West Coast are the defending premiers but with a long list of capable competitors. (Photo: AFL Facebook)

AFLM 2019: Tigers on top in a tight fight

The AFL men’s season kicks off on Thursday night. Hatch‘s Jesse Robertson assesses each team – and makes his picks ahead off a blockbuster, anything-possible season.

The 2019 season looks set to be defined by rule changes thrown up over the summer, and here are  the things to watch: supplemental player selections and changes to tactical formations taking effect for the first time in competitive action.

As the West Coast Eagles set out to defend their flag, Adam Simpson’s men are faced with perhaps the most even competition landscape since the AFL became an 18-team competition in 2012.

While the Gold Coast Suns will likely inevitably struggle following an exodus of top talent, and the nucleus of Carlton’s premiership blueprint remains raw and inexperienced, as many as a dozen potential contenders remain.

Port Adelaide will look past a dismal second half of 2018 as they blood four talented youngsters in round one; Sydney look primed to shine after adding a potent Cats forward and a hungry Roos rebounder to a stacked list; Collingwood and Melbourne appear ready to avenge finals heartbreak with perhaps the most well-balanced lists in the competition.

Here are Hatch’s ladder picks for the season, from bottom to top:

18th: Gold Coast Suns 

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The Suns’ off-field trade dealings result in perhaps the least media and public pressure seen in any side this decade, as practically no punter or pundit seems willing to gamble on any kind of reasonable success at Metricon Stadium this year.

In a climate where the last three premiers have sent all foreseen expectations (and betting stubs) out the window, it appears almost unanimous among the football community that Stuart Dew’s side have one hand, or perhaps more, on the wooden spoon in 2019.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Callum Ah Chee, Sam Day, Sam Collins

HB: Jarrod Harbrow, Jack Hombsch, Pearce Hanley

C: Lachie Weller, Anthony Miles, David Swallow

HF: Alex Sexton, Sam Day, George Horlin-Smith

F: Jack Bowes, Peter Wright, Jack Lukosius

Foll: Jarrod Witts, Jack Martin, Touk Miller

I/C: Jesse Joyce, Chris Burgess, Brayden Fiorini, Jordan Murdoch

17th: Carlton

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In recent years, Carlton have challenged for the dubious mantle of the competition’s biggest basketcase with massive list turnover, draft crops that have appeared questionable  and a major cloud over their inability to put consistent scores, having not topped 100 points since June 2016.

After securing the highly-touted Sam Walsh with Pick 1 in November, then utilising the new live-trading policy to secure Liam Stocker on the first night, Brendon Bolton’s recruiting team have put the emphasis on supplementing the engine room that staff at IKON Park believe will hit their potentially flag-winning prime during the next five years.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Dale Thomas, Liam Jones, Lachie Plowman

HB: Kade Simpson, Jacob Weitering, Nic Newman

C: Zac Fisher, Patrick Cripps, Ed Curnow

HF: Mitch McGovern, Charlie Curnow, Michael Gibbons

F: David Cuningham, Harry McKay, Alex Fasolo

Foll: Andrew Phillips, Paddy Dow, Marc Murphy

I/C: Will Setterfield, Matthew Kennedy, Jarrod Garlett, Sam Petrevski-Seton

16th: St Kilda

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The Saints have been torn to shreds in the tall department ahead of their season opener against the lowly Suns, and despite landing the services of 2012 premiership star Dan Hannebery in the trade period, will have to wait to unveil their new man as hamstring injuries keep him sidelined.

Max King misses at least two more months with a knee injury, Jake Carlisle’s back aggravation and Dylan Roberton’s forced absence with a heart condition further unsettle an unstable backline, and Patrick McCartin’s persistent concussions struggles flaring up once more cause serious questions to be asked about his playing future.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Jarryn Geary, Josh Battle, Shane Savage

HB: Jimmy Webster, Darragh Joyce, Jack Newnes

C: Hunter Clark, Jack Steven, Dean Kent

HF: Jack Sinclair, Rowan Marshall, Jack Billings

F: Jack Steele, Josh Bruce, Matthew Parker

Foll: Lewis Pierce, Seb Ross, David Armitage

I/C: Blake Acres, Jack Lonie, Tim Membrey, Jade Gresham

15th: Western Bulldogs

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The Bulldogs have to readjust their defensive game-plan on the fly after losing veteran Dale Morris to an ACL injury at training last week. Jason Johannisen is a couple of weeks off being cleared, while Liam Picken has no timeframe for selection following a concussion.

Following the delistings of both Tom Campbell and Jack Redpath, young Tim English will lead the weakened ruck division in 2019 but general improvements were made in other areas with the signatures of Tigers forward Sam Lloyd and Hawks squad player Taylor Duryea. Dogs fans may take their hopes on the back of Rhylee West, son of club great Scott, after being picked up in the second round of last year’s draft.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Taylor Duryea, Fletcher Roberts, Bailey Williams

HB: Easton Wood, Jackson Trengove, Ed Richards

C: Josh Dunkley, Jackson Macrae, Mitch Wallis

HF: Toby McLean, Aaron Naughton, Hayden Crozier

F: Billy Gowers, Josh Schache, Caleb Daniel

Foll: Tim English, Marcus Bontempelli, Tom Liberatore

I/C: Zaine Cordy, Sam Lloyd, Lachie Hunter, Will Hayes

14th: Fremantle

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The Dockers should have been considered as an improved side upon recruiting Melbourne star Jesse Hogan and GWS ruckman Rory Lobb in trade movements, but indefinite issues plaguing stalwart Aaron Sandilands’ final playing days and a mental health concern removing Hogan from the equation leaves Lobb with a significant task ahead of most likely lining up opposite Robbie Tarrant.

The Dockers’ young crop, however, should at least hold the existing core in good enough health to avoid a bottom-four disaster.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Reece Conca, Joel Hamling, Nathan Wilson

HB: Bradley Hill, Alex Pearce, Ethan Hughes

C: Adam Cerra, Stefan Giro, Andrew Brayshaw

HF: Michael Walters, Cam McCarthy, Ed Langdon

F: Hayden Ballantyne, Rory Lobb, Travis Colyer

Foll: Sean Darcy, Nat Fyfe, David Mundy

I/C: Luke Ryan, Darcy Tucker, Scott Jones, Bailey Banfield

13th: Brisbane Lions

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Brisbane’s win-loss record in 2018 belied the true quality they demonstrated as Chris Fagan’s team finally started to make their charge up and out of the bottom four. Seen by some as possessing the potential to even go as far as mounting a finals challenge this year, defender Darcy Gardiner is in line to return from a PCL knock just in the nick of time.

With a list of just three (high-performing) players aged over 30, the Lions can be expected to acquit themselves comfortably outside the low-hanging ranges they’ve become far too accustomed to in the past decade. Cam Rayner, while still a teenager, will play an important role at half-forward while the crucial addition of Lachie Neale to the centre provides extra valuable spark going forward.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Luke Hodge, Harris Andrews, Daniel Rich

HB: Alex Witherden, Darcy Gardiner, Mitch Robinson

C: Jarryd Lyons, Lachie Neale, Hugh McCluggage

HF: Lewis Taylor, Daniel McStay, Charlie Cameron

F: Rhys Mathieson, Eric Hipwood, Cameron Rayner

Foll: Stefan Martin, Jarrod Berry, Dayne Zorko

I/C: Zac Bailey, Oscar McInerney, Tom Cutler, Lincoln McCarthy

12th: North Melbourne

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Brad Scott went into 2018 as one of the more under-pressure coaches across the AFL, but his men responded strongly over the following 22 games as the Roos only just fell short of what would have been a stunning finals berth.

Their biggest off-field issue was the mental health concern surrounding Majak Daw’s injury in January and his subsequent recovery process, but Jarrad Waite’s retirement and the potential absence of both Robbie Tarrant and fellow tall Scott Thompson may open the door for youngsters Ben McKay, Nick Larkey and Ed Vickers-Willis to usher in a new generation.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Marley Williams, Ed Vickers-Willis, Jasper Pittard

HB: Luke McDonald, Ben McKay, Jamie Macmillan

C: Luke McDonald, Ben Cunnington, Jared Polec

HF: Aaron Hall, Nick Larkey, Shaun Atley

F: Jy Simpkin, Ben Brown, Jack Ziebell

Foll: Todd Goldstein, Shaun Higgins, Dom Tyson

I/C: Bailey Scott, Paul Ahern, Taylor Garner, Trent Dumont

11th: Port Adelaide

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It was the consensus of AFL website readers that the Power were destined for a second consecutive 10th placed finish, and it’s hard to argue they should push any higher given the quality remaining above them. They sit 11th on this list as a multitude of serious knee injuries have heavily interrupted a number of pre-seasons as well as the obvious hole up forward with the loss of Chad Wingard. Their new recruits may shine, though.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Riley Bonner, Tom Clurey, Darcy Byrne-Jones

HB: Xavier Duursma, Tom Jonas, Ryan Burton

C: Steven Motlop, Tom Rockliff, Sam Gray

HF: Robbie Gray, Justin Westhoff, Zak Butters

F: Brad Ebert, Jack Watts, Sam Powell-Pepper

Foll: Scott Lycett, Travis Boak, Willem Drew

I/C: Dougal Howard, Dan Houston, Todd Marshall, Connor Rozee

10th: Hawthorn

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It’s been a busy off-season of player movements for Alastair Clarkson but not all the news is to be warmly received. The departure of Ryan Burton is a huge blow in defence, and while Chad Wingard’s arrival will provide a dynamic energy that the retirement of Cyril Rioli removed, a major question mark hangs over the decision to trade for Tom Scully, despite his well-publicised degenerative ankle issues, as well as the choice of Ben Stratton as club captain replacing Jarryd Roughead.

The Hawks will find a major drop in quality with major injuries to longtime club servant Grant Birchall and reigning Brownlow medallist Tom Mitchell.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Jarman Impey, James Frawley, Ben Stratton

HB: Blake Hardwick, James Sicily, Shaun Burgoyne

C: Isaac Smith, James Cousins, Ricky Henderson

HF: Paul Puopolo, Jack Gunston, James Worpel

F: Luke Breust, Jarryd Roughead, Mitch Lewis

Foll: Ben McEvoy, Jaeger O’Meara, Liam Shiels

I/C: David Mirra, James Worpel, Jack Scrimshaw, Jon Ceglar

9th: Essendon

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Much was made of the aggressive trade period strategy the Bombers employed, and they’ll be keen to see their big moves pay off. Ex-Giants midfielder Dylan Shiel is the crown jewel, and as fellow midfield stars Dyson Heppell and Zach Merrett shake off recent knocks, Essendon can more than be expected to compete for a place in September should their elite central core remain fit.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Jordan Ridley, Patrick Ambrose, Adam Saad

HB: Aaron Francis, Michael Hurley, Andrew McGrath

C: Devon Smith, Dyson Heppell, David Zaharakis

HF: Jake Stringer, Mitch Brown, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti

F: David Myers, Shaun McKernan, Orazio Fantasia

Foll: Tom Bellchambers, Dylan Shiel, Zach Merrett

I/C: Darcy Parish, Kyle Langford, Conor McKenna, James Stewart

8th: GWS

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Greater Western Sydney were heralding the return of powerful ruckman Shane Mumford out of retirement to help bolster a lacking division following Rory Lobb’s exit, except for the controversial ‘white powder’ video that surfaced and eventually led to a club-imposed suspension. We do not yet know what to expect from ‘Mummy’ but the midfield is wounded anyway with Callan Ward sitting four weeks out after an injury in the JLT Series.

Nonetheless, GWS have the raw quality about them to see through these obstacles and perhaps just sneak into a finals position.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Heath Shaw, Phil Davis, Zac Williams

HB: Lachie Whitfield, Adam Tomlinson, Adam Kennedy

C: Jacob Hopper, Josh Kelly, Harry Perryman

HF: Brett Deledio, Harrison Himmelberg, Daniel Lloyd

F: Toby Greene, Jeremy Cameron, Matt de Boer

Foll: Dawson Simpson, Tim Taranto, Stephen Coniglio

I/C: Aiden Bonar, Matt Buntine, Sam Taylor, Tom Sheridan

7th: Geelong

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Geelong coach Chris Scott was eager to downplay the public’s superstar expectations of Gary Ablett in 2019, describing his added forward minutes this year and likely output as closer to that of a “role player” than a legend of the game. The Cats have lost Scott Selwood for at least a month after a hamstring strain in a VFL practice match, but Tim Kelly, on the back of a breakout season, looks set to take his midfield effort to new heights in Selwood’s absence.

On the younger end of the scale, Cats fans will do well to keep eyes on West Australian star junior half-back Jordan Clark, as he looks a near-certainty to debut immediately against Collingwood at the MCG Friday night.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Cam Guthrie, Lachie Henderson, Tom Stewart

HB: Mark Blicavs, Harry Taylor, Jordan Clark

C: Luke Dahlhaus, Patrick Dangerfield, Mitch Duncan

HF: Sam Menegola, Esava Ratugolea, Tim Kelly

F: Gary Ablett, Tom Hawkins, Gary Rohan

Foll: Rhys Stanley, Joel Selwood, Charlie Constable

I/C: Jack Henry, Gryan Miers, Brandan Parfitt, Tom Atkins

6th: Sydney

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The young developing group is coming together exactly the way John Longmire would have been hoping for, with Callum Mills, Isaac Heeney, Ben Ronke and others already blossoming into top-end talents. The additions of Jackson Thurlow and Ryan Clarke from Geelong and North Melbourne respectively have earned positive results during the JLT games but Swans fans will need to wait slightly longer to catch injury-prone attacker Daniel Menzel in the red and white for the first time. Lance Franklin is an outside chance to run out first up after little pre-season involvement.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Aliir Aliir, Lewis Melican, Dane Rampe

HB: Jarrad McVeigh, Heath Grundy, Jake Lloyd

C: Luke Parker, Josh Kennedy, Harry Cunningham

HF: Tom Papley, Sam Reid, Isaac Heeney

F: Ben Ronke, Lance Franklin, Will Hayward

Foll: Callum Sinclair, Callum Mills, George Hewett

I/C: Ryan Clarke, Jackson Thurlow, Zak Jones, Ollie Florent

5th: Adelaide

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The Crows loom as the public’s favourites to surge back into premiership contention after a mediocre placing in 2018, and through the draft earned two more potential homegrown stars in Chayce Jones and Ned McHenry after landing impressive mature recruit Shane McAdam in a trade with Carlton.

Adelaide also boast the shortest injury list in the competition, with only Luke Brown and Paul Seedsman concretely out of action this week, allowing a near-full strength outfit to walk into the new season with complete confidence and a matchup with Hawthorn first.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Tom Doedee, Daniel Talia, David Mackay

HB: Brodie Smith, Kyle Hartigan, Rory Laird

C: Bryce Gibbs, Matt Crouch, Richard Douglas

HF: Rory Atkins, Taylor Walker, Tom Lynch

F: Riley Knight, Josh Jenkins, Eddie Betts

Foll: Sam Jacobs, Rory Sloane, Brad Crouch

I/C: Wayne Milera, Jake Kelly, Hugh Greenwood, Chayce Jones

4th: Melbourne

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Melbourne became a team to watch as one of the more versatile lists going around would dazzle their way through to what ultimately ended in a crash-and-burn preliminary final loss to eventual premiers West Coast.

Although Jesse Hogan departs for Fremantle after publicly wishing to return to Western Australia a year prior, the arrivals of Steven May and Kade Kolodjashnij from the Suns will provide enough defensive cover (once fit) to allow Tom McDonald to roam the forward line full-time and receive service from a star-studded midfield.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Neville Jetta, Sam Frost, Marty Hore

HB: Jordan Lewis, Oscar McDonald, Michael Hibberd

C: Christian Salem, Nathan Jones, Alex Neal-Bullen

HF: Angus Brayshaw, Sam Weideman, Aaron vandenBerg

F: Christian Petracca, Tom McDonald, Jake Melksham

Foll: Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, Jack Viney

I/C: Charlie Spargo, Jayden Hunt, Billy Stretch, Bayley Fritsch

3rd: West Coast

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It would be a strange thought to discuss that perhaps the reigning premiers aren’t the side coming into the season with the most pressure of all, but in 2019 that appears to be the case. West Coast, who took the flag from two games behind Richmond, will nevertheless eagerly take on the challenge of defending their first title since 2006.

Andrew Gaff will be suspended for the first two rounds after his brain-fade in last year’s derby, Nic Naitanui is still on the shelf for months with a knee injury and Josh Kennedy’s round one fitness is in question, but we have seen Simpson’s troops conquer each of these issues already en route to the holy grail. They are capable of doing so again with Jarrod Brander and Oscar Allen ready to support the established seniors.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Brad Sheppard, Tom Barrass, Shannon Hurn

HB: Tom Cole, Jeremy McGovern, Lewis Jetta

C: Elliot Yeo, Jack Redden, Liam Duggan

HF: Chris Masten, Jack Darling, Willie Rioli

F: Liam Ryan, Josh Kennedy, Daniel Venables

Foll: Nathan Vardy, Dom Sheed, Luke Shuey

I/C: Oscar Allen, Mark Hutchings, Jackson Nelson, Tom Hickey

2nd: Collingwood

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After being denied just their second premiership since 1990 thanks to the tight angle of a Dom Sheed set shot, Collingwood are out to prove to themselves they can do what is needed when it counts. Their ruthless demolition of previous favourites Richmond the week prior made an emphatic statement but blowing a lead of almost five goals on the last day of the campaign sealed their fate.

The Pies decided to add height to their backline with Jordan Roughead’s arrival to complement Darcy Moore, who excelled with his performances in the JLT series, while Nathan Buckley harbours the current Rising Star in his forward half with Jaidyn Stephenson set to reach new heights.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Jeremy Howe, Jordan Roughead, Tom Langdon

HB: Brayden Maynard, Darcy Moore, Jack Crisp

C: Tom Phillips, Adam Treloar, Steele Sidebottom

HF: Jaidyn Stephenson, Brody Mihocek, Josh Thomas

F: Jordan De Goey, Mason Cox, Jamie Elliott

Foll: Brodie Grundy, Scott Pendlebury, Dayne Beams

I/C: Travis Varcoe, James Aish, Chris Mayne, Levi Greenwood

1st: Richmond

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It would be difficult to conceive in different circumstances that the team with the most burning desire to improve this year would be the same side that finished eight points clear as minor premiers. Yet, it’s impossible to imagine the players and staff at Punt Road Oval feel any other way.

After a meagre effort in the preliminary final that saw the overwhelming favourites fall short, fortunes on the big occasions may be turning around once superstar recruit Tom Lynch joins forces with Jack Riewoldt to form the forward-line partnership to cause headaches for coaches and defenders nationwide.

Predicted Round 1 team:

B: Jayden Short, Alex Rance, Dylan Grimes

HB: Nick Vlastuin, David Astbury, Bachar Houli

C: Kane Lambert, Shane Edwards, Kamdyn McIntosh

HF: Daniel Rioli, Tom Lynch, Jack Higgins

F: Dion Prestia, Jack Riewoldt, Dan Butler

Foll: Toby Nankervis, Trent Cotchin, Dustin Martin

I/C: Jack Graham, Maverick Weller, Oleg Markov, Shai Bolton