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Preview of AFL season 2006

  • Wednesday, March 29 2006 @ 07:50 am ACDT
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General News

The 2006 AFL season starts in earnest on Thursday night with a blockbuster clash in Perth between last year's runners-up West Coast against premiership favourite St Kilda. Both sides are tipped to give the premiership a shake, with both featuring highly in our reader poll (first and second) and ranked first and fourth with most bookmakers. Also favoured by the bookies are 2005 minor premiers Adelaide (second with the bookies) and Geelong (ranked third). Reigning premiers Sydney have drifted out to fifth. WFN's focus is on the international aspect of Australia's indigenous game, but here we give a quick preview of the season ahead in the sport's premier league, as well as note the AFL players with a distinctly international flavour.

As is generally the case last year's Grand Finalists have been installed amongst the favourites. However there has been a perception that Sydney "got lucky" in 2005 and the Swans have further shaken the punters' confidence with a poor pre-season but coach Paul Roos has been publicly unconcerned as they ease into the new year. West Coast have had a similarly poor start, with more than their fair share of off-field incidents, one such problem leading to Ben Cousins stepping down as captain to be replaced by fellow gun midfielder Chris Judd (the first Victorian to lead the West Australian club). Both sides should finish high in the top eight, but any hint of the dreaded "premiership hangover" could see the Swans drop a few spots.

The 2005 season saw Adelaide unexpectedly rise to the top after the home and away rounds, with new coach Neil Craig impressing the sceptics and seemingly combining his sports science background with the knowledge gained from a distinguished footy career in the SANFL (in the pre-AFL days) to rapidly transform an under-performing team into a powerhouse, fast-tracking younger players into key position strengths. Come finals and the momentum faltered, with the Crows knocked out in a Preliminary final against West Coast. The odds being quoted have Adelaide likely to again feature in the top four, not least because of their strong run in the pre-season NAB Cup, though the question is being asked - can Adelaide have a similarly low injury count again in 2006, and will other clubs have worked out how to combat their tactics?

Geelong surprised by knocking off Adelaide in the NAB Cup final at AAMI Stadium in an away game for the Cats. Their form has reassured fans that they are on track to back up last year's strong showing. With a lot of young players establishing themselves as top flight footballers, expect the Cattery to again be a tough place for teams to visit and Geelong supporters have good reason to hope for a premiership.

The other likely major contender are the Saints. Over several years the perennial cellar dwellers of the AFL benefited greatly from priority picks in the AFL Draft that gives low finishing teams first choice to help them rise up the rankings. This saw St Kilda develop a formidable list of young talent and for the last few years there has been an expectation that they would snatch a flag. Fans will now be starting to worry that the club is drifting - no longer a lowly side but never quite going all the way. 2005 was a disaster of injuries and the club has overhauled its conditioning system. With a bit of luck it would be no surprise to see them playing off in the last game of the year. Coach Grant Thomas might just need that for the sake of his own career.

With five strong contenders for the flag it's hard to see any of the other 11 teams making a serious bid for premiership glory. Melbourne will push hard again, but the manner in which they were blown away by Adelaide in the NAB Cup left many doubting they can step up to the next level. But their talented side could surprise if they can keep everyone fit for a finals tilt. Port Adelaide could be in a similar position after a major fall from grace after their premiership in 2004, but it's likely they'll need a couple more years to develop their youth. The other finalist of 2005, the Kangaroos, are again likely to be rated lowly but battle their way to either just in or just out of the top eight.

Last season the Western Bulldogs had a barnstorming finish to the season and were unlucky to miss the finals. With a host of talented youth they will be disappointed if they miss again. They should make it, but then Fremantle are also a slowly improving side with big hopes, as are Richmond. Some of these teams on the rise will have to make big gains to displace last year's finalists, and it could be that teams such as the Kangaroos and Port Adelaide will be the ones to go. However any pundit who has confidence in backing the notoriously erratic Richmond and Freo is asking for trouble, so perhaps only one or neither of those two will be playing off at the business end of the season. In amongst that group will also be Brisbane - recently the dominant team in the AFL, and with key big man Jonathan Brown back fit, it would be foolish to write them off. So 2006 could be the tightest year for a long time, with a number of clubs likely to be fighting for a finals spot come the last few rounds. As always, injuries will be a key.

Four sides that seem unlikely to threaten are Essendon, Hawthorn, Collingwood and Carlton (at over 100/1 the bookmakers have them firmly installed as least likely to win the flag). 2005's bottom four don't seem set to make big strides just yet. The Hawks are the pick of the bunch, and Essendon weren't far from the top eight last year, but neither can expect to play consistently enough over the full 22 rounds to win their way into the major rounds. And the Magpies and Blues should be more competitive in 2006 but even the most optimistic supporters must suspect that there is still a lot more rebuilding to be done.

This year also sees the return of the upgraded Melbourne Cricket Ground. Victoria's number one venue and home of the Grand Final was renovated as part of the recently completed Commonwealth Games. The capacity was reduced throughout 2005 but should return to approximately 100,000 for the ANZAC Day clash between the Dons and the Maggies. After an overdose of sport don't expect that to stop the AFL season being embraced with relish by footy starved fans. Also of interest will be the effect of Sydney's premiership, their first since moving to the Harbour city in the 1980s. Australia's biggest city has only slowly warmed to the great Australian game but there are hopes their 2005 flag will stir more support to complement the major investments being made at junior levels, which the AFL have indicated will be pushed even harder with the new media rights. But as always the game has strong competition from Rugby League and Rugby Union, and there will be a lot of commercical and media-driven hype over Australia's first trip to the soccer World Cup finals for the first time in decades.

On the international front, but from a purely AFL perspective, Setanta O'hAilpin will be keenly watched, to see if the Irishman with a hurling background can take the next step and play at least a handful of games for Carlton - he will probably need to if he is to continue being given opportunities. His younger brother Aisake has more time, but early reports from pre-season practice matches haven't been promising - Carlton may require him to step up to be a regular A grade player with feeder club the Northern Bullants in the VFL if they are to persist with him. Former Gaelic footballer Colm Begley will do well if he can snare a couple of games with Brisbane so not too much will be expected of him in this his first year. And it will be interesting to see if Swans premiership player Tadhg Kennelly signs on for more years at the Swans towards the end of 2006, or if he goes home to purse Gaelic football glory before he retires, as he has previously indicated. A couple of other players to watch are James Gwilt, a part Papuan player at St Kilda who burst onto the scene late last year, and Brad Moran, a recent English migrant who took the game up on the Gold Coast and was drafted by the Kangaroos. And finally stalwart Mal Michael at Brisbane will continue to fly the flag for PNG football. We continue to wait for the day when a "home grown" international, who learns the game in their own country first, is drafted into the AFL - it must be drawing close. PNG, New Zealand and now South Africa must be favourites, but many other countries could produce a surprise talent from their smaller numbers.

We'll not so boldly predict that 2006 should see a keenly contested race for the flag, controversial off-field incidents, widespread dissatisfaction with the umpiring, record or near record total attendances and TV audiences, and a deserving winner at the end. After that the International Rules series moves to Ireland with matches likely for Dublin and for the first time Galway. And then what could be a major change from an Australian fan point of view - the move from Channel 9 to Channel 7 as the major telecaster, and we'll see how the AFL distributes the massive jump in TV rights revenue, with the players, clubs and development in Queensland and NSW tipped to be the big winners.