February is here, the smell of deep heat is re-invigorating the senses, off-season physiques are running wild on social media feeds, and the AFL pre-season fixture has officially been released.
While the time-honoured Ansett Cup did not make a highly sought-after resurgence on said fixture (sigh), the league did announce a two-week block of practice matches commencing on February 23.
Fans will finally get a glimpse of new players, new coaches, and new game plans while simultaneously trying to negate that annual feeling of hope that creeps in every damn time.
That feeling is always significantly stronger for fans who missed out on finals action the year prior, so we’ve scoured the lists and Instagram pages and found four teams who could potentially fulfil those fans’ wishes and make a run for finals. And yes, we’ve even included Essendon.
9th in 2022
It was pure, unadulterated heartache for the Carlton faithful in 2022 after they missed finals by just 0.6% following a one-point loss to Collingwood in the final round of the home and away season.
The Blues were flourishing under new coach, Michael Voss, for much of the year. After the first ten rounds, they sat in third spot on the ladder with eight wins. It was a different story in the second half of the season, as injuries and fatiguing bodies meant they could manage just four wins from their last 12. Grim by any measure.
Charlie Curnow (64 goals) and Harry McKay (45) formed one of the best forward combinations in the league, while Brownlow Medallist, Patrick Cripps, and Sam Walsh got back to their uninjured best.
Jack Newnes, Will Setterfield and Liam Stocker were all moved on over the trade period, while they bolstered their midfield stocks with Blake Acres (Fremantle) among four draft picks.
They will miss Waslh for the first part of the season as he recovers from back surgery, but another pre-season under Voss should have the Blues humming in 2023.
11th in 2022
If it was heartache for Carlton fans in 2022, it was just full-blown disappointment for those following Port Adelaide as they finished 11th with a 10-12 record.
Tipped by many as a premiership fancy earlier in the year, Ken Hinkley’s men failed to fire a shot after notching 17 wins and ending the 2021 season in the second spot.
It was a drop-off in every important statistic, with Sam Hayes leading their hit-outs (27th in the AFL), Travis Boak leading their clearances (11th), Willem Drew leading their tackles (24th) and Ollie Wines leading disposals (18th).
They were, however, part of the most significant off-season player trade as they welcomed former No. 1 draft pick Jason Horne-Francis, Junior Rioli and Francis Evans. They will replace Robbie Gray (retired), Steven Motlop (retired) and Karl Amon (Hawthorn).
The list is too good to disappoint two years in a row, so don’t be surprised if we see a much-improved outfit in 2023.
Gold Coast Suns
12th in 2022
Yes, we say it every year. But this could genuinely be the year for the Gold Coast.
The AFL’s second-newest team are on the verge of finals for the first time after equaling their best result in 2022 by finishing 12th. They churned out three more wins than in 2021 and got necessary game time into young stars such as Noah Anderson and Matt Rowell.
While they lost Izak Rankine (Adelaide), Jack Bowes (Geelong) and Josh Corbett (Fremantle) over the trade period, it was offset by some astute recruitment of experienced players. This includes Jed Anderson, Ben Long, Tom Berry and Connor Blakely.
Touk Miller is clearly the star of the glitter strip, ranking third for clearances, 10th for disposals and 12th for tackles on his way to runner-up in the Brownlow Medal count. Jarrod Witts dominated the ruck and ranked first for hit-outs, while Mabior Chol (44 goals) and Levi Casboult (35) rejuvenated their careers up forward.
The pillars are in place for Stuart Dew and his chargers and don’t be surprised if 2023 is the year they finally make a run for finals.
15th in 2022
Wowee, surely not the Bombers.
After arguably the worst off-season in the game’s history – think former coach and CEO – the Bombers are seemingly on the right track under their new mentor, Brad Scott.
It was a miserable season in 2022, with the Bombers winning just seven games and ending the year in the 15th spot on the ladder. They had the third-worst defense, with an average of 94.8 points against, and the six-worst attack.
Scott will bring a more disciplined approach to the game in his reign as a coach, and there is discussion over whether Dyson Heppell will remain as captain. Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish are genuinely talented midfielders, while Jordan Ridley has exceeded all expectations with his ability to intercept across half-back.
The newly recruited Davey twins will add much-needed foot speed if they are to debut while trading in Sam Weideman from Melbourne is an attempt to give Peter Wright a chop out up forward.
It might not happen overnight, but the only way is up for the Bombers. Surely.