The fall and rise of AFL's birds of prey

More than 100,000 turned out at the MCG to watch the Eagles win the AFL grand final.
More than 100,000 turned out at the MCG to watch the Eagles win the AFL grand final. Tim Terry

THE Eagles and Magpies returned to the top of the tree, a Hawk soared to new heights and the Crows were brought back to earth.

We count down the best - and the worst - highlights of the 2018 AFL season.

10. Bomber's bombshell

THE year could not have gotten off to a more explosive start when former player and coach Mark 'Bomber' Thompson was arrested in January during a drug-trafficking investigation by Victoria Police.

It was an incredible fall from grace for the man who had captained Essendon to a flag in 1993 and coached Geelong to premierships in 2007 and 2009.

Embroiled in the Bombers' supplements saga of 2012 when an assistant coach under former teammate James Hird, the 54-year-old was now facing an even greater personal scandal.

In April, a court heard that a range of drugs, including 134.6 grams of ecstasy, 33.1 grams of methyl amphetamine, an LSD tab, 5.6 grams of ephedrine and multiple Xanax tablets were found in a locked bedroom of his Port Melbourne apartment.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 01:  Former AFL coach and VFL player Mark 'Bomber' Thompson leaves Melbourne Magistrates Court after being charged with several drug offences on May 1, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. Police raided Thompson's home in January allegedly discovering drug paraphernalia in his locked room.  (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
r Mark 'Bomber' Thompson leaves court after being charged with several drug offences. Darrian Traynor

Police also seized four ice pipes, two sets of digital scales, eight hard drives and an iPhone.

Thompson will front the magistrates court in June next year. He is facing eight charges, including three counts of drug trafficking and four of drug possession.

9. Crow beaters

A NUMBER of clubs like to venture north for the summer - think Noosa or Mooloolaba.

But for the Adelaide Crows, who had been looking for an edge after losing the 2017 grand final to Richmond, their time on the Gold Coast at the start of the year was apparently anything but fun in the sun.

After enduring a torrid time under the "control" of Collective Minds, the Crows were seemingly left scarred for the rest of the season and eventually finishing 12th after starting as flag favourites.

One source reportedly described the week as cult-like with some players mentally broken, particularly those senior members of the playing group who had been taken on a bush "adventure" that began with them being blindfolded.

The Adelaide Crows' pre-season camp did not go to plan.
The Adelaide Crows' pre-season camp did not go to plan.

There were also allegations players had to endure listening to the Tigers' theme song on a loop. Good song, but eek.

Complaints were made to the players' association, coach Don Pyke described it as a fail, and after months of rumours and innuendo the firm itself fronted the press to defend their approach.

"I think we did a really, really good job," co-director Amon Woulfe said.

So much for 'what happens on the footy trip, stays on the footy trip'.

8. Demon resurrection

MELBOURNE players had also taken a grievance to the players' association, over a planned commando-style pre-season camp in December last year. It was ultimately cancelled.

But instead of that derailing the Demons' 2018 campaign before it began, the long-time cellar dwellers would become one of the league's big improvers - and despite what might have appeared to be a sooky start to the summer, they also became one of its toughest teams.

Max Gawn was a star for the Demons.
Max Gawn celebrates a goal. Adam Trafford/AFL Media

They broke a 12-year finals drought, destroying one-time heavyweights Geelong and Hawthorn in consecutive cut-throat finals (in front of 90,000 fans, all back from the snowfields presumably) before ultimately coming up short in a preliminary final in Perth.

Along the way they trounced Carlton by 109 points - their biggest win over the Blues and first 100-point triumph in 14 years.

They didn't get much out of star recruit Jake Lever (due to a knee injury), but with the club's depth they were happy to unload power forward Jesse Hogan to Fremantle during the trade period.

7. For the records

BIG man Max Gawn led the way for the Dees in 2018 - and took his cult status to new levels.

Claiming the coveted coaches' award and named the All-Australian ruckman, big Maxi registered a record 1119 hitouts for the season.

He missed a couple of crucial set shots at goal directly in front early in the season, but slotted one from the boundary to silence an irate Essendon fan who had gotten in his face.

There were also television commercials, dolls, masks ... Max was everywhere.

Gawn would however finish only equal fourth in the Brownlow Medal, with that prestigious award going to Hawthorn ball magnet Tom Mitchell.

2018 Brownlow Medal winner Tom Mitchell.    . Pic: Michael Klein
Tom Mitchell celebrates his Brownlow win. Michael Klein

The Hawk polled 28 votes after setting new records for most disposals in a season (848) and a game (54) - topping the 53 recorded by his dad Barry's ex-teammate Greg Williams at Sydney in 1989.

Mitchell had thanked his coach, Alastair Clarkson, during his acceptance speech, but when the camera cut to "Clarko" he looked like he was dozing after a big night.

"Clarko seems pretty interested. That's the last time I'm going to give him a mention," Mitchell quipped.

6. Lions roar appeal

SPEAKING of Hawks - well, an ex-Hawk anyway - four-time premiership winner Luke Hodge surprised everyone when he announced he was postponing his retirement to join Brisbane at the end of 2017.

Linking with long-time Clarkson right-hand man Chris Fagan, Hodge took up the role of "unofficial playing assistant coach".

Known as 'The General', he had the promising young Lions up and about through his leadership, nous and direction.

The Lions love him.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 18:  Luke Hodge of the Lions celebrates winning the round 22 AFL match between the Gold Coast Suns and Brisbane Lions at Metricon Stadium on August 18, 2018 in Gold Coast, Australia.  (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)
Luke Hodge leds the Lions off after their round 22 game against the Gold Coast. Chris Hyde

Young halfback Alex Witherden said: "When you play with him the first time, you think 'Bloody hell, this bloke's grumpy', but he just demands a higher standard all the time."

Among their five wins were two against Hodge's old team - in Launceston and Brisbane - by a combined 89 points.

While Cam Rayner, Hugh McCluggage and Jarrod Berry put their names up in lights, established stars Dayne Beams and Dayne Zorko had their ups and downs.

Struggling mentally, Beams stood down from the captaincy before appearing in career-best form, but ultimately requesting a trade back to Collingwood.

Zorko again had his battles with taggers - waging a one-man war with the Suns' Touk Miller - but would take over as skipper and claim a fourth straight best-and-fairest award.

5. Done in the Sun

FANS of the other Queensland mob can't share the optimism of Lions supporters. If finishing second last in the 2018 season isn't bad enough, some experts are predicting the Gold Coast are in for even worse times.

Tom Lynch is officially a Tiger, after Richmond Football club secured the Gold Coast restricted free agent on a seven-year deal.Picture By Wayne Taylor. Monday 8th October 2018.
Tom Lynch is officially a Tiger. Wayne Taylor

They lost 18 of their last 20 games - and then not one, but two skippers in Tom Lynch (to Richmond) and Steven May (Melbourne) during a dramatic trade period in October.

One-time top-10 draft picks Kade Kolodjashnij (also to Melbourne) and Jack Scrimshaw (Hawthorn) were part of this (latest) Gold Coast exodus, leading Essendon great Matthew Lloyd to declare that in 2019 "this will be the worst list we've ever seen put on an AFL field".

The Suns have secured three outstanding juniors in the National Draft - Jack Lukosius, Izak Rankine and Ben King, all among the top six - but rival clubs are already planning their attempts to snatch them away from the Glitter Strip.

4. Girls' game divided

THE honeymoon officially ended with the fledgling AFLW coming under the microscope. The season ran for barely two months across February and March but remained a talking point far longer.

Girls are taking up the sport in record numbers - it is booming - but at the highest level it has been described by chief Herald Sun footy writer Mark Robinson as "a mess".

"Clearly, the elephant in the room is the lack of talent and poor spectacle ... the product is out of whack in regards to performance and its coverage," he wrote.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 24: Emma Kearney of the Bulldogs (second from left) celebrates a goal with teammates L-R Ellie Blackburn, Monique Conti and Kirsty Lamb during the 2018 AFLW Grand Final match between the Western Bulldogs and the Brisbane Lions at IKON Park on March 24, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
Bulldogs players celebrate their win in the AFLW grand final. Adam Trafford/AFL Media

That said, earlier this month it was announced Foxtel would broadcast every game live in 2019, when the competition expands to 10 teams.

Things boiled over in September when AFL legend Mick Malthouse and AFLW star Mo Hope were embroiled in a public spat after they appeared on a footy panel.

A "disgusted" Hope thought Mick was having a crack at the women's game. He said he had simply likened proposed new AFL rules to netball.

"If she cared to listen instead of looking at her phone for most of the event, she would understand," a bristling Malthouse said.

3. Position, position

WHICH brings us to those new rules. And in the end it was much ado about not much.

The expanded 18m goal square hasn't made the final cut but nine rule and interpretation changes will be introduced in 2019 after much discussion.

The AFL is set to usher in rule changes in 2019.
The AFL is set to usher in rule changes in 2019.

Like netball, the 6-6-6 rule, which at each centre bounce requires teams to have six players in each of their defensive and forward arcs and six in the midfield, has been given the all-clear as a way of reducing congestion. But, rest assured, Mick, there will be no bibs.

The player bringing the ball back into play after a behind will no longer need to kick to himself in order to play on from the goal square.

Ruckmen will no longer risk getting pinned for having prior opportunity if they take direct possession from a bounce, throw-up or throw-in, and team runners will be in the gun. They will be able to enter the field of play only after a goal has been scored and must exit before the restart of play.

2. Hot Pies

THAT last rule change aims to prevent situations like we saw in this year's grand final between Collingwood and West Coast.

With the Magpies pushing forward in the third term, their runner Alex Woodward accidentally blocked the path of Collingwood's Jaidyn Stephenson, allowing the Eagles to counterattack and goal.

In tears, having blamed himself for the Magpies' five-point loss, Woodward would be consoled in the dressing room by coach Nathan Buckley.

But grand final result aside, the Magpies were a revelation in 2018. They became a flag contender just a year after missing the finals for a fifth straight season, with Buckley fortunate to survive the axe.

The Pies lost their first two games of 2018 but with players such as veteran Steele Sidebottom in career-best form and the next big thing Jordan de Goey leading the way up front, they surged into September.

American Mason Cox has established himself in the AFL with Collingwood. Picture: Michael Dodge/Getty Images
Collingwood's US recruit Mason Cox.

Swamping flag favourite Richmond in the preliminary final, big Texan Mason Cox was a star for the Pies, marking everything that came his way up forward and prompting chants of "USA, USA" around the MCG.

1. Eagles rock

BUT take nothing away from the eventual premiers, the West Coast Eagles, who secured their fourth AFL premiership - against the odds.

Luke Shuey (left) and Dom Sheed of the Eagles hold the premiership trophy after winning during the 2018 AFL Grand Final between the West Coast Eagles and the Collingwood Magpies at the MCG in Melbourne, Saturday, September 29, 2018. (AAP Image/Julian Smith) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY
Luke Shuey (left) and Dom Sheed celebrate after the Eagles won the AFL grand final. JULIAN SMITH

Following the retirements of Brownlow Medal winners Sam Mitchell and Matt Priddis, Adam Simpson's Eagles were well back on the 13th line of betting for the 2018 flag at $51.

Throw in another knee injury to ruckman Nic Naitanui and a eight-week ban to key onballer Andew Gaff after his nasty hit on Fremantle's Andrew Brayshaw, and the Eagles were up against it late in the year.

But they kept on coming and in front of 100,022 spectators at the MCG fought back from 29 points down late in the first quarter to complete one of the great grand final comebacks, Dom Sheed kicking the winning goal and Luke Shuey given the Norm Smith Medal.

Only one of 19 so-called Fox Footy experts tipped the Eagles to make the eight - ironically former Magpie Dane Swan.