New year, new hopes - players are bigger, faster, stronger, and have had the best pre-season ever. I love the positivity in the air at this time of year.
We have seen some cracking NAB Challenge games and some extraordinary young talents who are going to have an immediate impact on their team’s fortunes. It has taken a little getting used to - well, for me personally - watching players run around in different colours as well.
For footy nuts, the game is never too far from our minds. Even in summer, when I chat football, the obligatory questions are: How is your break? Pre-season tough? When’s you first game?
This eventually leads to the important question: ‘‘How is my team going to go?’’ Well, I thought I’d give you a quick player's perspective on the 17 sides that I’ll be taking on this year and the immediate thoughts I have on them.
Adelaide: Home of the cult hero - Tony Modra and Wayne ‘‘Weeeeeeed’’ Weidemann are a couple of past Crows heroes. Tex Walker is expected to return soon from injury, while they have added some serious fire power in James ‘‘Podra’’ Podsiadly and Eddie Betts. You throw in a really stable list with the game-breaking ability of Patty Dangerfield, and the Crows look to be heading north on the ladder.
Brisbane: All the noise coming out of Brisbane this summer is how they have a strong and united group now. Any side with leaders like Jon Brown and Jed Adcock at the helm will fight tooth and nail for everything. Throw in the fact they have a legend from their dominant era in Justin Leppitch, and the Lions could do what the Port Power did last year and punish some sides for not showing them enough respect.
Carlton: Now in their second year under Mick Malthouse, the Blues will be an extremely disciplined side with talent everywhere. They have star players who have played a lot of football considering their relative youth. Youth plus games experience plus talent equals hard match-ups for the opposition. Hopefully, for them they have better luck with injuries with key players this year.
Collingwood: The Pies have some of the most elite talent in the competition. Swan, Cloke, Pendlebury, Reid, Lumumba, Maxwell, Ball, have all, at some stage of their career, been All Australians. With their amazingly loyal supporter base, every game is a blockbuster. They have the skills and experience to handle any game situation.
Essendon: A huge and talented spine with so much skill ... their greedy problem is at which end to play them. All of their talls can play in any number of positions. You add to that Jobe Watson, Brendon Goddard and Dyson Heppell and, after a tough year 2013, they will be a galvanised group. They will have everyone talking about their football this year.
Fremantle: They have the AFL’s most dominant and impossible match-up when Aaron Sandilands is fully fit. To make life even harder, there is Fyfe, Barlow and Mundy - three tall, hard running and all-round skilled midfielders. This makes Freo one of the teams to beat this year. To make things even harder for opponents, they are coached by Ross Lyon whose tough, disciplined style is etched all over this side. Freo has players who will do anything that he asks.
Gold Coast: Gazza to the power of a million. The little, bald genius is still at an unseen level of play and now has a pack of young stars surrounding him. Martin, O’Meara, Swallow, Prestia, to name a few. The Suns seem to have a really settled line-up and are starting to build a fortress on the Gold Coast.
GWS: What are parents feeding their kids these days? Like the Suns, the Giants have key-position monsters. There are 17 other sides hoping the three-talls system in the forward line doesn’t work for the Giants. Not only are Boyd, Patton and Cameron huge, they are agile and skilful. To rub it in further, they have added some finals hardened experience in the back half with Hunt, Shaw and Addison to go with the truck load of hard-running ball machines they have through the midfield.
Hawthorn: Stars of the game across every line. They have the best foot skills and can cut up opponents. They have so many attacking weapons, from any part of the ground, that they can cut you up in the space of five minutes. Don’t undersell their tall backs, either. Stratton, Lake and Gibson get all the big jobs and are rarely beaten. You’d be a brave man not to tip them as a grand-final contender.
Melbourne: When fit, they have one of the more talented forward lines getting around. Throw in the marking power of Dawes and Clark, the beast that is Jesse Hogan and the highlight reel that’s Jeremy Howe ... that’s a strong combination. They aren’t going to be short of supply with the deep midfield that the Dees now have. Jones, Watts and McKenzie now get help from new arrivals of Vince, Tyson and Daniel Cross.
North Melbourne: I, like many, think they are going to be a top-four side. You scroll down their list and everyone seems to be in the bracket of 40-plus games. They have great depth. Wells, Petrie and Harvey still produce elite games, while full-back Scott Thompson continues to shut down the opposition’s best attacking options.
Port Adelaide: Not only were they the surprise of last year but they were great to watch. Not that you should expect anything less from a Ken Hinkley-coached side. They are tough in the contest, back themselves with their ball use and utilise their three tall forwards as effectively as anyone. Schulz, Butcher and Westhoff are mobile and have sticky mitts. Two young guns who play above their age in Wines and Wingard compliment their skipper, Boak, perfectly.
Richmond: What a great feeling there was around Melbourne when the "Tiger train" was up and about last year. Now they have finals experience, they surely will want more. They have an elite midfield and numbers who can run rotate through. Cotchin, Martin and Deledio are goal-kicking mids. With Rance, Chaplin, Maric, Vickery and Riewoldt, that is a well-established spine which will win the Tigers a lot of games.
St Kilda: Hayes, Riewoldt, Fisher and Montagna have been some of the best players in the game over the past decade. You add Jack Steven, once he returns from injury, and a talented young bunch of players wanting to make their mark on the game, and the Saints will make you earn everything. With a new coach in Alan Richardson, the Saints will surprise.
Sydney: A team with Buddy, Goodes, Tippett, Reid, Jetta, Kennedy, O’Keefe, Jack and McVeigh is splurging with talent. What gets overlooked a lot is that the Swans have a tough and well-organised defense. Richards and Grundy are the key pillars in the back 50 and young guns Johnson and Rampe have slotted in to AFL footy with ease. The best name in football, Lewis Roberts-Thomson, plays the marking defender role as well as anyone.
West Coast: They have had a terrible run with injuries to key players; they have the best one-two ruck combo in Cox and big Nic Nat; Kennedy and Darling make defenders go to every part of Subiaco; they play half their games on a ground they call the House of Pain ... the Eagles, as their song says, ‘‘will be flying high’’ this year.
Western Bulldogs: I love watching the Western Bulldogs. Having spent nine years being taught by Brendan McCartney, you can see what he is teaching the young Doggies - outnumber your opponents, play tough, contested football and never concede anything. Libba, Wallis, Macrae, Stringer, Hrovat - to name a few - are surely reaping the benefits of training next to champions in Griffen, Cooney, Murphy and Gia.