Sunday 19 May 2019

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** ***k

I'm probably the most pragmatic person in the land when it comes to umpiring, but when we went into three quarter time of a game in Perth ahead in the free kick count I knew there was a massive correction on the cards. I don't believe in flat-out, cynical rorts (not outside AFL HQ anyway), but like gravity stopping us from floating into the atmosphere, mysterious natural forces always ensure West Coast emerge from home games unscathed.

If you watch enough footy you'll see games repeated, and this was the spiritual successor to Round 18, 2016. Both times we arrived as no chance, heroically held the Eagles at bay for three quarters, then lacked the poise to overcome kooky last quarter umpiring and finished with a score in the 60s.

The bad news for conspiracy theorists is that even with every decision after three quarter time between 50/50 to 99/1 going against us (until the last few minutes when a couple of cheap ones left us ahead on the total free count and allowed the locals to play victim), is the focus will instead be on the myriad ways we threw away what would have been an epic, backs-to-the-wall win for the ages in front of 40,000 secessionists making noises like constipated cattle.

Despite the result, and general suspicion of the idea of an 'honourable loss', the team performance between first bounce and the rot setting in with two minutes left in the third quarter should be appreciated. There were plenty of contributors when we were going well, but the man most responsible for us getting about 75 point closer than I'd expected was Max Gawn, who put in one of the finest four quarter performances of his career.

After the Eagles made a late change to bring in a second ruckman I thought we were walking into the same sort of ambush as the Preliminary Final/Round 1. Turns out it only works if Scott Lycett is involved. When news of the late, hilariously shameless change (replacing a player with 'general soreness') came through we either held our nerve and refused to be drawn into the game, or Preuss was already on the way back to Melbourne for the Casey game.

Either way, Maximum responded to the challenge by dissembling his opposition like a pair of IKEA wardrobes. He tapped everything that came near him, and when it didn't go to the advantage of our midfield he steamed back into the contest like an uncaged bloody animal and won the ball himself. Nine clearances is an outrageous total for a ruckman, equal second most for a ruckman since the stat was first tracked in 1998 behind 11 (!!) to Jamar in 2011 and level with Jeff White's nine in 2005. It's a midfielders' number, and even then the only players to have had as many in the last two years are Oliver (x7), Viney (x3), Jones and Melksham. And none of them had to contest the ruck first. Shame nobody will remember his game for anything other than being the stepladder for Mark of the Year.

Having the dominant ruckman in the contest was ace, but against a forward line featuring both talls and smalls capable of tearing us a new one I had zero faith in our B-Team backline keeping them to a low enough score to remain competitive. Under the circumstances they were far from flawless, but adjusting for status they did a fantastic job. Without Jetta, Hibberd, or Lewis I'd factored in conceding a minimum four to Josh Kennedy, but otherwise we restricted them to speculative long shots, goals from bastard bounces, and one immense goal-line cock up.

With respect to Lewis winning a bunch of premierships at an organisation that I give zero shits about, I'm not sure how we were lacking the leadership or organisation that people do a hammy trying to defend. You wouldn't let Marty Hore kick for your life (except on the run for 50 eh Gold Coast fans?) but he was intercepting everything that came near him (including three contested, my new gold standard stat), while Harrison Petty looked like light years ahead of his disastrous debut, Oscar did enough to hold his own, and Frost was having one of those days where 50% of the stuff he did was awesome and the other 50% was memorably chaotic.

It was another exciting outing for the AFL's answer to extreme sports, continuing to attack the ball like a ferret let loose up a pants leg, and doing hilarious things like tearing somebody's jumper to shreds after a high-speed chance, then kicking the free directly out on the full. I'm not upset, it's the price you pay for moments like that gather and turn against Hawthorn where time stood still. It might be better in the long term if we find somebody a touch more stable to play down there but for now - because there's not much else to live for this season - I'm feeding off the white-knuckle excitement.

Down the other end, Adam Simpson was so casual about our chances of kicking a big score that he trialled a first year forward who had more goals than anyone on our list against McSizzle. This was a spectacular failure, with our man playing his best quarter since the Semi Final. He marked everything that came near him, created opportunities for others, and generally looked like changing the course of the game. The only blot was a missed set shot that he'd have kicked with his eyes closed last year, and once West Coast got wise and switched George McGovern onto him he was back to being dragged to the square and ambushed in marking contests.

Smith was an ok support, but the difference in McDonald's success between playing on their #1 and #12 defender shows why we desperately need another convincing forward 50 target to stretch opposition defences. Whether that's Preuss (if the coach can be convinced to show an interest), Weideman (post-mystery injury), both of them or Hogan (via producing the receipt and demanding a refund on May and Kolodjashnij) it doesn't matter. It's hard to judge when we've had so many casualties, but niggling injuries or not I'm convinced he's not going to be a #1 forward unless we can a) find an equally or more dangerous marking target to play alongside him, or b) create acres of space inside 50 for him to work in. Would also help if he rediscovered his laser-like goalkicking instead of being 6.8 for the season.

With the tall forwards doing everything but kicking goals in the first quarter, it was left to the others to put ball between post. Jones obliged at the start - before playing a very ropey game that had me nervously adjusting my collar in spirit - before Petracca artfully disposed of his opponent in a marking contest and flubbed the set shot. Now there's a man who needs a sports psychologist. The good news is that unlike the days we were too tight to employ one so Viney had to hire his own, we now have a shrink on the payroll so there should be no excuse for not working on Truck's issues. If that doesn't work I see we also have a "head soft tissue therapist" on the books.

Like a lower velocity version of Frost, Petracca did some nice things amidst the bloopers, but nobody will remember them. And to be fair this wasn't the first time this year he's been in a perfect position to mark inside 50, taken his mind off the job at the last minute and come out looking like a bit of a poon. 33% of me wants them to drop him for a week just to send a message that nobody's expendable, the other two thirds are made up of 'why do we keep playing him so close to goal?' and 'if he was a #22 pick nobody would give a rat's so just keep playing him'. After 72 games it's all going a bit Jack Watts (without a false-alarm stint in defence), so you can either accept the rough with the smooth and hope for a breakthrough or just give up and ship him to Port Adelaide for pick 32.

Further along the experience scale, Garlett's three goals were appreciated (especially as it's the equal most of any player this season), but it was one of the least impressive multi-goal hauls I've ever seen. In 2016, Dean Kent had what was labelled "the worst four goal performance in history" but at least one of those was a clutch goal in the dying seconds that gave us a chance to win. I'm not against the two goals where he snuck out the back, because I've been waiting weeks to kick some cheap ones, and the miss of the easy snap in the first quarter is the sort of stuff he's been doing for years, but on the vibe it felt like a game where a small forward could have done so much more.

Back down the other end of the scale was Oskar Baker. It felt like he was being given a token game because nobody else was left, and he couldn't go four quarters on debut, but bloody Nora he hit some incisive passes early on. Bit disappointing that he's cut his previously zany hair, but there was not an ounce of hesitation in playing his part when we were madly moving the ball at any cost. Let's see it again before getting excited about his future, but it certainly left me wanting more. Along with Petty it was a big day out for fringe players - all of who are likely to be mysteriously dropped within two weeks.

After five minutes of throwing the kitchen sink at a clearly startled side but failing to kick a second goal, nobody was surprised when we conceded one and almost went for seconds immediately after. This was more like the expected wipeout, especially when Kennedy got his second. That we only let him get two more in the last 3.5 quarters is a credit to all involved.

We got back in front at the break (sucked in quarter quad punters) with one of the better running goals you'll see, capped off by Hunt having to avoid being shirtfronted by Petracca on the way to go. It was the highlight of a quarter of playing on at every opportunity, which didn't backfire much more than our usual methods, and instantly made us look far more likely to score. The premiership coach wasn't having any of that and clamped down after quarter time, but like the Elimination Final we kept ourselves afloat after the scoring dried up by keeping the other side out. Stiff shit Channel 7 executives fanging to play an ad, but if it takes grinding out narrow, low scoring victories then slap me on the arse and call me Ross Lyon.

The longer we got away without conceding, the more I went on high alert for a quick burst of goals that would put us away. And so it was, but even when we played into their hands by stopping the run and going back to hit 'n hope bombs we could still have won. Not sure if we should have, but like last week if other sides don't want to win I'm happy to run a premiership points amnesty program.

The Gawn Effect was demonstrated by our first four goals coming from clearances. Without much competition it might have been the best we've played all year, and when Garlett got the first goal of the second quarter suspicions grew that we were going to make a game of it. Not that you'd know from the commentators, who were insistent on pushing a bullshit stat about the Eagles always winning if they took 90 marks. Sure, that happened again, but it's as good an example as you'll get of statistics being misused.

The first indication that things would end badly was the Eagles losing a player for the rest of the game before half time. Nobody is worse at taking advantage of the other side losing a player (forget 90 marks, give me this stat), and in the time between his departure and half time West Coast kicked the only goal. Despite torching more opportunities, including what would have been a popular goal to Baker in the dying seconds, and playing significantly worse than the opening term we'd doubled our lead from two to four points. That's where the association between the MFC and four points ended.

Much of the third quarter felt like we were just holding on, and I even had to agree with BT for the first time since GEE. GOD. BOY. WOW. when he suggested we were prone to being blown off the park in 10 minutes of madness. My good mate Brian and I were correct, but it took another quarter for the ship to capsize. For now we had a disappointingly flubbed early chance to McDonald, before Garlett got his second. Despite conceding another to Kennedy we almost kept the heat on until three quarter time.

The much maligned Petracca and Garlett both got goals to open a 19 point lead and it was all getting a bit real. Until DemonTime arrived and we formed an orderly queue to allow the Eagles two chances. I'm used to conceding late in quarters, but when we gave them another set shot right on the siren I nearly stormed out of my own house. He missed, we were two goals in front, and I was mentally budgeting for defeat.

If you suspected a race to even up the free kick numbers in the last quarter, you wouldn't have been shocked to see Salem hit a ball-tearer tackle within seconds of the last quarter starting and be pinged for a push. I'd rather be whipped with barbed wire than watch a replay, so will assume any contact to the back came after the tackle was complete, and as such had no bearing on the player's ability to dispose of the ball.

As Tim Smith later had his head driven face first into the death valley 'turf' with his arms pinned and didn't get anything except a free kick against, we can only assume Salem said something about the umpire's mum halfway through the tackle because he obviously wasn't penalised for it being dangerous. In a competitive field, the paying frees for incidental contact to the head/neck that aren't disruptive or dangerous is amongst the AFL's worst ideas.

Naturally, the Eagles took advantage of this stroke of mismanagement by kicking an arsey goal from hard on the boundary line. The sort of plucked from elbow deep in the nether-regions finish we've sorely missed this year. Any goal will do, but it would be tremendous to grab a few unexpected ones instead of slaving away to find targets instead 50 then watching them miss from directly in front. Petty got his hand to it either just before or after the ball cleared the line, but instead of the time honoured tradition of vigorously slapping your hand in the goal umpire's face to signify that you'd touched it he just calmly accepted his fate and the AFL's ND (no definition) replay footage was nowhere near conclusive enough to overturn it.

Now, more than ever, I suspected we were sunk. After the insanity of last week it was too early to write us off, especially as we were still leading. Soon enough we weren't, with a cynical two-handed shovel out of a pack at the top of the square levelling the score. I could understand multiple umpires missing it if the play was goalside, or facing the boundary, but it happened in the most open part of the ground where you would have to be blind or standing in the wrong place not to see it.

Some would argue that as it directly set up the goal it should be subject to the video review, but as an anti-video replay advocate from way back it would be cynical to get involved just because we got ripped off here. Though I'd have supported it in this case just to annoy the locals. Elsewhere, an out of zone umpire used his X-Ray vision to see Oliver barely failing to connect fist to ball. Soon after the free kick count for the last quarter reached 6-0 and you went "ahh right, I see where this is going".

We were so spooked by bullshit frees that Tim Smith guaranteed himself a run on the end of season blooper reel by failing to realise that the umpiring was in an advanced state of disarray, assuming a teammate had been pinched holding the ball and standing still 30 metres from goal until finally tackled. It was such a ludicrous scenario that even the Eagles player was hesitant to tackle him because it was too good to be true. Then to cap off his night he was knocked loopy in a bullshit tackle that was deemed a free against him but still ended with Lewis Jetta being suspended for a week. How good would it have been for relations between the states if Smith had surrendered and still been given the free?

In a flashback to the original Perth Stadium game, when West Coast hit the lead we resisted the urge to immediately roll over and die. Which is a positive trait, even if we were left with bugger all at the end of the night. Hunt's second (putting him ahead of Melksham in the lamest leading goalkicker race since Dawes won with 20 in 2014) levelled the scores again, but that's where it ended.

Last year we got back in front via Melksham, before Kent sunk the set shot of a lifetime, and Milkshake added an exclamation mark. This time we wobbled around for a few more minutes, wasting inside 50 opportunities left, right and centre, before conceding from what will probably be the second successive Mark of the Year against us. And a fair old grab it was too, with the people who argued about Gawn's jugular being used for leverage having forgotten all the times they roared in delight at Jeremy Howe plunging his knee into the base of an opponent's skull.

What I really objected to were the afters. Not the Eagles players sarcastically mocking Gawn as if he hadn't nearly single-handedly beat them, but that the response from Maximum's teammates peaked with Oscar lightly pulling a player away by the jumper. Given that it was a guaranteed goal anyway I'm disappointed that nobody steamed in and exacted vengeance on behalf of the man who has done so much to keep his side afloat for the last few weeks. In lieu of a dust-up that would have exorcised all the ill-will on the spot, here's to Nathan Vardy accidentally sitting on the premiership medal he blundered into and needing to have it surgically pulled from his chocbox.

The last gasp came when Stretch missed a shot that would have left us with an outside chance of another preposterous victory, before Frost completed one of the most gloriously unhinged nights of football on record with a fiasco even more memorable than Smith giving up down the other end. As the ball took a wacky bounce and slowly wobbled towards the line he grasped at it like Rocky chasing the chicken (ironically, the last time I had cause for this reference was in relation to the same man in the same situation against Adelaide in 2016), only to over-run it and allow former sex romper Jack Darling the simplest tap-in he'll ever get.

There would be no astonishing comeback this time, and even when the umpires tried to make us feel better with a token administrative 50 that shot missed as well, leaving a margin that I would have grasped at like Frost trying to rush a behind before the game but now felt flat as a tack. Obviously I'd have preferred to be closer because that would have meant an outside chance at winning, but as it turned out the gap was just enough that I was able to walk away satisfied with the fight shown instead of cracking the shits. This is not to say I was happy about blowing a lead, it was more acceptance about where we're at. That we even gave ourselves a chance with half the Casey team is commendable. Commendability gets you zero premiership points, but this was the brave but unsustainable tilt at glory I expected from a much better credentialed side in the Prelim.

For my physical and mental well-being it's probably better that we got thrashed that day, or I'd have bled out over unpaid throws and bullshit goals from frees (e.g. Frost being nabbed for the lightest body contact in history) before making the flight home. If that day was like your handbrake suddenly applying at 100km/h, this was like all the fault lights going on at the same and the car gently coming to a complete halt. Either way you're rooted, but this was a little less sudden.

If we're fair, the season has come to a complete stop too. The last two weeks just dragged us back inside 'miracle required' territory, but now it's hard to make a case for a top eight comeback without winning two of the next three at an absolute minimum. Had we won here I'd have gone right over the top and torn open the Bradbury Plan 2019 envelope, but for now it remains sealed.

My latest ladder predictor has us winning the last two to finish 10-12 and miss the eight by a game/8%. Which is hardly an aspiration to get excited about, but considering our start and the 'attach extra pages' injury list it wouldn't be too bad. But if you've been watching Melbourne closely you know we're more likely to launch a blockbuster comeback, go into the last round with our fate in our own hands, then blow a 47 point three quarter time lead against 17th placed North Melbourne while kicking with a 10 goal wind.

On to the next debacle...

2019 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Max Gawn
4 - Jayden Hunt
3 - James Harmes
2 - Clayton Oliver
1 - Marty Hore

Apologies to T. McDonald and Baker's first quarters, Petracca and Frost for the bits where they weren't doing weird things, Garlett for the goals alone, Stretch, Brayshaw and Petty.

The 2016 and 2018 runner up goes back into the outright lead, and as promised after he hit 20 without a challenger emerging (and how can you challenge if you can't get a game?) he becomes our first provisional winner of the year. I'm keen as mustard on Preuss, but based on the history of other ruckmen on our list he'll be lucky to get 23 votes for the rest of his career.

All the movement in the minors revolves around Marty Hore. He's extended his lead on Lockhart in the Hilton to five and clawed a point back from Salem in the Seecamp.

23 - Max Gawn (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
19 - Clayton Oliver
18 - Christian Salem (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year),
15 - James Harmes
14 - Jake Melksham
9 - Angus Brayshaw
7 - Jayden Hunt, Marty Hore (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal)
4 - Bayley Fritsch, Nathan Jones, Billy Stretch, Jack Viney
3 - Christian Petracca
2 - Jay Lockhart
1 - Sam Frost, Michael Hibberd, Corey Wagner

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
A set shot success rate of about 1/10 means plenty of running goals, which usually win the weekly nomination then lose the overall award to a game-winning set shot. In this case I'm going for the 'all hands' first quarter running extravaganza, a finish that the same commentators who usually slaughter us for over handballing (see Carey, Wayne) salivated over. It's almost like sometimes multiple handballs are more useful in setting up a goal than just shutting your eyes and roosting it goalward.

Forget Hunt's hospital handball, or the way Petracca nearly ran into him after he got it back, it was delightful and there should be more of it. I'd also like to pay tribute to a gather Hunt did in the last quarter, which was so effortless that I'm sad we didn't turn him into a forward earlier.

For their contributions, Oscar McSizzle, Brayshaw, Oliver, Harmes and Hunt jointly win the weekly nominations. I've run out of inspirational prizes so they can jointly share a succulent Chinese meal.

West Coast is the closest thing the AFL has to a company registered in the Cayman Islands for the purpose of tax avoidance. As such they consider themselves above crepe paper and insist on spewing players onto the arena through the mouth of an inflatable bird. It's vulgar and an affront to tradition, but they've won a flag and we haven't so who looks stupid now?

With a free hit at win number eight and 3400 kilometres to cart the crepe paper across our side could have been forgiven for phoning it in. Instead, they came with an appropriate contender which featured top shelf kerning, excellent leading, quality centred text, and a rhyme that scanned perfectly. It demonstrated all the love that the ruthlessly corporate opposition have turned their back on. Dees 8-1-0 for the season.

Forget BT suggesting Oliver was 8.0 in goalkicking this year before discovering he hadn't kicked any, or the pauses while he waited for somebody to feed him a player's name, he was nowhere the near the highlight of this presentation. From the same network who two years ago gave us Basil confusing Clayton Oliver with Lou Carpenter from Neighbours, came one of the great Auskicker of the Year interviews. I'm not as down on Hamish McLachlan as I used to be, but this segment brings the game into disrepute more regularly than his brother's administration.

As 'Hame' desperately tried to get a nervous child to fire up with cameras and lights shoved in his face, the kid first revealed that his goldfish named after Richmond players had died and been buried in the backyard (what's wrong with a flush?), then gave out his address on national television. If you're the one person left with a direct Foxtel connection you might avoid the ads on Channel 7 games (including the Samsung 8K one with the most unconvincing fake supporting since John Howard during the 2006 World Cup), but you're also missing jaw-droppingly awkward TV like this.

Next Week
Back to a ground we're not much chop at for a clash with the equally MCG-averse Giants. What could possibly go wrong? Any chance of a late switch to Fortress Shithole? Expect to hear plenty about GWS' putrid record at the ground, with one win early last year, one thumping of us when we kicked 3.16.34 against 19 fit players for the whole second half, and an otherwise lengthy cavalcade of failure. So they'll be coming with a mission, and if we don't drag it out until the last quarter I'll complain on the internet.

I'm assuming Smith will miss due to being buried head first into the turf in what was originally deemed a perfectly legal tackle, which is convenient because it opens the door for Preuss. With respect to Smith's whole-hearted performance last night, I can't understand why Preuss wasn't in to start with so this is his opportunity. I only watched the first quarter of the Casey game and Preuss was on the loose. Casey's score indicated they barely got a touch for the rest, but seeing him running riot in the forward line was enough for me.

Oteher AFL listed players on offer against Port Melbourne on Saturday were Keilty, Jordon, Lever, C. Wagner, Chandler, Bedford, Sparrow and Maynard. Because Preuss was recruited under false pretences, Lever is the only automatic first choice selection of that lot and he'll have to survive more than one game in the twos before we do anything silly. The Weid isn't playing VFL again this week (alleged hip complaint) so he's not an option unless they're involved in long-term, deep cover hoodwinking of the Giants.

So, assuming both ANB and Smith are going to be concussed (but sparing Salem because I can't imagine life without him), that Garlett's goals buy him another game and there's nobody to replace Fritsch after what may have been the worst game of his life I'll reluctantly reunite the Wagnii. Alternatively, you could bring Lewis back for Bayley, but let him rest his foot for another week and back this defence to collectively put in two decent performances in a row.

I'm not taking any notice of their poor record at the 'G, especially because the one against us provoked my only formal conduct warning (unwarranted, it must be noted) from a security guard, but am not completely writing off our chances either. It's unlikely, but then again I thought we were going to be humiliated last night and we went within 30 minutes of a blockbusting upset so [insert shrug emoji here].

IN: Preuss, C. Wagner
OUT: Neal-Bullen, Smith (inj)
LUCKY: Fritsch, Garlett. Petracca

Many happy returns
The official line is that the MFC was formed in September 1858 when a team called 'Melbourne' played South Yarra. It's an unusual hill to die on, but I contend that even though the same people were involved, the club as we know it today didn't begin until 51 MCC members formed the Melbourne Football Club on the afternoon of Saturday 14 May, 1859. This means our 160th birthday was on Tuesday, which is a timely excuse to post this relevant NSFW video.

Love you MFC xoxo

Final thoughts
I know it's over but am trying very hard to take every game in isolation and either enjoy it or crack the sads like it means something. Otherwise it would be very hard to get through the rest of this season, and I'm very keen to make it to Round 23 without dropping my bundle. You're free to do as you please.

There will be no judgement if you want to pull out and focus on the Heidelberg Golf Club Division 3 of the Northern Football League, but there's no way I'm getting roped into the idea of scuttling the season to trying to maximise our draft position. If players need a head-start on surgeries fine, but should we win a few more games and finish 9th by a mile then so be it. Stop hoping to succeed via failure and embrace success in whatever minor form it takes before Round 23. Then at the end of this year, go back to your homes and prepare for flag.

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