Sunday 9 February 2020

Back from the dread

After three seasons of dragging AFLW season out until the last round before missing the finals, my confidence of keeping things interesting that long in 2020 was extremely low. Even before a black death style injury crisis cut a swathe through the list and the decidedly handy Bianca Jakobsson quit to become a rozzer I thought the abusive way Adelaide finished us off last year was the metaphorical slamming shut of the premiership window.

It's not that we haven't negotiated the rapid expansion of the competition to get to season four with a core of very good players, it's just that the more teams they jam into the competition the more unlikely it feels that we'll Bradbury our way through and snatch one. In the first couple of years I could have seen us winning one in our own right, now it would feel lucky. I'd still take it. Maybe this is the year for us to qualify - at the very least - for a final. Or this was just a surprise mugging off a good team and things will never get any better. Stay tuned to the next seven weeks (plus?) of our award winning AFLW coverage to find out.

Given the injury problems in our best 22 - Kat Smith gorn for the whole season, Lauren Pearce and Lily Mithen out for three weeks - it felt like a set up playing top of the table fancy North in the opener. The veil of gender non-specific negativity was not lifted by the opening minutes. I'm used to us dominating the opening of women's games and not making it count on the scoreboard, this time North did both.

My concerns were not lifted when we conceded the first goal via the ordinary scenario of an Irishwoman who'd never played a game before picking the ball up just far enough away from goal that she couldn't casually rush it and desperately struggling to drag a tackler over the line from metres out, ending in the inevitable free kick. Goldrick (whose name evokes fond memories of early 90s Crystal Palace winger Eddie McGoldrick) wasn't bad after that, but you can teach people to football all you like, finding yourself in traffic with people coming to grab you from every angle will take a bit more than one pre-season.

We had an opportunity at the response when we finally extracted the ball from North's forward 50 and got forward for the sort of kick to a key position play that the men should do more of. She took a strong chest mark, perfectly defending the drop of the ball and not letting the defender get an arm in, but if you've ever watched our AFLW side play you'll know exactly what happened next. Even without a howling breeze flapping her jumping about like a flag she'd be less than a 50/50 chance from that position, and thanks to the conditions it went *FLOMP* off her boot, didn't travel more than about 20 metres as it held up, starting like it was going out on the full before swinging back towards goal and dropping short for no score.

The most Melbourne-esque part of that miss was it setting the table for the Roos to kick a goal of their own, aided by a 50 that took them to the line and made certain of it. In a low scoring competition where teams play games on ridiculous suburban grounds that have hurricane force winds mysteriously blowing in all directions, every shot you can get from point blank, unmissable under any circumstances, even I could kick it, distance is gold.

When another 50 set up a shot at their third goal later in the term we were in disarray. The kick fell short and didn't cause any issues, but it did ensure we'd end the quarter scoreless. That was one goal in five quarters at Fortress Casey dating back to the Adelaide debacle. I don't think it will affect our long-term relationship with the region to admit that I despise that ground. Shame the proposed southern suburbs A-League didn't get up, they'd have used it over summer while waiting for their real stadium to be built and we could play somewhere better.

Now there's government money in the place (including an awkwardly added fake MFC scarf) so we're never getting out. Spend some of the money building freeway style barriers around the outside to dampen down the conditions a bit. Personally, I'd build a roof on every ground in the country and make it an indoor sport but I'm aware that's out of line with community views.

Having had more than enough of watching sides called Melbourne lose last year, I wasn't looking forward to the rest of this. And as we continued to launch suicidal runs through fierce North tackles in an assault on the Australian rules football record for being caught holding the ball it didn't look like getting any better. We finally got a goal back via a crashing tackle of our own, with Kate Hore pinning Random North Defender in a vice-like grip.

With her ponytail helpfully blowing from side-to-side so you knew there was a prick of a wind about I could have forgiven a miss, especially as Hore had 1.7 last year, but wouldn't you know it she slammed it straight through. Glory be.

That was our second life, but I've never found a Melbourne Football Club game yet that I didn't think we were going to lose. I still expected to concede nine goals to nil in the third term then have the wind swing about and cost us another nine in the last.

Our chances of victory seemingly diminished further when Eden Zanker - the prototype of an AFLW player who would get very good, very quickly until a full-time program - first did a ripping fend-off, then was bumped into oblivion and went off with a shoulder injury. Given that our senior list has already been reduced to such bare bones that we've got VFLW players on standby in case we can't field a team, this was not a good thing.

Next thing you knew Zanker returned from the grave and setting up the goal that put us ahead at half time, in what was probably the first time a serious injury has turned out to be harmless since Max Gawn's knee in the last round of 2014. I don't know if she meant to have a shot, so let's pretend the kick rolled across the face of goal from the pocket that sat up perfectly for Hore to stuff home her second was deliberate and laud her as a genius.

The wind was obviously a factor, despite total confusion in the commentary box about which direction it was going in (answer: north, south, east and west), but it didn't explain North looking as helpless in the second quarter as we did in the first.

It made no sense, North looked just as helpless in that quarter as we did in the first. Not that anyone who's watched the Melbourne men play for all but one year of the last decade can take the moral highground, but the twin tipping points for AFLW will be coast-to-coast ball movement and more than a handful of forwards with cannon legs who can easily kick 40+ metres.

For standard fanatics and men who hold strange obsessions about having things shoved down their throat, there wasn't much to say for the quality. It's arguably no better than the first season, but that's no bloody wonder when they've introduced six new teams in two seasons. Does it really matter? Probably not. Don't be the middle aged male whinging like you're owed spectacle when it's not for you and you're not being forced to watch. If you don't like it switch over to whatever episode of NCIS they're playing this hour on 10 Bold and we'll all be happy.

Wacky multi-directional winds didn't help the spectacle, but they didn't help North, who beat brave but outmatched emergency ruck Harriet Cordner and instantly swept the ball into the forward line, where it didn't leave until they kicked a goal.

Via more excursions into North's attack, all turned back via toil and struggle, we got the ball down our end, with Hore setting up another opportunity for Cunningham. In a carbon copy of her first mark she never gave the defender a chance to spoil. It ended the same way too, but in this case she was a touch unlucky. With the posts wobbling to and fro during her run-up she tried to start the ball left, only for the breeze to give up at that very minute and leave the ball sailing straight as an arrow for a behind.

Then a strong tackle in the pocket by 'I before E except after C' advocate Aliesha Newman set up another opportunity. She was stooged in the opposite fashion, trying to gingerly steer it through only for Cyclone Cranbourne to pick up mid-flight, hooking a once accurate kick violently to the left and registering no score. Those missed opportunities left us chasing a five point deficit in the last quarter. Given that all the scoring had been to the left of the screen the odds were in our favour, but I'm still recovering from not running North down in Hobart in 2017 so was not ready to trust just yet. Also, 30 years of losing to North by less than a goal.

I don't know about their decision to stick a player behind the ball and try to stack the backline right from the start. It's sensible to try and defend into the wind, but trying to hold a lead of under a goal for 15 minutes in a league where you're as likely to kick a scrambling goal from the square as one from a towering mark 40 metres from goal seemed a bit optimistic. It was also incompatible with the same coach telling players two minutes earlier to go out and win the game off their own boot. But - and usually when people say this they're being sarcastic but in this case it's true - what do I know?

What Mr. North coach (and it's a bit weird that all the coaches seem to be Mr) didn't count on was his defenders parting like the Red Sea at the first opportunity and allowing ex-dairy farmer Shelley Scott to mark. In the grandest tradition of the MFCW she kicked it out on the full, but it wasn't a day or venue for long distance assaults on goal. What we needed was a gift goal from a 50, but what we got at last was a clean transition out of defence that ended in a player - Robo Shoulder Zanker - running into an open goal.

The sealer might have come not long after that, when a kick into an open 50 with two forwards running towards it was pulled back for a free in the middle. I suppose you can't pay advantage just because the ball might go in a side's favour but it probably cost us a goal. There were more chances, and the clearly rattled North defenders started to give away free kicks left, right and centre, but the killer blow was absent.

What all the missed shots did was keep the ball at our end with the clock rapidly ticking down. It reached the last minute before North even got to half way again, running into a wall of defenders ably led by ex-Bulldog Libby Burch, who was safe as houses all day.

There was one moment of old fashioned Melbourne vs North style terror when they burst out of defence with 45 seconds left, but we held firm. Also got an assist from an umpire allowing a pack of players to madly scramble for the ball for a good 10 seconds without calling for a bounce, making absolutely sure we'd win. Certainly didn't see that coming, but when you're a Melbourne fan of any variety - even AFLX - you take wins under any circumstance in case it's the last you ever see. As long as we don't do anything stupid like lose to the expansion clubs we should be in the mix at the end of the year.

And now, the only competition in football where a player gets to compete for their own medal...

Daisy Pearce Medal for Player of the Year
5 - Kate Hore
4 - Libby Burch
3 - Karen Paxman
2 - Maddie Gay
1 - Harriet Cordner

Apologies to Downie, Emonson, O'Dea, Pearce, Scott and Zanker.

Goal of the Year
Don't care if it wasn't intended, the soccer-esque cross by Zanker to Hore provided an appealing visual spectacle, and moves onto the second round with the lead.

Media Watch
Donating to charity is a *checks notes* good thing, but Channel 7 are a bit optimistic in thinking people are going to scan a QR code on the screen. What would have looked futuristic 10 years ago is now less QR and more NQR. We're not opening bullshit scanning apps, just spend $19.99 and create a simple and we'll type it into our internet connected device.

Meanwhile, I'm told Dwayne is going to be on the Foxtel coverage at some stage this season. On one hand, dear god no. On the other, a good chance to bring back this classic.

You just know he's going to earnestly over-compensate and treat a game at Hickey Park like the 1989 Grand Final.

The gale force winds of Casey Fields did their finest work, tearing the banners of both sides apart like they'd been peppered with artillery fire. I presume ours featured some clever gag about Daisy's return, but even I'm not corrupt enough to declare a winner based on tattered red and blue streamers looking nicer. DRAW and 0-0 for the season.

Next Week
Beat the Bulldogs away on Friday night and 2020 is most certainly ON. After that come the very beatable St Kilda, Collingwood and West Coast so this win has put us in a tremendous position, even if we lose next week not all is lost. I'm writing this before the Dogs play the ultimate frisbee Cat Phillips powered Saints tomorrow, but am assuming they'll comfortably thrash them and we won't learn anything about next week. It's winnable, but if you held me out of an upstairs window by my ankles I'd still admit that I think the Dogs will win.

Final Thoughts
It was far from convincing but given that it was a) played with Lauren Pearce or Lily Mithen, and b) took place in conditions not conducive to football of any variety I'll gladly take it. Doesn't give me any confidence in winning the flag but it's a start.

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