Sunday, 25 February 2018

More of the good stuff, less of the bad stuff

Two days into our season the 2018 'Beat North in Every Format' redemption campaign is 66% complete. Now to rumble them by any means necessary in Round 3 and we can get on with having a realistic ping at the eight. To paraphrase that classic 90s banner - 'first beat North, then worry about the good sides'. Given that they've been good, bad and mediocre in the last 11 years and they've still beaten us every time I'm willing to take it.

In an abridged pre-season there's no room for messing around, so we went in with much of our best side. The only absolute certainties missing were former Demonbracket winners Viney and Jetta, plus Garlett, who might want to think about a Tonya Harding style clobbering for Bayley Fritsch during the week. On the other hand, nobody but enthusiasts know more than a handful of North players at the best of times so it's hard to tell whether their side full of workmanlike homebrand unknowns was anywhere near the best XVIII. That usually doesn't matter, they could donate one of their 250 different commemorative jumpers to a team of raffle winners and we'd spontaneously combust.

I spent the last week steadfastly refusing to accept that the season was about to start. Life was easier - but ultimately less rewarding - when you turned up in February expecting to see shite. Now I've been curled up in terror in all summer worried that we're somehow going to nobble ourselves and miss out on the much anticipated great leap forward. There was an amusing reaction to Mark Robinson suggesting we wouldn't make the eight, with people whirling into full siege mentality mode and hurling abuse at him. What right do we have to assume anything after last year? The underrated angle was him doing it in a video sitting next to David King, who famously told us to stop worrying and enjoy footy midway through last year. Various demonstrations of why we won't be comfortable until we're standing under a premiership flag were not far behind.

The traditional pre-season nerves hit me just as the coverage was about to start, only for Fox Sports to extract the piss violently by opening with a Round 23 'highlights' package about our great choke. Somewhere David King was realising exactly why the Veil of Negativity still clings to us like napalm. As much as I could have done without a reminder of what happened that weekend, it did focus me on what needs to be done this season. Batter sides that need to be battered, and always be hunting the opposition. Given our 10 Years of Terror against North (notwithstanding victory in a Kick-and-Clap picnic tournament), it would have been better viewing to spin a video of all the times they've stitched us up by margins big and small. Still, until we make up for the no tackles in 10 minutes game we deserve to be reminded of it at every available opportunity. You know you'd have a bad run when you're scarred by not having the chance to be Elimination Final cannon fodder.

Where better to start the climb back towards the eight than at the Casey Fields of the South, a windswept suburban park with the none-more-pre-season name of "Kingston Twin Ovals". For the purposes of historical record, could somebody confirm if we were playing on Twin Oval A or Twin Oval B? There was probably a Little Athletics meet going on at the other one. Either that or a swap meet, because the announced crowd was a flag year 1957, which would be our lowest pre-season turnout since 1200 idiots (including yours truly) watched us beat Richmond at Princes Park in 2007. Either it was a typo or the people of Hobart aren't as interested in the Roos as I thought. (Update - those in attendance suggest that even 1957 seems generous. I guess I'm just conditioned to expecting that people care about practice matches. Apparently not in Hobart.)

The suggestion that North weren't serious about winning was furthered by Brad Scott handing over the keys to somebody else and instead lurking around the back of the box menacingly. He'd already set up the novelty move of playing Majak Daw at full back against the Sizzle/Hogan Twin Towers, and spent most of the game sitting on a Bunnings plastic chair watching the chaos unfold. It wasn't the worst experimental move of all time, and his extendable hands bashed away a few inside 50s, but it showed the difference in where the teams are at. The most experimental thing we did was letting Clayton Oliver show up with a humorous haircut.

It hardly compares to the start of Round 1, but any anticipation for the start of the pre-season went out the window when the first bounce went violently askew. It was quite the anti-climax when I was all keyed up for a low-intensity rematch of the epic Gawn vs Goldstein World Heavyweight Championship contest from Hobart two years ago. Who are the knobs trying to shorten the length of play in a game when so much time is wasted re-doing horrible bounces? I'm usually against changing things for alleged spectacle improvements, but the bounce has had it. If everyone's so desperate to cater to consumers, theatregoers and wankers in Sydney, how are you meant to explain the wild bounce/recall scenario? Either that or just let the thing fling off in random directions and good luck to whoever gets an advantage.

After a second false start courtesy of an anti-Gawn free from the ball-up, the two put on another solid ruck clash. Goldstein is not the titan he used to be, but it was still a tough battle and by the end Max had won a decisive victory. Where are the joyless entertainment fanatics who want to abolish stoppages when this sort of fantastic battle is on? If you don't enjoy two enormous humans grappling for supremacy you may not have a pulse. Maximum was back at full strength, his taps and second efforts were a masterclass for aspiring ruckmen, and if he keeps doing that for the rest of the year uninjured it's going to give us a tremendous leg-up around the ground. We got away with not having him last year, and played some really good footy at times when he wasn't there, but a performance like this shows the difference between a competent backup and a master craftsman.

I've got plenty of respect to people who can properly tune out of pre-season games and not care what happens, but alas I'm not one of them. Not going to anything until Round 1 is as close as I'll get to being cool about the warm-up games, and when North went forward straight away the pessimist in me (and how could you not be one considering our most recent outing in a game of actual Australian rules football?) thought "oh Jesus, here we go again, we're going to lose to North here as well". If I was in a disaster movie I'd be the panicky idiot who runs around screaming "we're all going to die!"

Other than a few moments of light concern during the first half there was no need to be dramatic. Alex Neal-Bullen started the game like he was Alex Dustin-Martin and kicked the first goal, before turning provider for a dreamy lead by Sizzle Sr. The Bullet's pass was nice, and McDonald's finish was solid but it was the lead that made me quiver with ecstasy. Imagine teleporting back to 2013 and telling your past self that in five years' time you'd be as excited about Tom McDonald (under siege key defender, zero career goals) playing forward as Jesse Hogan (next big thing, great white hope, future injury victim). Old you would call the authorities and report a lunatic on the loose.

After looking much more dangerous than his attacking partner in the opening quarter, Sizzle went back to being a highly-functioning cog in the wheel as Hogan tormented a backline full of project players and nobodies. He still does quirky, alternative things that will surprise and baffle for years to come. There was one set shot so close he could have almost leant back and dinked it through with the lightest of touches, but instead took a run-up so excessive that he nearly had to catch the Spirit of Tasmania back. Then you look beyond those two behemoths and find Christian Petracca outmuscling champion rig owner Daw, see Bayley Fritsch running riot in senior company, factor in Mitch Hannan and Jeff Garlett and start to think that maybe things are going to turn out ok. If we can get the ball down there enough, and don't enough up getting scorched on the counter unless we score.

We looked the better side, both on-paper and on-field, but it wasn't all good news. The first Roos goal came after a clearly flubbed kick by Lewis, which somehow failed to factor into what was announced as a 100% disposal efficiency at quarter time. You'd have thought one of the commentators would have questioned it, but like newsreaders they will follow whatever's written on screen. One day on Sydney radio a lady dutifully read out text that finished with the phrase "like a bowling ball" (and you can guess the rest) because that's what the paper said. You could quite easily pull off the same prank on a footy commentator.

Lewis wasn't bad in the first quarter (before being packed away due to a minor injury concern), but I wouldn't bet my house on both he and Vince making it to Round 23 in the same backline. One of them fine, but somebody get out of the way for Neville Jetta and let's tighten things up instead of sending everyone up the ground to attack and being clocked whenever we lose the ball. My one game sample of Jake Lever since I started to pay an interest in him suggests he loves to wander up the ground as well, so I look forward to Nifty being called upon to rush back and try to stop his opponent several hundred times this year.

Vince did kick a goal, from one of those infuriating free kicks where the player crunches a perfect tackle but runs a fingernail across the other player's back and is penalised, but I hold significant concern for his chances of getting to the end of the year without a stint at Casey. I respect what he's done up to now, but given that we're developing a side with depth at last there's no need to drag two fading stars along for the ride. Lewis has an extra year on the contract so barring any injuries or radical changes of heart from him he'll get preference.

North's defence might have been about as fearsome as the one we once put out featuring Tom Gillies, but it's hard to deny we looked good going into attack. The problem was that in the most traditional Melbourne FC fashion we were terrifically vulnerable to quick kicks the other way catching us out, and were so ropey after turning the ball over that the preposterously named Billy Hartung's ability to run quickly scored him a nomination to join the Kent Kingsley Klub pre-season training squad.

The difference this time to most games, is that when we copped an end-to-end lightning speed goal in the last minute of the quarter we didn't just pack a man behind the ball to make flappy motions with his arms and try to stem the bleeding - we burst out of the middle and responded through the unusual duo of Maynard and Bugg. Swings and roundabouts. As long there's more (whichever is the good one) than (the bad one) we're heading in the right direction.

You couldn't argue with six goals in a first quarter, but more important was the way we got them. It wasn't just hit and hope stuff that was almost accidentally bundled through (and after intently watching four weeks of our AFLW team that was quite the relief), we were making them with solid, attractive play. This was with Oliver and his rude haircut being relatively well held, and Nathan Jones so quiet early on that I didn't think he was playing. At last there are options, and I pray to the footballing gods that we can stay fit enough that most of them aren't needed. Oliver did bust free of the shackles after half time, and some of his handballs in traffic were eye-watering. No matter how hard the tag is, they will never fully guard against him finding the ball in the middle of a pack and instinctively knowing exactly which direction to handball in and how hard. He is a mastermind.

Because the commentator was the erudite and sensible Anthony Hudson rather than a Dwayne Russell style shrieking banshee, the abolition of the nine point goal (somewhere Paul Wheatley wept) was treated as an irrelevant side-note to the game and only mentioned when somebody had a long shot. In contrast, Dwayne did the next game and mentioned it about 30 seconds in as if it was the biggest news since Cyclone Tracy. He must be in charge of the AFL website, they're still running a score box hopefully showing a column with zeroes as if they may come back at any moment. Mind you, they're also advertising games at possibly fictional grounds called LDV, MTB and TVL so who knows what's going on. I'm surprised they didn't put us at MTB just to set up Mt. Buller gags for tedious dickheads. Some poxy betting company Twitter account tried to do a snow gag and suggested we'd be calling off our September trips to Aspen, which would be fine if that wasn't still in the US summer. Aspiring Twitter comedians, know your limitations.

Nine goals in the first quarter was reminiscent of the shootout on the day of the original Gawn vs Goldstein battle, except that this time the side kicking into the breeze didn't spot the other a 40 point lead before having a go. In fact our goals were barely aided by wind, and it wasn't until the second quarter when the legally mandated raging Hobart gale to one end started up. It slowed down our scoring, just as the game was threatening to become a tribute to the NBL's late Hobart Tassie Devils who used to play just down the road. North certainly improved with the benefit of it, but only to the tune of cutting nine points from the quarter time margin. I hope for the sake of their fans (but ultimately don't care) that they had good players out, because I don't much fancy their chances of escaping the bottom four in this state.

What looked early like a Reverse Stranglewank, where we jump out to a big lead then collapse, was kept reasonably calm courtesy of a late goal by the impressive Harmes. And it was a lovely goal too, he started the attacking chain on the half-back flank, and charged down the other end to be on the end Bugg's centring pass. The Master of Buggery hasn't been given much credit since he lobbed that ill-advised haymaker against the Swans, but without his persistent efforts to keep the ball from going out of bounds the goal never happens. That was a theme of the day, other than the usual suspect North nutters like Cunnington and Ziebell we always wanted it more, he could have very easily let the ball roll out for a throw-in and made it somebody else's problem but was rewarded for fighting his heart out to try and keep it in.

Given the increasing strength of the wind it was no surprise that we improved our position at the start of the third quarter, most notably from a McDonald kick to Hogan in the square which suggests that if they stay fit it will be a lethal forward combo. Even if they were playing against a no-name defence the essentials of a great combination were there. Hulk was still content to hang out the back and try to strong-arm the opposition, but having one up the ground and one in front of goal on a rotating basis is going to be a great help.

North had one last gasp left in them, indirectly kicking a goal against the run of play courtesy of (SURPRISE!) a player standing on his own inside 50. By now the wind was blowing sideways, so he missed everything with the set shot, but from the resulting throw-in Lever was pinched holding the ball and they managed to convert at the second opportunity. I knew men's footy was back when that cut the margin to 19 and I was already fretting about who how we were going to go defending into the wind in the last quarter. Enter Max Gawn, putting a hit-out down James Harmes' throat for the reply goal not long after. That prompted North to declare their work was done, Hannan and AFLX Hall of Famer Melksham goalled immediately after and we were home with time to spare. Milkshake's goal came from a perfect ruck tap from Total Football Tom McSizzle, and my nerves reduced to a sensible pre-season level.

The sixth goal of the quarter came from the impressive Anal-Bullet (to the sound of somebody in the crowding saying "wow!" into an effects mic), and the Chris Sullivan Line was breached late by Bayley Fritsch. Whether the line should be extended when defending into a raging gale in the last quarter or not is debatable, we don't get that far in front often enough to perform situational testing. With all appropriate caveats for North's weakened team, it was pleasing that we did it without Oliver or Jones particularly prominent. Instead the unheralded XXX combination of Anal-Bullet and Long Dong Harmes were running riot. There is also an NQR nickname for Fritsch, but like Cameron Pedersen this is a family program so we're not getting involved in it.

I enjoyed how many of our scores punished North mistakes. Here's to that translating to the real stuff, our nufty disposal has fed percentages up and down the league for years and now I want to take revenge one team at a time. Our first goal of the last quarter was created by Mr Intercepts himself, but this time Lever gathered a loose ball to set up future Round 1 starter Fritsch and insulate us against a collapse. Shortly after Lever was left flat-footed by a quick kick over the top that led to a goal, but even though he looks like a lost member of My Chemical Romance you'd expect based on this that we'll get our money's worth out of him.

The game was dead after Fritsch generously gave a goal away to Gawn after a mark at the top of the square, and all that was left was to get to the final siren without anyone being seriously injured or reported. At one point a close Michael Hibberd pursuit caused Ziebell to go over the fence in comic fashion, but replays proved he was just being dramatic and Hibberd had nothing to do with it.

All in all, a solid hitout that only partially counts as a win over North. If we turn up in Round 3 and are five goals down at quarter time none of this will matter. I look to the big picture in hope.

Due to the lack of games to choose from - unless we throw in a random intra-club - the intention was not to award the Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season performance. However, I've had an unpredictable change of heart, and as long as no more than two players are tied for the lead after the second practice match we will name a winner(s).

Part of the glory of pre-season votes is that players randomly disappear for quarters at a time, so while you often get real games where there's unanimous verdicts on the bests (I have even been known to pick the card occasionally) good luck finding two people who have the same view on a practice match.

5 - Alex Neal-Bullen
4 - James Harmes
3 - Max Gawn
2 - Christian Petracca
1 - Bayley Fritsch

Apologies to Oliver, Hogan, Melksham, Bugg and Salem.

Banner Watch
After last week's AFLW fiasco where the industrially printed thing fell to bits before the players appeared, it was nice to see straining crepe paper barely holding together by the skin of its teeth. No North banner was shown, so I'm just going to assume they didn't bring one and give the Dees a win. 1-0 for the pre-season.

Uniform Watch
I'm not entirely keen on the way the black Zurich box sits on the jumper, but if they've got truckloads of money (until some massive natural disaster puts them on their arse) I'm willing to live with it.

The week after next
St Kilda at Casey. Given that it's a Thursday night I sure as hell won't be there. In fact given the Demonblog Towers are now located in the outer suburbs (and are not Towers) and I'd almost have gotten to Wangaratta quicker than Cranbourne, I can't see myself ever going to Cranbourne again. We will be providing our usual level of in-depth analysis off the TV, but if you want to chip in with crowd watch observations get in touch via the usual channels.

If both teams bring their best sides, and I wouldn't be surprised if the AFLX players are utilised sparingly, this will be a better test of where we're at. I'd say they are a notch below us due to lack of star power (my god, how nice is it to write that?), and Riewoldt taking a well-earned break from his life of MFC torment, so a comfortable win would be a good sign before Round 1. And if we lose meh, as long as nobody's hurt and nothing exceedingly demoralising happens it's not going to hurt us in the long run.

Final Thoughts
We have no God-given right to make the finals, and considering our brutal run home I still think it's mad to assume the best, but this is definitely the collection of players who should at least give us a decent swing at joy in the next five years. If they don't I'm giving up on footy and moving to Micronesia.

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