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Three burning questions for every club

Will he stay or will he go? Rory Sloane's contract is one of the season's big talking points - AFL,Adelaide Crows,Brisbane Lions,Carlton Blues,Collingwood Magpies,Essendon Bombers,Fremantle Dockers,Geelong Cats,Gold Coast Suns,GWS Giants,Hawthorn Hawks,Melbourne Demons,North Melbourne Kangaroos,Port Adelaide Power,Richmond Tigers,St Kilda Saints,Sydney Swans,West Coast Eagles,Western Bulldogs
Will he stay or will he go? Rory Sloane's contract is one of the season's big talking points

Will Rory Sloane stay?

The Crows must do everything they possibly can to retain the dual best and fairest and 2016 All Australian. The foot injury that kept him sidelined for 10 weeks could have delayed contract negotiations. If Sloane is committed to leaving, the Crows will need to consider if they want compensation – most likely a first-round draft pick immediately after their choice – or match the offer to the restricted free agent and force a trade.

Can the Crows reach the finals?

It's probably a stretch to say last year's grand finalists can now win the premiership. Sitting 11th on the ladder at 7-7, the Crows need to win at least six of their last eight games just to qualify for the finals. However, they showed with a stirring last-quarter fightback to beat West Coast that they are capable of playing the high-scoring brand of football that was so successful last year.

Has cutting ties with Collective Mind improved player harmony?

Speculation was rife about several players, including forward Mitch McGovern, considering their future at the club at the end of the season. McGovern might still request a trade if another club comes in with a big-money offer, but the Crows would be well within their rights to knock it back. Then again, it will be interesting to see if the club's decision to cease their partnership with Collective Mind – the company behind the controversial pre-season camp – has an impact on what happens come trade week. - Lee Gaskin

Can the Lions turn honourable losses into wins?

With an improved defence, improved percentage and ever-improving young talent, the final box for the Lions to tick is a few more wins. They face Carlton, Gold Coast and wobbling finals candidates North Melbourne and Adelaide on the run home, which provides some clear opportunities to move up from 17th. They will finish with a top-four draft pick, and five to six wins with a percentage of close to 90 (it's currently 83) would set up a good off-season leading into 2019.

Will they chase more mature talent in the off-season?

Last year the Lions landed Luke Hodge for his experience and Charlie Cameron as a proven player who could contribute immediately and in the long-term. Both have been raging successes. How hard will they push for another Cameron-like player – someone in the 22-25-year age bracket who fits the profile of the list? One more midfield piece would complement nicely.

Will Harris Andrews return to the field the same player?

This may be perhaps the most important question. Andrews is 21, the club's vice-captain and was on pace for an All Australian jumper (the 40-man squad at least). Whether he returns from his concussion in two weeks, four weeks or is rested until 2019, the Lions will just hope their defensive centre piece comes back 100 per cent. There is no suggestion of long-term side effects at this stage, but until Andrews is on the field again, nothing is guaranteed. - Michael Whiting

Harris Andrews was concussed in sickening incident with Jeremy Cameron. Picture: AFL Photos

Will the Blues win another one?

Brendon Bolton's side will have their opportunities over the next month. They play Brisbane and Gold Coast within four weeks of each other and might fancy their chances in those games, though they will play both in Queensland. The clash against the Suns at Metricon Stadium arguably presents the Blues with their best opportunity. They meet St Kilda on a Friday night, which will present another chance, while they defeated both Hawthorn and Greater Western Sydney at Etihad Stadium last year. However, should they go without a victory in the next month, they face the prospect of just one win for the year.

Can they find a long-term partner for Charlie Curnow?

Harry McKay has long been flagged as the man to partner Charlie Curnow in Carlton's forward line, but the youngster has been sent back to the VFL after a handful of senior games. He's averaging two goals per match, but has been told he must work on his consistency across four quarters before returning. Patrick Kerr has been given a chance, while 201cm youngster Tom De Koning is showing good signs in the VFL. Should McKay earn another opportunity, Carlton fans will be hoping for signs that he can start grabbing games by the scruff of their neck, as Curnow has done over the past 18 months.

What do the Blues do with their early draft pick?

The options are open for Carlton going into this year's trade period. The Blues could potentially hold the top pick at the draft, but whether they use it is another question. They could snare a prospect like Jack Lukosius or Sam Walsh, or they could look to trade it for an established player. The other option is trading it for multiple selections in the first round. We know it's a strong draft, so getting in as much young talent as possible could be a realistic option if they can find a club willing to move up the order. - Riley Beveridge

Charlie Curnow has Blues fans excited about what the future holds. Picture: AFL Photos

How can the Pies cover the loss of Lynden Dunn at full-back?

No one anticipated the discarded Demon becoming such an important part of the Collingwood side, and his experience, leadership and defensive craft in an undersized defence will be sorely missed. The logical solution is to swing mature-age rookie Brody Mihocek back, given he was recruited from the VFL as a strong-marking key defender. At some point the Pies will also regain flexible pair Darcy Moore and Ben Reid, although Reid is more likely to play forward. Another option is youngster Sam McLarty.

Is Nathan Buckley the coach of the year?

Apologies to Adam Simpson and Brad Scott, but Buckley’s Pies were given Buckley’s hope of sitting second at this point. The Magpie mentor was considered lucky to be reappointed last year after missing the finals for the fourth successive time, and he has faced more adversity this year with the Woods losing their first two games and again copping a bad run with injury. However, Buckley has total buy-in from his players, who are clearly playing for each other and their coach.

Is Brodie Grundy the All Australian ruckman?

It’s probably a line-ball call between Grundy and Melbourne's Max Gawn. But as coach Buckley points out, the Pies big man is a unique player because in addition to his lion-hearted aerial work once the ball hits the ground he's virtually an extra onballer. Averages 21 touches (No.1 among ruckmen) and, remarkably, leads Collingwood in both clearances and contested possessions – no mean feat given the star quality in the Magpie midfield. - Ben Collins

Will the poor start to the season cost the Bombers?

Most likely, yes. It's hard to come back from a 2-6 start to the season and although Essendon has had a strong run of late, winning five of its past six games, it might have left itself too much to do. Essendon has turned around its form and is playing a much more attractive, attacking and cohesive game style. It's a shame it took two months to get going.

Will Joe Daniher play again this season?

Nobody seems to know – or is prepared to answer – this one. The key forward's time on the sidelines dealing with his osteitis pubis is essentially indefinite. He had a slower-than-expected recovery in the first six weeks of being diagnosed, and hasn't played since round seven. In that time the Bombers have leant on Shaun McKernan in attack, who is enjoying a strong patch of form around goal.

Which of the club's trade recruits will prove most successful?

The early nod in this one would be Devon Smith, and the former Greater Western Sydney forward could well take out Essendon's best and fairest in his first season at the club. But Jake Stringer leads the goalkicking with 23 goals and has had a good season at the club, while Adam Saad has been unleashed in recent weeks with his devastating run off half-back. All three shape as successes. - Callum Twomey

Devon Smith has been a standout in his first season at Bomberland. Picture: AFL Photos

Which veterans should play on?

The rebuilding Dockers still need some experience around their youth. David Mundy should definitely go around again and, before his calf setback, many expected Aaron Sandilands would play on for a final year in 2019, albeit with a reduced workload. The end appears nigh for Danyle Pearce and Michael Johnson, who are both in the WAFL, and Hayden Ballantyne is fighting for his career. Lee Spurr has missed the entire season with a knee injury and it would be hard to find a spot for him in a new-look defence.

Where is Cam McCarthy's career headed?

The talented goalkicker looked a future star when he booted 35 goals in 20 games in his final season at Greater Western Sydney but has battled to recapture that form in the west. McCarthy won Freo's goalkicking last year with just 25 majors – an OK return after a year out of the game. But the 23-year-old has spent the past three games back at Peel and doesn't look like returning soon. He has another year on his contract but is at the crossroads.

Has Harley Bennell finally turned the corner?

It's looking promising after six games back at Peel – including an impressive 21-disposal, one-goal performance last round – but the Dockers will be holding their breath that Bennell's troublesome calves don't let him down again. As long as he stays away from off-field drama, Bennell will receive a fresh contract but fans want to see the 25-year-old add to his two games in purple before season's end and start delivering on his promise. - Travis King

How can Harry Taylor and Lachie Henderson both fit back in?

The success of Mark Blicavs and Jack Henry in new roles will cause a defensive headache when Henderson is ready to return in the next fortnight. Taylor played forward last week but it didn't work in crunch moments last year, so Chris Scott will be reluctant to make it permanent. Henderson's ball use out of the back half is a bonus, but if both are to play in the same side, it will result in a taller set-up and Henry tipping out or Jake Kolodjashnij moving onto a wing.

Who will the rotation of small forwards end with?

Five small forwards have been used this year in a side that plays two or three at most. Lincoln McCarthy is first-choice when his body is right and Cory Gregson is the next most experienced of the bunch. Lachie Fogarty is a favourite among coaching staff, while Quinton Narkle and Jamaine Jones have added spark. With the VFL side sitting in third place, goals and pressure heading into finals will be essential to book a spot.

Can they stand up at the MCG?

Dating back to last year's qualifying final against Richmond, the Cats are 3-4 in their past seven visits. Still the No.1-ranked team for scores conceded this season, they have looked most vulnerable when forced to defend the wider expanses of the MCG. The undermanned defence has stood up without key personnel this year, but if they're to win a big final at the home of football, it will be decided by the rest of the line-up. - Mitch Cleary

What do the Suns do if Tom Lynch leaves?

Yes, Lynch could still stay, and no, he hasn't inked a deal elsewhere yet, but it's becoming more likely the club's co-captain will take up another offer ahead of 2019. Do the Suns let him walk and get a first-round compensation pick or match a rival offer and trade him? Either way there's only one direction Gold Coast can take now, and that's to rebuild. No more topping up with older players – go to the draft and get the best players available for the next few years, whether that's teenagers or proven State League talent.

Can Jack Martin reach his potential?

Martin is in the midst of his best season in the AFL, but there's still another level – or two – he can go to. The 23-year-old has finished third in the past two best and fairests and has played even better in 2018. He still has a tendency to drift in and out of games though, and for the Suns to grab a few wins on the run home, Martin must stay engaged for four quarters. He is potentially Gold Coast's most valuable player and his signature will be hot property next year.

How much of a cleanout is coming at season's end?

Lynch's decision aside, there's a lot to consider for the Suns. Veterans Matt Rosa, Michael Barlow, Michael Rischitelli and Jarrod Harbrow all have expiring deals, and while re-signing Harbrow is a no-brainer, the other three have question marks. There's Aaron Hall, Kade Kolodjashnij and Jesse Lonergan out of contract and needing decisions. Then there's a host of young players trying to prove they belong. The final eight weeks could help Gold Coast make some decisions one way or the other. - Michael Whiting

Can the Giants hold onto their spot in the eight until Jeremy Cameron returns?

Much was written about the team's tough month of games against Hawthorn, West Coast, Richmond and Port Adelaide, and when Cameron was banned, many predicted it was season over. But those doubters failed to recognise the form the Giants were in. The next three games are still formidable, along with the clash with St Kilda, but the rewards, if GWS can finish that stretch in the eight, will be even bigger.

What should Leon Cameron expect from Toby Greene and Brett Deledio?

Greene hasn't been seen since round five and Deledio went down a week later, so the pair can't be relied upon to dominate whenever they do play again. What the coach can only hope is that both can play a role and, more importantly as they have done so often over the years, influence games at important moments. It's not ideal but a big cameo in a massive final – should they make it – could wipe away a nightmare season.

Will we see Tom Scully or Zac Williams again this year?

Not likely. With their speed and ability to carry the footy, Williams (Achilles) and Scully (ankle) have been major losses for the Giants this year, but with only eight games remaining in the regular season, time has all but run out. The pair won't give up trying, with Williams to have a real crack over the next month, but 2018 is likely to be a write-off for the speedsters. - Adam Curley

Tom Scully broke his ankle in round two against Collingwood. Picture: AFL Photos

Are the Hawks any good?

The suspicion all along was that the Hawks were a team that could finish anywhere between sixth and 10th – and with a third of the season to go, nothing has changed in that respect. Hawthorn’s best footy is very good, but it doesn't take much for that to change and in games such as against North Melbourne, Brisbane and even in patches against Greater Western Sydney at the weekend, they were really ordinary. The Hawks need close to their best team available to be super competitive, which was again illustrated last weekend when Jack Gunston and Shaun Burgoyne didn't play. The round 15 ladder doesn't lie when it comes to Hawthorn.

How’s Jarryd Roughead going?

The days of Roughead kicking a bag as the Hawks' power forward are over. The spring is gone. But he remains an important on-field general, able to jag an important goal and roam through the midfield as required. Much of his value to Hawthorn is off the field through his leadership and his values and ensuring the culture shaped by Richie Vandenberg, Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis is passed on to the next generation. He’ll play again next year, you would think and rightfully so.

Tom Lynch or Rory Sloane?

They’re the free agents most linked to the Hawks and they could do with both of them. They need the contested marking that Lynch would bring because for most of the year, Hawthorn’s inside 50 dominance hasn't translated to big scores. But they also need midfield reinforcements, as the game against the Giants showed, because they were well beaten in contested possessions and clearances, which made it tough for a backline that has been performing admirably all year. Sloane’s ability to play inside and out suits the Hawks, who have shown over and over again they have no qualms about bringing in veterans if they can fill a role for the next three to five years. - Ashley Browne

Can Melbourne exorcise its finals demons?

The question is an obvious one, but the answer is less straightforward. How can a team, after winning six games in a row earlier this season, go from premiership contender to be in danger of missing September action altogether for the 12th straight season? The Demons must find a way to rise above the doubters and deliver in a season that started out with so much promise.

Is the loss of Jake Lever too big to overcome?

The stats certainly suggest that, with Melbourne's porous defence exposed since Lever went down with a season-ending knee injury. The Demons were ranked sixth in the AFL for points against (76.9) between rounds one and 11, but have slumped to 18th (109) with Lever out of the side. Melbourne has been lacking experience in its back six, which has proved costly, but the team needs to work harder defensively as a collective to correct its issues.

Can Christian Petracca become an 'A-grader'?

Petracca has the ability to be the game-breaker Melbourne needs, but unfortunately he finds himself in a form slump. Despite having all the traits of becoming a star, the 22-year-old has the tendency to drift out of games. The Demons should make Petracca more of a stay-at-home forward and allow him room to operate similar to how Richmond have used Dustin Martin in the past. - Ben Guthrie

Dees fans would love Christian Petracca to be more consistent. Picture: AFL Photos

Do Scott Thompson and Jarrad Waite play on?

The Roos made a strategic decision last year to offer the veteran pair one-season contracts and they've been outstanding before Waite's calf problems returned. Their presence has meant the club's developing talls – Sam Durdin, Ben McKay, Nick Larkey and Daniel Nielson – haven't needed to be rushed, and Majak Daw has blossomed in defence next to Thompson. But those same players need their chance soon. Thompson, 32, seems more likely than Waite, 35, to remain at Arden St.

What should North do with its first-round pick?

Top-five draft contender Tarryn Thomas is already as good as wearing blue and white. The Kangas will be able to match a rival's bid for the Tasmanian, who is in their Next Generation Academy, regardless of if they own a first-round selection or not. The current first-rounder might be better shipped elsewhere to acquire multiple lower picks that would give them extra draft points. North is not only looking at Thomas, but also father-son prospects Bailey Scott and Joel Crocker – and there are other options in their NGA, too.

Are the Roos better off saving their pennies for Josh Kelly next year?

Depending on who you speak to, North Melbourne has salary cap dollars to burn, so Brad Scott's side may be able to offer multiple monster contracts. But rather than over-spend on whoever tickles the Roos' fancy from here on out, such as Eagles Andrew Gaff and Jeremy McGovern, how about concentrating on preparing a godfather offer that can't be refused for Josh Kelly, who is out of contract again at the end of next season and whose father, Phil, is an ex-North star? – Marc McGowan

Is the Power a genuine premiership contender?

The jury is still out despite Port Adelaide having taken some big scalps – including reigning premiers Richmond and Sydney at the SCG - this season. The Power have a great opportunity in the next month to consolidate their place in the top four. A top-two berth - and the chance of playing both finals at Adelaide Oval - is also within their reach if they can get on a roll.

Can Jack Watts force his way back into the side?

With Justin Westhoff proving effective as a forward, and youngster Todd Marshall also in the Power's attacking structure, it's hard to find room for Watts as a forward. The only way he will get back in is if he's deployed on the wing. The Power are still struggling with their delivery inside 50, and that's an area that Watts can help with.

Will Jared Polec re-sign with the Power?

With midfield bull Ollie Wines locked away, Polec is the last remaining key piece for the Power to hang on to for next season. The 25-year-old winger is having an impressive season and would have attracted interest from rival clubs. The South Australian is expected to stay with the Power, but there would be a small amount of nervousness that a deal hasn't been done yet. - Lee Gaskin

 

Who's going to fire the first cannonball at them?

We're saying it's the Tigers and then … daylight. They seem to be getting better every week which, scarily, is what they started to do around the round 17 mark last year. They're a ridiculously hard proposition at the MCG and have five remaining games there, and looking at their draw, they're a realistic chance to go through to the finals undefeated despite their poor 2018 interstate record and the fact they take their show on the road two more times.

Can they maintain the rage?

When you're this far in front of the rest of the competition and seeing off opponents left, right and centre, how much does it become about mindset? Will they be able to maintain their manic pressure all the way through? It was back to its all-time best in round 13 against Geelong, with Damien Hardwick describing it afterwards as having returned to an elite level. The challenge now is to hold that and not get caught up in the hype that will no doubt start to build as the finals approach.

Will they land Tom Lynch … and if they do, could it do more harm than good?

They're said to be the frontrunners and the Suns are bracing for his exit, but what would the key forward's arrival actually mean for the list? There's no doubt he's got talent but how would he change the dynamic of the Jack Riewoldt/Josh Caddy show? Also, how would it affect the futures of out-of-contract premiership players like Shaun Grigg, Bachar Houli, Jacob Townsend and Nathan Broad? And, popular but on-the-fringe players such as Anthony Miles, Corey Ellis and Sam Lloyd? Culture is a big thing and the Tigers are tight – could Lynch be the big fish that inadvertently causes ripples in their pond? – Jennifer Phelan

Should St Kilda sack Alan Richardson? 

The biggest problem with the Saints' list is the lack of elite players. That indicates the club has a problem with recruiting, which isn't Richardson's fault. However, the Saints acknowledge they need better people around the coach, with his assistants set to change. Richardson is contracted until the end of 2020 and considering St Kilda's financial position, it should back him in for at least one more season to see how he goes with more support.

Is Paddy McCartin going to be the star the club needs him to be?

After 34 games in an injury-interrupted career, the key forward has played more football this year than any other season since being drafted in 2014. He's showing signs but there's still a long way to go. Ultimately, he's not the Nick Riewoldt replacement Saints supporters crave but if he can overcome the concussion problems that have plagued him, and that's a big if, his contested marking, toughness and presence mean he should be eventually able to kick 50-60 goals per season.

Can the Saints land a big name in the off-season?

They need to bolster their list but it doesn't seem that will happen in 2018. With just three wins this year, St Kilda doesn't have a lot to entice players from around the competition with. However, the Saints are unlikely to be deterred by that and with their return to Moorabbin, combined with ample room in the salary cap, they will go after the stars. A midfielder who provides run and outside polish would be ideal, but they are hard to find. – Dinny Navaratnam

Coach Alan Richardson has been under intense pressure all season. Picture: AFL Photos

Can Sam Reid have an impact when he comes back in?

The tall forward's presence inside 50 isn't all about his numbers, it's also about the support he gives superstar teammate Lance Franklin. Draftee Tom McCartin has been impressive in Reid's absence, but his versatility to also play back or as a loose man behind the footy is important to the Swans.

Will Jake Lloyd sign a new deal?

There has been rumours the gun halfback was unhappy with the contract offered to him by the Swans and while he's unlikely to pack his bags Xavier Richards-style, funnier things have happened. Sydney's best rebound defender would be a huge loss and a new deal shouldn't be far away, but the longer the situation drags out, the more time other clubs can come knocking.

Will John Longmire need to make some massive selection calls come finals time?

Veterans Dan Hannebery and Kieren Jack have struggled for form and fitness over the past two seasons, and with so much young talent coming through, their positions in the best 22 might come under scrutiny in the next two months. With the exception of Callum Mills (foot) and Sam Naismith (knee), Longmire has a full list to choose from, and he's shown in the past – with Ryan O'Keefe in 2014 – that he'll always go for the best team available over reputations. - Adam Curley

Will the Eagles blow their brilliant start?

They looked the real deal heading to the bye at 10-1 but three consecutive losses, including disastrous defeats to Essendon and Adelaide, and injuries to key structural players has left them teetering on the brink of the top four. It is almost impossible to win a flag from the west having to travel for three straight weeks in September, so West Coast must secure a double-chance. Sunday's clash with the in-form Giants could be season-defining.

Can West Coast re-sign its restricted free agents?

It appears likely ruckman Scott Lycett will stay in the west, however Victorian clubs are lining up to lure prolific onballer Andrew Gaff home and star defender Jeremy McGovern has delayed his decision until the end of the campaign, with Fremantle and Melbourne-based sides interested. West Coast has the right to match any offers, but in Gaff and McGovern's cases especially there would be sizeable deals dangled to lure them away from the Eagles nest.

Has Eric Mackenzie played his last AFL game?

He was a hero in the unforgettable elimination final victory last year but repeated issues with his feet have kept the 2014 club champion off the park for all but one WAFL appearance. The 30-year-old is on an expiring one-year contract and is stuck three games shy of the 150-game life membership mark. If he can get his body right, Mackenzie could still have a role to play given West Coast's lack of experienced tall defenders, but it's a big if. – Travis King

Have the Dogs made ground in 2018? 

After their underwhelming premiership defence saw them finish last year 11th, they're likely to finish even lower this season. However, you could argue the opportunities given to impressive youngsters such as Aaron Naughton, Ed Richards, Billy Gowers, Tim English and Paddy Lipinski have the Bulldogs well placed to shoot back up the ladder in 2019. A likely early pick in November's NAB AFL Draft should also help their cause.

Will Mitch Wallis and Jordan Roughead be at Whitten Oval next year?

With both spending time in the VFL and coach Luke Beveridge publicly calling on them to improve aspects of their games, the free-agent duo need a big finish to the season. Inside midfielder Wallis has struggled with his kicking and spread from the contest, while Roughead has battled injuries and indifferent form.

Has Josh Schache's recruitment been a success? 

While it's too early to make a definitive call on the key forward, the 20-year-old has shown some encouraging signs in his five game this season. Offensively, Schache looks sound with five goals from smart leading and straight kicking, but the former No.2 pick needs to improve his physicality and the defensive side of his game. However the punt to give up two second-round picks for the former Lion appears to be paying off. - Ryan Davidson

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs