Sorting Contenders from Pretenders

The long cold winter begins, unless you live in Queensland, in which case your footy team is already stuffed anyway. But as the first of the bye weeks beckons, we usually have a firm idea of the serious September contenders. This season, each passing round only serves to muddy the waters.

Take ladder leaders North Melbourne, for example. Still a game clear on top, their recent losses to Sydney and Geelong have only firmed sceptics views. The Geelong effort was especially puzzling. It’s not often opponents decide it’s in their interests to let Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood run riot in the middle, but that appeared to be North’s strategy on Saturday night. They will plead injuries and the absence of star tagger Ben Jacobs. Sceptics will point out they still had 18 men on the ground. With upcoming games against the Hawks, Crows and Eagles, the Roos need to make a statement soon.

Not that Geelong has been shy of sending the odd mixed message. Looking set to consolidate a top-two position, they then succumbed in limp fashion to the Pies and Blues. The ship was righted against the Giants and Roos, but it’s unlikely September opponents will be rolling out the red carpet for Dangerwood as happily as North. A late season run of games at the Cattery won’t hurt their chances, though.

My personal tip had been Sydney, but after Saturday they can’t even be certain they’re the best team in their own state. A significant injury to Kurt Tippet won’t help, either. Buddy better stay fit.

That other Sydney team may be the biggest question mark of all. Victoria’s worst fears are coming true: the Orange Peril are coming to take our premiership cup, if not our daughters. The basic numbers are adding up for the Giants. With 8 wins already, they will start strong favourites in their remaining home games, and will be absolute motzas to beat Essendon and Brisbane. That makes 15 wins. Throw in another away win somewhere, and they would be stiff not to finish top four. Then who knows? They weren’t that far away on their road trips to Adelaide and Geelong. Would a first-time run in September really be too daunting? Or would they play like they had nothing to lose?

Of course, another young team on the rise is still in the conversation. After a tough win away to Port, the Bulldogs continue to defy their run of injuries, and they continue to have the stingiest defence in the league, which is so often the sign of a serious contender. Upcoming games against the Cats and Swans will tell us more.

The Crows are still squawking, though it’s hard to see them claiming a top four spot. But last year’s runners-up, the Eagles, are digging themselves a big hole. Now two games behind the top four, their continued poor away form is marking them as pretenders.

Which leaves you-know-who. Hawthorn are sitting in fifth spot at 9-3, and have been clinching recent wins with a good quarter here or there. That could be an ominous sign, depending on your perspective. As I have said previously, to be the King, you’ll have to slay the King, and they ain’t dead yet.

Of the rest? Port and Demon fans will entertain thoughts of making up September numbers, with Port showing more consistent form. The rest are in varying stages of the eternal rebuild – though Richmond and Collingwood die-hards may still be in denial about that. They need to consult their therapists. Richmond supporters will have them on speed-dial.

Has that un-muddied the waters? I doubt it. Expect next month’s column to contain a list of mea culpas. But if we knew how it was going to end, would we bother turning up in the first place?

Until next time… Butler on the Ball

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