I DON'T KNOW how many years in a row now I've begun an AFL season with some sort of grand proclamation about predicting the ladder being harder than ever before. Could be nudging a couple of decades. But this particular bit of hyperbole really is true.
Consider the evidence. In just the last half-dozen seasons, we've had two teams (Richmond in 2017 and Melbourne last year) come from outside the previous year's top eight to win a premiership. Prior to the Tigers' effort, that had happened just once in two decades. Over the past five seasons, there's been, on average, three changes to the top eight from the prvious year.
Last year a cluster of half-a-dozen teams around the fringes of the eight all finished within two games of each other. Two of them, who both ended up missing finals action, had shared the previous four premierships.
That said, last year I went out on a limb and declared as many as seven teams who had realistic premiership aspirations (and no, I didn't have Melbourne among them). I'm not sure it's quite as open a field in 2022, but I do think any one of half-a-dozen candidates could be mounting the winners' dais on Grand Final day. Which ones, you ask?
I've been a little taken aback more people aren't tipping the Dogs to win the 2022 flag, given this is a team good enough to have led a Grand Final by 19 points relatively late in the third quarter and that, mind you, after a late-season travel schedule as gruelling as any we've seen. Yes, Melbourne won the battle of the midfields when it mattered, but the Dogs still bat incredibly deep in that department. They're none too shabby elsewhere, either, with the second-ranked attack and fourth-ranked defence of 2021. The latter can only be improved with the addition of former Hawk Tim O'Brien, to help counter the big key forwards, and up the other end, there's the still-untapped potential of Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, plus a genuine potential wildcard in the late-season return of leading goalkicker Josh Bruce. Bulldogs are a big chance.
The Demons wouldn't be the first "surprise" premier to quickly fall from the perch after getting a little too satisfied with themselves (see Bulldogs in 2016), but you do also think this is a team which is very aware of its potential to dominate for several years, particularly given its relative youth (Melbourne is ranked only eighth for age in 2022 despite ranking sixth for games experience). They have the game's best midfield (no names required) and defence (the Steven May-Jake Lever tandem just a start), and their attack is a lot more potent now than it was even early last season. And one thing perhaps a little lost in the romance of Melbourne's flag win was just how dominant it was, the Demons winning their three finals by an average margin of a whopping 63 points. They'll take some catching.
It's tempting to look at the Lions' 1-5 finals record over the last three years and concoct a narrative in which they are just narrowly but still fatally short of the premiership mark. There's certainly a world of difference between a 74% strike rate in the home and away season and a measly 17% in finals. But consider also that three of those five finals defeats have been by 15 points or fewer, and two of the other three to eventual premiers, and it's not the car crash the raw numbers might suggest. Brisbane's midfield continues to get deeper and more experienced, and its attack is statistically the best in the competition, with a huge potential plus in a mid-season return by knee victim Eric Hipwood. Finals experience clearly isn't a factor now after three straight top-four finishes. Maybe this really is as much about a stroke of luck, and that the Lions' is about to turn.
Whether 2021 was the beginning of the end for one of the modern game's greatest eras or just a temporary blip is one of this season's most fascinating questions. And after sticking with the Tigers a lot longer than many others last year, it won't surprise I think they're again a definite flag chance. In doing so, I'm putting much stock in the frankly ridiculous injury catalogue from last year which saw up to 10 key players miss an average of 10 games each, and choosing to largely ignore just two wins in the last 10 games, when the Tigers basically worked out the gig was up (for that season at least). With the third-oldest list in 2022, Richmond will need much better treatment at the hands of the injury gods, but you've only got to scan a list of names still including the likes of Dustin Martin, Jack Riewoldt, Tom Lynch, Trent Cotchin, Kane Lambert, Dion Prestia, Dylan Grimes, Shai Bolton, Shane Edwards and Jaidyn Short to know these guys are still more than capable.
The disastrous nature of the Power's defeat in last year's preliminary final against the Western Bulldogs provides a handy rationale for jumping off Ken Hinkley's team in 2022, but like fellow contemporary finalist Brisbane, it's not necessarily that simple. Yes, Port chose the worst possible occasion to produce a "Barry Crocker," but they've also taken the direct route to the last two preliminaries, losing the other by just a kick. Two "ifs" are crucial in 2022, however; a midfield with plenty of cream on top in Brownlow medallist Ollie Wines, Travis Boak etc. finding more consistent support from names like Zak Butters, Zavier Duursma and Connor Rozee, and still more goalkicking support for Charlie Dixon, from whom a big finals performance shouldn't have to be non-negotiable. Many will be tempted to think the Power has already blown its flag chance, but they said that about Port in the lead-up to their 2004 triumph, too.
In years to come, people may look at a finish of seventh for the Swans last year and wonder what all the fuss was about. But boy, was it a fine line. A final term 2.7 and one-point elimination final loss to GWS was a massive self-inflicted wound, and while, yes, I championed Sydney much of last year, tipping them to make the eight, I still think it could have been considerably more. I really like the balance of the Swans' list -- particularly those precocious kids like Errol Gulden, Justin McInerney, James Rowbottom, Sam Wicks, Chad Warner, Hayden McLean and Logan McDonald. They're a great foil for the next tier of Will Hayward, Oliver Florent and Callum Mills, and the star class of Tom Papley, Isaac Heeney, Josh Kennedy, Lance Franklin, Dane Rampe, Jake Lloyd, Luke Parker etc. is considerable. The Swans also play an intoxicating, quick brand, which hits the scoreboard hard and ranked third for points scored in 2021. I think they are a serious flag chance this year.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST?
The other two finalists in 2022 are anyone's guess, though Essendon perhaps deserves favouritism to get there, despite a markedly tougher draw than last year. Carlton's resurgence seems to have more "teeth" to it now, also, and I do think one potential bolter could actually be Hawthorn under new coach Sam Mitchell.
The Hawks still have some very handy top end talent, they'll get back a couple of crucial parts of the equation in James Sicily and Jack Gunston, and I liked the way they finished off last year with five wins and two draws in the last 11 games, including wins over finalists in Sydney, GWS, Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs.
Sliders? Well, I've stuck with Geelong a long time now, but the emphatic nature of their two finals defeats last season worried me, as does their continued senior citizen status, with no fewer than a dozen players aged 30 or older before the new season even starts. Geelong has now gone in win-loss terms 2-4, 3-3, 2-3, 2-3 at the end of the past four seasons. It's not a good sign.
And West Coast has surely had the pre-season from hell, coming after their fortunes already appeared to be on the decline. It would be a major surprise were the Eagles to even hold their ground this season, particularly when it appears so many of their rivals are headed in the opposite direction.
Who knows? Perhaps nominating even a good half-dozen genuine AFL premiership chances in 2022 is being too conservative. And that, surely, for the competition, is a good thing.
You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.com.au