OPINION

Not your typical wooden spooners

Like the Hawks, this year's Kangaroos have shown more than a hint of promise. Photo: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images
Like the Hawks, this year's Kangaroos have shown more than a hint of promise. Photo: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

The race for the top of the AFL ladder is particularly intriguing in 2021 - a perennial heavyweight in Geelong staking its claims, but this year joined by two relative novelties in the Western Bulldogs and Melbourne.

We're going to hear plenty more about it over the next month, but probably not nearly as much about the other end of the ladder.

Which in some ways is a pity, because there's a couple of other unusual happenings going on there, too.

There's two obvious wooden spoon candidates.

One of them, Hawthorn, is the dominant team of the past 50 years and only a few years back won a premiership hat-trick.

The Hawks haven't finished last on the ladder since 1965.

It's the other club, though, North Melbourne, which perhaps best exemplifies a significant point about this year's likely wooden spooner.

And that is, if it's the Roos who stay in 18th position, they'll be one of the best last-placed teams we've ever seen. Officially.

If neither the Roos nor Hawks (each with four wins and a draw) manage to win one of their last four games - and both have at least one in which they'd give themselves a decent chance - they will be second only to Brisbane of 2017 as the best-performed spooner of the last 23 years.

Three or four wins has been the standard return for the last-placed team in recent years.

It's not inconceivable in 2021 that last may even end up with more than the five wins and a draw with which the last-placed Lions (again) finished in 1998.

That landmark is significant, too. Why? Because that group of Lions would go on to play in a preliminary final the very next year, and two years after that begin a string of three consecutive premierships and four straight grand final appearances.

That's not to suggest the Roos or Hawks are going to do similarly. But they do have reasonable enough grounds to believe they can climb back up the ladder sooner than later.

Take, for example, North Melbourne's improvement this season.

Having lost their first eight games of the season, including a humiliating 128-point massacre at the hands of the Western Bulldogs, the Roos were being spoken about as one of the worst teams of the modern era.

But to say their drought-breaking win over Hawthorn the following week sparked a sizeable turnaround would be an understatement.

The last 10 games have seen the Roos go 4-5-1, close enough to 50 per cent, with wins over the Hawks, Gold Coast, West Coast in Perth and Carlton.

The shafts of light in what had seemed a pretty dark tunnel are breaking through everywhere.

Check out the AFL Coaches Association votes for the win over Carlton and what strikes you is that of the six North vote-winners, five - Nick Larkey (who kicked seven goals), Tarryn Thomas, Jy Simpkin, Jaidyn Stephenson and Luke Davies-Unaicke - are all aged 23 or younger.

Indeed, no fewer than a dozen players in the team which took on the Blues were aged 23 or younger, and we've already seen more than glimpses from the likes of several of the others, Cam Zurhaar, Ben McKay and Bailey Scott just a sample.

North Melbourne's confidence has risen visibly by the week, and with more self-belief to take the game on, the Roos are having far more spells of dominance the nature of that seven-goal third term against the Blues.

Clearly, they'd be a lot happier with how 2021 has panned out than would Hawthorn, despite their similar win-loss record. But then even the Hawks aren't going to end this season completely bereft.

They have at least managed a draw with then-top-of-the-ladder Melbourne a fortnight ago. And three of their four wins have come against teams either currently in or in contention for the top eight in Sydney, Essendon and GWS.

There's been some real promise shown among the tribe of inexperienced players coach Alastair Clarkson has continued to blood, the likes of dashing key defender Changkuoth Jiath, the cool-headed Will Day, small goalkicker Dylan Moore, key forward Jacob Koschitzke and Ned Reeves.

Mid-season draft pick-up Lachie Bramble has already shown plenty, too.

And two of Hawthorn's top three picks in last year's national draft, Connor Downie and Seamus Mitchell, are yet to even taste senior football. There's plenty coming through to prevent the Hawks sitting where they are on the ladder for too long.

These are two teams both genuinely better than many of their predecessors from the lower reaches of the ladder.

Their wins have been against some quality opponents, not other scrappers, and they've both introduced or developed further a lengthy roll call of new blood, much of which has had some sort of impact.

North Melbourne and Hawthorn can both realistically look ahead to 2022 with genuine positivity despite where they might finish this season.

And above all else, their fortunes underline the continued effectiveness of the AFL's equalisation measures. If the worst teams in the AFL are this good, then you have to think the competition is in pretty decent health.

This story Not your typical wooden spooners first appeared on The Canberra Times.