Reflecting on the also-rans

Peter Ryan, AFL Record writer: Nine gone, eight still standing; can we have a quick assessment of the eight clubs who missed out on finals? Who would regard their season as a fail and who has a good foundation for the future? What is the most pressing need of any of those clubs?

Geoff Slattery, Managing Editor, AFL Media: The biggest concern for 2012 is the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots: right now, you'd say that the top four are way ahead of the next four, the top eight is well ahead of the next four, and the bottom five look stuck there for a long time. The exception is Gold Coast, a club full of potential, with a rapid improvement likely by 2014. I can't see a West Coast - last to top - in any of the others. Fremantle will be pleased the year is over, but the Dogs, Richmond, North and Adelaide all lack the key personnel to push to the top.

Michael Lovett, AFL Record writer: Richmond need a ruckman ... badly. Angus Graham is a trier and Tyrone Vickery is better as a forward and back-up ruckman. The Tigers must trade to get someone like Hamish McIntosh from North. I think the Roos are on the right track. I know they were disappointing in games against the very best but I can see them closing the gap. With Drew Petrie, they have someone they can build their side around.

Slattery: I might be a little hard on North - Petrie and Daniel Wells are players that form part of a top-four team, as do (Todd) Goldstein, (Ryan) Bastinac, (Andrew) Swallow, (Ben) Cunnington and (Jack) Ziebell. Ninth was just right in the end.

Ryan: Melbourne has an upside if they can get the right coach because they have talent within. The (Tom) Scully and coaching dramas derailed their season. Interesting that the good clubs are sustaining their success for longer than previous eras under equalisation and free agency is unlikely to make it any easier for the teams trying to push up. At least North, Fremantle and Richmond are well coached so they have every chance of improving. And Gold Coast has masses of talent. The rest need to reshape.

Ashley Browne, writer: Melbourne, Fremantle, the Western Bulldogs, Port Adelaide and Adelaide would regard the year as a failure, but the other clubs would take something out of 2011. But like Geoff, I'm not sure how many are ready to make a run deep into September next year. Of those who missed out, only North would expect to play finals next year. If the Demons can adjust to their new coach quickly enough, they could get there too. The Dockers could be anything with a clean bill of health.

Ben Collins, AFL Record writer: Failures (not in any particular order): North - in many ways went backwards because they were continually hammered by the top sides. Dogs and Freo - cruelled by injury. Richmond - can't keep saying 'next year'. Melbourne - expected to make the finals but missed out by three games. Lacked leadership and played generally bruise-free footy, which would have most disappointed their fans. Adelaide - expected to push for top-four status and finished 14th.

Nick Bowen, AFL Record writer: Pass - North, Richmond, Gold Coast, Brisbane Lions; Injury exemption - Fremantle; Fail - Port, Adelaide, Melbourne, Western Bulldogs. You'll be surprised, Michael, that I agree the Roos are on the right track. If some of their youngsters can make similar strides to those made by Todd Goldstein and Jack Ziebell this year, then 2012 should be a good year. They unveiled another seven debutants this season, including forward Aaron Black yesterday, who did a couple of nice things. Kieran Harper also looks like a star, while I expect Jamie Macmillan, Ben Cunnington and Sam Wright to develop enormously. Some might be surprised that I've given the Lions a pass. But I think they've developed a lot of good youngsters they can build a team around - Matthew Leuenberger, Tom Rockliff and Jack Redden chief among them.

Howard Kotton, AFL Record writer: Richmond has shown some improvement and appear to be heading in the right direction with (Trent) Cotchin and (Dustin) Martin leading the way. But the Tigers need a ruckman. Melbourne needs leadership and experience. Bulldogs will make some recovery after a shocking run with injury, despite losing Ward. Port Adelaide is way off, Brisbane Lions on the right track and Adelaide will be OK. Not sure about Fremantle, although they also had a terrible run with injury this year.

The secret Ward

Ryan: Callan Ward is going to GWS and we expect more to follow. Is it wrong for players to have to keep deals secret?

Slattery: I've never understood what it is about secrecy of deal-making. AFL rules have allowed Gold Coast and GWS to offer deals to players in the gap between seasons, and players are entitled to take up those offers without any sense of disloyalty to their current club. If anybody thinks any differently, look at the way Gary Ablett played for Geelong last year. His preliminary final performance was one of the great individual efforts of 2010. People in business make choices to change jobs every day, and, in my experience, never slacken in their approach to their current role. The sooner we grow up, and let players be honest, the better.

Lovett: Morally wrong, but what are players supposed to do? In Ward's case, even his mum let the cat out of the bag in the middle of the season. The Dogs can feel hard done by losing (Jarrod) Harbrow and now Ward in successive seasons, but that's the system. The clubs voted it in and the new franchises are free to speak to who they like once they know the player is coming out of contract.

Ryan: I reckon people were booing the system not the person in relation to Ward on Saturday. Most people can understand his decision.

Callum Twomey, AFL Record writer:
I don't think there's too much animosity from the public towards Ward. For some reason, it feels a little bit different with regards to Tom Scully. It appeared after Saturday's game that Ward might have told his teammates given some of the emotional hugs and back-patting in the rooms. He will be a good player for the Giants.

Browne: Perhaps an exception could have been made for these two years when the expansion teams were starting, and players could have announced their moves mid-season. I'm not sure a lot of AFL fans are sophisticated enough to handle players announcing a change of clubs mid-season - all it would take is for a player to get hurt, miss a shot for goal or generally make an error and fans would start to turn.

Ryan: There's still no certainty Scully is going. And of course he had that famous press conference early in the year in which he was very defiant. I think the secrecy erodes loyalty of fans to the game because they feel like they're been taken for fools. I think they're sophisticated enough to handle change but fans don't have to agree with the way things head even if they understand the reality.

Collins: It's the cultural divide that needs to be crossed. Not sure if it will in the short term though. It's the mentality that if you're not with us, you must be against us. Understanding on both sides. Good point from Cal re. the different perceptions of Ward and Scully. I definitely sense that too.

Bowen: I agree, GS. I think we're all big enough and stupid enough to accept that someone has decided to play elsewhere. The sooner they tell their club and their fans, the sooner everyone can move on. If Greg Denham's report in The Australian today is correct, Ward told the Bulldogs on Friday that he was leaving but they let him play against Freo on Saturday. It's great they reached that decision. To have dropped him from the team would have been petty. But the Dogs proved they were above that.

Ryan: Yep, Ward is a class act and showed it again on Saturday.

Bowen: The Dogs were class acts too, Pete. Loved the shots of Matthew Boyd embracing Ward in the changerooms after Saturday's game. Some serious man love there, even if Ward has 'broken up' with Boyd and the rest of the Doggies.

Slattery: It will be fascinating to watch the evolution of Gold Coast and GWS over the next 10 years. I recall Suns list manager Scott Clayton suggesting the Suns would win a flag in their first decade. Whether they will or not - or whether GWS will or not - their management of players, and recruiting balances (young, middle-aged, veteran) will become part of Ph.D theses for the list managers of the 2020s. What worked and what didn't, and how these methods can apply to established lists, will have enormous influences on clubs over the next 20 years.

Bowen: GS, we've already seen how well Gold Coast took advantage of their concessions last year, trading to get as many concession picks as they could to use in future drafts. It will also be fascinating to see whether they decide to trade out any homesick kids down the track. Logic dictates they'll have a surplus of talent in certain areas of the ground given they've taken so many quality youngsters in such a short period of time. If they're prepared to trade some of them, they could ensure they've got access to even more early draft picks in seasons to come.

Slattery: Nick: agree with your point. I hope some academic footy freak is working on the thesis. Will be fascinating with 20-20 vision in 2020.

Now to finals …

Ryan: Let's get to finals: What is the appropriate reaction to Collingwood's loss on Friday night and what relevance does it have to Saturday afternoon's game against the Eagles?

Slattery: Collingwood's loss will have no bearing on the finals outcome. What is important is their season record — 20 wins and just two losses, and a massive percentage. This is a dominant club in a very tough top end. What may be concerning for the Magpies is the rising list of players either injured, suspended, or returning from long breaks.

Browne: Collingwood looked ordinary against a side that probably had a bit more to play for. But any concerns for the Pies would have been allayed by that bizarre interview Mick Malthouse gave Tim Watson after the game. He clearly didn't give a continental about what had just taken place.

Lovett: The size of the loss concerns me. Had the Pies gone down by 5-6 goals, there wouldn't even be a raised eyebrow. Now, issues like the Malthouse/Buckley handover will, rightly or wrongly, surface again and the absence of key players means their line-up could be unsettled against the Eagles this week. The first 10 minutes will tell the story. I'd expect Collingwood to come out smoking, but they are up against a formidable opponent.

Kotton: I didn't take much notice of Friday night's result. I expect Collingwood to bounce back strongly on Saturday. If the Magpies don't, then sound the alarm bells. Having said that, it won't be easy against the Eagles, who have the tantalising prospect of a home preliminary final if they can overcome the Pies. Their tall forward line might pose a few problems for Collingwood.

Ryan: Collingwood has not played in anything other than bursts since round 18 when it has had nothing to play for. Impossible to perform given the status of game on Friday night. It was like a Mackinnon Stakes run or qualifying eighth for an Olympic Final a la Kieren Perkins in 1996. Collingwood's game relies on pressure on the ball carrier, and that was non-existent on Friday night for the first time for a long time. That won't be the case on Saturday.

Collins: From a confidence point of view, it's far better to finish the minor rounds like the Cats did as opposed to the Pies, but what did it all mean? Absolutely nothing. Motivations levels just weren't there because ultimately a win or loss was the difference between the Pies finishing one or three games clear on top. They'll have a different side this week too. However, the point has been made that if the Pies had won by 96 points, we'd have written off the Cats. The Pies had won their previous 14, so they're not doing too much wrong. Friday night was most likely an aberration.

Browne: But to quote Alan Joyce (Year of the Dogs, 1996) can they just "flick the switch"?

Bowen: As much as the Collingwood haters may want to read something into it, I think the Magpies will be business as usual this Saturday against the Eagles. If anything, the loss to the Cats will sting them into action.

Ryan: Not against good opposition can you flick a switch, and the Eagles are that, but you can lift intensity at the drop of a hat. I think it will be classic final, as will the other qualifying final.

Bowen: And to quote Terry Wallace from the same doco (with a bit of licence) "If Collingwood win the flag, I'll dead set spew up ..."

Lovett: Agree Ash. You can't turn form on and off like a power switch. Anyway, what changes to the Pies' line-up this week? Peter and Ben, you must have picked your best 22?

Collins: An interesting sub-plot of the Pies-Eagles game will be the polar opposite preparation of the two teams: the Eagles have been one of the most settled line-ups, while the Pies have been almost a revolving door. That familiarity in finals could be a crucial factor in the game.

Ryan: In: Davis, Maxwell, Shaw. Out: Sinclair, Wood (if history is any guide), Fasolo maybe.

Collins: I'd be loathe to leave out Fasolo, who has been a great addition. But it's a choice between him and Blair. I'm glad I'm not making that decision.

Bowen: Benny, people hear are talking about all of the Pies' injuries. fair enough, too. But fans west of SA are sweating on the availability of one D. Kerr. His ability to overcome a back injury will be vital to the Coasters' chances.

Collins: The Pies will breathe a lot easier if Kerr doesn't play. His clearance work with their dominant ruck duo would really test the Pies.

Friday night special

Ryan: Do Geelong or Hawthorn deserve to be favourites Friday night and why?

Kotton: I believe the Cats deserve to be favourites on the back of their recent record against the Hawks and excellent season. In most other years, the Cats would have finished on top of the ladder. They showed they are still a force to be reckoned with last Friday night.

Lovett: Geelong will start slight favourites, but the Cats will know the Hawks are coming. Eight players to return to the Hawthorn side and a couple of handy 'ins' like Buddy, Cyril, the skipper and (Brad) Sewell. Geelong has some selection dilemmas: if (Tom) Lonergan is fit, does he come back to play on Buddy having done a great job on him earlier this year? Joel Corey is a very important player but he's had three weeks off (a bye and the past two games). And what about Mooney? I think he might be struggling to get back. Can't have the Pod, Hawkins and Mooney in the same 22, particularly if the weather is as bad as they are predicting this week.

Ryan: Battle of the mids on Friday night. Centre clearances will tell a big story and Brad Ottens' role against the less finals hardened (David) Hale and (Max) Bailey will be critical. Where will (Travis) Varcoe play?

Collins: A Varcoe-Rioli match-up would be something to behold. Can it happen?

Lovett: Varcoe will play back. He's enjoying the new role, like Chris Yarran at Carlton, and his ability to break the lines is a huge factor. Ditto Wojo who can inject speed coming off the bench.

Ryan: Rioli chasing down Varcoe will be worth watching. I'd be using quick hands and good foot skills rather than running Yarran-style if I was Varcoe.

Browne: It really is line-ball. Why I like what Alastair Clarkson did in resting the eight players on the weekend is that in some of the previous Geelong-Hawthorn games, Geelong's better players - (Jimmy) Bartel, (Joel) Selwood, (Paul) Chapman and (Brad) Ottens have finished the game better than the Hawthorn big guns. That could be a plus this week. But it is so hard to pick this game, and the forecast wet and cold weather makes it even harder again to forecast.

Lovett: Cats are good wet-trackers. They've played some fantastic footy in ordinary conditions at Skilled and at the 'G at night.

Bowen: I think Geelong start favourites, but only just. Michael can tell you they've beaten the Hawks twice this year, and they've surely put any form queries to bed after last Friday night's vulgar display of power. Still, Hawthorn will be a stern test.

Slattery: Geelong hasn't won a final against the Hawks since the 1963 Grand Final — two Grand Finals, and two finals. Means nothing, but thought I'd throw it in. Changes to the round 12 Hawthorn team are Bailey for Renouf, and Hale for Roughead. Roughead and Renouf had season-ending injuries in that match.

The arc of triumph

Twomey: Buddy nearly got a free on the siren to have a kick for goal that may have won the match last time the two teams played. If it happened again, would he be able to use his arc?

Ryan: If Buddy has a set shot after the siren, it will be hugely controversial. Noticed on the weekend (with Carlton's Chris Yarran and Richmond's Bachar Houli) that when players were taking shots for goal after the siren the umpires were keen to emphasise the player did not run off the mark otherwise it would be a play on call. Surely Buddy could not run around as much as he does.

Collins: Re. Buddy, it needs to be the same rule for all and no exception made for one player. Pure commonsense.

Browne: Buddy was given the lecture by the umpires when he had a shot from outside 50 at half-time against the Bulldogs a fortnight ago. He went back and kicked the goal it post-high. Non-issue.

Slattery: Franklin's arc won't come into it. He had a shot on the siren against the Dogs in round 23, and came up trumps. It would be a silly play to not heed the calls of the umpires should such a thing happen. It would also be a fascinating conclusion to a final if a player went off the line, kicked the goal, won the game, only to hear the whistle!

Ryan: If a final was lost because of the arc and the whistle went, it would be like the Kerry Good goal after the siren times by 100. Pandemonium would be the word.

Don't worry, be Carlton

Ryan: Carlton defeated Essendon by 74 points in round 18. Why are the Blues worried?

Kotton: Who says the Blues are worried, Pete?

Ryan: Well, maybe not. I'm worrying for them.

Kotton: Glad you are so concerned for Carlton's welfare ...

Browne: All the pressure is on them. Been a really good all year, but they're 0-2 in elimination finals under (Brett) Ratten. They're worried because it's the reverse of 1999, when Essendon was supposed to win that preliminary final and the Blues beat them.

Lovett: The Bombers were minus Watson, Hocking and Fletcher that night, and now the Blues have some injury concerns. Kreuzer is critical to their structure, Jamison is underdone, and I think you can put a line through Waite. Howard, I would have some concerns!

Twomey: You're getting a little worried, Howard. That game changed significantly after Tayte Pears went off at half-time with a broken bone in his leg, and Essendon was already undermanned without Watson, Fletcher and Hocking before the game had even started. Personnel has changed and lots of Bombers are playing better footy. And then there's 'the nothing to lose' philosophy. Carlton and its supporters would be expecting to win this final. And please, enough of '99, Ash. Redemption was served a year later in the prelim of 2000 when the game was over at half-time and the Bombers strolled to the premiership.

Ryan: Eight times the fifth side has lost the first final since 2000. People forget that. Only three times has the team finishing fifth won in that period. Carlton has created a rod for their back with the unusually detailed emphasis on having to win one final. Raises the stakes, although I think they would be mad to not assess Ratten on more than one game.

Bowen: Ever since the 1980s, in Carlton and Essendon games, you're almost better off tipping the underdog. The pressure on Brett Ratten to win a final is enormous, too. Even worse, injuries have struck at the worst possible time for the Blues. And to the worst possible players: Michael Jamison, Jarrad Waite and Matthew Kreuzer. It could be the land of the midgets on Carlton's forward line on Sunday afternoon.

Twomey: Pete, Essendon was one of those teams in 2004 when it beat the more fancied Melbourne at the 'G. Hird was captain that day. It will be interesting to see him back in finals action as coach given his love for the stage as a player.

Kotton: The bottom line is Carlton finished three games and a healthy percentage clear of Essendon, finished fifth and deserved to win a home final. Latest reports have Kreuzer playing and Jamison was withdrawn as a precaution on Saturday night. Clearly the focus for Carlton all season has been to turn around the disappointment of the past two years. You can make all the excuses you like, Callum, but we won comfortably the last time we played. The forward line is a concern for the Blues, particularly without Waite, but the Bombers' backline has leaked badly in the past six weeks, conceding at least 100 points in five of six games.

Twomey: It doesn't help your defence when all of Fletcher, Hurley, Hooker and Pears have missed multiple games in those last six weeks.

Collins: Don't need many/any big defenders if you're playing against an attack comprising midgets, Cal.

Twomey: Was referring to Howard's stats about last six weeks leaking in defence …

Collins: I know it's been stated that the Blues need to win a final to get a pass mark, but surely Ratten's job shouldn't come down to this one game. Surely the Carlton board has seen enough already. What if they get two big injuries in the first quarter - that's not Ratts' fault.

Ryan: Yeah agree, not about Ratten - he's done a fine job - but Carlton made the statement.

Can't forget those rules

Bowen: Any controversial rule matters likely to play a role in finals?

Slattery: Three things I want (or don't want?) for season 2012:
1. The end of the advantage rule. It has been farcical in 2,234,287 ways in 2011.
2. The orange flag signifying interchange infractions. The penalty is far beyond the offence.
3. It seems umpires have thrown the incorrect disposal law out the door. Anything goes, and this approach should go too. Make the players dispose the ball correctly, please.

Ryan: Advantage rule might cost a final. I hope it doesn't. Interchange is OK, I think. It would be mayhem without a stiff penalty. Just need consistency with correct disposal. Keep it simple. Sub rule needs to be looked at after a couple of years too to see whether overall impact positive or negative.

Collins: I reckon the umps have been slack on the incorrect disposal rule for about 6-7 years. When a player is tackled, has one arm pinned and either holds onto the ball or simply places it on the ground a la rugby, regardless of whether he's had prior opportunity, he should be penalised. Reward the perfect tackle.

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