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From the grandstand: Grading the rest

While eight AFL clubs are preparing for a gruelling finals series, nine others are relaxing and reflecting on what has been a hectic season. Ben Waterworth assesses the teams that won't be featuring deep into September.

Get excited – the AFL finals are just three sleeps away!

Fans are expected to pack both the MCG and Etihad Stadium to the brim this weekend as the remaining eight teams battle for the ultimate accolade in footy. And with Collingwood showing signs of vulnerability last Friday night, it could be a closer series than what most were predicting.

But as the focus shifts to the big boys, what about the bottom nine clubs? What can they take away from 2011, besides a sore head from Mad Monday?

Below is a brief evaluation of the teams that won’t feature in this season’s finals series.

North Melbourne (Finished: 9th, Win-Loss Record: 10-12)

Best and Fairest favourite: Todd Goldstein or Andrew Swallow

So close, yet so far – again. According to their 2010 win-loss record (11-11), the Roos would be disappointed with their 2011 campaign, finishing ninth for the second consecutive season. Yes, they were able to recover after registering two wins from their first nine games, but the Roos’ inability to compete against top eight teams late in the season proved costly. Once they improve their disposal efficiency and believe they can match it with the best, they can consider themselves genuine contenders. On a positive note, Daniel Wells showed great consistency, while Todd Goldstein is almost a lock for the second ruck spot in the All-Australian team.

Grade: C+

Western Bulldogs (10th, 9-13)

Best and Fairest favourite: Matthew Boyd

Before the start of the season, our upstart AFL experts believed the Bulldogs would finish in the top eight. Three believed they’d win the flag. How wrong we were. This was supposed to be the Bulldogs’ final shot at a premiership in what has been a reasonably successful era – and they flopped. Regarded as one of the most efficient teams by foot, the Bulldogs became turnover kings during 2011. The club’s handling of injury-prone Brian Lake was appalling, while Barry Hall’s retirement leaves a massive hole in the forward line. Yes it was a tough call, but coach Rodney Eade needed to depart for the club to move forward. The Dogs need a fresh start with a fresh senior coach. But with few talented players between the ages of 22 and 27, expect the Dogs to bottom out over the next couple of years.

Grade: E+

Fremantle (11th, 9-13)

Best and Fairest favourite: Nathan Fyfe

Injuries, injuries, injuries – they cruelled the Dockers in 2011. To emphasise their bad luck, they named 22 players on their injury list ahead of their final game against Western Bulldogs. Still, the Dockers found themselves in the top eight for 18 of the 24 rounds, so to finish the year with seven consecutive losses was substandard. However they’ve unleashed an absolute gun player this season in Nathan Fyfe, who’s a strong chance to make the All-Australian team at the age of 19. If they can break their Victorian hoodoo, maintain their good record at home and keep their best players on the park, the Dockers should be back in the top eight in 2012.

Grade: C-

Richmond (12th, 8-13-1)

Best and Fairest favourite: Trent Cotchin

It was hard not to get excited about the Tigers in Round 9, because they’d won four of their past five games. However, one win between Rounds 10 and 20 derailed their season and another finish outside the top eight became inevitable. They had awful losses against Port Adelaide and Gold Coast midway through the season, proving the young list wasn’t mentally ready to take the next step. On the flip side, Dustin Martin and Tyrone Vickery took huge steps, while Trent Cotchin benefitted from a full pre-season and showed why he’s the next captain of the club. They need to recruit an experienced ruckman and a big bodied defender during trade week. Don’t mark the Tigers too harshly next season, but they must make the finals in 2013.

Grade: C+

Melbourne (13th, 8-13-1)

Best and Fairest favourite: Brent Moloney

At their best, they Demons were incredibly exciting. At their worst, they forced you to leave the ground or turn off the television. The chasm between the Dees’ best and worst form was too big in 2011, averaging 49-point wins and 60-point losses. It proved the playing group was too young and an immature feature in the finals. Now the burning question: who should coach the Dees next season? Todd Viney? Mick Malthouse? Mark Williams? Whoever’s in charge, they must be ruthless and command authority. They must walk into the club, stamp their authority and guide this potential premiership list. Pretty simple: finals or fail for the Dees next year.

Grade: D-

Adelaide (14th, 7-15)

Best and Fairest favourite: Scott Thompson

The Crows were the enigma of the league pre-season. Few were certain where they’d finish. Ultimately, a lack of experience and zip around the midfield resulted in a finish in the wrong half of the ladder. It was the right decision to cut Neil Craig’s coaching tenure midway through the year, because his defensive game plan had become fossilised and predictable. However, after some immediate success, interim coach Mark Bickley was criticised for being too attacking. There was still plenty of upside though, with skipper Nathan van Berlo finishing the season in fine style, while Jared Petrenko and Rory Sloane showed why they’re the future of the club. And Scott Thompson gets nowhere near the credit he deserves. No matter who coaches the Crows next year though, it’s hard to see them featuring in September.

Grade: D+

Brisbane Lions (15th, 4-18)

Best and Fairest favourite: Tom Rockliff

Look up ‘honourable losers’ in the dictionary and you’ll see ‘Brisbane Lions’ as the definition. The Lions won only four games for the season, but the talk has deservedly been all positive. In Matthew Leunberger, Tom Rockliff, Jack Redden and Daniel Rich, they have a midfield they can build their future around. All they’re missing is some pace through the middle, but hopefully high draft pick Jared Polec, who only played three games this season, will provide that. Up forward, Patrick Karnezis and Aaron Cornelius also showed signs they could be potential headaches for opposition coaches in the coming years. If Jonathan Brown, Daniel Merrett and Simon Black can stay injury-free next season, expect the Lions to move a few spots up the ladder.

Grade: C+

Port Adelaide (16th, 3-19)

Best and Fairest favourite: Travis Boak

Where do you start? The mammoth losing margins? The poor club culture? The lack of resources for coach Matthew Primus? The laziness of senior players? In summary, 2011 was a horrid season for the Power and it couldn’t have come to an end quick enough. However, the positive signs over the final two weeks of the year were hard to ignore. They marginally lost to finals bound Essendon and avoided the wooden spoon with an emotional victory over the Demons. The latter result was a massive boost to them, as it was played in front of nearly 30,000 people at Adelaide Oval, the venue which could save this club from financial disaster. The Power must retain their young players if they want to play finals in the next 10 seasons. However another bottom four finish awaits them next season.

Grade: E-

Gold Coast Suns (17th, 3-19)

Best and Fairest favourite: Gary Ablett

While they would’ve been disappointed to finish with the wooden spoon, the Suns showed plenty of promising signs during their inaugural AFL season. Four players were nominated for the NAB Rising Star award and two of them, Zac Smith and David Swallow, could be the top two players in the competition sooner rather than later. The club would’ve been delighted with the diligence and leadership of Gary Ablett, plus solid contributions from Nathan Bock, Michael Rischitelli and Jared Brennan. If all goes to plan, the Suns should double their win count next season. But in a few years time, the Suns will no longer be everyone’s second favourite team.

Grade: B+

Check out upstart‘s AFL finals team previews here.

Ben Waterworth is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University and is upstart’s former sports editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @bjwaterworth

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