Sunday 24 July 2016

How the West was wasted

A long and tedious series of circumstances left me watching this game in the same place I'd seen us lose a thriller at Subiaco almost six years earlier to the day. It was the first game I'd watched there since, and the cast of characters has changed so drastically in that time that only Nathan Jones and Jack Watts survived from the starting 22. We've blown another excellent chance to win there, and are now destined never to conquer the damned place again. Like when Adelaide won the Football Park tenants raffle to play us in their last game there, you wonder which of West Coast or Freo we'll be coincidentally 'drawn' against at the end of next season to make sure they go out on a high.

The idea of going to Perth starts deflating me the moment the fixture comes out, and though the Eagles are fluffing around in the 'making up the numbers' section of the eight our recent form against them in Melbourne, Perth or Darwin pointed towards another Oregon Trail style expedition ending in typhoid and cannibalism. When it was revealed to be absolutely pissing down at Subiaco I didn't know whether to get excited about slowing down the rings they would undoubtedly run around us, or to have traumatic flashbacks of sloshing around in the wet in Sydney on the way to four straight one goal quarters. Turns out a one goal last quarter would have come in handy yesterday.

If you're into omens, tarot cards and horoscopes you would have remembered that the last time we played Subi in blanketing rain Peter Vardy led us to victory against Fremantle in 2004. I watched that from Demonblog Towers I, now I'm onto IX which says as much about how often I've moved house as how bad the Dees have been in this time. All that meant squat in the context of Round 18, 2016 but I tried to do the right thing and reason that the return of unexpectedly shithouse Perth weather was going to work in our favour.

The conditions played right into our hands in the first quarter, and when the storms departed to be replaced by bright sunshine we unexpectedly kept harassing the locals. They kept shooting themselves in the feet with turnovers, but got away with it because we weren't just shooting at the feet but having them amputated in unsanitary battlefield conditions then trying to kick for goal. We already had one of the lowest conversion rates in the league but eight goals from 66 inside 50s was a smouldering bucket of toxic waste. 

The last kick into attack was usually terrible, but the way we played to get the ball off the Eagles deserved so much better. No doubt we got a touch-up from the umpiring in the last quarter, but who'd ever have guessed that we'd manage to get forward so many times that it would end with our name being etched on the honour board for most wasteful attacking performances?

You'd think TV technology had advanced enough in six years that I'd be able to work out what was going on in the long shots despite the driving rain. Fox Sports might have moved forward, but the owner of the TV hadn't, and it was like watching whatever's one below SD quality. For the first quarter all the players looked like they were appearing on a Commodore 64, but that was a small price to pay to (sort of) see a Melbourne team not only holding their own in Perth but thumping the locals everywhere but on the scoreboard. A Melbourne team where Matt Jones was one of the key instigators. It couldn't last forever, but it did for longer than anyone could expect.

It was genuinely terrible football. Almost as bad as the Sydney game, except in our third soggy game this year we finally realised that the occasional speculative kick off the ground could prove useful. There weren't enough of them, we still rolled ourselves on multiple occasions trying to pick the ball up and fall over. Other than keeping West Coast to a point for half the quarter that was about all that it had going for it. If I was a neutral I'd have switched to doing almost anything else in the world up to and including clearing Cambodian minefields rather than watch this shambling spectacle of two sides politely trying to give the ball to the other or attempting overhead marks at an outrageously high degree of difficulty.

The pressure put the Eagles on the back foot, causing them to turn into us and not be able to execute the simplest of handballs without it bouncing off somebody's foot. It all started with Gawn in the middle, taking full advantage of playing against a B-Grade ruck division, but he would usually be the one leaping on one of their players a few seconds later. Some of his taps were top shelf, and the All-Australian ruck spot must be his to lose in the next few weeks. At least this time the selectors will be forced to rise above their disgust of anything red and blue to put at least one player on the 40 man shortlist, even if they'll probably find a way to get Nic Nat into the main side ahead of him.

For the first 10 minutes were going forward in our own wonky way, which was better than it going the other way but didn't point to scoring enough to win. God knows how we were supposed to craft goals on a long ground in those conditions but it wasn't by trying to set up huge packs marks. There was no chance for Hogan to be left one-on-one with a defender who he could almost pick up and move out of the way like a cardboard cutout before taking the grab. When that tactic failed to work in the wet we decided that after the sun came out that we'd carry on with it in the hope that a Metricon Stadium style long-range bombing extravaganza might break out. We were still at it in the dying minutes, with disappointing results.

Considering the difficulties of marking overhead in the conditions the idea of repeatedly caning it long into attack should never have made it past half time. The Eagles knew that all you needed to keep us in check was one defender who could read the ball off the boot and take a strong mark. It was the sort of intercept marking masterclass that Collingwood rumbled us with on Queen's Birthday 2015 before dropping the guy who'd executed it for both our games against them this year.

They couldn't stop us getting it down there, but they certainly had our measure once it crossed the 50. Hogan was barely seen, Watts suffered the classic post-contract comedown, and Dawes was battling away in the same fully committed but ultimately disappointing way he has for the last couple of years. This left Garlett of all people to become our most potent marking forward, oddly enough kicking two set shots on a day where everyone else was aiming them like he normally does. After he benefited from two thirds of my dreamboat combination of Brayshaw and Neal-Bullen (all it needed was an invention from Petracca and I'd have gone gooey) storming through the middle to find him on his own we had the opening goal. The Eagles weren't having much of that 'standing on your own' rubbish for the rest of the game, but nor were we keen on regularly kicking to anyone but Shannon Hurn.

I enjoyed the return of Alex Neal-Bullen. Even when he gave away a 50 after doing a perfect 'grab arm, lob person overhead' judo throw, his performance showed why he should have been in the team weeks ago - I wouldn't have minded giving him a go forward in the last quarter when nothing else we were doing down there worked. Brayshaw's disposal was often wayward, but it is abundantly clear that he has the footy smarts that will take him to the top. I'm not surprised if he was a bit peaky in the early stages yesterday, he's probably still waiting to suffer another serious head injury from having a soaking wet footy punted into his head from close range. Once he gets comfortable again everyone will be invited to get out of his way and watch the magic unfold. I want 2017 to start tomorrow so I can see him, Petracca, ANB and Oliver tackle a full year together. No doubt now that I say that one of them will be struck by lightning.

Dawes kicked a couple of goals, but I don't think he helped our structure. He's had terrible luck to play three of his five games in the rain, but while he was trying hard if he wasn't kicking goals he was barely there. I said exactly the same thing when we played in Sydney, but depending on who the travelling emergencies were (UPDATE: Bugg by the sounds of it, which might not have helped) wouldn't it have been better to make a surprise late switch when we realised it was going to be played in conditions resembling the 400m Individual Medley? I've been off the vandwagon this year, but if vandenBerg has to play as a forward then I'd rather have had him out there. If it's dry next week then I'm happy to give Dawes another go, but if there's even the slightest hint of precipitation I'm not interested.

When Matt Jones continued his Nathan Jones style quarter by kicking the second goal it looked like we'd learnt plenty from our earlier adventures in watersports (?) while the Eagles had no idea what they were doing. Neither team was playing anything approaching attractive football, but we were still managing to get the ball forward enough to create opportunities while they were splashing around in the midfield and handballing over each other's head. We gave the two goals back at the end of the quarter, but it was still an amazing novelty to be in front at quarter time in Perth instead of hurling vitriol at the screen about how everyone involved in our club was a complete bastard for ruining your weekend. With Kennedy and Darling (insert obligatory Lucas Cook reference here) down the other end I had no confidence in keeping the scores low enough to stay in it until the end, but we continued to hold their forwards reasonably well when they weren't being gifted frees or having the ball mysteriously fly through a pack and land in their arms.

For the lack of any of the usual targets to blame for everything now that Watts has converted all but the most fanatical of his detractors, the McDonald brothers have achieved the sort of family scapegoat status that I thought you'd only ever achieve by putting Cale, Jarryd and Mitch Morton in the same side. Junior is still greener than Broccoli and his ankle injury might be a good opportunity to give him a couple of games in the VFL, but it can't be easy going straight into the second key defender job in what's really his first senior season because there's nobody else to do it since Dunn and Garland were chucked on the scrapheap.

Now that all the other first 22 players have signed new contracts, Senior's new deal is starting to stand out like the proverbial, and the only thing that would convince me more that he's going would be if he lines up at full forward next week, but mark my words we will regret it when he's gone. Sure he unloaded his Howler of the Week, and backed it up with another quickly after, but if you think we're going to find a key defender who will always hit the target then you've been to dinner with Daniel Kerr and Ben Cousins. Sam Frost played by far his best game as a defender, but he is best served running like a gazelle and tackling people not trying to leap over packs to take marks or go one-on-one with massive defenders. I'd rather we didn't have to use either of them as playmakers in defence, but the idea that we're not going to go backwards in defence if the elder McDonald goes is wacky, blinkered thinking. Everyone loves this Hibberd bloke, but he's eight centimetres shorter. Call me when you've got the permanently angry looking Steven May lined up and I might be keen to talk.

We didn't create many of our own goals in the last three quarters. The first one came courtesy of a horror turnover (see, real clubs do it too) which left Garlett wandering into an open goal. Bored out his mind with this Z-Grade game, 'Derm' tried to talk up his casual arms aloft celebration which was probably to either our cheersquad or friends/family as arrogance. If I had to go on a six hour round trip to commentate on this game I'd start making up fantasy storylines to keep sane as well.

The sun had come out by now, but even when Dawes was on the end of another goal from the square 90 seconds later and we were back to the lead midway through the first quarter I still refused to believe we could keep it going. The suspicion was that once the Eagles got the ball forward they'd find their forwards and we'd be in some sort of trouble, but though the Sizzle Brothers were blown apart for three goals in seven minutes during the second quarter we handled their talls reasonably well. You could suggest the weather was doing as much as our defence, but one way or the other it didn't matter as long as kept the score down long enough to be in it at the last change. If only we could have had our own seven minute period of attacking glory - forward thrusts would continually break down like we hadn't taken the extra length of the ground into account and thought we were kicking to the square only for the ball to actually land 25 metres out for no benefit.

The third quarter was where we really blew it, turning a dozen decent opportunities into points or nothing at all. With Sharrod Wellingham turning the ball over a rate that would see one of our players handcuffed to a fridge and thrown into the ocean, Hogan missed his lone shot for the day. He was never seen again, and his last fortnight has been ordinary so I wouldn't be surprised if he got a week off soon.

West Coast were still playing well below the sort of form that had seen them violently abuse our usual nemesis St Kilda on the same ground a few weeks ago, and this is where we should have taken advantage. In bizarro world the usually trustworthy Watts and Stretch both missed, while Garlett and Dawes converted. After Sizzle Sr's shocker it took Wellingham giving Kent the reply with a kick-in disaster to keep us in front by a goal after a wasteful 3.6.

I'm generally a trusting and naive person. I think Lee Harvey Oswald did it, and like to try and believe that Matthew Warnock at full forward was a legitimate effort at opening a new attacking front rather than furious match-fixing. This means treating umpiring debacles as isolated incidents rather than an epic, wide-reaching conspiracy involving shadowy figures at AFL House. Even with this pragmatic and fair view of how the games are officiated I suspected when we got a couple of lucky ones in the first quarter that we'd be behind by the end, and would probably get screwed in a close finish. Not to mention Watts copping what must have been the most vigorous shepherd out of a marking contest in the 21st century during the third quarter to the complete disinterest of any of the umpires. But sure, have anywhere between four and 40 field umpires, that will be great.

Lo and behold the traditional festival of players ducking into frees got us in the end, almost as much as our own inability to kick even one goal in the last 30 minutes. We could have, and should have risen above the poxy hometown decisions to win. It wouldn't have affected our plans for September, but imagine the morale boost of overcoming 30,000 entitled moaners and a group of confused whistleblowers to snap our longest running losing streak. The problem was that we could have kept playing until midnight and we'd never have kicked the vital goal. 

All we'd do when not being stitched up by the umps would be go forward, look threatening until the last kick, then either see the ball roll out of bounds or land in the arms of an Eagles defender. Never before has a side piled on so many inside 50s and looked less threatening. Just as we were about to curse another wasted attack Bernie Vince did his bit for keeping the figures down by turning a free kick for into a free kick against by falling on his arse while trying to play on. Good on him for trying to do something other than another long bomb into attack, but it was too slippery for that sort of twinkle-toed dancing.

Dual deliberates didn't help. Considering the over the top interpretations the umpires have been ordered into paying to improve 'spectacle' (for the current benefit of an extra three points a game and falling dramatically) the Tyson one where he nudged it towards the line with defenders all over him was probably there - but Gawn was ripped off almost as badly as anyone since James McDonald vs Port Adelaide in 2007. Not only did he have a free man who he was trying to get it to, but the bloody thing came off the hand of a West Coast player. Besides, just look at the angles he was working with - we know Maximum is a fantastic man but how skilled would you have to be to land that handball where it went deliberately?
We wait with baited breath to hear what hitherto unknown technicality the decision will be ticked off on by the umpire's bosses, but it's still a bit rich to claim that it set up the 'winning goal'. The Eagles certainly got a goal out of it, putting them ahead for the first time since the first quarter, but as the video above shows we were on 58 with 15 minutes of playing time left and scored 60. So as much fun as it is to burn effigies and ring talkback we weren't much contributing to our own chances of winning either. Not that I was subscribing to this theory when I hurled my phone towards a couch at high velocity after Gawn was done for that deliberate. If it had been my house I'd be spending the day at Harvey Norman buying a replacement everything.

The two early Eagles goals might have eventually killed us off, but as they didn't kick another one some of the hatred had to be laid at home. The last quarter of an hour was occupied with us thrashing away at them without being able to land a knockout punch like George Foreman against Ali in Zaire. We might have done it in points like North Melbourne against us in 1999, if we could have turned one of the outrageous number of inside 50s into anything more than two behinds for the entire quarter. After Watts hit the post with the kick that would have put us back in front our amateurish attempts at attacking become even more like a high school team (and not a private school one). A five point margin might as well have been five goals when the only half chance we had of getting one was the ball taking a ridiculous bounce and landing in the arms of a player - probably Jeff Garlett - standing 20 metres in space at the top of the square. Our angle of attack never provided the chance.

Even when we were left six points down with a minute to go I didn't want the draw, it was completely useless to me. Looking back it would have been good to play havoc with the seedings for the September exhibition series, but that's a different world to us. All I wanted to do was win, once last time at that bloody ground before they turn the place into a housing development.

Usually when coaches suggest their side shouldn't have won you have to treat it with the same respect as players who are trotted out to say how wary they are about playing us because we're "a good young team". This time you knew Adam Simpson meant it. Even the ultimate master of press conference spin Paul Roos wouldn't try and sell it as a roaring success if the shoe was on the other foot.

The problem was not just limited to this game, since Round 10 our last quarter goal tallies are 1, 0, 5, 1, 1, 1, 2, 0. In comparison the first nine weeks went 6, 3, 6, 2, 6, 4, 7, 5, 6. Winter has not been our friend, but in six of the eight games since Round 10 we've had at least nine goals on the board at half-time, so it's not an overall 2013/14 style inability to score. We can do it, just not consistently enough or when it matters. It can't be that we've been playing with some variety of our first choice line-up since the first practice game, fatigue can't just hit that consistently every week. I also refuse to rely on the young team defence, I'll cop it for a lot of things but not for falling apart continually in last quarters. The anti-NT grouping may wish to point out that this all started in Alice Springs, but I think that's more coincidence than the travel sucking the life out of us.

Of the five losses since Round 10 we were a reasonable chance to win all of them except the Sydney one at the last change, only to kick five goals in total across them. Forget being addressed by coaches at three quarter time, this lot should be addressed by a team of trauma counsellors.

Just close your eyes, breathe in and repeat the mantra "youngest team in the league" to yourself 100 times.

2016 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Max Gawn
4 - Dom Tyson
3 - Sam Frost
2 - Nathan Jones
1 - Jack Viney

Apologies to Matt Jones, Garlett, Kent, Petracca and Neal-Bullen.

With all the big guns featuring in the votes this week the Jakovich remains a three man race, with three others hanging on for dear life above the dotted line of death. Tyson just keeps his head above water by getting full votes, but is highly likely to slip under next week. No change in the minors, but any chance a blockbusting run at the Seecamp for Frost?

38 - Nathan Jones
36 - Jack Viney
34 - Max Gawn (WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
24 - Jack Watts
22 - Bernie Vince
14 - Dom Tyson
13 - Jesse Hogan
12 - Christian Petracca (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Medal for Rookie of the Year)
10 - Neville Jetta (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year), Clayton Oliver
6 - Billy Stretch
5 - Jayden Hunt
4 - Ben Kennedy, Dean Kent, Tom McDonald, Christian Salem
3 - Sam Frost
2 - Tomas Bugg, Jeff Garlett, James Harmes, Matt Jones, Heritier Lumumba
1 - Cameron Pedersen

If Fox Sports showed the Eagles banner then I must have blinked at that moment. I'll assume that it wasn't as good as our solidly kerned effort, which like the West Coast Eagles threatened to rip apart in the conditions but stayed intact just long enough to win. 21-1-0 for the season. 

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
There was a lovely time where we had goals galore to choose from, now that they're back to a premium the field has thinned. At least in this case we got one quality finish to choose from - Christian Petracca wins dinner at West Australian institution Chicken Treat for his running goal in the second quarter. He has to share the chips with Nathan Jones who set it up for him, first by spinning out of a pack then by having the vision to find him with a long pass.

Garlett retains the overall lead with time rapidly running out for anyone to nick it off him with a goal over his head from the centre circle.

Next Week
Back to the MCG for Gold Coast, just as they're getting into some reasonable form. We've lost a lot of close games this year, so I have a nasty feeling that we're going to lose this one by five goals. If the Veil of Negativity hadn't already enveloped us that should ensure it suffocates everyone in the MCG precinct. I've got no scientific basis for this, it's just the vibe that can only come from holding a five year record of being total balls in the second half of seasons.

Without watching Casey play yet I'm going to continue my Spencil For The 1s campaign, and as much as the changes make no sense for team structure I care even less about that now than I did last week. We're going to be plankton from here, we may as well play like it.

IN: Spencer, vandenBerg
OUT: Harmes (omit), O. McDonald (inj)
LUCKY: Dawes (deserves a go in the dry, then I'm dropping him)
UNLUCKY: Bugg, Dunn, Hulett (would prefer to Dawes though, so hope he kicks 14 for the Scorpions and forces his way in), Pedersen

UPDATE: 20 minutes after pressing publish I turn on the VFL and the Spencil is sitting on the bench with a blanket over him, out for the day with injury. There goes that campaign.

Final thoughts
Last week I was using the ladder predictor to try and work out ways that we could still blag our way into the finals. Now I'm trying to make sure we're not still going to finish in the bottom four. Based on every other game going exactly as I expect it to (which it won't) I see us 14th if we lose the lot, 12th if we win one of Gold Coast/Carlton and 11th if we win both.... or 9th if we win everything. There's going to be major temptation for people to set themselves alight in the town square if we don't win two more, but try to keep your eyes on the big picture.

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