AFL's experienced, steady sides will be in the box seat

Led by premiership coach Damien Hardwick, the experienced Richmond side will be better positioned than those teams which have undergone significant change. Photo: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images
Led by premiership coach Damien Hardwick, the experienced Richmond side will be better positioned than those teams which have undergone significant change. Photo: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images

Waiting for news about the resumption of the barely-started AFL season has been like watching a snail race. Very slow.

And always with the possibility that a sudden unforeseen change of direction might take us back towards the starting line.

The obstacles have not only been sizeable, but unfamiliar and prone to continual shifting.

Surely the game has never confronted a logistical nightmare as large as league officials attempting to pick up the pieces of a season now in abeyance for the past eight weeks.

Things had started to look just a little more promising on a potential return before Adelaide's breaching of strict rules threatened to throw a sizeable spanner in the works.

And there was more sobering news on Tuesday in the AFL's latest update to clubs about how this very unusual season will look.

Club football departments will be slashed to a skeletal number of just 25 and football department spending slashed by a minimum 30 per cent upon the resumption.

And perhaps the bigger story in practical terms was the announcement that to comply with health obligations, no AFL-listed players can participate in second-tier competitions if not selected for their senior line-ups.

Already, Port Adelaide and Adelaide have withdrawn their teams from this year's SANFL competition, West Coast likewise in the WAFL. Fremantle's reserves outfit Peel Thunder and the four AFL-affiliated clubs are every chance to follow suit.

The SA and WA clubs have already had it made tough by their states' tight border restrictions and quarantine demands, their "homes" likely instead to be away for lengthy periods.

And with those sorts of hurdles, some realities about how this season will look do seem apparent.

One is that the cards are likely to fall in favour of clubs domiciled in the state which houses more than half the competition, Victoria.

And another may well be that this extraordinary premiership is even more likely than usual to be taken out by a seasoned, senior and settled team, old enough to cope psychologically with unprecedented circumstances, and one which already knows what its best is.

All 18 clubs may at least have had the benefit of a full pre-season, but that is the only the very beginning of a typical premiership campaign, one which is sometimes very much a work in progress even well into the season proper.

Take Richmond's 2017 season, for example.

As good as the Tigers were from the outset of that memorable drought-breaking year, they were still vulnerable enough earlier in the piece to drop four games in a row - albeit the last three in that string by under a goal.

The Richmond that stormed to its first premiership in 37 years was a lot more imposing.

That version wouldn't have lost any of those near-misses such was the rate of improvement.

What does an example like that mean for this season? It's that those teams still learning on the job are going to find it tough indeed.

The development of younger lists without those state league training grounds will be that much harder.

You don't envy the task of Gold Coast coach Stuart Dew, who will again be in charge of the youngest, least-experienced list in the competition.

But it's not just about youth. What about those clubs attempting to have a score of seasoned imports gel with those already there? Or teams who are making significant changes to their game style?

You couldn't fault St Kilda's off-season recruiting, the Saints picking up Brad Hill, Paddy Ryder, Dan Butler, Zak Jones and Dougal Howard.

But it will take time for coach Brett Ratten to have them working seamlessly with the likes of Seb Ross, Rowan Marshall and Jack Steele. They've had just two pre-season hit-outs to do so, and they were now more than two months ago. That makes me slightly less bullish about their prospects in 2020 than I was.

Essendon, too, has undergone significant change. Not of personnel but style, incoming senior coach Ben Rutten this year putting new plans in place under the tutelage of John Worsfold, assistant Blake Caracella teaching the Bombers the effectiveness of the pressure game he had helped Richmond pursue.

The Dons looked impressive enough in their two pre-season victories and narrow win in round one over Fremantle. But those missing months of April and May were time which would have been invaluable learning the ropes. That education now will be very much on the run.

Ditto for Fremantle, also attempting to pursue a revamped style, more attacking and daring, under new coach Justin Longmuir.

The Dockers are coming out of eight years under Ross Lyon, whose defensive-oriented approach was known for its rigidity. That will take some unlearning, certainly longer than Longmuir has been afforded by this unscheduled interruption.

As a double-whammy of sorts, he's also looking after a list younger and less experienced than any in the competition bar Gold Coast.

It's not a definitive pronouncement that any of these clubs can now forget about meaningful achievement this year.

But it's pretty hard to argue that given their pre-existing circumstances, these couple of months of being all dressed up with nowhere to go haven't weighed even more heavily upon those clubs than their rivals.

In an AFL season the likes of which hopefully we will never see again, those teams who can best and most quickly pick up from where we left off - not only on that one weekend we snuck in back in March, but from past experience - look likely to have a distinct advantage.

There have been enough new life lessons for AFL players to learn during this layoff.

In season 2020, they can probably do without having to learn new football lessons as well.

This story AFL's experienced, steady sides will be in the box seat first appeared on The Canberra Times.