And then there were nine …

Amid all the talk about congestion, the state of the game and the standard of certain matches, the run home to September is still an intriguing one.

As many as nine teams have genuine hopes of reaching the Grand Final.

In any case, the next month is the toughest on the AFL calendar, and is often season-defining.

By now, just about every player in the competition is carrying some sort of niggle.

On top of cold and wet training sessions, September can seem like an eternity away and focus is difficult.

It means the contenders are often sorted from the pretenders.


Toby Nankervis: indispensable.

Photo: AAP/Julian Smith

On top, Richmond have backed up their premiership heroics and, if anything, have improved.

Theyve been more consistent this year than in the early stages of 2017, and most players have either reached the same standard as last year or improved.

Dustin Martin might be the exception. It would be almost impossible to replicate what he produced last year anyway, but hes still had a solid season.

The Tigers can ill-afford to lose guys like Toby Nankervis or Jack Riewoldt, but they still dont rely on any one player.

Damien Hardwick has great depth at his disposal and the players underneath are keeping up the pressure on the seniors.

It puts them in the perfect position to launch their premiership defence.

West Coast have been one of the surprises of 2018.

Theyre playing great footy, with a different game plan now that both Nic Naitanui and Scott Lycett are back from injury.

The Eagles are unique in that they play those two ruckmen alongside two key forwards in Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling.

Consequently, theyre the most prolific kicking and marking team in the competition.

Adam Simpsons men have enough games in Perth to secure a home final, though losing Kennedy this week is a blow.

As Adelaide showed last year, and the Eagles in 2015, for a non-Victorian team finals at home can be a huge advantage in reaching a Grand Final.

West Coast have won all three games theyve played in Melbourne this season, but just one was at the home of football – and that was a 10-point win over Carlton.

Until they beat a quality outfit at the MCG, that question mark remains.

Having toppled the Eagles last week, Sydney have climbed to third, again proving theyre the ultimate professionals who just continue to perform season after season.

The output from veterans Jarrad McVeigh and Heath Grundy has been exceptional, and Callum Sinclair has been in terrific form in the ruck.

Midfielders Josh Kennedy and Dan Hannebery mightnt have been at their absolute best, but they've been covered by the emergence of young talent.

Oliver Florent has shown great improvement, and Ben Ronke has added some real speed. The query is whether they can maintain those levels for the entire year.

But the Swans' biggest weakness could still be their reliance on Buddy Franklin.

Theyve proven they can win without him, but against the very best teams, that dependence might be exposed at some point.

Jarrad McVeigh: ageless.

Photo: AAP

Currently sitting just outside the top four, Melbourne has demonstrated natural improvement right across the ground.

While Simon Goodwin has put the heat on his midfield this week, its an area in which the Demons have developed real depth under the leadership of Nathan Jones and Jack Viney.

Up forward, Jesse Hogan and Tom McDonald have proved a potent combination, and in defence Jake Levers absence can be covered, despite the fact he was just finding form before being injured.

The biggest concern for the Dees might be lingering self-doubt.

They suffered a setback against Collingwood on Queens Birthday, but theyve shown their best footy is capable of troubling the top teams.

On Anzac Eve against Richmond, they couldnt sustain the level, but there were enough positive signs.

Geelong came into the season with several question marks, particularly about how much experience theyd lost in defence.

Even now, Jack Henry, Jed Bews, Tom Stewart and Mark Blicavs havent played a whole lot of footy together, but theyve still been the hardest to score against in the competition.

Of course, much of that is about how they set up across the entire ground, and how much talent is in their midfield.

The names Selwood, Dangerfield and Ablett roll off the tongue. Then youve got mature-age recruit Tim Kelly, and Mitch Duncan, whos probably an A-grader in his own right.

Importantly, Gary Ablett has managed to find the type of form that Ill admit I didnt think was still in him.

That midfield depth has allowed Patrick Dangerfield to spend more time forward, where hes so dangerous.

But kicking a winning score will still be the challenge for the Cats come September. How they transition from defensive 50, and getting the balance right between defence and attack, will be crucial.

Just where Harry Taylor fits will also be intriguing. Do you break up their defence? Or send him forward alongside Tom Hawkins?

Collingwood have been the big improvers.

In the face of doubts that many of their young players were good enough, guys such as Jordan De Goey have really stepped up.

Tom Phillips has taken a lot of pressure off Scott Pendlebury, and Jaidyn Stephenson has had a real impact in only his first season.

Because of the options Nathan Buckley has at his disposal through the middle, the Pies havent needed to rush their injured guys back.

Lynden Dunn takes the oppositions best forward and is rarely beaten, Mason Cox has proved he can be a real target and Chris Mayne has shown he is in the best 22.

Brodie Grundy has also been incredible.

Steele Sidebottom and Adam Treloar are both able to push forward out of the midfield, giving the Pies a versatility that could make them a threat later in the year.

Brodie Grundy: unstoppable.

Photo: AAP

Port Adelaide are also more than capable of matching it with the best. Theyve beaten the Tigers, Crows and Swans in Sydney.

Despite an interrupted pre-season, Tom Rockliff has given his coach flexibility, while the club will be buoyed by the re-signing of Ollie Wines.

But the Power can ill-afford to lose both Paddy Ryder and Charlie Dixon, who are so important structurally.

In eighth spot on the ladder, North Melbourne have been the biggest surprise this season with their ability to restrict their opposition and still score themselves.

But their lack of depth could be exposed later in the campaign.

With Hawthorn breathing down their necks, the Roos simply need to keep on winning.

The Hawks have been more difficult to get a read on.

They still need to be treated with incredible respect because of the belief and confidence the playing group possesses after so many years of success.

But they dont bat as deep as they once did, particularly in the midfield, relying heavily on Tom Mitchell and even Jaeger OMeara.

James Sicily has also become an important player with his precise ball use from half-back.

Expect them to come home with a wet sail and, should they make the finals, youd think Alastair Clarksons men would still inspire a little fear factor in whoever they played.

If weve learnt nothing else from the season so far, its that all these teams can all be dangerous on their day. Make no mistake, none of them can be taken lightly in the run home to September.

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