At the beginning of each season, the 18 AFL teams start out the same way.
Twenty-three players walk onto the field, with no wins and no losses to their name.
For the time between the final siren of the previous season and the first of the upcoming one, each team sits on the same level as each other. To some degree, each side has some hopes of a flag.
The off-season lasts longer than the actual season, giving fans time to hope and dream of everything breaking the right way, culminating in a trip to the top of the premiership podium.
Twelve months ago, few outside of the Demons’ camp predicted Melbourne exiting the season on top, let alone dominating the finals as they did.
The Demons missed the finals in 2020, a season that was disrupted by injuries and bad luck. Their 2021 campaign saw everything turn around.
While runs like Melbourne’s give hope to all rival sides, the dreams of the off-season often fade fast.
With the 2022 season set to get underway in the same manner that the 2021 edition ended, so many questions are on the tips of tongues of footy fans across the nation.
Leading from the front?
It’s fitting that the grand final rematch between Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs kicks off the season because both sides are set to be at the pointy end of the ladder again.
The ABC has attempted to predict how the ladder might look at the end of the season, factoring in how well each side played and what role luck and injuries had last year, how they recruited in the off-season and the “luck of the draw”.
As expected, last year’s premiers are set to be the team to catch this year, but they will face a harder draw than most and the pack is close behind. Little is expected to separate the top six at this early stage, setting the stage for an epic season.
Recent seasons have seen surprise ‘risers’ through the competition, like Melbourne in 2021. Any team, from the predicted wooden spooner up, could make a real run at the finals.
Looming heavily on the horizon is Richmond, with its playing stocks dented but its will still intact. After a horror run with injuries in 2021, expect Damien Hardwick’s three-time premiers to rise back into finals contention this year.
Freed from desire?
But like in all seasons, the biggest targets for sides are painted on the backs of those at the top of the previous season.
Melbourne was not as active as other clubs in the off-season, but crucially returned all 23 of their premiership players.
While the Demons lost club stalwarts in Nathan Jones and Neville Jetta to retirement, they reloaded on depth by nabbing discarded Saint Luke Dunstan.
If that isn’t enough, their crop of talented youngsters — think Jackson, Pickett and Sparrow — are likely to improve further this year.
But like most premiership teams, Melbourne has copped a pretty tough draw as a reward for its success.
For opposition clubs, the focus is less on when they will play Melbourne or the Bulldogs, but how they will stop them when they do.
Most clubs will have spent time working out how to pierce the suffocating defensive set-up of the Demons and Bulldogs, with both teams so dangerous at generating scores from the front half.
While some superfluous focus will go to Melbourne’s astonishing run of goals from stoppages in the third quarter of the grand final, smarter analysts realise that runs like that don’t happen often.
Two clubs with youngish lists re-entered the finals last year after a brief stint away, even if their stays were short.
But all signs seem to point to a continued rise for both Sydney and Essendon in 2022, with youth supporting solid veterans at both clubs.
Both sides turned heads with their aggressive ball movement from defence last year, cutting other sides to pieces.
Their opposition will have had an extra year to work both out, but the principles are solid to beat even the staunchest of defences.
The Swans and Bombers tested the two grand finalists as much as any other side last year, with their game style giving them a chance on any given day.
But both sides have personnel-related question marks as well.
Jordan Dawson, who was crucial a lot of the Swans’ aggression in moving the ball, has found a new home at the Crows and the forward line is still heavily reliant on Lance Franklin.
The Bombers lost the resurgent Cale Hooker to retirement in the off-season and they jettisoned some of their useful depth. They also face the toughest predicted fixture outside of the grand finalists, who are expected to be set a handicap.
For long-suffering Bomber fans, a finals win is the short-term goal for the year.
New coach, new success?
A new coach often signifies a new direction at football clubs and three teams have taken the plunge in 2022
All three sides missed the top eight last year and they will be hoping that new ideas will be critical to turning around their clubs.
Collingwood parted ways with Nathan Buckley after a decade in charge, with Craig McRae taking the reins following a season in which the Magpies finished in 17th place.
McRae has already signalled a move to a more attacking game style, potentially at the expense of their extremely strong defence. In recent years, that defence has reliably kept the Magpies in finals contention, so the risk of a new game style is real.
Carlton, on the other hand, has seemingly refocused its defensive and stoppage structures under new coach Michael Voss. Despite having stellar individual defenders, the Blues’ defence was too often left exposed one-out, and they struggled to apply pressure around the ground.
Despite missing Liam Jones, the early signs from the preseason looked promising. Many are tipping Carlton for a swift rise up the ladder as a result.
Hawthorn’s end to the 2021 season was somewhat electric and new coach Sam Mitchell will be doing well to keep that type of play up.
But after the attempted player fire sale at the end of the season, expectations out of Glenferrie have been more for the future than for right now.
West is best?
Coming into the first week of the season, West Coast coach Adam Simpson said he had 25 or 26 fit players to choose from.
That’s not ideal, especially for a side coming off a weak end to 2021 and two poor preseason outings.
Despite having several of the most impactful players in the game — think Nic Naitanui, Tim Kelly, Josh Kennedy and Jeremy McGovern — expectations are well and truly muted for this season.
The Eagles struggled last year to score from turnovers, the biggest source of points in the modern game. Despite finishing ninth last year, West Coast might end up sliding down the ladder, especially if COVID-19 and injuries continue to take their toll.
Across town, the news hasn’t been a whole lot better for Fremantle, who is tipped by many to climb the ladder.
While the Dockers finished on the fringes of the eight in 2021, their record masked their true strength.
They performed more like an eight-win side, according to their Pythagorean record.
The Dockers were lucky in close games, winning four of their five games that were decided by two goals or less.
The men in purple also lost young midfielder Adam Cerra to Carlton, hurting their emerging midfield unit with no ready-made replacement.
Their tall defence was also put under pressure last year, conceding the most marks inside 50 per entry of any side.
Both West Australian clubs have talented lists, but the margin for error is narrow. The spectre of COVID-19 infections sweeping through Perth and their footy clubs might make finals an even tougher task than in most ‘normal’ years.
And the rest?
Many will be watching the rebuilds of Adelaide, North Melbourne and Gold Coast, and which of those clubs will be the first to make moves up the ladder.
A little higher up the ladder, St Kilda is at the crossroads, having pushed all its chips into the middle in previous seasons in chase of prolonged finals success.
The Saints have been hit with yet another tough draw, so 2022 will be crucial to determine whether the Brett Ratten-led rebuild will pay dividends.
Geelong and GWS have been at the top end for several years without tasting that ultimate September success. Both have reloaded for another charge at the flag, but there’s a feeling that time might be starting to slip by for both.
It’s a similar story for Brisbane and Port Adelaide, with the question of how to turn home-and-away success into finals glory.
And that’s before we get into the off-field drama of collective bargaining deals, match review panels and (maybe) a new team in Tasmania.
Buckle up — it’s going to be a long, wild year.