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Danger signs: What your club should look out for

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 24: Alex Fasolo of the Magpies looks dejected after a loss during the 2017 AFL round 01 match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Western Bulldogs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 24, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media)
Alex Fasolo's kicking woes have hurt the Magpies throughout the early part of the season

THERE are plenty of things that can wreck a club's season. Danger signs that, if they are not heeded, can put finals completely out of the question.

Our writers take a close look at the problems for each club that are keeping coaches and players awake at night - the on-field and off-field issues that need a quick fix ... or a long-term solution.

Stop Rory Sloane and you stop the Crows. Sloane averaged 29.5 possessions per game in the club's six straight wins to start the season. But he's since dropped off to 14.5 disposals in the past two games, with North Melbourne and Melbourne applying an old-fashioned tag to limit his input. The Crows have struggled to right the ship when things don't go their way. They conceded 10 straight goals in an incredible first quarter against the Kangaroos, before the Demons booted nine in a row (and 15 of the last 18 of the game) to overturn a 28-point deficit. Along with shutting down Sloane, the Kangaroos and Demons successfully closed off the corridor to the Crows. Instead of going down the wings and keeping possession, the Crows persisted going through the middle at every opportunity, leading to intercept marks and turnovers. Away from their issues on the field, the biggest concern is the fact defender Jake Lever and forward Mitch McGovern are unsigned for next season. Lever wants to wait until the collective bargaining agreement is sorted before agreeing to a new deal, while McGovern's focus is returning from a hamstring injury. - Lee Gaskin

While there's been a lot of noticeable improvement during the first eight games of Chris Fagan's era (conceding two goals fewer a game, and the development of Harris Andrews, Eric Hipwood and Ben Keays among them), the Lions' inability to stop opposition momentum is alarming. In every game this season, they have conceded a string of goals that has (aside from round one against Gold Coast) cost them a chance to win. Eight straight from Essendon, seven from the Western Bulldogs, six from St Kilda and five from Hawthorn – all at times in matches where the Lions had a chance to win. They're a young team and maintaining four quarters of consistent effort is going to be difficult, but usually the problems stem from the loss of contested ball. Since the opening two rounds, the Lions have lost that count by 21, 21, 27, 19, one and 17 respectively. There's not much experience on the list, but most of it comes from the midfield, and that part of the ground has to arrest the momentum shifts when they start to occur. - Michael Whiting

The Blues are performing better than most pundits predicted at the start of the season, but there is plenty of room for improvement. Their backline has developed into a solid unit and the midfield, while lacking some depth, possesses plenty of class. The problem remains forward of centre, where much of the responsibility rests on the broad shoulders of big Levi Casboult. Under the expert tutelage of kicking coach Saverio Rocca, Casboult has improved his conversion to be the club's leading goalkicker after eight rounds with 13, one ahead of Matthew Wright, who topped the goalkicking last season. Teenagers Jacob Weitering and Jack Silvagni are still learning their craft, while key playmaker Patrick Cripps could become a weapon in attack if he can improve his kicking for goal. Off the field, Carlton is seeking to secure at least 50,000 members and is well on the way with 46,755 signed at the moment. Supporters should be encouraged by the development of the team, particularly the Blues' exciting batch of youngsters, which makes them an attractive proposition going forward. - Howard Kotton

The young Blues are getting their chance and thriving under Brendon Bolton. Picture: AFL Photos

The Pies' two main problems this season revolve around a key aspect of the game: kicking. Their star-studded midfield generates ample possession, clearances (+4.25) and inside 50s (+4.4) but their good work has too often been ruined by poor decision-making or shoddy delivery, or both. It doesn't help that Collingwood lacks a genuine key forward, with the enormously talented Darcy Moore still in development mode, so too raw American Mason Cox, while Jesse White and his unfulfilled talent are again out of favour. The next part of the equation is conversion – an area in which the Pies have failed miserably. In the last-gasp loss to Greater Wester Sydney last round, Collingwood scored more goals than points for the first time this season. They have fired just one fewer scoring shot than their opponents but have kicked themselves out of tight games against the Dogs, Tigers, Saints and Bombers, the chief culprit being leading goalkicker Alex Fasolo (12.16). Exacerbating the forward issues, injury-prone Ben Reid has suffered another soft-tissue injury, which again raises questions about the 27-year-old's durability. Looming large over it all is the future of coach Nathan Buckley, who is in the last year of his contract and is logically believed to require a final-eight finish to save his job after missing the finals for the past three years. All hope is not yet lost but Buckley faces an uphill battle. - Ben Collins 

From a game-style point of view, the Bombers are really struggling to get the ball inside 50. They are ranked 16th in the competition for inside 50 entries, and have lost the inside 50 count in every one of their games so far this season. It is fortunate their forward line has been able to score far better this season than recent years, in contrast to previous seasons when they could get the ball inside 50 but couldn't convert. From a personnel perspective, Essendon's list has an odd demographic, thanks mainly to the disastrous fallout of the supplements saga. More youth needs to go through the midfield as the season wears on, particularly as Jobe Watson, Brent Stanton, Heath Hocking and Ben Howlett are among the senior players out of contract at the end of the season and yet to strike form in 2017. The Bombers won't want to shed too much experience or depth at once, so managing that situation is something they'll need to be careful about when the end of the season draws closer. - Callum Twomey

Fremantle's biggest concern is the welfare of troubled star Harley Bennell, who is struggling to deal with his latest calf setback. Bennell was intoxicated and asked to leave a flight from Melbourne to the Gold Coast last month while he was on leave from the club, and hit the headlines again for his unusual behaviour at Peel Thunder's game on Saturday, which included pulling cousin Traye away from the three-quarter time huddle. Fremantle fined him $10,000 ($5000 of which was suspended for 12 months) and the 24-year-old has been challenged to gather himself and "reboot" by coach Ross Lyon. On the field, the Dockers deserve plenty of credit for their never-say-die attitude, coming from behind in all five wins and recovering from an 0-2 start to be on the verge of breaking into the top eight. However, at some point, Fremantle's struggles to hit the scoreboard in the first half could come back to bite. Before last round, the Dockers were averaging the lowest score (29.7 points) in the competition to half-time and, despite being in front by five points, only booted 5.6 up until the long break against Richmond last Sunday. - Travis King

Harley Bennell remains a long way off playing senior football for Freo. Picture: AFL Photos

The Cats had been pulling wins from nowhere in 2017 through a combination of luck, individual brilliance and old-fashioned determination but three losses in a row have brought to the public's attention the concerns Chris Scott has expressed all season. The main concern is the opposition's ability to beat Geelong on the spread from a contest, with the Cats way down for uncontested possessions, uncontested marks and tackle differential, meaning they are not closing space, with leg speed more of an issue than attitude. The Cats will remain fighting for a long time because it's in their DNA, but the fact is after three premierships and an unbelievable run of success, the system has dragged them back to the field. They have tried to trade their way out of trouble but it's left their list with a few A-graders in Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield, some ageing champions in Andrew Mackie and Tom Lonergan, and a bunch of players such as Nakia Cockatoo and Brandan Parfitt still a year or two away. The biggest dilemma is not their coaching but their talent acquisition strategy in the next five years. - Peter Ryan



Prior to the season, many experts had lauded the Suns' young spine as one of the best in the competition. But eight rounds in, and there's question marks popping up everywhere for Gold Coast's tall timber. Perhaps most worryingly is co-captain Steven May's lingering contract. May said prior to the season he was in no rush to extend his stay, and as the year drags on, the Suns get more nervous. His defensive sidekick Rory Thompson is tremendously talented, but like so many times previously has succumbed to injury in 2016, most recently making the trip to China only to withdraw with hamstring tightness in the warm up. Sam Day is out for the year with a horrific dislocated hip, so who knows how he'll return, while perhaps the least of the long-term worries – but a headache at the moment – is the poor form of 'Two Metre Peter' Wright. The spine isn't the only concern at Metricon Stadium as the Suns continue to yo-yo from week to week. They were horrible against the Giants in round two, brilliant against Hawthorn a week later, equally impressive against Geelong in round seven and then pitiful seven days later against Port Adelaide. None of this is helping alleviate the pressure on coach Rodney Eade, who is out of contract at season's end and desperate to push for finals. - Michael Whiting

Much has been made of the amount of talent on the Giants' list, but a shocking injury list means the club will be tested severely over the next two months. It started in the pre-season when gun recruit Brett Deledio suffered another calf issue, and the former Tiger still hasn't played a game, and probably won't until after the bye. Long-term ankle injuries to hard nuts Stephen Coniglio and Ryan Griffen has limited them five games collectively, and while Jacob Hopper stepped up his role onball, a broken finger added him to the rehab group. Draftee Will Setterfield (ankle, 5-7 weeks) and Tendai Mzungu (hamstring, 4-6 weeks) haven't been able to get a run at it and would have been valuable backups. The GWS backline has also been hit hard, with Matt Buntine and Adam Kennedy done for the year with knee reconstructions, and Nick Haynes still eight weeks away after hurting a hamstring tendon. A two-game suspension for club champion Toby Greene didn't help matters, but the positive is that the Giants are 6-2 and in second spot on the ladder. - Adam Curley

Nick Haynes is just one of a number of GWS defenders on the injury list. Picture: AFL Photos

Hawthorn’s injury list has slipped into dangerous territory – both in length and quality. Medium-term injuries to Cyril Rioli, Ben Stratton and James Frawley have the potential to leave the Hawks floundering and a finals appearance this year – already only a slim chance given the tardy start to the season – would now seem an impossibility. With three first-choice defenders – Frawley, Stratton and Grant Birchall out of the side – Hawthorn's defensive depth will be tested like never before. It is a relatively new world for the Hawks. Many of the newer of the club's 72,000 members are so used to the team being successful and it will be interesting to see whether the fans keep coming to games. Last Saturday's game against the Brisbane Lions attracted the third-smallest crowd yet to Launceston. - Ashley Browne

Melbourne's inconsistency within games continues to be a hindrance as it aims to make the finals for the first time since 2006. The 4-4 Demons have won 19 quarters for the season, the equal-fourth most in the AFL. Yet, in every one of the club's four losses – to Geelong, Fremantle, Richmond and Hawthorn – a distinct drop-off in a particular quarter has played its part in the result. The Demons allowed the Cats to kick 40 points in the final quarter in round three, the Dockers to score 46 points in the third term in round four, the Tigers to kick 35 points in the fourth quarter in round five and the Hawks to score 34 points in the first term in round six. There have been contributing factors in those lapses, especially the loss of All Australian Max Gawn against Geelong and back-up big man Jake Spencer against Richmond, however it underlines the work Melbourne still has to do to be regarded as a finals contender. Despite being a combined -104 in the hit-out category over the past three weeks without a recognised ruckman, the Demons' in-form midfielders have been able to successfully adapt to life without Gawn and Spencer and the club is a combined +27 in clearances over that span. - Ben Guthrie

Cam Pedersen is holding up his end for the Demons in the ruck. Picture: AFL Photos

Ben Brown's transformation into one of the competition's most prolific forwards has presented an unusual problem – the Kangaroos' overwhelming reliance on him. Brown carried a heavy burden in Jarrad Waite's extended absence this year, with his North teammates targeting him a whopping 40 per cent of the time. They were targeted a combined 53 per cent of the time in their two matches together in 2017, and 43 per cent in the past two years. Waite returns from suspension on Sunday, after missing the Swans loss, where usual defenders Lachie Hansen and Sam Durdin were swung forward to help Brown. Drew Petrie's departure from Arden St at the end of last season, plus Lindsay Thomas' form woes, have created an interesting dynamic behind Brown and Waite. Mason Wood and Taylor Garner came back this season from torrid recent injury runs – although Garner (hamstring) has missed the past fortnight – to display their marking prowess. But the trust clearly isn't quite there. Majak Daw was a popular target (18 per cent) in games Waite missed since last year, but injury and form issues have kept him to one AFL appearance in the first eight rounds. 2015 first-round pick Ben McKay is being groomed as Brown's long-term partner-in-crime, while Nick Larkey is showing promising signs in the VFL. - Marc McGowan

One of the only knocks on the Power is they haven't beaten a top-eight side this season. The Power were far too strong for Sydney (15th), Fremantle (ninth), Carlton (13th), the Brisbane Lions (18th) and Gold Coast (12th), but fell short against the top three sides on the ladder – Adelaide, Greater Western Sydney and West Coast. That adds extra importance to the Power's next game after the bye when they take on fifth-placed Geelong at Simonds Stadium in round 10. Now that their historic trip to China has been completed, the Power can get to the business of re-signing several of their off-contract contingent. In total, 17 players on their senior list are out of contract at the end of this season. That includes midfield star Brad Ebert, key defender Jack Hombsch, half-back flanker Jasper Pittard and utilities Jackson Trengove and Justin Westhoff. - Lee Gaskin

There have been warning signs for the Tigers stretching back to their 13-point win against Melbourne in round five. That was their last win, but they won just one quarter and have now won only four of their past 16. So what has changed? There has been a definite drop off in their rapid ball movement, falling from eighth in mark/play-on percentage in the first four rounds to 17th across rounds five to eight. That, and the lack of multiple tall targets in attack, has seen them struggle to get quality inside 50s. In the last four rounds they rank 18th for inside 50 kick retention (44 per cent) and 18th for scores per inside 50 (40 per cent). The loss of Ben Griffiths (concussion) is hurting, with the lack of an in-form replacement leaving too much on the shoulders of Jack Riewoldt and the smaller forwards. In the midfield, the Tigers have been comprehensively beaten in the contest, ranking 16th for contested possession differential (-10.8) in the past month. With injuries to Reece Conca (foot) and Nick Vlastuin (shoulder), among others, depth is also being tested at Tigerland and turnovers are becoming more common. Perhaps the biggest warning sign, as losses mount, is the fact that free agent Dustin Martin has not re-signed. - Nathan Schmook    

The Saints have had a terrific run with injuries since the start of 2016 but their depth will be tested now. They have covered David Armitage's absence well but losing Jimmy Webster to a broken right hand could be a bigger blow. The potential replacements – including Shane Savage, Daniel McKenzie and Bailey Rice – are unlikely to be able to replace Webster's blend of toughness and accurate kicking. Meanwhile, Josh Bruce's form as the primary target in attack hasn't been stellar. He's picked up seven disposals in each of the past two weeks and while he has kicked at least one goal in every game this season, Bruce has yet to show the form that saw him kick 50 majors in 2015. Back then, the former Giant snuck under the radar with Nick Riewoldt considered the primary threat. Riewoldt has looked hampered for the past couple of weeks by a right knee injury suffered in round one but the Saints are performing well despite his diminished output. Meanwhile, keeping Paddy McCartin happy while he languishes in the VFL poses a challenge. - Dinny Navaratnam

The Saints may struggle to cover tough defender Jimmy Webster. Picture: AFL Photos

Few would have predicted such a fall from grace for Sydney, and while they have missed some key personnel like Jarrad McVeigh, Isaac Heeney, Dane Rampe and Kurt Tippett at stages, their problems were more to do with the lack of 'Swans footy' being played. John Longmire's star-studded midfield lost their hard hats early in the year and as a result the team plummeted down the rankings in contested possessions (first to ninth), clearances (second to 12th), and stoppages (second to eighth) compared to last year. Josh Kennedy (27.9 possessions per game, down from 31.5 in 2016), Dan Hannebery (24.8 from 30.8), and to a lesser extent Luke Parker (25.6 from 26.9) were all down on their output, but things are finally on the up, with Parker (66 touches and three goals), Hannebery (59 and two) and Kennedy (57 and two) back in form over the past fortnight, and it's no coincidence the Swans have won both games easily. Rampe's broken arm has also cost Sydney their status as the rebound 50 kings, dropping them from first to seventh in the rankings, with the League's second be-t rebounder in 2016 playing just one game this season. - Adam Curley

Alarm bells were ringing after the round-five horror show against Hawthorn at the MCG when critics lined up to savage the Eagles' perceived lack of toughness around the ball. But it has been a strong response from Adam Simpson's men, who smashed Fremantle at the contest in the Western Derby, held on for a gritty win over Port on the road and then more than matched the Bulldogs' hardness to notch three straight wins and move into third spot on the ladder. Intent has been the Eagles' focus and they have delivered on that front, but the next issue for Simpson to solve is how to feed a hungry forward line. West Coast is ranked 13th for inside 50s, has lost the supply battle in three of the past four games (-38 differential) and had to rely on a rock-solid backline to hold on late against the Power and Bulldogs. It's an unsustainable way to keep winning, especially if the Eagles' forwards have an off day in front of goal – as spearhead Josh Kennedy did in booting 3.6 against the Dogs. From a glass half-full perspective, it's positive the Eagles keep banking victories, but they aren't getting carried away as they search for their best football. - Travis King

While the reigning premiers sit eighth with a respectable 5-3 record after the first eight rounds, they are yet to the hit the form of last September. Injuries have played a part in the sputtering start to 2017, but so has the Dogs' inability to hit the scoreboard from ample opportunities. It plagued them for much of last season, but they managed to get it right when it counted most. The kicking efficiency going inside 50 of their prime movers has contributed to the scoring woes, with Jack Macrae (30 per cent), Lachie Hunter (31 per cent) Tom Liberatore (33 per cent) and Luke Dahlhaus (36 per cent) well below the AFL average of 50.4 per cent. Even gun playmaker Marcus Bontempelli is below standard at 47.1 per cent.  Out of the regular 'delivery men', only Norm Smith medalist Jason Johannisen hits the mark more often than not at 59.1 per cent of the time. - Ryan Davidson