Friday 10 March 2017

A gentle reminder

When it comes to time zones it's Australian Eastern Standard and variants or nothing for me, so you can understand how distressed I was to discover that the 5.40pm start time was really 8.40pm to us. In another win for my worst pre-season since 2007 I only then realised the game was on Thursday night, and not Friday like I'd first thought. The unsociable working hours that allowed me to be home for an AFLW game at 5.05pm last week came back to haunt me, with the game starting at roughly the time I'd have to go to bed to get a full eight hours sleep.

All the early evening timeslot did (other than providing West Coast fans the opportunity to stay away in droves to the point where it might as well have been played at Leederville Oval) was to make the first quarter a confusing ordeal for players who were forced to shield their eyes from the sun. Playing in WA with a 'feature' most often associated with Docklands? It's a wonder we didn't just forfeit. Then there was the patchy mid 80s MCG style turf that you expected to lift up and reveal a beach volleyball court underneath. Our recent history in Perth is the only thing more miserable than the atmosphere at the Adele concert that caused the trouble in the first place.

Since 2004 we've played Subiaco as a fringe finals contender, an outside premiership chance, a rapidly degenerating shambles, a side that should have been refused entry to the arena and various levels of mediocrity in between and we've never been good there under any circumstances, so there wasn't much to be gained here win, lose or draw. As long as we could avoid a soul-crushing defeat which would cause half the squad to fall out with the other the result was inconsequential. Which is of course what you say after a defeat. Had we won comfortably I'd have been down at Aussie Disposals buying a sleeping bag in which to queue for finals tickets.

For now we'll just have to console ourselves by making it through the pre-season games without serious injuries and the fact that nobody got rubbed out for Round 1 with misplaced biff. I was also hoping for the unnecessarily controversial Jack Watts to lift his jumper and reveal a "fuck the media" t-shirt underneath, but that's too much to ask for. The most defiant he got was a cracking tackle in the first quarter, which would have been a great time for some Jakovich style "up yours" but he remained calm. Which is probably for the best because you would charitably describe the rest of the game as 'working his way into the season'.

We lost, but there's no need to introduce head to oven and fumble around for Gas Mark 8 just yet. What's happened over the last three games has strengthened what I thought before they started, we're going to be better than last year but it won't be a quantum leap forward. Last night looked a lot like all the games we played against mid-range or better sides where everything worked well until the other side got the ball, then party time broke out while our team looked for the lifeboats.

Like at least half a dozen games last year we steamed out of the first bounce but couldn't properly take advantage. There were minor delays at the first bounce, where for once a Matrix style handball by Oliver failed to hit the target and instead landed straight in the hands of an opponent. It was one of the few things he did wrong in a dominant first half that seemed to indicate that if his fitness levels improve he could be the best of all our mids. Once that initial attack was defused, and we handled it relatively easy because all our defenders were in place instead of 50 metres up the ground and having to run back into whatever the hell a zone does, we took over in an un-Melbourne at Subiaco-like way. The tide must be turning, if anything it was like our last start there where we troubled them in the first quarter but couldn't go on with it.

The initial spell of pressure got an assist from a few loopy decisions. There's never been better evidence that umpires are influenced by pressure from the Subiaco crowd, the moment they were removed from the occasion we started to get a good run - like Neal-Bullen being done all ends up for holding the ball before getting the cheap free for having his back leant on. If we're going to move heaven and earth to change the rules to satisfy broadcasters and wankers what about altering the laws here while you're at it - if you tackle somebody for holding the ball and lean on their back or have a hand slip high then it doesn't stop the tackler from being paid the free. If you plow somebody into the turf or slap them around the mush fair enough, but while we persist with dinky frees for incidental contact like you can have 16 a side, zones or the Great Moscow Circus juggling with polar bears on the 50 metre line and it's not going to help enhance 'spectacle'. And because mocking it is my favourite subject in 2017, more on 'spectacle' later.

It wasn't all freebies from the umpires, before we began to wilt in the heat there were a few moments of lovely play. Like Brayshaw marking a one-on-one at the top of the square like he was a forward, or Melksham realising that he'd been set up with a hospital handball and instinctively whacking the footy out of mid-air towards a teammate instead of taking it and being instantly buried. There was also a big Spencil mark inside 50 that didn't come to anything but still caused a stirring in my loins. The problem was there were few four quarter performers, players flitted in and out for little bits but nobody had a full game in them. Maybe they just didn't care and were all trying to get to the finish line uninjured, I can dig that. Better that we lost a casual kickaround than Hunt being carried off deep in the last quarter with Gawn's thigh bone sticking through his chest.

To make sure nobody was prematurely excited by the pre-season, our now famous 10 minutes of belting a side at the start of the game for little reward was turned into two Eagles goals in a row where they bounded inside 50 unchallenged to find multiple players standing on their own and all our defenders trotting back from the wing. That's the side I remember from last year, much improved with the ball in hand but often dazed and/or confused when the ball was turned over.

It was a standard MFC in Perth first quarter, the sort that makes you think that if absolutely everything went our way we might win but it never does. A nine point deficit it certainly well under our average deficit at the first break there. It was almost more, the returning Dom Tyson was as rusty as you'd expect somebody who suffered a knee injury in December to be and he tried to run the clock down in the last few seconds by kicking across the face of goal only to land it in the arms of the two time reigning Coleman Medallist. That's what you get when players are too shitscared to just thump it down the line in case they're pinged for deliberate. By Round 5 the 'focus' on deliberate will have gone away and you'll be able to roost for the line with impunity again.

We were still very much in the game, but it was so far so much like 2016 - some fancy ball movement from defence but an elastic defence and grim struggles to connect with the last kick inside 50. What I did like, and sue me for it, was Jake Melksham across half back. He wasn't being asked to do much other than mop up shit attacks, but we've had plenty of players over the years who have had all the time in the world to dispose of the ball in those circumstances and stuffed it up. I'm sure somebody will write in with a list of examples of things he didn't wrong but you wouldn't be a Melbourne defender if you weren't prone to the odd gaffe. He all but disappeared after the first quarter, but we could do - and have done - worse.

The second quarter was almost even with four goals apiece, but what it offered that the first - and indeed all of 2016 - didn't was The Spencil marking inside 50 and confidently slotting the set shot. The run up was still unconventional, but whack straight through it went with no questions asked. I'm in no way expecting him to kick three every week, but if he can even get one a game and slaughter a few packs (for what that's worth when there's no crumb left) while giving Gawn a hand in the ruck. There's some question about whether playing him in Round 1 will be wise considering St Kilda are gearing up for another Etihad Stadium slingshot extravaganza but you'd have to be a hard hearted BASTARD to deny that he's been really good this pre-season. The first game might not be his go, especially with Watts returning, but he'll definitely get an opportunity somewhere this year.

Meanwhile, I've tried to get over some shocking lookalikes in my time but this is dead on:
and you know what they say...

With the result basically irrelevant - though while we were still up to our necks in it I wasn't completely dismissing the benefits of a win - the best thing in the first half was watching Oliver rack up touches and tackles at will. He has now officially surpassed Big Red from That 70s Show as my favourite ginger. His fitness is in question so I wasn't surprised when he wilted in the heat as the game went on, but watch out if he builds his tank.

I don't rate the Eagles as much better than us, so sticking with them but not quite managing to get in front at half time was good enough for me considering our dreadful record in the west. There were still issues - the loose defence, no crumb and a ludicrously underdone Tyson flubbing everything he went near. The first terrifies me, the second hinges on Garlett and Kent recovering, and the last will come good with time. And soon Subiaco will be turned into a housing development with street names like Phil Read Boulevard and Andy Lovell Way, so we've got that going for us too.

By the time we're ready to lose the first of our five consecutive grand finals to GWS we'll have an entirely new Perth stadium to contend with. Are the dimensions going to be the same? Because we sure have troubles coming to grips with the incumbent. After half time the Eagles trotted away merrily, while just like our last visit to the ground we burnt shitloads of inside 50s on hit 'n hope kicks to the top of the square that were easily turned back. It's just not an MFC visit to the west without dozens of attacks hopelessly dying 0 to 30 metres out. We might have tried something new and kicked to somebody 40 metres out, but the Eagles were having none of that.

It took The Spencil of all people to gather a loose ball and kick through an open goal from distance to reinvigorate us after the Eagles had walked all over us in the opening minutes of the third. It was a neat finish just when you expected his kick to spray all over the place like an out of control fire hose, but the goal was pure Angus Brayshaw. I'm not convinced he's 100% match fit and battle hardened yet, but he's shown some really good signs over the pre-season. This time he battled two Eagles to win a loose ball, followed through to get involved in the next contest and set up Harmes to tap it into Spencer's path.

We weren't just bamboozled by the unusual dimensions of Subiaco in the forward line, but in defence too. After a reasonably shambles free night we chucked the game with some more insane attempts at switching the ball across the goal. Tyson's blunder at the end of the first quarter was the worst pre-season kick against goal since Viney lost us the game against Essendon B but by the third quarter everyone was trying to join in. The other thing this game had in common with Essendon 2015 was that we named a player and didn't use them, but at least when Jordie McKenzie was asked to trot about in a green vest for four quarters and have 0% game time he could get in his car and drive home, Jack Trengove was carted to the other side of the continent only to occupy the bench for four quarters. By the end I'd have been happy for him just to play the last five minutes and ensure that Gawn and Hogan were free to sit in the dugout ensuring they didn't get hurt. Couldn't even get that, hope he enjoyed going on a six hour round trip for no bloody reason.

By the time the Eagles were gifted a goal from a ripper of a deliberate decision where our guy tried to handball to a teammate and missed him I'd already lost interest and was pondering where I should give up and go to bed. But I couldn't, I had to stay until the final siren to make sure I didn't wake up to Jack Viney having fallen down a sinkhole in the back pocket. But given that I can't even remember what player it was I think you can see how my commitment to the contest was going.

Like last pre-season 2016 the increasingly harsh interpretation of deliberate proved a talking point, and not in a good way. Here's a conspiracy theory to go alongside vaccinating your kids causing them to grow flippers, every time the AFL can create an argument about whether an OOB was deliberate or not it's one step closer to them achieving their dream of a last touch 'frees for all' policy. It'll be sold as "removing doubt", only for us to enjoy a shitload of doubt from the first game where it's implemented. For instance when Drew Petrie stuck a giant mitt out spoil a ball straight out of a bounds is he going to get pinched for that as well? If you're that desperate to raise scoring bring back the rushed behind. Maybe it's because I'm getting old and discovering that I've got lots of better things to do than care what happens when Port Adelaide play Gold Coast in Tiananmen Square but I'm over this sport - it's still not all that bad, but the ongoing misery about how terrible every aspect of it down to the time of the grand final has affected my enjoyment of the industry as a whole. Any chance of a 'press red for no speculation about the rules' button? 17 over teams can get stuffed, just give me 22 MFC games, disgust me with a GWS flag and I'll see what else I can fit in between now and the first week of October.

Err, anyway. Collusion by league authorities is the only explanation for some of the deliberates. Like one on Melksham in the first quarter that offered absolutely nothing. They do the sensible thing and suggest not giving free goals for deliberately rushed behinds, then start handing out practically free ones for deliberate out on the full. What about Sharod Wellingham - who never seems to have any luck against us - stubbing his toe trying to boot a loose ball up-field and watching it skew off at an obtuse angle before being pinged. It's the exact sort of scenario that will lead to media puppets with the league's hand up their arse like Sooty agreeing that we may as well just give frees against everyone to "remove confusion". Last night there was a mention of it being "the way the game is going", which is a ridiculous way to justify it. It's not a natural phenomenon like the melting of the polar ice caps, you can decide not to be tight in adjudicating it.

We didn't need the Australian Spectacle League's overly enthusiastic interpretations to put us away, we were quite capable of doing that ourselves. While forward thrusts continued to die a terrible death the Eagles were going down the other way whacking through goals with gleeful abandon. It was still not worth getting upset about, call me when the Saints are kicking 10 goals from the square and Riewoldt is manhandling somebody half his size and then I'll properly crack the shits.

All was not entirely lost, somehow after Jayden Hunt broke the sound barrier while sprinting to heave through a rare nine point goal we were only 11 behind with 15 minutes left. The problem was exactly like our last start at Subi - except that we kicked a goal in the last quarter this time - once we got within range we could have played for hours and not kicked enough goals to win. By the time Oscar McDonald suffered a horror flashback to his debut game on the same ground and handballed straight up in the air to gift them the sealer I'd come to terms with defeat. It wasn't a great night for the younger Sizzle brother, and for all the shit Senior gets for his contractually obligated botched kick of the week we're dead if he goes down and leaves us with Garland/Junior vs massive forwards. I suppose we couldn't leave Dunn hanging around in the 2s all year just in case but I'd feel a lot more comfortable if we had another proven performer in the tank.

All in all a night that only existed to shepherd us through to Round 1. Like any good Melbourne-related performance the quality shepherding was relatively shithouse, but let it play out and see where it goes.

Round 1 team update - incorporating the iSelect Casualty Club
There will be collateral damage to the side that played this week as we reduce to the normal team size, leaving us with some reasonable depth. The only first choice players missing were Hibberd, Jetta and Kent and I'm not expecting to see the last two immediately.

It was also revealed during the week that the reason nobody's seen Sam Frost is that he's suffered another toe injury. First he loses the vast majority of 2015 to one, now this. There are people who have been caught in a blizzard halfway up Mt Everest who've had better luck with their extremities than him - gags about his surname on a postcard to the usual address.

Uniform Watch
It goes without saying that this is the second worst away jumper we've ever had, right behind the silver monstrosity of the wooden spoon years, but what was with some of the numbers intersecting with the red bit at the top of it and some not? If I was the kit man I'd phone in my performance when forced to handle that rubbish as well.

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year (pre-season edition)
Jayden Hunt in the fourth quarter. That is all.
2017 Paul Prmyke Plate for Pre Season Performance votes
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Jayden Hunt
3 - Jake Melksham
2 - Jake Spencer
1 - Jordan Lewis

Apologies to Salem, Gawn, Hogan, Brayshaw and Neal-Bullen who tried his guts out but was untidy.

Well this makes a total mockery of things, with Hogan missing out the other two manage to set up a three way tie. That's the rules, and with no countback in place spare a thought for me when I have to go work all three of their photos into the Plate section of the End of Season Spectacular. Congratulations all, somebody give the Hamburglar a lift home from the after party.

9 - Jesse Hogan, Jayden Hunt, Clayton Oliver
7 - Max Gawn
5 - Christian Petracca
3 - Jake Melksham, Bernie Vince, Jack Viney
2 - Dion Johnstone, Nathan Jones, Jordan Lewis, Christian Salem, Jake Spencer
1 - Jay Kennedy-Harris, Joel Smith

I didn't see it in person due to coming into the coverage at the very last minute before the first bounce, but the good news is that at the third opportunity for 2017 we've managed to get a banner to go up and stay there without collapsing in a pile of crepe and plastic. The good news is that for the second consecutive week we could have extended a roll of toilet paper for the players to run through and still have won because the other side didn't bother to enter. So our side carted one to the other side of continent for a pre-season game at a venue where we haven't won since 2004 and the locals were supposedly told by the club not to bother. That's the sort of attitude you can afford to take when your team usually wins. Dees 2-1.

Final Thoughts
A loss you "had to have" is an irritating cliche, but at least it calmed everyone down and focused them on Round 1 instead of going off on all sorts of flights of fancy about being a guaranteed top eight starter. Lower your expectations and you'll come out of the season much more comfortable.

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