Zebras Aiming For Historic Fourth Flag

The Age

Saturday April 7, 2007

Sean Cusick

SANDRINGHAM begins its mission today to equal one of the oldest records in Australian football - four consecutive premierships.

The feat has been accomplished once in the 130 years of the VFA/VFL with Essendon claiming four flags from 1891 to 1894, before joining the inaugural VFL (now the AFL) season three years later.

So who stands in the way of the all-conquering Zebras and a 113-year record just begging to be matched, perhaps even broken?

Geelong, runner-up last year, again shapes as a major threat. It has produced a recruiting coup, signing ex-Demon Phil Read. Last year, he was the biggest thorn in Geelong's side, winning the Norm Goss medal for best afield in the grand final in Sandringham colours.

Geelong knows first hand that Read has the competitive fire it is looking for - he still has to serve a four-match suspension for striking Geelong youngster (and new teammate) Mathew Stokes in that match.

Finals stalwart Werribee also demands respect, as does Port Melbourne. Last year's wooden-spooner after scrounging just three wins, the Boroughs have gone on a recruiting bonanza in the pre-season and shape as the competition's big improvers.

The 2007 VFL season not only offers exciting football, but also a chance for AFL fans to look to the future, as prized draft picks learn their craft. Young guns such as Richmond's Jack Riewoldt (Coburg), Western Bulldog Andrejs Everitt (Werribee) and Essendon key-position prospect Scott Gumbleton (Bendigo) should all be making their VFL debuts this weekend.

It will also be the stage to see some certified stars making their returns from injury. Collingwood's Alan Didak, for example, should return from a miraculously short knee reconstruction rehabilitation for Williamstown in the next fortnight.

The VFL has often played guinea pig for rule changes, and this year is no different. The popular play-on rule when the ball is kicked backwards in the defensive half, as tried in this year's NAB Cup, will be introduced, ensuring freer-flowing football.

TODAY

Sandringham v Geelong, 1.10pm, Trevor Barker Beach Oval, Sandringham

Williamstown v Werribee, 2pm, Burbank Oval, Williamstown

Casey Scorpions v North Ballarat, 2pm, Casey Fields, Cranbourne East

Bendigo v Tasmania, 2pm, Queen Elizabeth Oval, Bendigo

TOMORROW

Coburg v Northern Bullants, 2pm, Coburg City Oval, Coburg

Frankston v Port Melbourne, 2pm, Frankston Oval, Frankston

BYE: Box Hill

THE VFL - SEASON 2007 AT A GLANCE

SANDRINGHAM (ZEBRAS)

AFL AFFILIATE Melbourne COACH Mark Williams

CAPTAIN Chad Liddell

HOME GROUND Trevor Barker Beach Oval

2006 1st

PREDICTION Sandringham enjoys the best VFL list and the healthiest AFL alignment. The Zebras have won eight straight finals and will again be the ones to beat.

GEELONG (CATS)

AFL AFFILIATE Geelong

COACH Leigh Tudor

CAPTAIN James Byrne

HOME GROUND Skilled Stadium

2006 2nd

PREDICTION Expect the Cats to be near the top again. Signing Phil Read is a major bonus, although suspension and work commitments overseas may limit him to half a season.

NORTHERN BULLANTS

AFL AFFILIATE Carlton

COACH Barry Mitchell

CAPTAIN Frankie Raso

HOME GROUND NAB Oval

2006 3rd

PREDICTION The Bullants lost just one homeand- away match before losing to Sandringham and Williamstown in the finals. Digby Morrell will again be the game-breaker, although without Daniel Harford in the middle, Barry Mitchell's men don't look as imposing.

WILLIAMSTOWN (SEAGULLS)

AFL AFFILIATE

Collingwood

COACH Brad Gotch

CAPTAIN Brett Johnson

HOME GROUND Burbank Oval

2006 4th

PREDICTION Recruiting a host of ex-TAC Cup players makes the Seagulls more unpredictable than in previous years. But should figure in the finals.

FRANKSTON (DOLPHINS)

AFL AFFILIATE none

COACH Brett Lovett

CAPTAIN Ash Roberts

HOME GROUND Frankston Oval

2006 5th

PREDICTION Despite losing 100-goal hero Aaron Edwards to the Kangaroos, the Dolphins have spirit and a home ground advantage. Ex- Collingwood and West Coast livewire Damien Adkins is a great pick-up.

WERRIBEE (TIGERS)

AFL AFFILIATE Western Bulldogs

COACH Simon Atkins

CAPTAIN James Podsiadly

HOME GROUND Bartercard Oval

2006 6th

PREDICTION The Tigers haven't missed the finals in six years and spearhead James Podsiadly will be out to impress as captain.

Former Geelong and Sydney ruckman Paul Chambers is the big signing.

NORTH BALLARAT (ROOSTERS)

AFL AFFILIATE Kangaroos

COACH Gerard FitzGerald

CAPTAIN Shaune Moloney

HOME GROUND AUSTAR Arena

2006 7th

PREDICTION Gerard FitzGerald returns to the VFL in a bid to win his first grand final. He took the Roosters to grand finals in 1999 and 2000, and steered Port Melbourne to the 2004 grand final.

COBURG (TIGERS)

AFL AFFILIATE Richmond

COACH Andy Collins

CAPTAIN Travis Ronaldson

HOME GROUND Coburg City Oval

2006 8th

PREDICTION With a young list, Coburg is an uncertain prospect. Fortunato Caruso, two-time Morrish medallist with the Calder Cannons, will be hell-bent on proving himself at senior level.

At 170 centimetres he was deemed too short and overlooked in the AFL draft.

CASEY SCORPIONS

AFL AFFILIATE St Kilda

COACH Peter Banfield

CAPTAIN Nigel Carmody

HOME GROUND Casey Fields

2006 11th

PREDICTION Troy Makepeace, unlucky to be delisted by the Kangaroos, is ideal as a midfield general. The Scorpions can make an impact in the finals for the first time since winning four flags in five years in the late 1990s.

TASMANIA (DEVILS)

AFL AFFILIATE Kangaroos

COACH Daryn Cresswell

CAPTAIN Brett Geappen, Scott Stephens

HOME GROUND Bellerive Oval

2006 9th

PREDICTION After a disappointing 2006, coach Mathew Armstrong resigned and captain Ben Beams left. Daryn Cresswell has returned to the Apple Isle as coach, bringing 244 games of AFL experience and three years as assistant coach at Geelong and the Brisbane Lions. Paul Koulouriotis (Geelong) and Cameron Thurley (Kangaroos) are the boom recruits, but the Devils remain a mystery team this season.

BOX HILL (HAWKS)

AFL AFFILIATE Hawthorn

COACH Damien Christensen

CAPTAIN Kristan Height

HOME GROUND Box Hill City Oval

2006 10th

PREDICTION The Hawks will improve on last year, with goalkicking journeyman Darren Bradshaw (brother of Brisbane Lion Daniel) and Melbourne ruckman Nick Smith signing on.

BENDIGO (BOMBERS)

AFL AFFILIATE Essendon

COACH Matthew Knights

CAPTAIN Simon Rosa

HOME GROUND Queen Elizabeth Oval 2006 12th

PREDICTION Former Magpie Jason Cloke is a welcome addition, although he has already been hit with a two-match suspension for headbutting. Expect a grudge match when Bendigo hosts Coburg in round eight as the Bombers have criticised the Tigers for submitting video footage that incriminated Cloke. Former Crow Hayden Skipworth should be an asset.

PORT MELBOURNE (BOROUGHS)

AFL AFFILIATE none

COACH Saade Ghazi

CAPTAIN Chris Obst

HOME GROUND TEAC Oval

2006 13th

PREDICTION Don't be surprised if Port Melbourne takes a quantum leap from wooden spooner to finalist this year, after wooing Luke Livingston (Carlton), David Spriggs (Sydney) and Collingwood duo Julian Rowe and David Fanning.

© 2007 The Age

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