On the eve of a new AFL season, while the slate remains clean, we are often told the competition is anyone’s, and all 18 teams are harbouring dreams of being the last one standing. But how often is that really true?
Historically, maybe only five or six teams will go into a season truly believing they are in a position to win a premiership. The rest are either hoping, improving, or completely rebuilding.
But this year, as you no doubt have already heard, is different. In 2018, there might only be five or six teams who don’t see a premiership as a realistic aim for this campaign.
Yes, it might truly be “the most even competition in years”.
The success of the Tigers, and the Bulldogs before them, has given every club renewed hope. (AAP: Julian Smith)
A wide range of factors have combined to give 2018 the appearance of a free-for-all. The strong teams have only gotten stronger, those on the periphery have bolstered their ranks, while years and years of rebuilding have some on the precipice of completing their meticulously-devised plans.
But perhaps the most important factor of all is that every club, having been forced to sit back and watch Richmond and the Western Bulldogs before them celebrate unexpected breakthrough flags, will see the path to the impossible is open and believe it is their turn to walk down it.
For teams like Melbourne or Essendon, two clubs that really should be playing finals this year but whose ceiling remains to be discovered, that belief could be crucial.
The Demons should have made the eight last year, and nothing short of September action will be accepted in 2018, but with so much young talent reaching its prime, many are predicting even greater things for the red and blue.
Maybe it’s a list containing young stars like Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca, Jesse Hogan, Jake Lever, Christian Salem and Angus Brayshaw that has the experts purring. Or maybe it’s that the Demons are next in line to break the league’s longest current premiership drought, following in the footsteps of the Tigers and Dogs.
If the Dees reached rock bottom in the late 2000s, the Bombers plunged their depths a few years later. But they too are at the point of proving themselves, with John Worsfold’s side reinforced by some handy recruits and promising to play fast, attacking footy.
Are these teams long shots? Certainly. Do they look further away from a premiership than Richmond did this time last year? Probably not.
And they’re not alone in harbouring lofty ambitions.
The Bombers snuck into the eight last year, but will be aiming higher in 2018. (AAP: Joe Castro)
Port Adelaide has recruited for a premiership and has set a high benchmark for Ken Hinkley and his players to shoot for. The number of tipsters that have the Power in their predicted top four suggests a trust in their process, and surely nobody can doubt they have the cattle.
The Bulldogs are within their rights to believe they can shake off their premiership hangover and return to the levels of 2016, and should they finish anywhere in the top eight there isn’t a team in the league who will want to play them.
Then there are your usual suspects, most notably the reigning premiers from Tigerland. Few have publicly backed them to go back to back, and you get the feeling that’s just the way they like it.
Geelong has its favourite Sun back, and a midfield that is being tossed into debates alongside the Lions of 2003 and the Eagles of 2006. The Swans are the ever-presents, seemingly only ever a couple of Buddy Franklin blinders from turning an inevitable finals appearance into a premiership.
You’ve got scorned Crows, hardened by disappointment but still in a position to strike, and the Giants are almost overdue for their preordained dynasty. They might be the best two teams in the league this season, but it’s just too hard to tell.
So many other teams will likely be better in 2018 too, adding to the dogfight for top eight positions. Even if it is too soon for the improving Blues, Lions and Magpies, the Saints and even Dockers will internally feel like the finals are within reach.
West Coast is expected to slide, but a fit and firing Nic Naitanui changes that team, and though Hawthorn continues to transition, surely the Hawks will never stay down for long.
And even though tough times are predicted for North Melbourne and Gold Coast, they will still provide us with two of the Coleman Medal favourites in Ben Brown and Tom Lynch. No matter where you go, there are reasons to watch.
It really is the best time of year to be a footy fan, in 2018 more than ever. So enjoy it now… just in case this is as good as it gets.