Saturday 7 March 2020

A night on the isles

Pre-season is over, and unless you're an Essendon fan who wants to believe that beating Casey players in Melbourne jumpers is relevant it's been flawless. The natural reaction is to denounce the three wins as meaningless and advise you to force the lid down with all your might, but while I'm not convinced it translates to anything better than fifth, I think I'm going to like how we play this year. Which will make a change from wanting to put my head in the oven at the end of last season. Until about Round 8 when everyone's injured, panic has set in and we're playing Aaron Nietschke at centre half-back on crutches, then it'll be on the phone to Technika asking if there's a SuperGas setting.

For now, enter the new season with hope in your dark, damaged hearts. I fantasise about reversing the Round 1, 2019 debacle and using our superior fitness to run over the top of the Eagles in the last quarter but am willing to retain my bundle if that doesn't happen. If it does the lid is going to join the space program. Hold for everyone to simultaneously drop dead in Round 18, but for now the ruthless off-season fitness program looks like a tremendous winner. For the third game in a row we ran an opposition into the ground and waltzed to a comfortable victory.

If everyone stays reasonably fit my light on evidence analysis is that we're a 60 goal a year full forward away from being very good. That could be Tom McSizzle if a) he can find space instead of trying to mark from three deep in packs all the time, and b) we kick it to him in space. Otherwise we're going to need goals out the yin yang from Forward Fritsch, Milkshake, and hopefully Jones so I can continually refer to my tirades from last year about them playing him anywhere but in attack.

Other than the suspicion that we'll need a dozen inside 50s per goal again this year, the only downside to last night was the vandWagon slowly pulling to the side of the freeway with smoke coming from under the bonnet. In footy terms, somebody going off with a 'sore foot' after years of foot trouble is a bigger red flag than a top draft pick delaying his new contract when an expansion side is sniffing around. "It's a precaution!" they said, "piss off, it will end up amputated" we replied. At the time of writing there's no official verdict on whether he'll walk again.

As Tasmanians showed their decreasing interest in watching relocated Victorian sides by watching in their hundreds, perfect conditions ruined the last chance for my Lousy Marsh Weather headline I've sat on for months. Like JLT before them, Marsh has paid out the wazoo to sponsor sports and still nobody's entirely sure what they do. I thought they made BBQs, but Google suggests they're into insurance and are making more than enough money to support these futile gestures. I still don't like it. What happened to the pre-season being sponsored by products for the common man like televisions, booze, airlines on their last roll of the dice and home loans. It all started going downhill when banks get involved.

Anyway, we won at footy, and that's all that matters, whoever's name is on the marquee. It didn't come easily mind you, we looked like a sick hybrid of MFC 2018/2019 where we had almost all our good players involved, won plenty of the ball and defended well enough but had limited idea how to convert all that into goals - the dollars of Australian rules football. Behinds are cents and inside 50s are good intentions that mean CHUFF ALL if they don't end in a score.

Rather than a Casey Fields style ordeal, the worst the conditions offered was a fair wind that made kicking for goal tricky. We didn't need typhoon strength gales to squeeze the spectacle out of this contest, combining to ruin the hopes of commentators and neutrals that attacking footy was back by putting on the same sort of low-scoring slog that will end with Channel 7 trading the TV rights to 10 Peach. Can't have a hands-off, 400 rotation scoring extravaganza with the crowd doing the Mexican Wave every week. Mainly because there was no crowd, people were so spread out that they wouldn't have known when it was their time to throw dignity out the window, lift the arms and go "wahhhhhhhhhhhey" in a public place.

There wasn't much to complain about, but we still made hard work of winning. At one point Garry Lyon audibly lost the will to live, not because he was putting a Dwayne Russell level of stock into a pre-season game, but because you could tell he realised that this was what's going to be on offer across the league for the rest of the year. The upside to the next broadcast deal being worth stuff all and all the players going back to being semi-professionals is that there'll be no time to waste carting pre-season games all over the country. Back to playing at Kyabram, Seymour, Shepparton and the grounds of a school. There's two teams in the other states (bad luck Tassie), they can play a best of three series against each other in Mandurah, Elizabeth, Penrith and Toowoomba and leave us out of it.

No, it was not a pretty exhibition, but by the end it was effective. Not without a few nervous moments though, by midway through the third quarter I was down to gambling on our newfound Herculean fitness to carry the day. Indeed it did, and pre-season or not it was much to my enjoyment.

I didn't invest much emotion in winning, but losing still gets to me no matter the circumstances. At least the players were taking it seriously, I was nearly off the couch in celebration with Jones starting grappling with Turncoat Tom in the first quarter. Last year was his first without being fined since 2011, and coincidentally his worst season since. Sure, he's got a retirement nest egg to look after, but if he's going to invest a bit in trying to fire his teammates up this year what better target to start with? Later Melksham tried to clean our very good friend up with a shirtfront but only managed to clonk heads and come off worse. Can't win them all.

It was nice to see most of our defence together. With Salem missing I'm sad they didn't give Trent Rivers another go after his star turn in the North game. When a first year player kicks like that get him in senior company ASAP. Given that we know Salem's got to come back anyway (unless there's something sinister going on...) it wouldn't have detracted too much from the Round 1 side to let the new Riv have a go against AFL players. Any way you slice it I'm eager for more Rivers - not eager enough to all the way to Casey and watch mind you.

Thank god for May getting through a full game without injuring himself or hitting somebody. He suffered from Tom McDonald Syndrome, doing plenty right but only being remembered for the howling turnovers. It's dangerous to say he'll be (as the kids say) a weapon because he might take it the wrong way and destroy somebody, but confident that he will (like so many others before him) be better for the run come Round 1.

Next to him, it was hard to accurately judge given the opposition, but Lever looked very good at doing what we bought him to do. The moustache is an outrage, but at this stage I'm willing to accept players who are climbing the scale from Neck Tatts = Shit Bloke to Face Tatts = Shitter Bloke and beyond if that's what it takes to get some success. Likewise, you wouldn't get overly excited about playing two sides with very ordinary forward lines but Oscar McDonald has had back to back his best games in years. This is a good thing, I almost had him in the votes for the second week in a row. Didn't get many touches but was far more attacking with his disposals than in his limited, nervy appearances last year where he always looked like he was waiting for a hook to appear and drag him off.

Other than the vandenBerg foot fiasco and a twisted ankle to Weideman, everyone survived but let me tell you I was wincing every time a player changed direction. Especially Gawn, who interrupted pre-season or not, instantly showed his immense value with a range of fancy over the head taps and contested marks that got us out of jail. Weideman was in no way disgraced, but the difference between superstar ruckman and tall bloke having a go is stark. There was also a moment when Viney did a u-turn and I actually did a sharp intake of breath. It's not he's ever done the knee before but it was the perfect motion for somebody to end up on the turf clutching at a burst ACL.

Having Maximum in the middle didn't do us much good in the opening seconds, we went within a a leaping Oscar of conceding a goal immediately. You'd get even less worked up about a goal in a pre-season game than the game itself, but I didn't think much of being opened like a tin can that quickly. Parity was restored for the rest of the night, with a midfield starting the season in such good shape that Harmes has been relegated to the half back flank. Doesn't mean he won't do well there but his second half of 2018 was a great ride and I'd like to recreate it. Wasn't the deciding factor to us winning but note we took off big time when they freed him from defence late in the third quarter.

If anything's going to neck us this year, other than injuries, loss of confidence, and the unbearable lightness of being Melbourne, it will be missing solid goalscoring opportunities. First Fritsch, then Melksham botched what should have been easy shots. Recovering to kick nine goals between them was good enough for me. At the fourth attempt Milkshake put one through and eased what minimal tension there was.

Other than accurate goalkicking, most signs point to yes at the moment. And when discussing Melbourne doing well, always be sure to add "at the moment". Viney was extracting everything, and Petracca continued to plow in and out of packs with no interest as to who was near him. He couldn't live up to the Adelaide game but was still a super important player. That full-throttle acceleration through packs will create a metric shitload of opportunities for our forwards this year.

While I still suspect we're a 5th to 8th team, I also feel that there could be a few Spirit of 2018 style massacres against lowly sides. Alas, I don't think there's going to be many truly dreadful units in the competition this year but we'll get somebody on an off day and kick the suitcase out of them. It's just about not losing to the 16th placed team at home a fortnight later and occasionally beating the good sides.

There was minor controversy in Demonblog Towers when Junior came in to watch just as Melksham kicked the first, and when I said "go Dees" she said. "No, go Tigers, I like the Tigers!" which I thought was a bit unnecessary. When asked why she liked them the response was "because they won a championship." Now, let your kids do whatever they bloody want when it comes to sports but who's been brainwashing her to become a glory hunting bandwagon jumper? I didn't even know she understand the concept of a 'championship'. The karmic payback for being unloyal/disloyal was swift, midway through the last quarter she developed the screaming voms and has been at it ever since. I have all the parental sympathy in the world but an important lesson has been learned about messing with the football gods.

When the first quarter ended at one goal apiece you could hear the red pen going through both club's names at AFL HQ, but I was satisfied with the performance. I absolutely loved Tomlinson, not just because he has a head like Ivan Drago, but because he demonstrated exactly why they recruited him. Sucked in by signing Langdon (who has greatly improved his stock by letting the hair flow free), I thought what's the point of a wingman if he doesn't run at lightning speed (refer season preview post). What an idiot - let's see if he does it in the real stuff, but I underrated the benefit of a man built like the Berlin Wall who has the endurance to go all day. He was excellent and I'm very much looking forward to the next instalment.

All my late stage Nathan Jones dreams came true early in the second term when he hit Melksham with the most bullet of passes. To be fair he didn't have that many possessions, but this was up there with the best kicks of the night. Like most things we do it was great in isolation, we just need to do more of it.

On that note, in an era where teams (usually us) struggle to break through opposition defences and get a decent shot on goal, this was good shit.
Good thing he kicked it too, there's nothing worse than an A+ setup like that being wasted at the finale hurdle. Credit to May's kick to start it, but what about the run and safe-as-houses mark by Gawn? 20 years ago the Hawthorn player would probably have tried to knock him out, even in a pre-season game, but in this kindler, gentler world we now live in, Maximum was allowed to turn and put it in the vicinity of Langdon to create the goal.

With the advantage of what little wind there was, we should have carried on from there but instead shut up shop in front of goal until late in the quarter. The around the ground play was still fine, it was just lacking what Goodwin called 'connection' at every opportunity last year'. Hawthorn got the next when Lockhart failed to convince an umpire that he'd marked an obvious half volley, and was either pinged for holding the ball or for yelling that the ump was a filthy kent.

Lockhart certainly needs more seasoning in defence before he can be considered for the seniors, he moved well in the open but was pinched holding the ball three times trying to take players on unsuccessfully. A man's got to know his limitations.

After clearly being the better team it would have been offensive to go into half time behind, enter Jack Viney, to whomp through a goal from 40 metres. Could have pass to McSizzle on his own in the square but no complaints when they kick it. One lovely goal doesn't prove anything, but imagine being the person who thought he was going to sook up at not being captain anymore? I would be honoured to be vice captain in a two man leadership setup, it's a bit more personal than being one of nine in a wankfest leadership group.

For mine this is the greatest thing Goodwin has ever done, even if it was probably driven by him only getting two names in the leadership voting. Refer my whinging from 2013 when a quarter of our list was in the group and we were still a rudderless, drifting wreck. We haven't done anything truly innovative since recruiting players from Ireland, this deserves to work just so all the other clubs realise you don't need to give players titles to have them lead. Either that or Max will retire to the Hare Krishna by Queen's Birthday because he's had enough.

After Fritsch got an early goal, the next 25 minutes of the third quarter were light panic stations. We looked to have gone to bed, and while Hawthorn weren't playing particularly well they eventually got in front despite themselves. Then after blundering back into the game they had the sort of DemonTime lapse that would make you rip an MCG seat out and hurl it towards the playing arena if we did it. First two defenders crashed into each other and let Bayley kick another one, then they bled another goal straight out of the middle.

The best bit about running away with the win was that Gawn sat out the whole second half. They sent Jackson on, and I was super impressed by the way he played. Not so much what he did, but how he adapted to being slaughtered in the first few ruck contests and changed his tactics, so that as the game went on he started to break even with an experienced ruckman who had a size and weight advantage. It showed good game smarts, and as long as you're not expecting him to turn into Jeff White by July then I think we're onto a winner here.

Bedford also got a run in the second half and impressed. With Pickett left out, this was almost a good enough trial for me to promote him past Tobes in the Round 1 pecking order. He had dash, he fired off some good disposals, and he generally looked like he wasn't too far away. He can't be, or they wouldn't have picked him for this game. This was a near best 22 + five or six on the fringe. He might not get there for the opening game but will play at some stage this year.

Who knows, or indeed cares, how many players the Hawks left out, but they appeared to have the depth of a fish pond. Unless there's a rich seam of star players hidden beneath the surface you wouldn't want to have a run of injuries or it could all go a bit Melbourne 2019. There would be scant sympathy, they've had their fun. Also, if we go belly up and need a coach maybe theirs will relish the chance of starting again?

I reckon they packed it up Melbourne '09 style in the last term. Fritsch outmarked an opponent who looked to have no idea what he was doing in the backline for the first goal and we were as good as home, then Bedford added another five minutes later to make sure of it. Who knows how hard the Hawks were trying, but it looked to me like we again had an extra gear that carried us through to the final siren. Milkshake and Fritsch added another, and like Adelaide all over again what looked like a competitive match midway through the third quarter became an easy win.

Fitness isn't going to win every game, don't we know there are some times when you're all over the other side in the last quarter but just can't score, but think back to the Port Adelaide disaster at the start of last year. Viney and Jones were out there on the back of one half-intensity Casey practice match, we went to pieces at the end, failed to score in the last quarter and the season instantly looked wobbly. And we all know how well things went from there.

Whether the result is different this year is yet to be determined (and may kill me if it's not) but I'm supremely confident that if nothing else we've got the preparation right. Now, let's go and win some games that matter.

Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance
5 - Bayley Fritsch
4 - Adam Tomlinson
3 - Jack Viney
2 - James Harmes
1 - Jake Lever

Apologies to Petracca, Oliver, Melksham and O. McDonald.

Final Leaderboard
Bit unfortunate for Truck that he played the greatest practice match of the millennium and still finished third, but that's all part of the rough and tumble of the most eclectic leaderboard in the AFL. Congratulations to Bayley for adding this to his 2018 Hilton, why not go for broke and sweep them both out of the way to hang your Coleman Medal?

10 - Bayley Fritsch
7 - Jack Viney
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Trent Rivers, Adam Tomlinson
3 - Angus Brayshaw, Clayton Oliver
2 - Mitch Brown, James Harmes, Jake Melksham
1 - Nathan Jones, Jake Lever, Oscar McDonald

I'd let 'Huddo' host my funeral, but you don't get to refer to a player by their initials just because they've got an unfamiliar foreign name. It's not the sort of thing you'd start a petition about but enough with commentators using cutesy nicknames. Changkuoth Jiath himself is into the CJ thing, callers don't need to follow. Also, he is right that the Simpsons do need to be on Netflix. Disney Plus can go piss up a rope.

My view is no matter where the person is from surnames should only be buggered around with for comedy value. Personally I'd have snuck in a 12th Man Reference and called him Jiath Crackers.

I was watching on delay so skipped all the pre-game and breaks. Given that the Hawthorn Cheersquad Twitter account hasn't posted since February 22 I'll assume they didn't have turn up. They did, however, provide the poles for ours, which is the nicest thing Hawthorn has done for us since 1996. Our was a solid pre-season effort that looked wider than usual. Also, we assume the Bernie referred to was neither Vince nor Sanders.
Update: With all the deserved respect to their second home, and the fact that taxpayer money is bleeding out of every orifice to keep them playing there, the Hawks didn't bother to participate. And the Bernie is affiliated to the Demon Army..

Next Time
A week off before the dead-set madness begins - 22 weekends out of the following 23 where you're prepared to walk over hot coals like Nigel Smart for premiership points, hopefully ending in an extension to our year of somewhere between two and four weeks. West Coast in a Perth is a $cully of a draw, but embrace the challenge.

Final thoughts
Until Sunday 22 March at 18:20 AEDST, I leave you with this easy decision. Unless you're 80-years-old or have a crocked immune system join me on the cruise ship of destiny and set sail for September.

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