Shaping up to be year like no other

NO NEWS is generally good news this time of year for AFL fans, the Christmas-New Year window perhaps the only period these days supporters can switch off from the never-ending sporting news cycle and dream a little football dream.

The recruits are on board and, of course, training the house down. The players have already broken the back of the physical preseason load. The holes in the game plan are being addressed and there's been no practice matches to puncture the balloon of optimism.

Everyone can feel like a winner heading into a new football year. The funny thing, though, in 2013, is that the surfeit of optimism may this time have more basis in reality than delusion.

I've never approached the task of compiling a predicted ladder for the season ahead with anything less than caution, but this year it's shaping more as an exercise in terror such is the scope to make an ass of one's self.

So how do you put 12 or 13 teams into a top eight?

Richmond has already built a big enough bandwagon about its 2013 prospects that it can hardly be called a potential bolter. We've seen it before with the Tigers, of course, hence the accompanying cynicism, but this time all the signs really are there.

Foremost is the scope for incremental improvement through further experience. Of which, bearing in mind in 2012 they lost six games by just 12 points or less, they don't need a lot to be aiming seriously at the top four, let alone the eight.

Logically, then, the three sides that finished above Richmond on the ladder yet still shy of the eight should have claims as sound. And they do.

Particularly Carlton, which clearly offended some or other football god given the range of injuries it copped to key players in every part of the ground last season. You wouldn't expect a repeat of that, but you would of the traditional new coach bounce, particularly when that coach has an aura as intimidating as does Mick Malthouse.

Don't forget, the Blues were 5-1 and second on the ladder a quarter of the way through the season.

Essendon was 8-1 and equal top close to halfway, before crashing and burning, or more appropriately limping home, even more spectacularly.

The soft tissue shambles has been sorted out, claims the club, which, in Brendon Goddard, has also landed its biggest fish, in a recruiting sense, since Graham Moss 40 years ago. While there will be increasing pressure on the coaching of James Hird this year, the Bombers' best in 2012 spoke plenty.

St Kilda, too, should be factored into serious finals talk despite having lost Goddard. The Saints under Scott Watters have spruced up their game style with a more attacking bent.

The Saints' 12 wins and very healthy percentage would have been good enough to get them into the eight in any of the five previous seasons to 2012. It may well be again this year, too.

If historical perspectives are your guide, here's another genuine roughie you might want to ponder. The Brisbane Lions finished 13th with 10 wins last year. Only one other side has ever matched that, Richmond in 1997, and the Tigers would miss the eight the following year by percentage only.

Every potential riser up the ladder needs an accompanying slider to make room. But unlike some, I can't see any obvious teams headed for the scrap heap.

Anyone forecasting Adelaide's demise in a whirlwind of fines and draft sanctions overestimates both the distance between the scandal come next March, and the extent of the influence the departed Kurt Tippett had on the Crows' fortunes last season.

Fremantle has perennial sceptics, but the foundations laid by coach Ross Lyon in his first season were as solid as the Dockers have known. The scope for further improvement evidenced in a more fluid style and greater potency the longer last year went was ominous indeed.

Geelong, too, knows plenty about serial doubters. As abrupt as their exit from last September was, the Cats have prepared themselves for generational change better than most.

Their roll call of debutants in 2012 was as long as any reigning premier for 40 years and the post- season acquisition of Hamish McIntosh, Jared Rivers and highly regarded Josh Caddy indicates a side that still has its eye firmly on the here and now.

To adapt George Orwell, some football years are more equal than others, and, in this brief little period of unabashed optimism, AFL 2013 right now certainly looks like being one of them.

- THE SUNDAY AGE

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