We have the game covered.

Selling hope for AFL clubs easier than usual this summer


(From left): Jack Graham, a draft steal at No. 53, Jack Watts and Jake Stringer, for whom new clubs could do the trick. Photos: GETTY IMAGES

Selling hope for AFL clubs easier than usual this summer

Rohan Connolly    

The off-season can seem like an eternity for the supporter of an AFL club. But it’s made a little more bearable if you’re sustained by the presence of one all-important quality.

It’s called hope. And right now fans of any one of the league’s 18 clubs are entitled to more of it than perhaps they’ve ever known before. For a number of reasons.

The recently-concluded trade period has seen clubs shore up their senior lists with imports who either will, or at the very least can make a significant difference to their fortunes. Even those that weren’t active in the player meat market did some business in the dealing of draft picks.

And while this year’s version of the national draft, still a month away, has had the usual qualifiers attached about a supposed lack of depth, the talent pool annually throws up enough examples of players taken with lower picks who’ve exceeded expectations to have all supporter bases looking forward to November 24.

Pick any year and you’ll find them. Last year, it was the likes of Geelong defender Tom Stewart, taken by the Cats at selection No. 40, and Carlton defender Tom Williamson, unlucky to miss out on a Rising Star nomination, at pick No. 61.

Or perhaps the best story of the lot, Richmond youngster Jack Graham, taken at pick No.53 and injured for half the season, but not only fighting his way into the Tigers’ line-up for the last five games, but playing a starring role in a winning grand final.

The clubs that have stocked up on draft picks have increased their chances of pulling a similar rabbit from the hat. Those that elected to trade in players instead have on their hands known quantities, all of whom have shown at least something at AFL level and for whom a chance of circumstance could well the key to unlocking that talent on a more consistent basis.

Port Adelaide has secured arguably the two most obvious examples in that category, Melbourne’s Jack Watts and Geelong’s Steven Motlop.

Both could be called calculated risks, but if either, given a fresh start, a new coach in Ken Hinkley, and different roles and expectations, click even a little more frequently than they had at their former homes, the Power, in addition to the always-consistent Tom Rockliff, have picked up a serious swag of talent.

Ditto Essendon via the arrival of an All-Australian in Jake Stringer, a damaging running defender in Adam Saad and a highly-skilled small forward and on-baller in Devon Smith.

Then there’s the likes of Carlton, who took the bold step of letting go an out-and-out star in Bryce Gibbs but still added to its midfield armoury with two up-and-comers in Matt Kennedy and Darcy Lang, a back-up ruckman in Matthew Lobbe, and still maintained two picks in this year’s draft’s top 10.

Collingwood was roundly panned for its uneventful trade period. But has it been a shortfall of genuine talent which has held the Pies back lately or more a conflict of purposes in a game style sense, or more broadly an entire club’s football operations?

I tend to think more the latter. In any case, there is now some certainty for coach Nathan Buckley. And there was a lot more confidence about the Collingwood which finished off 2017, the Pies winning four and drawing another of their last seven games.

It’s easy right now, meanwhile, to consider Gold Coast a basket case, one which has just lost its only marquee player in Gary Ablett and a very handy one in Saad. Yet it’s also indisputably a club starting afresh with a new coach in Stuart Dew, a potential star in Lachie Weller, and a handy forward acquisition in Aaron Young.

Ablett was the security blanket around Gold Coast. Perhaps removing it might actually be the first step towards the Suns finally growing up as a credible AFL force.

As for the other Queensland team, well, Brisbane has lost Rockliff and Josh Schache. But it also just happened to pick up one Luke Hodge, and a very handy midfielder/forward in Charlie Cameron, still retaining three top 20 draft picks in the process.

Brisbane is symbolic of the greater cause for optimism these days. Has there been any wooden spooner in recent times whose prospects have looked as promising as the Lions? They’d already made solid ground under Chris Fagan, winning more games than any bottom team since 1998.

That’s not even taking into account the fact this year’s top team Adelaide (after the regular season) had fewer points than any since 1997. Nor a premiership team in Richmond which had finished 13th the previous season, the steepest climb to a flag in history.

The Tigers hadn’t won a premiership for 37 years, or even contested a grand final for 35. Of course, their story came hot on the heels of the Western Bulldogs’ remarkable 2016 flag, that club’s second ever and first for 62 years.

Those unlikely triumphs have given us 13 different premiers in the 28 seasons of the AFL, an average of a different team holding the cup aloft nearly once every two years. That is a strike rate for which most other sporting competitions would kill.

And another very legitimate reason for holding a glass half-full approach to your club’s prospects in 2018. Sure, it’s going to be a long summer for football fans. But at least one to be spent full of anticipation rather than despair.

* This article first appeared at Sporting News Australia.

Leave a Reply

*