Four rounds into the new AFL season and three teams remain undefeated.
The Western Bulldogs, Melbourne and Sydney are deservedly occupying the top rungs on the table, having embraced a proactive style of football assisted by — but not solely attributable to — the new standing the mark rule, which has led to a more attacking, free-flowing and enjoyable product.
As impressive as Melbourne and Sydney have been, the Bulldogs’ form has been the most eye-catching and looks the most sustainable. Melbourne has earned a level of mistrust that can be hard to shake but even the most cynical observer must be coming around after Sunday’s 25-point win over last year’s grand finalist Geelong.
The football experts I work with predict Sydney’s talented youngsters to strike a flat patch at some point, but how brilliant they have been in the side’s wins over Brisbane, Adelaide, Richmond and Essendon. In four rounds, the Swans have already registered more than half of their entire score from the abbreviated 2020 season. Let’s hope it lasts.
There’s no doubt the Bulldogs are a premiership contender. I’ve called all of their matches this season, each time walking away more convinced of their potential. If they beat the Suns on Saturday, it’ll be the club’s best start to a season since 1946.
To my eye, they look every bit — if not more than — the side that won a drought-breaking premiership in 2016. The Bulldogs’ have a midfield the envy of any club in the competition, with the blue-chip Marcus Bontempelli complemented by brilliant ball winner Jack Macrae, emerging star Bailey Smith, a desperate Josh Dunkley and free-wheeling Adam Treloar.
In Tom Liberatore the club has a player with Bulldog blood in his veins, a lethal weapon with a ferocious work ethic and commitment to the family business. While Houdini would struggle to escape from his tackles, Burling Hull would marvel at his sleight of hand. He’s a beauty, Libba.
Luke Beveridge’s side still looks to be lacking at least one tall defender, but is well served in other key positions. Aaron Naughton is becoming a beast of a player, one capable of 70-goal seasons if he straightens up his kicking and gets a better run with injury.
With a vastly fitter Josh Bruce having a much-improved season and ruckman Tim English afforded the luxury of greater stints in attack, the Bulldogs have the weapons to post significant totals.
The acquisition of veteran Stefan Martin from Brisbane has been a masterstroke as the physically raw English develops his ruck craft without the relentless weekly batterings.
I’m not sure there’s been a more influential recruit to any club this season.
Tigers, Cats off to mixed starts
While the Bulldogs, Swans and Demons have hit the ground running, reigning premier Richmond and its 2020 grand final opponent Geelong have won only two of their opening four matches.
Despite the slow start, I’d still expect both to push for a top-four finish again.
Richmond won only one of its first four matches last year and two in 2019 but the Tigers still claimed back-to-back flags in those seasons. Their performance against Sydney in round three was underwhelming but Friday night’s clash with Port Adelaide could easily have fallen their way. There was much to like.
Geelong’s form is more worrying. The Cats’ slow and methodical ball movement seems at odds with the prevailing game style of 2021.
The Cats’ 2011 premiership captain Cameron Ling and fellow ABC Grandstand AFL expert Mark Maclure both believe Geelong coach Chris Scott must adapt and encourage less conservatism.
There is simply too much talent at Scott’s disposal not to contend again. Patrick Dangerfield’s return from suspension this week will have an immediate impact and star recruit Jeremey Cameron’s (hamstring) inclusion in coming weeks should further change the Cats’ fortunes.
The Cats should be 3-2 after Sunday’s clash with North Melbourne before a crunch game against West Coast at Kardinia Park and a trip to Sydney to face the surging Swans.
Magpies under the pump
In contrast to Richmond and Geelong, Collingwood’s prospects this season have plummeted.
The Magpies’ five-goal loss to the previously winless Giants appeared a tipping point for a club recently in premiership contention but now facing difficult decisions.
In the last year of his contract, Nathan Buckley is in a quandary. On-field results ultimately determine the fate of football coaches, but Collingwood needs to regenerate.
Buckley has already shown some willingness to prioritise young players and Saturday night’s performance further illustrated the need to depart from the old and look to the new.
But that comes with the likelihood of more losses and missing the finals, further agitating sponsors and fans already aggrieved by recent off-field controversies.
The Magpies also have salary cap challenges illustrated by the messy departure of Treloar, whose wage they continue to subsidise as he runs rampant for the undefeated Bulldogs.
During his almost decade-long tenure as senior coach, Buckley has been defined by his pragmatism and a team-first mentality. It’s obvious which way he’ll go, prioritising Collingwood’s long-term prospects.
But will a hierarchy that no longer includes his greatest champion, Eddie McGuire, be willing to back him in for what looks a longish haul?
It’s well proven, in the highly impatient and brutal football industry, wins and losses are the only currency and the bucks often stop with the coach.