Our AFL experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of Round 5, including Gillon McLachlan's legacy, the Demons' greatest challenger, and if the Suns' win over the Blues is another false dawn on the Gold Coast.
What was Gillon McLachlan's greatest achievement as AFL CEO?
Rohan Connolly: While the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been, in the circumstances, impressive, I think McLachlan's defining achievement will be the establishment of the AFLW competition years ahead of what had seemed likely. Simply to have an elite tier of the womens' game and professional backing provided for it has guaranteed enormous exposure and proved a catalyst for so many young women and girls to embrace the sport as participants rather than just spectators. It's something of which he can be justly proud.
Jake Michaels: There's honestly quite a few things which are podium-worthy, such as pioneering the AFLW (something which will define his legacy) and significantly growing the game's fanbase, but the way in which Gill navigated the league through the COVID-19 pandemic was his greatest achievement. To be able to overcome endless complications and play out the past two seasons was a monumental effort and it likely doesn't happen without him. Players, coaches, media and football fans should all be thanking him for his leadership, particularly over the past two years.
Matt Walsh: AFLW is the obvious one, but the overwhelming thought was he was going to step down at the end of 2020, but stayed on to help navigate the pandemic, which I think was a really selfless move. The way the AFL and AFLW (aside from the missed GF in 2021) came out the other side, I think it's well worth remembering and considering he always put football first. He'll be a great loss to the men's and women's games, and whoever replaces him will have their work cut out!
Jarryd Barca: On reflection, I think we all have to appreciate the fast-tracking of the AFLW competition and Gill's insistence that it commence in 2017. In hindsight, it was a masterstroke, given the global pandemic we've just been through. It could have been a heart-wrenching reality for the women's league had the AFL waited any longer. It's given women, and young girls who love the sport, a chance to live out their dreams as opposed to dropping out of a sport that had no future for them.
If the Dees are flag favourites, which team is the next biggest threat?
RC: Some might argue daylight, but all it takes is one slip-up at the wrong moment for even the very best-credentialled teams not to end up with what had seemed inevitable rewards (Geelong 2008, anyone?). So there's several teams good enough to cause the Demons grief on their day. I think Brisbane is the pick of them, despite having lost comfortably to Melbourne twice last year. Potent up forward, strong enough defensively and a midfield which can go to a really high gear.
JM: It is daylight, as Rohan suggested. I know it's early in the season but the Dees are absolutely cruising and look a significant step above any other side in the competition. Even through Richmond's dominant years, I never felt they were this far ahead of the pack. It seems in 2022, there are 6-8 good teams, 2-3 really good teams, and then Melbourne.
MW: I can't believe they're still in the top four conversation after all these years, but I think it's the Cats. They've made some brave offseason moves in terms of game plan and moving the footy, namely that they're happier to try and speed things up and kick long (they average 82 marks per game in 2022 [16th] compared to 101 in 2021 [fourth]). Tom Hawkins is still one of the comp's most dangerous forwards, and across the ground they just win their individual matchups. Brad Close has stepped up, Sam De Koning looks to be a beauty, and it's all looking pretty good at Kardinia Park.
JB: The Cats will beat anyone at GMHBA, they were torn apart against the Swans and should have lost to Collingwood who look a bottom-six team, so I'm still not 100 percent convinced, yet, that they can seriously threaten the Dees. But Brisbane can. They're well above every other side when it comes to contested marks (16.3 per game) and have a slingshot ability when it comes to offensive transition from the backline. They also have an insanely deep midfield and an abundance of forward 50 operators who can win a game off their own boot.
Which team has surprised you the most -- good or bad -- through one month?
RC: Honourable mention, obviously in a positive sense, to St Kilda, which looked lacklustre and uninspired in Round 1 but has been superb since. But you'd have to go with Port Adelaide, given a 2021 preliminary finalist now sits winless in bottom spot on the ladder. That's a fair demise. Yes, they've drawn some decent opponents, but Port's lack of depth and its thin midfield has been well and truly exposed. Ken Hinkley may remain optimistic, but the Power can kiss 2022 goodbye, it's already kaput.
JM: Bulldogs. We discussed the stat that Grand Final losers often miss finals the following year on the podcast before the season got underway, but I don't think any of us really believed Luke Beveridge's side would fail to make the top 8 (I still don't, for what it's worth). But wow, what a disappointing start to the year, with just one win from four games. If you include pre-season and last year's Grand Final, the Bulldogs have won just one of their past seven games...
MW: It's easy to say Port Adelaide, but the Bulldogs have really disappointed me through the first month of action. Coming off a Grand Final berth, I thought they'd be at least 3-1, and instead, they're 1-3 and licking their wounds after a pretty big loss to the Tigers. The Dogs' inaccuracy has been hurting (and we'll mention xScores on the ESPN Footy Pod again this week), but when your midfield dominates like we often see, the good work needs to be converted. They're in a race uphill to be a top four side.
JB: Sorry for being boring but it has to be the Doggies, doesn't it? Sure, they're still likely to win enough games to qualify for the top eight on sheer list quality alone, but I must say they look nowhere near the flag contender we thought they were in the preseason and right now they are significantly underachieving. All of a sudden, with how even the league is, it wouldn't surprise me if they experience deja vu and miss another finals series immediately after a Grand Final year. Bevo, the challenge is on, mate...
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Is the Suns' start to the year another false dawn?
RC: Good question. There's been so many of them. This version does look to have a bit more fibre about it, though, particularly given the massive absence of spearhead Ben King, which might have on its own derailed previous Gold Coast campaigns. Any win in Perth is quality, pushing Melbourne to 13 points was a top effort and the Suns really controlled most of the win over Carlton. There's been a maturity about those three performances in particular which hasn't seemed apparent previously.
JM: History says it is and who am I to argue? Still, I'm not predicting a dramatic drop off, such as what we've witnessed in some other Suns campaigns. With Touk Miller, Noah Anderson, Matt Rowell and Co. there seems to be a little more fire power in the midfield, Jarrod Witts is rucking superbly and the additions of Levi Casboult and Mabior Chol, well, so far so good. But is this team playing finals in 2022? Nope.
MW: I'm always hesitant to buy in to the Suns' early-season hype, but there are encouraging signs this time around. Sam Collins and Charlie Ballard are an honest defensive pairing that has chemistry and the size needed, and the midfield finally seems to have some punch to it with Noah Anderson and a fit Matt Rowell providing support to Touk Miller and Jarrod Witts. The question remains over the forwards - Izak Rankine has been flashy but would love to see more consistency, and we know Levi Casboult is a ringe-in while Ben King recovers from an ACL injury. They might not play finals this year, but that should be the minimum expectation in 2023 all things considered.
JB: I'm going to trust them a little more than I perhaps should given their history of letting us down, but I'm willing to say this isn't a false dawn. Albeit I expect them to be one of the more inconsistent teams, they do have the ability -- like most teams on their day -- to be a headache for top-tier sides and cause the off upset like they did against the Blues. They're fifth on Champion Data's 'expected accuracy' ladder and should have a 3-1 record based on the opportunities they're creating throughout games so expect a few more 'surprise wins'. As Jake said, finals aren't a reality, but they're simply not the easybeats they used to be.