The seemingly endless Cricket World Cup is over, ASADA have, for now, lost the anti-doping case against Essendon's current and former players and Summer has come and gone. Finally, after six months of waiting, the 2015 AFL season is upon us and, with it, ladder predictions aplenty. Without further ado, here are my thoughts on who will finish where in 2015.
It's hard to imagine a Grand Final that doesn't feature Hawthorn this year. They endured a run of injuries and misfortune that would derail most clubs' seasons last year, and still came up trumps. During the trade period they made some handy additions to their list without losing anyone crucial. Their senior players don't appear to be losing any of their ability to influence games, either: Jordan Lewis just had his best season, the same year he played his 200th game. They don't appear to have a weakness in any area and their coach surely ranks among the all-time greats. The only hesitation I have in tipping them for the Premiership is that "three-peats" are historically very rare. If there's a team to buck the trend, this Hawks outfit is it.
Big Movers: Gold Coast, GWS and Brisbane
I have each of these teams moving up six spots from where they finished in 2014. That means a first finals series for Gold Coast and just missing the Eight for Brisbane and GWS. All three are in a very similar stage in their development.
Big Sliders: Carlton and West Coast
In terms of ladder position, West Coast will be the biggest slider, dropping six spots from last year. At their best, they are a middle of the road side, capable of 10 or 11 wins in a season. Unfortunately, they won't be at their best this year. With the retirement of Darren Glass and the season-ending injury to Eric MacKenzie they have lost their most reliable defenders. The absence of Dean Cox leaves a lot of responsibility to Nic Naitanui and Scott Lycett who are still a largely unproven ruck duo. They have a forward line that are able to kick a big score, but they might cop a few hidings from the top teams.
In terms of past expectations, Carlton will easily be the most disappointing. When the club brought Mick Malthouse in as Coach, Carlton were thought to be in the "Premiership window." Since Malthouse took over they have finished 8th*, 13th and, if I know anything, will finish 17th in 2015. They will struggle to win more than five games this year and Malthouse will leave the Blues with a winning percentage in the low 20s. It's a bit early for 2016 predictions but, barring any unforeseen circumstances, I'm locking Carlton in for the wooden spoon next year.
The Challengers: Port Adelaide and North Melbourne
There is an important proviso with these two: they MUST be consistent. Both sides showed glimpses of absolutely top-notch footy last year, especially in their awesome finals campaigns. However, they also had some bewildering losses. Port seemed to have a top two finish sewn up before falling in an almighty hole halfway through last year. If they are to finish near the top this year they can't afford to drop more than two or three on the trot. The addition of Paddy Ryder should be very exciting to watch.
Meanwhile, North beat every other team in the eight at least once in 2014, but suffered five losses to teams that finished below them. They played a big part in the free agency period last year and will do all they can cure the habit of dropping off in concentration. They'll be full of confidence following their finals wins last year, at the same time stinging from their Preliminary Final obliteration to Sydney. If it all comes together for these two sides, they will rival Hawthorn as the most exciting in the competition.