2018 season review: Essendon Bombers

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  • 2018 RECORD: 12-10
  • HEAD COACH: John Worsfold, 3rd season (27-40 overall)
  • BEST WIN: Round 19. Even though it didn’t play a major factor in their push for Finals action, a 43-point home win over the Sydney Swans was just what the doctor ordered.
  • WORST LOSS: The Round 8 defeat to Carlton was by far the most deflating for the Dons, and not just because the Blues finished at the bottom of the ladder in 2018. In a Finals race that was neck and neck until the final match of the season, one more W could have made the difference.
  • RETIREMENTS/CUTS: Matt Dea, Brendon Goddard, Josh Green, Matt Leuenberger, Jackson Marrett
  • TRADES: Travis Colyer
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Dylan Shiel

The Bombers surprised many by making the Finals in 2017, and fans had reason to be optimistic that the team had crawled out of the rubble after a five-year streak of on-field mediocrity and off-field controversy. With lots of offensive firepower and some good depth, Essendon looked like they could push further into the postseason. Unfortunately, the Dons dug themselves into a 2-6 hole and never recovered.

The good news was that midfield bulls Dyson Heppell and Zach Merrett were consistent as usual, and ruckman Tom Bellchambers held his own against some of the AFL’s best all season long. Young defender Aaron Francis received an AFL Rising Star nomination due to his strong work in the latter half of the season, and the 21-year-old Adelaide native has a bright future ahead of him.

Injuries played a big factor in the Bombers’ slide. Tall forward Joe Daniher, after enjoying a huge 2017 campaign, suffered a nagging groin injury that limited him to only seven games, while fellow forward Orazio Fantasia managed only 13. Therefore, the Bombers were left with a shortage of tall timber in the line of attack. Still, exciting young gun Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti chipped in with 26 goals, while prized recruit Jake Stringer led the team with 30.

The Bombers made a big splash in free agency when they landed former GWS star Dylan Shiel, who will combine with former teammate Devon Smith to bolster the Dons’ midfield. Despite an early-season suspension, speedy Irishman Conor McKenna showed marked improvement alongside Adam Saad (17 disposals per game) and Andy McGrath (19.9 per game) in the back end. Small forward Jake Long — son of former Bomber champion Michael Long — managed only two games due to a foot injury, but should be primed to blossom in 2019.

Can Essendon climb the ladder back to Finals contention in ’19? In their defense, they never quit in 2018 despite a horrific first two months, and they finished strong by winning six of their last nine games down the stretch. With an excellent midfield and better luck on the health front, the Dons have the ingredients to take the next step. Still, the Bombers have an AFL-long 14 seasons without a Finals win, and their fanbase is acutely aware of that. And if 2018 is any indication, it’ll be a crowded Finals field once again, so they’ll need to be in top form consistently in order to make a big run.

 

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2018 season review: Adelaide Crows

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  • 2018 RECORD: 12-10
  • HEAD COACH: Don Pyke (3rd season, 47-24-1 overall)
  • BEST WIN: There were two notable 10-point triumphs over a pair of teams that were serious contenders — the Crows beat the Sydney Swans on the road in Round 5 and the West Coast Eagles in Round 15.
  • WORST LOSS: While the whole season was a disappointment, the Crows’ Round 10 loss to Melbourne in Alice Springs was by far the most deflating. Adelaide was non-competitive from the start in a 91-point shellacking.
  • RETIREMENTS/CUTS: Harry Dear, Jackson Edwards, Sam Gibson, Curtly Hampton, Ben Jarman, Matthew Signorello
  • TRADES: Mitch McGovern

The Adelaide Crows had a chance to rebound after the heartbreaking 2017 Grand Final loss to Richmond, but the season was a huge disappointment as the Crows missed the Finals altogether. Coach Don Pyke’s men weren’t able to gain any traction due to inconsistent form, leadership issues, a rash of hamstring/soft tissue injuries, and rumored locker-room conflict stemming from a bizarre preseason training camp that was described as “cult-like” by anonymous sources in the Australian media.

With that behind them, can the Crows move back to Finals prominence in 2019? They would seem to have the right ingredients, primarily with an engine room that is as good as anyone’s in the competition. Onballer Rory Sloane, winger Paul Seedsman, and brothers Matt and Brad Crouch are still some of the finest midfielders the Crows have boasted in some time, while goalsneak Eddie Betts (29 goals) continues to wow and inspire even at age 31.

Tom Doedee (18 disposals per game) was a revelation as a marking defender, proving that the loss of free agent Jake Lever was no big deal. Look for midfielder Hugh Greenwood to continue his ascension in 2019; the former basketballer led the team with 145 total tackles and finished tied for fourth with 16 goals. The Crows also received a major coup in the offseason when hard-charging vice-captain Rory Sloane spurned overtures from Victorian clubs to re-sign with Adelaide.

Coach Pyke’s men look to bounce back promptly, but the question remains: was 2018’s misery a blip on the radar or the beginning of a troubling trend at West Lakes?

2018 season review: Western Bulldogs

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  • 2018 RECORD: 8-14
  • HEAD COACH: Luke Beveridge (4th season, 52-41 overall)
  • BEST WIN: Beating Geelong by two points in Round 15 was a noteworthy win, but more important was Round 21’s upset over the North Melbourne Kangaroos, which helped derail the Roos in their Finals push.
  • WORST LOSS: In hindsight, the 54-point Round 5 loss to Fremantle was inexcusable. Yes, the Dogs finished with the same record as the Dockers, but they were still a far better team on paper.
  • RETIREMENTS/CUTS/TRADES: Shane Biggs, Kieran Collins, Luke Dahlhaus, Nathan Mullenger-McHugh, Jack Redpath, Clay Smith

Two years ago this month, the Western Bulldogs were on cloud nine after taking home their first AFL premiership in 54 years.

Now, they’re back to the drawing board.

The Bulldogs lost their identity in 2018, winning only eight games and experiencing a frustrating drain of talent, either from previous retirements, veteran players stagnating in their development, and all-around youth. Nonetheless, the Dogs did find some talent to help them in the future, including AFL Rising Star nominees Ed Richards and Aaron Naughton. With more polish and muscle, both could continue to shine. Midfielder Jack Macrae was in career-best form and even earned an All-Australian nod for his efforts.

Forward Billy Gowers led the Doggies with 26 goals and should continue to show improvement in 2019, while Marcus Bontempelli is still one of the best in the game when he’s healthy. Lachie Hunter and Josh Dunkley were key cogs in the midfield, with Dunkley showing new life as a midfielder after his playing small forward didn’t work out.

However, injuries and inexperience were a recurring theme throughout the 2018 season. Veteran midfielder Lin Jong suffered through another rash of bad injury luck, managing only 10 games on the season, while vice-captain Easton Wood had only 12. Former Brisbane Lion Josh Schache didn’t produce enough in his first season at The Kennel, kicking only 17 goals in 13 appearances. Former premiership ruckman Tom Boyd battled the injury bug as well, dislocating his finger and never quite reaching his peak form.

The main problem was the loss of identity. The Bulldogs were known for their hard-running, pressure-oriented attack that confounded opponents during their Cinderella Finals run in ’16, but that mysteriously disappeared in 2018. Even with all the injuries, the Dogs didn’t score enough points and seemed to lack leadership when they needed it the most.

To their credit, the Dogs didn’t run out of gas once they knew they wouldn’t make the Finals; in fact, they looked much better down the stretch, winning three of their last four matches after a dreadful July. While the Dogs didn’t quit down the stretch, and there’s lots of positive momentum stemming from that, there’s still plenty of work cut out for them entering the offseason.

2018 season review: Fremantle Dockers

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  • 2018 RECORD: 8-14
  • HEAD COACH: Ross Lyon, 7th season (87-75-1 overall)
  • BEST WIN: A 106-90 win in Round 2 over Essendon was a perfect christening for the Dockers’ new home ground at Optus Stadium in Perth.
  • WORST LOSS: Round 22 against Geelong was the most lopsided loss in Fremantle’s history. The Dockers had a decent first quarter and then completely disappeared, losing by a whopping 133 points.
  • RETIREMENTS/CUTS: Michael Johnson, Danyle Pearce, Lee Spurr

A 54-point win over a young Western Bulldogs team. A nice 16-point victory over an Essendon squad that was predicted to push for a Finals berth. Nine losses by 50 points or more. A nice core of veterans, led by former Brownlow Medallist Nat Fyfe. An untested group of youngsters that looked great one week and completely lost the next. An embattled veteran coach. Key injuries to key players throughout the season. And a 1-8 record on the road.

Welcome to the Fremantle Football Club, the most schizophrenic team in the AFL.

Ross Lyon’s squad finished 8-14 for the second consecutive year in 2018. The Dockers are still in rebuild mode despite retaining superstar Nat Fyfe, slippery small forward Hayden Ballantyne and gigantic ruckman Aaron Sandilands. The Dockers have blooded plenty of newcomers and youngsters in an effort to consistently get the best starting 22 players each week, with mixed results.

It wasn’t all bad news for the Dockers. Hard-charging midfielder Lachie Neale was arguably in career-best form, while the defensive trio of Joel Hamling, Nathan Wilson and Alex Pearce was solid. Pearce made an admirable recovery from back-to-back leg injuries, averaging 10.8 disposals per game and finishing with 106 contested possessions on the year.

However, despite Fyfe’s brilliance, the Dockers lack skill and consistency up forward. Matt Taberner broke his foot and managed only nine games, while former GWS Giant Cam McCarthy has yet to build on his immense promise in his second season at Fremantle.

As far as the youngsters go, young ruckman Sean Darcy showed some promise while filling in for Sandilands, while veterans Michael Walters and Bradley Hill provide some speed through the midfield. Look for midfielder Adam Cerra, defender Luke Ryan and key forward Brennan Cox to take the next step in their development if they remain healthy.

Freo needs better luck on the injury front and better game preparation in 2019. It seemed too often as if they were caught flat-footed against fastest or taller teams in 2018. Injuries and inexperience throughout the lineup didn’t help. Neither did the fact that Freo finished in the bottom three in points per game.

Is Darcy the long-term solution at ruckman for the aging Sandilands? Can Taberner and McCarthy regain their form? What about Shane Kersten or Brandon Matera? Losing eight out of nine road games is unacceptable. Do the Dockers have enough fight in them to close out more matches?

Fans are hoping to see more exciting brand of footy in 2019. Ross Lyon is contracted until 2020, but this year was not a good look for him in more ways than one. In addition to a poor on-field record, Lyon also had to deal with the fallout of a workplace harassment scandal that was settled out of court at the beginning of the year.

Heading into the draft and the trade period, Freo is hoping to target some big-bodied forwards. The Dockers also need better depth and speed in the midfield. Can they win more than eight games next year? It’s possible, but the bigger question is can they be more competitive on a weekly basis?

2018 season review: Brisbane Lions

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  • 2018 RECORD: 5-17
  • HEAD COACH: Chris Fagan, 2nd season (10-34 overall)
  • BEST WIN: Round 17’s win over Hawthorn in Tasmania was a huge upset and a sign that the Lions are rapidly becoming one of the most exciting young teams in the AFL. It was also icing on the cake after defeating the Hawks earlier in the year at home.
  • WORST LOSS: Like many young teams suffering growing pains, Brisbane had its share of close losses in 2018, including a five-point defeat to Port Adelaide in Round 3, along with a three-point setback at home to North Melbourne in Round 20.
  • RETIREMENTS/CUTS: Jake Barrett, Claye Beams, Tom Bell, Rohan Bewick, Liam Dawson, Cian Hanley, Marco Paparone

On paper, the Brisbane Lions suffered through another mediocre season, finishing 5-17 for the second straight year under coach Chris Fagan. However, there’s plenty of optimism around the Gabba these days; the Lions scored more in 2018, their young players improved all-around, and their average home game attendance was the best since 2015. At their best, Brisbane were competitive in every game and had a quiet confidence, with an exciting group of athletic youngsters who will only improve further in 2019.

It all starts with key forward Eric Hipwood (37 goals), a polished player who is the core of the Lions’ young talent. Hipwood matured in 2018, showing quality leadership and helping boost the confidence of his fellow forwards. After several injury-plagued seasons, utility Allen Christiansen kicked 16 goals and averaged 18 disposals per game. In the midfield, the two Daynes — Zorko and Beams — remain some of the best on-ballers in the AFL.

The Lions also improved significantly in defense, allowing 93 points per game after giving up 117 in 2017. One of the key cogs down back was footy legend Luke Hodge, the four-time premiership winner from Hawthorn who shocked the country by un-retiring and playing for the Lions in 2018. He helped provide a crucial veteran presence alongside Stefan Martin and Harris Andrews.

Heading into 2019, the Lions will be looking to keep small forward Charlie Cameron healthy. The exciting 24-year-old elected to move back to Queensland for family-related reasons and looked like a perfect fit for Brisbane before breaking his foot in Round 11. If the former Adelaide Crow can get back to his prior form, it’ll help significantly in the Lions’ attack. Youngsters Hugh McCluggage, Cam Rayner, Alex Witherden, Zac Bailey and Oscar McInerney also had their moments and will look to continue their development heading forward. The Lions are also rumored to be targeting free agent Lachie Neale from Fremantle in an effort to further bolster their midfield.

Despite the lackluster record, Brisbane is heading into 2019 with a lot of positive momentum and should look to push higher if they can stay reasonably healthy. It remains to be seen how well they can perform under higher expectations, but they should be knocking on the door of the Finals. Chris Fagan and his staff deserve a lot of credit.

 

2018 season review: St Kilda Saints

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  • 2018 RECORD: 4-17-1
  • HEAD COACH: Alan Richardson, 5th season (37-72-2 overall)
  • BEST WIN: Round 15’s two-point upset over the Melbourne Demons was a big confidence booster for a team that desperately needed one. Honorable mention: the epic 31-point fourth-quarter comeback against Gold Coast in Round 13.
  • WORST LOSS: The first two and a half months of the 2018 season were terrible for St Kilda, but the worst loss may have been a 61-point home loss to what ended up being a mediocre Adelaide team.
  • RETIREMENTS/CUTS: Ray Connellan, Nathan Freeman, Sam Gilbert, Hugh Goddard, Darren Minchington, Koby Stevens, Nathan Wright

The Saints had notched 12 wins in 2016 and 11 last year, barely missing out on the Finals both times. Despite the losses of club legends Leigh Montagna and Nick Riewoldt entering 2018, the Saints were bullish on their chances to make another Finals push in ’18.

Didn’t happen. St Kilda won only four games and finished 16th out of 18 teams on the ladder. Embattled coach Alan Richardson will return for a sixth season, but the club is cleaning house with his assistant coaches and is hoping to be more aggressive in free agency this offseason.

One of the bright spots for the Saints was key forward Jade Gresham; the 21-year-old continues to blossom and led the club with 35 goals on the year. Tim Membrey was right behind Gresham with 34 goals of his own and landed a contract extension due to his efforts. Midfielder Seb Ross averaged 30 disposals a game, and Jack Steele showed more promise as an on-baller as well.

However, Jack Billings got off to a slow start and never recovered, many other players stagnated in their development, and Dylan Roberton had a scary heart-related incident in Round 4 against Geelong that caused him to miss significant time. Slippery small forward Ben Long played in only 10 games due to foot problems, and former first round draft pick Luke Dunstan was inconsistent.

In general, St Kilda has suffered from poor match fitness, wayward goalkicking, and inconsistent play. Unfortunately for them, they won’t have many opportunities for drafting youngsters in November, with only one first round pick and none in the second or third rounds. In liue of that, the Saints are hoping to make a splash in free agency and are rumored to be targeting star Sydney midfielder Dan Hannebery, a three-time All-Australian. While there’s still talent on the St Kilda list, they need to keep each other accountable and play to their potential in 2019.

2018 season review: Gold Coast Suns

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  • 2018 RECORD: 4-18
  • HEAD COACH: Stuart Dew, 1st season (4-18 overall)
  • BEST WIN: Round 18 vs Sydney. A massive win on the road and one of the club’s biggest all-time upsets since entering the AFL in 2011.
  • WORST LOSS: Take your pick. Gold Coast lost eight games by 48 points or more, but the most galling might have been blowing a 31-point third-quarter lead against St Kilda in Round 13.
  • RETIREMENTS/CUTS: Michael Barlow, Josh Jaska, Michael Rischitelli, Matt Rosa, Max Spencer, Mackenzie Willis

The Gold Coast Suns faced a lot of uncertainty heading into the 2018 season. Facing another major rebuild — this time without superstar/face of the franchise Gary Ablett Jr. — the Suns were in for some rough sledding under rookie coach Stuart Dew.

Dew’s high intensity style of coaching definitely translated to the field of play, with the Suns showcasing a more up-tempo, pressure-oriented, contested style. Still, it was yet another terrible season overall.

Gold Coast repeatedly faded away in the second half of games, and the mood was dampened further by tall forward Tom Lynch’s midseason PCL injury, plus his subsequent request for a trade. The club culture at the Suns seems to be a perennial problem, and the team’s leadership group needs to take it upon themselves to turn it around and remake the club in Dew’s image.

Despite the forgettable moments in 2018, the Suns still showed some flashes, including a shocking late-season upset of the Sydney Swans, plus two hotly contested rivalry matches against the Brisbane Lions. On another positive note, it seems like most players have bought into Dew’s coaching philosophy, and the club finally has legitimate AFL facilities.

On the personnel front, speedy utility Lachie Weller was a big-time steal from Fremantle, averaging 18 disposals per game, while former Port Adelaide veteran Aaron Young kicked 20 goals. Key forward Alex Sexton (28 goals) and midfielder Touk Miller (22 disposals) were consistent as usual, with Miller showing a knack for dominating the uncontested possessions count. Young midfielder Jack Bowes is a promising talent who could develop into a star with more seasoning, while ruckman Jarrod Witts remains one of the Suns’ most consistent playmakers (39 hit-outs and four clearances per game). Defenders Rory Thompson and Jarrod Harbrow are solid.

However, key forward Peter Wright, who was so valuable in previous seasons, suffered through maddening inconsistency, managing only five goals in seven games. Granted, Wright had a couple nagging injuries to deal with, but going from 31 goals to five in one season is a terrible fall from grace.

In addition to Lynch’s disappointing decision to leave the club, captain Steven May’s future with the Suns might be in doubt, as he becomes a free agent in 2019. The Suns suffered through a rash of injuries in 2018, including classy midfielder Aaron Hall, who only played in six games, midfielder Pearce Hanley (three) and young forward Brayden Fiorini (11).

“The Suns should use their rival, Brisbane, as a blueprint,” says writer Michael Whiting from AFL.com.au. “Forget win totals — the priority is becoming consistent every week and creating a happy club where players want to sign long-term.”

Despite all the issues at the club, there’s a chance that Gold Coast will be substantially better in 2019 if Dew continues to coach at his best. The Suns have talent, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of culture change, accountability and fitness levels.