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AFL 2017 Preview: Rocky Off-Season Sets Up Giant Year Ahead

In the shadow of a mostly negative lead-up, we look at what’ll shape the forthcoming season and, more importantly, who’s set to win the whole thing.

You can feel the charge in the air. In just one sleep thousands upon thousands of fans will fill stadiums and arenas around the country for the kick off of the 2017 AFL season. The umpires will begin the first of 207 games, as they begrudgingly bounce the ball at the MCG on Thursday night and stalwart clubs Carlton and Richmond will begin their respective campaigns, while the umps launch their own four-week campaign of misinterpreting new rules brought in over the off-season (looking at you third man up in the ruck contest).

It’s been a tremendously eventful off-season since the underdogs became the overdogs, when the Western Bulldogs rode a wave of emotion and a scandalously lopsided free kick count to beat the Sydney Swans in September. And in true AFL tradition, it’s been an off-season featuring as much triumph as it has controversy.

The launch of the Women’s AFL has been a resounding success, with attendance and viewing numbers that far exceeded expectation (from the other codes – Australian Rules fans are never surprised by how passionate and engaged they are), although the recently, unanimously, re-elected Collingwood President, Eddie McGuire, managed to once again raise eyebrows by not attending his own team’s debut. Instead he watched two old blokes punch on in Adelaide.

One of the sport’s golden boys, Jobe Watson, has returned from making lattes in Brooklyn, to somehow come out the other end of the enduring Essendon doping scandal, a serious shoulder injury, a subsequent ban for the doping scandal, and a relinquished Brownlow Medal, to be more respected and revered than ever.

Watson’s former coach and undisputed AFL great, James Hird, sent shockwaves through the sport’s landscape with his apparent drug overdose – leaving a lot of us looking both inward and outward at how we’ve handled the Essendon great’s fall from grace.

A tear was brought to the eye of even the most hardened Hawthorn haters with the announcement that Jarryd Roughead will not only triumphantly return to the AFL arena after battling cancer for the second time – but that he’ll also be captaining his team in 2017. Meanwhile, Fremantle look set to try and convince Nat Fyfe to continue to be the hero they need by awarding him a surprise captaincy too, hoping it will prevent him leaving with his impending free agency coming up at the end of the season. It will be a thrill to see those massive quads tearing up the pitch either way.

And, even as late as last week the off-season updates — both good and bad — continued to trickle in, with Plugger Lockett appearing at Swans practice, looking like a Lean Cuisine version of his former fridge frame, while the most special of commentators Bruce McAvaney revealed he’s been quietly and stoically battling cancer for years. Get well soon, mate.

But that was the off-season, and as of Thursday we’re back into full swing. Will the doggies continue to reign supreme? Will the Swans finally be able to break their Grand Final day hoodoo? Will the T-1000 that is the Greater Western Sydney Giants be able to reward the AFL’s much derided Blacktown experiment? Or will one of the old guard once again rise up and retain the premiership for the sport’s motherland (if it is please let it be anyone but Hawthorn)? Here is what you can expect from the 2017 AFL Season.

Who Will Win It

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As much as they deserved it, you could never say that the Western Bulldogs looked like a certainty in 2016. They were the definition of hitting your stride at the right time. And although they may not have the strongest list in 2017, they now know what it feels like to win a flag again and with that will come a swagger and a confidence few of the players have experienced previously. Not to mention they will now have an X Factor in the form of what they’re praying to be is a re-born Travis Cloak. But they will definitely make the top 8, if only on the back of the Bont, and as we learned from last year, from there anything is possible.

The Sydney Swans might be the most sneered at team in the league (we get it, even we know our fans are annoying), but it is hard to argue with the fact that along with Hawthorn they have been the most consistent team of the last decade, and have come desperately close to winning the flag twice in three years. Whether they can turn that double heartbreak into triumph off the back of Buddy Franklin kicking screwies on the SCG, along with dynamic mid-field duo of Dan Hannebery and Luke Parker, future Brownlow Medalists Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills, and the league’s latest cult hero Aliir “Chanda” Aliir, remains to be seen. They’ll give it a good shake though.

Purely on paper, and more and more on the actual footy field, Greater Western Sydney Giants are terrifying. They’re young, they’re fierce, they’re hard, they’re immeasurably talented, they have the ideal combination of big and small men, and they aptly have a giant-killing mentality when it comes to playing the big name teams. It’s only a few years before their new franchise enriched list begins to be picked off by the Victorian vultures, so the time is dwindling for them to stake their claim to greatness. They came close in 2016, they’ll be hungry to get closer in 2017.

Who Could

Hawthorn Hawks can never be ruled out. We all hate to admit it, but it’s true. Alastair Clarkson is the best coach in the country and he’s got the straight A report cards to prove it. His list has been weakened over the break with the shock departures of Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis, but with the return of Jarryd Roughead, the team will have a fire in their bellies to prove themselves and to win one for their Captain Courageous.

North Melbourne Kangaroos have had a sniff for the last few years, making the outskirts of the finals and genuinely displaying the properties of a champion team. But their lack of consistency has come back to bite them on more than one occasion, and whether they can balance out their negatives with their positives will be a big factor if they can get over the edge. Judging by their pre-season interclub game punch-ons though, they’re fired up for a big campaign.

There were many that cited Adelaide as dark horses to win the comp last year. They had the talent, they had the skills, and they had been bonded by the strength of extreme emotion, forged after the tragic and sudden death of their former coach, Phil Walsh, in 2015. Sadly they ran out of steam in the semi-finals, being soundly beaten by eventual Grand Final runners-up Sydney, but there were enough flashes of brilliance from the likes of Eddie Betts and Tex Walker throughout their season to suggest that they’ll be swooping through the 2017 system with their eyes firmly on the major prize.

Richmond are another team that have been on the cusp in recent years and have the potential to kick it up to the next gear in 2017. Having watched the success of the Bulldogs in 2016 must have only given the Tigers, a similar team in many ways, the self-recognition that they too could pull off a miraculous and enduring lack of success and finally tap the potential they’ve so often displayed but never ultimately capitalised on.

Who Almost Certainly Won’t

Collingwood Magpies, from the viewpoint of everyone except their own supporters and administrators, are a club in disarray. Their coaching staff — headed by former great player Nathan Buckley — leave a lot to be desired. Their president is a gaff prone representative of the old boys club of the AFL, and for a club that has had a long history of being true champions, they also have a reputation for being on the wrong side of history in a number of cultural and social aspects. They seem to need a serious regime change in order to return to former glory. Or at least they need to stop worrying about the allowances that interstate clubs get, and instead stop recruiting injury-prone veterans like Daniel Wells. The return of the high-flying, pocket rocket Jamie Elliott will be a welcome positive though.

Essendon are still on the long road to recovery. It’s insane to see how their NRL counterparts are currently competing as Premiers in their league, while the Bombers look set to only this year finally embark on a season that won’t be marred by controversy and penalty. It will be an important season for the Bombers, and hopefully a confidence building one for not only the players, but also their loyal followers.

Carlton – you almost have to feel sorry for them. The former champions and AFL powerhouse club have endured one of the most brutal dry spells in memory and every season they seem to be “back on track” usually finishes with a splutter. Even after recruiting one of the greatest players of all time in Chris Judd, they were never able to build a solid team around him. That being said, 2016 was their most inspiring season in a long time, and under the leadership of coach Brendan Boulton they could be, for the first time in years, posed to have some impact.

Other Things To Keep An Eye Out For This Season

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Anti-muslim banner displayed by fans at a game between Richmond and Collingwood in May, 2016

Which racist incident will bring the season into disrepute again this year? It’s sad to admit, but it’s almost expected now. From the shameful way the league handled the Adam Goodes saga to anti-Muslim banners being hung during a game featuring the AFL’s most prominent Muslim player, it’s undeniable the league continues to face a real problem with how it handles racism in the current political and cultural climate. The AFL needs to make sure that any incidents that sadly will likely arise in 2017 will be dealt with swiftly and brutally. Racism has no place in the game or in society at large.

There’s also the ongoing battle between the most painful of the game’s TV commentators, Brian ‘BT’ Thompson, and the former unreliable Richmond forward-turned BT commentating nemesis, Matthew Richardson. Richo’s complete and utter lack of patience for BT’s grating and often incorrect mid-game observations is regularly hilarious. And if the only reason they’re keeping BT around is for those moments when Richo calls him out for being blatantly wrong, it will almost make it worth it. Almost.

And finally, 2017 will see the return of some of the most exciting players in the game. The aforementioned Jarryd Roughead, Jamie Elliott and Nat Fyfe – as well as the Bulldogs captain and heart of the club Bob Murphy, just to name a few, will be invigorating for the game. Jobe Watson and his Bomber teammates, as well as former teammates also dealt suspensions, will also return to the track, and once again the AFL will feel complete again.

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