The Goannas have established themselves as the team to beat at the halfway mark of the Riverina League, but a couple in the chasing pack have shown they're capable of challenging.
So far: Seven wins, zero losses, 208.8 per cent
Ladder position: First
Pre-season prediction: Second
Verdict: Is the drought finally over? The Goannas' quest for a first flag since 1993 is right on track, and the chasing pack will need to lift if they are to bridge the gap before finals begin. The Canberra recruits have added some class and throw in Trent Castles, who has booted 36 goals in five games, and they look ominous. The only team who has come close to beating them was Coolamon in a one-goal loss, but the Hoppers haven't backed up that form line since.
Coach Jeremy Rowe says: "We're going into the bye undefeated and the group deserves some real credit for that. We've got a couple of byes in a three week period. We'll use this week as a circuit breaker and give them some time to themselves before we play Leeton, then the next week we'll go the opposite way, maybe train three times for the week and make it a heavy week. We've got a heightened awareness of the challenge coming, we are the hunted and teams will come for us each week."
Mid-season prediction: Premiers
So far: Seven wins, one loss, 233.43 per cent
Ladder position: Second
Pre-season prediction: Fourth
Verdict: Even the Lions themselves weren't sure what awaited them in 2021 after some mediocre displays through the pre-season, but they needn't have worried. Their progression has mostly come from the progression of some of their young players like Tom Anderson and Jack McCaig, while Matt Hamblin (14 goals in six games) is hitting the scoreboard. Their relentless pressure and quick ball movement off turnovers has resulted in them racking up big scores, and are one of just two teams to average over 100 points per game. They have big bodies all over the field, particularly up forward, while ruck Jacob Olsson has returned as arguably the best big man in the league, despite a knee cleanout robbing him of a pre-season. Shaping as the clear main challengers to unbeaten Mangoplah-Cookardinia United-Eastlakes at this stage.
Coach Sam Martyn says: "I assume other teams would agree the best thing for us has been our pressure. It's been a trademark of Ganmain, that contested ball player for a number of years now. I think we are playing a bit more attacking in wanting to overlap, but it all comes off the back of strong pressure. There's no passengers, everyone plays their role and steps up when needed."
Mid-season prediction: Grand finalists
So far: Five wins, two losses, 105.94 per cent
Ladder position: Third
Pre-season prediction: Third
Verdict: The Hoppers are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. Their best is up there with the elite of the league, but their worst is nowhere near good enough if they expect to win a flag. Their 66-point loss at Ganmain on the weekend was a case in point - a lethargic second quarter where they conceded six goals to nothing effectively ended their hopes. The match before they required a late flurry of goals to beat Griffith, who have won just one game all year. They have the cattle and it hasn't quite clicked properly yet. But when you're 5-2 and still have plenty of potential improvement in the tank, it's not the worst position. They badly need ruckman Anthony Atkin (knee) back into the line-up if they are to compete with Lions big man Jacob Olsson, and Goannas ruck Sam De Sousa.
Co-coach Jake Barrett says: "It's good it (Ganmain loss) happened early, it's a learning point for us. Curl (fellow co-coach Mark Carroll) and I have had a good chat about it, we just have to make sure we reassess and go well against Narrandera next weekend. We've had some passages in games where we've showed we can play good footy, we were up by close to 40 points against Mango (one-goal loss), we just have to maintain it all game. One thing we've been happy with is finishing off those tight game, we were able to stay composed and get it done."
Mid-season prediction: Third
So far: Four wins, three losses, 105.40 per cent
Ladder position: Fourth
Pre-season prediction: Premiers
Verdict: The reality check was almost immediate for the defending premiers. After needing a final quarter surge to dispose of Leeton-Whitton in round one, they were beaten in all facets by Mangoplah-Cookardinia United-Eastlakes in a 72-point belting in round two. Expectations, at least externally, were reassessed and in hindsight they have a much younger group than last year, who need to be given time to improve and establish themselves. They have a few older heads who are vital week-to-week, but a lack of mid-age players in their peak has been exposed. The decision by coach Murray Stephenson to move himself to half-back and shake up the forward line has helped with their creativity and unpredictability. They have an honest group but don't have the class at the moment to challenge the Lions or Goannas when the whips are cracking.
Coach Murray Stephenson says: "We've shown signs as a reasonably young side. Even some of our senior players like (Charlie) Bance, (Brendan) Myers and Brady Morton are still in their early twenties. We haven't been able to sustain it long enough, that's in games but also week to week. Our kids have probably exceeded expectations though - the likes of Jock Heeney, Sam McNaughton, Paddy Ryan, Tom McCoullough, they've had an impact straight away. It's pretty fruitful having a lot of young guys there and if they keep progressing, it should hold us in good stead going forward. We're starting to jel a bit better as a side, I think there's only six or seven guys on the field week-in, week-out from the team that won last year's grand final."
Mid-season prediction: Fourth
So far: Three wins, four losses, 83.79 per cent
Ladder position: Fifth
Pre-season prediction: Seventh
Verdict: After a big loss to Narrandera in round four the Demons looked set for a tough season. But since that 57-point defeat, their response has been promising with wins over Turvey Park and Leeton-Whitton and a strong showing against the unbeaten Goannas. It's been enough to squeeze into outright fifth, so they're right in the finals reckoning. The return of a few bodies up forward, headed by Blake Harper, has helped their ability to apply scoreboard pressure. The top-line players like Harper, Klemke and the Perryman's are class, but depth when injuries strike is their issue.
Coach Brett Somerville says: "There's obviously positive signs there. If we can get a few more boys on the paddock it will help us against some of the better sides. We didn't really play a full Mango side the other day but we were good in patches. It's been good to see some of our young boys step up, Tom Crackenthorp has been great in the back-line after a delayed start to his season, Harry Wichman has been great on a wing all year, he covers the ground so well and links our backs and forwards. Now we've got some bodies back we can have a forward line and be able to lock it in there a bit more than we did earlier in the year.
Mid-season prediction: Sixth
So far: Two wins, five losses, 105.23 per cent
Ladder position: Sixth
Pre-season prediction: Fifth
Verdict: With such a new-look team the call from the outset was for patience, but the Bulldogs have run out of time and their surge must start now if they want make finals. They're 2-5, but still just a game outside the top five and have a far better percentage than fifth-placed Collingullie-Glenfield Park. Their cause hasn't been helped by some injuries to important players, in particular key forwards Brad Ashcroft and Mitch Ward, while one of their best ball users Matt Ness has been unavailable recently due to Melbourne's COVID situation. They have the class to make finals, anything less would be disappointing.
Coach Michael Mazzocchi says: "As we sit right now we're probably a bit disappointed, only because we've had three losses by less than three goals. If we could have jagged one or two of those, we'd be sitting exactly where we'd like to be at this point. The Gullie one and the Tigers one, against sides in similar positions to us, they're the ones. Other than that we're sitting where we thought we'd be and we're only one win at the five so we can still launch at that. The disappointing thing has been our forward structure with Wardy missing a few games, Ness and some injuries to Brad, it hasn't worked and we haven't been able to kick scores to win games.
Mid-season prediction: Fifth
So far: Two wins, five losses, 54.56 per cent
Ladder position: Seventh
Pre-season prediction: Eighth
Verdict: First-year coach Jordan Hedington boldly declared he was shooting for six wins this year, which seemed a pipe dream after a few early beltings. But wins over Collingullie-Glenfield Park, then against Griffith in their last game before the bye, will give the Eagles a bit of pep in their step for the back half. There's still a long way to go, their percentage of just over 54 per cent says it all, but after not playing last year it's been a reasonably credible start. Their experienced Canberra recruits have been important in keeping morale up and showing the way when things get tight, particularly during the seven-point win over the Swans.
Coach Jordan Hedington says: "We've had a couple of big losses to the good sides which was hard to deal with, but those two wins were massive going forward. The first couple of weeks we played Ganmain and Turvey and copped a couple of hidings, and I was second guessing myself, but the two wins have definitely had a big effect on myself and the group going forward. Learning how to win games like the game on the weekend taught me a lot as well. I'm happy with our recruits Luke McKay, Angus Durnan, Fergus Inglis and Rob Tuohy, who have been awesome, and Brad Hutchinson has been unreal for a 17-year-old ruck. The big thing for us is trying to avoid losing by such big margins in our defeats, to show a bit of pride in those games."
Mid-season prediction: Eighth
So far: One win, six losses, 74.15 per cent
Ladder position: Eighth
Pre-season prediction: Ninth
Verdict: They may be 1-6 but it's fair to say the Swans have been a little more competitive than that. They lead Coolamon at Kindra Park going into time on of the last quarter, but four late Hoppers goals robbed them of a famous win. They would fancy themselves of providing some nuisance value in the back half.
Coach Greg Dreyer says: "Consistency was our big concern over summer being so young, and that's come to the fore really. The Coolamon game was there (to win), but some inexperienced options hurt. Narrandera was a slow start and poor kicking towards the end, but even against Ganmain we matched them in a couple of quarters. Some wrong options or poor execution with inexperience has hurt us sometimes. They're very young, we only need to get another win and it'll kickstart us I think."
Mid-season prediction: Seventh
So far: One win, six losses, 49.37 per cent
Ladder position: Ninth
Predicted finish before season: Sixth
Verdict: After COVID ensured a big number of juniors returned for last year's campaign, depth has been a major concern for the Crows. At one point they were forced to forfeit reserve grade. Their top six to eight players stack up against most teams, but after that it falls away dramatically and new coach Sam Darley has made it clear publicly their individual pride in the contest at times hasn't been up to scratch. They face an uphill battle in the back end of the season, and scrounging another one or two wins would be a definite pass mark.
Mid-season prediction: Ninth
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