Leap Year

Since the AFL’s Final Eight was introduced in 1994, an average of three teams has leaped into the finals after finishing in the lower portion of the ladder the previous season. In the Chinese Year of the Horse, below we take a look at the four teams I believe are most likely to ride into September in 2014.

An interim coach, an ongoing ASADA investigation and a propensity for late-season collapses, there are a multitude of reasons to indicate that Essendon can forget about contending in 2014. Yet, they showed enough resilience to feature in a top of the table clash in the latter quarter of a season that couldn’t have been more fraught. It is upon that basis that Bomber fans have cause for optimism.

Their last two September campaigns (2009 and ’11) have ended in disaster, and in each of the past five seasons they’ve suffered some degree of fade out, though the reasons for it in 2013 were purportedly a result of the strain of the media maelstrom, the truth of which is anyone’s guess.

Though they lost both Scott Gumbleton and leading goal kicker Stewart Crameri, the ‘Dons have a plethora of tall timber at both ends. Their fortunes may well rest upon the ample shoulders of Michael Hurley, and the swingman desperately needs to stamp himself at one end for the duration. I like him in defence, meaning that should prodigious young buck Joe Daniher become a regular forward target both Hurley and Essendon have a real chance of progressing before the return of James Hird.

The game style shouldn’t alter under the tutelage of Mark Thompson, the Bombers favouring a short-kicking approach (1st in kicks and marks, 2nd in disposals) last season.

A top six finish is required to validate the on-field gains made last year.

North Melbourne
The AFL’s Jekyll and Hyde seemed to revel in finding new and interesting ways to punish their supporters last season, losing 10 games by less than three goals and several of them by under a kick after being in commanding positions. While many of those defeats were galling, the loss to Adelaide in Round 9 created a new level of late-game ineptitude as a seemingly insurmountable lead was squandered with five consecutive last quarter Crows goals costing them victory.

It’s dangerous to sweep those frailties aside and assume that those defeats will instantly turn to wins, but if even a couple went their way they’d have played in the 2013 finals. It’s worth remembering however, that their 14 win year in 2012 netted them 8th place before they shamed the jumper against the Eagles in Perth. In fact, North have lost four of their last six finals by enormous margins.

The Kangaroos have added the class and experience of Nick Dal Santo to their talented youth, though captain Andrew Swallow isn’t expected to return until mid-season from his achilles injury.

Finishing with a percentage of 119%, scoring isn’t an issue for the men from Arden Street (Lindsay Thomas led the scoring with 53), so holding their nerve in key moments will once again define their campaign.

2014 is huge for this much-hyped North Melbourne side, and coach Brad Scott will know his future depends on the outcome.

Forwards Taylor Walker, James Podsiadly and Eddie Betts are the names that have Crows fans salivating leading into the new season.

After a stellar 2012 in which the side fell short of a Grand Final berth by less than a kick, 2013 was a year of missed opportunities, inconsistency and disappointment, yet there is enough at West Lakes to suggest a swift return to form, not least the return of spearhead Walker and the addition of the aforementioned experienced goal kickers to relieve Tom Lynch, who led the club with 33 majors.

While midfielders Dangerfield, Thompson, Sloane and Douglas continued to thrive (though they lost Vince to the Demons), there was a distinct lack of pressure from the Crows as they fell to 16th in terms of tackles in the AFL. Much like Fremantle did in 2013, their big-bodied mids bossed the opposition the previous year, and they’ll need that presence back if they are to reassert themselves.

It’s fair to say that a bit of luck eluded them, especially in the second Showdown when an uncanny bounce from an Angus Monfries kick ultimately cost them a finals spot. If they had of closed that game out the Crows would have finished equal with Port on 11 wins, while Adelaide had a superior percentage. No excuses though, as their heist of the Kangaroos earlier in the year was akin to robbery.

Unknown is the impact moving to Adelaide Oval may have as a new home base. The impressive stadium in the heart of Adelaide is an exciting development for South Australian football and is likely to become just as intimidating a venue as Football Park before it.

Gold Coast
Despite finishing below both Brisbane and West Coast last year, I’m backing the Suns to leapfrog those sides in a bid for their first taste of finals action. Brisbane lost a multitude of young Lions in the off-season and new coach Justin Leppitsch will have his work cut out moulding the new generation, while the Eagles, also under a fresh coach in Adam Simpson, have significant issues to overcome after an annus horribilis in 2013 despite being backed heavily for great things in pre-season.

Gold Coast’s lack of involvement in the trade period spoke volumes. The Suns are acutely aware that they have assembled a list burgeoning with talent, not to mention one that includes the greatest player in the game. Significant strides were made in 2013, a season in which they went from three wins to eight. They will need to find at least another four to contend for the finals, yet the nature of many of their losses signifies that that is a distinct possibility.

Gold Coast require a reliable forward target, with Charlie Dixon struggling due to injury in his three seasons. Gary Ablett led with just 28 goals, though the champion is predicted to spend more time in the forward 50 next season.

In many ways, their loss to Hawthorn at the MCG mid-season epitomises where the Suns sit. Up at half time and eventually steamrolled, the young side needs to find the mental strength to fight those matches out, lapses of 15 and 20 minutes continuing to cost them dearly. There is a fortress building around their Metricon Stadium home (6-5 in 2013), yet a couple of wins in Melbourne against better opposition will be required next term.

It’s statement time for the Suns.



  1. David Zampatti says

    Well done Franc. I was scrolling down, waiting for the inevitable. I nearly fainted when the last leaper-in-waiting was GOLD Coast.

    Then I realised I wasn’t reading The West Australian or listening to 6PR.

  2. Well reasoned Franc. Nice piece, even if I can’t come at Essendon on principle.
    Will there be a “Fall Year” companion piece? I have a candidate from south of the river that is getting old and arrogant.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Good article Franc on what is shaping up as the most even season in history it will not surprise if only 1 win separates 5 thru to about 14 . Injuries will decide yest inj to
    Van Berlo is not a good start for the Crows

  4. David Zampatti says

    And isn’t that one of the joys of the expanded comp, Pete? Was a time if you finished, say, thirteenth, the only way was up.
    Now there’s still five more places you can fall.

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