Round 1 is rapidly approaching with just over two weeks until the opener between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs.
Last week’s practice matches gave us the first proper look at how teams are shaping up for the new campaign, as recruits and draftees were given a crack in their new colours.
So who is settling in quick enough to be on track for a spot in Round 1? We take a look at the bolters for every club.
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After a few years of disappointing first-round picks, it has quickly become apparent the Crows have something exciting in No.6 selection Josh Rachele, who kicked three of their seven goals in the practice match against Brisbane. While both he and pick 36 Jake Soligo were forced into action given Adelaide’s recent Covid outbreak, Rachele looks certain to line up in the forward line in Round 1. Soligo will potentially join him on a wing – especially if Paul Seedsman (concussion) remains sidelined – after a solid first outing in the midfield.
The Lions might’ve found another one in defender Darcy Wilmot, with the No.16 pick looking good off halfback against the Crows and in line to replace the retired Grant Birchall. But he copped a one-match suspension for rough conduct in the practice match on the weekend. Ex-Geelong ruckman Darcy Fort, brought in for depth behind the best-22 pair of Oscar McInerney and Joe Daniher, split time in the ruck with McInerney against Adelaide and could feature if Chris Fagan feels the need to go tall.
Months after being delisted by Melbourne, Oscar McDonald made his name at Carlton as the first activated medical sub of the 2021 season, kicking two goals in four minutes against the Tigers. Expect him to remind Blues fans of his talents in Round 1, but this time as a defender, as he looks to have surpassed recruit Lewis Young in the pecking order to replace anti-vax retiree Liam Jones. McDonald was spotted during the Blues’ practice match against St Kilda marshalling the backline troops. Mitch McGovern is the other candidate. Ex-first round pick Brodie Kemp, who played the last two games of last season, was also vying for a spot in defence but has been trialled up forward in the Blues’ intraclubs.
Magpies fans have been pencilling Nick Daicos into their mock Round 1, 2022 sides for a couple of years now and you’d expect the No.4 pick to deliver with a debut. Showing his skill and class against Hawthorn, it’s unclear whether Daicos will slot straight into the Pies’ star-laden midfield, but it’d be a shock if he missed the 22, likewise with ex-Bulldogs ball magnet Patrick Lipinski. Mature-aged rookie draftee Charlie Dean, who won the VFL’s Fothergill-Round-Mitchell Medal as the best young player and was the 15th consecutive winner to then be drafted, would seem an obvious replacement in defence for the injured Jordan Roughead.
Desperately needing forward-line firepower, Essendon signed both Nick Martin and Tex Wanganeen as category A rookies straight after their practice match win over the Bulldogs. Martin, 20, shapes as a mid-forward and is the more experienced of the two meaning he’s much more likely to slot straight into the AFL side, with Wanganeen likely needing a year of development. Top draft pick Ben Hobbs could add some toughness to the midfield, but the Dons have so many mids they seem to be trialling half of them at halfback, meaning he may need to push his way into the side over the course of 2021.
Expect both recruits Jordan Clark (halfback) and Will Brodie (midfield) to get a spot in the Round 1 side, the latter more likely on the bench unless Nat Fyfe can’t pass fit for the clash with Adelaide. It appears unlikely any of the Dockers’ three top-21 draft picks will play in the opener given Neil Erasmus, viewed as the most likely of the trio to earn a run, played for WAFL side Peel Thunder on the weekend rather than the AFL outfit.
Everyone knew Tyson Stengle had talent; it was the off-field concerns that saw him out of the AFL system after stints at Richmond and Adelaide. Now at his third club and under the tutelage of assistant coach Eddie Betts, following an impressive practice match against Richmond it’s believed Stengle will take the spot rotated between Gryan Miers, Luke Dahlhaus and Shaun Higgins, giving the Cats some small forward firepower after a reliance on taller trio Tom Hawkins, Jeremy Cameron and Gary Rohan last year. “I don’t care what anyone says, it hasn’t worked with (Luke) Dahlhaus, it didn’t work with (Jack) Steven … there’s more dynamic elements to Stengle, and he doesn’t have the body of work those two have, but he’s got the opportunity,” AFL Media’s Damian Barrett said on Monday. Meanwhile Sam de Koning, who has bulked up over the last two years, is in line for the third tall defender role previously held by Lachie Henderson. Midfielder James Willis is the most likely draftee to break into the side this season, but the Cats have plenty of talent ahead of him for now.
GOLD COAST SUNS
With star forward Ben King gone, expect ex-Tiger Mabior Chol to get the first crack at his spot in the front six, with ex-Blue Levi Casboult a solid if not spectacular veteran option while Jack Lukosius was spotted training with the forwards this pre-season. SANFL Magarey Medallist James Tsitas earned the Suns’ last available list spot and at 26 years old, is certainly mature enough to earn a shot right away.
Jarrod Brander wasted no time settling in in his first outing for the Giants last week. The delisted Eagle, who was signed by the Giants as a free agent last year, booted five goals against the Swans in Friday’s practice match in Albury. What’s more is that the 23-year-old didn’t feature in the match at all until halfway through the game. The former No.13 draft pick has certainly done his chances of playing Round 1 no harm as he relishes a return to the forward line, having been forced into unnatural positions at the Eagles. He still faces plenty of competition to play Round 1 with Harry Himmelberg and Jesse Hogan to contend with, but with Toby Greene suspended for the first five rounds, Brander could complete a three-tall forward line.
Hawthorn’s No.7 pick in last year’s AFL Draft Josh Ward is poised for a spot in Round 1 after impressing in his first outing for the Hawks. He showed encouraging signs in the draw against Collingwood and is expected to feature heavily in Hawthorn’s midfield this year, especially if Sam Mitchell decides blooding young talent is more important than focusing on veterans and winning in the short-term. Max Lynch also played his first game for Hawthorn last week after he was traded by Collingwood. Part of the ruck merry-go-round after Darcy Fort moved to Brisbane and Jonathon Ceglar to Geelong, the Hawks moved for Lynch to bolster their ruck stocks. Having learnt the ropes behind Brodie Grundy at the Pies, Lynch is set to finally get his chance as the No.1 ruckman at a new club, as long as he can beat fellow youngster Ned Reeves – allowing Ben McEvoy to be deployed forward or back as required.
Obviously a very hard line-up to break into and there was every chance the Demons were going to become the first club to name a premiership 22 again. But with Harry Petty to potentially miss the start of the season through calf surgery he may lose the spot he took from Adam Tomlinson following the ex-Giant’s recovery from an ACL. As expected Luke Dunstan has looked solid training with the midfielders and is an excellent back-up option to have if the Demons suffer an injury plague, which they avoided so well last season.
All eyes will be on North Melbourne’s first ever No.1 draft pick Jason Horne-Francis who is effectively a lock to start in Round 1. The Kangaroos will hope the highly-rated on-baller is swiftly brought up to speed at AFL level to help fill the gaping hole left by Ben Cunnington, who is expected to make a full recovery from a testicular tumour but does not have a return date. Horne-Francis was initially quiet in his debut against the Demons last week, but grew into the match while he won praise from Nick Dal Santo for his “kamikaze” style in the contest. Richmond tall recruit Callum Coleman-Jones sustained a knock against the Demons, but expect him to hold off Tristan Xerri to feature in Round 1. It’s no surprise that Hugh Greenwood, after bizarrely being allowed to walk from Gold Coast, looks set for a Round 1 start in the midfield as well.
No.12 draft pick Josh Sinn looks to be in the selection frame to play Round 1 having settled in quickly at Alberton. Sinn’s Port debut was lacking some polish with the footy, but he showed an aggression and enthusiasm that will hold him in good stead. It’s a tough 22 to crack into, but Port rate the versatile 18-year-old highly and have previously indicated he could be given an early shot. Also impressing in pre-season is father-son prospect Jackson Mead, who is finally breaking through having been drafted in 2019. The son of club great Darren made an impact in the midfield but can also be used as a small forward. “To have as many strings in his bow is really important. I think he’s a player that will make really big strides this year,” Ollie Wines said of Mead on Port Adelaide TV. If Charlie Dixon isn’t ready for the start of the season, cheap recruit Jeremy Finlayson could jump Mitch Georgiades or — more likely — Todd Marshall for a spot up forward.
Described by new teammate Jack Riewoldt as a “very special player”, the Tigers would love to give top draft pick Josh Gibcus an early run. After sliding to Richmond on draft night, the 197cm teenager has shown excellent athleticism and could even start up forward if required. Hugo Ralphsmith got his chances with six games last year but could play at halfback, while he’s hardly a bolter given his resume built over the years at North Melbourne but veteran defender Robbie Tarrant will be a new face in the Round 1 line-up.
Train-on player Jack Hayes is still gunning for a spot on the Saints roster after years of dominating in the SANFL for Woodville-West Torrens. The supplemental selection deadline arrives this month and Hayes looks set to be snapped up to boost the Saints’ stable of talls. As things stand, delisted free agent Tom Campbell was the sole ruck for the Saints against Carlton last week due to the absence of Paddy Ryder and Rowan Marshall, who he will likely play a supporting role for. Young draftee Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera also missed the warm-up against Carlton in a blow to his Round 1 chances.
Paddy McCartin looks set for a spot down back in Round 1 after being picked up in the pre-season supplemental selection period. The former No.1 draft pick is looking to reboot his AFL career further north having last played an AFL game in 2018. Coach John Longmire said that the 25-year-old is fitting in at the Swans and now just needs more game time. He stopped short of confirming McCartin will start in Round 1 despite a strong pre-season display against the Giants, but it seems likely.
WEST COAST EAGLES
He’s not even officially on the list yet but ex-Docker Hugh Dixon, one of the Eagles’ best against Fremantle last weekend, may be forced into early action up forward given they’re missing three of their top four 2021 goalkickers. Top draft pick Campbell Chesser was in line to get an early run in the Eagles’ injury-plagued midfield before he joined his new teammates in the trainer’s room; does that allow ex-Blue Sam Petrevski-Seton to get an extended run in the guts, after being split across all three lines at Princes Park? A spot on the bench, at minimum, beckons.
The Western Bulldogs have a stable group and plenty of depth to boot having used the most players of any team last year. If anyone is to burst in, it’s defensive recruit Tim O’Brien — although he’s set to be kept out due to a hamstring injury. He’ll be strongly considered for a spot when he returns to fitness having arrived as one of the recruits of the off-season.