Thursday 5 March 2015

2 teams, 0 cups

Having had six months to prepare for tonight's official opening of the season I still spent the entire day metaphorically sweating bullets. Every year before this day I overdose a bit on a mixture of excitement and panic and worry that this sort of thing isn't going to float my boat any more. Of course it always does, and that's without a Seagal style training and meditation regime.

If anything the game itself settled me down because seeing them go around at a suburban ground was reassurance that winning or losing was ultimately meaningless but at about 5.10pm I was ready to punch on at Spencer Street Station to defend our honour if necessary.

Presumably others feel the same way too (though admittedly there there are also many who couldn't give a shit until premiership points are on offer), so before we indulge any lunatic theories about abolishing the pre-season please consider the effect this might have on the physical and mental health of people like me. Obsessives need a pre-season too, and we can't simulate the effects that we'll feel during games by running around an oval.

Fox Footy was nice enough to put on an opening ceremony featuring that comeback against the Dockers in 2008, and when the lights went down on that glorious afternoon (well that glorious second half anyway) footy was officially back. Technically it came back last week, and generally I wouldn't acknowledge that other clubs were involved all it took was a couple of serious knee injuries for the NAB Challenge to go from a welcome warm-up for the real stuff to the biggest evil facing Australian rules football today. It's not like anybody influential was suggesting it, but as horrible as it is for any player (let along 2x best and fairest winners) to end their year in a throwaway match I'm not sure the "start with Round 1" crowd have really thought their idea out.

Firstly if you want a sporting hard luck story you consult a Melbourne fan, and in this case we can tell you about Gawn and Petracca going down with ACL injuries as if shot during training. If we hadn't played tonight you'd think the space would be filled with more intra-club games, and with no other competitive matches to be played the intensity would be turned up from an AFL 9's match in Dubbo on a Wednesday night to the point where we're right back in the same place and extremities are exploding as if players have wandered into a minefield.

So apologies to Mark Stevens, Grant Thomas et al but you're speaking out of your ringpieces. It appears that the dreaded ACL injury appears to be caused more often than not by a player turning at speed so good luck stamping that out no matter how often the league rigs the rules in an attempt to engineer exciting outcomes for neutrals reduce injuries.

Besides, is there any team sport in the world that doesn't play some sort of practice/trial/pre-season matches? Maybe the Cayman Islands J'ai Alai Super League, but nothing that's taken seriously. It's wacky thinking that somehow Tom Liberatore's knee blowing out would somehow be better if it happened in Round 1 rather that at the Whitten Oval. Nobody seemed to care about infrequent carnage when teams were playing for the fool's gold of the Fosters/Panasonic/Wizard/NAB Cup as long as it was pure accident and not caused by surfaces which resembled the face of the moon. Those who remember Schwarz doing his knee in Albury, Morton his knee at Princes Park (was never the same) and Jurrah his shoulder on some god-forsaken South Australian country oval know if you lost in the early rounds of the cup you ended up playing meaningless games on Quambatook Oval anyway.

So what's the alternative? Rolling up to Round 1 with players as rusty as fuck then having to listen to every pundit claim that kicking on both sides should be added to the national curriculum to ensure a higher standard of footy? Bollocks to that. Besides, if you think the AFL aren't going to keep doing this just to stuff around with cricket, soccer, rugby league and god knows what other sports then you're kidding yourself - they'd be playing practice games at 11am on Boxing Day if the players weren't in a union.

I'm not even sure why 'journalists' would attempt to lead the charge on this (other than Stevo, who is incredibly even more one-eyed than me) considering that until about Round 4 when they can switch to trying to get coaches sacked the only thing getting them up on a Monday morning are the injuries. Imagine if there were no players hobbling into clinics that you could surround with cameras and ask them to describe how they're feeling ("Pretty shit actually Mark, how do you think?") as they go in to find out the bar news. They've not extended the nightly news to an hour so their sports reporters can do Four Corners style investigative journalism.

These games are a necessary evil, and I for one welcome them from behind the couch while covering my eyes in terror that somebody's going to get injured or suspended and miss Round 1/the decade. The first good sign was that Dwayne Russell was absent. To avoid him I'll even put up with Dermott Brereton offering a 1/9 genuine insight to tripe ration on special comments - and it was certainly the latter when he pondered aloud just seconds into the coverage that it would be interesting to see which end Garland would play at. Given that he's been a defender for about 111 of 115 games I'd say the odds were fairly strong that he'd continue doing that, but Frost up front was a surprise so perhaps Derm knew something we didn't and botched the delivery. It's his pre-season too, and both of us will still be waffling to an unnecessary length in late August.

It ended with a margin that I'd consider perfectly acceptable against a strong Fremantle lineup, but with a typically low final score courtesy of not managing a goal to the right of screen for the entire match, but there were enough signs in the Dockers keeping us at arm's length for most of the day to say that while there's no chance in hell that we'll be contending for the same spots on the ladder as them this season that we can at least go into games against genuine top eight sides not fearing a battering.

If you got home late and missed the first few minutes then you missed the best stuff by a mile. Straight off the bat Tyson won a perfect clearance and went straight inside 50 looking for Hogan - which is a combination I will quite enjoy seeing on Grand Final Day in about seven years time no matter who they're playing for. The Fear came into play for the first time when the ball hit the ground and Hulk did a quick double turn to try and find it - like somebody's life flashing before their eyes as they're dying his knee injury flashed before mine. Fortunately it was just me panicking and he got through the game seemingly unscathed (though I said that in the Geelong practice match last year and we never saw him again). As long as we can confirm he's actually boarded the plane and is flying back to Melbourne then let's put his performance down as an encouraging learning experience and enjoy the ride from here.

The first goal of the season came from Ben Newton taking a great mark running back with the flight of the ball, and an equally great kick from 50m out on a tight angle. He looked really good in the first half before running out of steam and then copping a whack around the head which caused them to sub him off. Centre clearances, leads, midfielders kicking goals from set shots - when would it all end if not with Nathan Jones lifting the premiership cup in September? Apparently with Garland giving away a free and a goal right in front, and that was the end of us for about half an hour.

It was noticeable in the first quarter, before we slowed to a crawl near the end, that while we were getting flogged in the taps that we were also winning the clearances comfortably. Even the ball movement looked reasonable (which is up from 'cringeworthy') with a couple of the expected random clangers but we were still horrible at delivering it inside 50. Until Hogan started pushing up later there was nothing happening along the half-forward line (some things never change), and while he was deep inside 50 they knew we were going to kick it to him every time and wouldn't let him get away. The one shining light forward was Kent who was involved in everything. I'm never adopting a favourite player again because it always kills their career but I'm in love with him because he clearly hates humanity but is also quick and can both dispose of AND get the ball.

Nevertheless even when we were winning it still looked like Enthusiastic Amateurs XVIII vs a group of highly paid professionals and it wasn't long before Fremantle took over. The heat probably didn't help, but given that we usually fail to get through the two halves of one quarter then it was far too much to ask for an entire half of quick, attacking football.

All was not lost even as Freo skipped away during the second quarter with barely a fingernail raised in defiance. Tyson and Jones were doing Tyson and Jones type things, it was impossible to fault Cross and Lumumba appeared to do exactly what I expected Grimes was going to a few years ago before we Melbourned him.

On the other hand my Max Gawn for 1st ruck campaign was left in disarray due to him kicking like The Spencil, but give it a few more weeks we're not at Round 1 yet. He still had more touches and more marks than Jamar despite having a mare so I'm not giving up on the dream just yet. Pedersen looked more 2013 than 2014, Toumpas will be 'better for the run' (e.g. I have hope we can still get out of this), Salem looks good when he gets the ball but that's not very often, JKH was nowhere near it and I'm sure Matt Jones is a top bloke in real life but the less I see of him in the senior side this year the better.

A one point second quarter was a handy flashback to the good times we enjoyed last season, but even then when it appeared we were gassed and would sink without a trace in the second half I was sitting on my couch in the All New Demonblog Towers IX pledging not to crack the shits until at least next week. Then in a grand twist to keep people from turning over to Keeping Up With The Kardashians we turned up and started playing like a real said again. Oh hello, where I have seen this before? Essendon in the Miracle at the MCG anybody? Bulldogs at Docklands? Port in Darwin? Letting a team get a five goal lead up before storming back at them and usually losing was a trademark move of ours last year, and here it was again but it's better than when we don't storm back and get pumped by 10 goals so I've got to go with it.

The third started well with Lumumba - given a run in the centre - gathering and hitting Hogan with a perfect lead which must have made the nation rise to applaud. Viv Michie and Chris Dawes did do the same thing in Round 23 last year, but given that I think the last people to be involved in a perfect kick to a lead before that were Cameron Bruce and David Neitz it's still something to get excited by. It was a good enough passage of play that I'd probably have still gone home happy if he'd kicked it out on the full, but happily Hoges gave us a taste of things to come by slotting it. No pressure, just a thousand of those in the senior career thanks Jess - preferably more than 750 of them for us.

Frost up forward didn't work, and when they moved him back we got to see a magnificent run off back which made a mockery of the idea I had of him being another one-dimensional tall defender - never let him start forward of centre again thanks. Was also very keen on vandenBerg when he came on, and even keener when it became clear that the MFC are going with the brilliant ethnic spelling even though he's probably never been to The Netherlands in his life.

Garlett was the last of the newcomers, and while he did next to nothing for the first three quarters except provide the opportunity for commentators to hang shit on him, he hit a UFC style tackle near the end of the third term which gave me chills. I'll forgive him for not playing five star games instantly considering he's been in all sorts recently but that - and his improved performance in the last quarter - gave me hope that we're entering another glorious era of forward pressure. Begone the dark years where attacking inside 50's were usually the worst thing to happen to our defenders.

Meaningless as the whole thing was it would have been nice to get a win, if only to spark a few more membership sales, but in the rare situation of a side other than Essendon handing us the opportunity to win on a platter we shat ourselves and failed to take advantage. First Jamar gets a free right in front and manages to kick it out on the full from two metres out (have I mentioned lately that at one point he was the most accurate shot on goal of any player since 1987?) then when the Freo player manages the even more absurd feat of hitting the opposite behind post on the full with the free kick Salem gets the chance to put us in front and kicks it out on the full as well. To nobody's surprise they got a goal about 10 seconds later and it was over.

No point going back to watch a pre-season game, but if you haven't seen it yet just look at the way their players get free inside 50. It's a thing of beauty, and tonight we got a new toy and were obsessed with using him. Once Watts gets down there as well and Hogan/Dawes learn to work together as a team I think we can probably get to the point where we score more than 60 points a game - and what a gloriously mediocre achievement that will be.

Commentary Corner
We don't give a shit about what you did during your career, just call the bloody game. Get a job on the Channel 9 cricket coverage if you want to spend all day trading 'playful' barbs about how the other guy was no good. I enjoy Hudson because he rarely if ever indulges in this sort of stupidity.

Crowd Watch
Not exactly the return to the Western Oval as far as public interest went, but starting it at 6pm on a Thursday for the benefit of people on the east coast (thanks!) probably didn't help. Perhaps having been there before the locals knew better than us to stay away from Fremantle Oval due to it sporting the worst siren in the history of footy. Some things are charming and rustic (like when I found a washing machine in the stairwell at Princes Park), some make it sound like a Scud missile is about to land in your living room.

Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance
5 - Daniel Cross
4 - Heritier Lumumba
3 - Dom Tyson
2 - Nathan Jones
1 - Dean Kent

Apologies to McDonald, Newton (first half), vandenBerg (second half), Frost (second half) and Dawes

5 - Daniel Cross, Jesse Hogan
4 - Heritier Lumumba, Christian Salem
3 - Jeff Garlett, Dom Tyson
2 - Sam Frost, Nathan Jones
1 - Dean Kent, Billy Stretch

Next Week
Admittedly I'm more excited about returning to Kryal Kastle for the first time since being surprisingly roped in to a rave in 2009 than the footy. What happy memories of spending the evening in the fields of a castle watching OD victims being wheeled past by paramedics while wrapped in tinfoil. As a family man I can now only hope that it's more like when I went in Grade 2 and saw two crunts jousting, but if it turns into a frenzy of pill-popping and overheating I'd probably give that a go too. And then it's off to see us play the Bulldogs which could either be delightful or a total drag depending on the quality of the two teams and our final score.

Final Thoughts
Everyone survived (I think), result irrelevant. Still a bottom three side.

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