Well it’s back. The new-look, much talked about, much debated, much criticised and much enjoyed famous OWAAT Crystal Ball series. The 2008 AFL Premiership Season brings with it very few certainties, like all AFL seasons. However, one thing is for certain, the predicted Crystal Ball rankings will be, like my universities mathematics exam questions, far from correct! Nevertheless, despite the massive blow to my slender credibility and the overall frivolity of it all, my football head is again firmly planted back on the chopping block. And as always there is the opportunity for you to have your say also. So get comfortable, prepare to be shocked, get ready to laugh out loud and mock, it’s time to re-launch this puppy.

Before we go any further I should preface all Crystal Ball content with a warning. I was terrible last season, in fact I was lucky to pass the exam. I only got 50% of the 2007 teams close to correct, with some shockers (^) being Geelong, Melbourne, Richmond, Port and the Kangaroos. I completely nailed (*) West Coast, Brisbane, Carlton, Essendon and pretty much Adelaide, which doesn’t seem too bad. In fact if I manage to get four teams exactly right for the 2008 edition, I’ll probably consider that a win!

Crystal Ball 2007 – Final Ladder

Melbourne ^
West Coast *
St Kilda
Western Bulldogs
Adelaide *
Richmond ^
Brisbane *
Essendon *
Port Power ^
Geelong ^
Carlton *
Kangaroos ^

16th – Richmond Tigers

Let’s make sure we all remember that pretty much everyone expected the Kangaroos to occupy this position in 2007 and they finished inside the all-important Top 4, defeated Hawthorn in a final and subsequently played in a Preliminary Final. Having said all of that, I am confident that the Tigers will again struggle, more so than I was sure about picking the Kangas in 16th last season. There certainly is one driving factor associated with Richmond achieving some on-field success, that being that if they don’t win games their coach will be fired. I think we all believe that to be the case, I would say that maybe even Terry Wallace himself knows that. How long can this football club rely on Matthew Richardson? He has led the Tigers in total goals kicked in 11 of the last 12 AFL seasons, that is remarkable. A fit Nathan Brown should make a difference in 2008, but he is now over 30 years old and has only played 46% of his games in four seasons since coming across from the Bulldogs. So where does the improvement come from at Punt Road? Simmonds and Coughlan are back (again) but the Tigers were still relatively lucky in 2007 with 9 of their better players appearing in all 22 matches. I suppose a team that features names like Richardson, Johnson, Deledio, Bowden, Brown, Foley and Simmonds should not be predicted to finish last, however, in the 2007 edition of this Crystal Ball I placed faith in their second tier stepping up and they failed. Richmond are like the characters from Laguna Beach, they lack depth, and unless there is a considerable improvement amongst the players that support their aforementioned stars they will be the competition easy beats again, especially if they decide not to utilise Brett Deledio in the midfield.

Watch for in 2008:
Trent Cotchin is the obvious player to keep an eye on during 2008, despite injury clouds all reports are that Richmond are onto something special with this kid from Matthew Kruezer’s Northern Knights’ graduating class. However, I have liked the look of Luke McGuane, who seems very much in the mould of a young Dustin Fletcher. McGuane averaged 14 disposals per game in the final 7 Rounds of 2007 and had a great game against the Saints in Round 22. He is now 21 years of age and showed his wares last season, 2008 could see him form a strong defending partnership with Polak for the Tiges, thus meaning it is time for the Queenslander to bask in the spotlight.

Most Important Players:
Nathan Foley, Brett Deledio, Joel Bowden and Troy Simmonds

What I Said Last Season:
“A fit, prepared and healthy Nathan Brown will rejuvenate and inject a sense of belief right throughout Tigerland not only throughout the course of the season, but also on a smaller scale within individual matches and quarters… The second tier – Richmond in 2007 all depends on whether a crop, a plethora, a swagger, a pride of players can proudly put their hands up at the same time. I refer to players with a few years in the system, names like Foley, Hartigan, Hyde, Newman, Pattison, Pettifer, Schulz, Tambling and Tivendale. In addition the already proven entities of Deledio, Tuck, Polo, Raines and Krakouer will benefit their teammates immensely if further advancement is delivered in 2007.”

Interesting Statistics:
The Tigers took more marks than any other AFL team in 2007 but were ranked last overall in hitouts and tackles. Only made the Finals once in the last 12 AFL seasons. Only won 3 games in 2007 (13.6%) but still averaged over 41,000 in attendance for the 22 rounds. They tallied only 32 Brownlow votes from a possible 132 last season, that is only 24%. The top 6 picks of Richmond’s 2004 National Draft have played an average of 35 AFL games all for the “yellow and black” and all six are still Tigers. There is only 9 players for the 2008 Tigers that have accumulated over 100 AFL games.

The reigning wooden spooners play the reigning Premiers twice in eleven weeks during 2008. Richmond have their first three and their last three 2008 matches at the MCG. In my opinion there is nowhere in the Tigers’ fixture when they have more than three tough games in a row. Their five games from Rounds 2 to 6 are all scheduled for Sundays. Their fixture is rather friendly.

Certainty of Prediction – 96%:
I am pretty sure that Terry’s team will again struggle, they are currently paying $3.75 just to make the eight.

15th – Western Bulldogs

Surely the Bulldogs will not again (like my Hattrick team this season) be at the mercy of their team doctors like recent seasons past. If they can remain with a league average injury list then that will considerably help them avoid my dire prediction of 15th. It is difficult for me to justify why I have them slotted in so low after recent ladder finishes of 8th and 9th, yet in 2007 the Doggies finished above only three teams on the AFL Ladder, those being Carlton, Melbourne and Richmond. With the exception of the Blues, the Bulldogs had the worst finish to the season losing their last 4 matches. Ben Hudson was a common sense addition given the weakness of the Dogs’ tall stocks, the ex-Crow steps in to assist Street and Minson, however it should be remembered that Hudson is about to turn 29 and is by no means a saviour. There is plenty of reasons to be excited about the future at Whitten Oval, and I am not referring to the buildings and facilities development. Young players like Andrejs Everitt, Shaun Higgins (one of my favourite AFL young guns) and Ryan Griffen should show further signs of strong improvement throughout 2008, nevertheless it is my opinion that will not be enough to see the Dogs experiencing September action. Three of their best players are their three oldest; West, Akermanis and Johnson, nevertheless with proven guys like Hahn, Gilbee, Harris, Giansiracusa, Murphy, Boyd, Cross and Cooney all under 26 years of age let’s all hope that the Western Bulldogs can turn their exciting brand of football into a winning brand of football more often than not in 2008.

Watch for in 2008:
If the Bulldogs do struggle to remain in Finals contention then we should see plenty of blooding. Keep an eye out for 18 year old Jarrod Grant who seems the perfect draft pick for the Dogs. With limited options up forward and a strong reliance on an aging (yet seemingly ageless) Brad Johnson, Grant could get a decent look in come the second half of 2008.
A goal scoring machine, who is everything a modern forward should be. He is agile, tall and quick with a great set of marking hands, hopefully the Bulldogs will witness Grant’s first of many AFL goals later this season. Hmmmm sounds familiar doesn’t it? A young, tall Bulldog forward named Grant, well the Jarrod variety is more good stock for the Bulldogs. He is an AIS Academy Graduate and represented Vic Metro in the Under 18s.

Most Important Players:
Daniel Cross, Lindsay Gilbee, Brian Harris and Brad Johnson

What I Said Last Season:
“The Doggies played out of their skins last year (being 2006) in the undeniable face of injury-riddled adversity. They were hot, playing electrifying, quality footy for most weeks of the season. Some say they got the absolute best out of their playing group, which is imperative for modern football success. Yet, they only finished eighth. This is something worth considering before you make loud-mouthed and intoxicated wagers with your mates that they will finish top two… Shaun Higgins is up to it, he will make an impression at AFL senior level in 2007 if he can stay healthy and therefore available, he is another quality, young prospect that Eade has at his disposal. Andrejs Everitt could well be a fantastic signing for the Bulldogs in future seasons, and we should catch a few glimpses of him later on in the year, particularly if questions are raised about the back line.”

Interesting Statistics:
Eight 2008 Western Bulldogs have a surname that begins with the letter ‘H’ which is more than any other team in the AFL. The Bulldogs’ nine youngest players are all yet to make their AFL debut. Opponents compiled more disposals against the Wetsern Bulldogs per game for 2007 than against any other team. They have four guys who hail from the West Adelaide Bloods in the SANFL and they have only made the Finals once in the past seven seasons and that was due to an 8th placed finish in 2006. In 2007 the Bulldogs had 12 players average over 5 marks per game which is the highest number of players for that team ever to do so in the same season on statistical record, which stretches back to 1991.

Five of their first six games are at the familiar surrounds of the Telstra Dome including very “win-able” games against Melbourne, Essendon and Richmond, then they go interstate for three of their next four matches. Three of their last five games are outside of Victoria. Oddly enough they also play the Crows in Rounds 1 and 22.

Certainty of Prediction – 44%:
Difficult to predict, no doubting that. Like so many teams in 2008 the Doggies could make the Finals and could also ‘win’ the Wooden Spoon. I hope the Bulldogs bark and the Bulldogs bite and play their very best, I just think their time in the sun is a season or two away.

14th – Essendon Bombers

Every football fan is very much aware that James Hird was playing terrific football when he retired, for Essendon supporters Hird’s retirement was like owning a four bedroom house in Toorak then having someone else deciding to sell it for a huge price and getting none of the profits, just left to enjoy the memories of what once was! I mean the house is still of premium quality and the envy of other suburbs, but no longer being enjoyed by the original owners. Hird averaged 22 disposals in his final season of 2007 and led the Bombers in kicks. He had 34 touches against the then reigning Premiers at Subiaco in his last ever AFL game. It is difficult to ascertain how the Bombers will cover such a ball-winning champion that would so often produce with the match in the balance – the fact of the scenario is that they cannot. The Dons, like an Under-16 cheerleading team, do boast plenty of possible future upside, and hopefully for the sake of new coach Matthew Knights some of that eventuates in season 2008. Improvement should come in the forms of Jay Nash, Scott Gumbleton, Tom Hislop and Courtenay Dempsey. Question marks rightfully remain regards Courtney Johns, Ricky Dyson and Jason Winderlich however a healthy Alwyn Davies has proven how important he can be for the Dons when it comes to applying pressure and supplying spark, this season the 23 year old should tally more than his 14 games of 2007. When you factor in proven players like Stanton, McPhee, McVeigh, Hille, Welsh, Watson, Lovett and Ryder there are signs of a potential Finals birth if things click. Nevertheless, with a team so dependent on so many older players (Lloyd, Fletcher, Lucas, Michael and Jason Johnson), it would be ignorantly optimistic of me to try and predict them any higher than I have. However, I still hope they win the flag!

Watch for in 2008:
The Bombers consciously took steps to address a lack of speed some seasons ago, well 2008 should be indicative of those past efforts. Players like Jetta, Dempsey, Houli, Lovett, Winderlich, Reimers and Davey will possibly help give the Dons a new modern football look about them despite there being questions raised (by me) as to how all those similar-type players can fit into the one side. I am a Bombers fan, so obviously I could give you plenty to look out for in 2008, however, there are two guys I am most excited about; Jay Nash and Tom Hislop. Nash, like Andrew Welsh, has been one of my favourite Dons since I saw him play his first match. Looks to be a genuine footballer and not so much an athlete, thank goodness (see Bolton and Bradley – jokes). So keep an eye out for this hard ball getting star of SANFL’s Central District Bulldogs. Tasmanian Tom Hislop has played just three games so far, and maybe 2008 will not mean too much senior football exposure for him, but I hope it does. A quality decision maker who is tough and aggressive, yeah baby! Could prove to be a quality partner in crime to Brent Stanton in coming seasons.

Most Important Players:
Scott Lucas, Dustin Fletcher, Brent Stanton and Matthew Lloyd

What I Said Last Season:
“Probably could have justified slotting them in anywhere from 7th to 15th, the team in 2007 with the most question marks and the most uncertainty, which is not a familiar feeling at Windy Hill. How good will Lloyd be upon his return? How much of an influence will James Hird have, and how many matches will he run out? Is Courtney Johns set to ignite (or crowd) the Dons forward line? Can Watson, Dyson, Stanton, Monfries, Nash, Slattery and Winderlich continue to exemplify the skills that were on display throughout a trying ’06? What will be the role, and the effect, of Mal Michael? Will a healthy Laycock free up a versatile David Hille?”

Interesting Statistics:
Essendon players don’t use deodorant, they were tackled less than any other team in 2007. The Bombers have averaged over 40,000 at their games every season since 1992. Sixty-four percent (nearly two-thirds) of their listed players are from outside of Melbourne and seven players in 2008 have a surname that starts with the letter ‘L’. Also, 2008 will be the first time I’ve ever barracked for an Essendon team not coached by Kevin Sheedy, it feels weird already!

The Bombers don’t leave Melbourne until Round 8, with four of their first five matches at Telstra Dome, as are their final three. They play Richmond twice in seven weeks as well as West Coast twice in seven weeks and “surprise, surprise” they meet the Kangaroos just once all season and that is in Round 1. The Bombers and Kangas have only been fixtured to meet once a season, every season since 2000. The Dons travel to Subiaco twice in 5 weeks during the second half of the season and only meet Melbourne once and that is not until Round 18.

Certainty of Prediction – 91%:
I got them spot-on in 2007 and I do follow them more closely than any other AFL team, so I am confident that 2008 will not be the year we see the Dons in the Finals, even if I’m hoping that we do.

13th – Carlton Blues

They lost the last eleven matches of last season,
many of them (many claim) were very win-able games, are you a T-word believer? I believe a team that places a majority of their faith in players younger than 21 is going to struggle across a 22 match season, and perhaps that is what Carlton showed us all in 2007. The addition of Chris Judd is simply awesome, similar to putting a Ferrari engine into a Daewoo. He needs to stay healthy for the sake of Brett Ratten’s sanity, but let’s remember they didn’t really give up too much to get the league’s most proven player, especially considering the plethora of recent draft picks the Blues have enjoyed. Fevola could be the last ever player to kick 100 goals in a season and it could be in 2008, so if it happens be sure to enjoy it Blues’ fans, there is no doubting his talent, just his head. If they can stay focused then maybe the Blues can sneak into the unfamiliar territory of actually playing football in September. Nick Stevens should have the same sort of influence as Mark Coughlan at Richmond, which in my mind is not very much. Although I am happy for Stevens and for Coughlan (and for all players that return after serious injury) I think they should find that, like the property market, the game has changed in the last 2 or 3 years. Questions rightfully remain regards Carlton’s ability to hold teams to defendable scores, I mean there is little point in Fevola kicking 7 goals at one end, if the opponents kick 23 at the other. Ask Blues’ fans at the light at the end of the tunnel is now blinding! The grass is growing rather green at MC Labor Park, let’s just hope it doesn’t all dry out by Round 17.

Watch for in 2008:
Take your pick, there is so much to get excited about if you’re a Carlton fan, or even if you’re a football fan watching the Blues. It will be interesting to see to what capacity Carlton utilise Matthew Kruezer, will he be an element of the senior squad from Round 1? There are so many young ball-magnets that could come up huge (like a Nathan Foley) in 2008. It is difficult to split the likes of Murphy, Walker, Gibbs, Bentick and Simpson all of whom have shown they know what it takes to play AFL. Carazzo was probably the stand out in 2007, but his competition for the fickle spotlight will be enhanced in 2008. Bentick is probably my favourite of the batch, I think he would be a coaching dream, and a great guy to play footy alongside with his physical presence, tackling ability and aggression. I think 20 year old Ryan Jackson is the often overlooked component of Carlton’s youth. Maybe a comparatively late bloomer, he tallied more than 16 disposals in each of the Blues’ final six losses at the end of last season and knows how to take a mark and be an accountable midfielder.

Most Important Players:
Chris Judd and Brendan Fevola

What I Said Last Season:
“Not quite now. Soon, but not yet. Inevitably forming one of the most formidable midfields of future AFL seasons, the Blues will remain below par for much of 2007. For the sake of their once strong, loyal and proud fan base they need to sort out the childish issues that plague their non-football operations, only then will consistency on the park follow. They are still paying an expensive price for past indiscretions, yet the light at the end of the Carlton tunnel is growing nearer and brighter. Gibbs was the correct pick, taking a player like Gumbleton or Leuenberger would have been more-so a desperate, short-term hole filling decision. Injuries will expose their still-present lack of true depth at many positions and in my humble opinion I still feel as though they are carrying considerable dead weight.”

Interesting Statistics:
The Blues had 2911 points kicked against them in the 22 rounds of 2007, easily the most in the AFL, the next most was Richmond with nearly 400 less. Heath Scotland kicked the ball more often than anyone in the AFL during the 22 Rounds of season 2007. In the past six seasons, since 2001 (the last time they made the Finals) Carlton have failed to average more than 40,000 attendees per match in any season. They have 12 teenagers on their list and none of their under-20 year-old players’ surnames start with a letter of the alphabet that comes after ‘K’ for Kruezer.

The first six games of the Blues’ 2008 campaign are in Melbourne, with five of them at the MCG, however, they don’t play any of their final 7 matches at that same Jolimont venue. During May Carlton will play interstate games in four out of five rounds which will be followed by four straight back at the MCG. They meet old foe Collingwood twice in 8 weeks and meet Hawthorn once all season and that is not until the last game of the home and away season, insanity! As we always say here at OWAAT, the AFL could give us unlimited KFC, a whiteboard, a laptop and some beers and Luke Mather and myself will sort out the fixture for them within a week.

Certainty of Prediction – 83%:
Chris Judd is not the entire answer, but we should see some good development from a crop of young midfielders that benefited with plenty of onfield action as a result of the Blues’ continued lack of scoreboard success. I am rather certain they will miss the Finals again, before an inevitable run of consistent September appearances in the future, but not now, not in 2008.

So there we go, we are off and racing with a new-look, more thorough (and more time consuming) OWAAT Crystal Ball series. Always interesting as the season unfolds to see just how wrong I was. It is February and I am putting my opinions out there for all of you to enjoy, and debate. Thanks for taking the time to read it through, and stay tuned for the coming editions where I will formulate 12th to 9th, 8th to 5th and 4th to 1st. I am sure you will continue to be surprised.