After a summer where they attracted column inches for the wrong reasons – one for doping, the other for dopey bookkeeping – Adelaide and Essendon will kick off the 2013 AFL season in a couple of hours. The clash of the league’s rogues raises the curtain on a season that appears reasonably predictable. This time last year seven coaches were braced to step into the box; this time around, only two – Port’s Ken Hinkley and the unretired Mick Malthouse – are fresh. But with stability comes expectation: coaches who have been slowly building will be expected to deliver, and there are only so many seats in the game of musical chairs that is the top eight.

Hawthorn should start the season raging hot favourites for the flag. While the Swans deserved their victory in last year’s big dance, the Hawks’ best eclipses anything any other team can toss up. Barring perhaps some defensive jitters – which the recruitment of Brian Lake is designed to address – they look the complete package, the consummate premiership side. With a bit of grit in their teeth after two consecutive years of serious September heartache, Alastair Clarkson should add to his 2008 success.

Even with the 2012 trophy glistening in the Harbour City’s trophy cabinet, the Swans – as per usual – are unfancied. Hawthorn, Carlton, Collingwood and West Coast all look stronger on paper and Fremantle, North and Richmond are all braced to leapfrog them. But to borrow a phrase from Brian Clough, it’s lucky football is played on grass, not paper. Kurt Tippett is an expensive, perhaps unnecessary, addition to a dressing room renowned for it’s harmony – regardless, the Swans should be there to defend their flag in September.

If Carlton are climbing up a ladder, then Adelaide might find themselves sliding down a snake. They were blessed with a soft draw last year that helped them secure a top four berth, an opportunity squandered by losing to Sydney in the first week of September. Brenton Sanderson’s new car smell might start to fade, the effect of the so-named Tippett saga could take its toll and a reliance on Rory Sloane and Patrick Dangerfield – who will be tagged more heavily after breakout seasons – risks their finals place, with several teams snapping at their heels.

Collingwood have flown under the radar, if that’s at all possible for the largest sporting club in Australia. The old cliche the AM commentators always wheel out – ‘a lot has to go right to win a flag’ – resonated with the Pies in 2012, because a lot went wrong. No Luke Ball for the entire campaign. Scott Pendlebury’s tibia. Dane Swan’s fondness of Carlton Draught. A new coach finding his feet. A misfiring forward line. The pall of Travis Cloak’s contract negotiations. And with all that around their neck they lost an interstate prelim to the eventual premiers by a couple of kicks. If that’s what they achieved with everything going wrong, they could be unstoppable with a smoother run.

West Coast are another side whose 2012 finish failed to reflect their quality. Before injuries scuppered their campaign, they sat first after 12 rounds and had most good judges describing their pulsating 85-82 clash with Collingwood as a grand final preview. If their home ground advantage secures a top-two finish, the Eagles are near insurmountable in Perth, rolling out the red carpet for an appearance at the granny.

Their West Australian rivals are pencilled in as big improvers after the Dockers were singing beautifully from Ross Lyon’s hymn book by the end of last year. They were clever and smart and tough and organised – qualities not historically attributed to the AFL’s violet crumbles, but certainly associated with Lyon, who masterminded the league’s second best defence in 2012, offset by a dour attack (their 1956 points for the season placed them 12th, distinctly the worst of the eight finalists). Their ability to kick scores capable of winning finals will be the question mark.

It’s hardly a question mark for Geelong, who were rolled over by Freo at the MCG last September, a performance indicative of two teams going in opposite directions. Certainly, Chris Scott maintains high standards, the list is peppered with stunning players and Kardinia Park offers a pronounced advantage. However, the weapons they’ve been able to wheel out every September – Paul Chapman, Stevie Johnson and Jimmy Bartel – all blow out at least 30 candles on their 2013 birthday cakes. There will be glimpses of the Classic Cats, but likely not enough to seriously challenge.

North Melbourne are a worry. None of the seven sides that finished above them in 2012 are set to fall off the cliff, while the likes of Richmond and Brisbane have the Kangaroos in their crosshairs. Brad Scott has continually improved this side in his three years at the helm, after which he boasts an enviable winning percentage of more than 50%, proving that the Kangas are on the right track. In 2013, that track equates to a top six finish at the very least, matching it with the heavyweights. A lack of absolute gilt-edged top enders – rather than honest, middle-tier tradesmen – is the thing that stands in their way.

That’s the inverse problem to Richmond, who found that there’s only so much that Trent Cotchin – the genial Tigers skipper with the Ken Doll hair and Michael Clarke-like performances – can do if the bottom six or so players struggle. In Cotchin, Deledio, Martin and Riewoldt (whose 2012 Coleman Medal flattered an otherwise lukewarm season) there is no shortage of Rolls Royces sitting in Damien Hardwick’s garage, it’s just the performance of the rusty old utes in support that’s the concern. In his fourth year in charge, finals is a minimum requirement at a club starved of September action.

Having won 12 games last year, St Kilda had a really solid season. They played cheery, attractive footy under Scott Watters, injected plenty of youth, and won an amount of games that would usually qualify for finals. That’s despite only winning one game against a finals-bound team, which perhaps reveals their problem: they’re middle of the road. They’re good, not great. With the exception of Sydney, clubs generally like to bottom out to regenerate their list but in St Kilda’s post-Lyon era, change has been only subtle. Watters would obviously target improvement and improvement on ninth would mean finals, but it’s hard to see the Saints marching into September.

Now, Carlton. But not just regular Carlton. We’re talking about Mick Malthouse Carlton. A walking headline at a club that doesn’t mind attention. Not 12 months ago did this group smoke Collingwood by 10 goals in front of a packed MCG gallery, included a press pack rushing to declare them flag fancies. With a clean bill of health and a patented Mastercoach they could return to similar form. But with the likes of West Coast, Hawthorn and Mick’s old Maggies in their path, their ascent up the ladder won’t be easy.

Essendon are a tricky prospect to assess, with the club still dusting itself off from the doping scandal that exploded not long ago. Like Carlton, they were another early season success story that fell in a screaming heap by the end of 2012, losing their last seven outings to free fall out of finals contention. ASADA, still waiting for rats to abandon sinking ships and dob in their mates, could derail the Dons’ season, as could a host of other sides clawing their way into the bottom half of the eight.

Out of sight and out of mind, Brisbane are the smokeys to ram their way into the playoffs this season. A young, improving list that claimed some big scalps in 2012 (last-gasp wins against West Coast and Adelaide spring to mind), aided by the Queensland humidity and the rock-hard Gabba track, will likely build on the 10 wins achieved last time out, which places the Lions eyeball-deep in the finals race.

Below them, it’s hard to see vast improvement from the remaining five teams. Brendan McCartney’s Western Bulldogs made an energetic start to 2012 before losing their last 11 straight – a phenomenally bad performance, even for a mob in a ‘rebuilding phase’. The ease with which century score lines were racked up against a leaky back line should be a particular concern for McCartney, who’s probably thankful he’s not in Mark Neeld’s shoes. With only one solitary win against the traditional clubs last year, Melbourne‘s season was justifiably compared to Fitzroy’s class of ’96, who also greeted the judges only once. Port Adelaide completes the trifecta of poorly resourced clubs for whom it’s difficult to muster terribly much optimism about 2013. Good luck Ken Hinkley.

Gold Coast, with their breezy brand of play and beachside locale, are a brighter prospect. Two seasons of growing pains behind them and a host of blue-ribbon draft picks who will notch 50-game milestones in 2013 could mean that the Suns lift themselves out of the cellar at the expense of Port or Melbourne or the Bullies. Regularly did they match a team for one or two or three quarters, only to be undermined by a lapse, as should be expected from such a callow list. If the Goldy can start stringing four quarters together then four to six wins should be the target: not great, but perfectly legitimate.

Their comrades on Andrew Demetriou’s headstrong foray into rugby league territory – the Greater Western Sydney Giants, or the AFL’s most ironic misnomer – are unfortunately due for their bout of sophomore syndrome. Two wins was a terrific return for 2012 but they would be lucky to match that this time out, unless Jonathan Patton and Jeremy Cameron – a key forward pairing that could dominate the competition, in time – can flex their collective muscle.

What makes the 2013 edition of the AFL spicy is that the top 13 teams all have genuine claims for a finals spot. Those 13 sides would all be disappointed to miss a top eight berth, meaning five coaches will be forced to front the board this September to explain why their team isn’t running around at the pointy end of the year. The only prediction I would make with any confidence is that a few of those coaches will be lining up at Centrelink come season’s end.

Ladder

West Coast
Collingwood
Hawthorn
Carlton
Fremantle
Sydney
Richmond
Geelong

Adelaide
Brisbane
Essendon
North Melbourne
St Kilda
Gold Coast
Western Bulldogs
Port Adelaide
Melbourne
Greater Western Sydney

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