Optimism everywhere: an AFL season like few others

Even sides outside the eight like St Kilda and Adelaide have some reason to be positive. Photo: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images
Even sides outside the eight like St Kilda and Adelaide have some reason to be positive. Photo: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

AFL punditry is never easy, particularly when it comes to the business of tipping winners or predicting the future even a couple of weeks in advance, let alone several months.

So it was with a sense of impending doom last week that, asked to nominate my final eight for 2021, I took what appeared to be the safe option and forecast that the order of the current top eight might change, but the composition wouldn't.

Before you begin the ridicule, no, I haven't since changed my mind.

But the events of a Round 13 spread across five days were certainly a handy reminder that the complexion of an AFL season can change in pretty quick time.

That tip about the top eight was looking pretty solid before the round kicked off last Thursday, with a two-game gap having opened up between Richmond, in eighth spot, and the next four teams on the ladder, Essendon, GWS, Fremantle and St Kilda.

Now it's down to just one game (or four points) between eighth-placed Richmond and Freo in ninth, six points between the Tigers and Giants, and two games to them and the Bombers, Adelaide and St Kilda.

But last weekend's results were significant for more than the closing of the gap.

In seven games, not one outright favourite got over the line.

Geelong, Hawthorn, Adelaide, West Coast and Collingwood were all outsiders who won.

Fremantle was no better than evens against Gold Coast.

And GWS might have been a comfortable favourite against North Melbourne, but in the end was lucky to escape with a draw.

There's a couple of incumbents in the top eight looking a little more precarious than they were only a couple of weeks ago, too.

Port Adelaide had a 5-1 record after six games.

That has become 8-4, the Power going only 50-50 in the half-dozen games since.

Significantly, two of the three defeats were at a home that, earlier on, was looking close to impregnable.

Sydney, similarly, is 3-3 from the last half-dozen games, and the youthful dash which was making the Swans so exciting to watch over the early part of the season has gradually been worn down. Scoring's certainly a lot harder to come by.

Indeed, right now that pair look more vulnerable than the two members of the top eight beneath them, West Coast and Richmond, whose epic contest on Sunday night in Perth was in terms of standard close to the game of the season.

The Eagles are 8-5, have five of their last nine games at home.

The catalogue of injured players they've had to do without much of the season are starting to return and make an obvious difference.

Richmond might have gone down (just) to West Coast, but at 7-6 after 13 games, the Tigers are in exactly the same situation they were in 2019 ... and we all remember how that turned out.

The Eagles, for their part, reminded us of their credentials in becoming one of the few teams of the past four years to overhaul the Tigers in a game the reigning premiers appeared to have won.

The returning Elliot Yeo was pivotal to the Eagles' last quarter revival. And another huge pair in Luke Shuey and Jeremy McGovern are only a week or so from a return.

But the significance of last weekend wasn't just about prospective premiers.

Just a little more steadiness in the clinches and North Melbourne would have had its second win of the season rather than a draw.

The Roos are staying competitive far longer, even in games they lose.

If they do end up with the wooden spoon, it will be one taken not amidst the usual gloom and doom, but with some obvious signs of hope for the future.

Ditto Collingwood, who bid farewell to Nathan Buckley as coach, perhaps perversely, on the back of its first consecutive wins of the season.

The off-field political unrest will complicate the search for a successor to Buckley, but at least in recent times the Magpies have been getting some good signs from youngsters like Trent Bianco and Caleb Poulter.

Hawthorn's impressive away win over Sydney was even more authoritative than was Collingwood's.

And with each decent showing, so it seems more of a fait accompli the best coach of the modern era in Alastair Clarkson will be hanging around to complete another transformation of the team he's led for 17 seasons.

He and his peers coaching teams in the bottom half of the ladder only need to look to Melbourne's efforts this season to be encouraged as to how quickly fortunes can be revived.

It's not often we get to the second half of an AFL season with just about every team still having hope in their hearts.

But it's more the case in 2021, and a run home which was looking far more predictable only a week or two ago looks a lot less so now.

That's great news for the competition, and it's great news for fans.

Some of us pundits are pretty happy about it, too, even if it has made our job that much harder again.

This story Rohan Connolly | Optimism everywhere: an AFL season like few others first appeared on The Canberra Times.