AFL 2023: Predictions, problems, can Cats improve?

    Our AFL crew came together to gaze into the future, coming up with a forecast for all manner of issues while contemplating the swings, shocks, ups and downs that await in 2023.1) Will Geelong be better in 2023?DANIEL CHERNY: They have already broken all the rules of AFL ageing, and at some point it will catch up with them, so I can’t imagine they will be. That’s not to say the Cats won’t still be very good, but when so many of your players are over 30 it’s hard to foresee much significant improvement from within, even given the additions of Ollie Henry and Jack Bowes, who I expect to be more fringe players than stars in 2023. Tom Hawkins has already undergone foot surgery which could delay the start of his season. And the Cats, traditionally slow-starters in recent years anyway, have had a shorter pre-season because of their premiership run. That all points to them being very hard to beat next year, but not quite the dominant force of late September 2022.SHANNON GILL: Most premiers of modern times appear as if they’ll be better in the aftermath, Geelong gaming the system at the trade table adds weight to that. But is it possible for a team of this age to get better? An off-season for opposition to work out how the Stanley-Blicavs tandem switch turned ruck weakness into strength, and the inevitability of injury (see Hawkins’ delayed pre-season) doesn’t mean Geelong won’t win it again, but it’s improbable that they will be better.ROB FORSAITH: Yes, it’s entirely possible they can improve. Sam De Koning’s rise after the retirement of Lachie Henderson is a prime example of how a player in Geelong’s system can develop remarkably rapidly, but also Chris Scott’s capacity to seamlessly replace best-22 players. Joel Selwood’s leadership void is significant, but the club’s trade-period bonanza has boosted its depth. The retention of Esava Ratugolea attracted little noise, but may well prove vital as the Cats chase back-to-back premierships.2) Who are their biggest competitors for the flag?DC: I still think it’s Melbourne. I liken the Dees of 2022 to Richmond in 2018, an outstanding side that didn’t react quickly enough to the cracks emerging. But the Demons’ talent is still exceptional, particularly in the midfield. The addition of Brodie Grundy doesn’t appear on paper to fix Melbourne’s biggest deficiency – namely an inability to convert territorial and contested ball-dominance into goals – but there is enough quality across the lines to suggest that the Dees will again be thereabouts. From there I think it opens up considerably. Brisbane has no more excuses after its recruiting spree, while Sydney should in theory only get better given its outstanding youth.SG: Brisbane’s off-season recruiting has them as well placed as anyone, they’re seasoned in finals and unless you’re Geelong you only get so many swings at the top four. 2023 has to be their year to reach a grand final. A fit and influential Dustin Martin can lift Richmond back into that bracket, while a refreshed Melbourne should also be back in contention. The hiding Sydney took in the grand final sniffs off a team that arrived too early, so perhaps it won’t be the Swans in 2023.RF: Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Richmond are all sensible suggestions for the reasons outlined by my learned colleagues. I’ll nominate Fremantle as a left-field contender. Dual Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe managed just seven games this year, and the Dockers knocked over Geelong in Geelong. They did lose some important players in the trade period, but weren’t alone in that regard. And Luke Jackson and Jaeger O‘Meara are very handy recruits. If Freo can make Optus Stadium a fortress then a top-four finish should be in the offing. A home prelim final would be a huge effort, but if they get there … look out.3) Which trade will have the biggest impact?DC: Given how many big-name players moved clubs in October this is not an easy question to answer. But in the long-run I’d suggest it will be Jason Horne-Francis to Port Adelaide. This is a player who only 12 months ago was being spoken of as a potentially generational talent. Very little went right in his season at North Melbourne, but bringing him into a side that already has Connor Rozee and Zak Butters creates a dynamic midfield-forward core that could take the competition by storm over the next decade. And the Kangaroos managed to make something of the mess by gaining West Coast’s pick two in the Horne-Francis megatrade. It might be the most closely-scrutinised deal in AFL history.SG: The player himself may not have the biggest individual impact in 2023, but the Luke Jackson trade will create the biggest domino effect across the league. Jackson‘s a generational talent, but in the short-term it creates questions on how the rising Dockers will use him in tandem with Sean Darcy.On the other side of the country it has lobbed Rory in the Bulldogs’ forward line, which with its surplus of tall forwards could result in something unstoppable, or unworkable. A similar question mark hangs over the Grundy-Gawn combination created by Jackson’s departure.RF: The Izak Rankine deal. If there is to be an Adelaide resurgence in coming years, this man will likely play a major role. Rankine is someone already capable of matchwinning performances, he would be rated more highly around the league if some of those highlights came in prime time. He could have a huge impact at the Crows. Either way, fans will be watching closely. And for Gold Coast, this is an undeniable blow they must weather. The salary dump sucks, but losing a rising star of Rankine’s calibre really hurts. Especially given he was seemingly leaning toward staying then walked away.4) Which player will have a breakout season?DC: His brother Ollie was drafted to Carlton, but I think it’s Gold Coast’s Elijah Hollands who should get everyone excited. He’s powerful, skilful and can play as a midfielder, on the wing or as a forward. An early draft pick a couple of years ago, it took him almost two years to make his debut coming off an ACL tear but he looked up to the level immediately and I can see him making a big impression early on next year, especially following Rankine’s departure.SG: Tom Green probably had a sneaky breakout season in 2022, upping his disposals per game from 20 to 24 disposals a game in a GWS side that stumbled. With Jacob Hopper and Tim Taranto gone, expect Green to share top-billing with Josh Kelly and further build his reputation. Green only polled four Brownlow votes in 2022, if he stays healthy he’s a 10-plus votes a year player from here.RF: Dylan Stephens. Everyone knows it is really hard to crack Sydney’s side, John Longmire doesn’t gift games. Stephens has had to toil for every AFL game he has played since being selected with pick No.5 in the 2019 draft.But he was part of the Swans’ best side throughout the business end of the 2022 season, playing an unheralded role in an impressive run. The in-demand South Australian could easily have headed home or to Victoria for more money, but re-signed.Jordan Dawson had a breakout season in 2021. Chad Warner had a breakout season in 2022. Stephens could easily be next.5) Which new coach has inherited the best job?DC: If we can leave the off-field stuff to one side, I think it’s Alastair Clarkson at North Melbourne. They have been abject but there is a lot of good young talent coming through. Draftees Harry Sheezel and George Wardlaw complement a group already including Luke Davies-Uniacke, Jy Simpkin and the as yet untapped ability of Will Phillips. Tarryn Thomas has shown in glimpses that he is special, while Ben McKay, Tristan Xerri, Nick Larkey and Cameron Zurhaar are all quality and Jaidyn Stephenson is still young enough to turn it around.SG: On pure playing talent Brad Scott at Essendon has the most enticing job. He has a couple of midfield stars in their prime (Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish) a big forward coming off a best and fairest (Peter Wright) and two different, but now quality, defenders in Jordan Ridley and Mason Redman. There‘s also a slew of draft talent from the last few years primed to improve. It should be a great job if the outside noise from coterie groups and Hird-romantics stop. Don’t count on it though.RF: Adam Kingsley. He gets to live outside the footy bubble, and call Sydney home! My serious answer is Clarko. Basically for the reasons that Dan spelled out. I also think he will have a longer runway for success. That is not to suggest North will be happy to embrace mediocrity, more that they might view this as a long-term project. Brad Scott and Ross Lyon won’t have that luxury.6) Which coach is under the most pressure?DC: Ken Hinkley is the obvious one, not for the first time going into a season knowing it is finals or bust, especially after a decade at the helm of Port Adelaide and having recruited aggressively in the trade period. But Chris Fagan might be just as under the pump. The pressure valve was eased with a couple of finals wins but Fagan, leaving his off-field issues to one side, can’t keep falling short in September without the question being seriously asked about whether he is the best man for the job. It’s also a huge year for Michael Voss at Carlton and Matthew Nicks at Adelaide.SG: Ken Hinkley and Adam Simpson will need early wins and are the most obvious examples, but the outlook for Matthew Nicks at Adelaide appears clear too. Going into his fourth season wins have trended up marginally, but if they regress in 2023 heat will come quickly. Aside from the upset win that shattered Carlton‘s season, Adelaide only beat lowly North Melbourne and West Coast after April.RF: Brad Scott. Not through any fault of his own. But the past few months at Essendon have been nothing short of shambolic. Kevin Sheedy’s cards are on the table, he wanted James Hird to return as coach. There is certain to be lots of noise, politicking and frustration if things don’t start seamlessly for Scott. Brad should be afforded time to find his feet, I just worry that he may not be.7) What is a left-field prediction that could come true?DC: Richmond could miss the finals. Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper are both very tidy acquisitions, but I’m not convinced the Tigers won’t fall off the perch next year. Consider the top 10 from their best and fairest this year featured Tom Lynch, Dion Prestia, Trent Cotchin, Nathan Broad and Marlion Pickett, all of whom will be 30 or older by mid-April. There are no guarantees that Dustin Martin will return to anything like his best either. The Tigers have rolled the dice on having another big crack at the flag but it is a gamble.RF: Gold Coast get their first taste of finals, losing to Brisbane in front of a sold-out crowd at the Gabba. Will Ashcroft wins the Marcus Ashcroft medal. Yes, there’s an awful lot to unpack there. But the Suns only finished two wins outside the top eight. A lot of improvement – coupled with an underwhelming campaign from the Lions – and it could be the QClash the AFL has been dreaming of since splashing the cash to make Karmichael Hunt a Sun. My left-field prediction that won’t happen – but would be great for many reasons – is Toby Greene winning the Brownlow Medal.SG: If that happens Rob, I can see Gold Coast’s Ben King returning from a knee injury and graduating into the upper echelon of the league. So much so, I’m tipping an All-Australian blazer. He kicked 47 goals often as a lone hand in 2021 in a team that finished 16th and looked to have stagnated after encouraging signs in 2020. He comes back to a team that is challenging for finals and has two big and capable forwards alongside him in Mabior Chol and Levi Casboult that will provide significant match-up issues for opposition defence. His trajectory is on target for stardom, so if he’s confident in his body he’ll become that in 2023. If not for the shoulder issue his brother Max could be part of this All-Australian prediction too. 8) Who will succeed Gillon McLachlan and what is their biggest challenge?DC: At this stage, your guess is as good as mine. My feeling is that if either of the prime internal candidates Andrew Dillon and Travis Auld were going to get the job, they would have it by now. I mean what else does the AFL Commission need to know about these guys? My gut feel at this stage is it could be a real outsider. Brendon Gale appears to have cooled, while it looks one cycle too soon for Tom Harley. In terms of challenges, there are no shortage, but I still think the biggest is dealing with the ongoing concussion issue and the threat of legal action to come.SG: Internally at AFL House Andrew Dillon appears to be the favoured successor but that he‘s not been appointed yet is surely a worrying sign. For whoever is picked perhaps their biggest challenge will be legitimacy in the face of this inertia, alongside the more serious issue of Indigenous relations which has effectively kept McLachlan around longer.To anyone outside of the AFL Commission and its administration, Richmond CEO Brendon Gale has to be the logical successor, why he’s not appears to be an industry whisper that’s somehow become lore.Playing credibility, players association experience and an outrageously successful rebuild of Richmond on-field, commercially and culturally would win respect from supporters of all stripes.Don’t forget Richmond is also now the AFL’s leader in Indigenous relations through a strategy of listening, a wise path to take whatever the outcome of the Hawthorn investigation.RF: Remember when Josh Frydenberg was somehow allegedly in the mix? This search has gone on for a very, very long time. It should have been resolved a long time ago. The fact it isn’t is … interesting. It also makes me even less confident about making a prediction. Harley would be a bold call, but I’d love to see it happen. He’d do a fine job.Racism, concussion and gambling are their most serious and important issues to tackle. Tasmanian expansion, keeping a watchful eye on southeast Queensland and western Sydney, and developing AFLW should also be on the list of priorities. Go for growth!9) What will AFLW look like in five years?DC: Almost the hardest question to answer. But I suspect by 2027 we will have a full 17-round season and close enough to full-time professionalism for all players. The game will be faster and more skilful as the talent pool broadens, but I am not convinced crowds or television ratings will be dramatically better. And that is where the AFL will be tested in terms of how much to keep pumping into a product not delivering on conventional revenue measures.SG: On field, the sheer growth in the participation pool and the relatively new continuity in quality coaching from Auskick through to draft age will see it become more skilful and more athletic. The ball will move more quickly from end-to end with scores increasing.Off-field controversies around venues, facilities and scheduling in the new season dates will need to be rectified with a level of compromise that placates the rusted-on but also engages AFLM fans with an open mind. An ongoing saga and last-minute decision on where finals will be played, like we saw in November, won’t please either of those groups.RF: That’s entirely up to the AFL. How much time, thought, effort and money do they want to invest? Cricket Australia’s approach to the women’s game shows what can happen if you start to get serious. It’s no shock that standards improve when something becomes a full-time endeavour.I also appreciate it is nowhere as easy as flicking a switch. One of the more interesting parts of Shannon’s end-of-season chat with Nicole Livingstone was that the league and clubs struggled to get fans “back to footy” at the end of the men’s AFL season.The focus has to be on improving pathways, ensuring the depth of talent gets better. And the league is going to have to work harder when it comes to attracting potential players, especially from beyond the Barassi Line. The NRLW is expanding, and Australia hosts the FIFA women’s World Cup in 2023.That’s more of a rant than an answer. I’ll say it will look different because of the addition of State of Origin footy. A star-studded contest would be a fantastic advertisement of women’s footy.

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