skills are still a little sub-par. And while Gold Coast seem to have a few tipping them for finals, I'm always conservative with very young lists, which the Suns still have.
No one else's predicted spot would be much of a surprise in this exercise. And of course, the most predictable part of it all is that at least a couple of teams are going to leave me with egg on my face.
But hey, I'm long used to that. Even if eggs were considerably cheaper when I started in this caper!
You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at footyology.com.au.