Sunday 11 February 2018

The Quest for Fun

You're not truly a competition run by the AFL until they've overreacted to a perceived lack of spectacle and rushed in some overnight rule changes. It was almost enough to bring to a tear your eye when the AFLW was officially welcomed to the family this week. Watch out AFLX if a billion Chinese people don't rip their hammy off the bone rushing to pick up a silver ball and kick a Zooper Goal.

Usually when people complain about the standard of footy they make the fishy claim that it's "not as good as it used to be", but for the first time in recorded history players and coaches were carved up for being "not as good as they will be eventually". For you see the AFL has high expectations for the women's game, which is why they sent out the now infamous "let's work as team and do it our way" memo to 'suggest' how teams play this week. It even claimed that umpires wouldn't bounce the ball until players voluntarily complied. Bollocks they wouldn't, let's see a team refuse to comply in the dying seconds of a tight game and force an AFL official to climb the fence and order a disqualification.

The controversy followed a predictable pattern. The league came off like spectacle chasing dickheads, fans flew off the handle with their own knee-jerk reactions (guilty!), friendly journos were wheeled in to defend the AFL's position, and the competition went on exactly as planned because they've got everyone over a barrel.

Before I go off on one, let's be entirely clear that the league is bankrolling the competition so they can force whatever patronising rules they like on the women. But doing it between rounds 1 and 2 in a seven game season is so comical it should be a sitcom plot. Apparently it's not the first time they've made heavy suggestion to coaches, and finally cracked the sads when nobody was listening.

They didn't need a four game sample to come up with a smaller ball (apparently because 'women have smaller hands', shortly before recruiting half the WNBL), but were at least polite enough to wait a full season before foisting a new out of bounds rule. Then the opening game of the season receives a light critical mauling - (hint: stop putting Collingwood in it) and everyone has a nervous breakdown.

I went into this year keen on the non-MFC games again, because what the league lacked in skill it more than made up for in the charm of seeing players having an unencumbered crack for the love of the game. Now the well has been poisoned and the reality is clear that it's just another 'property' to be manipulated. Maybe I'm just overthinking it since deciding to dedicate my life to AFL related conspiracy theories, but if you're going to turn it into a Vince McMahon style predetermined swizz why not just create entirely new teams?

I'd have found it offensive telling people how to play if they'd enforced it before the season (see also: the TAC Cup, where the best and brightest are prepared for life in a league that for now doesn't require zonal buffoonery), but to drop everything and issue proclamations based on people not seeing a kick-for-kick replay of the 1989 Grand Final in Round 1 is bonkers. I suspect they're being driven by the views of people who don't have a + or - button on their remote and tune in just to hatewatch.

It was another case of high scoring being automatically correlated with excitement, and the assumption that by eradicating defensive play the competition will somehow immediately take a great leap forward. You've got to keep sponsors happy, but companies are so keen to get on board equality causes these days that nothing short of quarter time speeches from Mein Kampf will stop them from putting their money in.

The idea that a few more low scoring games is going to derail everything is kooky. If you absolutely have to manipulate the competition would it not make more sense to treat this season like an eight week experiment, measure every bit of data under the sun and then sit down with players and coaches to come up with a considered way to get to where they want to go? And yet they may, but there's nothing wrong that couldn't have waited a few more weeks instead of treating the players like they're in a test tube.

I struggle to understand what people expect from a competition where the best players are barely out of park football and lists are full of inexperienced ring-ins from other sports. It's hard enough to get the people who moan about the quality of the men's game to explain the football utopia they're searching for, without doing it here as well. Would we prefer it if teams flew merrily from one end to the other unchallenged because the opposition are all 20 metres away? Apparently yes, and given that we're one of the better teams here's to a few of the strugglers being BATTERED because they're not allowed to protect themselves. But that will be ok, because a 100-3 score is apparently better than 31-14.

My highlight of the great debate was AFLW CEO Nicole Livingstone declaring that the players weren't subject to rule changes but a "spirit of the game initiative" with a look on her face like they'd kidnapped her family as security. It was an entire phrase made up of words that signalled she was either reading directly from a script or can be safely ignored in the future. Can she share a presentation that tracks the trajectory of the spirit and can explain how much damage the AFLW players did to it last week.

Given that you presumably can't be fined for breaching a "spirit of the game initiative", it's a shame nobody tried to push it and instead risk being fined for time wasting (though technically it would be the umpire who was wasting time under the AFL's instructions, so like our not guilty tanking fine that came back as a generous payout they'd have to shuffle money around Cayman Islands style to make it work). Secretly the league would have been thrilled if somebody did that, because it would give them the chance to take the moral high ground and introduce the official "consider yourself lucky we let you out of the kitchen" rule changes they obviously didn't think they could get away with this week.

A year ago everyone was falling over themselves with self-congratulations for starting the league, now it's being treated like an unruly child. Even our game got a mention, and not even for the farcical scenario of the player having a free kick paid against her for the ball rolling over the line as she tried to pick it up. At least if the women's game has been effectively declared no good by its own parents, the good times lasted long enough for that NAB ad featuring Katie Brennan wearing a tremendous perm.

So at the end of the year, once free will has been crushed and everyone's settled in to however they're required to play everything will be fine won't it? The naysayers will flock back just in time to discover that in the rush to capitalise on the success of the first season a whole bunch of new teams have arrived. This means more games to drag interest across (and didn't the Big Bash just give a perfect demo of how to strangle interest in the end of your own tournament by carrying on two weeks too long?), and more importantly another group of inexperienced players to become cannon fodder for talkback radio malcontents.

It's one thing for fans to be unreasonable in their expectations, but if the AFL didn't have the courage to ride out a few years of average standard footy (and let's not forget, the men's season is usually an end-to-end cavalcade of people trying to change the rules for the sake of 'improvement') they shouldn't have rushed to take the pats on the back from all and sundry by launching it in the first place.

Much like the main AFL season my interest has been dulled by the ongoing talking down of the game, but much to my own detriment as long as there's still a Melbourne Football Club involved I'm in. And after a week of being made to feel like I was wasting my time showing an interest came a match of some significance against the team that narrowly kept us out of the Grand Final. I almost missed the first bounce due to my own brave but ultimately flawed attempt at entering the domain of men by trying to use a whippersnipper for the first time. In this case I actually could have done with someone sticking their nose in and telling me how to do it.

If nothing else we do our bit for getting games started in an exciting fashion. For the second week in a row Karen Paxman merrily rampaged onto the first hitout and thumped the ball deep into attack. The difference from last was week was that this time it found a target instead of just being hopefully lobbed towards goal in the hope of finding a forward.  The returning Alyssa Mifsud was handed her welcome back present on a platter, but much to the joy of people who watch the games just to complain about them she missed from 30 metres out directly in front. At least the tap > clearance > kick > mark sequence will look good in next year's ads. I think the ordinary set shot kicking is part of what triggers people so severely, and there's chuff all you can legislate for that other than a pay rise to allow more training.

Despite having a forward line that is in theory absolutely deadly, we had all the forward play for no reward again. I suppose that's going to happen when 90% of the goals come from inside 30 metres. Why not play seven a side on a rectangular ground with 10 point goals? At least this time when Adelaide cleared their defensive 50 with a long hoof down the middle it didn't skip over the top of our entire backline and lead to a goal.

In practice the old spirit of the game initiative didn't do much for this game in the first quarter considering the lack of centre bounces. By the end we'd kicked enough goals that the AFL should have sent a letter of thanks for giving the umpires so many opportunities to count who was in what part of the ground. At first the spirit had to be satisfied with the effort of two pro-am sides risking having their head caved in diving to win possession for the sort of wages you get working after school at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

We eventually lived up to our reputation as the league's great entertainers (except against GWS) when the speedy Aleisha Newman ran her opponent into the ground with three bounces, then kicked a checkside goal from an obscure angle in the pocket. She is the classic small forward, unseen for ages then mysteriously cropping up to do something magical. In real life she is apparently a postie, probably missing 5 of 10 letterboxes but hitting the rest with hook shots from the other side of the road without ever slowing down.

Newman's goal prompted Adelaide to turn up, not quite the traditional 30 minutes late but near enough to. After a series of haphazard bombs into attack were easily chopped off by our defenders, season one cult hero Tex Perkins barged through a pack like she was going to kill anyone in her way and had what was most likely a shot intercepted by a free teammate in the square. This was the beauty and the beast of a low scoring game all in one, we went through all that hard work forward and back but the ball bounces the wrong way and the margin is back to a point. Tex then proceeded to do very little for the rest of the game, prompting one of the commentators to cruelly ask "is that her first kick?" when she got one in the last quarter.

Any hope that the game would become a season-saving instant classic from the first bounce was not helped by a bastard of a wind, but if whoever allowed us to play home games at Casey didn't know that was going to happen they've never seen a VFL game. To be fair to the recently much maligned AFLW players, as if you'd watch any game played on that windswept tundra if there wasn't an MFC connection. I think we've all seen some absolutely diabolical performances at that place, it would be rude to single out anyone based on their gender. To think almost 10 years ago when I was relatively local to the place (as opposed to now, where I'm practically at the opposite end of the Melbourne metropolitan area), I'd actually voluntarily go and freeze half to death there for matches. It all ended at about half time of a Casey vs Port Melbourne game when I could barely feel my hands and left to go shopping at Moorabbin DFO instead.

Even taking into account the five minutes where we had to keep out Adelaide's furious but misguided attacks, it felt like a bad sign to only be a point ahead at quarter time considering the strength of the wind. At the time we were not to know that the Crows would return from the quarter time break with their season on the line and go "we'll be right thanks". In a competition with barely any margin for error it can't help that they were down two of their best players, but that was still an ordinary excuse for sitting back and letting us steamroll them.

How many times was there a stoppage around the ground (because good luck finding one from  a boundary throw in these days) where they were ludicrously outnumbered? Maybe they'd seen the highlights and decided that the best way to score would be to have procession of players waiting forward of the ball? This didn't reckon on the return of Karen Paxman, or the in-close attention of Lily Mithen, who looks like she'd be comfortable glassing somebody in a pub. Which is just the kind of player - male or female - that I've been demanding for years. Did her dad used to Sunday Scoreboard on the Channel 9 news? Because whenever she gets the ball it makes me think of the music they played behind the overnight soccer and tennis scores. In the 90s that music was my prompt to leg it from the room so I didn't see the Premier League scores before the Monday night highlights show that the ABC played immediately after TV's equivalent of Finey's Final Siren - Backchat.  

Just like one goal first quarters and losing when starting as favourite are key MFC male cliches, rampant centre clearances at the start of a quarter that fail to deliver a goal are starting to become a trademark of the women. For the second time in a row it was converted into a genuine chance. Tegan Cunningham missed, but by full time I was on the phone to my superannuation company telling them to invest heavily in her for the future. The second goal eventually came via Guybrush Threepwood's favourite player Shelley Scott, who we will give the benefit of the doubt to on positioning and assume she meant to be exactly where a wonky shot on goal was carried by the breeze. If she hadn't been there we'd have conceded a free, which doesn't make much sense to me but that was last week's topic of contention.

Despite counter-productive rules that should have made playing along the boundary line more dangerous than jogging on the rim of an active volcano and a violent sideways breeze, nobody seemed all that concerned about playing along the boundary line. Eventually another attack along the wing, which you'll never stop because people would rather give away an out of bounds free that turn it over in the middle of the ground, ended in an Adelaide player having to jump in the air to assault Lauren Pearce and the subsequent free kick found Cranston in the pocket for the third goal. Things were beginning to look grim for the Crows, and when Pearce got a goal of her own they were stuffed. So much for the wind advantage, just do enough to get the ball to the player standing alone in the square. If they're so desperate for scoring, maybe they should legislate that somebody has to be left in the square like a reverse goalkeeper.

The game was one Melbourne goal away from being over before half time, before the Crows snuck a lucky one through courtesy of a long ball bouncing past everyone. Their revival didn't last long, almost immediately from the centre bounce brilliant former mystery back injury victim Karen Paxman found Tegan Cunningham for the killer blow. It was a fantastic piece of play from both of them, first Paxman realised that they didn't have anyone to kick to and delayed things by taking off and running around her opponent until an option appeared, then Cunningham converted the set shot. Granted she was only 20 metres out at best, but worse have been missed by this time, and for a 6' 3" basketballer she couldn't have hit it any better. If anything that's what the game lacks at the moment, the belief that when a player marks 30-50 metres out that she's going to convert. For now let's concentrate on getting 10-30 metres right and work develop the Paul Wheatley style bombs later. At which point I bet you they bring in nine point goals.

It took until the third quarter to finally score a goal in the first minute, and the secret was not to first have a barnstorming centre clearance. The goal that practically ended Adelaide's premiership defence came from Mel Hickey snapping around the corner from 50 metres out. It's a mark of how well we're going (and yes, I know last week I was about 20 seconds from writing us off) that we don't need Hickey or Daisy Pearce to star every week. There's enough quality there to keep us afloat without stars like Paxman or Elise O'Dea having to do all the work. Bianca Jakobsson was mopping up attacks like classic era Jared Rivers, and both Cat Smith and Emma Humphries are underrated cogs in the wheel. I also enjoyed the enthusiastic forward pressure of Kate Hore. In a further retreat from my panic last week, I think that if this side can avoid a none-more-Melbourne snatch of defeat from the jaws of victory they should make the Grand Final.

Any chance the Crows had of launching a blockbusting comeback in the last quarter were killed off when they crumbed one in the last 90 seconds of the third term, then Cunningham replied about 20 seconds later. By now Adelaide's players had the same look of realisation as Freo when we pulverised them in the final round of 2017, that they not only had to fly home but also had to get from Cranbourne to the airport first. It might have been a long last quarter for them, but our lot were in a generous mood and opted not to kick them while they were down.

With the game well won, and the Crows on the ropes taking punches, BOG Karen Paxman was withdrawn to have treatment on her dicky back. Everyone else seemed quite content to get to the final siren and hit the discos/airports. It took Newman to bring some excitement to the game, dashing onto a ball that had flown over pack. Until that point even I was starting to consider changing the channel to something more dynamic. Once the sting was entirely out of the game the Crows got a consolation goal, which I'm sure prompted all mentally scarred Dees to think "well, that'll end up keeping us out of the Grand Final". Frisbee enthusiast Cat Phillips had a late chance to get us the vital six points back but missed, the sort of meaningless end of game miss that I never considered might come back to haunt us until Round 23, 2017.

The Melbourne juggernaut might have been slow to get going, but it seems to have arrived. And for the first three quarters at least I can confirm that I was definitely having fun.

2018 Daisy Pearce Medal
5 - Karen Paxman
4 - Bianca Jakobsson
3 - Tegan Cunningham
2 - Lily Mithen
1 - Elise O'Dea

Apologies to Newman, Smith, Hore, Humphries, Duryea, Guest and Downie.

6 - Elise O'Dea
5 - Karen Paxman
4 - Richelle Cranston, Bianca Jakobsson
3 - Tegan Cunningham, Shelley Scott
2 - Lily Mithen, Daisy Pearce
1 - Erin Hoare

Banner Watch
I can't read what the Crows banner says, but how good is that ENORMOUS font? I will never be impressed by words in unnecessarily large letters. With the curtain penalty for the Dees, and that weird iSelect slogan on the run-through side it's an Adelaide win. 1-1 for the season.

Crowd Watch
There was no sign of the daytime fireworks, probably due to complaints from Cranbourne police, who have enough issues to deal with before being called out to a dozen reports that Pearl Harbour is under attack.

Next Week
What wacky rule changes will AFLW players discover when they open Round 3 of their Footy Advent Calendar? Best not get complacent considering they won this week, but any alterations from here will hopefully exacerbate the quality gap between us and Freo rather than concentrate on equalisation, allowing us to wallop them unmercifully.

What in god's name were they thinking sending us to Perth next week instead of being the visiting team for the opening of the new stadium? When the ground itself was what the majority of people were coming to see there was no need to fall back on the old chestnut of the Pies being a guaranteed attraction, may as well have invited The Entertainers to come along and dismember the locals.

Final Thoughts
Last week the idea of being premiership favourites seemed ludicrous, now I expect that we'll plow through the season undefeated and win the Grand Final by 92 points. Put your house on it*

* Gamble responsibly.

1 comment:

  1. Given the quality of Aleisha Newmans's goal, its a pity you haven't included the "goal of the week" section. I thought it a very worthy winner.


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