After a full year without football for every club 2021, perhaps more than any other season, appears to be panning out according to pressure. With most teams not having played much football together, cracks are exposed when the pressure ramps up.
How quickly teams learn to play their way out of trouble, and how much better they get at doing it in the next three months is going to shape the season.
There will certainly be upsets, but whether there can be a sustained run to really upset the order of things is the big query.
MARRAR (currently 1st, with 7 wins)
Pre-season tip: Third
At a glance: The Bombers are sailing along in the fashion they've become accustomed to in recent years - dropping just one game in the first half, maintaining their unbeaten record at home under Shane Lenon, and running teams off their legs if given half a chance. They're also the only team to win four games in a row, a streak they're on right now. And that's without mentioning the one big difference this year too...
X Factor: James Lawton is proving the X Factor for the league, not just Marrar. He's lived up to the promise he set himself, declaring on the eve of the season that he was more committed to football than he has been in years. The tall forward has kicked 54 goals in eight games, absolutely dominated in a few, and is leading the Farrer League Player of the Year award.
But... Marrar's only loss was at North Wagga where the Saints, having learnt a lesson against East Wagga-Kooringal, ramped up their midfield pressure and halted the supply of ball going forward to Lawton. Easier said than done against a classy midfield but it might be the only route to upset them.
NORTH WAGGA (2nd, 6 wins)
Pre-season tip: Fifth
At a glance: Saints are a new team to the premiership side of 2019. But under new coach Cayden Winter they're coming together to show similar attributes with vastly different personnel. Down back, for example, players like Xavier Lyons are starting the famous run, and Lachie Johnson has also slotted in nicely alongside reliable, familiar faces including Alexander and Thomas.
X Factor: It's another old-and-new combo. Electric midfielder Corey Watt is back to his brilliant best, opening opposition teams up at times. He's in there alongside Elliott Winter, who's winning plenty of ball and the former MCUE player has shown the potential to overshadow his cousin, the coach and reigning club best-and-fairest Cayden.
But... the Saints weren't allowed to get their run going against EWK and were rolled. They also lost on a horribly windy day to the Northern Jets, who opened them up in the middle. They aren't the finished product yet but do have a good mix of experience and the emerging; avenues to goal; and some upside.
TRYC (3rd, 6 wins)
Pre-season tip: Fourth
At a glance: The Magpies' improvement has been even better than some 'Pies supporters might have hoped. Their Canberra recruits are quality players who are lifting the rest. TRYC's two losses saw them out-pressured and out-run at Marrar and North Wagga. They haven't looked to have the cohesion of the Saints or Bombers to find a way out of trouble when an opposition seizes momentum.
X Factor: Dean Biermann at centre-half-forward and Riley Budd at centre-half-back have shown what they can do on a few occasions. Both can also play strong roles through the middle. Their resourcefulness and ability, and the fact the Magpies are still tinkering to find their best formation, hints that there could be a bit to show in the last two months. There's a big early test next week, at home to EWK.
But... they have missed injured midfielder Cooper Diessel and ruckman Jake Adams and could do with them back asap. It's a reminder that while their best is good, they may lack the depth of other top four sides.
EAST WAGGA-K (4th, 6 wins)
Pre-season tip: First
At a glance: It's been hard to get an accurate glance of the injury-hit Hawks, with more than 30 players featuring in seniors already. Few clubs would have the depth to cover an injured list which in round nine was close to half their potential starting 18. Yet they've still only dropped two games (to Marrar and TRYC), and had an impressive win over North Wagga.
X Factor: The players potentially lining up to play in coming months: 2020 recruit Dan McCarthy, former skipper Ben Absolum, the AFL-experienced forward Jarrad Boumann, premiership defender Tim Smith, the valuable Jarrod Turner, while their last win was also without Rogers, Pocock and Cuthbert, and Kieren McCarthy for most of it.
But... in a season in which momentum is taking time to build, and teams are taking time to work out how to counter it, will the Hawks come together quickly enough if and when the cavalry returns? They've got eight games to figure each other out but if they're on song by finals, look out.
NORTHERN JETS (5th, 4 win)
Pre-season tip: Sixth
At a glance: The Jets off a season's break took a little time to work their way into the equation but find themselves sitting fifth and worrying sides. Their recognised stars are, well, stars, but it's the improvement among younger and less experienced players that's helping keep them in games and allow the guns to fire.
X Factor: It's no one-man show in the middle with Sam and Jack Fisher ably assisting cousin Mitch Haddrill. But it's telling that Haddrill and key forward Matt Wallis are up there in the Player of the Year Award, with both damaging sides ruthlessly given half-an-inch of space or half-an-inch of time.
But... while also thriving on the experience of Stephen 'Sav' Coate up forward they don't have huge experience all around the ground. The Jets have the win at North Wagga to their name but couldn't run with Marrar, match EWK for four quarters, or handle TRYC's blistering start. They also went down at CSU, with whom they might be going to the wire with for finals.
CSU (6th, 4 wins)
Pre-season tip: Last
At a glance: The Bushpigs were stung by our pre-season prediction that everyone else would go ahead without them. But Travis Cohalan's side aren't running on outrage alone. Their early season form was a credit to work ethic and a willingness to play for each other, and they secured on-the-road wins at Coleambally and Barellan, as well as Temora, plus a powerful five-goal win against the Jets, on the back of big team efforts.
X Factor: The explosive Lachy Moore and ruckman Andrew Dickins have the potential to put any side on the back foot out of the middle. Each has been outstanding in a few games and have shown they can lift a team as well as a turn a game.
But... CSU haven't had a consistent avenue to goal and the shame of losing Scott Barlin in the first five minutes of round one could haunt them as the season goes on. They won't go under the radar now and may be a bit smaller and inexperienced compared to some rivals.
BARELLAN (7th, 2 wins)
At a glance: The Two Blues were hit early by injuries making it hard to build their game and team. Despite significant improvement, they've not been able to pull of a big upset, beating Temora and then Coleambally, with some luck. But they have more than a few genuine footballers among them and even if they don't make finals, they might affect someone else's.
X Factor: Sean Ellis hasn't had the standout impact just yet of previous seasons. But with a fair bit more depth in the side, if the Two Blues can get on top for longer patches in games, he could cut loose.
But... they're another side that will improve but face improving oppositions too, particularly the top sides with most of their teams training together and building the all-important cohesion to back themselves to find a way out of strife.
COLEAMBALLY (8th, 1 win)
Pre-season tip: Second
At a glance: The Blues have been the big disappointments of the season after high hopes of a top three finish. Some early unavailability was costly and injuries since made for a disjointed preparation week to week and an inability to build their game. Tom Morton's badly broken leg, and a subsequent loss when the game was called off early, summed up how 2021 is going.
X Factor: Losing Curtis Steele and Guy Orton for a few weeks was a hammer blow. Steele returned and impressed in round eight and if they can get Orton on the paddock in good health and good form too it could start to come together late for the Blues.
But... they're now coming from a long way back, and are unlikely to have the time, or be given the latitude, to develop their game the way they'd initially hoped.
TEMORA (9th, 0 wins)
Pre-season tip: Eighth
At a glance: The Kangaroos have been the biggest victims of the COVID-19 hiatus with their 2020 recruiting momentum failing to continue into this year. At a club struggling for depth in 2019, that wasn't a good start and a worrying injury toll early has conspired to make it a very tough year.
X Factor: If they can get everyone available, fit and firing, the Kangaroos could threaten some upsets, not to mention if young gun Will Reinhold was to stick around after producing a brilliant display upon return from Melbourne.
But... while there could be improvement to come, there are also improving opposition sides above them on the ladder.
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