Pies on verge of a dynasty.. any challengers?

If Collingwood were a Boeing 747 coming into land, well, they’ve just landed and ready to take off again.

Collingwood were terrific last year, winning their 15th flag and their first since the 1990 triumph over old foe Essendon. You would be mad to tip against them this season.

Collingwood couldn’t have timed it’s ascent any better than now. Their best players are all at the peak of their powers and it has a host of others waiting in the wings.

It’s youngsters are pushing hard – Steele Sidebottom, Dayne Beams, Chris Dawes and Jarryd Blair continue to improve. For all it’s success, Collingwood still has a young and inexperienced list; there are only four opposing clubs with a younger average age across the playing group.

That said, they lost a truckload of experience at the end of 2010 with the departures of Josh Fraser, Simon Prestigiacomo, Tarkyn Lockyer, Paul Medhurst and Shane O’Bree. If the Pies have a bad run with injuries, this could be their downfall.

The return of Chris Tarrant after four years at Fremantle is timely, since the season-ending knee injury to young full-back Nathan Brown. Andrew Krakouer has fitted in nicely, after his sensational form in the WAFL last year, and a re-invigorated Leon Davis has found his niche as a rebounding half-back flanker.

The Magpies have one problem. Coach Mick Malthouse will hand over the reins to favourite son Nathan Buckley at season’s end, whether they win this year’s flag or not. The dilemma is that Malthouse wants to coach, but it won’t happen at the Magpies.

Rival clubs Carlton and Melbourne have been sounded out as logical new homes for Malthouse, if Brett Ratten and Dean Bailey fail to show significant improvement. The West Coast Eagles and even the Brisbane Lions aren’t out of the question either. Malthouse was the main man in the West, delivering them two flags in 1992 and 1994, while Michael Voss is under immense pressure to keep his job should the Lions produce another year where everything falls apart.

Not a bad problem to have for the club, as long as it doesn’t become an ongoing distraction throughout the season.

Nonetheless, Collingwood is quietly confident it has the goods to win back-to-back flags, and so they should. The Pies have strength, discipline, versatility and heaps of talent all over the ground. They also possess a hunger that, unlike it’s flag winning side of 1990, appears a long way from being satisfied. Tipping against them is a risk for any betting man this season.

St Kilda have endured an off-season they would rather forget, but considering the circumstances, have handled it well.

Many believe the Saints’ premiership window is shut, it’s not. It’s still open, but they must move – now. Consider all the off-field controversies of 2010 that the Saints had to overcome to simply make the Grand Final, which they did. Arguably at no stage last season did the Saints reach the heights of their spectacular 2009, yet, for all that, they still came within an errant bounce of their first premiership since 1966.

At least that has denied any enthusiasm for writing off St Kilda’s chances of a second premiership in 2011.

There’s been recognition from coach Ross Lyon that the defensive mechanisms are very sound but his team needs greater flexibility and potency in attack. He’s spot on. Nick Riewoldt and Justin Koschitzke, along with a couple of crumbers in Stephen Milne and Adam Schneider, had become a very manageable proposition to contain for opposition defences.

St Kilda will be harder to pin down in attack in 2011, with Sam Gilbert plying his wares closer to goal more often than not and a physically stronger and more experienced Rhys Stanley, while Ryan Gamble shapes as a handy pickup. The talented ex-Cat averaged almost two goals a game in 2008, in one of the greatest teams of all time.

Geelong? Mark Thompson has gone to Essendon as James Hird’s senior assistant and Gary Ablett has flown north and signed with the Gold Coast Suns. Two big losses who significantly assisted the Cats in their two premiership wins in 2007 and 2009. Retired hard-nosed defender Max Rooke is another significant departure who they will miss. But the Cats midfield remains strong enough to keep them in touch with the top 4. And there’s talent coming through the ranks too – Taylor Hunt, Mitch Duncan and Daniel Menzel all showed good signs last season. Injury-plagued duo Mitch Brown and ex-Docker Marcus Drum will finally push for selection as well.

Geelong isn’t going to take so many chances under new coach Chris Scott, with the Cats likely to drop spare defenders back and set their forwards a bit further up the ground.

They might look a little more conventional and a touch less thrilling to watch as a result, but they’re still going to be a premiership threat who’ll be very hard to beat.

But of the top 4 this year, I suspect it’s the Western Bulldogs who may best challenge Collingwood’s pursuit of back-to-back flags this season. There’s certainly alot less hype about Rodney Eade’s flag chances this season than last, but I reckon there’s alot more substance about it that’s been lacking in the past.

The Dogs have recruited well in the off-season. Patrick Veszpremi comes across from the Sydney Swans as an untapped talent who has occupied forwardline duties at the Harbour City alongside Barry Hall in recent times, and should ease his goalkicking burden significantly. Justin Sherman has flown south from the Brisbane Lions and adds speed and goalkicking nous, while ex-Cat Nathan Djerrkurra arrives at Whitten Oval after a few frustrating years at Skilled Stadium and he ramps up the Dogs’ leg speed considerably.

Veszpremi could prove the pick of the puzzle. As good as Hall was last year with his 80 goals, he had very little support and Veszpremi has been recruited to help him out.

The midfield stocks are more than handy, with new skipper Matthew Boyd and Daniel Cross, who are hard-ball get specialists, along with Adam Cooney, Ryan Griffen and a revitalised Shaun Higgins offering the silky skills, Liam Picken and Callan Ward are both underrated, and father-son selections, Mitch Wallis and Tom Liberatore, will play senior footy in their first seasons at the kennel.

The Dogs have had an impressive pre-season, with the intensity of their drills increasingly high along with the precision of their foot skills. The big “if” is how long ruckman Ben Hudson can keep holding up the ruck department at 32. The good news for Hudson is that he is Will Minson and Jordan Roughead in support. Fullback Brian Lake is the other crucial player for the Dogs, who has had injury concerns throughout the pre-season.

But I think in terms of talent, coaching and desire after a 56-year premiership drought, they have what it takes to go beyond the preliminary final finish of the past three years.

Every year there are “bolters”. Which teams will they be in 2011?

The candidates to jump into the eight include North Melbourne and Melbourne, have already begun to make their moves, and those in the bottom four of the ladder don’t have the necessary armoury to do so. Essendon, though, looks a likely improver under new coach James Hird after their best pre-season in years.

Hawthorn, as they were last year, will be something of a wildcard. I’m tipping them to make the top 4 after two very lean seasons. A big call but it’s not beyond them. I rate their list highly and they’re very capable, as we saw when they beat the super Geelong team in the 2008 Grand Final.

You simply can’t overlook a team that contains the names of Lance Franklin, Luke Hodge, Cyril Rioli and Shaun Burgoyne, and the Hawks did click last season, just not consistently enough.

Recruits David Hale (North Melbourne), Kyle Cheney (Melbourne) and Cameron Bruce (Melbourne) are great acquisitions to an already impressive playing list. Hale may prove to be as important as any player on their list, with his quality tap work in the ruck – something they greatly missed last year.

My reservation is the questionable level of improvement across the list since the 2008 flag. Burgoyne is a gun, and youngster Ben Stratton is a real find, but the Hawks need to find several more whose output goes up a cog or three this season to be a serious premiership threat.

Many will be nervous about Fremantle’s ability to back up what was a superb 2010, given it’s erratic history. I suspect the Dockers may have turned the corner as a club as well as a team, a time supporters have waited and waited for. Last year’s efforts revealed a level of maturity and steadiness not seen before so they should be up there again.

Their defence is sound, their midfield is exciting with the ever reliable David Mundy and youngsters Rhys Palmer and Stephen Hill leading the way. Up front, skipper Matthew Pavlich is a star and Collingwood recruit Jack Anthony will help him out. Giant ruckman Aaron Sandilands had a tremendous 2010 and is critical to the lineup, and he has backup in promising youngster Zac Clarke and Adelaide recruit Jonathon Griffin. The recruitment of Anthony and Griffin adds further depth, which is needed.

The Sydney Swans enter 2011 with a new coach, Paul Roos’ long serving lieutenant and ex-North Melbourne premiership player John Longmire. The Swans finished just one game out of the top 4 last year, and although midfield warrior Brett Kirk has retired, Josh Kennedy and Kieren Jack are ready long-term replacements. The exciting Lewis Jetta and Trent Dennis-Lane will also be better for year one of AFL footy under their belts. Ruckmen Shane Mumford and Mark Seaby lead the ruck division while a three-pronged attack consisting of Adam Goodes, Daniel Bradshaw and Jesse White is a daunting prospect for any opposing defence.

The other end of the ladder? As impressive as the new Gold Coast Suns NAB Cup campaign proved, and as bulked up as it’s score of kids are reported to be, senior AFL experience just can’t be expected in year one. Gary Ablett, Michael Rischitelli, Campbell Brown and Co are a solid foundation but the vast bulk of the Suns’ lineup will be youngsters exposed and gaining experience at the elite level.

They’re capable of pinching the odd win here and there, the new boys, but it’s hard to see the wooden spoon not being a toss-up between the Suns and their cross town rivals, the Brisbane Lions.

Brisbane is being punished big time for it’s gamble on several recycled players from other clubs two summers ago, the ill-fating picking up of troubled star Brendan Fevola, a list now missing several stars as a result, and one in which several champs such as Jonathan Brown, Simon Black and Luke Power still carry far too much of the load. 2011 could still be uglier than the last. Favourite son Michael Voss is suddenly under immense pressure in year three and comes out of contract at season’s end, which doesn’t help matters. They need to at least avoid the spoon and show significant improvement.

Football will look different in 2011. The new sub rule, which sees only three interchange players and one substitute player, is expected to have a profound impact on how games are played out than just about any rule change that has been brought in, in recent times. Tactical innovation on that one rule and the game itself will continue as we enter another exciting season of AFL football.

Justin’s AFL ladder

Collingwood

Western Bulldogs

St Kilda

Hawthorn

Geelong

Fremantle

Sydney Swans

Carlton

Essendon

Adelaide

Melbourne

North Melbourne

Richmond

Port Adelaide

Brisbane Lions

West Coast Eagles

Gold Coast Suns

Brownlow Medallist: Brendon Goddard (St Kilda)

Premiers: Collingwood

Runners-up: Western Bulldogs

Coleman Medallist: Lance Franklin (Hawthorn)

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