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What we learned from your club in the NAB Challenge

Staff writers  March 13, 2016 11:00 PM

AFL 2016 NAB Challenge - Hawthorn v Carlton

Veteran Hawks midfielder Sam Mitchell has showed no signs of ageing throughout the NAB Challenge

Adelaide

Don Pyke is tightening Adelaide's defence
Admittedly, the Crows faced an inexperienced West Coast and traditionally low-scoring Fremantle in their opening two NAB Challenge matches, but the signs were positive. They restricted the Eagles to 48 points and Dockers to 69 before holding Gold Coast to 84 in their final tune-up.

Wayne Milera wouldn't be overawed playing round one
It took only one NAB Challenge match against an understrength West Coast for Milera to showcase he has maturity to match his silkiness. It doesn't get much better for an 18-year-old than to be compared to the great Andrew McLeod and the Crows' first pick (No.11 overall) in last year's draft would look at home alongside Eddie Betts against North Melbourne.

Adelaide's next generation could cover Dangerfield
There's been a lot to like from some of the young Crows' performances to date. Matt Crouch has revelled in the extra responsibility, while Rory Laird also stepped up. Now the Crows hope fit again Brad Crouch and Rory Atkins respond in the right way to their demotions to the SANFL this week. – Travis King

Brisbane

Dan McStay is a defender
With a litany of injuries to their tall forwards last year, McStay was thrust into the relatively helpless role as the primary target, where he was sometimes double and even triple teamed. After drafting and trading for key forwards in the off-season, the 20-year-old has been stationed in defence this pre-season and looks right at home. He outplayed Jeremy Cameron in most one-on-one contests on Sunday, with the Giants' star only cashing in from Lions turnovers or once McStay was moved.

Daniel Rich looks back to his best
After missing most of 2014 with a ruptured ACL, and playing his way back to form in 2015, Rich now looks fitter, sharper and ready to return to his best in 2016. While last year he spent most of his time at half-back, the 26-year-old will play a predominantly midfield role this season. In his one hit-out against the Giants, Rich had 28 disposals (16 contested), eight clearances and kicked a supergoal in a stellar performance.

You need some luck with the weather
In three pre-season matches, you'd hope at least one would cough up some good weather to trial everything you've practised in training – but the Lions weren't that lucky. It was hot and windy against the Suns, washed out against the Saints, and wet and humid against the Giants. We still don't really know how the Lions want to play and whether or not they'll be any good at it. I guess we'll find out in round one against the Eagles in Perth. - Michael Whiting

Carlton

Brendon Bolton has changed the Blues' game plan
But it is a work in progress. His focus appears to be on the defensive side of the game, and surely this will shift as confidence builds and the youngsters develop. As Rachel Hunter so eloquently expressed in a TV advertisement for shampoo in the 1990s: "It won't happen overnight, but it will happen."

Jacob Weitering is a ready-made AFL player
In his first two hit-outs in navy blue against Essendon and the Sydney Swans the No.1 draft pick has been most impressive, earning high praise from his coach. The young defender reads the game well, makes smart decisions and knows how to use his body. He should play in round one.

The conundrum of who will kick Carlton's goals remains unsolved
Scores of 32 and 35 points will not win too many games, and that’s all the Blues could manufacture in their opening two NAB Challenge matches. Making Andrew Walker a permanent forward might help and former Crow Sam Kerridge has shown he can be a goalkicker when he goes forward. But the Blues will rely heavily on their midfielders to score. - Howard Kotton

Collingwood

The Pies are developing a potentially lethal midfield/forward arsenal
Thanks to astute recruiting and solid development, the Pies should no longer rely on champions Scott Pendlebury and Dane Swan in the midfield, and they might finally shake the Cloke-centric tag in attack. They appear to boast ball magnets and goalkickers aplenty, prompting Geelong great Cameron Ling to declare on AFL.com.au's First Bounce that the Pies would at some point develop into a powerhouse.

'The Fas' looks set to hit the gas
For several seasons, the highly skilled Alex Fasolo has teased with glimpses of his potential without quite putting it all together. That could well change this year, judging by his superb pre-season form. The versatile, medium-sized forward kicked goals, set them up, marked on the lead and in the air, and proved a difficult match-up. Would benefit from receiving less attention when the Pies return to full strength.

Mason Cox has the talent and presence to become a unique key forward
The biggest story of the Pies' win at Geelong wasn't the debut of Cats recruit Patrick Dangerfield but the surprisingly influential performance of the 211cm/110kg forward/ruckman from Texas. Cox outmarked – and outreached – both Harry Taylor and Lachie Henderson, split packs and kicked two goals. Fellow key forward hope Corey Gault has also kicked on, but both are behind Darcy Moore. - Ben Collins 

Mason Cox and Alex Fasolo give the Pies' forward line another dimension. Picture: AFL Media

Essendon

The Bombers need Matthew Leuenberger fit
Essendon secured the former Brisbane Lion as a free agent last year in a bid to boost its ruck stocks and help up forward. He was tracking well before Christmas but an Achilles problem kept him out of training for two months of the pre-season. With Tom Bellchambers suspended and Shaun McKernan better suited to a role up forward, the Bombers will need Leuenberger up and going this year to break even in the midfield.

John Worsfold has one of football's toughest tasks
Nobody at Essendon predicted the club would lose 12 players to doping bans at the start of this year, especially Worsfold, who only took on the reins months ago. It has left him facing one of the game's greatest challenges: keeping the Bombers competitive without many of their stars. The NAB Challenge showed how tough an ask that will be with a team full of youngsters and top-ups, but Worsfold is approaching the season in the right manner.

There will be some good things to come out of 2016 for the Bombers
Despite the likelihood of a lowly finish this season, Essendon's pre-season showed there will be some positive things to emerge. The absence of key players means more responsibility will be placed on the likes of second-year pair Kyle Langford and Jayden Laverde, while last year's crop of draftees, including impressive midfielder Darcy Parish, should get opportunities. The blocks for the club's next premiership might be built this year in trying circumstances. - Callum Twomey 

Fremantle

Nat Fyfe is still going to spend a lot of time in the midfield
There has been plenty of discussion this summer about Fyfe's role in the side and whether he would spend more time forward. There was a suggestion he could spend up to 50 per cent of game time playing close to goals, but on the evidence of the NAB Challenge it looks like he will still spend the majority of his time in the midfield. 

Fremantle's youngsters are still going to find it hard to break into the best 22
Ross Lyon has always made his young players earn their place but this pre-season offered the opportunity for talented youngsters Lachie Weller, Connor Blakely and Ed Langdon to nail down a spot. Unfortunately though, none have been able to cement their place and look set to start 2016 in the WAFL. 

Jon Griffin looks set to be Aaron Sandilands’ ruck partner
Griffin replaced Zac Clarke late last year as the first-choice ruck partner for Aaron Sandilands and he is set to retain that spot after a strong pre-season. Clarke could get an opportunity in round one due to Sandilands' suspension, but he would have to play extraordinarily well to squeeze out Griffin when Sandi returns. - Alex Malcolm 

Expect to see plenty of Nat Fyfe in the midfield again this year. Picture: AFL Media

Geelong

Zac Smith has earned the right to start in the ruck
Impressive throughout the NAB Challenge, the Gold Coast recruit has a huge leap and attacks the ball at centre bounces. He is mobile and can use the ball well. Although fitness has been a problem throughout recent seasons he has not put a foot wrong at Geelong and is enjoying playing at a club with an established culture. The only question is whether he can maintain the form, but he he should work well in tandem with Rhys Stanley.

Top four is a realistic ambition
Those in Adelaide know how good Dangerfield is but it's become apparent to Cats fans that he might be even better than they imagined. His talent alongside skipper Joel Selwood complements an emerging midfield with names such as Mitch Duncan, Steve Motlop, Josh Caddy, Cam Guthrie, Nakia Cockatoo and Darcy Lang that could trouble any other team. With experience at either end of the ground and a good fixture the Cats must be aiming for top four.

Nathan Vardy could be an X-factor
The talented tall has played just 24 games since being drafted in 2009. Every time he steps on the ground he looks exciting and his NAB Challenge has proved his worth. He kicked six goals from his first eight kicks in the opening two rounds of the NAB Challenge before kicking one major from seven kicks against Fremantle. He will worry opposition defenders enough to give Tom Hawkins some space. - Peter Ryan 

Gold Coast

Jesse Lonergan is in the starting midfield
Despite missing the final game against Adelaide with an ankle niggle, the young Tasmanian has locked himself in as a starting midfielder. Lonergan had a strong 2015, dropped 5kg in the off-season and was best on ground against the Brisbane Lions in the opening pre-season match. He's strong, quick and has good vision and will complement Ablett and Prestia nicely from the season's opening bounce. 

The second tall forward is still a headache
After three matches of head-to-head combat, neither Sam Day or Peter Wright has grasped the key forward spot alongside Tom Lynch, left vacant by Charlie Dixon's departure. Across the games Wright has looked a more dangerous target with the ball in the air, while Day's defensive pressure is more consistent.

Adam Saad can defend
The young flier burst onto the scene last year as a running defender capable of breaking the lines with his blistering speed. However, against the Crows, he showed another side to his game, keeping All Australian Eddie Betts to a goalless eight disposals. If he can balance locking down small forwards with running off and creating, Saad could be in for a great 2016. - Michael Whiting

GWS

Leon Cameron has key position talent by the bucket-load
The Giants coach might have some headaches choosing his side this year. With Jeremy Cameron, Rory Lobb, Adam Tomlinson, James Stewart and Jon Patton up forward and Phil Davis, Joel Patfull, Aidan Corr and Caleb Marchbank down back, and with Nick Haynes soon to return, it's a nice worry to have. 

Speed is a killer, and GWS have plenty of it
GWS showed during the first half of last season that their speed on the spread would be tough to counter, as shown by their round six win over Hawthorn. This year looks to be no different, with midfielders Ryan Griffen, Dylan Shiel and Devon Smith possessing plenty of pace.

The AFL's 'Young Giants' are no more
Led by tough co-captain Callan Ward, the Giants' players have openly spoken about their desire to shake the tag and be considered genuine contenders. The manic tackling pressure and selfless footy on display during the NAB Challenge is that of a team hungry for respect and results. – Adam Curley 

Hawthorn

James Sicily is leading the race to replace Jarryd Roughead
Sicily, Tim O'Brien and Jack Fitzpatrick played the first two NAB Challenge games and each showed glimpses without grabbing the chance with both hands. Tellingly, though, Sicily was picked ahead of O'Brien for the final hit-out against North Melbourne and booted two goals, earning praise for his X-factor and defensive intensity. The blond-haired youngster is set for a gig in round one.

Daniel Howe is closing in on the best 22
The composed 20-year-old has clearly had an outstanding summer and racked up 23 touches in the first NAB Challenge match against Carlton. Howe's excellent kicking skills, strong marking and flexibility to run through half-back, midfield or attack has the 191cm youngster on the verge of facing the Cats on Easter Monday.

The Hawks' ageing stars aren't slowing down
The memory of Hawthorn's indifferent performances to start the pre-season competition were blown away in a rampant triumph against North Melbourne. Fielding a close to full-strength team, it was again the Hawks' champions who led the way. Sam Mitchell racked up 45 touches, Luke Hodge sparked the win with a dominant first half and Josh Gibson was imperious in defence. The competition can't rely on Hawthorn dropping off to stop 'Fourthorn'. – Travis King

Melbourne

The Dees are on the right track
It is an obvious assessment but it is well founded. Off the field, Melbourne is as stable as it has ever been with the coaching handover between Paul Roos and Simon Goodwin looking like being a smooth transition. On-field, thanks largely to Goodwin, Melbourne has shown that it is moving the ball with more flair while still maintaining the pressure and contested ball-winning ability that served it so well in its wins last season.
 
Max Gawn will be gunning for All Australian selection
The big Melbourne ruckman has been a dominant force for the Demons throughout the NAB Challenge. Gawn's running ability has gone to a new level and his ability to influence more contests has increased. Sporting a beard bushranger Ned Kelly would be proud of, Gawn regularly gives his midfielders first use of the pill.
 
Kent and Frost are two keys
The Demons desperately lacked speed across half-forward in 2015, but the return of Dean Kent and Sam Frost from injury should help to address that deficiency. Kent's dogged defensive pressure and his ability to tuck the ball under his arm makes him such an important component of Melbourne's team. Frost, who has trained all pre-season as a forward, looks to have a bright future as Jesse Hogan's foil in attack. – Ben Guthrie

Max Gawn is looking like he's on the up at Melbourne in 2016. Picture: AFL Media

North Melbourne

Wells' comeback on track
Daniel Wells' football future has looked bleak at times over the past two seasons, but the star midfielder looks to have put his recent injury woes behind him. Returning against Collingwood in round two of the NAB Challenge, Wells served a timely reminder of the class and zip he adds to North's line-up. If he can play close to a full season in 2016, the 31-year-old will give the Roos' outside run a much-needed boost.

Veterans not ready to be pensioned off
The advancing age of North's list has been a popular talking point this pre-season, but its veterans have shown no signs of decline. Spearheads Drew Petrie and Jarrad Waite have been as dangerous as ever inside North's forward 50 during the NAB Challenge, Nick Dal Santo looks set to continue his prolific ball-winning ways, while Brent Harvey, 38 in May, remains football's Peter Pan. 

Clarke looks a ready-made AFL player
Ryan Clarke has been the most impressive of the Roos' 2015 draftees this summer. Clarke looked right at home in North's round one NAB Challenge win over St Kilda, showcasing his ability to win the ball both on the inside and when spreading hard into space in an encouraging 13-possession debut. The Roos' second pick in last year's NAB AFL Draft, Clarke looks ready for senior action if called upon. - Nick Bowen

Port Adelaide

Charlie Dixon has justified his recruitment
After just an hour of football against Richmond on Friday night, even Port coach Ken Hinkley could see the obvious benefits of bringing Dixon into the team. The ex-Sun was aggressive in his approach, throwing his weight around in big tackles and a focused attack on the football. If his body can stay sound, Dixon shapes as a significant part of the Power's finals, and perhaps, premiership hopes.
 
The lesser-known Gray is the next big thing
Robbie Gray has already established himself as one of the AFL's most accomplished midfielders, and namesake Sam Gray is well on the way to joining him. Sam Gray was outstanding against the Tigers on Thursday night, winning a game-high 28 disposals. His follow-up work is excellent and he finds space with ease. Get him in your AFL Fantasy teams.
 
Ryder will be sorely missed
Matthew Lobbe is a work-horse around the ground and will give his all for the Power, but Patrick Ryder's absence will be desperately felt in 2016. The big man is banned for the season under a drug-imposed suspension, alongside teammate Angus Monfries. Ryder's versatility and athleticism cannot be replaced. – Ben Guthrie

Richmond

Jacob Townsend is the hard nut the Tigers' midfield needed
He has some work to do on his tackling technique if he doesn't want to end games early, but the way Townsend throws himself around and hassles his opponents will be an asset to the Tigers, whose lack of support for Trent Cotchin has been an issue. 

Jack Riewoldt's form is too strong for him to be wasted this year
A two-time Coleman medallist, Riewoldt could hit those heights again in 2016 if the Tigers take advantage of a player who looks to be at his peak going into round one. He needs better service than he got in the final NAB Challenge game. 

Connor Menadue will be an asset to the Tigers if they protect him
An elite endurance runner and a dangerous long kick, Menadue is a player Damien Hardwick loves and will play often this season. However, he is lightly framed and throws himself into contests, which will make the Tigers nervous until he puts on the size he needs to play his natural game at AFL level. – Nathan Schmook 

Jack Riewoldt had a strong pre-season and looks ready to carry his team on his shoulders. Picture: AFL Media
  

St Kilda

Jack Billings and Jade Gresham will be among the best when the Saints play well
St Kilda isn't blessed with class, but Billings and Gresham will help solve that problem. Billings' talent is no secret and he should have a big season with more minutes through the midfield. Gresham might be small, but he slotted in well in his first NAB Challenge game against North Melbourne and is a great kick.

The Saints need to tighten up around stoppages
Young midfielders can have concentration lapses, and this was especially evident in NAB1 against the Kangaroos. Shaun Higgins took the ball away from stoppages without pressure several times, and North's number one ruckman, Todd Goldstein, wasn't even playing. St Kilda's midfielders need to work together to ensure the opposition doesn't have it so easy.

St Kilda won't finish 16th again for contested possession differential
Expect a step up when it comes to winning the tough stuff. Seb Ross can get it done on the inside, and with his contract set to expire at the end of 2016, he has plenty of motivation to play well. Blake Acres is entering his third season, and his large frame should help the Saints match it with the competition's big midfielders. – Dinny Navaratnam

Sydney Swans

The Swans need Ben McGlynn and Gary Rohan fit in a hurry
There's a lack of genuine leg speed at the Swans, and three of the quickest players haven't seen much action on the park. Rohan and McGlynn have struggled over summer with hamstring issues, while Zak Jones (knee) has also missed most of the pre-season, but is at least back playing. 

Callum Mills will cop a lot of attention this season
The academy gun has handled the hype with class and opposition players have already tested him physically, both on and off the ball. Mills has settled well at half-back and looks like he's unfazed by the treatment so far.

Kurt Tippett and Callum Sinclair give the Swans a massive ruck advantage
Both men are mobile, strong-bodied and versatile, giving the Swans plenty of options in the big man department. The pair are athletic targets inside 50 capable of hitting the scoreboard and can be equally effective around the ground, something not many other clubs will have in 2016. – Adam Curley

West Coast

Jeremy McGovern will start in defence but will play at both ends
For all of the public and private debate about where McGovern will play, the NAB Challenge has proven it will be in defence in the early part of the season. His flexibility will certainly be utilised and he will be used up forward a fair bit, but his greatest value is as a floating key defender who can intercept mark and rebound from the back half. 

The Eagles' midfield depth can be tested
The recruitment of Jack Redden and Lewis Jetta suggested the Eagles would be flush with midfield depth but a handful of injuries has tested the Eagles in that area during the NAB Challenge. The Eagles were smashed against Adelaide when they left their senior midfielders at home and Gold Coast beat them in the contested possession count when there were some injury concerns.  

Scott Lycett will get first crack to partner Nic Naitanui but there are no guarantees
Lycett started as Naitanui's ruck partner in 2015, but played his way out of the side on form and then suffered some injury problems in the second half of the year. Callum Sinclair's move to the Sydney Swans has opened the door again, but Adam Simpson has said Lycett needs to play well to cement his place. Jonathan Giles has performed very well over the summer and brings a lot of experience to the squad. - Alex Malcolm

Scott Lycett (left) will be given first opportunity as the Eagles' No.2 ruckman in 2016. Picture: AFL Media

Western Bulldogs

Marcus Adams is very likely to debut in round one
The 22-year-old WAFL recruit has quickly found his feet at Whitten Oval, impressing in all three of the Bulldogs' NAB Challenge matches. The hulking key defender didn't look out of place manning Magpie monster Travis Cloke on the weekend and he appears to be ahead of Fletcher Roberts and fellow draftee Kieran Collins to face the Dockers. 

The Dogs' greatest strength could also be their biggest weakness
The Bulldogs are one of the best sides in the AFL for creating turnovers in their backline and converting them into scores. But in the elimination final loss to Adelaide last year and against the Magpies on the weekend, pressing up the ground too far and turning over the ball left them wide open and cost them dearly on the scoreboard.

Tom Boyd is ready to produce a breakout season
Pressure is mounting on the 20-year-old for his output to match his massive wage in 2016. While Boyd didn't set the world on fire in his two outings, he took several towering contested marks, competed well in the ruck and his much-maligned competiveness was notable, particularly against the Magpies. - Ryan Davidson

Boyd takes an impressive grab

Tom Boyd plucks a beauty! #NABChallenge

Posted by AFL on Friday, March 11, 2016