LEIGH MATTHEWS reveals his top five AFL teams in order for 2024 and his fears for Collingwood

Leigh Matthews
The Nightly
7 Min Read
Leigh Matthews has selected his AFL top five for 2024.
Leigh Matthews has selected his AFL top five for 2024. Credit: Getty

As a player and coach, I always got a kind of melancholy nostalgia in the week leading into the start of the home and away series.

Your mindset suddenly undergoes a huge change. While the pre-season is physically tough, in the week leading into the first game a familiar but gut-churning performance anxiety returns as the emotional roller coaster of competition begins.

A perennial question each year is: will the reigning premiers go back-to-back?

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I believe the analogy of comparing a football season with climbing Mount Everest is an apt one.

Last season, Collingwood made it to the top of the mountain and with it all the glory and the coveted premiership cup.

Brisbane were within touching distance of the summit closely followed by the Giants, Melbourne and Carlton. You could have thrown a blanket over the top five teams, unlike 12 months earlier when Geelong were dominant and won the premiership easily with big wins in both the preliminary and grand final.

Collingwood however were the close win specialists. The Magpies had an eight win, one loss record in close games which, while extraordinary, is hard to keep repeating.

Football’s glorious unpredictability is its greatest attraction.

Great teams win by big margins so by that measure Collingwood were not a great team in 2023, but of course they could win it again. Will they? That is a very different thing.

Not that last season matters all that much when looking ahead because right now every club is back at Everest base camp and in truth a few might still be trekking up from Kathmandu.

The truth is there is no magic formula for going back-to-back but Collingwood needs to give itself the best chance to repeat by not getting wound up in the fan euphoria and media hype as reigning premiers.

For this reason, I found it interesting and a bit surprising to see Collingwood officially launch its 2023 premiership documentary, Take the Steps, last week to much excitement and fanfare just before the start of the new season.

Occasionally, marketing overrides coaching but I would have argued against this taking place. You need to put the grand final win behind you as much as is humanly possible, because every ounce of focus needs to be on the here and now.

Coach Craig McRae has exhibited a genius in finding the emotional triggers to motivate his players to have the right mindset and he knows living in the moment is especially important to a playing group when trying to repeat premiership success.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Patrick Cripps of the Blues celebrates kicking a goal during the AFL Second Preliminary Final match between Brisbane Lions and Carlton Blues at The Gabba, on September 23, 2023, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images via AFL Photos)
Collingwood coach Craig McRae finds emotional triggers to motivate his players to have the right mindset. Pictured: Patrick Cripps Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Back in the early 2000s, the Brisbane Lions won three consecutive flags and the players from that era even now talk of a couple of simple themes that drove them. One was their ability to live in the moment and the firm understanding of the football reality of taking it all one game at a time.

Secondly, they embraced the role-playing mantra. Concentrating on the assigned role-playing process of knowing your role, accepting it, performing and reviewing was something the Lions players did extremely well.

So when looking ahead to what may happen this season, us so-called experts are asked to do a bit of crystal ball gazing and in that space there are a few things I always note with interest.

How did we finish in 2023

When looking at form lines of 2023, I look back to the last nine rounds after the midseason bye plus the finals. That was current form when the season ended.

If you look specifically at these last nine rounds leading into the finals, there is an argument that Carlton (8 wins: 1 loss), Brisbane (7:2) , the Giants (7:2) and Melbourne (7:2) were the best performing teams during this period. The knockout nature of close finals can cloud the thinking.

Trade period

The trade period has not changed the landscape significantly, but there have been some interesting moves that might improve teams for the coming season.

Brodie Grundy going to the Sydney Swans is a big move. He has been a two-time best and fairest winner at Collingwood back in 2018 and 2019 before he moved to Melbourne last season where he struggled as the back-up to the game’s most influential ruckman Max Gawn. He will be the main ruckman at the Swans and is likely to be a big plus for them if he can regain the form of a few years back.

Another needs-based addition was Port Adelaide getting Esava Ratugolea from Geelong and that should help strengthen their backline, which last year often looked a big defender short.

The 2024 fixture

The fixture is a perennial talking point for clubs, fans and media who question its fairness and ask the question: should teams only play each other once?

The reality is the AFL is in the sports entertainment industry and the fixture is predominantly a marketing exercise. There are big dollars on the line, and it is about maximising attendances and television ratings and securing football as Australia’s most followed code.

The new round zero concept to open the season with four games being played in the northern States — which we still call non-football States — is a terrific concept to promote the game in heavily populated Sydney and South East Queensland.

The AFL does a reasonable job with the fairness aspect. Currently we have a 23-round season and that means that some teams will play each other twice and 17 only once. This is not ideal but the football economy is based around 198 home and away games so we are stuck with this slight inequity.

The draft

New players typically do not have a big or immediate influence on the success of their teams. The draft is where teams are looking to the future. However, Nick Daicos (Collingwood), Will Ashcroft (Brisbane) and Harry Sheezel (North Melbourne) are players who in recent times have had very good first seasons.

It will be interesting to see if any of the top draft selections can emulate the feats of Daicos, Ashcroft or Sheezel. There has been plenty of hype around first draft pick Harley Reid who looks an impressive player and may get opportunities with West Coast Eagles who are rebuilding.

Pre-season

There have been some incidents during the preseason that are likely to have significant impacts on their teams.

Daniel McStay will be a big loss for Collingwood after his ACL injury, the retirement of Angus Brayshaw is a massive blow to Melbourne and the suspension of Tarryn Thomas will hurt North Melbourne a lot.

Whereas, after missing large parts of last year, the return of Max King at St Kilda, Tom Lynch at Richmond and Clayton Oliver at Melbourne will be extremely valuable additions for those teams if they remain fit and play the full season.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 07: Clayton Oliver of the Demons in action during the 2023 AFL First Qualifying Final match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Melbourne Demons at Melbourne Cricket Ground on September 07, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos)
Clayton Oliver will be a valuable addition for Melbourne. Credit: Dylan Burns/AFL Photos

2023 close finish differentials

Collingwood 8 wins: 1 loss , Port Adelaide 6:1 and Carlton 5:0 all had excellent results in their close game differentials last year whereas at the other end of the scale Geelong 0:4, Bulldogs 1:4 and the Crows 1:4 lost most of their close finishes.

With no disrespect to Collingwood and their primary on-field coach Scott Pendlebury, there is an element of randomness and the football gods when it comes to the results of close games and these differentials could change very easily from season to season.

How many players played every game last season

This is always a good indication of how teams went with consistent lineups and luck with player injuries. Last season Brisbane (9), Saints (8) Bulldogs (8) and the Pies (7) had the most players who managed to play every game.

Carlton (2), GWS (4) and the Adelaide Crows (4) were on the other end of the scale. Again, these numbers can change from season to season.

Predictions for 2024

There are way more unknowns than knowns when predicting how season 2024 will play out. The reality of football is there are way more variables than constants and that is why inevitably, 2023 performances will not be replicated over the 18 teams in 2024.

No one really knows what is going to happen this season and that is why I love the game. Football’s glorious unpredictability is its greatest attraction.

This week will be the only time until the end of the season that teams have an equal win:loss ratio so may the arduous climb from footy’s Everest base camp begin.

Taking all the above into consideration and pulling out my trusty crystal ball, it is logical to me to tip the same top five but with a slight change to last year’s finishing rankings with Brisbane, Greater Western Sydney, Collingwood, Melbourne and Carlton to be the top five teams in that order.

As for the big improvers from the teams that did not play finals last season, the Crows and Geelong best fit that category.

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