Mick Malthouse has given his verdict on how the 2023 season may shake out and the legendary coach says the Saints could be in for another tough year in Ross Lyon’s return to the club.
I’ve said it numerous times before: history shows that the final eight changes every year. But this could be the year that it doesn’t.
With one exception …
Carlton to replace Richmond, possibly.
We are so used to the Tigers being part of the September action that it has almost become a given. And certainly, the recruitment of Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper will boost their on-field talent.
But I am struggling to convince myself that Richmond will be one of the best teams in the competition this year.
Richmond’s game style was opened up last year to become more predictable, and hence not as effective.
Tom Lynch has had an interrupted pre-season so he is no guarantee to be the main goal kicker. Jack Riewoldt is terrific but needs assistance. Shai Bolton is brilliant but inconsistent. Shane Edwards is gone. And there’s no denying Dustin Martin’s ability, but does he still have the passion to repeat another top year, which the Tigers’ need from him or risk failing through the middle.
Trent Cotchin is likely in his final year, and I don’t think moving him forward to give him another season is going to work. See ball, get ball is very different to smart positioning in the forward line. It works for some players, like Gary Ablett Jnr. But I believe that for most, moving back is far more productive. Just look at Luke Hodge who prolonged his career by going from the midfield to the backline.
I also think the Tigers were a bit lucky last year, and without that luck could slide this season.
Richmond’s replacement in the finals should be, and I say, “should be”, Carlton. But we’ve seen the Blues throw away opportunities in the past.
It will come down to Carlton’s leadership, and its sense of resolve.
With a Tom Hawkins, Jeremy Cameron like forward set-up in Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow, the Blues have all that they need to be a huge success in 2023.
Sam Walsh will be a slow starter because of his back surgery, but layer by layer the more you look at Carlton the more it looks complete. Jacob Weitering is a major force down back, and the Blues have the most recent Brownlow medallist, Patrick Cripps, to round out the midfield.
They started well but fell away last season. A hunger to win, consistently, will go a long way to catapulting Carlton into the eight this year.
December optimism is tangible every year in the AFL, but by March after one or two practice matches and a couple of injuries, a realisation creeps in that there is still a big gap between the best performing teams and the worst performing clubs.
Over summer there were high hopes and plenty of wishes for the Cinderella’s of the competition: North Melbourne, Gold Coast, Ken Hinkley’s Port Adelaide, and the Saints with the fairy tale return of Ross Lyon. But just on sheer rate of talent alone, reality is different to dreams.
I think the football world would love to see some upheaval on the ladder, but just because a previously successful, experienced coach takes over a club it doesn’t guarantee an immediate improvement.
Alastair Clarkson waited until the final minute to choose North Melbourne, Brad Scott came from nowhere to land at Essendon, and the Saints, who swore black and blue that they weren’t interested in Lyon, got Lyon. But a premiership or grand final coach is only one piece of the puzzle. Culture, form history, a good playing list, and a damn decent amount of luck with injuries all needs to fit together to form the final picture.
North hasn’t been in the finals since 2016 and finished dead last for the past two years. It’s going to take a monumental shift for Clarkson to get his side moving in the right direction. If they can win eight games it will be an extraordinary performance.
Essendon (yes, I tipped them for premiers last year) has fallen away dramatically after every good finish to a season in recent times. It’s a strange phenomenon and it shows a real lack of consistency. It would be terrific for Scott to get them back in the final eight but the climb will be tough.
New captain, Zach Merrett will be good for the team, but can Peter Wright kick more than 50 goals again? The fact he kicked 53 goals last season and the Bombers still finished 15th says a lot about the dishevelment of the team and where improvement needs to come from.
Since 2012 St Kilda has made the finals once, in 2020. When Lyon took the Saints to the finals in 2011 he had Nick Riewoldt as captain.
Having a soft spot for St Kilda, it breaks your heart every time they start to look good and then something bad happens. Max King going down with a shoulder injury is a prime example. And just like the nursery rhyme, when the Saints are good they are very, very good, but when they are bad they are horrid. So, consistency is going to be key for Lyon to keep the belief up and the list healthy.
I keep thinking back to Geelong and how it has lost one of the most inspirational skippers in the game, in Joel Selwood, and how that could affect the club. But the Cats have such an array of leaders, including new skipper Patrick Dangerfield, that it may go unnoticed.
New recruits Jack Bowes from Gold Coast, Tanner Bruhn from GWS, and Ollie Henry from Collingwood add a fresh, new dimension to the team. And I think Esava Ratugolea is playing his best football at key back.
It is rare to say with great confidence that the reining premiers will get better, but I honestly think Geelong will.
Mysteriously, Collingwood has a lot of doubters this season. I am not one of them.
Yes Brodie Grundy and Ollie Henry are major losses, but the Pies still picked up Bobbie Hill from GWS, Daniel McStay from Brisbane, and interestingly, Tom Mitchell from Hawthorn.
Collingwood’s perceived weakness last year was its clearance work. Mitchell will change that and certainly extract the football, but his disposal efficiency is sometimes questionable. If Craig McRae can alter Mitchell’s method for getting the ball to the outside, it could change the dynamics even further for the Pies.
They were the only team that could have beaten Geelong in the finals last year, and nearly did, losing by a goal in the first qualifying final. So I have full faith that the Pies, with the maturity of their list, and the new inclusions, and a potential Brownlow medallist in Nick Daicos creating chaos, will be a major danger to the Cats back-to-back chances.
A team that could sneak up on most but shouldn’t be a surprise, is Melbourne.
The Demons won their first 10 games last year and looked unbeatable. Then for some unknown reason, imploded. You don’t fluke winning 10 games on the trot so that’s a sign not to ignore.
With the recruitment of Grundy, and to a lesser degree, Lachie Hunter, Melbourne has covered the loss of Luke Jackson and looks a far more compact team. The Demons will certainly challenge for the top four.
The Western Bulldogs finally have what they’ve lacked in the last few seasons: bookends. Young Sam Darcy offers such a forward target that Aaron Naughton can become less of a focal point and be a better player because of it. And Liam Jones can take his form from Carlton to provide a very handy backbone.
All of the sudden the Bulldogs are starting to look like a well-balanced team, that isn’t so heavily reliant on its midfield. And that will take them places.
There will always be a lot said about Brisbane because it attracts noise. It has lost Daniel McStay but picked up another first rounder who could rival the impact of Nick Daicos at Collingwood, in Will Ashcroft. Josh Dunkley from the Bulldogs is another handy inclusion.
The Lions will win a lot of home games, but an area of focus will be the efficiency and consistency of Joe Daniher and Eric Hipwood, both of whom can be bitterly disappointing at times.
I’ve saved Sydney for last because we hear constantly that when a side gets belted in a grand final they will fail to fire the next year. That won’t happen to the Swans.
Yes, I do think that Lance Franklin is gone, and yes, they are heavily reliant on their fringe players becoming stars, but Sydney just keeps on hanging on.
If they find a way to do it again, the Swans will keep Gold Coast, the Giants and the Saints out of the final eight.
Then again, I could be wrong, I have been before.
Originally published as Mick Malthouse 2023 AFL preview: Top-eight changes, who will contend, who will struggle