AFL 2024 predicted ladder part one: Bulldogs could win the flag… or get the spoon

<span>(From left to right) Marcus Bontempelli, Jai Newcombe, Dustin Martin, Jake Stringer and Adam Simpson.</span><span>Photograph: Morgan Hancock/AFL Photos/Getty Images</span>
(From left to right) Marcus Bontempelli, Jai Newcombe, Dustin Martin, Jake Stringer and Adam Simpson.Photograph: Morgan Hancock/AFL Photos/Getty Images

“Higher floor, lower ceiling” is my sense heading into 2024, but it’s a particularly difficult AFL season to assess. I reckon all but the bottom three listed teams could challenge for finals. I may well be miles off when it comes to Sydney and Adelaide, and the Western Bulldogs could be premiers or wooden spooners for all I know.

So here goes another hiding to nothing: Part one of Guardian Australia’s 2024 AFL ladder predictor.

18th – West Coast

“This will pass,” Adam Simpson said following yet another trouncing last year. He somehow kept his cool, his hair, and his job. Injuries, pandemics, strength and conditioning problems, less than committed players, poor list management and more injuries have all conspired against him. But in 2024 he has a crop of talented, big-bodied kids. The hype around Harley Reid, however, is completely insane, with more column inches devoted to him than to the Mayor of Perth.

17th – North Melbourne

2023 was an improvement for the Kangas. They lost 14 games by 45 points or more in 2022, which they reduced to six last year. That’s still dreadful, mind you. North lost nearly 1500 games of experience in the off-season and may be without Jy Simpkin for an extended period after Jimmy Webster’s savage hit at the weekend.

Alastair Clarkson will be buoyed by the 17 first round picks on his list, several of whom are exquisitely skilled and completely untapped. His problems will be down back. They’re going to have a lot of goals kicked on them. But it promises to be a wild ride for North fans.

16th – Hawthorn

The Hawks beat some really good teams last year – Collingwood, Brisbane, St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs. But like most young lists, they mixed their form. As a player, Sam Mitchell played a patient game. He waited, watched and pounced. He’s similar as a coach. Every one of his utterances can loosely be translated as “I know what I’m doing.”

Mitchell has had some rotten luck over summer. They desperately needed another key defender and were delighted with James Blanck’s progress. But he tore his ACL minutes after Changkuoth Jiath broke down again. “If there were five players I could least afford to lose, I just lost two of them,” the coach told Nathan Buckley.

15th – Richmond

Richmond has been in gentle recession for several years now. There were some scrapbook memories last year - Trent Cotchin’s 300th, his valedictory game with Jack Riewoldt, the greatest hits parade against Geelong and the Hawthorn comeback. But it was a frustrating season. Tom Lynch and Josh Gibcus were hobbled and Damien Hardwick couldn’t get out of the place quickly enough.

The messaging now is more cautious, more realistic. ‘Look we’re always going to be big and dangerous but this is no longer some last ditch Dimma throw at the stumps,’ is the crux of it. The question marks heading into 2024 include Lynch’s right foot and the gap between their top and bottom six.

14th – Essendon

A “bunch of spuds” Hardwick called them. That’s harsh. Essendon’s young players show glimpses. They have good summers. They have good fortnights. But they haven’t yet proven themselves to be long haul footballers. They ran aground following the bye last year. They won three of their last ten. They fell apart against the generationally bad West Coast and North, and lost by a combined 33 goals in the final fortnight. The GWS game was a degustation. The Collingwood game was over in a matter of minutes.

The first two months of 2024 look particularly tough – both Adelaide sides away, Sydney away and Collingwood at the MCG, as well as St Kilda and the Bulldogs at the Docklands.

13th – Sydney

A difficult team to assess. There’s a lot of people spruiking the Swans, but I’m not convinced their recent form stacks up. They left too many games on the table last year, coughed up too many three-quarter time leads, and came up short against the very best. They were fortunate to get the four points against Adelaide and won the North Melbourne game courtesy of a clerical error. Their captain spent the best part of summer in a sling after some Mad Monday high jinks, and Luke Parker and Taylor Adams will both miss the opening month. For a team that struggled at the coalface last year, that will hurt.

12th – Gold Coast

For Hardwick, the Suns’ list was the clincher. Sure there was the money, the long contract, the chance to get out of the Melbourne fishbowl and start afresh with a new suntan and a new club. But he loved the list. “A great new bunch of toys,” he called them. There’s potential, but not a lot of evidence. Year after year, these players have turned up their toes when it matters. They let down their previous coach. They’ve never been a team you’d trust with your life, or even your money. They’ve never been a team willing to dig in and slog through winter. Hardwick’s style demands total buy-in and trust, two qualities that have so far eluded this group.

11th – Adelaide

The Crows were the league’s highest scoring team in 2023. They won both Showdowns and twice ran the eventual premiers to the wire. They played some of their best football in the matches they lost. But they only won two of 10 on the road. In the end, despite the wretched decisions, the near misses, the big scores, and the jolly romps, they still weren’t good enough.

Adelaide are great to watch, and have high expectations. They’ll get a lot more marquee games than usual. But to me, they still look a bit light on down back and one-paced through the middle. I think Matthew Nicks is on the right track, and they’re definitely a team for the future, but I see them treading water this year.

10th – Western Bulldogs

I think we miss the point with the Bulldogs. We expect too much of them. Maybe they expect too much of themselves. They’re a riddle, certainly, a tease, no doubt. But ultimately, in quarters, in games, in months, and in seasons, they loom and drop away. Just when you’ve given up on them, they drag you back in. When they’re really humming, when Bont and Libba have full control, they can tease you into thinking they’re the best team in the competition. But too often, they’re exposed by their bottom six, and stand revealed against the very best.

Ninth – Geelong

Pretty much nothing went right for Geelong last year. They conceded two more goals a game than in 2022, which is very un-Chris Scott like. At various times, his entire starting back six were unavailable. The second Collingwood game summed up their season – patches of brilliance, moments of madness and ultimately well short of the standard. Gary Rohan knocking out his teammate and their most important player pretty much summed it up. As always, you take the good with the bad with Gary, even when he’s knocking you unconscious.

I really like their young kids coming through however, and originally had them as my sneaky bolter for 2024. But I’ve been spooked by the injury to Cam Guthrie, sustained in the first eight seconds of the scratchiest of scratch matches.

AFL 2024 predicted ladder part two will be published tomorrow.