It’s that time of year once again. The time where many an AFL journalist wants to tell you who they think will win the flag and why.
A few of you probably saw Mark Robinson’s Tackle, where he tipped Carlton to go all the way (just before they finished off their preseason without a win).
But in this game, he’s hardly Robinson Crusoe. Indeed, every scribe at both the Herald Sun and The Age gets asked to nominate a winner in the season preview magazines.
So I guess this means it’s my turn. Because, you know, airing this information publicly worked out so well last year. (Actually, on second thoughts, I should just avoid the topic of last year. Anyone know how to remove a hyperlink? Anyone???)
Moving along, there are three sides that truly look capable of winning this year – Hawthorn, Geelong and Collingwood.
West Coast are on the rise but you feel they aren’t ready just yet, and Mark LeCras being out for the season hurts.
Carlton, well, you fear the injury list and number of players who’ve had interrupted preseasons is going to stand in their way. A lot would need to go right for them and so far, it just hasn’t.
My vote came down to how to split the “big three”, which proved to be easier said than done.
The Hawks, Cats and Magpies seem to have this wonderful set of checks and balances in place that prevents any one from being a real standout.
For example, the Hawks’ greatest individual asset is Buddy Franklin. Yet the other two teams happen to have the best key defensive units in the game.
The Cats didn’t lose to either of the other two teams last year and rose to the top when it mattered. Yet the other teams are earlier on in their development and certainly haven’t been a regular finals side since 2004.
The Pies have the best 100% A-grade talent with Dane Swan and Scott Pendlebury at the top of their list. Yet the tier below that is stronger at the other two clubs – Geelong had eight players register five or more Brownlow votes last year, Hawthorn had six, Collingwood (a team who lost two games in the premiership season) had just four.
And on and on it goes. Even when you look at each side’s weaknesses, they cancel each other out.
The Hawks have lost Max Bailey for the next two months. The Cats and Magpies are also in a position where one more ruck injury would really stuff things up.
Sitting on the fence, at this point, seemed like the way to go. So I needed to bring out the axe and start cutting teams out.
Collingwood were the first to be eliminated. They lost Leon Davis and Leigh Brown in the off-season and Andrew Krakouer and Brent Macaffer won’t play in 2012. That’s kind of comparable to Geelong, but combined with the whole rookie coach thing, I wasn’t prepared to go all out and tip them.
(Besides, I secretly was hoping for a Hawthorn-Geelong Grand Final anyway, only with Geelong’s streak of not losing to the Hawks since 2008 still intact. Who doesn’t want a piece of that match-up!)
Onto the important question, though: how do we split those two?
Well, the Hawks didn’t really have any major departures, Brent Renouf aside. They have the more experienced coach, which surely still counts for something.
And you feel they’ll be less of a one-man show up forward this season, with Buddy moving up the ground more and Cyril Rioli set to kick more than 29 goals (surely). Jack Gunston isn’t the most fashionable acquisition as he’s still quite young, but I have a sneaky suspicion he’ll have something to offer this season.
But can they beat Geelong, the side they haven’t beaten since their Grand Final win four years ago?
They’ll need to if they can go all the way and for me, this all comes down to whether two particular changes are either real or imagined ones.
If the Hawks forward line does indeed become more versatile, it will be more difficult for Geelong to contain the Hawks. It’s harder to double team Buddy if two of David Hale, Jarryd Roughead and Gunston look dangerous, after all.
So if this is a “real” change and not just pre-season hype, then it’s more likely the Hawks can topple the Cats.
Conversely, the Cats’ backline is at an interesting stage. Darren Milburn’s gone, although he’d already been replaced by the end of last year. Matthew Scarlett’s in probably his final year, although you suspect he has a lot to offer still. David Wojcinski is currently injured, although a youngster may be able to replicate his pace.
Corey Enright, who won the best and fairest in 2011, hasn’t played a NAB Cup game, although it’s at this point where I start to question whether all those mentions of “although” might be an issue.
If this is a genuine changing of the guard-type year for the Cats’ backline, then again, it becomes more easier to lean towards the Hawks.
And that is precisely what I’ll be doing.
I can’t say for sure if those two changes are really happening of if I’m imagining them, but they both point to the Hawks catching up, which makes them the safer bet.
My tip for 2012? Hawthorn to be premiers.
The Roar’s 2012 AFL season previews
Gold Coast Suns
West Coast Eagles