The 2021 AFL season is well and truly underway, and our experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of Round 9.
Are the teams making finals already all in the top eight?
Rohan Connolly: I reckon they might be. There's only been two occasions in the past 20 seasons where the eight hasn't changed at all after Round 7, but I suspect this might be a third. The only team currently outside the eight I would have expected to be there is St Kilda, and the Saints are too erratic and have a horrendously tough run home. They've got nine more games against top eight teams (two each against Geelong and Sydney), four interstate trips and a trip to GMHBA Stadium. Some will think they can squeeze out the Swans, but I think Sydney's form remains very solid. No change for mine.
Jake Michaels: The only team in there right now which completely blindsided me is Sydney. I really thought the Saints would be a finals lock in 2021 and I'm going to back them in from here, despite their inconsistent and frankly uninspiring start to the season. I'll say Brett Ratten's side comes in at the expense of the Swans.
Matt Walsh: I had to do a bit of a double-take at the ladder because, yes, a third of the way through the season and the teams currently in the top eight (including Richmond just hanging on by percentage) look the most likely. The only question I have is regarding Sydney, but their strong percentage of 109.5 may help if they suffer some shock losses. Who comes in? GWS? Nah. Fremantle, St Kilda, Carlton? Not consistent enough.
Jarryd Barca: If I'm going by my preseason predictions, Carlton is the only team left to jump back into the eight at the expense of a much improved Sydney. There are still 15 rounds to go in an unpredictable season so of course anything can happen, but on the evidence so far, the current top eight are probably just that - the best eight teams in the competition. The Giants and Dockers are too inconsistent and the Saints were overrated coming into the season.
Which team will we learn more about on Saturday night - Port or the Dogs?
RC: I think Port Adelaide. Don't get me wrong, I rate them highly, but a loss in Adelaide by the Bulldogs wouldn't be seen as a disaster for them, whereas a loss by the Power would raise the inevitable "flat track bully" discussion again. It's a questionable debate given they went 5-3 versus the top eight last year, but the two losses this season to West Coast and Brisbane were pretty dismal and the two-point win over Richmond a toss of the coin. I think the Power still need a big scalp or two.
JM: Probably the Dogs. I think I now know what to expect from Port when they're at home, but I'm a little unsure what the Doggies will dish up on the road and against a top team. Since their blistering start to the season, they've been a little down, losing to Richmond and only scraping past the Blues last week. I think they need a big scalp to show they are a serious flag threat in 2021.
MW: I think Port will be keen to show the competition that they can beat the league's best teams. Yes, they're at home and will have an advantage, but poor losses to Brisbane and West Coast (and a narrow home win over Richmond) have many doubting the Power's bona fides. A win or a loss will tell us a lot about Ken Hinkley's men.
JB: I think we'll learn more about the Doggies. They've been super impressive and have more than justified their preseason hype, but until you take multiple scalps over fellow contenders on the road, you're not the real deal. They've only travelled interstate once this season and that match against an inconsistent GWS was well and truly up for grabs at three-quarter time. Yes, the Power have been embarrassed in two of their interstate ventures, but beating them on their home deck? That's no mean feat.
Who is Geelong's most important player?
RC: Not going to try to reinvent the wheel here, for me it's Tom Hawkins. Jeremy Cameron and Gary Rohan might be considerable cream on top of the cake, but it's the in my view still-underrated "Tomahawk" who is the foundation. Still the Cats' most reliable goalkicker (more than two per game again this season), a damaging forward 50 ruckman, and one of the most unselfish forwards the game has seen (currently ranked equal sixth in the AFL for goal assists). When he fires, so does Geelong. What a champion he's been.
JM: Let's be clear, best and most important player are NOT the same. There's no doubt Dangerfield is top man at the Cats, when healthy, but is he their most important piece? I don't think so. Tom Hawkins provides so much in the forward line, both with his goalkicking, score assists and ruck work. His sheer presence also ensures Jeremy Cameron and Gary Rohan are manned by lesser defenders.
MW: I'm getting the feeling it isn't Patrick Dangerfield. Could it be Jeremy Cameron? Structurally he offers something much different to Tom Hawkins, and has 12 goals through three games in the blue and white hoops. The Cats have looked much better since he came into the side (despite a narrow loss to the Swans) and with time you only suspect the synergy between him, Hawkins, and the midfielders will get better.
JB: It's their star new recruit. I'm not just saying this as a knee-jerk reaction to the weekend, but Jeremy Cameron not only adds extra firepower and potency to the Cats forward line, his addition structurally and partnership with Hawkins makes opposition defences work overtime during the week. The Cats are now capitalising more on their general field dominance which is a major improvement from 2020, and their Gary Rohan-type support acts are even able to pop up and kick five due to the extra attention the big men receive!
Has the new concussion rule already let itself down?
The ESPN Footy Podcast team discuss the shattering news that Chelsea Randall will miss the AFLW Grand Final, and wonder if the AFL could avoid a similar situation given their longer season.
Is Alastair Clarkson gettable for other clubs?
RC: I have trouble imagining "Clarko" at any other club to be honest, given this is his 17th season at the helm of the Hawks. I think he's also the sort of person so fiercely loyal he might struggle with the idea of another club himself. I also think Hawthorn would still be crazy to even contemplate letting him go. But hypothetically, where would he be suited? Anywhere. The best in the business, tactically unsurpassed, a great reader of where the game is going, sound list decisions, he'd be a huge boon for any AFL club.
JM: Of course he is. The Hawks are arguably a bottom three team in the competition right now and do you really think he wants to stay there during a rebuild? I don't. I actually think he is more gettable now than at any point over the past 15 years. There's probably half a dozen clubs which should be circling to try and lure him across when his contract expires at the end of next season.
MW: I think he is. Given there are rumours he would be allowed to walk away from his contract if another offer comes in before the end of 2022, I think a club desperate enough could pry him away from the Hawks, who absolutely need a rebuild (and quickly if they're to do it while Tom Mitchell, James Sicily et. al are in their prime). Does Clarko have the patience to undertake that? If Gold Coast came knocking with the young talent already in the door, does he say no? I (and no doubt the league) would love to see it....
JB: Incredibly gettable. He's contracted, but if Hawthorn don't think he's the one to champion its rebuild, why would they -- and he -- persist, especially when Sam Mitchell is waiting in the wings at Box Hill? We'll revisit this later in the season but depending on how these clubs fare, I would be surprised if at least the Pies, Giants or Suns didn't come knocking.