Sunday 23 February 2020

What could possibly go wrong from here

Footy was confirmed to be back when I got a headache five minutes before the first bounce of a practice game. Even for a match that meant approximately fuck all, referred footy pressure had my central nervous system under siege. Can't see myself with head in oven if we lost, but there's a natural flaw in my DNA that causes major physical issues before the Dees play. What happens after the first bounce is all the team's fault.

These games are basically meaningless, but since going over the top about the club 15 years ago they've still felt real to me. Before that I didn't give a shit. Might read about it in the paper, might just ignore it entirely, it didn't change anything for the team if I was there or not. Still doesn't, but I'd be stressed if not allowed to watch. My days of going to every Victorian game might be over but I can still be obsessive.

My deeply held interest didn't extend to driving two hours across a torturous route through the suburbs to watch. There is probably no worse place in outer suburban Melbourne to get to Casey Fields from than where I live, so now that we're in a technological glory era of being able to watch everything on TV I declined to participate. May as well get used to watching on TV considering I can't go to an MCG game until Round 6.

There's plenty to be said about watching at home, more to come when they slash time from games and make leaving the house even more pointless. The only issue I had with watching on my in-house Megawall last year was that I didn't see us win one bloody game. To be fair, didn't see too many in person either. Like everything other than suspensions and fines, this game doesn't count for the official record, but I'll have plenty more opportunities to finally go home (from one room to the other) happy over the next few years.

Proof that my life has changed (for the better or worse) is that there wasn't even the slightest regret at not being there in person. I've done Casey to death, and even though the last time I went they seemed to have opened a few more roads so you weren't stuck roasting in your car looking at a pile of earth for half an hour after the final siren any more that's enough for me. Like Kardinia Park, where I am available to go this year but won't unless something remarkable happens between now and then. 

Viewers were immediately reminded that this wasn't a game to be taken seriously by the shot of a bank of portable toilets along the Casey wing. What an appropriate metaphor for the ground, if only we had Dwayne on commentary as well. It was also hard to take Adelaide seriously, given that their side was full of players you'd never heard of and their jumper seemingly had the flag of the German Democratic Republic on it.

I suppose Adelaide fans were likewise confused by Tom Sparrow and backman Jay Lockhart (possibly travelling the same path as Bayley Fritsch before being unleashed forward again?), but on the whole we took in a pretty accomplished lineup. Accomplished by 2018 standards anyway, if everyone played at a 2019 standard we'd have been lucky to beat the Koo-Wee-Rup thirds. Gawn, May, Fritsch and Brayshaw would have come in handy, but it was near enough to our best side that you'd have been as upset as possible for a pre-season game if we didn't put on a good showing.

You will not be surprised to discover that there was a wind at Casey. I'll stand corrected by anyone who was there, but it looked like one of the least offensive breezes ever recorded at the ground. Usually it's a force 10 gale that blows diagonally across the ground and ruins the game for both sides, this time it seemed to be gently wafting towards the goals left of screen, providing a benefit for the team kicking with it but not so much that they needed to be across the Chris Sullivan Line at the last change to be sure of victory.

In the absence of atmospheric conditions to whinge about, the main event was Christian Petracca playing the best pre-season game since Fev kicked 12 on New Year's Eve. I don't know why anyone would bet on these matches, but imagine if you'd found somebody who'd let you double a Melbourne win with the biggest truck related hit since CW McCall's Convoy. You would be, as they say in the classics, farting through silk.

By christ(ian) he was good, you always think of him as a fancy player, but if it was a real game he'd have broken the MFC record for contested possessions. He was in everything inside, outside, kicking goals, and at one point taking a screamer and looking down with pity at his vanquished opponents. Not everything came off but he generated more electricity than Loy Yang B.

We need a larger sample size and to make sure he's not drowned in the pool by our training staff again but watch out if he replicates this form when the real stuff starts. If it pushes Brayshaw out of the midfield then so be it, Gus has had plenty of good games but he's never looked like Godzilla knocking down Tokyo.

Again, fake games don't count, and we can't allow ourselves to get upset if he doesn't replicate this form BUT if you treated all MFC games as equals that was the most impactful midfield performance since god knows when. And we've played worse teams than the side Adelaide put out yesterday. Just our luck that 16 other sides will have twigged what's up and started working on how to stop him.

After moaning about playing Petracca in the midfield for most of last year (where to be fair he wouldn't have had the tank to do this for more than a quarter), another one of my cherished causes came off when Jones clubbed the opening goal on the run from 50 metres. It got us out of a Melbourne AFLW style start where we were good enough to park the ball in our forward line but didn't look like converting. It's criminal that they wasted time trying to play him as a defender last year when all was lost anyway. He can and will kick goals if you leave him forward long enough.

Further benefit came from two of the rudest moustaches since Lynden Dunn, parked at opposite ends of the ground. Mitch Brown, at least, has a touch of the country squire/minor royal about him, while Lever's looks like he should be hard at it in an adult movie (possibly behind an actress called Casey Fields). His look would have been the personal grooming disaster of the day were it not for the Adelaide player who looked like he'd had his tattoos applied with a super-heated paperclip while in the clink. I'm no tatt guru but if you're going to cover entire limbs the secret seems to be large designs, not bitty little pictures and hollow stars.

The facial hair horrors didn't detract from the performance of our bookends, who were amongst the best in the first quarter. Lever was chopping off everything that came near him early (aided by some tremendously, MFCesque kicking into the forward 50), and Brown goalled with his first two kicks. He should have had a third too, making himself feel right at home as a Melbourne player by missing a sitter.

His first was the best, soccering through after a strong second effort when the ball went to ground in a marking contest. He got three in the end, and though he'd hardly Tony Lockett he should come in handy considering we paid nothing for him. Also big laughs at Essendon's expense when Joe Daniher doesn't play and they've got nobody else up front. At this stage I'm promoting him to my Round 1 team (NB: season preview was supposed to be up last week but I ran out of time) in place of Weideman.

This feels harsh on the Weid, who didn't get the chance to play forward because in the absence of Gawn and Preuss he was required in the ruck. Sensibly, we decided not to subject Luke Jackson to the Toumpas treatment and throw him to the wolves before he was ready. Rucking is not Sam's go but he put in a reasonable performance. He certainly put everything into it but you wouldn't want to rely on him every week. Maybe they should swap him and Brown for the Hawthorn game and give us a better idea of what order they're in. Eventually you're going to want to prioritise the younger man, but we've got to get things going ASAP this year so whoever's more likely to kick goals gets the start.

Assuming Jackson isn't going to play from the start of the year, somebody's going to have to cover the 5% of the game when Gawn isn't rucking, but given the (on paper) strength of our midfield I'd be prepared to concede the centre bounce. Where we lose is his get out of jail marks around the ground. The centre bounce is overrated, I've seen James Harmes take one that we turned into a goal, it's not that important. May or Lever does it in defence, McDonald does it forward, and for stoppages in the middle of the ground hold your breath and hope for the best. It's not worth carrying players that don't fit into the rest of the plan in the off chance they might do a fancy Maximum style tap over the head.

Neither of the first game recruits set the world on fire, but they didn't need to. This was all about getting game time into them. Pickett did some good chases that won't be reflected in the stats (not the ones plebs like me see anyway) and was expertly set up for a well-taken goal by Viney, so given our absence of forward pressure last year I'd say he's an almost certain starter in the opening game.

Jackson was just there to gain experience, with no expectation on him at all. He only got a handful of touches but seemed to instinctively know what he was doing when he got it and did one monster JEff White-esque leap at a centre bounce. Sour 80s turncoat Gerard Healy complained that he wasn't getting enough of the ball, as if that mattered. He was purely there to get used to playing in adult company (Jackson that is, not Healy. Although now you say it...) and will - I presume - be given plenty of time to develop before we throw him in the deep end.

For all our early dominance, and Lever flinging himself about in mid-air like a cruise missile to stop multiple Adelaide attacks, we were barely in front and for the first time all year I was tempted to throw something when we allowed them to dink a little kick to a free play 20 metres out for their second goal. Wasn't worth it in pre-season (especially in the first quarter), I didn't even adopt my usual TV watching position of standing up and pacing the room like a maniac. Must conserve energy, we will hopefully be playing for something beyond Queen's Birthday this year.

If you thought the wind was worth worrying about, a two goal quarter time lead didn't seem like much, but it was much better than what it looked like being midway through the quarter. It's not like everyone was firing at full power, but there were enough shown that had they stopped the game there and sent everyone home you'd have come out satisfied.

Of course, the best thing about the opening term (and most of the other three) was Petracca. One thing that has hampered him is often playing one killer quarter and goes missing for the rest of the game, s o when he was on nine touches at quarter time I thought there was no way it was going to last. Wrong, he effectively finished with the same stats in each quarter. There were tackles, there were marks, there were fend-offs, and oh so many disposals. If this happens in a home and away game I'll be...

On a level somewhere between Petracca going bonkers and everything else that happened to me yesterday, one of the highlights was seeing vandenBerg out there again. Certainly didn't expect to see him in the pre-season, much less be in contention for Round 1. He's a natural footballer so he was fine coming straight back into footy after a year off but I remain cautious of his foot holding up for long. After all, he survived one game longer in last year's pre-season and was never seen again so I'll believe it when he's a) alive in Round 4, and b) we're not doing something stupid like playing him forward. All aboard the much delayed vandWagon.

Was also happy with Langdon, who offered everything we promised on the wing, explosive speed and hold your breath kicking. On the whole he offered far more good than bad. Hardly Robbie Flower, but as long as we give the forwards space that doesn't require him to do laser point kicks he can't help but do some damage with that pace. I don't know if Tomlinson was playing on the opposite side considering he seemed to be everywhere but he was ok, didn't do anything spectacular, didn't come off like somebody who'd been psychologically ruined by playing in a disastrous Grand Final.

After struggling to turn our superiority around the ground into goals with the wind (an affliction that gets to both men and women at this club), I didn't much fancy how things were going when the Crows kicked three goals in a row in the second quarter. Deep breathing and reminders to self that it was a practice game were fine, but it still felt like the side we had should have been dealing better with a glorified SANFL team.

I don't know why I was worried, like most pre-season games it was being played with the joy of life that will be forcibly squashed out of players by the time the real stuff starts. Witness them trying to keep the ball in instead of it spilling over the boundary now, when in Round 1 they'll be instructed to let it go out to create a stoppage. Also witness Gold Coast beating Geelong by 70.

You will also do well to note that we scored 101 against Richmond in the heat last pre-season and only got more than that twice for the rest of the year - and even one of those was a loss. Anyone who declares scoring to be back based on one of these games is a knob. Fortunately, if you factor in Gawn, we should be served well by the game going back to a defensive slog that makes Channel 7 executives slash their wrists.

For now I was still stressing out unnecessarily when we not only went into the half nine points down, but nearly conceded again 30 seconds into the third quarter. After sending a Casey side out in Melbourne jumpers to be savaged by Essendon on Friday (and Unless the reserves team is rebranding as Melbourne Demons this year what was the point?), and the women buggered up a golden chance to go 3-0 on Friday night, I started to get pessimistic and wonder when three Melbourne sides all lost on the same weekend was. Not counting the Little League, your answer stats fans, is Round 14, 1991, when the seniors and reserves both went down to Hawthorn, and the Under 19s to Geelong. Keep that in mind in case it comes up at a trivia night.

Not that there was any need to panic anyway, but there was no need to panic because Petracca Mania was about to erupt again. First he took Mark of the (pre) Year, and converted the set shot, but after reverting to type and missing a shot straight after, he was instrumental in a Jones > Langdon effort that retook the lead. From there it was pretty much all Melbourne. The midfield wasn't a one man show, Oliver and Viney were also excellent, and the latter set up one of two third quarter goals for his former co-skipper. All three of his goals were the sort of smart, out of nowhere ones that we lacked so many times last year - especially when Melksham was injured. I'm not the kind of person to say I told you so, but I told you so.

After midfield Truck and forward Chunk, my third long term complaint was proven correct in the second half. After not being able to get near the ball all day, Tom McSizzle had a massive finish to the game when we finally started kicking to his advantage rather than bombing the ball a mile in the air and expecting him to pluck an overhead mark over the heads of multiple defenders - and often his own teammates getting in the way. A couple of times he was at fault for expecting the ball to come over the top to him rather than going towards it, but early on our delivery forward was so bad that you had to rely on miracles rather than beautifully created goals.

Once he was able to run at the ball good times followed. This is why it's important to find a mix of forwards, one who can lead (McSizzle), one who can crumb (Melksham, Pickett?) and one who can pluck marks over a pack (TBD). If Joel Smith is still alive he could also come in handy for pack marks.

My nerves calmed as we kicked the first four goals of the quarter, including two more to Jones that made me shout self-righteous abuse at the screen. Because the Football Gods are pricks, Chunk's third goal was followed by immediately conceding one because he missed a tackle (the rare case of a player personally giving back the goal he'd kicked), then going after clattering his leg into an opponent in the same piece of play.

Given that Sizzle's season was finished last year by an innocuous knee knock I feared the worst, but it actually caught him in the shin and no harm done. We sensibly packed him away instead of tempting fate. Which is more than can be said for Nifty Nev, who hit the ground clutching his ankle and left me wanting to sob. He was soon up and hobbling about, but how many players have hobbled their way off the ground and into the rehab group for a year? Thankfully for us and a State(s) of Origin team he returned intact. Don't know if I'd have bothered, for a competition sponsored by a risk management company it would be ironic if we Joel Smithed him.

It's hard to tell what's real when you genuinely have no idea who 75% of the opposition are but we certainly looked ran out the game like a much fitter side than the shipwreck survivors of last year. No idea if it will hold, but it's an early win for the Darren Burgess program. He's in the fitness guru's golden era, between coming in to an organisation in shambles, talking up what you're doing as revolutionary and two years later when everyone's done a hammy and your professional reputation is being smeared on every corner of the internet.

After a minor comeback late in the quarter, the Crows clearly went "that'll do us" at the final huddle, probably focused on what a prick of a drive they had ahead of them from Cranbourne to the airport, and we played until the siren. Hope they were caught in a two hour traffic jam on the freeway. They got the first goal of the quarter to leave you wondering if there was a classic Melbourne collapse on the cards, before we engaged afterburner and ran away with it.

Everyone in the correct colours went home happy, and we assume neither Jones or Nev had their legs amputated during the night so I'd call it a successful start to the year.

2020 Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Jack Viney
3 - Clayton Oliver
2 - Mitch Brown
1 - Nathan Jones

Major apologies to Tom McDonald. Other apologies to Salem, vandenBerg, Langdon, Sparrow, Lockhart and Weideman

The bootleg Casey side inexplicably playing under the Melbourne name that was thrashed by Essendon on Friday barely have five listed MFC players, so obviously no votes count from that. I'll decide on the eligibility of next Friday's suburban slopfest when the teams come out.

Goal of the Week
Plenty of good, goal out of nowhere options to pick from. With apologies to Brown crumbing his own and the Viney to Pickett combo that nearly had me sliding off my seat, the choice is between two lightning kicks from that man Petracca.

As far as the TV coverage goes, the Crows didn't bother so it's a walkover win for the Dees. Solid early season hitout for the Army.

Next Week
I will give Arden Street a crack for the first and probably last time on Friday as long as we field a half competitive side with more Melbourne players than Casey. Otherwise it's Nev for the Allies if fit and Oliver sitting by the phone ready to tell their selectors to piss off if they try to give him a consolation prize when somebody else pulls out. Should base the side on early practice match form and make Petracca captain of Victoria.

After that it's Friday again for Hawthorn in Tasmania, which would probably take me less time to get to than Casey Fields but will also be enjoyed via the medium of television rebroadcast through the internet.

Final thoughts
You wouldn't link arms and sing the song with a stranger but any win is appreciated after the slurry we served up last year. More of the above please.

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