05/03/2024

What are the key selection battles in your side ahead of Round 1? Image Design: Will Cuckson

What is the key selection battle at your club ahead of Round 1?

Just over one week away from the start of the home and away season, what is the key selection battle the match committee is mulling over after months of pre-season and two practice matches?

The Inner Sanctum has a look at the battles at your club.

Adelaide

Taken with pick number two in the 2020 national draft, many expected key forward Riley Thilthorpe to be an automatic starter and the focal point of the Adelaide forward line.

However, fast forward to the 2023 preseason, and it appears that Elliott Himmelberg has taken Thilthorpe’s place as Adelaide’s third key forward.

Himmelberg was favoured in Adelaide’s 59-point victory in the preseason win over West Coast and is expected to get the start, with Thilthorpe playing in the reserves fixture.

Elsewhere, medium-sized forward Lachlan Gollant offers significant versatility. Gollant was given a small run of games at the beginning of 2022 and will be looking to get back into the side.

Adelaide has a very exciting forward mix, and the pressure for spots will be high, so no matter who the Crows choose, they will need to perform from the outset.

Lachlan Dand

Brisbane 

Who will get the nod as the small defenders come Round 1?

With Harris Andrews and Jack Payne locking down the key defensive posts, and Daniel Rich and Brandon Starcevich are both set for Round 1, it will be interesting to see who Chris Fagan runs with as the other 2-3 defenders.

Recruit Conor McKenna showed some run against the Cats but perhaps lacks AFL match fitness to come straight in.

Keidean Coleman cemented his spot towards the back end of the year as a half-forward for the most part, but the Lions showed during the practice game that they may be keen to use his damaging kicking across half-back.

Youngster Darcy Wilmot also impressed with his limited opportunities, and former Saint Darragh Joyce is pushing for a defensive role as well.

Scott Kertes

Carlton

There is a vacancy in Carltons starting 23 at halfback after Zac Williams’ unfortunate season-ending ACL injury.

Lachie Cowan, who the Blues took at pick 30 in the national draft has staked his claim to fill that spot after an impressive first summer at Ikon Park.

Cowan, who was already in contention for a Round 1 debut before the unfortunate injury to Williams, looked assured against the mature bodies in the Collingwood forward line and then backed it up with his performance in trying conditions against last year’s grand finalists Sydney.

SSP selection Alex Cincotta also put his best foot forward with a showing in the two trial runs, looking like he was ready to make the jump and play at the level above.

The 26-year-old is probably down the list with several big-name Blues expected to shrug off injury concerns and play in the season opener, but coaches would be impressed with Cincotta’s run, dare and want to make things happen, putting him right in the frame.

Jono Baruch

Collingwood 

In the practice match against Hawthorn last week, Collingwood lost midfielder Pat Lipinski to a dislocated shoulder which will rule him out of the first half of the season, as he’ll go under the knife for shoulder surgery.

With Lipinski only attending 6.5 per cent of centre bounces in the match and spending the rest of his time up forward, it opens up a spot in the side’s forward fifty.

Jack Ginnivan is also unavailable until round two as well, leaving the Magpies searching for someone to play that small to medium forward role alongside new recruit Bobby Hill. 

Ash Johnson will be one that will put his name into contention for the spot after a strong maiden season following his Round 18 debut against Adelaide

His debut season included a four-goal haul against Melbourne in Round 22.

Beau McCreery and Reef McInnes are among the others who both had solid performances in the practice match against Hawthorn, with the latter making the most of his opportunities with a goal from 36 percent of game time. 

Elly McNerney 

Essendon 

The Bombers struggled to hit the scoreboard with any great impact in their pre-season match against St Kilda, so what new coach Brad Scott does up forward is the key selection battle come Round One?

Does he roll the dice with Alwyn Davey Jnr, who has looked lively all pre-season? 

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti is a certain starter, but after an extended absence, can Scott rely on him straight away to have a big scoreboard impact? 

Kaine Baldwin broke into the senior side last year, albeit briefly, and maybe another option for the Bombers come Round 1. 

Finding the right balance to surround Peter Wright will be critical to start the season off on a positive note against the Hawks.

Scott Kertes

Fremantle 

With Nathan Fyfe trialled up forward in the most recent pre-season game against Port Adelaide with great effect (3.2), the Dockers’ key selection issues heading into Round One revolve around the makeup of their forward line. 

Is Fyfe alone enough of a forward target to be considered the second tall, or do the Dockers play Josh Treacy alongside both Fyfe and Matt Taberner in a three-pronged attack?

Treacy has had limited opportunities throughout his career and has never really grasped the second forward spot, but showed promise with two goals against Port. 

Throw in Luke Jackson for good measure, and the Dockers have an abundance of tall options up forward, a good selection headache to have for coach Justin Longmuir.

Scott Kertes

Geelong

Which of the Cat’s new recruits, if any, will pounce on the vacant spot left by Joel Selwood?

Jack Bowes certainly put his hand up in the first practice game against Hawthorn, with a best-on-ground performance out of the middle before being put on ice at halftime.

Strangely, Bowes was omitted from the most recent hit out against Brisbane, with Tanner Bruhn instead spending a lot of time in the midfield and racking 19 disposals and seven tackles.

Youngster Jhye Clark also spent time through the middle against Hawthorn but appears to be third in line of the trio.

Scott Kertes

Gold Coast 

The forward line will be the biggest selection headache for the coaching staff of Gold Coast heading into Round 1. 

Ben King is back and warrants a game, despite the limited preparation, and Maboir Chol was excellent last year, leaving Levi Casboult on the outer. 

Given King’s return from a long-term injury, he may be restricted in-game time early, so the Suns may opt to play all three early in the season. 

The small forwards will also cause coach Stuart Dew headaches – Alex Sexton continued to struggle, Izak Rankine has left, and James Tsitas is a mature recruit but hardly a game changer. 

Elijah Hollands, Ben Ainsworth, and the midfielders will have to take up their fair share of the slack at the feet of the big men for the Suns to have the best chance to impact the scoreboard in a meaningful way.

Scott Kertes

GWS Giants

New coach Adam Kingsley has an early selection headache on his hands, with the Giants’ key forward stocks adding another element in the offseason with the selection of Vic Country key forward Aaron Cadman at pick 1 of the 2022 national draft.

Last year at the position, Jesse Hogan led all-comers with 35 goals in 18 games, supported by Jake Riccardi 15 goals in 15 games, and Harry Himmelberg who booted 22 goals in 22 games despite a mid-season position shift to defence under interim coach Mark McVeigh.

In their first official hitout for 2023, Kingsley opted for the Hogan, Riccardi, and Himmelberg trio up forward and it proved an early success as the three combined for nine goals (Riccardi four, Himmelberg three, Hogan two) in a 45-point win over Gold Coast. Meanwhile, Cadman made an impressive case for a Round one debut with a four-goal outing in the VFL practice match.

In his inaugural season as head coach Kingsley has a multitude of decisions to make in the forward line, including when to debut exciting prospect Cadman and whether swingman Harry Himmelberg is deployed up forward or swung down back.

Bradley Thiele

Hawthorn 

Will Jacob Koschitzke being the main man up forward be the thing to get his career back on track?

With Mitch Lewis succumbing to a knee injury during the preseason, the Hawks number one forward option looks set to miss up to the first month.

It gives Koschitzke the perfect opportunity to get back to playing senior football and assert himself back in the side’s best 22.

Having fallen out of favour last year after an impressive 2021 season, the 22-year-old has a big opportunity to get himself back on track, and after a quiet day out against Geelong in the side’s match simulation where he struggled to find much of the ball, create many chances and looked well off the pace, he put in a much better showing against the Pies the week after.

Getting the better of Darcy Moore multiple times throughout the afternoon, he could have finished the game with five goals next to his name had it not been for inaccurate kicking in front of goal finishing the game with 1.4.

Appearing to regain his confidence, he’s been presented with the perfect opportunity to break back into the senior team tasked to be the main source of goals in their season opener against the Bombers.

Giacomo Bruno

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North Melbourne 

North Melbourne’s inexperienced list showed in 2022 with the young team winning just two games.

Ahead of this season, the approach under new coach Alastair Clarkson was to target the draft and stock up on their top-end talent for future years.

The likes of George Wardlaw and Harry Sheezel are both capable of playing midfield minutes this season, although Sheezel will probably start the year forward. 

The Kangaroos’ midfield has some respectable names in it; Jy Simpkin, Ben Cunnington, and Luke Davies-Uniacke as the probable starting three.

Joining the extended midfield group will likely be Hugh Greenwood, Tom Powell, and Will Phillips, and the potential for Paul Curtis to run through the engine room as well, there is plenty of depth for the Roos midfield this year.

Callan Cummins

Port Adelaide

The lack of quality depth in the ruck severely hurt Port Adelaide last year after Lycett went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in Round 4.

The Power turned to Sam Hayes (seven games), mid-season recruit Brynn Teakle (two), and forward Jeremy Finlayson who all showed signs, but it was Finlayson who took over the number-one mantle after the bye and impressed, becoming an extra midfielder, using his speed, agility, and unique ball skills to outrun his opponent.

The performances of first-choice ruckman Scott Lycett in the two practice matches weren’t pretty after he was comprehensively beaten by Sean Darcy.

Lycett had only 65 per cent time on the ground and struggled to get around the ground. Teakle didn’t make an impact, Hayes wasn’t selected for the practice match, and Finlayson missed as he continues to recover from an ankle injury.

The fact of the matter is that Scott Lycett for now is Port’s first-choice ruck, but fans will hope to see a better performance once the ball is bounced at the Adelaide Oval against Brisbane in Round 1.

Jordan Janssen

Richmond

The Tigers added two formidable names to their midfield for the 2023 season, adding Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper from the GWS Giants.

The Tigers’ midfield is now one of the most competitive in the league with the likes of Jayden Short, Jack Graham, and Shai Bolton showed signs in the back end of 2022 of his midfield ability.

Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin were also midfield names last season but will most likely spend the vast majority of this season in the front half of the ground being pushed out by Taranto and Hopper.

Additionally, Richmond’s defensive 50 has several players putting their hands up for Round one selection against Carlton.

Big names like the co-captain Dylan Grimes, Robbie Tarrant, Hugo Ralphsmith, Noah Balta, Josh Gibcus, and Nathan Broad.

There are a plethora of options that the Tigers can go to and still be reliable in defence ahead of Round one causing selection headaches for the Tigers coaches.

Callan Cummins

St Kilda 

The Saints have had more than their fair share of troubles throughout the 2023 pre-season. In terms of their playing group, the attack has been shredded through injuries to Max King, Tim Membrey, Jack Hayes, and Matthew Allison, depleting the tall forward stocks at Moorabbin.

The question of Ross Lyon’s men is now exactly who will be lining up at full-forward in round one against a strong Fremantle outfit?

While Membrey may return in time for the clash, the Saints will likely blood plenty of youth to begin their season in the forward half, with Anthony Caminiti set to have the unlikeliest of debuts after being selected in the supplemental selection period. Will the Saints have enough firepower in attack to take down the Dockers?

Jarryd Thomas

Sydney 

Could a move up forward be the thing that Harry Cunningham needs to regain his spot in the best 23 for Sydney?

Having fallen out of favour last year with just 10 games, Cunningham could be redeployed as a replacement for Ryan Clarke, who is battling a hamstring strain and will miss the start of the season.

Cunningham made an impact in his new forward role immediately with two first-quarter goals and is a chance to get a callup as a defensive forward against Gold Coast. 

Thomas Grattan

West Coast 

With Liam Ryan and Jamie Cripps locks for small forward roles to start the season and Oscar Allen keen to impress following a year out, the battle for the other positions in the forward line is the biggest selection headache facing Adam Simpson before Round One. 

Jack Petruccelle is flashy and managed a goal against the Crows in their most recent practice match, however, he has had quite a few opportunities to cement a spot and has failed to do so each time. 

Jake Waterman is in a similar spot – although his height may see him line up in Round One given Jack Darling’s absence, he has also failed to consistently impress at the senior level. 

Instead, the Eagles may opt to play youngster Elijah Hewett and sacrifice the now for faster development with senior experience early in his career. 

It is an interesting watch to see how the Eagles line up in the forward line to start the season.

Scott Kertes

Western Bulldogs 

The Bulldogs have an influx of tall forwards with the addition of Rory Lobb to the likes of Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Aaron Naughton as well as Sam Darcy who proves to be a versatile option, being able to play just about anywhere on the field.

As shown in the practice match against North Melbourne, Luke Beveridge looks just about set on playing all four talls in round one, so it begs the question, who makes up the rest of that Bulldogs forward line? 

The Bulldogs have a few options to choose from, to make up the rest of that forward line.

Rhylee West had a breakout 2022 season, including a career-best 19 disposals and a three-goal performance against Hawthorn in Round 15.

Whilst Arthur Jones is yet to get his opportunity at the senior level, a strong performance against North Melbourne in the practice match will have him in the frame slotting two goals. 

Elly McNerney

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