A new AFL season is upon us and after 11 years, having defeated Sydney to win the grand final last year, Geelong is once again the hunted. Ronny Lerner reports.
IT SEEMED like only yesterday that Geelong pulverised Sydney in the grand final to prove the naysayers wrong and clinch its elusive tenth premiership with "Dad’s Army". But in reality, that momentous day in the Cats’ history occurred 172 days ago.
A new AFL season is upon us and after 11 years, Geelong is once again the hunted. The Cats will have a huge target on their backs as they head into the new campaign riding a 16-game winning streak.
The Brisbane Lions was the last team to win the final 16 games of a season, including the flag back in 2001, so the Cats are in very good company indeed.
Geelong’s bid for back-to-back flags for the first time in 71 years will have a very different look about it after inspirational captain and club immortal, Joel Selwood retired last year after a club record 355 games, a VFL/AFL record 245 games as captain and four premierships.
But the Cats wasted little time in attempting to soften the blow of Selwood’s absence.
Living up to its reputation as the league’s biggest destination club, Geelong lured promising young midfielder and former first-round pick Tanner Bruhn from Greater Western Sydney while securing the services of Gold Coast’s Jack Bowes, as well as pick eight, which was used to select Jhye Clark in the infamous salary dump deal.
In fact, Geelong made it a trio of former first-round picks by recruiting former Collingwood forward Ollie Henry to bolster its attacking options.
For much of the past decade, it’s been a ritual at this time of year to write off the Cats and predict their slide down the ladder, but they continually prove the doubters wrong. So, this time around, this writer is not falling into that trap — the Cats will be right up there again in season 2023.
However, that’s not to say they won’t have their fair share of challengers nipping at their heels and trying to topple them.
The first team that comes to mind is Brisbane. The Lions have had plenty of finals heartache in the last four years to stiffen their resolve for a legitimate assault on a premiership.
As the old saying goes, you have to lose one before you win one and while the Lions haven't made it to a grand final yet under coach Chris Fagan, their poor finals win-loss record of 3-6 since 2019 will provide enough inspiration for them.
Heading into last year’s September campaign, that record was 1-5, but to their credit, the Lions won a couple of finals in 2022 against Richmond and Melbourne. Significantly, the second one was at the MCG, so they now know how it’s done at the home of football during the most important time of the year.
Furthermore, they have significantly strengthened their squad with former Bulldogs ball-magnet Josh Dunkley bolstering an already stacked midfield, triple premiership Hawthorn sharpshooter Jack Gunston adding class to their wayward forward line – which has been perennially inaccurate in front of goal – and highly-touted father-son pick Will Ashcroft, who is already AFL-ready.
Former Essendon speedster Conor McKenna and another father-son recruit in Jaspa Fletcher are also handy pick-ups. Brisbane is ready to strike and a grand final appearance would seem the only acceptable outcome for them this year.
But in their attempt to break a 20-year premiership drought, the Lions will be made to earn it — especially with another recent premier in Melbourne standing in their way.
Like Geelong and Brisbane, the Demons have also joined the arms race, and while they might have lost precocious ruckman Luke Jackson to Fremantle, Simon Goodwin’s squad has been beefed up by the additions of All-Australian ruckman Brodie Grundy and Bulldogs premiership midfielder Lachie Hunter.
The coming together of two of the best rucks of the modern era in Max Gawn and Grundy will be one of the more fascinating watches of the 2023 season.
Two of Melbourne's biggest issues last year were their alarming second-half fadeouts and inefficiency when sending the ball forward. But with Tom McDonald back from injury to help out Bayley Fritsch and Ben Brown, and with Gawn and Grundy rotating, their attacking potency should lift considerably.
The Demons' playing list is still stacked with A-grade talent, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them go all the way this season and deliver the club a second flag in three years — and one their home fans can witness after the 57-year drought-breaking triumph in 2021 was achieved in Perth.
Outside of Geelong, Brisbane and Melbourne, there is still a solid core of would-be title challengers in Sydney, Richmond, the Western Bulldogs, Fremantle and Collingwood, while Carlton and Port Adelaide should be thereabouts as well.
The Swans are still young and, despite being humiliated on the biggest day of the year last year, should be pushing for a top-four spot again in 2023.
The additions of former GWS guns Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper to Richmond’s midfield have breathed new life into the Tigers and it gives them legitimate hope of a fourth flag in seven years.
For so long, the Bulldogs were criticised for being too small, but now their squad is overflowing with tall options. Having Liam Jones and Rory Lobb join forces with the likes of Aaron Naughton, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, Sam Darcy and Josh Bruce, the Dogs are now blessed with aerial threats.
And, as they showed last year, you can never write off the Pies, can you? While it would be a game punter to suggest they will replicate their record-breaking 11 wins by two goals or fewer – including nine victories by seven points or fewer – Collingwood hasn't stood still. By bringing in Tom Mitchell (Hawthorn), Daniel McStay (Lions), Bobby Hill (GWS) and Billy Frampton (Adelaide), the Pies are keen to go at least one step further than their heartbreaking one-point preliminary final loss to Sydney in 2022.
At the other end of the ladder, the wooden spoon battle looks to be a race in three between West Coast, North Melbourne and Hawthorn. It might just be the Hawks’ fate to hit rock bottom for the first time since 1965.
Brownlow Medal: Clayton Oliver (Melbourne)
Coleman Medal: Jeremy Cameron (Geelong)
Rising Star: Will Ashcroft (Brisbane Lions)
Wooden spoon: Hawthorn
Ronny Lerner has been a sports and music journalist/editor since 2006. Follow Ronny on Twitter @RonnyLerner.
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