Category: Australian Rules Football

2018 season review: Gold Coast Suns

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  • 2018 RECORD: 4-18
  • 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.

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2018 season review: Carlton Blues

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  • 2018 RECORD: 2-20
  • COACH: Brendan Bolton, 3rd season (15-51 overall)
  • BEST WIN: Round 8 vs Essendon. A shocking 13-point win for the Blues, who were winless at the time and needed a massive pick-me-up.
  • WORST LOSS: Round 16 vs Brisbane. It was a great chance for Carlton to snap a mid-season losing streak and they failed miserably, losing to a mediocre Brisbane squad by 65 points on the road.
  • RETIREMENTS/CUTS: Jesse Glass-McCasker, Aaron Mullett, Cam O’Shea, Matt Shaw, Alex Silvagni

June 4, 2016 — that’s the last time Carlton scored at least 100 points in a game, an AFL record.

The Blues’ lack of goalkicking firepower has been one of their most glaring issues in the Brendon Bolton era — even as the young coach has spent the majority of his three years at the club burning his roster to the ground and starting from scratch. After a dismal 2018 season — the worst in club history — it’s starting to feel like Bolton could be on a much hotter seat entering 2019, despite reports to the contrary.

Forward Charlie Curnow (34 goals) is still one of the shining stars of the competition, but he has little to no help in the forward line. Ditto for Patrick Cripps in the midfield and Kade Simpson in defense. The Blues simply haven’t had the right mix of talent and experience. Older veterans have faded away in their form, young players haven’t developed the way they should have, and there’s been plenty of injuries. Guys like Harry McKay, Dale Thomas, Caleb Marchbank, Jacob Weitering, Levi Casboult and Jack Silvagni just haven’t been able to consistently provide enough punch for the Blues.

Midfielder Marc Murphy is a great leader for the club, as is ruckman Matthew Kreuzer, but both struggled with injuries all season; Kreuzer’s career could even be in doubt after being diagnosed with a heart murmur late in the year.

Some much-needed good news for Blues fans: All-Australian defender Sam Docherty will return to the side after missing the entirety of 2018 with a torn ACL. Young gun Zac Fisher showed some moxie in his second AFL season, averaging just over 15 disposals per game. Two other key defenders, Lachie Plowman and Jarrod Garlett, should be healthier after managing just 13 and 11 games, respectively, in 2018. Midfielder Paddy Dow showed some awfully good glimpses of his talent, averaging 14.2 disposals per game in his rookie season.

Carlton looks to take a nice crop of youngsters in November’s AFL Draft, while it remains to be seen how ambitious they are in free agency. One thing is for sure: a repeat of 2018’s lackluster performance will be unacceptable.

2018 AFL season preview

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#18 — North Melbourne Kangaroos

  • 2017 RECORD: 6-16
  • COACH: Brad Scott, 9th season (88-75)
  • CAPTAIN: Jack Ziebell
  • HOME GROUND: Etihad Stadium (capacity 56,583)
  • ALTERNATE/NEUTRAL GROUND: Blundstone Arena, Hobart (capacity 19,500)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Arden Street Oval
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Alex Morgan
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Will Fordham, Sam Gibson, Lachlan Hansen, Aaron Mullett, Andrew Swallow, Matthew Taylor, Lindsay Thomas, Corey Wagner
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 7 vs Adelaide (59 point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 17 vs Port Adelaide (70 point L)

The Roos suffered through a mediocre 2017 campaign despite the presence of slick forward Ben Brown, who led the team with 63 goals and earned All-Australian honors in the process. Midfielder Shaun Higgins won best-and-fairest for the club, and managed to shine in key moments.

However, despite Higgins and Brown, North Melbourne were victims of maddening inconsistency — they continued their dominance of rival Melbourne, beating them twice, but suffered 40-plus point thrashings to Sydney, Port Adelaide, West Coast, and Greater Western Sydney. The Kangaroos also lost to Fremantle (twice) and the Western Bulldogs by a combined 12 points.

On the field, the Roos suffered through poor play from previously dominant ruckman Todd Goldstein, and they also need ultra-athletic big man Majak Daw to play at a higher level. Small forward Lindsay Thomas was shown the door after an up-and-down season (he landed with Port Adelaide during free-agency).

Apart from Brown, there’s really not too much to carry the Roos throughout the course of the AFL season. While 2017 was expected to be a year of transition after several notable retirements, the Roos still couldn’t muster up the mojo to win close games or spring any major upsets. With most of last year’s underachieving clubs expected to improve, this could be one of the clubs left behind in 2018.

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#17 — Gold Coast Suns

  • 2017 RECORD: 6-16
  • COACH: Stuart Dew, 1st season
  • CAPTAINS: Steven May/Tom Lynch 
  • HOME GROUND: Metricon Stadium (capacity 25,000)
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Lachie Weller, Harrison Wigg, Aaron Young
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Gary Ablett, Keegan Brooksby, Daniel Currie, Ryan Davis, Jarrad Grant, Mitch Hallahan, Cam Loersch, Brandon Matera, Trent McKenzie, Adam Saad, Matt Shaw
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 7 vs Geelong (25-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 8 vs Port Adelaide (72-point L)

The Gold Coast Suns were a mess in 2017, and the season ended as many predicted: the young, injury-riddled team missed the Finals once again, coach Rodney Eade got fired, and superstar Gary Ablett departed to go back to Geelong. In addition to Ablett, speedster defender Adam Saad departed to Essendon, and Brandon Matera moved on to Fremantle. The Suns looked lost in some games, and ended the year on an eight-match losing streak.

Enter 38-year-old Stuart Dew, an energetic young coach who is determined to make the Suns relevant behind the leadership of co-captains Tom Lynch and Steven May. Lynch should be a priority heading into his final year of his contract, and after how the Ablett situation unfolded, Gold Coast will be looking to hold onto one of their stars. Key forward Peter Wright looks primed for another excellent season after booting 31 goals in 2017, while former Port Adelaide gun Aaron Young should also be an impact player up front.

Some other players to watch include Ben Ainsworth, who averaged 11.7 disposals per game as a rookie, as well as Jarrod Witts, who emerged as a solid ruck option last year. Sam Day (hip), Tom Nicholls (hip/shoulder), and Michael Barlow (leg) are a trio of youngsters who suffered through an unlucky stretch of injuries in 2017, but are eager to be back and impress the new coaching staff. Midfielder Kade Kolodjashnij also looked strong in the preseason after a pair of concussions derailed his 2017 campaign.

There’s also an added wrinkle to Gold Coast’s season: the club will not play their opening five home games at Metricon Stadium, as it will be in use for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Bottom line: there’s hope for the future. But shaky depth and a brand-new staff will keep the Suns in the basement for another year.

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#16 — Carlton Blues

  • 2017 RECORD: 6-16
  • COACH: Brendon Bolton, 3rd season (13-31)
  • CAPTAIN: Marc Murphy
  • HOME GROUND: Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity 100,018)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Princes Park
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Matthew Kennedy, Darcy Lang, Matthew Lobbe, Aaron Mullett
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Dennis Armfield, Blaine Boekhorst, Dylan Buckley, Andrew Gallucci, Bryce Gibbs, Daniel Gorringe, Kristian Jaksch, Matt Korchek, Rhys Palmer, Ciaran Sheehan, Billie Smedts, Liam Sumner, Simon White
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 6 vs. Sydney (19-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 14 vs Richmond (26-point L)

Carlton needs the “under construction” sign on the door once again, as they enter Year Three of the Brendon Bolton rebuilding project. The energetic young coach has overhauled the Blues’ playing list in an effort to have long-term consistency and more young talent to build around. Bolton has not been shy about blooding new players early on, even if it means more growing pains.

Leading goalkicker Levi Casboult (34) improved on his 2016 form, but still disappeared sometimes in big games, and the Blues’ confidence fell accordingly. Carlton didn’t score over 100 points in the entirety of the 2017 season, and they need more production from the youngsters on the playing list.

However, it wasn’t all bad news in 2017: captain Marc Murphy shook off nagging injuries to return to his old form, Liam Jones blossomed after being moved full-time into defense, and Matthew Kreuzer began to come into his own as one of the AFL’s best ruckmen. The offseason introductions of former GWS gun Matthew Kennedy and ex-Geelong player Darcy Lang should help bolster the Blues’ midfield depth.

Carlton also needs one of their rising stars, Ed Curnow, to play a full season after breaking his leg in Round 14 last year. His loss sent the Blues into a tailspin, as they lost nine out of their last 10. All-Australian Sam Docherty also tore his ACL late in 2017 and could miss the entire 2018 season.

The youth movement should start to pay off more consistently in 2018 for Carlton, but they still aren’t ready to push for Finals contention yet. They need to focus on winning close games and developing tall targets up forward who can kick goals.

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#15 — Brisbane Lions

  • 2017 RECORD: 5-17
  • COACH: Chris Fagan, 2nd season (5-17)
  • CAPTAIN: Dayne Beams
  • HOME GROUND: The Gabba (capacity 42,000)
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Charlie Cameron, Luke Hodge
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Josh Clayton, Michael Close, Jonathan Freeman, Blake Grewar, Matthew Hammelmann, Cian Hanley, Ryan Harwood, Jarrad Jansen, Tom Rockliff, Josh Schache, Reuben William
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 15 at Essendon (8-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 16 vs Geelong (85-point L)

The Lions lost team captain Tom Rockliff and promising young forward Josh Schache in the offseason, a year after earning the dubious wooden spoon with a 5-17 record.

However, most Brisbane fans are as optimistic as they’ve been in awhile, due to the presence of two men: Luke Hodge and Chris Fagan.

The legendary Hodge won four premierships with the Hawthorn Hawks from 2002-2017 and announced his retirement as this past year concluded, but the 33-year-old shocked the footy world when he un-retired and elected to join the Lions. His presence immediately gives Brisbane a leadership boost and a classy kick.

Meanwhile, Fagan has the Lions on the right track entering his second season as head coach. The native Tasmanian and longtime Hawthorn assistant is hoping for a steady move up the ladder in order to get the Lions to their first AFL Finals berth since 2009.

Personnel-wise, Brisbane boasts a number of talented players to surround Hodge, including lanky young forward Eric Hipwood and a newly-healthy Allen Christiansen. In addition to Hodge, the big offseason splash was grabbing former Adelaide onballer Charlie Cameron, who wanted a trade to Brisbane in order to be closer to family.

Also watch out for the two Daynes — Beams and Zorko — the latter of whom was the only Lion to earn All-Australian honors in 2017. A push for the Finals is unlikely in 2018, but Brisbane has the ingredients to inch forward under Fagan.

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#14 — Fremantle Dockers

  • 2017 RECORD: 8-14
  • COACH: Ross Lyon, 7th season (79-61-1)
  • CAPTAIN: David Mundy
  • HOME GROUND: Optus Stadium (capacity 60,000)
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Brandon Matera, Nathan Wilson
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Harley Balic, Zac Clarke, Sam Collins, Hayden Crozier, Zac Dawson, Josh Deluca, Jonathon Griffin, Garrick Ibbotson, Nick Suban, Matthew Uebergang, Lachie Weller, Shane Yarran
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 8 at Richmond (2-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 12 at Brisbane (57-point L)

The Dockers suffered through another mediocre year at the club, and some fans are growing restless with long-time coach Ross Lyon.

On the bright side, Freo revamped its veteran list after a horrific start, throwing young players into the deep end and getting mixed results, with the Dockers dropping several close games and fading down the stretch, losing 11 of their last 13.

However, fans should be excited about the new guys getting considerable playing time. Sean Darcy, in particular, looked sharp as a ruckman while filling in for injured veteran Aaron Sandilands. Also, superstar Nat Fyfe re-signed a long-term deal midseason despite overtures from numerous Melbourne-based clubs.

Following the season, Fremantle got rid of several players via trade, including Harley Balic, Lachie Weller, and Hayden Crozier, but they also added former Giant defender Nathan Wilson, who should help bolster the backline, as well as small forward Brandon Matera, a Perth native who most recently played for Gold Coast. Matera should help ease the load off the oft-injured Hayden Ballantyne. The Dockers also need more consistency from forward Cam McCarthy, who showed promise after missing the whole 2016 season, but needs to take on a complementary role next to Fyfe. Shane Kersten kicked 24 goals, too, but also suffered from inconsistency.

The Dockers don’t seem to have a realistic chance at playing AFL Finals in 2018, but they’re more than capable of springing a few upsets along the way. Like Carlton, they need more time to rebuild, revamp, and let the youth develop.

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#13 — St Kilda Saints

  • 2017 RECORD: 12-10
  • COACH: Alan Richardson, 5th year (22-43-1)
  • CAPTAIN: Jarryn Geary
  • HOME GROUND: Etihad Stadium (capacity 53,583)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Moorabbin Oval
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Logan Austin
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Joe Baker-Thomas, Nick Coughlan, Sean Dempster, Jason Holmes, Leigh Montagna, Nick O’Kearney, Nick Riewoldt
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 16 vs Richmond (67-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 19 at Port Adelaide (2-point L)

The Saints barely missed the Finals in 2017, fading down the stretch. It was a tough pill to swallow for St Kilda fans, who haven’t been to the postseason since 2009 and also wanted to send off retiring legends Nick Riewoldt and Leigh Montagna off on a high note. Kicking inaccuracy was a major concern, even though the Saints found some new talent in the forward line that can help them in the post-Riewoldt years.

Midfielder Sebastian Ross came out of obscurity to win St Kilda’s best-and-fairest, averaging over 22 disposals per game. Jarryn Geary also proved his worth in his first season as the Saints’ captain, starting every game. However, Jade Gresham and Jack Billings both had well-documented kicking woes in big games, costing St Kilda towards the end of the year. The Saints also need a big year from forward Paddy McCartin, who was hampered by a sprained foot in the offseason.

Getting 22-year-old defender Logan Austin from Port Adelaide in free agency should help bolster the Saints’ backline, which also returns rising star Dylan Roberton and veteran Jake Carlisle. However, the Saints need to develop a clear identity after the losses of Riewoldt and Montagna, and recover from a heartbreaking finish to 2017. It’s hard to see this team push any further than where they finished last season.

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#12 — Collingwood Magpies

  • 2017 RECORD: 9-12-1
  • COACH: Nathan Buckley, 7th year (70-65-1)
  • CAPTAIN: Scott Pendlebury
  • HOME GROUND: Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity 100,018)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Holden Centre
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Sam Murray
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Lachlan Keeffe, Liam Mackie, Mitch McCarthy, Jackson Ramsey, Henry Schade, Ben Sinclair, Jesse White
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 5 vs Geelong (29-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 6 vs Carlton (23-point L)

It was another underachieving year for the Pies, but despite grumbling from the faithful, the club elected to give coach Nathan Buckley a three-year extension. While the Pies showed some resolve down the stretch in 2017, despite injury issues, they were out of Finals contention by the final month of the season.

Some of the year’s bright spots were in the midfield, where tough-as-nails skipper Scott Pendlebury and best-and-fairest winner Steele Sidebottom were a terrific tandem. Brodie Grundy secured a full-time role as the Pies’ ruckman, although he also showed plenty of aptitude as a key forward. In Collingwood’s surprising win over Melbourne in the season finale, coaches experimented with having Grundy in the ruck with his backup, American big man Mason Cox, up forward, with exciting results. Cox got a new contract in the offseason, so there’s plenty of size for Pies fans to like heading into 2018.

High-flying forward Jeremy Howe drew plenty of highlights in 2017 for his marking ability. In addition to Grundy’s emergence as a rising star, the two biggest reasons for the Pies to be optimistic are forward Jamie Elliott (34 goals) and youngster Taylor Adams. However, fans will be crossing their fingers on Jordan De Goey, who missed the early part of the 2017 season due to a bizarre suspension, and Darcy Moore, a gifted forward whom the Pies are experimenting with in defense.

There’s still a lot of work to be done consistency-wise. High-priced free agent Chris Mayne was bitterly disappointing in his first go-round with Collingwood, and the team lacks depth in a lot of areas. Dropping close games was an issue in 2017, with the Pies losing to Greater Western Sydney and Melbourne by a combined seven points. They didn’t do much in free agency to bolster depth either.

Give Collingwood credit for not throwing in the towel during an up-and-down 2017 season, but they don’t quite seem to have the defense or the depth to make a Finals berth for the first time since 2013.

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#11 — Western Bulldogs

  • 2017 RECORD: 11-11
  • COACH: Luke Beveridge, 4th year (38-16)
  • CAPTAIN: Easton Wood
  • HOME GROUND: Etihad Stadium (capacity 53,583)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Whitten Oval
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Hayden Crozier, Jackson Trengove
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Matthew Boyd, Travis Cloke, Stewart Crameri, Declan Hamilton, Robert Murphy, Josh Prudden, Roarke Smith, Jake Stringer, Tristan Tweedie
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 19 vs Essendon (30-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 13 vs Melbourne (57-point L)

Many knocked the Bulldogs’ 2016 AFL premiership as a fluke, and they turned out to be right. The Dogs suffered through a mediocre season, missing out on the 2017 Finals altogether. Their style of play lacked urgency, and they dealt with plenty of injuries, too. While some star players such as Marcus Bontempelli, Liam Picken, and Easton Wood continued their excellent form, others fell off completely.

As disappointing as the 2017 season was, the Bulldogs appear ready to dust themselves off and regroup for 2018 under fifth-year coach Luke Beveridge. The offseason was marred by unhappy star Jake Stringer signing with Essendon, but the Dogs did reel in two notable free agents, versatile Hayden Crozier and former Port Adelaide gun Jackson Trengove. They also grabbed talented youngster Josh Schache, who had recently re-signed with the Brisbane Lions but had issues with homesickness and wanted to go back to Victoria. Schache oozes talent and should blossom under the Dogs’ coaching staff.

On the backline, keep an eye on young gun Marcus Adams, who replaced the injured Dale Morris in 2017 and had his moments. Versatile defender/midfielder Lin Jong also returns after playing in only 12 games last season due to injury.

Beveridge’s teams typically don’t stay down for long, and there’s reason to believe the Dogs can bounce back in 2018.

 

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#10 — Hawthorn Hawks

  • 2017 RECORD: 10-11-1
  • COACH: Alastair Clarkson, 14th year (190-113-2)
  • CAPTAIN: Jarryd Roughead
  • HOME GROUND: Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity 100,018)
  • ALTERNATE/NEUTRAL GROUND: York Park, Launceston (capacity 20,000)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Waverley Park
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Jarman Impey
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Jack Fitzpatrick, Josh Gibson, Billy Hartung, Luke Hodge, Kade Stewart, Luke Surman, Ty Vickery, Dallas Willsmore
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 14 at Adelaide (14-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 3 at Gold Coast (86-point L)

The Hawks suffered through a mediocre start to the season and never fully recovered, buried beneath an avalanche of injuries and erratic form to finish outside of the Finals for the first time since 2009.

Still, legendary coach Alastair Clarkson deserves some credit for sticking with an untested group of players who took many lumps early on, but improved down the stretch. Chief among that group was former Sydney standout Tom Mitchell, who led the AFL in disposals per game en route to winning Hawthorn’s best and fairest honors in his first year at the club. Inspirational captain Jarryd Roughead made a return in 2017 following a melanoma scare and kicked 38 goals, leading the team.

However, the Hawks’ biggest free agent addition, Jaeger O’Meara, managed only six games following a series of injuries, contributing to the lack of experienced depth in the Hawks’ midfield and forcing Mitchell to carry a disproportionate load. Hawthorn also lost sensational small forward Cyril Rioli to a knee injury, and his impact was sorely felt. (As of press time, Rioli’s rehab was going well, but he hadn’t yet reported for offseason training after being granted compassionate leave due to a family crisis in Alice Springs.)

There are several other bright spots among the playing group that give fans hope for a return to Finals action in 2018 — Ryan Burton is one of the AFL’s most promising young defenders, and fearless small forward Paul Puopolo booted 19 goals last year in Rioli’s absence. Coaches are also excited about young Irishman Conor Nash, who boasts plenty of potential, and ruckman Ben McEvoy, who is coming off a career-best season.

The fiery Clarkson won’t let his team settle for second-best, so there’s a good chance that Hawthorn could creep back into postseason action come fall.

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#9 — West Coast Eagles

  • 2017 RECORD: 12-10
  • COACH: Adam Simpson, 5th year (55-32-1)
  • CAPTAIN: Shannon Hurn
  • HOME GROUND: Optus Stadium (capacity 60,000)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Lathlain Park
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Brendon Ah Chee
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Paddy Brophy, Sam Butler, Jonathan Giles, Tom Gorter, Josh Hill, Tom Lamb, Sam Mitchell, Drew Petrie, Matt Priddis, Jordan Snadden, Simon Tunbridge, Sharrod Wellingham
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 13 vs Geelong (13-win W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 5 at Hawthorn (51-point L)

Although their 2017 season was an up-and-down affair, the Eagles used a strong finish to reach the Finals and secure a thrilling win in the qualifying final over Port Adelaide. Adam Simpson’s club is going into the 2018 season with some solid momentum, buoyed by the return of superstar ruckman Nic Naitanui, who missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL. However, the Eagles also have to deal with the retirement losses of Sam Mitchell, Matt Priddis, and Drew Petrie.

Midfielder Luke Shuey, defender Elliot Yeo, and forward Josh Kennedy give West Coast three talented leaders in each major position grouping, and they’ll be boosted by the addition of speedy Brendon Ah Chee, a West Australia native who was most recently at Port Adelaide.

The Eagles always seem to be a tough and well-disciplined side, but they need to win more on the road and have more luck on the injury front in order to be a true contender. The hope is that Naitanui’s return, plus an influx of young talent, can push West Coast closer to a preliminary final in 2018.

 

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#8 — Melbourne Demons

  • 2017 RECORD: 12-10
  • COACH: Simon Goodwin, 2nd year (12-10)
  • CAPTAINS: Jack Viney/Nathan Jones
  • HOME GROUND: Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity 100,018)
  • ALTERNATE GROUNDS: TIO Stadium, Darwin (capacity 12,500), Traeger Park, Alice Springs (capacity 10,000)
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Harley Balic
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Colin Garland, Liam Hulett, Ben Kennedy, Heritier Lumumba, Jake Spencer, Jack Trengove, Jack Watts, Mitch White
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 8 at Adelaide (41-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 23 vs Collingwood (16-point L)

It was all there for the taking, and Melbourne blew it. The Demons just needed to beat a mediocre Collingwood team in the 2017 season finale to secure their first Finals berth since 2006, but they lost, and then West Coast beat Adelaide, meaning that the Dees’ streak will continue. Most embarrassingly, the club had already mailed out finals packages to season ticket holders before the loss.

However, there’s still plenty to like here in 2018, which will be coach Simon Goodwin’s second season. After an emotionally trying year that involved the death of his father and testicular cancer treatments, forward Jesse Hogan still kicked 20 goals in the 10 games he played. Small forward Jeff Garlett also led the Dees with 42 goals.

Melbourne also boasts one of the AFL’s speediest midfields, led by youngsters Christian Petracca, Jack Viney, Bernie Vince, and Nathan Jones. Ruckman Max Gawn is one of the AFL’s toughest, while the mercurial Clayton Oliver averaged 30 disposals per game and earned his first best-and-fairest win at the ripe young age of 20. Meanwhile, All-Australians Michael Hibberd and Neville Jetta anchor down the backline, which will also be bolstered by prized free agent addition Jake Lever from Adelaide.

If they can avoid the injury bug, Melbourne can remain in the thick of the Finals conversation, but there’s no more excuses. A year older and wiser, the Dees must win in 2018 in order to keep Goodwin from getting closer to the hot seat.

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#7 — Essendon Bombers

  • 2017 RECORD: 12-10
  • COACH: John Worsfold, 3rd year (15-29)
  • CAPTAIN: Dyson Heppell
  • HOME GROUND: Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity 100,018)
  • TRAINING GROUND: True Value Solar Centre
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Adam Saad, Devon Smith, Jake Stringer
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Craig Bird, Yestin Eades, Heath Hocking, Ben Howlett, James Kelly, Alex Morgan, Brent Stanton, Jobe Watson
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 8 vs Geelong (17-point W) 
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 15 vs Brisbane (8-point L)

The Bombers crawled out of the rubble of their drug supplements saga (and related suspensions) and made the big leap back to the Finals after a tumultuous 2016 season, but they need to keep their focus in big games in order to take the next step forward.

Some of the bright young talent that was thrown into the fire in ’16 and blossomed in ’17 were midfielder Darcy Parish and crafty small forward Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti. Versatile youngster Orazio Fantasia booted 39 goals, while McDonald-Tipungwuti kicked 34 of his own.

In addition to the youth, several other Bombers who missed the 2016 season due to suspension returned and showed little rust. All- Australian defender Michael Hurley averaged over seven intercept marks and 25 disposals per game, ruckman Tom Bellchambers was solid, and Cale Hooker and Joe Daniher were possibly the best forward duo in the AFL (106 combined goals).

The Dons also made significant splashes in the offseason by pulling in three major free agents: Adam Saad (Gold Coast), Devon Smith (Greater Western Sydney), and Jake Stringer (Western Bulldogs). Saad is a speedy defender who can be lethal off the intercept marks, while Smith and Stringer are two classy midfielders who are prized for their toughness and consistency. If all three can stay healthy, they’ll be playing important roles in 2018.

While fans were understandably disappointed in the early Finals exit, there’s plenty of talent left over for the Dons to make another run.

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#6 — Sydney Swans

  • 2017 RECORD: 14-8
  • COACH: John Longmire, 8th year (103-45-2)
  • CAPTAIN: Josh Kennedy
  • HOME GROUND: Sydney Cricket Ground (capacity 48,000)
  • KEY ADDITIONS: None
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Shaun Edwards, Sam Fisher, Brandon Jack, Tyrone Leonardis, Jeremy Laidler, Sam Murray, Michael Talia
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 20 at Geelong (46-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 5 vs GWS (42-point L)

The Swans bounced back after a horrific first month of 2017, becoming the first AFL team in history to start 0-6 but still make the Finals. On the back of Coleman Medalist Buddy Franklin and his 73 goals, Sydney won 14 of their final 16 games to qualify for postseason action.

In addition to Franklin’s sensational form, the Swans also boast some talented midfielders, namely best-and-fairest winner Luke Parker and team captain Josh Kennedy. Coaches are also very excited about youngsters Oliver Florent and Will Hayward. Both small forwards, they struggled with injuries last season. With more seasoning, they could develop into some needed threats up forward to take pressure off of Franklin.

A well-coached side, the Swans always seem to have the depth and talent to withstand the injury bug, but they need everything to go right in 2018 in order to have a shot at a preliminary final. The team was quiet in free agency, too, and the Swans hope that their youngsters can continue to develop and be consistent contributors heading forward.

 

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#5 — Port Adelaide Power

  • 2017 RECORD: 14-8
  • COACH: Ken Hinkley, 6th year (65-50)
  • CAPTAIN: Travis Boak
  • HOME GROUND: Adelaide Oval (capacity 53,583)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Alberton Oval
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Trent McKenzie, Steven Motlop, Tom Rockliff, Jack Trengove, Jack Watts
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Brendon Ah Chee, Logan Austin, Brett Eddy, Jarman Impey, Nathan Krakouer, Matthew Lobbe, Angus Monfries, Jesse Palmer, Jackson Trengove, Matthew White, Aaron Young
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 8 vs Hawthorn (51-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 20 vs Adelaide (84-point L)

After a mediocre 2016 campaign, the Power responded with a Finals berth in 2017, although their lack of quality wins against better opponents showed, culminating in a heartbreaking after-the-siren loss to West Coast in the elimination final. However, Port responded by making several big splashes in the free agency period and expectations remain high for this group in 2018.

All-Australian ruckman Paddy Ryder showed career-best form last season, proving the skeptics wrong, while skipper Travis Boak and hard-charging midfielder Robbie Gray continued to show outstanding leadership.

Former Gold Coast sun Trent McKenzie will look to fill the defensive void left by the departed Logan Austin, while ex-Melbourne Demon Jack Watts will move into a midfield role. Talented forward Steven Motlop is hoping to take advantage of a fresh start after falling out of favor at Geelong. A forward/midfielder, Motlop looks to bolster an attack that already includes hot-shot youngster Sam Powell-Pepper (16 goals) and the sensational Charlie Dixon (49 goals).

If the Power can get all of their new faces to mesh well, they’ll have a chance to make a run in the postseason again if they stay healthy. But Port needs to be able to handle both higher expectations and tougher opponents on the big stage if they hope to push for a premiership.

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#4 — Richmond Tigers

  • 2017 RECORD: 15-7
  • COACH: Damien Hardwick, 9th year (92-88-2)
  • CAPTAIN: Trent Cotchin
  • HOME GROUND: Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity 100,018)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Punt Road Oval
  • KEY ADDITIONS: None
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Jake Batchelor, Todd Elton, Taylor Hunt, Ben Lennon, Ivan Maric, Steven Morris, Chris Yarran
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Grand Final vs Adelaide (48-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 16 vs St Kilda (67-point L)

Can Richmond avoid the dreaded premiership hangover? The Tigers claimed their first AFL Grand Final in 37 years last fall, shocking Adelaide with their high-octane, pressuring attack and using their relative lack of size to their advantage on the scoreboard.

Brownlow Medallist Dustin Martin returns to the side in 2018, as do leading goalkicker Jack Riewoldt (54) and young Finals sensations Jack Graham and Daniel Rioli, although the latter is coming off a broken foot. Halfback Brandon Ellis, ruckman Toby Nankervis, and midfielders Trent Cotchin and Dion Prestia are also still in the mix, hoping to maintain the positive momentum after a historic year.

However, the Tigers are unlikely to sneak up on anybody again and will need to continue to play with a chip on their shoulder if they are to defend their flag. Richmond needs to get consistent play from the forward line and apply enough on-ball pressure once more in order to give themselves a chance to stake a claim for another deep postseason run.

 

 

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#3 — Geelong Cats

  • 2017 RECORD: 15-6-1
  • COACH: Chris Scott,
  • CAPTAIN: Joel Selwood, 8th year (102-39-1)
  • HOME GROUND: Kardinia Park (capacity 36,000)
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Gary Ablett Jr.
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Josh Cowan, Matthew Hayball, Darcy Lang, Tom Lonergan, Andrew Mackie, Steven Motlop, Tom Ruggles
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 23 vs GWS (44-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 6 at Collingwood (29-point L)

The prodigal son returns.

Veteran superstar and two-time Brownlow Medalist Gary Ablett Jr. has returned to “the Cattery” after a six-year absence with the Gold Coast Suns. Now happy and in better physical condition, the speedy Ablett is ready to begin competing for premierships with Geelong again.

Ablett joins a courageous group of athletes who have been disappointed the past two years due to heartbreaking Finals defeats. Captain Joel Selwood will need to rally the troops and cross fingers that the Cats’ depth is strong enough after the retirement losses of Andrew Mackie and Tom Lonergan. Geelong also bid farewell to the talented-but-inconsistent duo of Steven Motlop and Darcy Lang, who departed for Port Adelaide and Carlton, respectively.

There’s still plenty of room to improve and lots of talent to work with, and coach Chris Scott likes what he’s been seeing from his leadership group in the offseason. Much attention will be given to the terrific trio of Selwood, Ablett, and Patrick Dangerfield, but don’t forget about versatile veterans like Mitch Duncan (12.8 disposals per game) and Tom Hawkins (51 goals). Geelong will still need consistent play for promising youngster Nakia Cockatoo, who oozes talent but has had trouble staying healthy (only 11 games in 2017). The Cats are also looking to expand the role of halfback Zach Tuohy, a former Gaelic footballer who impressed in his first season with the club after being traded from Carlton.

 

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#2 — Greater Western Sydney Giants

  • 2017 RECORD: 14-6-2
  • COACH: Leon Cameron, 5th year (49-42-2)
  • CAPTAINS: Phil Davis/Callan Ward
  • HOME GROUND: Spotless Stadium (capacity 25,000)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Tom Wills Oval
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Lachlan Keeffe
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Tom Downie, Steve Johnson, Matt Kennedy, Shane Mumford, Tendai Mzungu, Joel Patfull, Sam Reid, Devon Smith, Nathan Wilson
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 5 vs Sydney (42-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Round 7 vs St Kilda (23-point L)

The Giants ended up being the bridesmaid once again, losing for the second consecutive year in the preliminary final to the eventual AFL champion. The season looked to be set up for a fairytale ending before injuries took their toll down the stretch. However, there’s still plenty of talent left over for GWS to make a run once more in coach Leon Cameron’s fifth season at the club.

Despite the free agent losses of midfielder Devon Smith (Essendon) and defender Nathan Wilson (Fremantle), the Giants still look to have an excellent starting 22. Re-signing prized midfielder Josh Kelly was a huge deal, and the ruckman combination of Dawson Simpson and Rory Lobb should be solid replacements for the retired Shane Mumford.

The forward group of Jonathon Patton, Toby Greene, and Jeremy Cameron — all of whom kicked 45 goals apiece last season — should help make up for the loss of heart-and-soul playmaker Steve Johnson. It’ll help even more if the mercurial Greene can stay out of trouble after suffering two suspensions for aggressive play in 2017.

Dylan Shiel, Callan Ward, and Tom Scully are excellent in the midfield, and the depth will be bolstered if Stephen Coniglio and Brett Deledio can make it through 2018 injury-free. With Wilson gone, look for youngsters like Nick Haynes and Aidan Corr to be featured more in the backline, as well as former Collingwood player Lachlan Keeffe.

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#1 — Adelaide Crows

  • 2017 RECORD: 15-6-1
  • COACH: Don Pyke, 3rd year (38-16-1)
  • CAPTAIN: Taylor Walker
  • HOME GROUND: Adelaide Oval (capacity 53,583)
  • TRAINING GROUND: Football Park
  • KEY ADDITIONS: Bryce Gibbs
  • KEY DEPARTURES: Jonathon Beech, Charlie Cameron, Dean Gore, Jake Lever, Troy Menzel, Sam Shaw, Scott Thompson, Harrison Wigg
  • BIGGEST 2017 WIN: Round 20 vs Port Adelaide (84-point W)
  • WORST 2017 LOSS: Grand Final vs Richmond (48-point L)

The Crows don’t stay down for long, but one has to wonder how their embarrassing Grand Final loss to Richmond will reverberate to the 2018 season. The club also has to find quality replacements for talented on-baller Charlie Cameron, who left for the Brisbane Lions to be closer to family, and Jake Lever, one of the league’s best defenders who departed for the Demons in free-agency.

Thankfully, the Crows still have an excellent midfield, headlined by the talented brother duo of Brad and Matt Crouch. Former basketball convert Hugh Greenwood impressed in his first full season of AFL action, prized addition Bryce Gibbs arrived from Carlton in November, and All-Australian Rory Sloane looks to continue his classy form in 2018.

The forward duo of Eddie Betts (55 goals) and Mitch McGovern (20) should be able to keep Adelaide in every game, but the Crows need to show premiership-winning material down the stretch in order to prove that they’re truly elite.

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Tom Wills

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Tom Wills’s life had all the drama, passion, and excitement of a major movie script: someone who was beloved across a then-fledgling country as a talented dual sportsman and an eccentric personality.

The man was one of the most talented Australian cricketers of his day and also helped give birth to Aussie rules football — a unique and fast-paced game that enthralls modern audiences and has since spread across the globe. However, immediately following his death, he fell into obscurity and did not achieve folk hero status as an Aussie sports legend for many decades. Who was Wills, and what made him such an intriguing figure?

Thomas Wentworth Wills was born in rural New South Wales (then still a British colony) on August 19, 1835 to Horatio Wills and Elizabeth McGuire Wills. Wills’s maternal grandparents were Irish convicts, while his paternal grandfather, Edward Wills, was an Englishman who was convicted of highway robbery and transported to Australia in 1799.

Horatio Wills was active in local politics and also owned a newspaper, where he helped make the case for a self-reliant, robust Australia with minimal British interference. By the time he got married and started raising a family, however, Wills moved to the countryside, settling in a predominantly Aboriginal region of Victoria near the modern-day town of Moyston. Here, the Wills family began a more pastoral style of living.

Young Tom naturally gravitated towards his Aboriginal neighbors as companions, learning their language and appreciating their music. Horatio Wills was also well-regarded among the community due to his uncommon hospitality to the locals, allowing Aboriginal clans to hunt on his land. Tom moved south to Melbourne and attended Brickwoods School from the age of 11, where he developed a close relationship with his uncle, who lived nearby. A natural athlete, Wills first began playing cricket while at school in Melbourne.

By 1850, Wills was 14 and his father was looking to ensure a good secondary education for his eldest, so he sent him to the elite Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. Here, Wills continued to play cricket and developed a sterling reputation as one of the best young bowlers at the school. In addition to his prowess as a cricketer, Wills also excelled in other athletic events, including Rugby School’s annual sports carnival. At a lanky 5’10” with natural agility and skill, Wills was considered the best all-around athlete in the school.

Wills, despite battling homesickness, finished his schooling in 1855 and began playing cricket across England, including first-class appearances for some of the most historic cricket clubs in the country. Eventually, after pressure from his father, Wills returned home to Australia right before the following Christmas.

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Wills came back to his home country at the perfect time — the colonies of Victoria and New South Wales were battling annually in cricket and the competition had reached a fever pitch. Recruited to the Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) by his old school friend, an Englishman named William Hammersley, Wills soon became a highly-regarded cricketer in Australia as well.

At the time, Aussie cricketers were strictly amateur sportsmen. Wills didn’t mind; he liked playing sports strictly for fun, but he also enjoyed drinking and fraternizing with the professional Aussie cricketers, which irked sporting officials but endeared him to the average fan.

During the 1857-58 cricket season, Wills was elected secretary of the MCC, but he was blamed for poor administrative skills lackluster leadership — he sometimes didn’t even show up to club meetings, even when the MCC was heavily in debt. Wills eventually resigned in a huff, resulting in a strained relationship with the MCC that would last for many years.

Despite his lack of secretarial skills, Wills was a prolific writer on cricket matters, although he had a contentious relationship with his fellow journalists in Melbourne. On July 10, 1858, Wills wrote a letter to Bell’s Life, a local sporting chronicle, discussing the possibilities of forming a new type of football club to help keep cricketers fit during the winter months:

Now that cricket has been put aside for some few months to come, and cricketers have assumed somewhat of the chrysalis nature….why can they not, I say, form a foot-ball club, and form a committee of three or more to draw up a code of laws?

Wills may not have realized it at the time, but he made a historic declaration, stating that “foot-ball” should be an organized and regular pastime. After spreading the word to local schools, Wills and his fellow cricketers organized a series of test matches at the Richmond Paddock, located adjacent to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG). The matches were played on subsequent Saturdays in August between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar School. At this point, the form of football was more akin to rugby than anything else, but Wills would soon devise a scheme to make his new code of football unique.

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On May 14, 1859, Wills and a handful of other cricketers founded the Melbourne Football Club. Three days later, Wills invited William Hammersley, Thomas H. Smith, and J.B. Thompson to the Parade Hotel to formally codify the new type of football.

The four men debated the public school forms of football that were popular in England at the time. Wills naturally geared more towards the rugby of his alma mater; however, Hammersley disliked using rugby as a primary influence, finding it too complex and violent. The men compromised and decided to tailor-make the rules to the typical Melbourne winter conditions. They drew up a set of 10 rules:

1. The distance between the goals and the goal posts shall be decided upon by the captains of the sides playing.
2. The captains on each side shall toss for choice of goal; the side losing the toss has the kick off from the centre point between the goals.
3. A goal must be kicked fairly between the posts, without touching either of them, or a portion of the person of any player on either side.
4. The game shall be played within a space of not more than 200 yards wide, the same to be measured equally on each side of a line drawn through the centres of the two goals; and two posts to be called the “kick off posts” shall be erected at a distance of 20 yards on each side of the goal posts at both ends, and in a straight line with them.
5. In case the ball is kicked “behind” goal, any one of the side behind whose goal it is kicked may bring it 20 yards in front of any portion of the space between the “kick off” posts, and shall kick it as nearly as possible in line with the opposite goal.
6. Any player catching the ball “directly” from the foot may call “mark”. He then has a free kick; no player from the opposite side being allowed to come “inside” the spot marked.
7. Tripping and pushing are both allowed (but no hacking) when any player is in rapid motion or in possession of the ball, except in the case provided for in Rule 6.
8. The ball may be taken in hand “only” when caught from the foot, or on the hop. In “no case” shall it be “lifted” from the ground.
9. When a ball goes out of bounds (the same being indicated by a row of posts) it shall be brought back to the point where it crossed the boundary-line, and thrown in at right angles with that line.
10. The ball, while in play, may under no circumstances be thrown.

While not all of these rules have survived, they still form the official basis of Australian rules football — kicking goals, marking the ball, boundary line throw-ins, and playing a fast-paced game over a very large area. Due to Wills’s immense popularity in Australia, the new game grew quickly, spreading across Melbourne and the nearby city of Geelong.

While Wills was developing Aussie rules during the winter, he remained a constant — albeit controversial — figure in cricket. After his falling-out with the MCC, Wills traveled around Australia, playing for any cricket team that would have him. This made many clubs furious, as Wills would frequently play without giving prior notice to the opposition, dramatically tilting the odds in his new team’s favor.

Shortly before England’s inaugural cricket tour of Australia in 1861, Wills abruptly announced his retirement from all sports. At the behest of his father, Wills moved to establish a new family property, this time thousands of miles north in outback Queensland along the Nogoa River.

Wills, his family, and a number of his dad’s employees took a steam train to Brisbane, and then began the long trip to the rugged Queensland interior to establish their new property. Upon their arrival, Horatio Wills named the new location Cullin-la-ringo and established a ranch there. The family was wary of intermittent fighting between Anglos and Aborigines in the area and resolved to have a non-interventionist approach to the conflicts.

Two weeks later, on October 17, Wills was out of town seeking new supplies when nearly everyone at Cullin-la-ringo — including Horatio — was killed by Aborigines. Nineteen people (including women and children) were clubbed to death, resulting in the deadliest massacre of Anglo settlers in Australian history. Wills was not the only survivor; two men avoided being spotted by the Aborigines and reported the news to Wills later on.

Following the tragedy, Wills rebuilt the property at Cullin-la-ringo and sold it to a relative; however, Wills began to descend into insomnia, PTSD, and alcoholism. Drifting for awhile, he returned to cricket briefly and also spent some time coaching Aussie rules in Geelong before going back to Cullin-la-ringo.

By 1864, Wills’s personal life was imploding — his fiancée broke up with him and he was deeply in debt due to squandering money on alcohol while falsely claiming it as “station expenditures” at Cullin-la-ringo.

Wills eventually moved back to Victoria, staying in Geelong with his sister Emily. He continued to play cricket occasionally, but his on-field professionalism was undermined when opposing players and umpires alike accused him of throwing games repeatedly (In cricket, one must use an orthodox method of bowling the ball, with very little wiggle room. Otherwise, a “no-ball” is called.).

By 1871, Wills’s style of play had ostracized many of his former friends and teammates, including Hammersley, and during that year’s match, Wills was tossed from the game and eventually banned from intercolonial matches. Wills attacked Hammersley (an Englishman) many times in the press, accusing him of manipulating the rules against Australians and threatening legal action.

Despite his fall from grace in the cricket world, Wills was still highly regarded in Geelong, where he helped further develop Aussie rules. He continued to play and coach, and consulted with other authorities to make new rules and provide innovative game plans. He retired from footy permanently in 1877.

Continuing to struggle with debt, Wills moved in with his longterm girlfriend, Sarah Barbor, in the Melbourne suburb of Heidelberg. Wills’s alcoholism continued to consume him until he was completely broke. With no money, Wills experienced withdrawal symptoms, including intense paranoia, and was admitted to a local hospital on May 1st, 1880. After being observed and released the following day, Wills continued to suffer from paranoid delusions; two days later, he stabbed himself in the chest three times and died. Estranged from most of his family, Wills was buried in an unmarked grave and his funeral was attended by only six people.

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Wills was Australia’s first real sporting celebrity — excelling in cricket professionally and developing Aussie rules into a beloved winter pastime. However, the man himself remains an enigma among his supporters and detractors alike.

In addition to his alcoholism and PTSD, which sprang from the personal tragedies in his life, Wills had strange personality traits. He was frequently described as charismatic and laconic, although he also had very narcissistic tendencies and was not shy about alienating people. Wills was also a notorious womanizer and may have had undiagnosed mental health issues, often confiding to friends and family that he didn’t always feel like himself.

Wills also wrote many letters to his friends and family over the years, many of which were composed in bizarre fashion: he had a peculiar stream-of-consciousness writing style that sometimes defied grammar, featuring random puns, strange Shakespearean allusions, and droll asides. It’s possible that he was bipolar or even mildly epileptic. “He could be dismissive, triumphant, and brazen all in a single sentence,” says Australian historian Greg de Moore.

Despite his moral flaws, Wills is heavily remembered not just for his sporting legacy, but for his egalitarian attitudes, which are strongly reflected in Australian culture at large. In some ways, he is emblematic of the tough, down-to-earth, individualistic image of the “Aussie bloke.”

“‘Great’ athletes seem to be anointed every day; far rarer are those entitled to be considered ‘original’. Tom Wills is such a figure in every respect,” says journalist Gideon Haigh.

Whatever you think of Tom Wills as a person, he will probably always be remembered as a lasting icon of Australia’s two most famous and popular sports.

HISTORY SPOTLIGHT: Jim Stynes

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Jim Stynes has been cemented as one of the all-time greats in Australian football, winning a Brownlow Medal, earning two All-Australian honors, and holding the record for most consecutive AFL games. But Stynes didn’t know the finer points of Aussie rules until he was a young man, as the sport was entirely foreign to him growing up.

Born in 1966 to Brian and Teresa Stynes, he was raised in the southern suburbs of Dublin as one of six kids. He began playing Gaelic football and had a real passion for it, starting from the age of eight and continuing throughout his school days in Ireland. In addition to relishing the fast pace and ball movement in Gaelic football, Stynes also liked full-contact sports, competing in rugby union at De La Salle College, Churchtown.

In 1984, when he was only 18, Stynes led his team — Ballyboden St Endas — to a Gaelic football title in the All-Ireland Minor Championship division. While coming down from the high of this big win, Stynes wanted a steadier income. Since Gaelic football was an amateur sport, Stynes had to support himself by delivering papers for meager wages. While he wanted to go to college, it seemed like a pipe dream.

Soon afterwards, Stynes saw an ad in his newspaper from the Melbourne Football Club. They were offering two scholarships for young Irishmen to come and play Aussie rules while studying at a university in Melbourne. Lanky and athletic, Stynes saw it as a great opportunity and was eventually selected, flying to Australia in November 1984.

In addition to adjusting to the cultural differences in Australia, Stynes had to learn Aussie rules from scratch. While both Aussie rules and Gaelic football feature similar ball movement and kicking skills, Stynes found it hard to transfer his football IQ right away. He needed to fine-tune his techniques, adjust to the full contact nature of footy, and attempt to compete with young men his age who were far more experienced.

However, after about a year or so with the Melbourne Demons’ reserves squad, Stynes began to settle in and be more comfortable with a footy. Coaches liked his athleticism and his positive attitude, and by 1987, he made his senior level debut in a night game between Melbourne and Geelong.

It didn’t go as planned; Stynes performed poorly on the grand stage and didn’t play much the rest of the ’87 season. Melbourne got to the AFL Preliminary Final that year and was leading Hawthorn in the final seconds. The siren sounded to end the match, but Hawthorn had one more shot and were given a free kick after Stynes ran across the mark. This critical error cost the Demons a shot at the Grand Final that year.

But once again, Stynes didn’t quit and the following year, Melbourne made it back to the postseason. This time, they did advance to the Grand Final and lost badly, but Stynes was showing rapid improvement.

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In 1991, Stynes had his best season yet, playing all 24 games for the Demons and leading the league in marks (214). He also won the Brownlow Medal, the AFL Players Association MVP award, and was named All-Australian. To date, Stynes is the only foreign-born AFL player to ever capture a Brownlow, which is the game’s highest individual regular season honor.

Stynes was highly regarded for his relentless pursuit of the ball, out-hustling and maneuvering his opponents and using his quickness to be aggressive towards bigger players. In 1993, Stynes collided with a teammate and broke a rib. He was initially ruled out for six weeks, but amazingly, he returned the following week and played with light chest padding for protection. He was holding the all-time record for consecutive AFL games when he suffered another severe injury — this time to his hand — in 1998, and he retired that fall as one of the best players in Melbourne history, playing 264 career games.

Following his retirement, Stynes remained involved in the community, both on and off the footy oval. In 1994, while still playing, Stynes co-founded the Reach Foundation with his friend, filmmaker Paul Currie, with the goal of starting community outreach programs. The foundation works with kids, families, and the like to help people in various ways, from mental health education, to violence prevention, to sports and athletic activities.

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Stynes continued his philanthropic efforts in 1997, when the Government of Victoria asked him to help assist their anti-suicide task force, helping advocate for youth treatment programs and compassionate outreaches. In addition to two autobiographies, Stynes also wrote children’s self-help books and was named Victorian of the Year twice (in 2001 and 2003). In recognition of his community activism and work with children, Stynes received an honorary doctorate from the Australian Catholic University. The AFL inducted him into their Hall of Fame in 2003.

The Jim Stynes Medal was named in his honor, first awarded in 1998 to the best Australian player in the International Rules Series, which pits Aussie rules and Gaelic footballers against each other under hybrid rules.

Stynes became president of the Melbourne Football Club in 2008 to much fanfare, although the following year he announced a sabbatical after being diagnosed with melanoma. Stynes continued to work during his treatment, but soon the cancer had metastasized. He passed away at his home at the age of 45 on March 20, 2012 and was survived by his wife Samantha and two kids.

Former Melbourne team captain turned TV journalist Garry Lyon gave an emotional tribute to his former teammate on The Footy Show:

Jimmy refused to let the game define who he was. It was just a part of him and it allowed us to marvel at his determination, unwavering self-belief, resilience, strength, skill, endurance and courage….he was secure enough to know that displaying vulnerability can be a strength and not a weakness.

Marn Grook — footy’s predecessor?

Over the years, numerous observers have commented on the uniqueness of Australian rules football, and there have been several theories as to how the game was developed. I’ve already touched on Gaelic football being a major influence on footy, but one of the more intriguing — and controversial — theories is that the development of Aussie rules was influenced by Marn Grook, an indigenous game that was popular among Aboriginal communities in rural Victoria.

Very few concrete details have survived about Marn Grook, but based on a handful of eyewitness accounts, the game was very fast-paced and placed a large emphasis on kicking and catching a ball. Many players took spectacular leaps over each other to catch the ball and focused on never letting the ball touch the floor. Like modern footy, the game was played by numerous athletes over a very large area.

The 1878 book The Aborigines of Victoria quoted William Thomas, a local politician who represented Aboriginal groups at the time. He saw a game of Marn Grook and was very intrigued:

The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played…the players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot, using the instep for that purpose. …The tallest men have the best chances in this game….some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it….this continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise.

The game was reportedly quite popular among Aboriginal tribes on the outskirts of what is now Melbourne. Robert Brough-Smith, a 19th-century author and geologist, saw a game of Marn Grook played at Coranderrk Mission Station, where Aboriginal elder William Barak encouraged the playing of indigenous sports over the country’s imported sports, such as cricket.

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In 2007, an image was accidentally discovered at a Melbourne museum that portrayed a group of Aborigines playing Marn Grook. The caption described the sketching as being taken in 1857 and stated that the purpose of the game was to never let the ball touch the ground.

“What I can say for certain is that it’s the first image of any kind of football that’s been discovered in Australia,” footy historian Greg de Moore said at the time. “It pre-dates the first European images of any kind of football, by almost ten years in Australia. Whether or not there is a link between the two games in some way, for me, is immaterial, because it really highlights that games such as Marn Grook — which is one of the names for Aboriginal football — were played by Aborigines and should be celebrated in their own right.”

Fellow historian Geoffrey Blainey has also commented that the feature of spectacular marking in footy was first started in the late 19th century after players observed Aborigines in South Australia performing the high leaps required to take a “spekkie.” However, this theory is mostly circumstantial.

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Another prominent theory revolves around Tom Wills, the acclaimed Melbourne cricketer who was one of the pioneers of Aussie rules in the 19th century. Wills grew up on a large colonial ranch near modern-day Moyston, Victoria, where he was the only white child for miles around and grew up playing sports with Aboriginal kids. Therefore, many historians have believed that Wills was influenced by sports such as Marn Grook when developing the laws of Aussie rules football. Footy historian Col Hutchison was a major proponent of this theory, and a quote from him is featured at a monument to Wills in Moyston:

While playing as a child with Aboriginal children in this area, [Wills] developed a game which he later utilised in the formation of Australian Football.

Many of Wills’s descendants still adhere to this belief, noting that Wills was frequently caught in the middle of cultural upheaval in the world of Australian sport — having to constantly reconcile his unique multicultural upbringing against what was then a largely segregated society, especially in sports.

They also have claimed that Wills used his childhood experiences as a basis for a similar, fast-paced game of football that is known and loved by Aussies of all backgrounds to this day. This has arguably been the biggest lightning rod in the debate over the roots of modern-day footy, with many arguing that the evidence surrounding Wills is purely circumstantial.

Here’s what we do know:

  • While Marn Grook appears to have been very popular with indigenous tribes in the rural fringes of modern-day Melbourne, there’s no immediate, conclusive evidence that specific ball game was played as far north as Moyston (although it’s likely that similar ball games were played by numerous Aboriginal tribes, including in New South Wales and Central Australia). This was backed up (somewhat controversially) by AFL historian Gillian Hibbins in 2008, stating that “understandably, the appealing idea that Australian Football is a truly Australian native game recognising the indigenous people, rather than deriving solely from a colonial dependence upon the British background, has been uncritically embraced and accepted. Sadly, this emotional belief lacks any intellectual credibility.”
  • The fact that the anthropological evidence is so thin regarding the actual details of Marn Grook gameplay have proven to be a roadblock for historians who want to make the case that footy was born out of a prior, uniquely Aboriginal sport.
  • The debate over the spectacular mark being a strictly indigenous creation is inconclusive, as the “spekkie” itself did not become a staple of Australian football until the 1880s.
  • Other historians, such as Barry Judd and Chris Hallinan, have stated that allowing or admitting the Mark Grook connection would certainly have been frowned upon, especially amid the ongoing racial tensions between Anglos and Aborigines in 19th-century Australia. In 2008, writer and commentator Jim Poulter even went as far as to say, “If Tom Wills had have said ‘Hey, we should have a game of our own more like the football the black fellas play,’ it would have been killed stone dead before it was even born.”

 

In my opinion, footy is an exciting blend of multiple sports, with early forms of rugby, Gaelic football, and various indigenous influences combining to create a truly unique and distinctly Australian sport.

Regardless of the possible Marn Grook connection, Aboriginal players have long played a huge role in the popularity of Aussie rules — only about three percent of Australians identify as Aboriginal, but roughly 10 percent of AFL players are of at least partial Aboriginal descent. Some of the game’s biggest names in the modern era are indigenous players, including Eddie Betts, Lance “Buddy” Franklin, Cyril Rioli, Travis Varcoe, Steven Motlop, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Chad Wingard, and Patrick Ryder.

So in conclusion, regardless of the sport’s origin, Aussie rules football has proven to — perhaps inadvertently — help give indigenous players a spotlight and bridge the gap among various races and backgrounds in Australia.

 

FOOTY AROUND THE WORLD: Ireland

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Ireland is significant as one of the first European nations to have adopted the sport of Aussie rules. However, footy has never enjoyed significantly broad popularity in the country due to the dominance of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which oversees the traditional Irish sports of hurling, camogie, handball, and Gaelic football.

Gaelic football — by far the largest Irish spectator sport — has several similarities to Aussie rules, which have been well-documented over the years. The primary differences are the number of players, the size and shape of the ball and pitch, and the fact that Gaelic football is not full-contact.

Irish interest in footy was most likely initially sparked in 1967 during the Australian Football World Tour, which played a couple of test matches in Dublin. The hybrid sport of international rules football (a combination of Aussie rules and Gaelic football) has its roots in the World Tour. In addition, many Gaelic footballers have given Aussie rules a shot since the 1980s, primarily due to the lure of a quality salary; the Gaelic games are only played at an amateur level in Ireland.

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As far a domestic competition goes, there were no official footy clubs in Ireland until 1999, when teams were formed in both Belfast and Dublin (the Redbacks and Demons, respectively). The following year, the Australian Rules Football League of Ireland (ARFLI) was founded, and the Demons and Redbacks began playing test matches against teams in England. Having recruited well, both clubs performed admirably, providing a strong foundation for footy to grow in the Emerald Isle. Three more clubs — the Leeside Lions, the Midland Tigers, and the Drogheda Dockers — were founded within the next year, helped by an established group of Aussie expats.

ARFLI’s co-founders, Ciaran O’Hara and Michael Currane, attempted to strengthen ties with other organized footy clubs and leagues in both the UK and Continental Europe, helping form the European Australian Rules Football Council in early 2001. This was a key development in the eventual formation of AFL Europe in 2010, of which Ireland was a founding member.

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Due to a lack of available cricket ovals, the ARFLI originally decided to create two competitions, starting in the 2001 season. The premiership season was the original five teams competing in traditional 18-a-side formats, while the Super 9’s competition was nine-per-side, and was played on Gaelic football pitches in order to give players a smoother transition.

In addition to a growing local competition, Ireland’s national footy team, the Warriors, were inaugural members of the International Cup in 2002, when they won the premiership over heavily-favored Papua New Guinea, in addition to prior victories over Canada, Samoa, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States.

In both 2005 and 2008, the Irish team (AKA the Green Machine) finished in fourth place, suffering losses to both PNG and the US in ’05 and falling to New Zealand during round one of the finals in ’08. However, Ireland rebounded three years later, taking home the 2011 IC title with another nice win over PNG. The Green Machine/Warriors are one of the most successful IC teams ever, as they’ve never finished below fourth place overall and are tied with PNG for the most premierships.

The women’s national team, the Banshees, was also an inaugural member of the women’s IC in 2011, winning the Grand Final that year and finishing as runners-up to Canada in 2014.

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While Gaelic football still dominates the local media coverage and captivates spectators, the future of Aussie rules in Ireland still looks bright, due to the triennial International Rules Series, the emergence of several Gaelic converts in the AFL, and the chance to compete abroad at the International Cup. There are roughly 150 registered Irish footy players, as well as a junior development program.

AUSTRALIAN RULES FOOTBALL LEAGUE OF IRELAND

  • Belfast Redbacks
  • Dublin Demons
  • Galway Magpies
  • Leeside Lions
  • North Leinster Giants
  • South Dublin Swans

IRISHMEN IN THE AFL

  • Dermott Brereton (played 1982-1992) — One of the greatest goalkickers ever, Brereton is a first generation Irish Australian who played in 189 career games for the Hawthorn Hawks, winning five VFL premierships during that time. After briefly attempting a comeback with Sydney and Collingwood in the mid-90s, Brereton permanently retired and is now a prominent radio and TV commentator.
  • Jock McHale (played 1903-1920) — The son of Irish immigrants to Sydney, McHale mostly grew up in Melbourne and played for Collingwood during the VFL’s infancy. However, he is best remembered for his 714-game coaching career with the Pies, which lasted over two decades and resulted in seven premierships. McHale passed away of a heart attack in 1970 and was posthumously named as a Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame.

NOTABLE GAELIC FOOTBALL CONVERTS TO AFL

  • Tadhg Kennelly (played 2001-2008) — An athletic 6’3″ defender, Kennelly made history with the Sydney Swans in 2005, when he became the first born-and-raised Irishman to win an AFL premiership. Before he transitioned to footy, Kennelly was a stellar underage player for GAA powerhouse club County Kerry.
  • Pearce Hanley (played 2008-present) — The son of an Irish father and Welsh mother, Hanley played for GAA’s County Mayo. In 2005, after a positive showing at the International Rules Series, Hanley began to receiving scouting attention from the AFL. He ultimately signed with the Brisbane Lions as a midfielder/defender and played in 129 career games there before being traded to the Gold Coast Suns last year.
  • Jim Stynes (played 1987-1998) — Born in Dublin, Stynes spent his entire AFL career with the Melbourne Demons and is considered the first major success in the so-called Irish experiment, playing in 264 career games and winning a Brownlow Medal in 1991. Following his retirement, Stynes became well-known for his charity work and penned two memoirs. He was also selected to the AFL Hall of Fame and named to the Melbourne Team of the Century. Stynes passed away in 2012 at the tragically young age of 45 due to recurring melanoma.
  • Ciarán Byrne (played 2014-present) — Byrne is another Gaelic convert who originally made his presence known to the AFL when playing in the International Rules Series. Hailing from County Louth, Byrne signed as a category B international rookie with Carlton in 2013 and has since played in a dozen AFL games, primarily in the half-back line.
  • Conor McKenna (played 2015-present) — McKenna hails from County Tyrone, Northern Ireland and played at the minor league level in Gaelic football before deciding to give Aussie rules a try. Now a midfielder for the Essendon Bombers, McKenna has seen more and more senior level footy in recent months, drawing praise for his style of play from ex-Bombers captain Jobe Watson.
  • Colm Begley (played 2006-2009) — Begley moved to Australia in 2005 from County Laois and signed with the Brisbane Lions, where he played for three seasons. Unfortunately, injuries marred the latter half of his career; he retired in 2009 and elected to return to Ireland.
  • Zach Tuohy (played 2010-present) — Tuohy is one of the more recent Irish success stories. Originally from County Laois, he began his career as a versatile defender with the Carlton Blues before getting traded to Geelong at the end of last season. Tuohy also represented Ireland at both the 2011 and 2013 International Rules Series.