Sunday 18 March 2018

Don't fear the reaper

In the spirit of last round disaster I've not bothered editing this, so apologies in advance for any notable errors or missing words.

Who'd be a Melbourne fan? 10 years of swimming around in football's septic tank, then we climb just far enough out of the muck to 'enjoy' three thrilling finals near misses in a row - with another very much on the cards starting next Sunday.

Last year the AFLW side left it in the hands of other clubs, and could afford to casually blow Fremantle to bits in the last round just for the fun of it, this year they had to win or it was curtains. Beating our old friends the Bulldogs was a difficult task, but in the true spirit of supporting this club I was probably more confident than I would have been against a rotten side. You know the rules by now - don't trust them. As far as preliminary final defeats go it was hardly Jim Stynes running over the mark at Waverley, but is there any chance that at some point a weird scenario might go our way? The last time we got what we really wanted at the end of any season ended up costing us $500,000.

The only positives compared to that big old fuck up against Collingwood at the end of last year (as opposed to the women's BOFU against Collingwood this season), are that a) let's be entirely fair and reasonable, most - but perhaps not all - of us aren't nearly as invested in this team, and b) at least they had a red hot bash in the first quarter.

Without a Grand Final to go to, my non-attendance streak will stretch into season three. Tonight was spent trying to pull off the most obscure triathlon of all time - using two computer monitors to watch election coverage and a footy game simultaneously, while also being the responsible adult in charge of a boisterous small child. I'd been half tempted to drag junior along to the Western Oval on the (as it turns out correct) assumption that the #voteother revolution would fizzle out in SA, but then I remembered having to trek further than Burke & Wills back and forth to my car when we played the practice game there last year and chickened out.

Kicking with a cyclonic breeze in the first quarter was welcome, because I didn't fancy us to be digging out of a hole in the last, but only if our forwards could take advantage.

*Arrested Development voice* 
They couldn't.

I had some sympathy with anyone having to try and manage that sort of wind, the abandoned building site next to my house sounded as if it was about to distribute industrial waste around the neighbourhood again.

Consistent with most of our first quarters this year we were on the attack from 00:01 to the final siren, though in this case that was more pot luck based on the coin toss. Had that gone the other way our prized - and ultimately useless - record of having conceded 0.1 in the last five opening terms would have been blown to bits. Letting in 3.1 in seven quarters - and 3.0 of that in the first two - must be some kind of record. So we've got that going for us if nothing else.

Keeping the other side scoreless, and to one inside 50 in this case, was dandy, but when there's a rush on due to the fact that you'll be kicking into the wind in the last quarter only getting 1.1 out of it was not nearly enough. It's a miracle that we got as close as we did in the circumstances. The intent was certainly there, I especially enjoyed Cranston doing a FIFA International Soccer style (at least when I used to play it 20 years ago) spinny thing to avoid a tackle running inside 50. She ran into an opponent and had to lob a loose handball into space. It didn't generate a shot, but ultimately forced an out of bounds that allowed a long Paxman shot that was narrowly touched over.

Otherwise all the early pressure on the Bulldogs goal game to nowt. Our forwards looked less likely to take a mark than a double amputee, with Zanker, Hore and Cunningham achieving the trifecta by dropping one each in a completely different fashion (overhead, chest and sliding). With the aid of the wind any of the three would have been kickable, but let the Bulldogs off the hook. Hore made amends with the perfect pass that couldn't have been set up any better for Cunningham, who had the most torrid time as a key forward since The Spencil dropped the ball during his run-up against North.

The Bulldogs were under siege from every angle other than the scoreboard, but benefited from playing a team entirely lacking killer instinct. Everyone on our side was most certainly trying, but the problem was the same as it's been for most of the last 14 games - the silkiest players are all doing the best work up the ground, and inside 50 we're just buying lottery tickets en masse and hoping to have a win. What the forwards were doing was tormenting the Bulldogs defenders with pressure, but turning the game into a grim struggle didn't always work in our favour. Once everyone decided to ignore the AFL's plea for spectacle and instead try to win a life-or-death game of football.

We got lucky on the eighth inside 50 to nil, with the always busy Cranston drawing a free kick from a failed tackle and converting. The Bulldogs had barely had a kick at this point, and the ones they did get were usually under siege. As discussed last week this is often the best time to start worrying and avoid the rush, because you can't keep a side kickless all day. The first time they strung a couple of passes together I thought we were about to concede a crucial goal into the wind, but when the third player in the chain hoofed it ingloriously out on the full I made the fatal mistake of wondering whether it was going to be our day. Of course it wasn't.

The folly of not building a lead when we had the chance was further exposed when Sarah Lampard celebrated her first game of the season by doing her knee before quarter time. This is terrible news for her personally, but equally bad for the rotations of a 16 woman team on a night where the lack of sand was the only thing separating the wind from an afternoon in the Kalahari Desert.

We got to quarter time with one more player seriously injured than the Bulldogs had scores, and were worse off for it. At least we were either going to make the Grand Final, or become the answer to the trivia question of what team lost three games in one season after holding a team scoreless in the first quarter. Anyone who's watched Melbourne for more than five minutes knew deep down that it would be the latter.

Just because we were kicking into the wind it didn't mean we couldn't win the first bounce, get the ball inside 50 and do another strangulation job on them. It's one thing to have an extra 15 metres on your kicks due to natural causes, but that's not going to help much if all the kicks are coming from the square and into a wall of players. We never got the chance to put this theory to the test, because the ball flung out of the middle, into Dogs territory and wasn't seen down our end for nearly 20 minutes.

Footscray didn't look like creating wonderfully sculpted, highlight reel goals either, but there was a deep feeling of dread that they were more likely to eventually get them via brute force attacks. Eventually the repeat entries paid off with a free, a goal and the lead. It was a mirror image of quarter one, where now we were left desperately trying to free the ball from defensive 50 by any means necessary. Our home brand defence held up reasonably well in the face of a much better organised attack than they faced last week, before the Dogs got their second from a soft free right in front of a goal, given much to the joy of a Bulldogs fan parked next to the effects mic who let off a weird noise in celebration that sounded like a farm animal giving birth.

The first quarters of this side are unrepresentative swill, the moment the Dogs got the game on their terms they always looked more threatening. Good time for our ex-Deanna Berry, who was pretty good up forward last year before we flogged her as part of the Bianca Jakobsson deal, to chip in with her first goal in their colours. The wind wasn't helping us, but that couldn't be blamed for being thumped at the restart and seeing the ball go straight back into their attack. The usual suspects like Daisy and Paxman were great, but we just lacked somebody to take control and force at least a repeat ball-up in the hope of getting the ball away from where it could do the most damage.

There was late drama when we pinched a goal into the wind, Zanker is promising but didn't do much other than a lovely kick to the top of the square that Paxman read like the mastermind she is. It was our first inside 50 of the quarter, and the goal cut the margin to seven. This time we won the ball from the restart, and had one last ping at a goal that would have made the rest of the game very interesting but the Dogs held out for a vital lead.

In an ideal world, the third quarter would have seen us do what teams did at the Western Oval for years and stack on a ton of goals, then defend like buggery in the final term. I would have been happy to kick a couple, then get the first clearance of the fourth and keep the ball in our forward line for 10 minutes.

We were still without spark up front, and the Dogs were able to casually rush behinds and run the ball out of bounds for several minutes, relying on the kindness of "you wouldn't cost a team a Grand Final for that" umpiring. We couldn't make our own goals for shit, so it took a stuff up by the Dogs to finally open the gate. A kick-in shambles led to the ball being thrown-up at the top of the square, and the criminally underrated Katherine Smith nicked in to crumb her first career goal and restore the lead.

It might well have been touched, but as if the AFL is ever going to invest even the bare minimum in technology for this league. They've had their two years of goodwill, we'll be lucky if they don't outsource the competition to China by 2020. The special comments person made the outlandish claim that "it doesn't matter if it was touched", clearly trying to make an ill-defined point about where the Bulldogs defenders disappeared to as the goal was kicked, quickly leading to one of those great scenarios in a commentary box where somebody else challenges a wacky statement then the whole angle is forgotten about immediately because the director has told them to move on.

We should have had another after Newman took three bounces to get almost to the goal line then missing. Now that our season is over I can freely admit to not rating her, she highlights and the odd goal of the year are not worth the time spent MIA or missing shots like this. The flip-side is that unless you can find somebody else who runs that fast and is going to instantly walk into the team, it's probably better to stick with the player you've put two years into.

In a classic "that would never happen for a men's game" twist, I had to hit pause with five minutes left in the third quarter to put a cranky child to bed. I came back 26 minutes in the hole, staying well away from social media, my phone or pressing the wrong button on my remote control. The moment I hit play again we lost the plot, nearly throwing away the slight advantage we'd built.

Harriet Cordner had, by a massive distance, her best game, but got excited about spectacle in the last minute and tried to take possession of a ball that could have been left to bounce out for our free. By the time she gathered it hard on the boundary there was only one place it was going after it hit the boot, and when the Dogs found a target from free I was beginning to nervously adjust my collar. We weren't doing ourselves any favours with the wind, so it did one for us, the Bulldogs were left too far out and botched the second pass to get within scoring range.

We got to three-quarter-time five points ahead. This in no way felt safe, but at the same time I felt a strange calm about what was to come. It wasn't that I thought we were going to win, maybe I secretly thought we'd cop five goals in five minutes and have the result taken out of our hands. I was half expecting the draw that would set up Adelaide tipping us out by thrashing Collingwood tomorrow, which would have been the third consecutive AFL season to end with the Pies doing us over.

To have any chance we had to get the ball forward and keep it there. Cranston did her bit for momentum by elbowing a Dogs player in the head, but it backfired when they thumped a kick forward and Cordner was nicked for the more pissweak technical frees of our time. Sure, her arm crossed the opposition player's shoulder but it was while reaching over the top of it to grab the ball while the player was already being tackled. The 'high contact' was not detrimental to the player being tackled, Cordner was just being penalised for not having Go Go Gadget arms that could reach the ball without brushing a collarbone. Is that really what you want players being pinched for in Round 1, 7 or a practice match? So much for not stuffing a team's Grand Final chances unnecessarily. The recipient obviously felt guilty, because she tried her best to miss from the top of the square but barely snuck it home.

Now we were in some trouble, I was only confident when Paxman or Daisy had the ball in their hand, and that left 14 other players at any given time who were hitting, hoping and watching the ball fall 10 metres short of its intended target. That's if they could get their hands on it to start with, seven of our players had less than five disposals. We didn't deserve to be in the Grand Final, but I wasn't going to turn it down if one was on offer.

We could have done with one clean possession from the half-back flank, just to get the ball forward of centre and reset. Instead we immediately reverted to backs-to-the-wall mode, when it looked highly unlikely that we'd ever get enough space to get the ball forward again let alone kick a fourth goal. I despise the last touch out of bounds rule, but if there's ever been a kick that deserved to be penalised it was Brooke Patterson's free that shanked 10 metres forward and five metres right into the wind and rolled out.

The margin was two, but just as it looked like we'd never get enough space and keep the ball long enough without giving the Dogs time to stick 16 players into the defensive 50, my old mate Newman almost accidentally hit Hore for a set shot 20 metres out almost directly in front. Given the circumstances, and a couple of other wacky set shots this year I didn't have any faith in her converting, but feeding off the energy of the 200th mention for the season of her junior footy connection with Jayden Hunt (the AFLW version of Brad Green at Manchester United) she banged it through. The only downside was still having to defend for six and a half minutes.

Kicking another would have been the best way to throw a knockout blow, but it was not to be. The Dogs were soon on the attack again, and the closer it got to the final siren the more it felt inevitable that we'd lose to a late heartbreaker. It got to the point where you start to think 'if we're going to concede one, do it quickly so there's time to get it back'. Alternatively the Dogs might have cracked under the pressure, and when Jakobsson took two crucial intercept marks in the last two minutes you could have almost believed we were going to hold on. If you'd just emerged from a coma.

The end came from an unusual set of circumstances. A boundary throw in on the half-back flank gave us the opportunity to get the ball forward and cynically waste the last 90 seconds. Instead it caught on the wind, swung 10 metres closer to their goal, and in the chaos our defence lost their opponents and allowed the league's leading goalkicker to crop up for the first time all night and beat us. At the other end, our leading goalkicker hadn't registered a disposal of any variety. In a realistic world you'd probably have recalled the throw in for giving one side such a major advantage, but that's clutching at straws in the context of this result.

We still had just over a minute to pull something remarkable out, and with the players in a situation of almost unbearable tension the jobsworth umpire held the restart so he could enforce where our players could stand in line with AFL directives. Obviously that was the most important thing going on at this juncture of the season. After being forced to try a bit less to win we had one last chance, but a hopeful forward kick held up in the wind and was intercepted. Game over, season over, and the streak of stuffing up a finals appearance by the near narrowest of margins lives.

2018 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Karen Paxman
4 - Daisy Pearce
3 - Lauren Pearce
2 - Katherine Smith
1 - Harriet Cordner

Apologies to O'Dea (significant apologies as it turns out), Cranston, Hore, Downie and Jakobsson

Final leaderboard
By virtue of narrowly missing out on the minors, O'Dea is toppled at the last minute. After missing votes in Round 1 through injury, Paxman has picked up 20 of the remaining maximum 30 votes available to win her first Player of the Year trophy. That's one each for her and Daisy, maybe if she can go back-to-back we'll rename the award for the third time?

20 - Karen Paxman
19 - Elise O'Dea
16 - Daisy Pearce
10 - Tegan Cunningham
6 - Katherine Smith
5 - Richelle Cranston, Shelley Scott
4 - Laura Duryea, Bianca Jakobsson, Lauren Pearce
3 - Mel Hickey, Brooke Patterson
2 - Meg Downie, Lily Mithen
1 - Harriet Cordner, Erin Hoare

Banner watch
Interesting one here, because the Bulldogs banner definitely won for having a more traditional look than our corporate rent-a-canvas. But, I'm disqualifying it for having one of those reject slogans that makes no grammatical sense and is just there to set up a rhyme. What happened to that Bulldogs bloke who writes 'funny' banners? Doesn't work summer? Dees win in a thriller, 4-3 for the season, which in this competition is enough to win.

Next week
Let the other gender start giving us the shits.

Next year
O'Dea is young, but I hope there's at least one more year in Daisy and Paxy because if they go under the current arrangement we'll be cactus. Meanwhile brace for the impact of the expansion teams, not only that we'll probably lost a few good players to them but that they'll probably get their first wins against us.

Final thoughts
The competition certainly lacked verve once the novelty factor of the opening season wore off, and when the league started trying to enforce entertainment value, but when you've got a reason to take an interest it's still worthwhile viewing. I don't think the extra teams are going to help, but the competition is probably at the level it has deserved to be for the last couple of years. Given that many of the games are played in the deep suburbs, and often in hot weather the overall attendances have been good considering the competition started at zero two years ago. Anyway, when it comes to AFLW the equation is simple - if you like watching it then watch, if you don't then don't, and if you hatewatch it just to complain you're a poon.

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