They made up the numbers last year, but can any of these finals losers go from good to great in 2023?

AFL, featured

Last week, I ran my eye over 2022’s bottom five on the AFL ladder, as well as the teams from 9th-13th, to see if any of them were capable of rising into September in 2023.

If you’ve been paying attention, I’ve tipped two teams – Adelaide (yes, really!) and Carlton – to return to the pointy end of the season this year. Which means only six of last year’s finalists can repeat the dose in six months’ time.

Today, it’s the turn of the finals also-rans: the four teams that lost the elimination and semi finals last year; then, on Wednesday, a day before the season starts for real, I’ll be finishing AFL Oracle for this year with a look at 2022’s final four.

Finishing up tantalisingly close to the grand final but unable to take the next step, 5th-8th can be a frustrating spot to land for an AFL club that considers its time to challenge for a flag to be now.

Some teams land here as a last hurrah on their slide back down the ladder – think Hawthorn in 2016 or West Coast in 2020 – while for others, such as Fremantle in 2012, Hawthorn in 2010 and even Geelong in 2018, it’s a stepping stone on the path to greater success to come.

With two recent premiers (and a recent grand finalist) plus 2022’s biggest surprise packet in this group, each of these four teams have premiership aspirations this season: but how many of them will even be able to clear the first hurdle in 2023?

Western Bulldogs

8th, 12-10, 108.9%, lost elimination final

Ins: Oskar Baker (WB), Liam Jones (CAR), Rory Lobb (FRE), Jedd Busslinger, Charlie Clarke, Harvey Gallagher (draft), Oskar Baker (pre-season supp.).

Outs: Zaine Cordy (STK), Josh Dunkley (BRI), Lachie Hunter (MEL), Josh Schache (MEL), Stefan Martin (ret.), Louis Butler, Charlie Parker, Mitch Wallis (del.).

The good news for the Bulldogs in 2022 was that, for the first time in club history, they backed up a grand final berth by making the finals the year after.

The bad news? Well, the Dogs went from premiership contender to just barely holding it together for much of the season, their defensive structure fell to pieces, they only scraped into September by the barest of margins thanks to Carlton’s final month from hell, and ended with four players – including best and fairest winner Josh Dunkley – finding new homes for 2023.

All that sounds pretty grim: but for the first time in a long time, I, eternal Bulldogs pessimist that I am, feel like I’m actually more optimistic about their chances this season than most people.

For starters, Marcus Bontempelli has overcome the injury niggles that cruelled his start to 2022, and seems ready to re-establish himself as one of the game’s premier players. If he and Jack Macrae, another who was down last season, can return to their 2021 best, they can cover Dunkley’s loss on their own.

Speaking of Dunkley, the Dogs are one of the few teams that can probably cover losing a midfielder of that calibre: they struggled at times last year trying to find homes for their plethora of mids, with Adam Treloar trialled at half-back and Macrae on a wing. Having fewer mouths at the trough might make rotations simpler for Luke Beveridge and co.; and I maintain the Dogs’ best centre-square combination is and has always been Tim English-Bontempelli-Macrae-Tom Liberatore.

Then, there’s Liam Jones, who with 11 marks in the pre-season practice match against North Melbourne, looks to have lost none of his defensive nous in his season away from the game. In his last AFL season, for Carlton in 2021, Jones was just about the best one-on-one defender in the game; given the amount of times the Dogs got exposed on the overlap last year, having Jones as the last line of defence seems a sizeable upgrade over Ryan Gardner and a banged-up Alex Keath.

Up forward, the arrival of Rory Lobb will surely see the Dogs’ attack terrorise teams at times, particularly under the roof at Marvel Stadium. Not many teams could deal with Lobb and Aaron Naughton as a pairing, never mind young guns Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Sam Darcy too, with the former looking a good chance at a breakout season.

The Dogs have a tough fixture, with seven interstate games (yes, I’m including Geelong in Geelong as an interstate game because I’m petty like this) a tricky proposition – plus, they’ve drawn the short straw by needing to play Port Adelaide in the South Australia-based ‘Gather Round’.

But with pressure mounting on Beveridge, I’m mounting the Dogs to pull together despite it all, and led by the Bont, storm their way to… another 5th-8th finish and a fifth elimination final loss in nine years. You can’t say we’re not consistent.

Prediction: 7th

Marcus Bontempelli of the Bulldogs celebrates a goal.

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)


7th, 13-1-8, 121.6%, lost elimination final

Ins: Jacob Hopper (GWS), Tim Taranto (GWS), Kaleb Smith, Steely Green (draft), Seth Campbell, Tylar Young (rookie draft), Kaelan Bradtke (pre-season supp.).

Outs: Josh Caddy, Jason Castagna, Shane Edwards, Kane Lambert (ret.), Jake Aarts, Riley Collier-Dawkins, Will Martyn, Matthew Parker, Sydney Stack.

From the moment the Tigers landed Jacob Hopper and Tim Taranto in a bumper trade period in October last year, they have been talked about as a serious premiership contender in 2023.

Why? Well, Richmond’s fatal flaw in 2022 was a weak midfield regularly overpowered by their strongest rivals – most famously when Lachie Neale single-handedly ran amok in Brisbane’s epic elimination final win over them.

If the Tigers can win the ball out of the centre more often than not, not only does this give their power-packed forward line spearheaded by Tom Lynch and Jack Riewoldt more opportunities to get their hands on quick ball, but protects their at times embattled defence from having to deal with the same.

I’ve seen a lot of mixed thinking about the Tigers this pre-season: some pundits seem to have them in the upper echelons of the ladder, while others, especially after their crushing practice match loss to Melbourne, can even see them missing the finals.

Many things will need to go right for the Tigers to claim a fourth flag in seven seasons in September; but at the very least, the arrival of Taranto and Hopper has improved the best 22 and raised their floor. With Dylan Grimes injured and a fading force, plus two crucial cogs of their 2017-20 machine in Kane Lambert and Shane Edwards retiring, an influx of talent in their prime should be a major shot in the arm for everyone at Tigerland.

Given Richmond racked up an impressive 13 wins last season despite regularly throwing winning positions away – mid-season games against North Melbourne and Gold Coast prime examples – I find it hard to see them actively getting worse in 2023. And even two more wins would, in all likelihood, give them a good chance at a top-four berth, ahead of a finals series where once again no team will ever want to come across them.

Prediction: 4th

Tim Taranto in action during Richmond training.

Tim Taranto in action during Richmond training. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)


6th, 15-1-6, 117%, lost semi final

Ins: Josh Corbett (GCS), Luke Jackson (MEL), Jaeger O’Meara (HAW), Hugh Davies, Tom Emmett, Max Knobel, Corey Wagner (draft), Liam Reidy (rookie draft), Josh Draper, Conrad Williams (cat. B rookie).

Outs: Blake Acres (CAR), Lloyd Meek (HAW), Griffin Logue (NM), Darcy Tucker (NM), Rory Lobb (WB), David Mundy (ret.), Connor Blakely, Mitch Crowden, Joel Western (del.).

After six straight years of no finals, 2022 was a watershed year for Fremantle. Not only did Justin Longmuir’s men break their September dry run, but they finished the year having won a final – a remarkable comeback win over the Western Bulldogs.

Arguably the best-coached team in the AFL, the Dockers were miserly defensively all season long, with teams struggling to get past Brennan Cox, Alex Pearce, Luke Ryan and a litany of talented half-backs. With a young midfield establishing itself as one of the league’s best, with Caleb Serong and Will Brodie enjoying career-best years while AFLPA MVP Andrew Brayshaw stamped himself as one of the competition’s elite, Freo had no issue in piling on the wins.

Despite this, 2023 promises to be a challenging one for the Dockers. Leading goalkicker Rory Lobb has departed to the Bulldogs, leaving them with a sizeable hole in attack.

The injury-prone Matt Taberner, the unproven Josh Treacy and Jye Amiss and new recruit from the Gold Coast Josh Corbett is about all they now have when it comes to key forwards. As good as the ground-ball options in Lachie Schultz, Michael Frederick, Sam Switkowski and Michael Walters are, even they will struggle to impact the contest if the ball never finds its way to them.

Boom recruit Luke Jackson will also be under the microscope from the get-go, with the premiership Demon signing a monster long-term contract to wear purple for the foreseeable future. At just 21, the mobile ruckman’s best footy is still well and truly ahead of him, but that won’t stop the usual suspects coming out of the woodwork if he experiences a lean run of form given his hefty price tag.

I’m as surprised as anyone about this, but for no other reason than ten doesn’t go into eight, I have Fremantle missing finals in 2023 – just. A team that ranked 12th for total points in 2022 can’t really afford to lose the 36 goals that Lobb provided, and kicking a winning score promises to be even tougher than it was at times last year.

A tougher fixture will also need to be overcome – where the Dockers played just one eventual finalist in 2022 twice (Melbourne), they’ve been slated to double up against four of last year’s top eight this time around – the Bulldogs, Brisbane, Sydney and Geelong. In a season as even as this looming one, all it takes is one bad patch of form for 15 and a half wins to fall back to 12.

Progress isn’t always linear, and it is very possible the Dockers could improve in many ways on-field and still fall down the ladder. That’s my expectation for them, at any rate.

But take that with a grain of salt – I said basically the same thing this time last year about Freo when I tipped them to miss the finals amid concerns their forward line limitations would prove an impossible obstacle to overcome.

Prove me wrong, Dockers! Prove me wrong.

Prediction: 9th

Caleb Serong and Andrew Brayshaw of the Dockers celebrate.

Caleb Serong and Andrew Brayshaw of the Dockers celebrate. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)


5th, 16-6, 130.5%, lost semi final

Ins: Brodie Grundy (COL), Lachie Hunter (WB), Josh Schache (WB), Matthew Jefferson, Jed Adams (draft), Will Verrall, Oliver Sestan (rookie draft), Kyah Farris-White (cat. B rookie), Kye Turner (pre-season supp.).

Outs: Oskar Baker (WB), Toby Bedford (GWS), Jayden Hunt (WCE), Luke Jackson (FRE), Sam Weideman (ESS), Mitch Brown, Majak Daw (ret.), Fraser Rosman (del.).

Sitting pretty on top of the ladder with a 10-0 start to 2022, having extended their overall win streak to 17 following on from their 2021 premiership, you wouldn’t have put counterfeit money on Melbourne’s season finishing the way it did.

But the wheels fell off quite spectacularly for the reigning champs; their ball movement stagnated, their forward structure began to break down, and with lynchpin Steven May missing three weeks of footy mid-year for a myriad of reasons, teams began to break through the Demons’ previously impenetrable defence.

For all that, the Dees did finish the home-and-away rounds second on the ladder, but entered September vulnerable; sure enough, they lost back-to-back home finals to interstate teams Sydney and Brisbane, despite taking significant early leads in both matches.

Winning just six of your last 14 matches is usually a sign of a once-mighty team running out of puff – Richmond had done something similar in 2021 off the back of a flag, winning just two (plus a draw) of their last 10.

But with a list still chock-full of superstars, and their player depth only increased after some handy acquisitions at the trade table, virtually nobody thinks the Demons’ time as a flag challenger is done just yet.

Christian Petracca of the Demons celebrates a goal

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

For starters, any team with Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver and Max Gawn in midfield is going to be a serious threat every single time they play. Petracca in particular is one to watch – establishing himself as the game’s premier player after a magnificent 2021 capped off with one of the most deserved Norm Smith Medals ever, his output dropped ever so slightly in 2022 from those incredible standards, with his contribution in the semi-final loss to Brisbane hampered by a broken leg sustained against the Swans the week prior.

Hit those 2021 heights again, and there’s honestly not a team in the world that can expect to keep him under wraps for a full game.

Then there’s ‘Gawndy’ to consider. The early signs of the Gawn-Brodie Grundy ruck partnership are extremely promising, with both delivering just what was expected of them on the ball while also showing great presence in attack. They each kicked three goals in the Dees’ practice match win over Richmond; notable for Grundy in particular, who never hit the scoreboard with any regularity during a decade at Collingwood.

The Demons are still structurally sound in defence, they still have a universe-devouring midfield at their disposal, and their forward line can’t possibly be as disjointed as it was at times in 2022 again… right?

It’s for those reasons, plus one more, that I have the Dees as my premiership favourite heading into the new season. That last reason is this: unlike last year, Melbourne have a point to prove now.

Backing up a flag, especially a drought-breaking one – and at 57 years, few in AFL history were longer than the one they broke – can make it tough to find the extra motivation needed to turn things around when times get tough and injuries come knocking. The Dees at times in 2022 struck me as moving with an air of complacency – most obviously in their loss to the Western Bulldogs late in the year, where they somehow managed to have zero tackles inside 50 for the whole match.

The Dees know how good they are, and they know the opportunity for a Richmond, Geelong or Hawthorn-esque feast of premierships is right there for the taking. And frankly, it would be a waste of a team as star-studded as this one to only win a single flag.

Geelong and Sydney will surely be there and thereabouts again, Brisbane seem poised to take the next step, and you can genuinely make a great case for about 15 clubs making the eight in 2023. But while they’re not reigning premiers anymore, the Demons are still my pick of a very deep bunch.

Prediction: 1st

Leave a Reply