OPINION

Appetising September awaits AFL fans

STANDING OUT: For Rohan Connolly, Sydney is the story of 2021. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images
STANDING OUT: For Rohan Connolly, Sydney is the story of 2021. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images

You'd be pretty nervous right now if your life depended upon tipping the winner of this year's AFL premiership.

Heading into the final home and away round, there are at least six teams who boast legitimate flag aspirations, perhaps seven if you consider the form of Greater Western Sydney over the past few weeks.

But evenness - and change - really are perhaps the most significant markers of season 2021. Should either Essendon or Fremantle finish in the eight at the expense of West Coast after Sunday's final home and away match, we will have four different finalists to last year, the biggest shake-up the eight has seen since 2007.

That evenness extends right through the AFL ladder also. North Melbourne is already confirmed as this year's wooden-spooner, but if the Roos beat Adelaide on Sunday (and that's a decent chance), they will finish with five-and-a-half wins, the most since Brisbane also "won" the spoon with five wins and a draw in 1998.

But there's another element to this year's finals besides, and it's not just the potential changes to the composition of the top eight, but the stories that come with those four potential "ins".

A victory to Melbourne over Geelong on Saturday night would hand the Demons their first minor premiership since 1964, the same year that top finish translated into their 12th and most recent flag win.

Even Melbourne's fleeting brush with the top of the ladder in 2018, when it reached a preliminary final, came from a home and away finish of fifth. It proceeded to win just five of 22 games the very next season to finish second-last, and last year won only just over half its games to again miss out on the eight.

Some improvement might have been expected, but the Demons have surprised quite possibly even themselves at just how much better they've been in 2021, their defence outstanding all year, midfield bulls Clayton Oliver and Christian Petracca undoubtedly two of the individual stars of the season, and even what has been a problematic forward set-up starting to find some potency again.

Sydney, for me, is THE story of 2021. I tipped the Swans to make the eight on the back of some promising signs in the last few games of 2020. That said, they still had finished 16th on the ladder with just five wins from 17 games.

But a flock of exciting youngsters have completely revitalised John Longmire's team, the older hands also buoyed by that enthusiasm, to have not just a rebuild in progress arguably completed in record time, but the Swans not an outlandish premiership prospect given they've beaten Geelong, the Bulldogs, Essendon (twice), and pushed Melbourne and Port Adelaide to within nine and 10 points.

The Swans' crosstown rival Greater Western Sydney is a pretty good story, too. The vast bulk of the football commentariat had their trajectory headed down after a hugely disappointing 2020 in which the Giants went from grand finalist to also-ran without a squeak.

Those prophecies of doom looked on the money, too, after GWS lost its first three games.

The Giants have been up and down since, too, but their recent wins over Melbourne, Essendon, Geelong and Richmond, all while on a seemingly permanent road trip out of COVID-afflicted Sydney, have been chock full of character.

But evenness - and change - really are perhaps the most significant markers of season 2021.

Rohan Connolly

So has been Essendon's response to a dismal 2020, a year in which the Bombers' season imploded under the weight of hub life and in-fighting and discontent between players and officials, ending in the seemingly crushing departures of Joe Daniher, Orzaio Fantasia, Adam Saad and Conor McKenna.

The Dons were almost universally tipped to fill at best a bottom four spot. And after two losses to open the season (in one surrendering a seven-goal lead to unfancied Hawthorn), there were actually odds offered on them even winning a game.

But after losing four of the first five, Ben Rutten's team has been consistently competitive, winning nine more games and losing another five by just 16 points or less.

Its young inclusions like Nik Cox, Archie Perkins and Harry Jones have excited, Nick Hind a revelation off half-back, and formerly injury-prone forward Jayden Laverde reborn as a highly effective defender.

And Fremantle, should it scramble into the finals with a win in Hobart against St Kilda and an Essendon loss to Collingwood, will have done so minus the supposedly indispensable duo of Nat Fyfe and Michael Walters, plus valuable big man Rory Lobb for the last month.

Those five "newbies" hoping to reach finals will have come from ninth, 10th, 12th, 13th and 16th on the 2020 version of the AFL ladder.

That's a real vote of confidence in the AFL's equalisation mechanisms.

And in conjunction with a wider array of flag chances as in living memory this late in the piece, makes this a particularly appetising September approaching.

Great possibilities.

Great hopes.

And great back-stories to go with them.