Sunday 16 July 2017

Malfunction at the junction

And lo, the brave but battered survivors of the Great 2017 Melbourne Injury Plague stood on a weird ground, in weird conditions with two paths before them. Win and buy valuable insurance in the race for a coveted top eight spot, or lose and be cast into the fiery pits of a six team brawl for three vacancies. The problem was that in the way stood the most ruthless attacking machine in the competition by some distance, stung from already throwing away one decent lead against us this season.

It didn't end well, but in the end I'd say we put in a reasonable performance considering our midfield has been decimated, Gawn's touch around the ground is still pending, and Hogan is playing like one of those Workcover ads where the person is welcomed back with their arm still in a sling, and though he can't do exactly what he's supposed to everyone says things like "good onya champ" and wishes him well anyway.

But having said that, being competitive for most of the game other than when we threw it away in the first quarter or gave up hope in the last shouldn't detract from the many and varied ways that this performance gave me the shits. I desperately want to move to next week, knowing this was effectively a free kick, but watching the opposition have a dozen shots from players standing on their own inside 50 and having the game terminated by a period of not being able to stop the other team when they got on a roll was a return to the days when Roos was on a search and rescue mission to recover our dignity. At least we can say that when it happened then we had full teams, not some of the eclectic midfield selections on offer in Darwin. And we still scored 70, which is not all that good but would have been 40 in 2014/15. And probably nil in 2013.

Ironically on the night where Simon Goodwin opted to stand, presumably because there was no bloody where to sit in the poky Marrara Stadium coaches' box, I sat. As you'll remember my default position for TV games is to hover over the screen like a goal umpire watching the ball roll over the line, but this time I just wasn't feeling it. Maybe if we'd got closer in the last quarter I'd have jumped to my feet and started pacing nervously, but it felt like the whole thing was a pointless endeavour so I sat under a blanket eating chips.

Part of the malaise might have been down to the commentary team. Since when did Channel 7 show an interest in games in Darwin? Probably when they discovered the only other game on offer was two Sydney sides. The last time I remember network TV covering this fixture was Channel 10 doing our last win pre-186 (and look how they've turned out?), when I risked ending up like that poor bloke at the swingers' party by nervously pointing a toy gun at the screen all night. All we had in common tonight was that neither of us got the climax we were hoping for.

The thing about Dwayne or BT is that they are clearly so self-inflated and sure of their own genius that there's energy to be generated from yelling at the TV as they call. Basil on the other hand seems like he would actually be quite a nice person in real life and is probably trying very hard to perfect his craft, but the way he weaves pre-planned gags, insincere sounding concern for injured players, and pre-prepared facts into the call suggests he's actually being fed by an artificial intelligence project. He had one "life of Riley" rib-ticker about Riley Knight that his shit bloke commentary chums didn't even give a polite chuckle for, instead leaving it hanging there like a fart in an elevator. That's what friends are for. The only one of them I'd want to speak in real life would be Richo, and even he didn't try to make a save.

Even if Baz is running off the BlandChat 6.2 operating system he can take comfort in being significantly more likeable than Luke "you just reckon" Darcy, and far more useful than Ling. For the entire last quarter an Adelaide player sat on the bench with ice on both legs as they speculated whether he'd hurt his hammy. On the radio the boundary rider would have been back with news within minutes, they never even threw to Ling for an update. So what's the point of him being there? Leigh Colbert sat on the ground with Mark Jamar in Darwin, what's this guy offering other than platitudes and motherhood statements?

At least nobody ever made a significant gaffe by suggesting Jay Kennedy-Harris had a 'home ground advantage', or confused Jetta and Garlett despite them being at other ends of the ground. Even if you're of the vintage that can't tell indigenous players apart, it's easy to spot Jetta because he'll be the one taking on a defender significantly bigger than him in a marking contest.

At least even though I was lamenting not getting the Fox Sports C-Game commentator who calls the game properly instead of trying to force in zingers, the stadium were so happy with Channel 7's coverage (and the chance to save a buck by not hiring cameramen) that they just stuck it on the big screen with not a cracker of manipulation to the countdown clock. I was desperately hoping that would come into play later as we pulled off an even more audacious rort of the final seconds than last week. As it turns out our most exciting moment of the game came because a player opted not to turn around and see how much time was left, but by the final siren we were sinking like a stone so there was no chance for overt manipulation.

The tone of how our attacks were going to be dealt with was set on the first one, we whacked it long to the square in hope and a Crows player cut it off. Rinse and repeat about 30 times for the rest of the game. There was one majestic lead straight up the middle by McDonald in the second quarter, and though he stuffed it up by trying to play on and was smothered it was exactly what we needed instead of crossed fingers "here goes nothing" Hail Mary kicks. His Cuthbertson-esque run ended with only one goal, and even that was from a free, but he battles so hard down there I don't want him to go back into defence until Hogan is marking over every defender in the league and kicking 80 goals a year with his eyes closed.

After we'd been thumped in pretty much every aspect of the game, Melksham showed up for the first goal in a performance that must have Tom Bugg contemplating a lot of time in Cranbourne next year, but in a magical Melbourne-esque twist we'd have probably been better off if he missed. The ball was bounced, they went forward and kicked one goal. Then did the same again, leaving us a net score of -6 from his goal. Later he kicked a goal, and after we conceded immediately from the bounce again he was forced to intervene and score the reply himself straight after to make sure we weren't going to screw over his hard work again.

I've always had an open mind towards Milkshake, even when he was dropped after hitting the skids in defence, but I'm really growing to like him as a forward. Like Harmes and Bugg before him (and Tapscott, Magner and god knows who else before them) his success as a fish out of water forward won't last, and in a few weeks time he'll be struggling to get a kick. What I enjoyed most - other than the goals - was his continued use of the NBA Jam style razzle-dazzle tap-on when there's a high, loose ball and he's about to be tackled.

The move has been such a success that other players have adopted it, and it's usually a success other than a few times where the ball has been going out of bounds and they've kept it in to our disadvantage. They may as well try it in packs, because our contested marking continues to be rancid. There is far too much jumping above opponents and punching the ball out of bounds in defence instead of trying to mark, which is obviously a symptom of losing Tom McDonald to the other end of the field, but you are never winning anything without something reliably taking bucket-handed marks in defence. Tonight our backline combined for one, and that was from Jayden Hunt, which puts him in a Neville Jetta vs Full Forwards style class of people doing what they shouldn't have to.

Now that we're in a position to recruit good players from other clubs for god's sake get me a contested marking animal. Even if there's a Jeremy Howe style 50% chance of a turnover I just want to have confidence when a ball is approaching a pack, because my problem isn't with us marking, it's the other side being left free to. Now that I can't have The SME Killer Steven May, I've done my research to work out who Jake Lever is and he'll do nicely. Apparently he won a trophy at Adelaide for 'professional attention to detail', which should assist in going near an opponent no matter what sort of Bermuda Triangle style zone he's forced into.

Our defence didn't have a good night, though I'm not sure how much is down to them and how much is the system. They all had their good moments but were generally so loose it looked like the clinic of out the back goals Port put on against us in Alice a couple of years ago. I was most worried about Jetta, in the week where the rest of the world finally arrived where we've been at for 18 months and acknowledged that he's a gun I was waiting for the weight of expectation to trample him. It wasn't even the Media Curse, because he sensibly avoided all feature articles and double-page spreads. Just the ultimate mozz where he's been ticking away thrashing people non-stop for two years and once people realise it all goes to shit. Other than one fantastically loose handball in the first quarter that led me to expect the worst he came out of it unscathed, even if he was often sucked into the same mystery vortex as the rest of the defence.

After levelling it at a goal apiece the walls caved in, and the Crows put on an unstoppable burst of six in a row. Good teams might have been able to stop it, we weren't. Instead we continued to hope against hope that bombing the ball long would bring goals, then watched it scream down the other end for a score.

Bernie Vince didn't take our misfortune well, opting to mar what was an otherwise decent tagging job on Rory Sloane by randomly elbowing Eddie Betts in the head. He has been average in parts this year, but what a stupid thing to do when we've got so many senior players out. He backed up in the second quarter by being reported clonking an opponent going for the ball in a fashion that he'll be lucky to escape if we can somehow show it hit the shoulder and the rest of the contact was 'incidental' (CLICHE). Fat chance, and if we can find somebody else to do the job by the time he's eligible to come back I'm prepared to wish him well in his future endeavours.

Stranglewank mode became active late in the quarter. Hello darkness my old friend. When the margin hit 24 I was resolute in not jumping off, thinking we looked just as bad against them the first time so there was no need for haste. Then at six goals down by the end I was forced to admit, to an empty room, that this wasn't going to end well. At that point I didn't even think we could launch the minor comeback we did, shortly before caving in with disinterest at the end and giving up a bunch of goals in junk time.

One of them was a perfect example of what ailed our defence, the 350 career goalkicker Taylor Walker (never Tex) left standing so far from anybody else that they could only communicate via shortwave radio. I don't think he'd snuck off the bench like that Carlton player did, almost causing me to have a coronary last week before I realised how he'd done it, so it was just another case of everybody getting lost when the ball was turned over.

The 'highlight' of the first quarter mauling was the bit where we had players storm in off the back of the square, and Adelaide managed to clear it straight past them for a goal. It was like building a wall to keep somebody out and them bouncing over on a trampoline. I've gone to rigorous lengths to say I don't know anything about tactics, but I'd have thought when we were playing with a diminished midfield that you'd expect Adelaide to get clearances and set up accordingly. Instead of them attacking the fall of the ball like the Normandy landings they'd have been better off hanging back and waiting for it to be punted down their throat.

Plan A was faulty again, and like our woes in the famous first five minutes of third quarters under Neeld (a stat that never achieved the fame it deserved) there's a trend emerging here. We are not very good in first quarters against good, bad or mediocre teams. In the real basement days of 2012/13 that used to be the time where we'd often put up a solid fight before dying in a screaming heap after quarter time, now that we're somewhat good we're starting like a 1982 Daihatsu Charade left out overnight in winter.

Including this week we might be 8-8 in opening terms (down from a season high of 8-6 after the Eagles) game, but have been outscored 38.42.270 to 54.52.376 - and that's without making any adjustments for that ridiculous Sydney game where they stomped the bejesus out of us and we still managed to kick four to one. When it works in the first quarter it goes alright, when it doesn't we're a trainwreck. Goodwin has already demonstrated that he's good at de-shelving his secret Plan B, C and/or D envelopes and calming the situation and/or launching absurd comebacks, but we can't go putting ourselves in cavernous holes and expecting to climb out all the time.

Despite Clayton Oliver furthering his reputation as the new Sam Blease - somebody who cannot help but being involved in funny scenarios - by kicking the wrong way and nearly costing us a goal, we managed to stem the bleeding in the first half of the second quarter. After Melksham completed the goal-for-goal-for-goal we'd kicked four to two and were starting to eat away at the margin. Then we copped two to end the quarter, and were lucky to get away with a third one when the other McGovern brother almost avenged his sibling's role in the Subiaco Sizzle Sealer by narrowly missing a goal. If you're going to have a whole family hate you why not the Mortons, not two gigantic blokes who look like they should have been playing in the 80s and eating a Chiko Roll on the way to training before doing their back rooting in a car on Saturday night. I want one of them.

To rub it in, not only was our first comeback rapidly fizzling, but Luke Darcy suggested "Michael Hibberd couldn't get it up". Which is probably grounds for a defamation suit, but presumably Michael is not going to want to have to prove the claim untrue in court.

It was going badly, but there were positives. Lewis was back to his best, Petracca continued to show glimpses of an absolute beast of a midfielder by exiting packs through confined spaces with the greatest of ease, and hallelujah they resisted the usual vaguely racist ploy of playing JFK in the forward line and left him in the same role that won him a return to the side in the first place. He made his fair share of blunders, but who didn't? Through them you could see the signs of a handy midfielder, certainly much more than his appearances earlier in the season which provoked that grandstanding loony to cut up his membership. I doubt he keeps his job when all of Viney, Tyson and Jones return but the more reasonable depth the better.

At this point, with players being accused of the same sort of impotence that our forwards were suffering, I was prepared to sandbag for the next two quarters and try to protect the margin. If we'd done that we wouldn't have had the brief fun of the comeback, but we'd have lost by less in the end. A wave of enlightenment told me to a) stop eating chips you fat bastard, and b) it's not so bad to lose to the side that will ultimately win the flag. I may be the only person outside of South Australia who subscribes to that theory, but I'm sticking with it. In the end, anyone but $cully really. If he does his hammy in the prelim I'll be happy for GWS to romp the Grand Final home by 187 points.

To continue the theme of the night the first Adelaide goal of the third quarter came after 30 seconds, and involved a key forward in acres of space. If I have died by the time you read this, and this post is released by my estate post-mortem let the record show that this goal was responsible. It's not the ones that lose you thrillers that you have to watch out for, it's these seemingly innocuous ones that crush your spirit after 20 minutes of hope that the second half might bring something magical.

We'd given up scoring again, and The BasilBot 5000's AI failed him when he spat out surprise at us not adding anything for the first seven minutes. Mate, we used to be happy if we'd get one point in the first quarter, this was nothing. The difference is that now even when we struggle to score for one part of the game, there's the hope of ripping a few quick ones out of our arse to keep the scoreboard ticking.

Oliver gave up on handballs for once and used his underrated kicking for the next goal, but it was a drop in the ocean. The Crows immediately went back to battering us, and only missed out on the reply due to poxy kicking. We got a leg-up when Sloane was inadvertently knocked out by a thumping Dean Kent tackle, one that reminded you of how good he was last year before falling off the face of the earth, and the only let down was that when Kent fell perfectly next to the prone Crow he didn't hook the leg and demand an umpire count the pinfall.

While Sloane was knocked out the ball finally landed in Hogan's hands, 10 metres out from goal on a reasonable but not difficult angle after a game where nothing he did inside 50 went go right. It didn't help trying to play from behind half a dozen Crows defenders, and he was very good up the ground, but I thought there'd be no way he could miss from there and it would give him some much needed confidence. Then the umpire stopped the game so Sloane could be stretchered off - even though Hogan was either going to kick a goal or a point when the game could have been halted then, which I know is the rule etc.. etc.. but it still feels silly - and we got two or three minutes of comedy capers where a clearly loopy Rory told the training staff trying to tend to a potential neck injury to piss off as he stood up, then turned around and tried to run back into play. It wasn't until Walker showed up that he decided to listen to his captain's opinion over trained medical professionals and leave. Fortunately he didn't have a broken neck because one of his teammates gave him a big pat on the head as he eventually departed.

I'd held off on a Basil quality "we should get a 50 for time wasting" gag, because I thought there was no way Hogan could miss from such close range. Then he did. Not long after Kent suffered his own misfortune, blowing his shoulder after being tackled. So that's him done for the year, and he was later pictured sitting on his own in a weights room, gloomily watching the game through a window. I thought it was a bit weird that he was there on his own, and lo-and-behold somebody else must have had the same idea, because when the cameras returned he had a trainer with him. Either that or the guy had just been out the room having a slash.

We needed one last goal to cut the margin to cut the margin to less than four goals. It's the sort of margin that I'd have been convinced we were going to give up, but had no faith in overcoming. Enter Jayden Hunt, who was fortunate not to turn around and look at expiring time on the scoreboard right behind him. Instead the siren went, and despite being 70 metres out on the boundary line he thought he'd have a go at a good old fashioned torp. With sexy results. Now people will expect him to do it every week, and he'll end up like that Crows bloke that kicked the ball out on the full about a metre from where it came off the boot.
If we'd gotten back to within a goal from there it would have been the full David Carradine in Bangkok job, but fortunately for the oxygen needs of supporters everywhere the dream lasted about a minute before we conceded the goal that ultimately put us away. It was not a great night to be Sam Frost, not only did he fumble twice in the build-up to that but was also usually nowhere to be seen when the ball went inside 50. At least last week he was close enough to fly into the contest at warp speed and have some impact, last night he was MIA. Usually it's because just like Tom McDonald last year he's the player who pushes up the ground, then watches the rest of the backline go to sea when the ball is turned over and he's left sprinting 70 metres in vain to try and find his opponent. No great drama, he's had far more good days than bad this year.

At least as they started to overhaul us they began kicking properly constructed goals with some opposition, instead of having time to consult the state of stock market on their way into an open goal. Then after two of those we cracked like an egg again and let somebody pot one free range style. It was all over and I found myself looking more at the clock than the play to get it over with.

Lewis petulantly booted away a ball to concede a 50 at the end, but unless the point they kicked knocks us out of the eight who cares. That's the sort of thing I used to do at indoor soccer when we were down 27-1 in the last minute, but I never even won one trophy and he's got four AFL flags so best of luck to him. After slaughtering him wholeheartedly last week, and briefly calling for a dropping before reality set in and I realised there were no replacements, I thought he was our best player. Unlike last week he was worthwhile both at the contest, and in the open. This is what we need more of, not a seniors moment (PS - he is almost five years younger than me) when he forgets what he's doing after playing on in the middle of the MCG.

It was a shit night, but not a fatal one. Let's take a deep breath and hope the medical team can work wonders before next 2.10pm next Saturday.

2017 Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Jordan Lewis
4 - Christian Petracca
3 - Jake Melksham
2 - Jayden Hunt
1 - Alex Neal-Bullen

Apologies to Hibberd, Oliver and Kennedy-Harris who might have got the last one.

Well isn't this getting interesting now? The leaders fail to poll, Petracca picks up four and he's within one BOG of the lead. There are still 30 votes on offer, which would usually see people falling under the dreaded dotted line at this time of the year, but like the eight it's so even everyone remains a chance. Oliver can slam the door shut on Colin Garland with two votes next week, or Hibberd can do it with a fiver.

No change in the minors, as Hunt joins Jetta in the chase for Hibberd's Seecamp and Pedersen holds on in the Stynes because Gawn's not scoring. He got another 10 hitouts to stay narrowly above the qualification mark.

24 - Clayton Oliver
21 - Michael Hibberd (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
20 - Christian Petracca, Jack Viney
16 - Jayden Hunt, Neville Jetta
15 - Nathan Jones
13 - Jeff Garlett, Tom McDonald
12 - Sam Frost, Jack Watts
8 - Christian Salem
7 - Jordan Lewis
6 - James Harmes, Cameron Pedersen (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
5 - Max Gawn, Jake Melksham
4 - Mitch Hannan (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Medal for Rookie of the Year), Bernie Vince
3 - Oscar McDonald, Dom Tyson
2 - Dean Kent, Josh Wagner
1 - Jesse Hogan, Alex Neal-Bullen, Jake Spencer

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
With apologies to both Melksham's goals in the second quarter I would be tarred, feathered and beaten with sticks in the street if I chose anything other than Hunt's violent torpedo after the three quarter time siren. Talk about North Korea plonking Darwin with an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, get him to fire a few off the boot in the other direction.

Ultimately it came to nowt, but if I only awarded the weekly prize when it helped us win this competition would never have got off the ground. He's won a day trip to Leigh Valley Hawk and Owl Sanctuary, an outfit so secretive that they only admit to being located in "Central Victoria".

There's been a movement to push this above McDonald in Perth into first place, but I just can't do it. Get back to me when he unloads a Malcolm Blight style game winner from that position. The Sizzle retains his overall lead.

This is a tough one. Adelaide's banner was very average, and contained the most ridiculously oversized apostrophe since ropes were first attached to crepe paper. But ours had three lines that all ended in win, which for the purposes of rigging this award I'm going to suggest was a noble but failed attempt at subliminal messaging to the players rather than a rhyme.

On the back we said "Hertz - lift your rental game", which reads more than a customer feedback complaint than an advertisement, so with neither side scoring a "had to travel for this" bonus, the Dees win in a tiebreaker because Adelaide had a curtain which made their b-side say FRESH AUSTRA [giant space] LIAN PRODUCE in a wine ad. By the end I could have done with wines by the dozen. Dees 15-1-0 for the season.
Next week
Port are like a not-quite-as-good version of the Crows, so playing them at the MCG is a great opportunity to realise that we wouldn't have won this week even if we'd stayed at home. If we get somebody (anybody) back from the casualty ward I feel we can give them a reasonable shake. After all they hadn't beaten anyone good until last week, and even we can topple West Coast in Perth now. All I know is that I'll be watching in a state of heightened awareness, and will probably think at least once that I'm about to have a stroke.

For some unknown reason the pub league VFL has got two teams with byes this week (at least they're not giving everyone a rest to play a representative game against Mururoa Atoll), so you'll get no guidance from there. I assume we're not going to submit to Viney's Rory Sloane-esque attempts to play while still injured, but will take the official injury list's word for it that Watts and Tyson are ready to return. Not convinced on Watts though, it started as a one-week injury and has dragged on this long so who knows if he's even still got a hamstring by now.

Under any other circumstances you'd say Hogan could do with a week in the VFL to identify some suburban nobodies and get his confidence up by destroying them but even if they were playing it would just create more trouble than its worth. If Pedersen was in form perhaps I'd consider it, but we might as well just let it roll and hope that Hulk rediscovers his form inside 50. Still wish - in my 'never played a game of real footy in his life' way - that he'd play more in front though.

IN: Tyson, Watts, Kennedy
OUT: Kent (inj), Vince (susp), Pedersen (omit)
LUCKY: Hogan
UNLUCKY: Anyone and everyone that hasn't had a game yet.

After that
The ladder predictor has had another fair belting this week, and to illustrate how titanic a battle we're in I assumed we'd lose this and plugged in the rest of the season to discover that four wins left us fifth, and three wins left us 10th. On form, with players back, and with North surely researching amphibious tank technology for the Hobart game, I'm locking that in, plus Brisbane and Collingwood in the last two weeks. That means unless there are baffling and bizarre results elsewhere we'll have to beat one or more of Port, GWS or St Kilda.

By the time you read this I'm hoping that The Bradbury Plan will have been given a leg up by Brisbane beating Richmond (no), Freo beating West Coast (perhaps) and Carlton beating the Bulldogs (possibly). [UPDATE - No, no and no. Thank you, fuck you, bye]

Then on to next week, where if you want to be a pessimist and assume Port do us over you'll be looking for North to beat Essendon (never), Gold Coast over the Dogs (only a half chance because it's in Cairns, where NQR things happen), Hawthorn over Freo (unless the Dockers lose the Derby, then they can piss off out of calculations), Sydney over St Kilda now that the Swans are launching an unlikely assault on the top four, GWS over Richmond (though I've gone for them the last two weeks and they haven't won, so maybe I'll buy a membership if the pricks make the Grand Final), and Collingwood over West Coast (you would say no, but the Eagles are flaky in Melbourne...)

Either way, the best thing to do would be start winning. After that ridiculous article a few weeks back suggested we'd finish third my calculations are that we lose and sit ninth, behind Essendon on percentage and a game behind everyone else, and have to come from a game outside in the last three rounds after beating North and losing to the Giants. Then beating St Kilda (?) and Brisbane lands us back in 8th in front of West Coast on percentage going into the last round. There the Pies will probably rumble us, leading to Eddie McGuire heaving Nathan Buckley onto his shoulders solo to celebrate a hard fought 13th place finish. But the Eagles do play Adelaide in the last round, so if they've played and lost by then, and assuming St Kilda don't ravage Richmond again the Plan might work in its purest form, getting in because everyone else dies in the arse. And off we'll go (quite literally in my case, not missing this even if we're sent to Perth) to Sydney for an elimination final drubbing.

Considering the damage we've done to ourselves this year, and an injury list that clears the MFC photocopier of toner on a weekly basis we should be happy to get so close. Fuck that, I emotionally invested to the point where I might chuck a tantrum and kick over a small tree if we don't make it. The North and St Kilda games are crucial. Let's get players back and steamroll some motherfuckers.

Final thoughts
This was a free hit, and other than Vince making an idiot of himself we didn't lose much out of it other than a bit of percentage. On to next week, and a game where my antics against Carlton may very well pale into comparison. If there was a row further back than MM I might sit in it. Any chance of watching from a light tower? I promise not to attract a record number of seagulls by projectile spewing across the ground.

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