It's not quite time to book your seat at the North Melbourne Grand Final Breakfast yet, but how much better is winning than the alternative? If we were losing I'd be decrying the entire 'competition' as a Wobbies World collection of meaningless games played under stupid rules, and... well to be honest my view is not much different even though we are winning. Still, we've now won three straight in all competitions since Round 17 to 19 in 2010, and I care not for the fact that one of them was a last round slopfest and the other two were practice games. Anything that moves us even gradually away from the bottom of the harbour schemes of the last few years is a welcome change for me.
When the NAB Challenge fixture was released the first question about a surprise trip to the middle of a Craigieburn housing estate was why we were playing the Bulldogs at a ground Richmond had once occupied instead of either the Western Oval (which proved so popular last year that some lunatics were trying to play real games there), Ballarat again considering they're supposed to be playing premiership games there soon, somewhere in our 'heartland' like Toorak Park or Casey Fields, which we're still feigning interest in for contractual reasons.
Perhaps I could do with the last one, and given that when we played them in Bendigo the lights went out maybe it was safer to keep it in the suburbs during the day. At least the world famous Highgate Recreation Reserve is on my side of town. As a sick freak from way back there's no doubt I'll still have gone even if I lived on the other side of the city, but one long suffering Demon I ran into during the week showed the way we should all strive to live when he suggested he'd "rather die" than drive from Lilydale to Craigieburn.
In the end it wasn't a bad place to play a throw-away game, it was certainly a nicer atmosphere than Casey Fields. The key difference was that while their car park was also just a field it wasn't a rocky outcrop full of mysterious holes into which to stack your car, and it probably took slightly less than an hour to get out of. Don't ask me, I parked at the Safeway up the road.
Not sure I'd have seen as much value in going if I'd had to drive more than half an hour, but I suggest it was better than some of the quality venues we've played pre-season games at in the past such as Bulleen Park, an air force base in Hawaii or an unnamed ground in Ararat.
In the end the ground looked after us, leaving us unbeaten there in the same week the AFL bailed out of the Sydney Olympic Stadium and left us as the all-time, unbeaten kings of the venue. That place might have a surface that looks like Colonial Stadium era Docklands and large bolts sticking out of the ground but there's no way it had the same sort of wind that Highgate offered. Nor did it feature an end where you could easily punt the ball over the fence and onto a main road. We'd already been sued for $180,000 over a builder being knocked out with a Sherrin at the MCG, the last thing we needed was to cause a multi-vehicle pile up.
Now that we're 2-0 and on the verge of becoming the greatest pre-season team since Carlton won the cup then went on to win the spoon I feel bad at having laughed so heartily at Eddie McGuire's plan to automatically vault the winners of the pre-season cup into the eight. Mind you if that sort of stupidity was on the agenda there's no doubt the Bulldogs would have fielded a stronger team rather than one made up largely of mid-carders and rookies but at Melbourne you take victory wherever you can get it.
At these token suburban/country games where you relive the horrors of grounds that didn't have big screens to help you follow what was going on at the other end it's hard to form any definitive opinions on our performance (could watch the replay, probably won't bother) but other than the dream ride being provided by the beard to be feared Gawn to the midfield it seems to me the reason we won was eventually cracking them under a metric shitload of pressure.
If you include all the Bulldog absentees they might not have fallen victim to the relentless chase and tackle, but if we keep this standard up plenty of sides are going to be troubled by it this year. Hopefully it's the sort of thing that will finally allow us to topple a flaky fringe finals contender other than Richmond, I can't believe across all these years where North fans have gone from loving Brad Scott one week to trying to lynch him the next they've never once contrived to totally stuff up an unloseable game against us. After two preliminary final appearances in a row now is their time to shine, and let the SEN switchboard catch fire while we storm their offices trying to loot Bertocchi hams.
There was a nice spread of what are now referred to as 'pressure acts'. It wasn't just the usual suspects like Viney and Jones who were trying to uncharitably tear limbs from their opponents, even the very much maligned Jack Watts was attacking the ball with intensity (though he still only had one tackle so feel free to keep laying the boots in if that's what gets you excited). Like last year we're relying heavily on the name players in the pre-season and leaving most of the unknowns at home so we'll see how long they can keep it up for.
Just getting through the first two weeks would be a good start. Now that Essendon have declared the Round 2 game a pep rally featuring marches, standing ovations and a toga clad James Hird being carried around the ground atop the shoulders of supporters while turning water in substances that fail to comply with relevant doping codes I'm bracing myself for impact. Manufactured intensity usually only lasts about 15 minutes until the emotion dies down and a team collapses, so let's hope for that because I'm not comfortable being the hunted just yet.
When I wandered past the television at half time of their game yesterday and Kevin Sheedy was making a straight faced declaration that it would be "Essendon's greatest ever crowd" it would be easy to declare the whole organisation to be delusion and assume we were going to carry off a revenge attack for the last time we played them in Round 2 but I'll believe it when I see it.
Back to Craigieburn, and the match started in similar fashion to last week with Gawn smashing the ball into the hands of a teammate but where it deviated was that the player on the receiving end failed to suffer an injury serious or otherwise. It was a much cleaner start, the tap to Jones, a handball to Viney, who handballed back to Gawn, who gave it to Salem who found Forward Watts leading out of 50 for a mark. Any game where we get our one kick to a leading forward for the week out of the way in the early minutes with plenty of time to add more is a good one for me.
Watts missed, and in the early minutes he sacrificed kicking for enthusiasm but how much better does he look as a forward than any of the other options? I'm absolutely convinced he can do a reasonable amount of damage down there while the opposition is focusing on Hogan as long as our coaches don't shit themselves at the first sign of trouble and move him into defence. On a related note during the third quarter when the Bulldogs started to get on top he found himself back in defence.
After that miss the Bulldogs took over, taking advantage of a strong breeze. We were moving the ball reasonably well out of defence but once we went forward were struggling to find targets in any decent position. So far so very Melbourne. After last week I wasn't going to write us off early, and after they kicked a couple our solitary major for the quarter (and haven't we all missed one goal first terms?) came in none more pre-season fashion. A desperate goalward hoof from Bugg held up in the breeze and inexplicably dropped into the arms of Cameron Pedersen who was standing on the line without an opponent probably not expecting the ball to reach him until looking up at the last minute and saying "bloody Nora, what's this?" as it fell into his hands. He had another unspectacular but solid game, with some solid tackles and a strong overhead mark that further convinced me that Dawes can get in line and wait his turn.
What the Bulldogs had that we didn't was multiple targets to kick to and wind in their favour rather than swirling around and causing every high kick inside 50 to hold up or drop short. It's all well and good to bring competitive games to random suburbs but the unusual conditions with one dinky little grandstand and nothing else didn't make for much of a trial before the real stuff. Even though the ball hitting an air-pocket had gifted Pedersen his first it also stuffed up numerous other attempts at bombing it long to the square where we were hoping for a mark or secondary crumb and instead saw it land well short.
Fortunately the quantity of Bulldog talls didn't mean quantity, and while Goldenballs Boyd was often in the play it helped that he kicked off his million dollar campaign with 0.3. With McDonald kicking like the Sizzle 2012-14 edition we were providing them plenty of opportunities but they didn't do enough to stick the knife in with the wind before turning into pumpkins both times they had to kick into it. Not that they could blame the breeze for everything, including their Ben Holland-esque miss from 15 metres out directly in front at the end of the quarter where the player could easily have run into an open goal after the mark but decided to have the set shot instead and botched it horribly. The highlights on the AFL website charitably show him taking the mark then cut straight to the second quarter.
It was a tricky breeze (described by the AFL website with the greatest of all weather related words as 'blustery') but it was hardly blowing with cyclonic force so their inability to master it in the second and third quarters was odd. Not that it means anything for the future, only the nerviest Bulldogs fan could think that today was a step backwards, when they get back under a roof they'll be thrashing around from one end to the other kicking goals out of their arse.
Given that I spent most of the game squinting into the sun and would probably have ended up with heatstroke if they'd played regular length quarters you're just going to have to make do without the usual rigorous standard of match analysis we've become famous for. Instead the following comments will be based purely on the 'vibe', where players I thought did nothing were actually dominant on the opposite side, and I was biased towards others who were getting kicks right in front of me. I can see how people used to watch games like this in the past, because the only people insane enough to try and write about them later were perched high in a press box with a decent view of what was going on. Fortunately I only ever had to do it at Princes Park once.
We should have had another goal through Garlett, who gathered with technique straight out of the 'HOW TO CRUMB' textbook but with all the time in the world rushed and put it wide. It was a bad miss, but that's the price you pay with enigmatic, living on the end of a lightning bolt forwards for all the great goals they kick out of nowhere. He didn't have much of a day, and must have had most of his 12 kicks on the far side of the ground, but proved the theory of enigmas correct in the second quarter by gathering a loose ball in the pocket and casually rolling it through off the outside of his boot. I will sit through the former to get the latter, but if he improves his conversion this year his presence in the forward line will be golden. Just to prove how little we could see even though we were sitting in an elevated position on the wing the guy next door to me thought Oliver had missed the quick snap.
It took 15 minutes of use of the wind in the second quarter for us to finally have an impact, Forward Watts struck again by crumbing his own marking contest and scuffing through a goal. If you were uncharitable, and so many of us have been about him over the years, you'd point out that he tried to mark it one-handed to start with but I'm prepared to forgive that due to the recovery. A couple of minutes later his hot streak of doing bad things that turned out well continued when a terrible kick inside 50 was dropped by a Bulldogs defender, allowing Garlett to nick in and kick his rolling goal. His five minutes of being involved in everything finished with being in the right spot to take an out on the full free before booting it from the boundary line without the slightest worry. I thought he was 'back' after Round 1 last year and that didn't take long to sour so I'm not getting excited yet but a season where Jack Watts is involved in everything instead of going missing for hours at a time would be fun for everyone involved.
The three goal burst at the end of the quarter pulled the margin back to a point, which didn't seem fair to the Bulldogs but served them right for their missed opportunities when they had us on the rack both before quarter time and in the first few minutes of the second. We were back in it but none of the goals were crafted, they all just fell to us. Even Watts' sublime finish had initially been handed to us by a wonky kick. Free range goals are great (and usually more exciting than the ones created through hard work and graft shortly before we give it straight back out of the middle) but we're not going to get very far without a mixture. Hogan helps there, but even he'd have struggled to get to some of our forward 50 entries today. Somehow we had more marks inside 50 by half-time, but most of them were 49 metres out on the boundary line so it was hardly a fair comparison. There's more work to do across half-forward, which proves some things never change.
Apart from Watts and the magic service Gawn was providing not only to his All-Australian running mate Viney but now Jones as well my first half highlight was the Clayton Oliver show. He proved last week wasn't a fluke, showing no ill-effects from becoming the first MFC player to be reported in his very first game for the club since Brent Crosswell, and continued to play like he was in The Matrix whenever he got the ball. As the quality of the opposition rises along with the scrutiny on him we'll see how he goes, but for now my MFC brand Magic 8 Ball is showing:
Now that Brayshaw is probably out for Round 1 it makes the decision of whether not we can fit him in academic, he must debut. Today he even pulled down a screamer as well, just to prove that he's got more tricks on top of being the wizard of space and time.
At a ground where there was only one scoreboard, completely inaccessible to anybody watching from our side and even blocked from sideways glances by trees it was refreshing to watch a game without knowing what the score was most of the time. It was only from three-quarter time when we threatened to make a game of it that I started paying attention to the exact margin rather than just having a feel of what was going on. At the end of the second quarter I walked past it on my way to pick up some fat porky food and it was still showing 'Q1' and when the siren went one guy turned to his mate and said without a hint of sarcasm: "Gee that was a long first quarter". What did he think the quarter time huddle was, a drinks break?
While Oliver seemingly has an ability to slow the rotation of the earth and walk around at a normal pace waiting to find an option, how good was Neville Jetta when the ball was in traffic? He's had one of the great career revivals in defence, and he was fantastic again today in finding a teammate even when gathering the ball in tight spaces.
It was his intervention that turned the tables after the Bulldogs had kicked the first goal of the third quarter. Vince had narrowly avoided being wrapped up in a tackle after running around an opponent in defence, giving the ball to Grimes who had all day to get it to Nev before plonking a flat, slow kick over the top which Nifty's opponent should have had no trouble spoiling. Seeing the danger ahead Jetta turned his body as he took the mark, shutting out the defender and opening space for him to dash off and play on quickly. It ended up in the hands of Kent who used his speed to break away before giving to Pedersen to set up Watts for his third from the square with a dinky handball over the top and we were back to where we'd started before half time.
Nev's save day triggered a run that put us in front for the first time all day. After his goal Watts hit the post then vandenBerg and Gawn combined for a golden tap/rove/goal effort which has somehow been excised from the AFL's highlights package despite being another entrant from the crumb handbook. The lead only lasted a couple of minutes before James Harmes turned the ball over in spectacular fashion and gifted them a nine point goal which signalled another sustained period of Bulldog attack. Two more goals gave them a reasonable break at three-quarter time, and even though they still had to contend with the breeze which had stumped them the first time and the inability of their ruckmen to handle Gawn it still left a reasonable buffer.
This week's recipient of the 'Torment a Melbourne Defender' deliberate out of bounds free was Colin Garland, but at least unlike McDonald in Adelaide he was pinched on the wing instead of in a position where it handed them a shot on goal. That didn't make it any less offensive but while the strictest interpretation would suggest he could have kept the ball in if he'd really wanted to he'd probably have turned on a dime to either eat a hard tackle or do his knee. Alternatively he could have just let it bounce it and look like the world's biggest poon if his opponent dashed through and gathered it at the last minute, so he does the sensible thing and gathers as he goes out only to be nicked for deliberate. I imagine that on TV the commentators were suggesting that he should have done a 'walking into the wind' style mime routine as he went over and it would have been fine.
You can't blame the umpires for doing what they're told to, but there's no doubt that they'll slowly decrease the standards required for paying that over the first few weeks until the rule hopefully goes the same way as hands in the back frees. Deliberate is always going to be a popular target for derision because it's hard to judge intent but surely if you gather the ball at the last minute running in the direction of the boundary line we're fine to have one more throw-in rather than paying a free? It's been hard to notice the other rule changes so far (not that it looked like ye olde 'protected zone' was being enforced too strongly today) but this one is a howler which should have been strangled at birth.
The buffer didn't last long into the last quarter, they attacked first before somebody called Goetz (if his nickname isn't Bernie the Bulldogs aren't trying) lobbed Garland into the fence and copped a 50. That was it for the Dogs who pretty much sat back and let us trample them from there. I enjoyed their daring kick-ins that went straight down the middle of the ground but it was reasonably clear that they weren't working into the breeze but they persisted anyway just because. I suppose it's not the worst idea, may as well try it in the worst possible conditions then reap the rewards when you play indoors.
At this point it should be noted that even thought the AFL website refuses to publish the interchange numbers I'm led to believe that we again completely ignored the coming interchange restrictions and continued with the same laissez faire attitude to rotations as last week.
Which is ok, I'm not naive enough to think that this is the only forum they're using to prepare players for the new rule. While it makes it hard to judge how much of either comeback has been due to our good player rather than opposition fatigue given that we've been playing close to our Round 1 team over the last two weeks I'm happy to manage fitness now and worry about the cap later. It should be noted that we ended the game with both Dunn and vandenBerg off as a precaution after minor injuries so no need to get too hung up on interchange numbers until at least next Sunday afternoon.
The exceptions to this rule were Billy Stretch who remained unused and Gawn who is clearly being played to buggery under the theory that if he can run out games in the heat then he'll smash through four quarters during winter with enough in the tank to run a few laps at the final siren.
The first step towards victory came from Tyson, still not looking anything like the 2014 model but didn't seem to be pinched for holding the ball once today so that's a step in the right direction, who did a cover version of Watts' goal before half time. Harmes made up for the goal he cost us with a mark and a conversion inside 50 (technically he was still three points in arrears but I was prepared to let it slide and start talking about 'moral victory' if we lost by two or less) and that was it for the Bulldogs.
Gawn provided another goal from a stoppage by tapping down for Jones to snap before the festival of crumb continued with Sam Frost gathering a loose ball and kicking around the corner to make the margin nine. This prompted the people around me to start getting nervous about the Bulldogs levelling the game with a nine pointer, proving that it's not just Dwayne Russell who's still hung up on the bloody Supergoal.
We spent the last five minutes battering the door down trying to kick another, it wasn't forthcoming but nobody cared. Another day, another reasonable sign towards decency and respectability when the real stuff started.
Elsewhere Bugg got plenty of it coming out of defence, and while he didn't seem to do much wrong the touches didn't feel all that damaging either. He's still got a Round 1 spot sewn up, which might not be the case for Kennedy who was lively enough but didn't do much to suggest himself an essential selection. Vince was reasonable for his first game of the year but I doubt he'll spend as much time in defence as he did today when the games count for something. I liked Salem's game but other than a few random interjections he was more solid than damaging, still no worries at all in sticking him down back this year and reaping the rewards.
Hunt played most of the game again and didn't do much so I'd be happy for him to step aside and rejoin the Scorpions now so we can get a look at Neal-Bullen or Stretch. The rookies Wagner and Michie had decent showings on limited game-time, Wagner especially threw a few good tackles and won some tough contested possessions. Michie had a few nice touches as well, but I've said that before and never seen him stretch it across four quarters so will hold off on declaring him to be 'back' (as if he was ever there to start with) just yet. It's hard to keep up with AFL list rules because they're changed every second week but I take it we can nominate one of them to replace Melksham and another as the regular promoted rookie, so pending Mitch White having a stormer next week I'm comfortable with these two.
If you took today as the sort of performance we were going to see in the regular season all that was really wrong was inability to find consistent targets inside 50 and some howler turnovers by foot. We won clearances, dealt with the ball well in traffic, the rebounding from defence was good, the crumb was superb and we had a decent mix of goalkickers from open play. The reintroduction of Hogan helps but it's not the silver bullet, I shook the Magic 8 Ball again and asked what are our chances of playing finals..
As you were.
Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance votes
5 - Jack Viney
4 - Nathan Jones
3 - Max Gawn
2 - Jack Watts
1 - Neville Jetta
Apologies to Bugg, Oliver, Pedersen, Grimes, Harmes, Salem and M. Jones
It's a grandstand finish in a throwaway award, with any of five still a chance to either win outright or at least get a share of the same sort of riches that Heritier Lumumba enjoyed last year before going on to do not much in the regular season.
9 - Jack Viney, Jack Watts
8 - Max Gawn
4 - Jesse Hogan, Nathan Jones
3 - Lynden Dunn, Aaron vandenBerg
3 - Clayton Oliver
1 - Neville Jetta, Christian Salem
Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
With apologies to the Watts kick from practically the same position and the Garlett roller under pressure I'm going to have to opt for Dom Tyson's casual finish from the boundary line during the last quarter. vandenBerg's checkside last week was so relaxed his blood pressure was probably 0/0 so that's got to keep him in front of the pre-season award, with one more chance for his teammates to pinch it from him before we hit reset and start judging again based on the regular season.
Last week I charitably cancelled this segment on the grounds that I didn't see the Port banner, and the TV only showed the b-side of ours so it was unfair to make a judgement. Then it was revealed that the Port cheersquad didn't even bother to make one, so that took the decision out of my hands and I'm pleased to retrospectively award the Dees victory.
Couldn't see the front of either of them today either (what a shame to miss out on one of those 'hilarious' gags the Bulldogs banner usually has), but as the Bulldogs one featured a curtain and a b-side that was completely blank I would like to suggest that they weren't taking their duties seriously so it's a rampant victory to Melbourne to go alongside their walkover last week. They got to 2-0 for the season, looking for a second straight unbeaten season.
Banner Watch Up Late:
On Monday an anonymous commenter revealed that the Bulldogs banner read:
FEEL THE CRAIGIE-BURN
"BANNER WRITERS HAVE PRE-SEASON TOO"
Which I don't mind for self-deprecation, and if it was supposed to be a reference to Bernie Sanders it was quite apt for the Bulldogs - he's hanging around in the finals for a bit but has no chance of making the final playoff.
Don't know how many I expected to show up to Craigieburn, but 4139 seemed a bit low. Mind you security was practically non-existent (the guy who scanned my ticket also hit me up for a donation to the Calder Cannons so I'm sure you could have smuggled in a rocket launcher as long as you gave a gold coin) so another thousand people probably just jumped the fence and wandered in for free.
Lucky I paid $5 plus a booking fee to register for my free ticket online just in case, only to forget to print it out at work then have to scramble to find a printer two hours before the game. After eventually finding somebody with a printer and managing to eventually get the damn ticket to print after two blue screens of death and much open abuse about why anybody would still be running Windows XP I discovered three things on my first and presumably last visit to the ground:
1) The 'young' person next to me looked at the team list in the Footy Record and asked his parent or guardian "does the hashtag mean it's a rookie player?" as if any hash symbol is now automatically a hashtag even when stuck at the end of a word. Any pretence that I still understand what the 'youth' are on about has now officially ended.
2) We traditionally get one warm weather practice match a year at a suburban ground, and the rare opportunity for football fans to show up wearing not much at all (including some uncomfortably tight shorts where you could see the whole box and dice) meant seeing some of the most ill-conceived and poorly applied tattoos of all time. If that's your thing then don't let me stop you, just get it done properly so it doesn't look like it was created using improvised equipment in a Russian prison.
3) Footy fashions are dubious at the best of times but the Bulldogs fans have a spectacular commitment to wearing ugly merchandise from the late 1990's and early 2000's. They've finally got a good logo and the new stuff doesn't look bad (other than the sub-Taco Bell loco of Mission Foods) so why not put your hand in pocket and upgrade to something newer than the Chris Grant era?
It wasn't a bad ground by any means, it's just that the way the pre-season works we'll be rotated through a different sent of country and suburban grounds next year. Maybe we'll be sent to try and smooth things over with the good people of Mackay who didn't get a game today due to torrential rain. The best thing about that was the game was being played at a country club, and I want in on that just for the Caddyshack references.
Whether you watch us play St Kilda from inside the hated Docklands arena or on television try not to become a tear-stained mess remembering how we flubbed that game against them last year. No need to go early, the good news we've still got to play them home and away there in the next six months.
It would be fantastic if they suffered from their cancelled game and allowed us to win, but if you're a chronic Melbourne Supporter Depression Syndrome sufferer you will recognise that this only sets us up for a Round 1 loss where the sound of air fizzing out of a balloon will be audible hundreds of kilometres away.
Was it worth it?
For getting that winning feeling yes, for forgetting to wear sunscreen and sitting there all day slowly roasting in the sun we will only find out the answer was no when the skin cancer diagnosis comes through.
Here's hoping for a 2017 pre-season fixture at Gumbaya Park.