AFL news, Shane McInnes column

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Halfway through a season like no other, the AFL ladder is starting to take shape.

But which coaches already have their sides primed for a premiership tilt? Which still have improvement to come? And which are on the verge of failing to graduate the class of 2020?

Here are the mid-year grades for each coach. Fair or unfair? You be the judge.

Matthew Nicks (Adelaide): D-

Of the five new coaches in 2020, Nicks always had the greatest challenge ahead of him but not even the most critical Adelaide supporter could’ve envisaged they’d be winless after rounds, and in turn record their worst ever start to a season. The Crows rank last for disposals, clearances and goals scored this season, and quite simply the ‘stars’ of the list have failed to fire. Clearly, there have been distractions at the Crows Nicks isn’t responsible for: The continued leaks around Adelaide’s disastrous 2018 pre-season camp, board member Mark Ricciuto shooting his mouth off and club legend Andrew McLeod voicing his displeasure at his former club. It’s because of these distractions, and the fact Nicks is in his first senior gig, that he avoids an ‘F’. But failure to win in a match in his next eight and it’s hard to see him graduating past 2020.

Chris Fagan (Brisbane): A

If any team has been a winner out of 2020, it’s the Brisbane Lions. The Lions won’t leave Queensland for the remainder of the season, having left just once since the season commenced (Round 1 vs Hawthorn). But you ride your luck and Fagan has taken this team from ‘impressive’ in 2019 to ‘outstanding’ a year on. Across the field, players have grown in confidence and it’s showing. Fagan is a smart operator who, no matter the state of the game, keeps his composure on the interchange bench. Decisions are made on instinct and knowledge rather than emotion. Two significant hurdles still await Fagan, though. One, winning a final after being eliminated in straight sets last year. And two, defeating Richmond, something the Lions haven’t done in 15 previous attempts.

David Teague (Carlton): B+

It’s been a long wait for Carlton fans but the failures of recent years are slowly being eroded. Teague has instilled a belief in this group that they can win the unwinnable and there’s no greater example of that than the Blues hanging on to defeat Geelong at Kardinia Park in round three. Eddie Betts’ presence has provided a spark, while the recruiting of Marc Pittonet, Jack Newnes and in particular Jack Martin has paid massive dividends. However, there remains plenty to do, especially after unacceptable failures in recent weeks against Port Adelaide and Hawthorn. A positive win/loss record in the back half of the season would see him with an ‘A’ after 17 rounds.

Nathan Buckley (Collingwood): C+

For a team that got to within four points of a Grand Final last year, more was expected of Collingwood this season. With just two wins from their past six games, not even finals are assured in 2020. And that should have the Magpie army nervous. Bucks has had to contend with injuries to star players, including Jeremy Howe, Jordan De Goey and Scott Pendlebury, while Steele Sidebottom’s four-week ban for COVID-19 breaches hasn’t helped. The last fortnight in particular has been disastrous for the Magpies and has warning bells ringing. A day after his own embarrassing COVID-19 breach, Buckley needed a win more than ever and it should’ve been expected against a lowly Fremantle. His decision to play Irish debutant Mark Keane over Jordan Roughead backfired, while his midfield was smashed around the contested ball. There are still many questions about this Collingwood side at a time when consistency should be the minimum standard.

John Worsfold (Essendon): B-

Am I assessing Worsfold or coach in waiting, Ben Rutten? While Worsfold is the figurehead, much of the work behind the scenes and on game day is being done by Rutten as he prepares to take the reins in 2021. The hope Essendon gave its fans in the opening rounds has been swiftly removed in recent weeks, smashed by the Bulldogs and Brisbane, and just holding on against the winless Adelaide. Will the real Essendon please stand up! And the Bombers ability to close out matches has been questionable, winning just two final quarters. The likelihood of seeing Dyson Heppell or Joe Daniher this season appears slim and losing Dylan Shiel, Orazio Fantasia and Jake Stringer for periods hasn’t helped. It’s now 16 years since Essendon won a final and the expectation that drought is broken this year remains. Whether it’s Worsfold or Rutten in charge, the gulf between Essendon’s best and worst remains too great.

Justin Longmuir (Fremantle): C+

It’s been a tough initiation for Longmuir, who had to wait until round five to register his first win as coach. Then, as the group finally returned to Perth, injuries took their toll. Nat Fyfe and Michael Walters have both spent time on the sidelines with hamstring injuries, Darcy Tucker is out for the rest of the year, while Joel Hamling, Griffin Logue and Jesse Hogan are only slim chances to return this year. But Longmuir, while frustrated, knows it’s a win/loss game and he’s proven himself already as a smart tactician. Sunday’s win against Collingwood was a grind but Longmuir matched the Magpies game all over the ground, eventually getting on top. It might not be the more attacking brand some Dockers fans would’ve liked to see following Ross Lyon’s departure but there’s a method and, with a healthy list, that method could see more wins than losses in the back half of the year.

Chris Scott (Geelong): A

The Cats have only missed finals once under Chris Scott and that certainly won’t change in 2020. Geelong remains the envy of most sides, with a potent attack, slick midfield and hardened defence. Despite losing Gary Ablett due to family reasons and a consistent run of injuries to key personnel including Joel Selwood and Luke Dahlhaus, the Cats continue to show the depth of their list. Charlie Constable, Lachie Fogarty, Sam Simpson and Brad Close have all grabbed their opportunities and impressed, while Sam Menegola and Brandon Parfitt have both taken their game to the next level. Scott won a premiership in his maiden season at Geelong – a second shouldn’t be far away.

Stuart Dew (Gold Coast Suns): A

The Suns have been the perennial laughing stock of the competition but not anymore. Dew not only has this team earning respect, he’s got them playing an entertaining and exciting brand of football. So much so, the Suns now feature in prime time. Brandon Ellis and Hugh Greenwood have added experience and leadership to a young group, while the top draft picks of recent years have proven every bit the talent they were touted to be. With four wins already and no travel beyond Queensland for the remainder of the season, the bar is set for the Suns to come away with eight wins for the season, which would be their best return since 2014. Despite losing Rising Star favourite Matt Rowell for the year, opportunities abound, both on and off the field.

Leon Cameron (GWS Giants): C-

Widely-tipped to go one better than last year’s Grand Final appearance, the Giants have lost the ferocity that made them the powerhouse they were in 2019. Despite maintaining their all-conquering forward line, the Giants have struggled to get the ball inside 50, ranked dead last. Yep, even behind the winless Adelaide! Highly-regarded recruit Sam Jacobs struggled for opportunities early in the season, while some of the shine has come off the much-vaunted midfield. Losing star Toby Greene for the foreseeable is a massive blow. A move into the Queensland hub might be the spark the Giants need because on current form, that maiden premiership looks as far away as ever.

Alastair Clarkson (Hawthorn): C+

Has the future of any coach been more widely speculated on in 2020 than Clarko’s? The fact he’s led this club to four premierships means the bar is set particularly high and when the wins don’t come for Clarkson, it sends shockwaves through the competition. Hawthorn’s 43-point loss to Melbourne was embarrassing and Clarko’s whack on Tom Papley after his side’s loss to Sydney was a classic diversion tactic with the pressure gauge rising. Despite a streak of losses which president Jeff Kennett described as “the most disappointing displays by our boys that I have witnessed in years,” Clarkson has remained steadfast in his commitment to the Hawks. Last week’s 62-point turnaround against Carlton has some faith restored at Hawthorn but an ageing list remains the concern.

Simon Goodwin (Melbourne): D

A preliminary final appearance just two years back seems a lifetime ago for Melbourne fans and 2020 was supposed to restore the faith. It hasn’t. And with the Demons languishing in 15th on the ladder, David Schwartz’s assessment of his former club as “irrelevant” couldn’t be more on the money. While footy fans are often urged to be patient, it’s hard to be so when even the usually-reserved president, Glen Bartlett, is scathing in his assessment. Bartlett’s attack on his own club in the wake of last week’s loss to Port Adelaide has effectively put Goodwin on notice. Christian Petracca has elevated himself to one of the best players in the competition, but he’s got little support from teammates. Further failure in the second half of the year will have Goodwin under greater pressure than the winless Matthew Nicks at Adelaide.

Rhyce Shaw (North Melbourne): D+

A season that promised so much for North Melbourne fans has failed to deliver. After winning seven of 12 games after taking over from Brad Scott last year, Shaw has just three wins on the board from this season. As positive as last week’s 69 point win over Adelaide was, it’s only positive if the Roos can string successive wins together. It’s been reported Shaw worked the players too hard ahead of the season restart and that may well be a rookie error. And the decision to drop Jared Polec on the back of a season-best performance seems odd, even to the most casual observer. Shaw’s decision to play Majak Daw last week might be the inspiration this group needs. If they can play Ben Brown into form and get stars including Jack Ziebell and Ben Cunnington back on the field, the second half of the year should be far more palatable than the first.

Ken Hinkley (Port Adelaide): A

As a Victorian, I hate to say it, but I love watching Port Adelaide. Fast and attacking, with plenty of youthful exuberance. Hinkley has Xavier Duursma, Connor Rozee and Zak Butters all firing in their second season, while Charlie Dixon is like a new recruit up forward. Hinkley, who is perennially under pressure, has this team looking as good as it ever has under his tutelage. An embarrassing loss to St Kilda in round eight is the only thing holding Hinkley back from an ‘A+’. While all the talk is around Brisbane, West Coast and Richmond for the premiership, one would be foolish to write off Port Adelaide.

Damien Hardwick (Richmond): B+

The Tigers are yet to look as damaging as they have in recent years and there are certainly reasons for that. Shane Edwards and Bachar Houli both chose to stay at home when the Tigers relocated to Queensland (Houli is now in quarantine in Queensland), while injuries to Josh Caddy, Dion Prestia, Toby Nankervis and Trent Cotchin haven’t helped. Jack Riewoldt is failing to fire up forward, while Richmond’s ability to move the ball inside 50 lacks efficiency. There’s no great concern for Dimma but there’s a few tweaks needed to get this side back to its best. That of course excludes Dustin Martin, who is quickly rediscovering his Brownlow Medal-winning form of 2017.

Brett Ratten (St Kilda): A+

The Saints are the story of 2020 and what Ratten has brought to St Kilda, money can’t buy. Similar to Ken Hinkley, he has the team playing an entertaining brand of football that has his players enjoying the game more than ever. Ratten’s passion is clear for everyone to see at ground level and his relationship with the players is clearly one of his greatest attributes. Off-season recruits Bradley Hill, Dougal Howard and Zak Jones have already proven themselves, while Ratten has extracted more out of Paddy Ryder than even Ryder may have believed he had left. It’s been a long time in the finals wilderness for the Saints but the belief is greater than it’s been in years. And it has Carlton supporters looking over and wondering, ‘What did we let go?’

John Longmire (Sydney): C-

The last time Sydney missed out on finals in successive years was 1994-1995 and 25 years later, that’s the fate that awaits the Swans in 2020. Injuries have dashed Longmire’s hopes of returning the Swans to the top eight. Lance Franklin, Josh Kennedy and George Hewett are all still at least a month away, while Isaac Heeney and Sam Naismith are done for the year. Tom Papley has delighted fans this year but he’s one of few having a standout season at Sydney, leaving Longmire to regularly turn to the magnet board and assess his options. It’s tough to stomach but ‘play the kids’ might well be the best option for Longmire for the remainder of 2020.

Adam Simpson (West Coast Eagles): B+

Hub life didn’t start promisingly for the Eagles. Three successive losses raised questions and the distractions around how and when the club would return to Perth didn’t help. Clearly, though, the Eagles have found form and a string of games at Optus Stadium will set Adam Simpson up for a tilt at a second premiership. Josh Kennedy has turned back the clock with 15 goals in three weeks, while Nic Naitanui is in a rich vein of form and the young bridge of Jake Waterman, Oscar Allen and Jarrod Cameron continues to grow in confidence. The only question mark for the Eagles is, will they be as threatening in their second Queensland stint as they are at Optus Stadium? If the answer is ‘yes’, then this outfit will be very hard to deny a second flag in three years.

Luke Beveridge (Western Bulldogs): B-

Have the Bulldogs improved in 2020? I can’t answer that question. Their best is very good, their worst is very ordinary. Eroding the gulf between the two is Beveridge’s greatest challenge in the second half of the year, to ensure the Dogs again feature in finals action. Ravaged by injury this season, consistency has also let the Bulldogs down. Bailey Smith continues to grow in stature, Tim English has quickly proven his critics wrong and youngsters Laitham Vandermeer and Cody Weightman bring plenty of spark. Losing Lachie Hunter through suspension for a drunken incident, and then due to personal reasons, hasn’t helped but it’s a year in which every coach must constantly deal with hurdles. Josh Bruce has only fired once and now needs to do so more often, while the imminent return of Aaron Naughton will certainly help up forward.