Every year people like to say it is the closest AFL season on record. But this could genuinely be the case in 2022 with the majority of the teams in the running for The McClelland Trophy.
Who will be the surprise packages of 2022? Can the Demons go back to back? Can St Kilda snap the longest premiership drought in the AFL? How will the Western Australian clubs deal with Covid after Mark McGowan turned the state into a fortress? When will Buddy Franklin kick his 1000th goal? Will Carlton return to finals under the leadership of new coach Michael Voss?
There is plenty to unpack ahead of the season and plenty of genuine contenders to hoist the trophy in September.
There are also plenty of teams that are looking to claw their way out of the bottom portion of the ladder and make their return to finals football. Who will be the surprise packages of 2022?
MIKE COLMAN has run the rule over all 18 teams and separated the contenders from the pretenders.
This season should be the last round-up for off-contract Gold Coast coach Stuart Dew who, like all his predecessors, has failed to take the Suns to the finals in his five years in charge.
Gold Coast coach Stuart Dew will be under enormous pressure in the 2022 AFL season
With talk that former four-time premiership-winning Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson is in the frame to take over, Dew will need a miracle season if he is to keep his job. With the list at his disposal the chances of that happening are somewhere between impossible and Buckley’s.
The club has a strong midfield spearheaded by Touk Miller and the back-from-injury Matt Rowell, while the Suns did well to fend off interest from Melbourne to re-sign versatile forward Ben King,
The return of midfielder Matt Crouch, who missed all of the 2021 season with a groin injury, will also heavily sway the Suns’ fortunes in 2022.
Big things are expected from Egyptian-born, South Sudanese draft pick Mac Andrew who stands at 201cm and has all the athletic gifts to succeed, but he is likely going to need time to come along.
What probably sums the Suns ‘situation up best is the fact that rising talent Noah Anderson, 21, has been voted into the leadership group after just 37 AFL games.
There is a smattering of raw talent there but not enough to seriously make a tilt at the AFL top eight and any injuries would spell certain doom for the Gold Coast.
With a lack of depth, a coach seemingly walking the green mile and a premiership-winning mentor waiting in the wings, it looks like more misery for Suns fans in 2022. But there is hope for a better future.
New Hawthorn coach Sam Mitchell (right) made a stunning confession when he told fans ‘I don’t have a clue’ during the AFL pre-season
Hearing their coach say ‘I don’t have a clue’ isn’t exactly what any footy fan wants to hear before the start of the season, but that’s what Hawthorn’s Sam Mitchell told the media back in November.
Mitchell, who has been given the unenviable task of walking in the giant shadow of four-time flag winner Alastair Clarkson, was answering questions about the make-up of his team, the style of footy they would play, and where he saw them finishing on the ladder.
Five months later with the season now upon him, let’s hope he has more of idea of what’s going on, otherwise it’s going to be a very long, painful year for Mitchell, his players and the brown and gold faithful.
If the Hawks are to have any chance of making an impression it will take big seasons from the likes of creative defender Blake Hardwick, key forward Mitchell Lewis, the resurgent Tom Mitchell and midfielder James Worpel, who needs to lift his game.
They will benefit from the return from injury of key defender James Sicily, and big things are predicted for number seven draft pick Josh Ward, but even so the Hawks are in a rebuilding phase – which is another thing supporters don’t want to hear.
After collecting the dreaded wooden spoon last year you’d think things can only improve for the Roos – but you might be wrong.
North Melbourne supporters will be hoping that new recruit Hugh Greenwood from the Gold Coast will have a significant impact
Looking at the positives, second-year coach David Noble will have a better grasp on what he’s up against after enduring the horrors of last season, and his squad has been strengthened thanks to the draft and a couple of handy, experienced acquisitions.
Last spot on the ladder gave the club its first-ever top pick at the draft and they used it wisely, grabbing boom midfielder Jason Horne-Fraser. The 18-year-old has been playing senior football for South Adelaide in the SAFL for two years and had a blinder in the club’s preliminary final against Glenelg, finishing with 24 disposals, 11 clearances and three goals.
He will be joined at Arden Street by gritty former Gold Coast midfielder Hugh Greenwood and ex-Richmond ruck-forward Callum Coleman-Jones. Add those new faces to established Roos like captain Jack Ziebell, Jy Simpkin and Tarryn Thomas and you have a side capable of climbing up off the bottom rung of the ladder – but not by much.
Veteran Scott Pendlebury will be a key cog for a rebuilding Collingwood roster this year following the Pies’ horror 2021 season
Could the misery of 2021 be a blessing in disguise for the Magpies? When it became apparent their season was on the rocks, the powers that be wielded the axe quickly and ruthlessly – and no one was spared.
Nathan Buckley and Eddie McGuire have the black and white of Collingwood imprinted on their DNA but both were shown the door and nine debutants were ushered into the top side in a bid to fast-track development and avoid a dreaded rebuilding window.
There are early wobbles for 2022 as well. Jeremy Howe is being managed after collecting a groin injury in the pre-season, Jordan De Goey faced court for harassment in a New York court, champion midfielder Scott Pendlebury blew out 34 candles on his birthday cake in January while key defender Jordan Roughead will miss the first month of the season with a shoulder injury.
There is a cluster of All-Australian-calibre talent, a few handy players a tier just below and then a whole bunch of rookies that new coach Craig McRae will have to inspire in 2022.
Blooding a bunch of the raw players in 2021 will help, but with so many senior players battling injuries, a real issue with depth and a need to develop their identity again, Collingwood is heading for a rebuilding season – whether they like it or not.
It has been a rough few years for the Crows with everything seeming to go wrong after surging into the 2017 grand final. If 2021 was a false dawn, 2022 might be the year that Adelaide finally corrects the ship – to a degree. Hopes were high last season when the Crows shot out of the gates to win three of their first five matches, but seven losses in their final eight games quickly dashed hopes.
Ben Keays will be one of several players that will need to lift if the Adelaide Crows are going to improve in the 2022 AFL season
Still, they beat eventual premiers Melbourne in a thriller and started to show the kind of ticker that can drag a club back up the AFL ladder.
Tex Walker’s racial slur and consequent suspension marred that progress and Adelaide will continue to feel that pain in 2022 with the former skipper to miss the first three games of the season.
In his place, Ben Keays has been added to the leadership group in a huge career revival just three years after the crafty midfielder found himself de-listed.
Jordan Dawson will add skill and pace on the outside and he was a key recruit following breakthrough seasons at Sydney. Athletic half-forward draft pick Luke Nankervis will be an interesting prospect while Victorian duo Jake Soligo and Zac Taylor were both club best and fairest recipients prior to their selection in the draft.
Overall, there’s a handful of elite players, some highly promising youngsters and it feels like the fire is in the belly for most of the Crows. Will it be enough to rise up the ladder? Yes… but only little bit.
West Coast Eagles key forward Josh Kennedy will wear the brunt of his side’s pressure and expectation just months after he considered retirement.
Two issues will have a major impact on the Eagles’ season: Covid and Father Time. The corona situation in Western Australia remains more fluid than in other states, and even before a ball was kicked in anger AFL football manager Brad Scott was trying to hose down speculation that the Eagles and Dockers would have to relocate.
It also means the WA clubs are more likely to have roster issues because of Covid protocols and putting the same team on the park consistently will be a huge challenge.
There’s also no hosing down the fact that the Eagles are getting older. With injuries to emerging West Coast Eagles forwards Oscar Allen [foot] and Jamie Cripps [shoulder] and a question mark over Jack Darling’s vaccination status and availability throughout 2022, much of the goalkicking responsibility will fall on 34-year-old Josh Kennedy – who was talking retirement just a few months ago.
Alongside Kennedy, Liam Ryan, Jack Petruccelle and maybe even the versatile but untested Bailey Williams will have to step up in the forward line.
The question is whether the midfield will be able to get the ball to them enough. In the seven years of coach Adam Simpson’s tenure the Eagles have played a slow and steady style which has been overtaken by the high-pace physicality of teams at the top of the ladder such as the Demons and Bulldogs.
If they are to continue to be a force in the competition, Simpson will have to change their DNA, and as we all know it is no easy thing to teach an old dog – or eagle – new tricks.
Like their fellow Sandgropers the West Coast Eagles, the Fremantle Dockers enter 2022 with the scourge of a possible Covid relocation hanging over their heads.
Having finished in eleventh spot last season, the prospect of giving up home ground and cross-country advantage is the last thing they need, but they are a side used to adversity.
Like many other teams in the competition the Dockers were decimated by injury last season and they will need a good dose of luck if they are to climb the ladder. But they have put in the work.
Keeping talisman Nat Fyfe on the park and firing in the forward line will be a must for the Fremantle Dockers in 2022
Despite the adversity, Freo came within a kick of making the 2021 finals and there is a strong core of young players that have been earning valuable experience. Keeping the likes of Nat Fyfe, Michael Walters, Rory Lobb, Brennan Cox, Alex Pearce and Hayden Young on the park and injury-free will be instrumental to the Dockers’ chances.
Their strength is the midfield, with Andrew Brayshaw and Sean Darcy in career best form last season and Caleb Serong winning goal of the year. Fellow midfielder Fyfe spent much of his injury-interrupted 2021 up forward and is expected to continue in that role this year.
The side will be strengthened by the inclusion of former Geelong Cat Jordan Clark and Gold Coast’s Will Brodie. Big things are also expected of draft pick Neil Erasmus.
There is every chance that Freo could shock the pundits and surge into the top eight, but they are going to need a lot of luck when it comes to injuries, Covid protocols and the reinvention of Fyfe as a key forward to make it happen.
Getting Toby Greene (pictured right) fit and back on the park will be a priority for GWS. He’ll need to reel in his temper or risk being rubbed out by new AFL umpire abuse rules
Greater Western Sydney
Given the challenges they faced last season with injuries and suspensions the GWS Giants probably overachieved by finishing seventh before being soundly beaten by Geelong in the semi-final.
There weren’t many GWS players who didn’t spend time on the sideline for one reason or another throughout the year. Stephen Coniglio, Matt de Boer, Phil Davis, Braydon Preuss, Jesse Hogan and Brent Daniels were all on the injured list and it won’t be until round six that Toby Greene makes his first appearance after falling foul of the AFL tribunal.
Suffice to say, if the Giants hope to repeat last season’s result, they’ll need a good dose of luck and discipline.
The experts have been saying the team’s premiership window is closing since 2018, but they keep finding a way to prove everyone wrong. They will have to dig even deeper in 2022 and keeping wild child Greene on a short leash might be the difference between finals or oblivion.
With the AFL bringing in new rules to outlaw umpire abuse this season, Greene could be a marked man. Coach Leon Cameron has appointed him co-captain in the hope that the added responsibility will curb his hot-headedness. It’d better work. The Giants’ season could depend on it.
The St Kilda injury curse has reared its ugly head again with promising defender Nick Coffield (ACL, season), Hunter Clark (shoulder, six weeks) and attacking midfielder/forward Jack Billings (hamstring, four weeks) all set to miss the season-opener against Collingwood.
It is the last thing the club needs after going from the surprise package of 2020 that surged back into the AFL finals to the frustrating side that missed the 2021 finals despite boasting plenty of potential.
The St Kilda injury curse continues with young gun Hunter Clark suffering a pre-season shoulder injury
Despite the injury concerns, the Saints are well served across the park with Max King coming of age in the forward line, Callum Wilkie and Dougal Howard providing reliability in defence and All-Australian Jack Steel in the midfield.
Keeping injury-plagued ruckmen Rowan Marshall and Paddy Ryder on the park will go a long way toward defining the Saints’ season.
But most eyes will be on former Fremantle speedster Brad Hill, who has underperformed on big money and simply must lift if his side can crack back into the eight. At his best, he provides nightmares for opposition with his end-to-end, transition play and can provide invaluable service for the likes of King and Tim Membrey.
Cooper Sharman will be the player to watch after roaring into the AFL with 10 goals in five games in 2021 while there are also high hopes for first-round draftee Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera.
There are a lot of question marks over the depth of this Saints roster and Steel can’t manage the midfield on his own. It wouldn’t be a shock to see St Kilda crack the finals once more, but the odds are more likely they continue to torment their long-suffering fans.
Veteran Patrick Dangerfield will play his 15th season of AFL in 2022. We’re tipping his Cats to miss the eight after years spent on the verge of winning a flag
Sides like Melbourne and the Dogs have thrown down the gauntlet in recent years with high-octane brands of football. Can Geelong keep up? Probably not.
The Cats are the most consistent team in the competition, but unfortunately for Geelong fans they don’t hand out trophies for consistency. With 11 preliminary finals appearances in the past 15 seasons, you’d think they’d be getting the hang of it by now, but they just can’t seem to go on with it when it matters, winning just six of 19 finals games since coach Chris Scott took over in 2011.
So, what is the problem? It is obviously not a lack of talent or experience, because with the likes of Brownlow medallist Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood, Cameron Guthrie and Mitch Duncan in the midfield and Tom Hawkins and Jeremy Cameron up front, they have plenty of firepower. They also boast one of the best defenders in the competition in Tom Stewart.
So maybe it’s the way they play.
For the past 11 years Scott has coached a style of chipping the ball around and maintaining possession which obviously works a treat when it comes to racking up competition points in the weekly grind but, as we saw when they went out in straight sets last season, doesn’t cut the mustard in the more frenetic finals matches.
Age may be a factor as well, with Hawkins and Selwood to turn 34 this season while most of their weapons are either in their 30s, or about to be.
Add to that the apparent lack of young talent coming through and the dependence on Stewart, whose loss was badly felt when he went down injured last season with five rounds to play, and it’s looking like Geelong may struggle to keep up with the pace setters in 2022.
The most interesting of the new faces at Princes Park this season is coach Michael Voss. The 1996 Brownlow Medallist and three-time premiership-winning captain could do no wrong in Brisbane, until he was thrown into the worst job in football – following Leigh Matthews as coach.
New Carlton coach Michael Voss is tipped to bring a winning culture to the club in 2022
Lethal Leigh had been hired to win premierships and gave little thought to what would happen after he left. Accordingly, the 2009 side that Voss inherited in his first experience of head coaching was like a lemon with all the juice squeezed out.
By the time he walked away from the job in 2018 after just 43 wins from 109 games his confidence was in tatters, but to his credit he regained his mojo as an assistant at Port Adelaide and takes on a Carlton side hungry for success after missing the finals for the past eight seasons.
With last season’s Coleman Medallist Harry McKay and teenager Sam Walsh starring in the midfield, the team didn’t lack firepower last year, but failed to stand up defensively.
The acquisition of freakish talent Adam Cerra from Fremantle and the hard-working George Hewett from the Swans should add skill and starch, but it will be Voss’s ability to instil the aura and will to win he was renowned for as a player that will determine whether the Blues can finally crack the finals.
Bomber Darcy Parish had a huge 2021 season and is expected to rise to another level in 2022
No team is a one-man band, but the buzz around Essendon’s Darcy Parish is so deafening that it’s hard not to deduce that the success or failure of the Bombers’ season is totally dependent on the form of the 24-year-old midfielder.
Parish had a sensational 2021, with All-Australian selection and a top-five finish in the Brownlow, as Essendon surprised everyone except their hardcore supporters by snatching a finals berth with a strong end to the season.
Obviously, Parish didn’t do it on his own, and the Bombers boast plenty of talent in the likes of Jake Stringer, Zach Merrett, Jordan Ridley and co and they also have some good youngsters coming through, led by Nik Cox. Their only weakness is a lack of depth in key positions, so they will be looking for a favourable run with injuries.
There’s a logjam of talent pushing for midfield selection, Stringer has returned to elite form, highly talented winger Kyle Langford continues to fly under the radar and Sam Draper is ready to stand up and announce himself as a daunting presence in the ruck.
There is every cause for optimism for Dons supporters and they should sneak into the eight once again, with the ability to do more damage this time around.
How important is Dustin Martin to Richmond? Try about 12 places on the ladder. With the three-time Norm Smith and 2017 Brownlow medallist fit and firing, the Tigers were tipped to make it three premierships in a row last season.
Getting Dustin Martin back on the field will be a huge boost for the Richmond Tigers
When he was sidelined for the last five games of the year with a serious kidney injury, they missed the finals for the first time since 2016 and finished twelfth. The good news for Richmond fans is that Martin is back alongside returning midfield dynamo Dion Prestia.
Their inclusion, along with former captain Trent Cochin, three-time premiership player and All-Australian Shane Edwards, the impressive Jack Graham – who had a career-best season in 2021 – and Martin’s heir apparent Shai Bolton, gives the Tigers arguably the most dangerous middle in the game.
A spate of injuries last season gave coach Damien Hardwick the opportunity to blood youngsters such as Riley Collier-Dawkins, Rhyan Mansell, Jack Ross and Thomson Dow, and they will be better for the experience.
If Richmond does have a chink in its armour it’s the defensive line, which will be missing the experience of Bachar Houli and fellow three-time premiership player David Astbury, both retired. Former North Melbourne defender Robbie Tarrant will slot into Astbury’s position nicely, but the hole left by 2019 best and fairest Houli will be harder to fill.
Ollie Wines of the Power will be looking to put the pain of 2021 behind him and lead Port Adelaide into the 2022 AFL finals
Port Adelaide have a massive hangover to overcome this season and they didn’t get it the fun way. Last season the Power were staring down the barrel at a grand final berth with everything going for them.
They were entering a preliminary final with home ground advantage over a Bulldogs side that had just scraped into the game with a one-point win over the Lions the week before.
After coming desperately close to a grand final a year earlier – losing the preliminary final by a single goal to Richmond – the Dogs game was seen as a chance for redemption by Power coach Ken Hinkley, players and supporters. Instead, it was an exercise in humiliation, with the Dogs handing out a 71-point thrashing.
How will the players cope? Will the disappointment add to their resolve, or will they carry it through the early rounds like a lead weight in their shorts? Just as crucially, how will the growing pressure affect Hinkley? Contracted until the end of 2023, two years ago he was voted AFL coach of the year by his peers. Going into this season he has a target on his back.
There is no question that the Power has the talent to go all the way in Brownlow winner Ollie Wines, veterans Travis Boak, Charlie Dixon and Robbie Gray and exciting 24-year-old Sam Powell-Pepper. The question is: can they put the devastation of last year behind them?
After back-to-back bottom-four finishes in 2019-20, not too many AFL fans – outside of Sydney supporters – were predicting a finals spot last season. But they got there, and Swans fans will be expecting more of the same this year.
One of the big questions for 2022 will be when, not if, Sydney Swans star Buddy Franklin kicks his 1000th AFL goal
The ‘perfect blend of youth and experience’ is more than a cliché at Sydney, with exciting youngsters such as Errol Gulden, Chad Warner and Braeden Campbell slotting in perfectly alongside the older brigade of Josh Kennedy, Luke Palmer and, of course, $10million man Buddy Franklin.
On the downside is the loss of Jordan Dawson to Adelaide, but coach John Longmire has plenty of options to fill his big boots in the likes of Justin McInerney, Campbell and Nick Blakely. How Longmire nurses Franklin as he nears 1000 goals and the finish line to his career will be crucial to the Swans’ top four and premiership chances.
But this is a club used to re-inventing itself quickly. The Swans have an incredible 23 players under the age of 24 on their books heading into round one and 15 of them have already had a taste at the senior level.
With the development being fast-tracked, the Swans are capable of matching the pace of the competition front-runners and should emerge as contenders once more in 2022.
The Western Bulldogs will need to overcome the loss of forward Josh Bruce to an ACL tear in the early months of the 2022 AFL premiership
Going on that old adage, ‘you have to lose a grand final before you win one’, a lot of the experts are tipping the Bulldogs to go all the way this season after their loss to the Demons in last year’s decider.
What they seem to be forgetting is the roller-coaster ride that took the Bulldogs to the last game of the season.
Admittedly they were smashed by injuries in the second half of the competition, which accounts for them finishing outside the four, but their one-point semi-final win over the Brisbane Lions was miraculous as much as it was deserved. Even the Bulldogs’ biggest fans would have to admit the Lions were on top everywhere but the scoreboard.
So how are they placed for 2022? Much will depend on how they cover the crucial loss of key forward Josh Bruce for much of the regular season. Bruce was in great form before tearing his ACL in round 21, and it will be interesting to see how coach Luke Beveridge shuffles his troops – especially captain Marcus Bontempelli – to fill the void up front.
Key to their chances is the form of forward Aaron Naughton. When Naughton fires he is a goal-kicking excitement machine but the challenge for Beveridge is getting him to fire for the whole season. His performance in the trial match against the Lions a few weeks ago said it all. He kicked three goals but missed several more.
Jack Macrae is expected to rise to scary new levels in the midfield, Hawthorn recruit Tim O’Brien shores up the defensive line and Bailey Smith is tipped for a huge season after returning from a mental health break over the pre-season. Put simply, the Bulldogs are going to be better and hungrier in 2022.
Ask just about anyone but Mick Malthouse and they’ll tell you Melbourne are certainties for back-to-back premierships this season, but where’s the fun in that?
We won’t go as far as Mick and tip Essendon to win the flag, but we do think it is going to be harder for the Demons than most people think.
Melbourne Demons star Max Gawn with the 2021 AFL premiership trophy. They’re widely tipped to go back-to-back – but not by us
Sure, they blitzed it last year, their list is outstanding, and they’ve finally got that 57-year-old gorilla off their backs. But it’s more difficult to be the hunted than the hunter.
They came into last season after missing the finals in 2020. Nobody had any great expectations for them, and they got off to a flyer, winning their first nine games almost before anyone had noticed.
They will be trying for the same start this season, and they have the personnel to do it in Max Gawn, Steven May, Clayton Oliver, Jake Lever, Christian Salem, Bayley Fritsch and Norm Smith Medallist Christian Petracca.
Add in up-and-comers like Trent Rivers, Jake Bowey, Harrison Petty, Tom Sparrow and James Jordon, and you have a side that could dominate the competition for years to come.
So what could possibly go wrong?
It’s a cliché to say the only team that can beat the Demons is the Demons, but it’s true. Still, a side this good – one that can potentially get even better – is certain to be there when the whips are cracking.
Can the Brisbane Lions overcome poor finals form in recent years and live up to their potential in 2022? We believe they can.
It is now or never for the Lions – and we think their time has come.
Brisbane have promised plenty and delivered very little in recent years. They’ve had a top-four finish on the ladder and a disappointing exit from the finals for the last three seasons.
None more disappointing than last year’s one-point loss to the Bulldogs in a semi-final they should have won. It’s no exaggeration to say the club is at the crossroads. Anything less than a grand final appearance will be seen as a failure for coach Chris Fagan and his talented squad.
The Lions kicked more goals than any side in the competition last season with a frontline spearheaded by Charlie Cameron and strengthened by the recruitment of Joe Daniher from Essendon.
The midfield is star-studded with the likes of Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale, captain Dayne Zorko, Jarryd Lyons and Hugh McCluggage.
There is no papering over the sizable cracks in the Lions’ finals record of just one win and five losses in recent years. However Fagan has transformed them from bottom-four rabble to a consistent threat in the regular season.
They have basically the same roster as last year, a formidable home ground advantage and Eric Hipwood will return from an ACL tear that wrecked his 2021 campaign.
All of the ingredients for success are there.
An early setback is the loss of exciting defender Keidean Coleman for up to 10 weeks with a serious hamstring strain, but all sides will be hit with injuries throughout the season and Lions fans won’t accept any excuses. Fagan’s culture demands success and we are tipping it all to come together for a famous Brisbane premiership.