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In chaotic AFL, who could be this season’s surprise package?

James Harmes, Michael Hibberd and Mathan Jones lead Melbourne out for their round one clash with Geelong at the MCG. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

In chaotic AFL, who could be this season’s surprise package?

Chaos and uncertainty rule in the AFL these days after two fairytale premiership wins to the Western Bulldogs in 2016 and Richmond last year.

The Tigers made a mockery of convention by finishing 13th in 2016 and then securing an emphatic grand final win last season after a remarkable improvement. That will give hope to fans of various teams that missed out on the finals last year.

Most experts are tipping Greater Western Sydney to land the flag this year, while some think Adelaide could go one better or Richmond successfully defend its title. But nowadays you should expect the unexpected, and it is interesting to predict who might be this season’s surprise package.

If you take a look at Oddschecker.com you will see that Adelaide and Sydney are joint favourites to make the grand final, followed by GWS and Richmond at $4.

Geelong, preliminary finalists for the past two years, should be in the mix after bringing back Gary Ablett to form a terrifying midfield alongside Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood. Port Adelaide regularly annihilated the lesser teams last season and the Power, too, are a great shot, while Essendon should be inspired by Richmond’s success and kick on. These are the teams that everyone is talking about.

The opening weekend went entirely to script and all the favourites won, from GWS’s demolition of Western Bulldogs to the Swans’ Lance Franklin-inspired victory over the Eagles.

But what about the teams that did not contest last year’s finals? Who can kick on, enjoy a Richmond-style renaissance and threaten the existing favourites for AFL supremacy?

Melbourne immediately stands out as a team that underwhelmed last year but could enjoy a vast improvement in fortunes this season.

The Demons’ season began in disappointing fashion on Sunday as they lost to Geelong, but it was a real thriller and they were unlucky to come off second-best against one of the most formidable sides around.

Ablett enjoyed a phenomenal return to the Cats and Selwood was as impressive as ever, but Melbourne matched them throughout and really should have secured victory in the dying seconds.

Max Gawn took an immense contested grab 20 metres out, milked the clock for all its worth and steadied himself to convert a simple chance to give the Demons the win.

However, his approach was dodgy and he missed to the left, causing heartbreak for Melbourne fans and sparking jubilation among the Cats, who brutally sledged Gawn as they celebrated a three-point win.

It was a cruel end to a game in which they excelled, but it suggests Melbourne will be extremely difficult to play against this season.

Gawn will have nightmares about his miss, but he was brilliant throughout the game, with 20 touches and 47 hit outs. Jake Lever is an extremely exciting signing for fans and he will improve if he is given the sort of protection he enjoyed from the Crouch brothers and the two Rorys last season at Adelaide.

Debutant Bailey Fritsch also offered glimpses of his vast potential. Melbourne is blessed with a combative midfield, and Clayton Oliver stands out as a superstar in the making.

Throw in Christian Petracca, Jayden Hunt, Jesse Hogan, Angus Brayshaw and Christian Salem, and this is an extremely exciting team. The Dees have a promising, young list and they simply need to progress in a similar fashion to GWS from 2015 to 2016, as that could see them shoot up the ladder.

There is also a core of experienced players like Nathan Jones, Jordan Lewis, Bernie Vince and Michael Hibberd to help them get through the latter stages of the season.

Melbourne does need to find consistency, as that was totally lacking last year, and the Demons also need to find a way to grind out victories. They are typically involved in exciting games and it is thrilling for the neutrals, but fans will hope to see them win ugly and claw their way into the top four this season.

Their mentality has been called into question in the past, particularly when they flopped against Collingwood and West Coast to miss out on last season’s finals, and the way they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory on Sunday will not help them shake off the “choker” tag.

But they have more than enough quality to end their 11-year run without a finals appearance. If Hogan and Petracca really click up front, and Lever inspires a defensive improvement, they could even end their 54-year premiership drought.

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