Contender or pretender? How realistic are the top eight’s flag hopes?

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Embracing the challenge: The Adelaide Crows are a different side in 2016.  (Image source: The Herald)

Eight teams, eight chances, it doesn’t get closer than that. 

Its round 17 of the AFL season and incredibly the top eight may already be decided roughly two months out from the first week of the AFL finals.

It seems that every team inside the eight has at least a case to be a labelled a flag contender this year. Greater Western Sydney, arguably the most dangerous side in the competition sit in seventh.

North Melbourne began the season 9-0 and were the most dominant side for the first two months this year, they currently sit in eighth and all of a sudden look the least likely of their fellow contenders to win this year’s flag.

The fact that these two teams sit at the bottom of the top eight speaks volumes as to how good our potential finalists are this year; it really is the most open season we have seen in recent history.

So we all know the contenders, but how realistic are their chances this year and who can dare to dream?

Hawthorn – 1st

Out of all the genuine contenders for this year’s flag, Hawthorn are one of the oldest teams, with the added bonus of finals experience. They have also won the last three grand finals, but history counts for nothing once September rolls around.

The Hawks have a dangerous forward line, featuring Cyril Rioli, Luke Breust, Jack Gunston and Paul Puopolo. The emergence of James Sicily has also been exciting for Hawks fans.

Hawthorn will be relying on some of their younger players to help keep their dynasty alive this year and beyond, Isaac Smith, Bradley Hill and Will Langford, fit inside that category.

The Hawks aren’t the most dangerous team inside the eight, but they are one of the most feared and they know how to play the MCG, which places a strong advantage over their other rivals who don’t play regular matches at the G’.

Luke Hodge and Sam Mitchell continue to defy their age, and a top four spot looks imminent. One of the favourites.

Key player(s): Sam Mitchell, Luke Hodge and Cyril Rioli.

Premiership rating: 8.5/10

Sydney Swans – 2nd

The Swans are another side with a great chance this year and surely this team still burns from their 2014 embarrassment against the Hawks.

They have the best offensive weapon in the competition in Lance Franklin but they must work on being less predictable going forward, Friday against Geelong was a good start.

The defence of Ted Richards and Heath Grundy has been complimented by the addition of Aliir Aliir and continual improvement of All-Australian contender Dane Rampe, Swans fans will be hoping they can continue to stay strong until the end of the year.

The Swans list of A-grade midfielders is a long and talented one, the best in the competition, featuring the likes of Dan Hannebery, Josh Kennedy, Luke Parker, Kieren Jack, Tom Mitchell and Jarrad McVeigh – all well tested in finals like intensity.

The Swans have the ability beat any side in the competition and will finish top four if they play at their best.

Expect star players such as Lance Franklin, Dan Hannebery and Luke Parker to have a major say later in the year. A contender for sure.

Key player(s): Lance Franklin, Dan Hannebery and Luke Parker.

Premiership rating: 8.5/10

Adelaide Crows – 3rd

Few knew how well the Adelaide Crows would fare this year since losing Patrick Dangerfield to Geelong. Well, we know now, and it’s a scary prospect.

The Crows are an improved model in 2016 and are ready to launch their biggest finals assault since 2012 when they lost to Hawthorn in a heartbreaking preliminary final. Eddie Betts and Josh Jenkins have led the side up forward this season, and if captain Taylor Walker finds his best form then they can pinch this year’s top prize.

The Crows are also solid down back, with players such as Daniel Talia, Kyle Hartigan and Jake Lever marshalling the defence week in week out. Their midfield is well balanced with Rory Sloane, Scott Thompson leading Rory Laird, Rory Atkins and Brad and Matt Crouch. They aren’t big possession getters, and not all are stars, but they do a job every week, and they do it very well.

This is one of the most impressive aspects of the Crows, their ability to rely on a number of role players rather than one or two stars.

The Crows have had a brilliant season, and probably deserve to be favourites for the premiership as we currently stand. Top four finish beckons.

Key player(s): Taylor Walker, Eddie Betts and Rory Sloane.  

Premiership rating: 9/10

Western Bulldogs – 4th

They were the rave of the AFL world for the first few weeks of the season, then they lost their Captain Robert Murphy and things began to slow a little in terms of progression for the Bulldogs.

With a win over the Swans at the SCG in round 15, and a gritty win over Richmond where they didn’t quite play their best football. The Bulldogs have shown they are still a threat to their 2016 rivals and if they claim a top four finish then they might just have the ability to make a grand final. Jake Stringer continued to show how important he is to the Bulldogs line-up in the win over Richmond and he could be a difference in September.

Marcus Bontempelli, Lachie Hunter, Jackson Macrae Caleb Daniel and Easton Wood have all had good seasons, with some in consideration for All-Australian selection, the five of them are young stars of this team and how they play will determine whether or not the Bulldogs reach their potential this year.

The Bulldogs are the lowest scoring side in the top eight though, and this needs to change if they are to make it deep into September, perhaps Tom Boyd is the answer, even though the young forward is currently on a club imposed suspension. One of the chances.

Key player(s): Marcus Bontempelli, Jake Stringer and Easton Wood.

Premiership rating: 8/10

West Coast – 5th

Last year’s grand finalists, who are seeking redemption this time around in 2016. The Eagles are capable of matching it with the best when playing their top football. Something that they haven’t quite been able to implement so far this season away from home although.

The Eagles took care of fellow top eight contender North Melbourne at home on Sunday, with barometers Josh J Kennedy, Luke Shuey, Andrew Gaff and Matt Priddis all figuring prominently throughout.

The fact that we haven’t seen the best of the Eagles yet in 2016 could be seen as a positive sign or a worrying sign for West Coast this season. Previous seasons have shown that timing can be important when launching a finals assault, and if the Eagles do reach their best form in the next few weeks then a top four finish is well within reach. Alternatively, if the Eagles are already playing their best football then it’s hard to see them figuring too much in the later weeks of September.

With players such as Nic Naitanui, Jeremy McGovern and Mark LeCras in their artillery they are still a live chance. They are also only one game behind Sydney, Adelaide and Geelong, so one slip up from any one of those teams could see West Coast pounce on a top four position.

Key player(s): Josh J Kennedy, Nic Naitanui and Matt Priddis.

Premiership rating: 7.5/10

Geelong – 6th

Three weeks ago Geelong were probably the hottest team in the competition. We’re in the middle of winter, and it’s clear that the temperature has cooled down at Simonds Stadium.

The losses against St Kilda and the Swans were disappointing, but it’s a handy time to have a reality check if you’re good enough to bounce back from it.

Patrick Dangerfield, Geelong’s prized recruit has been brilliant all season and was a shining light for the Cats against the Swans on Friday. Dangerfield may win the Brownlow medal this season and working in tandem with Joel Selwood has been a sight to behold for most this season.

It’s been a good rise up the ladder from a team who finished outside of the eight last season but in order for that to continue they can’t afford to have the lapses in form that we have seen plague them against Collingwood, Carlton and St Kilda this season. If they win all three of those very winnable games they would be sitting a game clear on top of the table.

Daniel Menzel has been good for the Cats this year and he will continue to be an important cog in the Cats forward line until seasons end. Tom Hawkins, Mitch Duncan and Stephen Motlop all feature in the next group of players who are capable of taking Geelong from premiership threat to premiership winner. Their last two losses have been worrying and we will find out more about Chris Scott’s men in the coming weeks.

Key player(s): Tom Hawkins, Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood.

Premiership rating: 8/10

Greater Western Sydney – 7th

The Giants are probably the team with the biggest x-factor in this year’s eight. Never in their history have they played in a finals series and that looks like it may change barring a disastrous capitulation or a stunning finish from either Port Adelaide, Melbourne or Collingwood.

The Giants have beaten Hawthorn, Sydney, Geelong and the Western Bulldogs this season, showing that they can match it with the best.

Recent seasons have seen vast improvement the Giant’s young midfield, with Dylan Shiel and Stephen Coniglio becoming two of the premier midfielders in the competition along with their more experienced co-captain Callan Ward. They are not the only A-graders in this Giants team, although, with the likes of their other co-captain Phil Davis Heath Shaw and Steve Johnson; a man who needs no introduction, all playing important roles in 2016.

After a slip up against Collingwood on Saturday, however, the top four all of sudden looks a little bit harder to reach for Leon Cameron’s young side. Add in the inexperience of this Giants side, a premiership in their first finals appearance is a tough ask.

The Giants are fearless though, and whether they reach the top four or not, they will prove a handful for any side in September.

Key player(s): Dylan Shiel, Heath Shaw, Steve Johnson and Jeremy Cameron.

Premiership rating: 8/10

North Melbourne – 8th

Not many saw a 9-0 start coming from North Melbourne this year, then not many saw this turning into a 10-5 record just after the midway point of the season.

The brilliant start the Kangaroos enjoyed at the start of the year is now over, the injuries have hit and things are a lot tougher for Brad Scott’s men now all the other top eight sides have overtaken them.

Take away the 9-0 start the Kangaroos had this year, and they are still sitting in a very handy position, ready to springboard an attack on their fellow eight compatriots late this season. North Melbourne have an abundance of experienced players who they will look to as September looms, with captain Andrew Swallow, Brent Harvey, Drew Petrie, Jarrad Waite, Daniel Wells and Nick Dal Santo all over or pushing thirty years-old.

This year could prove to be do or die for the Roos, with most of those names mentioned unlikely to find themselves on AFL list in 2-3 years’ time. After that comes a rebuild, a rebuild which would look a lot uglier if there isn’t a premiership to show for it.

Todd Goldstein is the best ruckman in the competition and his presence will be invaluable when September rolls around whilst Jack Ziebell and Robbie Tarrant will also need to add to their good seasons.

It’s reasonable to believe that we have already seen the best of the Roos in 2016, whether or not they can dispel that remains to be seen. Likely every side in the eight, they may still reach the top four which would provide them with their best chance at a premiership under Brad Scott’s reign.

Will they fade or will they fire?

Key player(s): Todd Goldstein, Daniel Wells and Brent Harvey.

Premiership rating: 7.5/10

With only two games separating first and eighth on the AFL ladder, it’s difficult to even determine who will finish inside the top four and who will out of it.

Hawthorn, Sydney, Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs have to be regarded as this season’s major chances. With Greater Western Sydney next on that list.

Leaving, Geelong, West Coast and North Melbourne as the lesser chances for this year’s flag. It’s a long season, however, and there will no doubt be more twists and turns to come.



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