It feels Geelong lifted up the premiership cup forever ago; but we can finally see footy on the horizon again.
With the 18 AFL clubs facing off in match simulations this coming week, and proper pre-season games the week after that, some of our big questions that we’ve been asking for months will reveal their answers.
From selection dilemmas and role changes, to strategic shifts and key recruits, Foxfooty.com.au runs through your team’s burning question this pre-season.
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What role does Izak Rankine play?
One of the blockbuster moves of the trade period saw Izak Rankine move from the Suns to the Crows to return to his native South Australia.
It’s a big boost to Adelaide’s prospects as it hopes to make genuine inroads up the ladder after a more promising 2022 following several disappointing seasons.
But exactly what role will Rankine play at his new club?
The classy 22-year old is already one of the best small forwards in the game, but he also has potential to move into the midfield and be a damaging player trough the centre of the ground – and the Crows’ on-ball unit could use some more spunk and flare.
It’s possible we’ll see a mixture of both roles, and how Matthew Nicks utilises the young star will clearly have a key baring on how the Crows fare this season.
Are the Lions flag frontrunners?
A fairly indifferent 2023 season given they went in as among the flag favourites ended on a high note, with the Lions making a preliminary final from outside the top four.
While it was their best finals campaign under Chris Fagan in terms of win-loss, Brisbane still failed to truly capitalise on its talent and genuinely challenge for the silverware.
But the stacked Lions go into 2023 with arguably the most talented list in the competition after adding Josh Dunkley and Jack Gunston in the trade period in addition to Connor McKenna and Pick 2 draftee Will Ashcroft, who’s been touted as being capable of having impact similar to Nick Daicos in his rookie season.
It looms as the Brisbane’s best shot yet at winning a flag under Fagan, and it could send an ominous message in the practice games of what it’s capable of for the season proper.
Lions ace Charlie Cameron backs his boss | 02:04
How does the midfield reshuffle without Walsh?
The Blues fell agonisingly short of a finals berth last year – sitting in the top eight for every round of the season bar after a collapse against arch rivals Collingwood in Round 23. They’ll now look to write their wrongs without superstar midfielder Sam Walsh for the early weeks of the 2023 season.
Walsh is sidelined indefinitely with a back injury to leave a key void in Carlton’s on-ball unit – which was among the best in the competition last season but will now need to reshuffle to some degree.
Patrick Cripps was rewarded for a career-best season with a Brownlow Medal, George Hewett proved to one of the pick-ups of the season and Matt Kennedy shined in a bigger role.
But could Michael Voss look to Adam Cerra as one of his marquee men in the centre after an indifferent first season at the club where he was forced out of that midfield at times? Does Paddy Dow finally get a proper look in and live up to his potential as a Pick 3 draftee? Or could Carlton have another ace up its sleeve altogether?
Walsh yet to confirm Carlton return | 01:55
How do the trade recruits fit in?
It’ll be too early to decipher if Collingwood is the real deal in 2023 after winning an unprecedented amount of close games last year, or if perhaps it did get a little lucky.
But another key watch are the recruits, with the Magpies among the busiest clubs during the trade period, landing Tom Mitchell, Dan McStay, Bobby Hill and Billy Frampton – all of whom were brought in to play a specific role and could all play Round 1. We’ll get our first chance to assess how effective the four additions could be over the pre-season.
Collingwood has long cried out for a reliable marking key forward, and McStay figures to play a bigger role in black and white than he ever did at Brisbane. Could McStay have a career-best season and live up to his lucrative price tag, or was a player who’s never kicked 30 goals in a season not the answer to fill the key forward void?
Craig McRae’s midfield was a weak spot in an otherwise brilliant first season as coach, so adding Brownlow medallist Mitchell’s strengths as a contest and clearance player could help the club go to the next level in 2023.
Meanwhile, both Hill and Frampton are said to be having big pre-seasons and figure to play key roles at either end of the ground, with Jack Ginnivan’s suspension particularly paving the way for Hill to make his mark.
Ginnivan suspended over drug use | 00:33
What changes does Brad Scott make?
For the last two seasons, the Bombers have played a fast paced and high-risk brand that’s hurt them defensively. Their best footy has been exhilarating and thrilling to watch, but at times they also got burnt the other way.
Zach Merrett even admitted to foxfooty.com.au frustrations with the team’s defensive system, which came after reports earlier in 2022 there was confusion among players over their roles and the game plan under Ben Rutten.
And so what tweaks new coach Brad Scott makes to the game plan or otherwise will be intriguing as the club looks to bounce back from a disappointing 15th-place finish last season and with the overall spotlight on the club.
The Agereported the Bombers will try and play a more modern game style – forcing front-half turnovers and scoring from them, like the best teams do – while revamping their structure in terms of where players are stationed; it’s not just about running harder, but running correctly.
While there’s only so much you can take away from pre-season games, the style a team wants to play could certainly become apparent.
Heppell steps down as Essendon captain | 01:01
Is Luke Jackson the answer to their scoring woes?
Whether it’s Luke Jackson or a rejuvenated Nat Fyfe or Michael Walters, something has to change forward of centre for Fremantle to be genuine premiership contenders and not just also-rans.
Making the forward line even more imperative is the departure of Rory Lobb, who was their leading goalkicker last season with 36.
Having a fit and firing Nat Fyfe will make a lot of difference, but on face value the Dockers have just replaced one goalscoring utility with another in Jackson, whose ceiling is probably higher but who is still very raw.
Last year Justin Longmuir’s men were elite defensively – 1st in scores per inside 50 against, and 2nd in points against – but well below average offensively – 13th in scores per inside 50, 12th in points for.
In the last 20 years just two teams (Sydney 2005, Western Bulldogs 2016) have won the flag while being outside the top eight in points scored. But that’s a lower bar to clear than defensively – in the same time period, every premier has been in the top five for points against.
That’s proof defence is at the heart of any premiership-winning side, but it doesn’t mean scoring can be as big a weakness as it currently is for the Dockers.
Dockers on the hunt for a new skipper | 02:23
How many, if any, of their trade recruits can actually squeeze into the side?
The Cats’ 22 was very settled by the time they dominated Sydney in the Grand Final; Max Holmes (injured) needs to come back in, and Joel Selwood (retired) is gone. With plenty of midfield depth to replace the latter, this already seemed like a pretty straight-forward team sheet for Chris Scott to fill out come Round 1.
But with a trio of ex-first round picks joining the club – Tanner Bruhn, Ollie Henry and Jack Bowes – plus No.8 draft selection Jhye Clark, surely they can’t all miss out?
Bowes was specifically told by the Cats, during their courtship, he would get senior games if he joined the club and you’d suspect Bruhn and Henry weren’t exactly told they’d be spending their first years running around in the magoos. So is it just a case of who shows the best form on the training track and in the pre-season games?
Tom Hawkins is expected to miss the early rounds through injury and so Henry could help fill his spot – though obviously he’s not quite the physical presence of the Tomahawk. The word from the Cattery is Ollie’s brother Jack has been training as a forward, while Ollie has spent some time in defence, so could they be placed at either end but not the ones you’d first expect?
Bruhn shapes as a likely substitute candidate, likewise Clark, though at the same time you’d rather get full games into younger players to help them develop.
Stengle to remain a Cat until 2024 | 00:57
Is Ben King as good as he was before injury?
It’s amazing the Suns did as well as they did in 2022 given arguably their biggest weapon in Ben King was sidelined for all of it.
King booted 47 goals in 2021 to lead his side and will turn 23 in July, which means by key forward standards he is still building towards his full potential.
Touk Miller was salivating at the prospect of a fit and firing King when he spoke with foxfooty.com.au earlier this month and Suns fans will be doing similar.
The dreaded ACL injury can wreak havoc on the confidence of players, so he’ll be hoping to hit the ground running.
If he can, he could spearhead a forward line that performed admirably in 2022 and it could well be the missing link to a long-awaited finals berth for the Suns.
How should we measure them for the season ahead?
Although most are predicting the Giants will finish at the tail end of the ladder, they still loom as something of a wild card for 2023.
After all, it’s a side still loaded with stars like Toby Greene, Josh Kelly, Stephen Coniglio, Lachie Whitfield and Tom Green plus a plethora of exciting young talent coming through the ranks.
There’s also the big unknown of what sort of impact new coach Adam Kingsley has. The last time an assistant from the Tigers took over a team that had massively dropped away – but still had plenty of star power and was simply in need of a refresh – Craig McRae led Collingwood to preliminary final.
Even under caretaker coach Mark McVeigh last season, the Giants showed some promising signs at stages playing a more daring brand.
We’ll get a much better feel for the new identity Kingsley is building in western Sydney over the coming weeks.
Greene gets the gig as sole GWS captain | 01:16
Did it cut too deep?
While we mightn’t necessarily be able to get a proper handle on the Hawks’ profile over a handful practice games, we’ll get a much better look at exactly how inexperienced this team really is.
Of course, the rebuilding Hawks sensationally moved on from a host of veterans this off-season including Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara, Jack Gunston, Ben McEvoy, Liam Shiels and Kyle Hartigan – totalling 1181 games of experience and leaving a big leadership void on their list – leading to calls they cut too deep.
Younger teams generally struggle as a season goes on, so this is more about optics than anything.
The departures of Mitchell and O’Meara in particular raises questions on who will be the Hawks’ main midfielders from now in perhaps the area of the ground with the most uncertainty for Sam Mitchell’s troops in 2023.
Big Hawk pens contract extension | 00:47
How will the Max Gawn/Brodie Grundy combination really work?
In one of the boldest moves of the trade period, the Demons added star big man Brodie Grundy from Collingwood to form a unique ruck partnership with Max Gawn – maybe the best ever ruck tandem in AFL history.
It can be looked at in two ways. One, it was a no brainer for Melbourne to pounce on dual All-Australian Grundy, who cost it just Pick 27 in a trade while the Magpies chip in some of his salary, and help the Demons find another gear despite the 28-year old’s regression in recent seasons.
The thought of pairing Gawn and Grundy three or four years ago would’ve been scary.
But there’s also queries on how the two will function together and if the Demons can get the best out of both players sharing the role given they’re at their best operating solo. Even while Luke Jackson was a Demon, his role was always limited on some level playing behind Gawn.
Plus, Melbourne’s midfield was dominant enough as it was and its forward line was the greater cause for concern.
But the Demons have been steadfast in saying Grundy can really them be a better side, and we’ll get out first window into how the dynamic with Gawn works over the pre-season.
Till 2025! May inks new Dees deal | 00:53
How quickly can the Clarko effect take effect?
There’s perhaps no greater recruit for any side over the off-season than Alastair Clarkson taking over the coaching reins at North Melbourne for 2023 as the club looks bounce back from consecutive wooden spoon finishes.
While there’s clearly only so much of an impact Clarkson can have over a few short months, the effect of the four-time master coach shouldn’t be underestimated, and every Kangaroo playing in the pre-season will be keen to make an impression on the legendary boss.
Effort is one thing that can be coached into the inexperienced Kangaroos, although it’s a team that has more match winners across the ground than perhaps it’s been given credit – particularly in midfield.
And so it’d come as no surprise if the Roos already look improved come the pre-season games and have sharpened up some elements of their game.
Plus, as Clarkson has previously said, he’s back in the coaching ring to try and win another flag, and that journey starts now.
New captains timing ‘perfect’ at North | 02:13
Who’s the No. 1 ruckman?
While all eyes will be on Jason Horne-Francis in one of the most fascinating storylines to watch this season after his sensational move from Arden Street, Port Adelaide’s ruck situation is arguably more pressing for under-fire coach Ken Hinkley.
Scott Lycett might seem like the obvious candidate to head up the Power’s ruck division again after an injury affected 2023, but it might not be that clear cut.
After just two games in his first season as a mid-year draftee, Brynn Teakle lined up amongst the ‘probables’ in an intra-club last week, with Charlie Dixon relieving him. Given Hinkley has spoken about Dixon spending more time in the ruck this year, it suggests he wanted a look at the Teakle-Dixon combination ahead of Round 1.
Of course, Jeremy Finlayson shouldered the ruckload for Port last season during a period when the club hit its stride after Lycett went down with his shoulder surgery, while Sam Hayes and young Dante Visentini also have promise.
Hinkley could also look to deploy a two-ruck setup, although he, like most teams, have traditionally opted for a solo ruck in recent times.
Dixon feeling good ahead of season 13 | 01:21
If Trent Cotchin’s not in the midfield, where is he playing?
The additions of Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper means Richmond’s midfield will look vastly different in 2023, and alongside Dion Prestia, you sense will take up the majority of the on-ball minutes.
It likely forces Trent Cotchin out of the midfield, with the former skipper training with the forwards during recent match simulation where he’s seemingly set to predominantly play in 2023.
The Tigers will get their first chance to trial the Cotchin forward experiment in the practice hit-outs, and in a season where Damien Hardwick’s side is being touted as a flag fancy, it won’t be mucking around with players in different positions just for fun.
But given Cotchin has made his name as a pure midfield extractor, many wonder whether he’s fit for this new role.
“He’s kicked 16 goals in the last five seasons, Trent Cotchin. I give it two weeks,” Kane Cornes said on SEN earlier this month.
“It’s like Geelong saying last year, ‘oh, we’re going to turn Joel Selwood into a forward’. It just wouldn’t work.
“It’s the toughest position to play, the athleticism required. It’s an unrealistic expectation for a player who’s gonna be 33 by Round 1 this year, with the injury issues that he’s had and the speed and dynamic nature of that role.”
Bradtke trades tools for Tigers kit | 02:23
How the hell do you replace Max King (or at least try to fill his shoes)?
While the Suns are set to be boosted by the return of Ben King from injury, the Saints now have to figure out how to do damage on the scoreboard without Max for most of the year.
It’s a tall task for Ross Lyon, especially given injuries to some other key forward prospects who could’ve provided backup options.
Dougal Howard may need to swing forward, but everything has a knock-on effect and it’s a delicate balancing act for a side that hasn’t been firing on all cylinders for some time.
There are a few other options; Mitch Owens has spent a surprising amount of time as a near-permanent forward this pre-season while Josh Battle could also move into the front six.
How successful the Saints are at covering for the loss of King – one of their only genuine weapons – will prove pivotal to the side’s season.
Has John Longmire changed his mind on the Sam Reid/Logan McDonald situation since the Grand Final?
Veteran tall Sam Reid was one of the unsung heroes of the Swans’ 2022 campaign, with a surprising late-career renaissance as he proved valuable in a forward-ruck role – especially after Peter Ladhams’ first year in the Harbour City was a flop.
But carrying an injury into the Grand Final, Swans coach John Longmire was forced into a tricky call with Reid, eventually playing him as just a forward, with Hayden McLean replacing top-five draft pick and promising forward Logan McDonald.
The move was a “mistake”, Longmire conceded post-match, with Reid having just four disposals before being subbed out, while McLean had one goal from four touches and watched Geelong dominate out of the middle.
The core issue, in effect, was a lack of trust in McDonald – since Longmire preferred an injured Reid in the forward line to the young Western Australian. So has the 20-year-old earned that trust over the pre-season?
With Buddy Franklin likely to retire at the end of the 2023 season and Reid close to the end of his career as well, McDonald is arguably the most critical cog for Sydney’s future; no man can replace Buddy but he’ll get the first crack at it.
Which is why this year will be a tough balance to strike; the Swans want to play the best man for the job right now, because they’re clearly contenders, but don’t want to harm McDonald’s chances of eventually filling the legend’s No.1 key forward role.
Mills eager to stay Swans all-rounder | 00:51
Are they playing as many kids as possible, or using them to supplement the 2018 premiership core?
Last year’s big question was whether the Eagles were pushing for another flag with this core or ready to rebuild; in the end their hand was forced into the latter.
But despite losing some key veterans and generally getting younger and faster, there’s a sense if everything goes right for West Coast, they could yet challenge for the top eight. After all, they finished ninth in 2021.
With Adam Simpson constantly reaffirming his commitment to the club, at least in the medium term, it’s not as if he has to rush all of the veterans back into the squad to contend before he leaves. With the team having conceded fitness was a major problem last year (somewhat understandably given how pear-shaped everything went immediately), you’d expect some sort of bounce-back.
So the question becomes, do you play all of the kids and get games into them to try and build for a flag in say, 2027 or 2028? Or do you sacrifice a bit of their development?
Last year’s draftees Reuben Ginbey, Elijah Hewett and Noah Long all featured in the A side in a match simulation earlier this month and seem the most likely to debut quickly. One could argue it’d be the best for the club’s long-term prospects if ‘quickly’ meant ‘Round 1’.
Bruce’s big move into the backline | 01:42
How the heck do they fit all of these talls into the 23?
You can’t say the Bulldogs aren’t trying to fix their problems. Their defence has been a liability for some time now, particularly their talls, while last year Aaron Naughton battled mightily but at times was the lone key forward.
Those issues can be resolved in 2023 if Luke Beveridge spins the magnets correctly, with a bounty of options including multiple talls who can play at both ends of the ground.
The forward line might be the simplest one to lay out – based on signs from the training track, it’ll be young superstar Naughton alongside ex-No.1 pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and newcomer Rory Lobb, with the Dogs’ exciting smalls buzzing around at their collective feet.
At the other end, we know Beveridge loves Ryan Gardner, while if Liam Jones can return from vax-fear-retirement at the level at which he left Carlton, he’ll be a tremendous intercepting weapon. Plus there’s Alex Keath, who had his battles last year but still has plenty of talent.
But that leaves out Josh Bruce, their 2021 leading goalkicker who tore his ACL and struggled after his late-season return in 2022, plus uber-promising father-son gun Sam Darcy. Bruce has been training in defence while Darcy impressed as a forward in an intraclub last week. One can play on the bench and swing both ways if necessary.
Either way you’re leaving at least one talented tall, plus last year’s newcomer Tim O’Brien and first-round pick Jedd Busslinger (who’ll need time but obviously has promise). This is undoubtedly a good problem to have, but still one to solve.
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