Queensland. What does hell on earth look like for a Victorian? Probably a lot like 2020, the year the grand final was played at the Gabba and all 10 teams from footy’s heartland state upped sticks and moved elsewhere. For a while it looked as if NSW was a real contender for the big dance and indeed, the Sydney basin briefly played host to a handful of interstate clubs — but ultimately it was the Sunshine State that proved the saviour of this very strange season.
The Swans’ future. In pure win-loss terms, it wasn’t a good year for Sydney. But the young players who will eventually help them turn the corner got a full season of learning on the job, and John Longmire has spoken multiple times of his belief that time spent in hubs brought his squad closer together. The likes of James Rowbottom, Nick Blakey and Tom McCartin may look back on 2020 as their making.
Richmond. At first, it seemed hub life didn’t agree with the Tigers — two of their stars broke protocols and found trouble after ordering a round of kebabs outside a Gold Coast strip club, and coach Damien Hardwick seemed to be a man at war with the world. But Hardwick pulled his head in and his players followed suit, with superstar Dustin Martin bagging a record third Norm Smith Medal as Richmond claimed their third flag in four years.
The Giants. They were expected to take the next step after making the 2019 grand final. Instead, they took an enormous tumble backwards. A club that thought it was “built on resilience” sadly crumbled in the hub environment and missed the finals completely. Stephen Coniglio’s first season as skipper saw him become the first AFL captain in 22 years to be dropped, and the exits of Jeremy Cameron, Zac Williams and Aidan Corr added the sourest imaginable cherry on top.
Lance Franklin. Didn’t play a single game because of knee, hamstring and groin problems. Buddy turns 34 in January and has two of the biggest-paying seasons left on his mega nine-year contract with Sydney, so they’ll be desperately hoping a core-based body-strengthening program will get him back on the park next season.
The Swans’ balance sheet. Sydney posted a whopping $6 million loss this year, most of it attributable to the lack of crowds at the SCG this year. It’s not fatal, but it goes to show the extent to which the coronavirus crisis rocked all corners of the AFL industry, and how delicate things are for teams in the non-traditional markets.
Hard to go past Elijah Taylor. Started his career with the Swans with real promise — and the No.37 guernsey made famous by Adam Goodes. But one high-profile COVID protocol breach and two separate domestic assault allegations later, and the teenager’s dreams of AFL stardom are done for good.
MAN OF THE YEAR
Gillon McLachlan. It was a pretty gargantuan effort from the AFL chief executive to coordinate everything required to make the 2020 season happen — from the ever-changing restrictions imposed by governments at all levels, to sensitive financial negotiations with broadcasters, players, clubs and even banks. If NSW is the gold standard of contact tracing, the AFL was the gold standard of getting a competition away during a pandemic, despite what Peter V’landys will have you think.
WOMAN OF THE YEAR
Cora Staunton. A brave comeback story that went right under the radar. The Gaelic football legend broke her leg in four places during a local Sydney match in mid-2019, and aged 37 at the time, it probably should have been curtains. Instead, she astounded people at GWS with her tenacious approach to rehab and played all seven games for the Giants in the AFLW, including their heartbreaking semi-final loss to Melbourne.
VIRAL MOMENTS OF THE YEAR
Kebab-gate. Not so much the incident itself, when Richmond pair Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones escaped their Gold Coast hub, had a quick bite to eat outside of Hollywood Showgirls and got themselves in a fist fight with a passer-by. It was the reporting of the incident — the grainy CCTV footage, the blow-by-blow account of who ordered the kebabs, how they were ruined amid the scuffle, and the shop owner touting his “famous kebabs” — that made this one so glorious.
John Longmire’s clapback at Damien Hardwick. ‘Horse’ is usually a pretty reserved character in the media and rarely gives anything away at his weekly press conferences. But after Hardwick accused Sydney of ruining the aesthetics of their clash against Richmond by flooding “75,000 people in our forward 50”, Longmire had every right to fire back. He tore strips off his opposite number, saying his comments were not only “unnecessary and unwarranted” but factually wrong and at odds with the collegiate nature of the AFL coaching community.
If a promo stunt could sum up the year, it was Rebel Sport‘s extensive, expensive operation to install a patch of turf from the MCG at the Gabba, where it took pride and place … outside the boundary line.
QUOTE OF THE YEAR
“My gut tells me those two boys will be running around in Giants colours for another four or five years.” — GWS coach Leon Cameron on the futures of off-contract stars Jeremy Cameron and Zac Williams, who have since joined Geelong and Carlton respectively.
CRYSTAL BALL FOR 2021
The Giants will be back in the top eight. The absence of Jeremy Cameron won’t be felt particularly hard because Jake Riccardi will emerge as the team’s No.1 forward target and prove his uber-impressive first few games for GWS weren’t a fluke. The Swans will take a big step forward in their development and go close to playing finals football. Lance Franklin will play only a handful of games before his hamstrings fail him again, which may force him to consider an early retirement.
Vince is a sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.