Mick Malthouse: The teams that will shape the AFL’s top eight in a Covid-affected 2022 season

Will Carlton be the biggest improver in 2022? Mick Malthouse thinks so. But he’s concerned about the Saints, Cats and another preliminary finalist. Read the exclusive column.

Stranger things have happened.

In the past six years, Richmond has finished 13th and 12th and won three premierships

in between.

The Western Bulldogs finished 14th in 2014, and 13th in 2018, with a premiership in the middle and a grand final playoff last year.

In 2018, Melbourne finished fourth, prompting all to believe it was staging a race to the

premiership the following year. The Demons finished 17th in 2019. The cup didn’t

come until last year.

So what does all this tell you?

Basically, that the fundamentals for having a good season are intangible.

So often is comes down to luck. Luck with injuries to key players, and, this year, luck

with Covid.

But, as the saying goes: necessity is the mother of invention, and quite often

when a player is forced to move into a new role it refreshes his game and transforms

the team.

Carlton midfielders Patrick Cripps and Adam Cerra. Picture: Michael Willson/AFL Photos
Carlton midfielders Patrick Cripps and Adam Cerra. Picture: Michael Willson/AFL Photos

Bayley Fritsch was a good player, but he evolved into a very important player for

Melbourne’s scoring last year when Tom McDonald was injured and out of

form, and Ben Brown was taking time to settle into the forward line.

Fritsch became the club’s leading goal kicker with 59 goals, including six in the grand final.

He is just one example, but it highlights how unpredictable a season can be with so

many factors to take into consideration.

The club that could make the most improvement this year – one that hasn’t won a final

since 2013 – is Carlton.

New coach Michael Voss will toughen the team up no doubt, and get them playing a

far more physical game, which is the exact factor it needs to move from 13th in to the

eight.

The Blues have had ample time in the last few years to draw on the draft (finishing

16th, 18th, 16th, 11th and 13th) and to pick the eyes out of free agents. Now is the time

to capitalise on this.

They have a monster sized key-forward in Harry McKay – 204cm 104kg – with a

booming left-foot kick.

Coupled with Sam Walsh, Charlie Curnow, Adam Cerra (Fremantle), Patrick Cripps

and Jacob Weitering, Carlton has undoubted ability.

Big scoring capacity, a backline that is strong and attacking, the Blues have the

chance to build a team that could be a worthy participant in finals for the next five to

six years. No excuses.

With the right belief, they could emulate Richmond or Melbourne by breaking into the

eight and going all the way – this year even.

Can Zach Merrett lead the Bombers all the way? Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Can Zach Merrett lead the Bombers all the way? Picture: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

A young team that had a taste of finals last year, Essendon experienced important growth

in 2021.

But it needs its players to stand up and have similar, if not better, seasons than last

year to go further in 2022.

Ben Rutten has at his disposal a wonderful list of players.

At season’s start, Jake Stringer will be close to 28 years of age. He is the Bombers’

barometer for how the mids and forwards structure up. His cameos in the middle and

work on the forward line make him extremely hard to match up on.

All Australian midfielders Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish give the Bombers a

platform to work off, with 205cm ruckman Sam Draper the underpin.

They have a young aggressive backline led by Jordan Ridley and Jayden Laverde,

and, with the potential for Michael Hurley to return from injury, that division looks after

itself.

Essendon’s forward line is quite diverse. Its only missing link – getting Anthony

McDonald Tipungwuti fit and back in the line-up.

The Bombers are an exciting running machine, and with all engines firing at once, I

believe they are the team to beat this year.

Cats Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Stewart and Joel Selwood. Picture: Alan Barber/NCA
Cats Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Stewart and Joel Selwood. Picture: Alan Barber/NCA

One team that could fall off the pace this season is Geelong.

The Cats have a distinct home ground advantage which sets them up each year to

make the eight. Finals are a different story.

Critics have said for years that their ageing list will, at some stage, collapse, but the

Cats have been a model of consistency under Chris Scott, only once missing the

finals in 11 years.

That stability comes from Joel Selwood as a long-term captain, and Tom Hawkins as

a regular leading goal kicker. Patrick Dangerfield has finished prominently in the best-and-fairest every year.

Geelong played off in the grand final two years ago, leading halfway through the third

quarter. And it was competitive last year until the preliminary final, in which it has

been revealed many players were ill.

But there does come a time when an older list can no longer sustain what is required

to stretch for a flag.

I still have the Cats in the eight, but ageing bodies generally don’t get better, fitter,

stronger, or faster as a season wears on.

Trent Cotchin after the Tigers’ AAMI Series clash with the Hawks. Picture: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos
Trent Cotchin after the Tigers’ AAMI Series clash with the Hawks. Picture: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos

I’m mystified by two clubs – Richmond and St Kilda.

I can’t help but wonder if Dustin Martin isn’t on song, just how well will the Tigers play?

For a team with so much recent success, there is so much unknown heading

into the season. And I think the reason we can’t get a gauge on Richmond is

because a lot of its moving parts are starting to rust.

Are Trent Cotchin and Kane Lambert still Mr Reliables? Will injury and age take a toll

on Shane Edwards and Dion Prestia?

The Tigers need Liam Baker and Shai Bolton to step up through the midfield, but

there is no doubting their rucks – Toby Nankervis befittingly named joint captain.

If they play Noah Bolta forward to provide extra stability, that changes Richmond’s

DNA. It switches the dynamics of a mobile forward line into one that must mark the

football, with three tall targets.

How that plays out will be interesting.

Technically, the Tigers should make finals, but I don’t think Richmond and St Kilda

can share the eight.

St Kilda has all the ingredients of a good side. But it has made the final eight just once in

the past 10 years – that is an abysmal record.

Further frustration for coach Brett Ratten is that when the Saints are on song they

look like world beaters.

But there are too many players who pick and choose when to contest the tough

footy, and they still can’t close down teams through the corridor which generally

comes about though lack of hard work and care.

They are more than compensated by the brilliance of Max King in the forward line,

and adequately covered in the ruck by Rowan Marshall.

The Saints backline is OK, but, just as it started to make inroads, young Hunter Clark

gets injured.

Dan Hannebery is still on the sidelines. Seb Ross looks good, then doesn’t. Bradley

Hill continues to get the cheap footy instead of the hard ball, and it all leads us to ask

– is St Kilda the real deal or just teasing us?

Travis Boak goes missing in big games, says Mick Malthouse. Picture: Sarah Reed/AFL Photos
Travis Boak goes missing in big games, says Mick Malthouse. Picture: Sarah Reed/AFL Photos

Port Adelaide will potentially vacate a spot in the eight this year.

It feels like I’m treading on dangerous ground here. Having a big home ground

advantage has helped secure enough wins to play finals in recent years, but the fact

is that Port’s midfield is terribly one paced.

Yes, it has Brownlow medallist Ollie Wines, but as a big possession getter he doesn’t

deliver as well as other big-name midfielders. Robbie Gray is human, and showing it

with a loss of pace. Travis Boak is a good footballer, who goes missing in the big

games, like Charlie Dixon up forward.

When Zak Butters, Xavier Duursma and Connor Rozee take over the midfield, then

Port will find itself in a position to recapture a spot in the eight.

Ken Hinkley has got his team into a preliminary final on three occasions but hasn’t

been able to take them that step further. I’m not sure even finals will be on the cards

this season.

New coaching regimes for both Hawthorn and Collingwood, but it’s hard to see too

much ladder movement initially.

Melbourne and the Bulldogs played off last year, so on talent alone they each

should make the top four. But the Demons could learn from the Dogs post-

premiership performance, that nothing is a given.

Mick Malthouse
Mick MalthouseSports Columnist

Mick Malthouse is the Sunday Herald Sun's quintessential voice on football. He is a triple premiership coach - at West Coast in 1992 and 1994 and Collingwood in 2010. He holds the record for most AFL/VFL games coached - leading Footscray, West Coast, Collingwood and Carlton for a total of 718 games. His columns and opinions are hard-hitting, informative and a must read for footy fans.