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Sarah Black takes a look into the crystal ball for the 2014 AFL season

With apologies to Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a person new to Melbourne must be in want of a football team. Even if you have absolutely no knowledge or interest in Australian Rules Football, it is essential to nominate a club. It will prevent people from chastising you and trying to convince you to barrack for their team.

It is not for me to explain the intricacies of the hands-in-the-back rule, or attempt to explain just why the umpire won’t call holding the ball (an impossible task), but here is a guide to the 2014 season, and an attempt to help you pledge your own allegiances.

Adelaide Crows
The Adelaide Crows surprised many by struggling last year after a honeymoon season under new coach Brenton Sanderson in 2012. The return of Taylor Walker after a serious knee injury will help to plug the gigantic hole in their forward line, but the most serious problem the Crows have is that Sanderson is in fact fitter than most of their midfield, an issue exacerbated by the loss of captain Nathan Van Berlo to an achilles injury.
Verdict: Could be a long year with many teams pushing for finals. 15th.

Brisbane Lions
The combination of two defunct teams, Fitzroy Lions and the Brisbane Bears, the Lions were really good. Once. 10 years ago. The only people who support them in Melbourne are old Fitzroy fans. Now better known for drafting players that no one else wants, and being surprised when they end up blowing up in their face, as well as sacking coaches on the basis that a better one MAY be interested.
Verdict: In a similar situation to Adelaide, but with more promising players. If Jonathan Brown is fit*, they could be pushing for finals. 11th.

*Jonathan Brown once had a car crash into him while riding a bike. The car was a write off, and Brown walked away. He should be fit.

Carlton Blues
If you want to be in with the Italians and Greeks and aggravate Magpies supporters, pick the Blues. Coach Mick Malthouse has come from arch-rival Collingwood and brought players with him. Only made the finals by default last year after Essendon’s supplement scandal penalties resulted in Carlton taking their place in the eight. With the third-oldest list in the AFL they’ll struggle to make the playoffs again this year, especially without a genuine key forward. Could also be former captain Chris Judd’s final season of a wonderful career.
Verdict: See Adelaide and Brisbane. There’s a whole heap of teams who are going to be pushing for the top 8, and they aren’t all going to make it, including Carlton. 12th.

Collingwood Magpies
The biggest club in the AFL, the Magpies are a walking soap opera. Last year, the playing list contained a self-named “rat pack”, a 14-year-old fan was kicked out of a game after calling indigenous Sydney player Adam Goodes an ape, club president Eddie McGuire apologised to said player and then later suggested that Goodes could be used to promote the musical King Kong, and star player Daisy Thomas was poached by aforementioned ex-coach Malthouse. Bold and the Beautiful, take note.
Verdict: Having said that, Collingwood should make finals, being keen to atone for last year’s shock loss to Port Adelaide in the first week of finals. May not make it with the quality of other teams. 7th.

Essendon Bombers
Essendon gave the media a field year in 2013. Their membership slogan was “Whatever It Takes”, and it signalled an annus horriblus for the club, who came under investigation for a suspicious supplements regime. A massive fine and bans for several key officials was the result, as well as expulsion from the finals. Go for Essendon if you like widespread media coverage and being the butt of drug cheat jokes.
Verdict: In all seriousness, the Bombers have a very strong, young list, and in acting senior coach Mark Thompson, have a man who knows how to win Grand Finals. 3rd.

Fremantle Dockers
If you want to be unique, pick Freo. From their appalling theme song (consisting almost entirely of the phrase “Freo, heave ho”), to their vividly purple uniform, no one quite knows what to make of the Dockers. Never seriously threatened for a premiership until last year, and were overawed on the big stage upon making the grand final. Their best team contains an absolute giant in Aaron Sandilands with a badly stubbed toe, and a small forward in Hayden Ballantyne who has been suspended on separate occasions for pinching and pulling dreadlocks. Coach Ross Lyon is also slightly crazy.
Verdict: In spite of their unusualness, Fremantle will be better for their Grand Final experience last year. A serious threat. 5th.

Photography by Tim Moreillon (Flickr)

Photography by Tim Moreillon (Flickr)

Geelong Cats
Seemed to have discovered the fountain of high-quality youth. A champion team in the late 2000s, the Cats proved that despite being based down the highway from Melbourne, they can mix it with the best. A huge spate of retirements from champion players has only slightly lessened their potency, with young and inexperienced players filling the void. Geelong even managed to turn a steeplechaser vying for Olympic representation into a first choice ruckman, such is their golden touch.
Verdict: May drop out of the top four due to pressure from other teams, but will play finals for an incredible tenth successive year. 6th.

Gold Coast Suns
One of the AFL’s grand plan expansion teams, the Suns are coming into their fourth season. Not being based in Melbourne means little is known about them, except that their captain Gary Ablett defected from Geelong at the height of their powers, and their only other experienced player in Campbell Brown was sacked at the end of last year in a bizarre incident in Los Angeles involving teammate Stephen May and Rihanna. As in the singer. You can’t make this stuff up.
Verdict: The Gold Coast are growing up, and nearly threatened to steal a finals spot in 2013. Will definitely give some teams a fright again this year. 10th.

Greater Western Sydney Giants
Even younger than the Suns, the Giants seriously struggled in 2013. After their momentous first two wins in 2012, the Giants went backwards last year, only winning one match against the lowly Melbourne. Currently best known for their garish orange uniform and paying a rugby player half their salary cap to play a couple of games in their first season. However with Jeremy Cameron, Jonathan Patton and new acquisition Tom Boyd, GWS will truly have a “giant” forward line in the next few years.
Verdict: Will have another extremely difficult year. Avoid like the plague. 18th.

Hawthorn Hawks
The premiers of 2013. Present themselves as a family club, but there is a deep-seated arrogance about the Hawks and some of their supporters – although you can afford to be cocky when you’re as successful as they’ve been. Defeated every club last year except Richmond, even overcoming their bogey team in Geelong, thereby smashing the Kennett Curse.
Verdict: Will be very tough to beat again this year, but the defection of star forward Lance “Buddy” Franklin to Sydney may affect their structure even if the club claims otherwise. Regardless, they’ll be top four, for sure. 1st.

Melbourne Demons
Don’t be fooled into picking the Demons just because they seem to be based in the city centre. Often referred to by the media simply as a “basket case”, the Demons have been entrenched at the bottom of the ladder for a good seven years (an eternity in an AFL that does everything to equalise the competition). Mocked for their wealthy supporters, Melbourne is more likely these days to be pitied for their dismal performances. The coaching job is as cursed as the Defence Against the Dark Arts post at Hogwarts.
Verdict: Even with the acquisition of supercoach Paul Roos, will be vying with the Giants and the Saints for the wooden spoon ‘awarded’ to last place. 16th.

North Melbourne Kangaroos
Perennial also-rans, the Roos have always been one of the smaller and poorer clubs in Melbourne. Famous for their fighting spirit, North Melbourne struggled last year, often leading higher placed teams right until the last ten minutes of the game upon which they proceeded to throw it away. They consequently missed the finals. Notable things about the Roos include their best player being almost 36 years old, and their coach being the identical twin of Geelong’s coach. He’s a hell of a lot scarier though.
Verdict: May just break through to reach 7th or 8th. Prepare for a lot of pain and near misses though. 8th.

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Photography by Fairv8 (Wikimedia)

Port Adelaide Power
The Collingwood of Adelaide. Only their supporters love them, except for when they beat the Magpies, their upset win in last year’s elimination final being an example. Their mascot is a lightning bolt, and their jumper was designed by a nine year old. Literally. Surprised many by making the finals last year but surprised no one when they fell to perennial finalist Geelong in the second week.
Verdict: Will struggle to back up last year’s efforts with teams like Essendon and North Melbourne coming through. 9th.

Richmond Tigers
A club of cliches, the Tigers are slowly turning it around. Finally broke through last year for their first finals appearance since 2001, but before that had finished 9th on numerous occasions, a popular point of derision. Have been known for their disastrous trading and drafting of new players (Richard Tambling ahead of Buddy anyone?), but have picked up some decent players to fill specific roles in recent years. Set an unwanted record last season as being the only team to lose to 9th place (Carlton) in the finals.
Verdict: Should be right to make finals, as long as Jake “The Push-Up” King stays away from those highly illegal bikies. You never know what influence they could have on a football team. 4th.

St Kilda Saints
Far from setting the field alight, the only thing the Saints set on fire last year was a dwarf, during a post-season celebration gone horribly wrong. A very messy sacking of coach Scott Watters followed, where revelations of miscommunication were proved to be correct when he appeared on radio convinced he still had a job but was sacked hours later.
Verdict: Will be down the bottom of the ladder again, especially with the defection of ruckman Ben McEvoy and star midfielder Nick Dal Santo to other clubs. 17th.

Sydney Swans
While Sydney might have lost to Fremantle in the preliminary final, they pulled off the coup of the century last year when they drafted Buddy Franklin right under the noses of cross town rivals GWS on a twelve million dollar, ten year contract. With the Swans’ record of getting new players to abide by the selfless “Bloods” culture, Sydney + Buddy = grand final potential. For the uninitiated, Sydney are a good team to barrack for as no one really cares about them.
Verdict: Will be nearly unstoppable in their forward line, making them very hard to beat. 2nd.

West Coast Eagles
Despite having the most feared ruck combination in the competition with Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui, the Eagles disappointed many with an ordinary 2013. They also lost their long-time coach John Worsfold, who was replaced by Adam Simpson. This appointment made no waves in Melbourne, such is the lack of splash the Eagles make outside of WA.
Verdict: Despite shedding their bad boy reputation (they are based in Perth after all), West Coast have struggled to make an impact on the competition. They will continue to struggle in 2014. 13th.

Western Bulldogs
Along with North Melbourne, the Bulldogs are traditionally one of the weaker Victorian clubs. Currently a very young team, they showed signs of improvement in the latter part of last season. The Bulldogs have lost quite a few characters over the last few years, and now are a team of virtual unknowns. They’ve recently gained a coaching panel of ex-Geelong players, so the unknowns could become a champion team. In another five years.
Verdict: If you want short-term success, steer clear. Their one premiership came back in 1954, and they will be waiting a while longer. 14th.

Sarah Black’s predicted ladder
1. Hawthorn
2. Sydney
3. Essendon
4. Richmond
5. Fremantle
6. Geelong
7. Collingwood
8. North Melbourne
9. Port Adelaide
10. Gold Coast
11. Brisbane
12. Carlton
13. West Coast
14. Western Bulldogs
15. Adelaide
16. Melbourne
17. St Kilda
18. GWS Giants