Sunday 19 February 2017

The kings of summer are back

See also the post on the same day's Round 3 AFLW game.

First it was Ballarat, then it was Craigieburn, now Footscray. Pit us against the Bulldogs at any offbeat pre-season venue you like, we've got them covered. In this time they done reasonably well for themselves, but while nothing that happened today should be seen as an earth shattering predictor to a wonderful future I'm still not past the stage where every kind of win counts. That's why, in an unwelcome flashback to the Ballarat game, I was moderately panicky when it looked like we might cock it up in the last minute. It wouldn't have mattered if we did, it's not like balloons are going to drop from the sky if we extend our pre-season winning streak to five against Carlton next week. Let's concentrate on beating them in a game for points eventually.

When the first game of the season is at a ground where there's no big screen (no decent one anyway in this case) I'm usually in total disarray. The last time I watched a live sporting event was when we were humped at Kardinia Park, and at this age the brain struggles to pick up the pace again. Then there's the usual drama of trying to work out who's who and compute why Jake Spencer has changed his number after eight years. It's not just the on-field stuff that was troubling me, I thought the truck at the end of the ground housed toilets, until I got right under it and realised that it was holding the scoreboard up. Lucky there was a real WC immediately next door or I may have played havoc with the electronics.

I'd never been to the Western Oval before. Not even for a casual midweek dog turd dodging stroll across the turf. As a kid mum would take me to the MCG, Waverley and nowhere else. Even VFL Park got the arse after they started charging $5 for the connecting bus. Obviously the most notable game there was Round 22, 1987 but I'd come in much later than that. Opportunities were few and far between, from my first game to the time the place was mercifully shuttered after 1996 we only played there nine times - and three of those were in the lost years of 1995/1996 when I was too busy being a sullen teenager to watch footy. At least it meant missing the Round 13, 1992 debacle when we ruined Stephen Wearne's debut with a 107 point loss.

Suburban venues probably hold attractive memories if you followed the team that played there, or were present for a great win, but there's no romance in them for me. You can swing the gates open for every food truck in the western suburbs but the ground in the middle of the housing estate in Craigieburn was still a better place to watch a game. I can't understand how they ever had a stand along the road side, it's not as difficult to work out as how they ever played games at Glenferrie Oval with trains whizzing past five metres behind spectators but it's close. Now that the ground is open on one side we could enjoy the hundreds - and this is no exaggeration - of motorists who thought they were getting involved by tooting their horn while driving past. At least some of them had the courtesy to lean out the window and shout outright abuse.

The latest outbreak of misery in Geelong (and this year we play them away at Etihad, possibly the first time going there will be an upgrade) was practically forgotten a week later, but to be entirely honest I remember more about that day than I did today. This just whizzed past me in a blur, and while I greatly enjoyed watching a Melbourne Football Club game as always the wider footy industry is starting to bore me. I never read the papers, didn't see any of the other games this weekend and quite frankly do - not - give - a - flying - fuck about any non-MFC topics. Maybe I'll get bored of the Dees too eventually? Hopefully after a flag.

What I did see was Jesse Hogan throwing hapless defenders out of the way with ease. It's what he does best, and we sadly lacked it in the last few weeks of 2016. Even before the Mighty Ducks Finish was snuffed out by that rancid performance against Carlton he was struggling. Now, re-signed and much heavier of pocket he looked great. At one point he even took a huge contested mark in the middle of a pack, and his lop-de-lop Peter Taylor spin bowling run-up was reduced to a short shuffle at the start before ending normally. More importantly most of the time it ended accurately. I especially liked the goal where he fended the Bulldogs player off being snapping it. For all I know the defender could have been the same rookie list hack who threw Colin Garland over the fence last year, but it looked good.

Down the other end the game started with a massive extraction of piss, as Travis Cloke flashed back to Queen's Birthday 2015 by taking an easy mark in front of T. McDonald then flawlessly converting a set shot. The last thing we need is for Sizzle to enter the sort of downward spiral he hit after that day before we've even played a competitive game. Happily Cloke's best work from then was confined to well up the field where he couldn't do us too much damage.

After they responded to our opener with two in a row I naturally became pessimistic and just assumed that we were going to lose, but we were moving the ball reasonably well. It seems Simon Goodwin was all but in charge last year, so there were no surprises when we played on at all costs. Even our kick-ins were quick, and now that I think about it we were much less disastrous with them than usual last year. The problem was that our attacks broke down on or around the 50 they were pinging straight down the other end unchallenged - so far, so much like every other year since about 2004. Still, after the early Cloke scare the defence calmed down and held firm - allowing us to get back in front by quarter time. Sure they were missing five or six premiership players, but we didn't have err... Watts and Jetta? Shame Trengove and Johnstone got chopped from the original lineup, I was looking forward to seeing both of them play.

I suppose it's what happens in pre-season games, but one of the weirdest aspects was how players would play amazing bursts then go missing. Jeff Garlett dominated the first quarter and a bit, with three goal assists while Jordan Lewis could barely get a touch, then after quarter time Lewis came into the game and Garlett all but disappeared. Then there was Joel Smith, who I instantly fell in love with during a five minute period in the second quarter where he was in everything - including one blockbuster tackle for holding the ball that made me quiver. Gawn was excellent again, and there was one pass to a leading Viney in the that was better than any ruckman had a right to lay on. From hard on the boundary the new co-captain even rewarded him by converting it. Maybe things are turning in our favour?

With five minutes to go in the second quarter we were 20 points in front, and so untroubled moving the ball that the Bulldogs could really only stop us when we made a mistake. But what's a Melbourne game without a period (or in this case two) where we go to sleep and let the other side get a run of goals? Three in the last four minutes cut the gap to less than a goal before an ultra late one saved us, just as I was about to denounce them all as the same old Melbourne, gave us some breathing space. For some reason this mattered to me. Possibly because we're somehow without a back of jumper sponsor a month before the start of the season and could do with a win to generate some buzz. I hear Energy Watch is under new ownership, maybe we should try them again? Meanwhile are we going to be sporting the all red rear of jumper in competitive games as well? I'm not into it, bring back the blue - but it's certainly better than our hideous new clash jumper.

Issues still remain, there was clearly a move to play Salem in the midfield and while he did well it robbed us of a player in defence who could reliably hit a target. I don't understand how between him, Stretch, Vince and Lewis we were still relying on the brothers McDonald to take so many decisive kicks out of the backline. It's a solid gold recipe for howlers. Get a good kicker down there, give it to them and let the Sizzle Family unload long bombs down the line instead of trying to hit perfect 40 metre switches across goal. Meanwhile as much as we love Hogan marauding up the field and taking marks I still think it would be better if somebody else was doing that so he could terrify defenders inside 50. Weideman was in the right place at the right time for a couple of goals, and I'm hoping he can get up the ground and get more touches as he gains experience. And let's not forget Jack Watts, until 15 minutes into Round 1 when we play him in the ruck and he does his knee.

Speaking of rucks, how can you not love The Spencil? The man is going to get a life membership before he hits 50 games, looks like he's been marooned on a desert island for years, and is never going to get any better at disposing of the ball but how can you fault the intensity? I suppose when you're in his position you wouldn't have survived this long if you didn't care, but I love the way he chases and attacks loose balls. God willing we won't need to use him often this year while Gawn's got the top job sewn up, but I'm very fond of him.

With Gawn, lessons have clearly been learnt from last pre-season. Now that we know he's practically the best in the business there's no need to run him into the ground in these scratch matches. Last year he was rucking 95% of a game in 30 degree temperatures, this time they sensibly split his time with Spencer to ease him into it. I wish they'd taken both he and Hogan off at the end though, because in a flashback to that St Kilda game at Etihad last year there was likely to be a world first lynching of a winning coach if either of them got hurt. Then Hogan landed and clutched somewhere between knee and ankle. The world stopped spinning as he hobbled to his feet looking moderately crocked, before swearing it off and getting back into the play. I'm expecting they'll have discovered that he's actually fractured his leg and somehow stuffed his back up again at the same time too.

The second half was a clinic of Clayton Oliver up close and personal disposals. His hands in traffic are ridiculous, just watch the times where he's either about to be or is being tackled and still manages to find a target. I have a sixth sense that he's the sort of guy who's going to get sucked into some sort of off-field bullshit (my ouija board doesn't tell me how serious) during his career, but we're onto one here pending major on or off-field disasters.

Most everybody did something worth watching for, except Josh Wagner who has apparently suffered a very unpleasant sounding dislocated shinbone. I didn't even know that was possible. It's no good for him, but not a major drag on our Round 1 side considering we've got Jetta to come back. Possibly in an attempt to look less like a 45 year old woman, Melksham has gotten a very silly haircut and was hardly dominant but had a few nice touches. Kennedy-Harris did well on return from injury, but let's be very clear that he is in no way a crumbing forward. Remove that idea from your head. He's a midfielder/half-forward flanker, as best demonstrated by one sublime Hamburglar-esque pickup and handball on the outer wing.

Alex Neal-Bullen is an interesting case, he reminds me of Cale Morton in one key way. Which is never usually what you want to hear, but go with me. I am absolutely convinced that if you play him forward he might kick a few goals, but am struggling to have faith in him as a midfielder. The good thing is that like Morton they'll never do it, so I can continue to claim I'd have been right for years to come because the idea was never disproved. I'm not suggesting the goal he kicked here, where Gawn freshed aired a contest and it bounced through for ANB to tap home, forms part of my dossier of evidence. In fact I don't even have a dossier, it's just gut feel.

With four minutes to go we were 25 points up, but like the first half a few minutes of madness cost us. In fact now that I've watched the highlights I realise we were 17 up with 100 seconds left. As I said to the person standing next to me, a 17 point lead to us is a one point loss waiting to happen. This failed to take into account the dreaded Jesus Christ Supergoal. I forgot they were even on offer, because as usual we refused to participate and instead concentrated on the ones that will count in the regular season. They got one, but still needed another in the last minute and almost did it. I expect the shot was rolling wide anyway, but Lewis punched it through for a point and we managed to navigate the last few seconds to confirm a win that will go down alongside Wizard Home Loans Cup Round 1 2005 and the Kaspersky Cup in pre-season wins that we won't remember in three weeks' time.

2017 Paul Prmyke Plate for Pre Season Performance votes
5 - Jesse Hogan
4 - Max Gawn
3 - Jack Viney
2 - Nathan Jones
1 - Joel Smith

Apologies to Lewis, Vince, Oliver, Garlett and Spencer.

Combined with votes from the intraclub that gives us...

7 - Max Gawn
5 - Jesse Hogan, Jayden Hunt
4 - Clayton Oliver
3 - Jack Viney
2 - Dion Johnstone, Nathan Jones
1 - Jay Kennedy-Harris, Joel Smith

Absolute tragedy, as a near certain win against another corny Bulldogs banner which didn't even have a message on the b-side went up in smoke as ours fell apart. All I saw before it was de-hoisted was that the top line declared cricket season to be over, which is an admirable way to treat tomorrow's T20 international in Geelong featuring the Australian reserves. For the first time ever, and it pains me to do this, I have to report that the Dees are behind. 0-1 OTHER.

A correspondent sent us this harrowing image of the fallen crepe being taken to its resting place. RIP.

UPDATE: Cheersquad sources suggest 20 people were "coated in blue dye" as it went down. Which opens a new promotional front:

Crowd Watch
Not as many Bulldogs present as I'd have thought, but now they're involved in serious business I can understand the fans sudden disinterest in practice matches. It's like seeing people you barely tolerated in high school unexpectedly striking it rich.

For people whose last memory of the game was the greatest moment of their supporting lives they sure were concerned about umpiring decisions in a throwaway pre-season game. Not that we'll ever know, but it must take time for it to sink in that you've escaped poverty and to realise that there are bigger and better things in the world than pre-season wins. I expected them to a lot punchier about the premiership, but the people around us were downright reasonable. They clearly knew that there's no point wasting their best lines on us before the real stuff starts.

What united both fans - other than shamelessly clambering for free ice creams - was the question of who in god's name JLT are, and why they're sponsoring this cup/shield/challenge/series. They'd be moderately miffed that half the people are still referring to it as the NAB Cup, but the way it goes they'll still be calling it the JLT Whatever for two years after somebody else has taken up the sponsorship. It still felt right to call the pre-season the Wizard Cup until about three years ago.

It was surprisingly how many people showed up just for the prime time AFLW game, and a shithouse result for whoever decided to only have one gate open at the end. Result - people going in and out at the same time while a harried Bulldogs staff member tried to shout instructions to alleviate the traffic jam. Not that I'm at all bitter at having made the rookie mistake of parking as far away from the gate as was humanely possible.

Human Resources

In case you missed it in the season preview, a reminder that I'm looking for anybody interested in a) doing reports for AFLW games for the rest of next season (especially next week) and b) being considered for emergency call-ups during the regular season. I've got so much going on that this will undoubtedly be the year when I'm unable to go to one or more games, and I'd much rather get reports from on the ground than compiling from the TV. As long as you give the votes, tick off the usual segments and keep your abuse on the right side of defamation laws the format, length and tone is up to you.

Next Week
Carlton at Casey, and if the weather is anything like that women's match there I'm going to sit in my car and wait for the first opportunity to escape the treacherous parking lot. Apparently it would take me 10 hours and seven minutes to get there on public transport, so here's hoping I don't lose my licence between now and then. After tipping the Blues to finish last I reserve the right to take offence if we lose, even though I understand that the middle game is usually the one where the team least likely to play in Round 1 are selected.

Was it worth it?
Yes, in that classic pre-season way that the result isn't important but you saw positive signs that might translate into the real stuff. Also because the commentary team was Dwayne making noises as if he'd sat on something sharp and Moaning Gerald Healy.

I'd like to have stayed for the women's match, but ironically had a household full of women to get back to. Instead taped it, and held a media ban so I could watch as if live. Review here.

Final thoughts
I'm legitimately scared that this isn't going to work out. Which is actually a good thing, because it means we're no longer floating around like a carcass at the bottom of a swimming pool. A few years ago there was no fear, because there was no hope. Now we've got so much hope it's causing a crushing feeling. Or is it just me?

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