AS THE business end of the season approaches, what are the three big questions for each club between now and the end of the year (whether that’s the end of the home and away season or the finals)? reporters investigate.

Leadership from within? Tuesday's announcement that Crows CEO Steven Trigg will cross to Carlton on August 18 marked the start of the club's search for his replacement. Nigel Smart will effectively step into the acting role, but chairman Rob Chapman's rhetoric suggested he wasn't quite ready to land the permanent gig. Chapman promised to look outside West Lakes for the "very best" option and, with Trigg having held the position for more than 12 years, perhaps that's a good thing.
Do the Crows need a senior assistant coach? The tragic death of Dean Bailey earlier this year left a vacancy at West Lakes that was partially and temporarily filled by David Noble expanding his role. The Crows will look to find a more permanent solution ahead of next year, but will they seek an experienced statesman or a less-practiced candidate? Bailey's unique character cannot be replaced, but a man of similar philosophy would certainly help balance in Adelaide's coaching box.
Should Scott Thompson hang up the boots? Certainly the plethora of young midfielders on the Crows' books would benefit from increased game time should Thompson call it quits but he hardly looks a player well past his prime. The 31-year-old is enjoying his most prolific season since 2012 when he amassed 25 Brownlow Medal votes and would be high up in the club's best and fairest voting. - Harry Thring

Is Brent Moloney done as a Lion? The powerful midfielder has been languishing in the NEAFL since round five and coach Justin Leppitsch shows no sign of giving him a reprieve. Moloney, now 30, hasn't set the world on fire in the twos, and despite injuries to Daniel Rich, Jack Redden and a suspension to Tom Rockliff, has still not been given a look in. He's too good a player to be lost to footy at this stage of his career, but his future in Brisbane has a big question mark over it.
Is Daniel Merrett a longer-term option at full forward? Since Jonathan Brown's retirement, the Lions have been keen to plug that gaping hole with another big-bodied, experienced campaigner, and Merrett has done an admirable job. He might be the best man for the next six weeks, but come 2015, the decision becomes tougher. The Lions have a stack of promising young defenders, but Matt Maguire is still regularly commanding a spot, so does Merrett revert to fullback in his place and leave the forward line to the youngsters? Or keep things as is until a young forward puts his hand up?
Who is in the Lions' best ruck combination? Stefan Martin's incredible career revival over the past six weeks now gives the club some genuine headaches. Matthew Leuenberger, Trent West and the soon-to-be-re-signed Martin all thrive on the responsibility of being the No.1 option. Leuenberger should be available for the final few rounds, and while West's ACL injury has him out until next year, Leppitsch has some tough decisions in 2015. Does he play just one of the trio, or two, with the second choice a reluctant forward/back-up ruck option? They're all mature and won't appreciate playing second fiddle or even spending time in the reserves. - Michael Whiting

How will the Lions use Trent West, Matthew Leuenberger and Stefan Martin next year? Picture: AFL Media

Is Mick Malthouse in for the long haul? Malthouse's three-year contract expires at the end of next season and the club is yet to indicate whether it will extend the 60-year-old's stint at Visy Park. That uncertainty has led to recent murmurings about where he is placed in the grand scheme of things at the Blues. Carlton's list seems to be in a state of flux and a rebuild looks the likely option. So the question remains, is Malthouse the right man to lead the club through some tough times?
What to do with Jarrad Waite? Waite has failed to get the best out of himself this season, with his time in the VFL earlier this season perhaps providing a hint into the Blues' future forward plans. Levi Casboult and Lachie Henderson work well in tandem, but Waite's vintage performance on Friday night may have changed some views. If he and the Blues part ways, there are likely to be a number of clubs circling the 31-year-old.
Should Chris Judd play on? As WWE wrestler Daniel Bryan's catch-cry goes: 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' Judd has been slowed by a series of Achilles and hamstring problems this season, but when he is out on the park there is no doubt he is still one of the Blues' best players. He has the backing of new president Mark LoGiudice and coach Mick Malthouse to play on, so if his body holds up Judd is likely to continue next year. – Ben Guthrie

Do the Magpies persist with pressure forwards? Collingwood's pressure forwards Jarryd Blair and Tyson Goldsack have kicked just 17 goals this season. Dane Swan has also played forward more often and kicked just 10 goals. Too much responsibility has fallen on Travis Cloke and Jamie Elliott, who have battled manfully to kick 61 goals for the season. Buckley will be tempted to bring recruit Patrick Karnezis into the team to provide some scoring power.
Who gets more game time: Brodie Grundy or Jarrod Witts? Brodie Grundy began the season as the club's No.1 ruckman but that title is now up for grabs. Grundy started the year well but dropped off the pace and Witts has played well in patches. Collingwood has persisted with Jesse White as the back-up ruckman but he rarely played well in that forward/ruck role with the Sydney Swans. Buckley might decide to play Witts and Grundy together and have White stake a claim as a third tall up forward.
When does Taylor Adams play as a permanent midfielder? Adams has been plugging holes in defence and also sharpening some of his defensive skills but he has been recruited as a midfielder and needs to start playing as one soon. Shapes as the heir apparent to Luke Ball and will benefit from the experience of sitting under Grundy and Witts. - Peter Ryan

What role will James Hird play? That might be tied to what happens with the show-cause notices issued to 34 current and former Essendon players. Hird's suspension ends in August, just before the finals. Much has been said about whether Hird takes a match-day role this year alongside Mark Thompson, and how such a fraught dynamic might work heading into 2015. For all of the talk of Thompson's coaching credentials, it shouldn't be forgotten Hird was in charge of a team in top-four contention for most of 2013.
Should Dustin Fletcher play on next year? Thompson recently said Fletcher was going to try to play on in 2015, but that his end to this season would determine any decision. The 39-year-old has had his good games through the year and his not as good, like on Sunday against the Western Bulldogs. The question may be how the team looks without him: if he goes, does Tayte Pears come into the backline? Does Jake Carlisle go back again and force another forward restructure? And do the Bombers need him to reach success? The club has the right processes in place around the list management table to come to the correct call, whichever way it goes. 
What does the Dons' forward line look like without Joe Daniher? The young forward is set to miss at least three weeks after undergoing surgery on his collarbone, which comes at an inopportune time with the Bombers pushing for finals. Daniher had played every game for the season before being a late withdrawal against the Western Bulldogs on Sunday. While Carlisle and Patrick Ambrose will hold the fort, the Bombers might look to swing Michael Hurley forward a bit more. Ruckman Tom Bellchambers could have been used as a permanent forward, but has injured his ankle and is unavailable for a few weeks. - Callum Twomey

No one knows how the James Hird-Mark Thompson dynamic will pan out. Picture: AFL Media

Who replaces Luke McPharlin? It seems very unlikely that McPharlin will continue given his injury issues. He's played just four matches in the past 10 due to three separate injuries - a quad, a medial ligament strain, and a calf. At 32, it seems his days are numbered. The task for Ross Lyon is to try and find a long-term replacement. Alex Silvagni seems the obvious like for like but James Frawley is still yet to re-sign at Melbourne and could be a potential free agency target if the Dockers can find room in the salary cap.
How to harness Hayden Ballantyne? The dynamic small forward has been in career-best form and is an All Australian candidate but has been suspended twice this year for undisciplined acts and also faced the tribunal for a bump that caused concussion from a head clash. Lyon loves Ballantyne's aggression but he needs to harness it to avoid unnecessary suspensions that could cost his team dearly in September.
What to do with Colin Sylvia? He was a high profile free agency recruit who was supposed to add some real depth to Fremantle's premiership campaign. So far Sylvia has been very underwhelming. He has averaged nine touches in six matches and has kicked just one goal. Lyon has to find a way to get the best out of Sylvia to ensure he is not a wasted recruit. - Alex Malcolm

Should Corey Enright play on? The five-time All Australian has been good but not great this season, and the expectation is that he'll retire when the Cats' campaign comes to an end. But one thing is certain: Enright is held in such high esteem that he will be given the chance to make up his own mind.
Is it time to blood a couple more debutants? Geelong has brought through a host of new players in recent years, and three more – Jed Bews, Brad Hartman and Darcy Lang – have made their debuts this season. But a couple more promising youngsters – Jarrad Jansen and Jake Kolodjashnij – are waiting in the wings and could get their chance in the run towards the finals.
Can the Cats play three ruckmen in the finals? Geelong played Dawson Simpson, Hamish McIntosh and Mark Blicavs in a number of games early in the season, and it worked reasonably well. But in more recent times they have stuck with Blicavs but have only picked one of Simpson or McIntosh. Nevertheless, Chris Scott keeps suggesting that extra height might prove an advantage in September. - Adam McNicol

Can the Suns cover the loss of Gary Ablett? It's the question on everyone's lips and we have six weeks to find out. Obviously losing the best player in the game is a gigantic blow, but between the experience and leadership of Michael Rischitelli and the enthusiasm and pure class of David Swallow, Dion Prestia and Jaeger O'Meara, the Suns should be fine. While Ablett still has many good years in front of him, the remainder of the season could be the making of the young team as they learn to stand on their own two feet.
Can Nathan Bock squeeze out another year? Since breaking his leg early in the 2012 season, the former All Australian defender has endured a nightmare two years trying to return to the top. Aside from two senior games late in 2013, Bock has juggled time on the sidelines with intermittent runs in the NEAFL. He is a highly respected figure around the club – who would be the perfect swingman if he could get on the park – but playing beyond this season looks in serious doubt.
Can the Suns hang on to Tom Nicholls? For a guy with just 15 senior games, Nicholls carries a lot of currency. The 22-year-old ruckman did better than most expected when Zac Smith went down with an ACL last year. Nicholls is on the sidelines and out of contract, but the stocks of athletic, young, proven (slightly) rucks are high and he is sure to attract plenty of outside interest. When they're both fit, Nicholls and Smith are essentially competing for the same spot, but he has a legitimate shot at being the first choice and Gold Coast will be desperate to retain him. It won't be easy, though. - Michael Whiting

Who do the Giants prioritise when it comes to contracts? GWS faces an enormous challenge over the next 12 months, with Jeremy Cameron, Dylan Shiel, Adam Treloar and Stephen Coniglio headlining a raft of top talent all coming off contract at the end of 2015. It is hard to see them retaining all of them, so some tough calls need to be made. There is a suspicion that landing one big fish, like a Cameron, could convince the rest to stick around for what looks a bright future.
Does Leon Cameron need some coaching help? Cameron has had a solid first year at the helm, leading the Giants to a four-win season that could be padded out with another one or two victories in the run home. While he has had a long apprenticeship, the fact remains Cameron is raw when it comes to head coaching. Senior assistant Al McConnell has a wealth of knowledge and offers invaluable experience, but the vast majority of the assistant coaches are recently-retired ex-players. Would a more experienced coach, such as what Malcolm Blight provides at Gold Coast, be worth exploring?
Do the Giants still need more experienced bodies? Shane Mumford, Heath Shaw, Josh Hunt and Dylan Addison were brought in at the end of last year and have added enormously to the playing group at training and on game day. But do they need more veterans to complement their young list? The Giants will hold plenty of cards when it comes to the trade table and picking one or two more of the right mature-age talent could be the key to the side making a significant jump up the ladder in 2015. - James Dampney
Jeremy Cameron's decision to stay or go will have big ramifications at the Giants. Picture: AFL Media

Will the Hawks’ gruelling campaign catch up with them? The Hawks have had everything thrown at them this season – a tough fixture, Alastair Clarkson’s illness, suspensions and a horror injury toll. Just as Hawthorn was building towards its best 22, Cyril Rioli, Brad Sewell, Bradley Hill and Billy Hartung went down, Then came Brian Lake’s brain-fade. The Hawks have cleared every hurdle so far, but Clarkson has a tough job guarding against player burnout in the push for a crucial top-four finish.
Is Alastair Clarkson in the clear after his illness? As successful as Brendon Bolton was in the hot seat, the Hawks need Clarkson’s experience come finals time. The two-time premiership coach is fighting fit after his battle with Guillain-Barre syndrome, but there is some uncertainty – at least publicly – whether the illness could reoccur. No-one in the AFL wants to see Clarkson struck down again, least of all the Hawks as they search for stability in the run home.
Does Brian Lake deserve a new contract? The Hawks were seething after Lake’s choke-hold on Drew Petrie saw him slapped with a four-game ban – only three weeks after the full-back returned from his second calf injury. It’s been a frustrating year for the 32-year-old Norm Smith medallist, who has only played five games, and he is out of contract at the end of the season. If the Hawks land Melbourne free agent James Frawley, it could leave Lake on the outer. However, we say the charismatic big man still has good footy left in him and should be offered a one-year extension. - Travis King

Has Brian Lake jeopardised his career after the Drew Petrie incident (below)? Picture: AFL Media

Will Paul Roos take up the option of a third year at the Dees? Roos is yet to decide whether he will extend his time at Melbourne beyond the expiration of his existing contract at the end of 2015. The Demons have already begun seeking out Roos' successor, but at this stage the signs point to Roos continuing into 2016. Roos has improved the Demons immeasurably but there is still a long way to go. Melbourne is desperate for Roos to continue.
Is the improvement permanent? Roos has taken the Demons from a two-win team in 2013 to a four-win team this season and their effort on Sunday against Port Adelaide also points to more potential victories this season. There's no doubt the Demons have improved in a number of areas but the fact is, the club is still equal bottom with three other teams. Roos will continue to shape his side the way he wants, but there are still some lingering questions about the state of the list and the club's ability to kick winning scores.
Will Melbourne be a key player this off-season? The Demons effectively landed Dom Tyson and Christian Salem when it shipped pick No. 2 in last year's trade period to Greater Western Sydney. Melbourne also successfully chased Bernie Vince and Daniel Cross. Roos is in the market for classy midfielders, so will the Demons be bold again and trade their first-round draft pick? Depending on how the Dees finish the season, Vic Metro's star midfielder Christian Petracca could be in play as a top-three selection, so it would be a big call for Melbourne to again trade out its first pick. - Ben Guthrie

How does North shed its split personality? Brad Scott has been searching for the answer to this question for much of 2014. How can a team that played with such manic intensity and dare against top-four contenders Sydney Swans, Fremantle, Hawthorn and Port Adelaide regularly fail to deliver against lower ranked teams? Is it a mental problem? Is the pre-game preparation to blame? Is Scott hard enough on his players? Does he need to be more prepared to drop under-performers to the VFL? Scott needs to find some answers soon before North wastes its season.
Can Daniel Wells and Nathan Grima get back? Scott is largely in the hands of North's medical team and lady luck here. Wells and Grima have been sidelined by foot injuries since rounds five and seven respectively and time is fast running out for them to hit fitness and form before the finals. Wells remains the Roos' most damaging outside midfielder and Grima was sorely missed against Carlton last Friday night when Blues spearheads Levi Casboult, Jarrad Waite and Lachie Henderson destroyed the Roos in the air. Last week, North listed Wells as being three weeks away from returning and Grima two to three weeks away.
What to do with Aaron Black? Black enjoyed a breakthrough season last year, kicking 33 goals in 18 games to establish himself as North's No. 2 key forward behind veteran Drew Petrie. However, the 23-year-old has struggled to have an impact in 2014. Despite playing all 17 of North's games this year, Black has kicked just 20 goals and is averaging 3.6 fewer possessions a game than he did in 2013. The season-ending injury to Robbie Tarrant means North has limited key-options outside its senior team but Black might need a run in the VFL to find some confidence. - Nick Bowen

How will the club take the next step? The Power's results over the past month would suggest that, despite their incredible start to the season, they're still some way off being a genuine powerhouse. Its best has proven good enough to beat any side in the League, but its inability in recent weeks to handle the pressure associated with playing 'hunted' appears to have exposed its immaturity. Ken Hinkley's men appear on the right path but the same has been said about many now-forgotten teams.
Is it time to unleash Chad Wingard in the midfield? The 20-year-old looked in great touch handling a role deeper in attack earlier in the season and although he's managed just two goals in his last five games, Wingard has contributed six goal assists. He's appeared more dangerous though when thrust into the midfield to add spark. Hinkley obviously has a plan with the All Australian, but having Wingard's hands on the ball more than they currently are has to be good for Port.
Should the Power trade John Butcher? 'The Future' was a nickname picked for Butcher, not by him, but the promise that came with it has failed to live up to expectation. Butcher's kicking hasn't developed to the point required to play consistent senior footy, particularly as a forward. He's contracted, working hard and the club is supporting him, but with two younger key forwards on the up in Mason Shaw and Mitch Harvey, his opportunities will start drying up. - Harry Thring

The Power may make a tough call on enigmatic forward John Butcher at year's end. Picture: AFL Media

What does the future hold for Richmond's mature-age recruits? Rookie Anthony Miles has been a shining light since earning promotion, and Matt Thomas has won the ball consistently when selected. The Tigers haven't had a great look at their other seasoned recruits, however, with 24-year-olds Nathan Gordon (five games), Sam Lloyd (six games) and Todd Banfield (no games) on the fringes. Lock in Miles for elevation in 2015, but otherwise there hasn't been much payoff from the decision to recruit mature-age players at the end of last year. 
Will Reece Conca take the next step? The midfielder's first four seasons have been interrupted with injury at unfortunate times, but the Tigers need him to stamp himself as a consistent onballer. Recruited with pick No.6 in the 2010 NAB AFL Draft, Conca is yet to average more than 20 possessions across a season. The Tigers have class in Dustin Martin and Brett Deledio, and Brandon Ellis is starting to rack up big numbers. It is clear, however, that Trent Cotchin needs a sidekick in the midfield capable of winning the hard ball and turning the tide in matches. Conca could be that player.
What is the future in the ruck? Richmond recruited 26-year-old Shaun Hampson at the end of last season, sending pick No.28 to Carlton, but he has only managed 11 games, including just three alongside Ivan Maric. The ruck has been a weakness for the Tigers, particularly in big games, and the Maric-Hampson duo was expected to rectify that. So far it hasn't, and Maric will be 29 at the start of next season. With Tom Derickx moving to the Sydney Swans as a delisted free agent last year, the ruck is an aspect of Richmond's list that will need attention. - Nathan Schmook

Richmond needs more from rookies like Sam Lloyd and fifth-year mid Reece Conca. Picture: AFL Media

Will the Saints make another big list management call? The club has been intent on fast-tracking its rebuild in recent seasons, moving on valuable players Brendon Goddard, Nick Dal Santo and Ben McEvoy. With a blueprint to rebuild through the draft, will the Saints head to the trade table again in search of more first-round picks? Of their uncontracted players, defender Jarryn Geary would attract interest. An emergency in all three Grand Finals in 2009 and 2010, he would be desperate for success and will be 30 when the Saints aim to challenge again in 2018.      
Does Nick Riewoldt retain the captaincy in 2015? And who is the next in line? At 31, Riewoldt has produced another outstanding season and is every chance to win the Saints' best and fairest. Committed to playing in 2015, a decision needs to be made on whether he continues to lead or a successor is put in place while he is still at the club. David Armitage, 26, would be a good fit in the short term, while Jack Newnes shapes as a potential long-term option. Luke Dunstan, 19, is finishing his first season but he has future leader written all over him. 
Is Rhys Stanley the answer in attack? After six goals in his first 11 games this season, the answer would have been no for the 23-year-old, who has been used at both ends of the ground through his 53-game career. Since returning to the team in round 15, however, he has stepped up, most recently kicking three goals and taking 14 marks against Fremantle in an outstanding performance. That match could be the making of Stanley the forward, giving St Kilda the freedom to focus their drafting and trading elsewhere. - Nathan Schmook   

Rhys Stanley's effort against Freo suggests he could become a key player for the Saints. Picture: AFL Media

Has John Longmire settled on his best 22? Despite all of the Swans' success this year, winning 12 games in a row and sitting atop the ladder midway through round 18, Longmire has still been able to tinker with his line-up. Jake Lloyd, Zak Jones and Dean Towers have all earned an AFL debut this year, while the likes of Brandon Jack, Gary Rohan and Tom Derickx have been rotated in and out of the side. It will be interesting to see his line-ups over the closing weeks of the season.
Should Adam Goodes play on next season? Goodes will be 35 at the start of 2015 and injuries have taken a toll in recent years. At the same time, since returning from a 10-month knee injury, Goodes has played in 11 successive games. If he wins a third premiership, it might tempt him to call it a day. If he stays fit, he will also likely pass the 350-game milestone before the year is out. Ultimately, the decision will likely rest with him. Ryan O'Keefe, Lewis Roberts-Thomson and possibly Rhyce Shaw are others who will weigh up their futures at season's end.
How will they balance their list in 2015 and beyond? So far the Swans have done an excellent job retaining the majority of their key players while starting the nine-year task of juggling Lance Franklin's contract. But there are some missing ingredients, headlined by Nick Malceski. A free agent at season's end, he is a likely All Australian this year and a critical member of the backline. But the Swans will be unable to offer him the sort of money he could command elsewhere. Craig Bird and Mike Pyke are also among those coming off contract at season's end. - James Dampney

Does Beau Waters have a future? Waters has not played all year and has been placed on the long-term injury list because of ongoing problems due to his shoulder reconstruction last year. He is contracted for 2015 but if he cannot play, the Eagles will need to make a decision about his place on the list. He has played 120 matches in 11 years. There are concerns for the long-term use of his shoulder. Waters may be forced to make a very selfless decision for the benefit of the football club.
How do you manage Dean Cox's exit with Scott Lycett's development? Until Monday, the question was whether or not Dean Cox should play on. Now Cox has confirmed his retirement, the challenge is giving the fans a chance to say goodbye to Cox whilst also giving Lycett as many chances to continue his development. Lycett has not re-signed but CEO Trevor Nisbett has said he is a required player at West Coast next year and beyond. Hopefully Simpson can find a solution to keep everyone happy.
Where is Sharrod Wellingham at? The club recruited Wellingham as a 24-year-old premiership player coming into his prime. He is currently playing in the WAFL, having been dropped three times this year. Simpson needs to work out what Wellingham's permanent role in the side is and how he can get the best out of him. Both Wellingham and the coach have spoken about work ethic and professionalism. A tough decision looms if he doesn't respond. - Alex Malcolm

Where do the Dogs find a key forward? To get something, you need to give something and gun key forwards don't come cheaply. Prying one out of a club is hard enough without stumping up the currency to 'pay' for them. The Dogs would be unwilling to trade one of their young stars, or skipper Ryan Griffen (as club great Luke Darcy suggested) in a package deal with their first pick. They are unlikely to have a second round pick as collateral, as they'll need that to secure highly-rated father-son prospect and key defender Zaine Cordy, so they'll be praying they find a key forward in the draft.
Do the Dogs need Shaun Higgins? The 26-year-old has endured an injury-ravaged nine seasons at Whitten Oval, but the 124 games he has managed in red, white and blue have been riddled with inconsistency. Brendan McCartney tried to reinvent the 2005 first round pick as a running defender but with limited effect, and Higgins now finds himself in the VFL. A free agent at season's end, the compensation the Bulldogs would receive for his departure could be packaged with draft picks to trade for that much-needed key forward. 
Should they stay or should they go? Rookies Mark Austin, Alex Greenwood, Lin Jong and Jack Redpath have all been with the club for three seasons, so the Dogs will need to either upgrade them or delist them. Jong and Redpath appear to have the most upside and a chance of being moved to the senior list. Redpath may be a beneficiary of Tom Williams' early retirement and the club's lack of key forwards. Austin has been used sparingly in his time at Whitten Oval, while inside midfielder Greenwood is yet to play a senior game. – Ryan Davidson 

Could Shaun Higgins explore free agency at the end of this season? Picture: AFL Media