Saturday, 23 February 2019

One win down, 27 to go.


Welcome to our 15th year of covering senior men's Australian Rules football as played by - or in some years around - the Melbourne Football Club. When this blog started Olympic Park was still being used for school athletics carnivals, now it's a public access venue where you can let your dog drop a steamer in the goalsquare and play largely tension free pre-season scratch matches. Year 15 begins like Year 1, with a win in a throwaway low profile match.

In the club's much anticipated return to games in the Olympic Park precinct for the first time since 1932 we won and nobody dislocated their spine, so while like bowling a strike in the first frame I can't confirm it's a pointer to future success I'll take the zero points and run.

When the club played its first game at the fancifully named Motordrome in '32 there was an early outbreak of matchday experience when they had commentators calling the game over loudspeakers. At least for a few minutes until fans and players alike complained and it was stopped. Fittingly in our return to the same piece of land nearly 77 years later somebody pulled the plug on this coverage too. This time inadvertently:

At first I felt like a traitor for not going, but the shenanigans of the broadcast made it all worthwhile. The kicked cable was just the main event of a cavalcade of technical mishaps that elevated the viewing experience beyond just live streaming of a scratch match and into something to be fondly remembered. Footy wasn't bad either. Last time I went to this ground was for a corporate AFL 9s tournament where I nearly kicked through the wrong posts running into an open goal and was comprehensively battered by a team of Collingwood assistant coaches/hangers on where Simon Prestigiacomo of all people persecuted us at full forward with about nine goals.

We should have known something exciting was on the way when shortly before the coverage started you heard somebody on a live mic say "this happens every time". The 'this' they were referring to obviously wasn't all the microphones working, because we then got about five minutes of pre-match chat with Nathan Jones where you couldn't hear a word he was saying. Eventually somebody off-camera let them know, so he removed his headset and talked into a handheld microphone that didn't work either. After 15 awkward minutes the co-host roped in from the Herald Sun was ejected so Jones could use his microphone. He got to talk for about 30 seconds before the game started and he was moved on.

The first bounce was a case of starting as you mean to go on, with the umpires pinging Gawn for allegedly jumping into his opponent at the bounce. Looked like a regulation contest to me, but the Administrative Free League is nothing without baffling decisions that even the players involved don't understand. To cap off a great first two minutes for anti-umpire sentiment, Collingwood's first goal came from another randomly plucked free.

This is where the lights went out on Olympic Boulevard. Jones was called back on mic to give his thoughts, and the effort taken to find him a working microphone caused the feed to shut down. As far as major sponsors went it was OUT: Zurich, IN: Baghdad. I was hoping that the umpire had been standing in the middle waiting for the 'all clear' light from the host broadcaster the whole time. Alas no, and we recovered vision after about 10 minutes just after American History X lookalike Braydon Preuss had kicked his first and was running around throwing high fives to all and sundry.

The power was back, but the strain on the commentary team had taken its toll and they were unheard for a few minutes, replaced by the pleasant background noise of the crowd, before somebody said "we'll start calling again" and all the audio dropped out. At least this time the pictures survived, allowing us to salivate over a towering Weideman mark in the square for a second goal that tied it at 13.

Watching in silence was better than not watching at all, or with Dwayne involved, but it was still unnerving. If they'd switched to black and white - and by this stage you couldn't rule anything out - it would have looked like one of those unearthed films of the 1912 Grand Final discovered under somebody's floorboards. Even on an enforced mute you knew it was pre-season because a) a player was stretching out during the first quarter, b) the Man with a Van truck stopped in traffic directly behind the play, and c) there was a one-two goalkicking punch of Billy Stretch and Jay Kennedy-Harris that put us two goals up at quarter time. At which point the feed spiralled into death again and somebody tried to reboot the computer.

From the half a quarter I could see our ball movement looked good, and when it comes to pre-season games you assume anything that works will also go well in the real stuff while anything that goes wrong is instantly dismissed as meaningless.

After scaring the bejesus out of anyone listening on headphones with the sound of a plane nearly plowing into the ground, the second quarter resumed with pictures, crowd noise from people standing next to the commentary area, somebody saying a loud and clear "TESTING MIC THREE!" then shitloads of static like mic three had been dropped into a bucket of water. Forget going to see the game live, I was having 300% more fun with the non-stop thrill ride of waiting to see what would happen to the live stream next. Amidst this carnage they were so moved by a Joel Smith screamer that a replay ran, risking putting the coverage off the air for good.

Smith's massive grab was welcome, but not as much as Preuss dismissing his opponent at a forward 50 ball up with the greatest of ease and turning to snap a goal. There were plenty of times last year where we didn't take advantage of stoppages inside 50 due to McSizzle battling manfully to break even so this could be a game (CLICHE) changer. With no Brodie Grundy the opposition ruckman could have been from the Leeward Islands for all I know, but our ruck combination looked hotter than the sun.

Preuss' goal inspired the commentary to return again, with one bloke presumably using mic three who could be heard properly, and another who briefly sounded like he was on the phone from the bottom of a tin mine in Chad, then dropped out entirely again.

We dominated on the scoreboard in the second quarter, but the Pies certainly had their chances. They just kicked for goal like a dose of leprosy had run through the squad until sneaking a cheap one right at the end. Being let off the hook occasionally didn't cause me too much heartache, add Lever and May to the defence, Sizzle and Milkshake to the forwards and Oliver/Viney into the midfield and start counting dollars.

If I've got anything to be concerned about - other than a shithouse early draw - it's that our forward line is too tall. They looked really good here but crumb was in short supply. Garlett didn't do much until the last quarter so Melksham, Petracca and the midfield will have to chip in. The goal will have to be to exploit this 6-6-6 positioning nonsense to get quick kicks from the middle straight to the marking talls and never let the ball hit the ground. Corey Wagner of all people stuffed one through from a goalmouth scramble late in the quarter but I'm not pinning my hopes on that happening every week.

After walking out of the room for a second I returned to hear what sounded like Robert Walls being interviewed. Turned out to be Gary Pert, exercising the CEO's option to a working mic. Later they had Josh Mahoney on, and for all the weird stuff that was going on I appreciated their light entertainment presentation rather than trying to call every bit of the action. Ok in the pre-season, likely to provoke murder if Basil Zempilas returns to do it from Round 1.

It was a solid first half, and the third started flawlessly via quick ball movements setting up Tim Smith to run onto a loose ball in the square and boot it through. The Collingwood defender was convinced it had already crossed the line, but stiff shit if you're hoping for a goal review in a practice match. If that was questionable then the second free of the quarter was even worse, with Weid getting a soft as butter free that he missed from close range.

If the latest set of off-season rule changes were supposed to encourage scoring then we might be on the end of another few before Round 1. Stand by for a couple of high scoring games in the first few weeks that cause spectacle-chasing journos to declare the game is BACK (when it was never went anywhere in the first place), before coaches twig and put the screws on, leaving the same reporters banging the door down to try and get the rules changed to create 150-149 thrillers.

The scoring might not have gone off the charts, but we still did our bit for entertainment. It took 15 minutes for the second goal of the quarter, but it came via a moment of rare beauty. Petracca delivered a lightning handball off the deck, which Harmes expertly collected and finished without breaking stride. That is the sort of stuff that will make 30 mystery free kicks and 50s for going north/south instead of east/west worthwhile.

We'd seen enough in the first three quarters that flubbing a 25 point three quarter time lead wouldn't matter that much, but I still instinctively tensed up when they got the first goal of the final term. The gene that always has me on high alert for a shambles is going to take a generation to be evolved out of the species. Fortunately Garlett quickly bobbed up for almost the first time all day to pluck the ball off a marking contest and roll through an open goal to calm whatever misplaced nerves I had.

Garbage trucks were seen going down Punt Road midway through the quarter as junk time was declared. Nobody wanted to be the player to make all the fears about AFLX injuries look silly by necking themselves in a real game on the same day. Almost everyone complied, except the real nutters like Aaron vandenBerg who only have one setting. I clambered onto the vandWagon for 2019 when he split a Pies player in two with a ball-tearer of a tackle that directly led to Anal-Bullet drilling the sealer. Midfield vandenBerg is best vandenBerg, and this was a classic mismatch of a player who was happy to get to the siren unscathed meeting somebody who is genetically predisposed to thumping people.

Nothing is certain in this competition, but it was as good a hitout as you were going to get against a 75% strength opposition who were also missing a swathe of their best players. I'm nowhere near as convinced as most that these are two automatically top four teams, but I can see us sticking around the same spot as them for the next few years. Now that we've beaten them in women's football and bruise free football (with apologies to AVB) time to get back to doing it in the real stuff.

Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-season performance
Votes are always subjective, more so when you don't see half the first quarter. I feel the integrity of the Plate (former winners include Lumumba, Watts, Howe and Hogan) is in question if I award, so I just went by the bests on the club website. This was risky considering the same article suggested Tim Smith was battling Spargo and Garlett for a small forward position (pardon?) but reasonably well aligned to my views.

5 - Max Gawn
4 - Braydon Preuss
3 - James Harmes
2 - Christian Salem
1 - Angus Brayshaw

I also liked Hore, who would have walked into our Round 1 back when our defence was solid as Iraq but will now need to wait until the other defenders suffer their inevitable injuries.

Banner Watch
The Demon Army are good, but even I don't expect them to do something for a half-arsed match. Instead, here's a classic of the genre:
Tonight
I managed to retain some of my principles by refusing to participate in AFLX, but congratulations to Bayley Fritsch for lifting his second premiership and instantly becoming the greatest player in the history of the sport. Thanks to the millions of international viewers foaming at the mouth to get involved he'll never have to buy a drink in Shanghai again

Sunday 
AFLW coverage from Casey. I'll be reviewing off the TV, so if you want to have a bash at guest reporting (either live or from the not-Cranbourne security of your couch) please get in touch via the usual channels. In case you missed it, but mostly because I really like the headline, here's the post from last week.

Next Week
Richmond at Shepparton, in a fixture that in past years I'd have dropped everything to attend. Now because I'm dealing with a midlife crisis I'll be going off the grid while at work and watching late Sunday night. Here's to a respectable performance against Richmond providing us further signs of a safe, top eight at least life.

Final Thoughts
I don't really think we're going to win the flag (though a lot of that is self-preservation so I don't get sad if it goes wrong), but what I took out of this is that we're not going to be shit. In many years that was all that we could ask for in the first game of the season, now let us get to the task of piledriving everybody in sight.

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