WHO is closer to a premiership – Melbourne or Hawthorn?
Both sides missed the finals last year and are taking different approaches to be flag contenders, with Melbourne having not tasted premiership success since 1964.
>> LISTEN TO THE PODCAST AND HAVE YOUR SAY IN THE POLL BELOW
Hawthorn, meanwhile, is considered one of the best teams of the modern era after their 2013-15 premiership three-peat.
But whose 'flag window' is open wider?
THE CASE FOR MELBOURNE …
Last year was a blip. An aberration. An anomaly.
When assessing Melbourne's premiership hopes for this year and beyond, you have to look past the horrors of 2019 and assess the build before that, which isn't changed by one shocker of a season, ruined by injuries before it had even begun.
FOOTY'S BACK AFL confirms return date
Melbourne's rise had been gradual, winning seven games in 2015, 10 in 2016, 12 in 2017 and 16 in 2018, including two stirring finals victories.
The list growth had been consistent, building from within a competitive, strong-willed group. Last year's diabolical drop shouldn't throw out the many years of improvement. It's why the Dees remain well and truly on the ascent to again be premiership contenders, particularly when compared to the Hawks.
Melbourne's midfield is now complete. After the off-season additions of wingmen Ed Langdon and Adam Tomlinson, the Demons have the running power to match any side.
They perfectly complement the inside strength of Clayton Oliver, Jack Viney, Angus Brayshaw, James Harmes and Christian Petracca when he's unleashed in there. Max Gawn also remains one of the premier ruckmen in the game, able to feed that group at will.
We will see the impact of key defenders Steven May and Jake Lever playing together this season after barely taking the field as a duo last year, while in attack having Jake Melksham and Tom McDonald back to full fitness will also give the Demons genuine scoring ability again. Plus, they have added a genuine small, crumbing forward to the mix in Kossie Pickett, with his debut in round one already showing glimpses.
There is no doubting Melbourne's drop last year saw confidence plummet in their capacity to challenge for the flag. But they are a younger (Hawthorn has the third oldest list in the AFL), hungrier team that is still climbing up the summit, not coming back down the other side.
- Callum Twomey
THE CASE FOR HAWTHORN …
Alastair Clarkson has a contract until 2022. And every decision the Hawks are making is about him winning his fifth piece of silverware in that time.
Much like the three-peat of 2013-2015, the Hawks have stocked up on ready-made recruits to contribute. Jon Patton and Sam Frost arrived cheap and ready to do a job, while Chad Wingard and Tom Scully will only be better than they were in 2019 after working through injuries. You can't forget how damaging they are at anything close to their best. Tom Mitchell – another recruit – admits he'll take time to return to his lofty heights of 2018. Eight weeks off looks set to have bridged that gap.
While Clarkson has made tough calls on Luke Hodge, Jordan Lewis and Sam Mitchell in recent seasons, he avoided the same with Shaun Burgoyne, James Frawley, Paul Puopolo, Isaac Smith and Ricky Henderson last year. Clearly, he believes he's got a premiership list at his disposal – despite it being the third eldest in the competition.
While many other clubs have relied on top-end draft picks to rise to the top, the Hawks have done it with quality development. James Worpel (pick 45), James Sicily (56), Mitch Lewis (76) and Blake Hardwick (44) will all be key players in the next cup.
BACK ON TRACK Clubs return to modified training
Clarkson's record speaks for itself, but the intangible culture of premiership heroes walking the corridors has to have some influence and will only continue. Sam Mitchell led West Coast's midfield to a flag in 2018 and has runs on the board. He looks set to be the next to follow Clarkson's ways in Damien Hardwick, Leon Cameron, Luke Beveridge, Chris Fagan and more.
It must be remembered this was a side that finished top-four only two seasons ago. The list is in a far better position this time around.
- Mitch Cleary