The Adelaide Crows have just completed a 2023 season which surprised and exceeded most expectations.
In an article posted around this time last year I argued “..anything less than being in the finals race for the majority of the season as a springboard for making the top eight in 2024 will have the Adelaide board looking for a replacement coach” and stipulating that achieving this would require winning a minimum of ten matches.
The Crows have checked the boxes on this and even gone me one better by winning eleven.
However, the nature of their form during the season and the farcical end to their finals aspirations at the hands of baffling umpiring incompetence has led many to believe that they were worthy of making finals and are looking a good chance to make the leap back into September in 2024.
As much as this line of thinking has some merit there must be reservations – my own opinion is that they finished about where they deserved to be. As good as they were throughout parts of 2023, there were definitely some areas that need improving and there have been developments showing it might not be as smooth a transition back into contention as some might suggest.
Firstly, the elephant in the room has obviously been their away form. Despite some close games and some excellent football in patches from the Crows, the fact remains that they only one twice away from the Adelaide Oval, and those were against teams that finished in the bottom four. There is a feeling this is an issue will become less of a factor as the young team gains more experience and consistency in their play and this is the likeliest outcome.
Secondly, the Crows had an excellent run with injury during 2023 until the back quarter of the year and no team can depend on their depth remaining largely untested. A few injuries to key players will see the Crows tumbling back under the pack and struggling to maintain their mid-table position.
Late-season injuries to Jordan Butts and Nick Murray highlighted how fragile the defensive area of the field is for the Crows and the unfortunate delisting of Tom Doedee, combined with the fact that Murray is not expected to make a return until late in the season, could leave them exposed. While Josh Worrell seems comfortable at the level and Mark Keane and James Borlase did well to largely cover absences in the last few games, consistency through a long and punishing season will be another matter altogether.
The other area of their game, perhaps surprisingly, that may need attention is their forward line. While undoubtedly the key weapon for the team, the fact is it remains over-reliant on the outstanding late career form of Taylor Walker.
Whether his continued dominance has helped or hindered the emergence of Darcy Fogarty and Riley Thilthorpe is a matter for debate. Fogarty in particular has shown promising signs without quite becoming the reliable 2-3 goal a match player the team needs him to be, while the Crows seem to be somewhat undecided as to whether Thilthorpe’s future lies primarily in the ruck. There is no doubt that whether Walker’s Indian Summer continues will be crucial to the team’s chances next year, regardless of how those around him progress.
On the positive side however, the team’s offense remains their biggest asset and the best in the league having produced the statistical anomaly of being the competition’s highest scoring team despite missing finals. The only notable retrograde step here has been the trade of Shane McAdam to Melbourne and although they will miss his unique combination of aerial prowess and ball reading smarts, he played only about a third of their matches last year and his absence may provide room for the promising Lachie Gollant to emerge. If Izak Rankine and Josh Rachele continue sniping goals off the big men and creating the odd miracle while mixing time in the midfield, they are likely to remain a potent and dominant forward combination.
The area of biggest doubt heading into 2023 was the strength of the midfield. The emergence of Jordan Dawson as a key ball winner, along with the return of Rory Sloane and the continued high-quality output of Rory Laird means this area was covered adequately last year for the most part, but was exposed at times against the better teams in the league.
Ongoing internal development of the likes of Jake Soligo, Harry Schoenberg and a rejuvenated Matt Crouch should continue this progression. Chayce Jones has also slipped nicely into a wing role after never quite looking right in defence or attack in his earlier years. The sky looks like it could be the limit for Luke Pedlar, but whether he continues an upward trajectory to join the midfield more regularly next year after breaking out as predominantly a half forward in 2023 is difficult to predict.
Either way, one thing the Crows appear to have going for them regardless of the vagaries of individual development is the system under which they work. Matthew Nicks has created a team that consistently hunts and finds opportunities through fast, fearless and precise ball movement.
When on song during 2023 they looked virtually unstoppable, particularly at home, and it is these, their best moments, that have the wider AFL community looking on in awe at what might be possible for this team. The future is promising for Adelaide but how much of that promise will be realised in 2024?
One thing any footy fan learns early on is that things rarely go to plan and the biggest challenges teams face are often completely unsighted. Another factor for consideration is that it has been six long years since Adelaide played finals and Matthew Nicks’ contract expires at the end of the year – will the promise of the team and system he has created be enough to sustain him should the worst eventuate and the patience of their fans is hanging by threads?
Longer term, things are looking up but for the present the Crows are a team at the crossroads. In one direction lies the promise of finals and in the best-case scenario a deep run and a tilt at the premiership – they have the talent and game plan to achieve it and if that seems impossible look at what GWS achieved this year coming from a much lower set of expectations.
However, a few things start going wrong in key areas and it’s equally possible to imagine a scenario where all the momentum of last year is squandered and they are back in the chop striving to avoid the bottom four again. Only time will tell.