Sunday 11 March 2018

Here comes success (or a fiasco)

Just when you thought the infamous Bradbury Plan died as we ironically fell over at the end of 2017, it's back in AFLW form. What already promised to be a blockbuster last round of Grand Final permutations got even more complicated when Brisbane did a Melbourne against Collingwood, and GWS upset the Bulldogs. Against all odds we did our bit to keep our fate in our own hands by winning a game as red favourites, and have an advantage of half a game and percentage in the race for the top two.

This was not a game you wanted to tune in to at quarter time, because it was all downhill from there. Pummelling Carlton into submission across the first 20 minutes was fantastic, but I hope we don't end up looking back on this as a replay of Round 22 against Brisbane where we got the critical win but the missed chance to boost percentage by drubbing strugglers ultimately cost us a spot in the next round.

My best laid plans about going to my first live match fell apart on the day, and what a shame because it was one of those games where there's barely anything to write about for three quarters and all the post-rampage action would have come from crowd watch and seeing what sort of dilapidated shit I could find wandering around restricted areas of Princes Park.

Readers of our award winning AFLM coverage will have seen my torment about possibly starting to miss games from mid-season, and this was a reminder of the extra angles and gimmicks that you can only get at the game. Like one of those low grade interest games on the radio where you suspect they're just calling off the TV from a studio, something vital will be lost from the experience if I'm not there. Imagine I'd missed Round 19, 2010 and hadn't seen the kid spewing everywhere? That's up there with my all-time great footy moments, and other than ending up on the floor screaming unintelligible garbage when Sizzle goalled against West Coast I can't think of anything nearly as exciting that's happened when I've watched at home.

Of course, when you trade the outer for your couch you get to enjoy often baffling television coverage. On this occasion we were helpfully informed that we not only needed to win, but had to boost our percentage - and that had to "come from goals". I know we're famous for stuffing up attacking opportunities, but even we weren't in danger of kicking 2.43.55.

When it was announced at the first bounce that we needed to win by 85 points to go ahead of the Bulldogs I yelled "Noooooo!" at the screen like a movie bodyguard taking a bullet. Carlton are awful, but they have won two games this year so expecting to slaughter them was tempting fate on a level just below sending out finals ticket brochures before the last game. Then a funny thing happened on the way to quarter time. We tormented the piss out of Carlton, finally delivering on one of these dominant first quarters but holding half their side without a possession and kicking the highest single quarter score in AFLW history.

After that start it was certainly valid to talk about percentage, but tying it to the Bulldogs was a bit rich. Say we had retaken our record for the largest ever win back from them, condemning Carlton to the two worst defeats in history like a certain other AFL club I think of, it's fair to say we wouldn't have had time to get that much further beyond an 85 point win. So we'd still be vulnerable to any sort of narrow loss against them next week. We could have won by 300 and it wouldn't have protected us against the two teams half a game behind us unless there are more draws. This league is weird, so I'm not ruling it out.

It was finally an MFC women's first quarter that you could trust. We got the ball forward from the first bounce, and unlike the Fremantle debacle it didn't stay there because it was regularly going back to the middle after another goal. It was a very on brand start when the Tegan Cunningham Experience (TCE?) missed a sitter from directly in front, but she more than made up for it as the game went on by terrifying a rotating cast of Carlton defenders. By the end they'd tried everyone on her but Steven Silvagni.

The Blues had approximately eight seconds of reprieve, with the ball not even getting outside the 50 before Elise O'Dea converted. At the risk of ruining her career like everyone else I've ever attached myself to, I've decided that she's narrowly ahead of Daisy and Paxman in my favourite players. What a formidable group that is to pick from. She played a first quarter best described as "barnstorming", running rings around hapless Carltonians and kicking three.

We've had early goals that have gone nowhere before, but this time the opener was added to within seconds. The Blues' midfield parted like the Red Sea for us to go forward again, and Cunningham took advantage of a one-on-one with her fringe opponent to get rid of her and kick through an unguarded goal. I've got trust issues with this team, so I wasn't ready to concede victory just yet but it was fairly clear that Carlton were not going to spring a Freo/Collingwood style upset. Hopefully this was the death blow to the idea of using them in the 2019 season opener and we might get a go instead.

Crucially to our chances of not folding like an umbrella after quarter time, Carlton used one of their few inside 50s for the quarter to kick a point. That was their lot for the first 20 minutes, we went straight down the other end where the charismatically named Eden Zanker let rip with a big kick down the middle of the 50 for Cunningham's second. It was beginning to look a lot like the night where the Bulldogs player plundered the Blues for seven earlier in the year. Had we not gone to bed after quarter time, and were she not an iffy set shot kicking prospect, she could have taken advantage of the confusion of Carlton's defence to rack up half a dozen.

Cunningham (#4 on my ARIA favourite players chart) wasn't just kicking them, she set up a second for O'Dea with a perfect centring pass - assisted by nobody being in the same time zone as her target - and we were almost in an unbeatable position already. Even by our standards. Carlton's defence looked terrorised in the same way that I expect the army of Grenada was when the US turned up with Marines and an aircraft carrier. They failed to heed the warning about leaving O'Dea standing on her own near goal, and when Grierson set up her third the massacre was on. We'd had six scores from seven inside 50s, and not the 1.5 you'd usually expect in the circumstances.

I've not seen a defence so collectively terrified since the first two rounds of 2013. In lieu of having any idea how to stop us from getting the ball they went the biff. I'm not even sure it was deliberate, they were just so bereft of ideas that two different players nearly decapitated Mithen, and another had a good old fashioned yank on Cranston's hair as they walked through them otherwise unchallenged.

Not only was it the highest scoring quarter yet - and all this without Daisy or Paxman doing anything remarkable - but their defenders must have given away more free kicks proportional to time played than any time this century. Almost every time the ball went down there a whistle was sure to follow, which makes it even more of a shame that we weren't able to go on with after quarter time. I bear no ill will towards Carlton's defenders, but after years of seeing Melbourne sides in total disarray I'll take revenge anywhere it's on offer.

Like the men on Thursday, you knew that one bulldozer quarter was all that we were going to get, and just as Carlton were about to turn coach Damien Keeping into Damien Sacking his side managed to salvage some dignity. They finally got their hands on the ball, kicking the first goal after 20 seconds and another not long after. Suddenly it wasn't so easy to just pump the ball forward and wait for chaos to work in our favour.

It wasn't the first time I've seen a Melbourne game where one side gives away a huge lead because they can't get a kick, then regroup and start to chip away at the lead. The only difference was this time it was the opposition, and the two goals were as close as they got due to a complete absence of firepower at either end of the ground.

Not surprisingly when we did finally get it inside 50, a defender got nervous and gave away a free to Cunningham. With the pressure of kicking to pass forgotten spearhead Alyssa Mifsud's all-time MFCW goalkicking record she missed from directly in front again. Minor detail, she was fantastic otherwise. Like many AFLW forwards if she could take overhead contested marks she'd be dominant, but I think the same about Jesse Hogan and I think we're all reasonably happy with how he's progressing.

Repeat forward entries caused her next opponent to crack like the other two, and this time the free from the square was duly converted. No streamers fell from the stands, and nobody expected me (and possibly Mifsud) cared about the statistical significance of the moment. The closest thing to a celebration came shortly after when the Windows notification sound played over the stadium's PA. Don't forget to put your Windows Firewall on Princes Park.

Losing the second quarter after such a hot start was very Melbourne, but at least we kept the damage down to them cutting a goal off the margin. It showed that while we might have reverted to our old struggles, the opposition was so toothless they could have played eight quarters and not reached our score in the first.

Now all that was left to find out was whether we could put on another burst and at least send a message to the Bulldogs that we were capable of racking up big scores. We went forward straight out of the middle, and when a battle at full-forward ended with a whistle you thought it absolutely certain that Cunningham was going to get a free. The umpires were feeling charitable, they paid it against her to alter the ledger to about one against and 15 for. Seconds later she was denied one of the more obvious marks of recent times. Give that Carlton's percentage may grow above 50.

They could have allowed the Blues to send another 12 players on the field and it probably wouldn't have helped them score enough to win, but down the other end we were making kicking goals look impossible again. In another farcical application of the last 'disposal' out of bounds rule scenario, the Carlton player had the ball bounce off her foot and get pinged for 'disposing' of it. This set up an opportunity for the enigmatic (e.g. disappears frequently) Newman. She missed, but we were starting to fulfil the pre-match prophecy and improve our percentage point by point.

Shelley Scott was next to add a single. She played her best game since getting rid of the cows, but clubbing a golden chance into the post from the top of the square. It would have been another goal from a forward 50 free kick, borne of Cranston absolutely killing an opponent for holding the ball. Fatefully Scott's miss created the set of circumstances that allowed Mel Hickey's knee to go pop. I'm sure she doesn't hold Shelley personally responsible.

At the time of writing there's no confirmation of how serious the injury is, but I dare say she's not coming back in the next two weeks. What a pisstake, doing yourself a mischief when we're on the verge of a Grand Final after playing every game for two seasons. She has perhaps been unfairly underrepresented in our votes over the last two years, one because there's often limited space after the big three are factored in, and two because we spend so much time up front making goals look difficult that the defenders are often forgotten.

In the last quarter the sting not only went out of the game, it adopted a false name and entered the witness protection program. More gettable shots were being missed, and the chance to beat the bejesus out of a vulnerable opposition disappeared. They would want to do better against a competitive side next week, nothing after quarter time was Round 7 form let alone fit for a premiership.

After several minutes of torrid junk time struggle, a Carlton player implausibly named Georgie Gee as if she's a ventriloquist's dummy got a consolation goal, before the always busy Cunningham set up Kate Hore for the last. By then I'd already given up on hovering over the TV and was cooking dinner, waving a pair of tongs in the air in celebration at the final siren. Bring on the Dogs, and let's see if Melbourne women have more luck with fairytale endings than the men.

2018 Daisy Pearce Medal
5 - Elise O'Dea
4 - Tegan Cunningham
3 - Katherine Smith
2 - Shelley Scott
1 - Karen Paxman

Apologies to Hore, D. Pearce and L. Pearce.

O'Dea opens a crucial break in front of the 2017 medallist, while Daisy winning her own medal looks almost impossible now. She'd need us to qualify for the Grand Final and to pick up seven votes on a player who has polled in almost every game she's ever played.

19 - Elise O'Dea
15 - Karen Paxman
--- Still eligible if we play two more games ---
12 - Daisy Pearce
10 - Tegan Cunningham
--- Finished under any measurement ---
5 - Richelle Cranston, Shelley Scott
4 - Laura Duryea, Bianca Jakobsson, Katherine Smith
3 - Mel Hickey, Brooke Patterson,
2 - Meg Downie, Lily Mithen
1 - Erin Hoare, Lauren Pearce

Crowd Watch
What about the tightly packed group in the 'Legends' Stand' (the real legend is whoever got paid a fortune to build something used to full capacity for about 25 minutes) pocket decked out in MC Labour merchandise? When somebody came around the office on Friday desperately trying to fill the full sponsor allocation I'll bet they said yes picturing free booze, a shitload of food at half time and a decent view. Instead somebody forced a company hat on them, and sat them as far away from food and drink as possible, in a spot where it's impossible to see what's going on at the other end of the ground.

Banner Watch
Fox Sports helpfully failed to show the proper view of either banner, just giving us a side shot of them being run through. Carlton's didn't appear to have a curtain, which is strange because their men's season banners have curtains that you could fly a 747 through. Nevertheless, either cheersquad has posted their banner online yet so I can't cast an accurate vote. DRAW, but willing to renegotiate if anyone's got pictures. 3-1-2 for the season.

Banner Watch - second Monday morning update 
The early rumour was the banner broke, but further eyewitness reports suggest the advertising/promotions company who handle the banner didn't bring it in a hoistable format. I was right to be suss of these banners from the start. Result changed to a Carlton win, setting up a second sudden death decider next week. 3-3 for the season.

Next Week
Bulldogs at the Western Oval on Saturday night. It's in the unique position of either being an elimination final for one of the teams, or a prelude to the Grand Final. By then we'll know if GWS or Brisbane are still in the mix, ideally wanting either a draw or a Brisbane win by under 30 points that will knock them both out. Then the equation is simple, beat the Bulldogs and qualify or lose and wait to see if Adelaide beat Collingwood on Sunday.

It could be last year all over again, screaming obscenities at a Pies player who misses the easy goal that ends their resistance, allowing the Crows to win and tip us out. Notwithstanding their two wins being against Grand Final contenders, I've got zero faith in the Pies doing us a favour so a win against the Dogs is crucial.

Presumably Jakobsson comes back in for Hickey, but I'll be keen to see if they risk any other changes. There's no need to touch the forward structure, even if they will be playing against competent defenders, so even though Zanker flits in and out they may as well keep her. I'm less keen on Whitford, and thought Emma Humphries was unlucky to get the boot so I'll bring her back as well.

Based on what I saw today once the opposition got a kick I don't fancy our chances. The last three quarters were tellingly bland, we're never going to get away with that against the Dogs. Either way, it's going to be nerve-wracking entertainment, watched in a dual TV set-up with South Australian state election coverage because I'm an unashamed election nerd.

Final Thoughts
As if you'd go into any make-or-break Melbourne game expecting us to win. The only difference is this time it's against a good side, not flotsam and/or jetsam so we might just get away with it.

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