The 2018 AFL Premiership market is wide open, with six teams trading at odds of 10-1 or lower. These teams are Sydney, Richmond, Adelaide, Port Adelaide, GWS and Geelong.
ELO ratings are probably the best single metric to assess the relative strength of AFL teams. Very briefly, a team’s ELO rating will go up or down after each result. The extent to which a team’s rating will change depends on variables such as the strength of the opposition. This means that if the premiers beat the wooden spooners, not much will change, but a higher weighting will be placed upon a result between two equally matched teams.
My ELO ratings (which are generally consistent with others which are publicly available) suggest that Sydney, Richmond and Adelaide are the three best teams. There is then something of a drop off to the next group of Geelong, GWS and Port Adelaide. So as a starting point, I generally favour the first three teams which I have mentioned. However, the ratings are imperfect and they do not take into account a wide variety of factors such as player movements and injuries. It is still important to apply analysis.
The Sydney Swans are the single best chance to win the 2018 premiership. Excluding the first 6 rounds of last season (when the Swans were injury ravaged), they closed the regular season and finals series with an incredible 15 wins and 3 losses. During that span, they scored the most points and conceded the least points of any team. They also recorded wins against each of the top four teams. Unfortunately for the Swans, their 0-6 start meant that they finished outside of the top 4 and their finals campaign was cut short after being thrashed by the Cats at the MCG. I would not place too much weight on that one game. Sydney was the best team for the final three quarters of the season, although obviously an argument could be made for the premiers, Richmond.
There are a few reasons why I think that Sydney is well poised for 2018. The only notable omissions will be Kurt Tippet (retired) and Sam Naismith (injury), neither of whom has been a key contributor. They have a number of talented young players who should show further improvement – Tom Papley, Isaac Heeney, Callum Mills and Lewis Mellican are all 20 or 21 years old. The Swans also have one of the easier schedules of the contending teams. They should be tough to beat.
Last year’s champion, the Richmond Tigers, are again undervalued by the market. They are an interesting team because their game style changed so dramatically last year. They had previously attempted to play in a very controlling manner, focused on retaining possession. However, in 2017 the Tigers transformed into a fast-paced, forward pressure team (the same style that worked for the Western Bulldogs in 2016). Richmond also noticeably improved as the season went on. Similar to Sydney, the Tigers will be returning with all of their key players.
Another reason to like Richmond to win the flag is that they are they are the only Melbourne-based team in the top tier. If they reach the grand final, they will get to play at their home ground, the MCG, and they will likely be playing against an interstate opponent. And if they need to play an away final against Geelong, that too will be at the MCG. If you watched the Tigers’ three finals matches last season, you could see a genuine home ground advantage.
The Adelaide Crows should be a good team in 2018, although I am concerned about the loss of two important defenders in Jake Lever (traded) and Brodie Smith (injury), both of whom I rate highly. They have also lost another top 22 player in Cameron (traded). The Crows have added Gibbs, who is a star midfielder, but I think that overall the team will be slightly weaker. The Crows also have a relatively tough draw. It is also relevant that the Crows are something of a “home team”, which is an issue when it comes to playing a grand final at the MCG. Over the past three seasons the Crows are a scorching 30-8 (79%) at Adelaide Oval and only 18.5-15.5 (54%) at all over venues. In comparison, over the same period of time, the Swans are 70% at home and 65% away.
There is scope for further improvement in a number of Greater Western Sydney’s young players and they should get more out of veterans Brett Deledio and Ryan Griffen who were both injured for the majority of last season. However, the Giants will be tested by the loss of four important players in Zac Williams (injury), Shane Mumford (retirement), Devon Smith (traded) and Nathan Wilson (traded). I think that the loss of Williams and Wilson, both pacey defenders, will be problematic. It will place extra pressure upon Heath Shaw, who is 32 years old and showed some signs of decline last season. This season will certainly test the depth of the Giants.
Top-Heavy, Be Wary
Geelong finished with the equal best record last season and they have added one of the all time great players in Gary Ablett. However, the Cats’ record last year was flattering – in games decided by less than a goal, they had 4 wins, a draw and no losses. Meanwhile, Ablett will be turning 34 in a couple of months and he has struggled to stay on the park in recent years. The Cats are one of the most top-heavy teams in the league and they will be susceptible to injury more than the other contenders. It is concerning that Patrick Dangerfield and Gary Ablett will both start the season with hamstring issues.
Port Adelaide is is under the odds at their current price. Last year the Power were a perfect 12-0 against bottom 9 teams, yet were 2-9 against top 9 teams. It seems that Port have taken over the mantle of “flat track bullies” from West Coast. Port’s new recruits – Tom Rockliff, Daniel Motlop and Jack Watts – should help, but I am still sceptical about a team that looked uncompetitive against the stronger teams last year.
Make the Eight
The Hawthorn Hawks are a genuine chance to return to playing finals football this year. Last season the Hawks struggled early but they quietly improved throughout the season, which was in part due to the development of some of their younger prospects who forced themselves into the starting line-up. The Hawks managed to beat the Sydney Swans twice, which is an impressive effort. They should be able to get more out of Cyril Rioli and Jaeger O’Meara, who combined for only 13 games last season due to injury. It will be interesting to see how the Hawks play without their long-term captain, Luke Hodge, who will be playing for the Lions this season. However, the Hawks are a well-coached team and I think that they will be surprisingly competitive this season.
Miss the Eight
The current price on the Essendon Bombers to make the top 8 is too short. Last season the Bombers had a relatively easy schedule and won 12 games. This season the schedule gets tougher for them. My ratings don’t have the Bombers as significantly more likely to play finals in comparison to teams such as Hawthorn, St Kilda, Western Bulldogs or Collingwood, all of whom are at longer odds.
Sydney, Richmond and Adelaide are clearly the three best teams heading into 2018. There are question marks over the rest of the field. Particularly Geelong, Port Adelaide and Essendon, three teams that have been supported by the market.