Sunday 15 March 2020

The Sound of Silence

For years I've been doing gags about empty stadium matches, and what do you know one bloke eats the wrong bat and six months later here we are - games played without crowds for as long as it takes for one player to start singing God Help Me, I Had Covid 19, the season is shut down and multiple AFL clubs find themselves in deep financial shit.

What an unusual scenario. I understand why it's happening, and why we need to put the brakes on an illness that's going to cut a swathe through vulnerable parts of community, but I've got genuine concerns that pretty much every sporting team I go for is going to come out of this gasping for dollars. And without being totally awful that is to me only slightly less concerning than a death in the family.

It would give me some relief if club or competition could explain how we're going to cover up to $6.2 million in lost gate receipts (and that's based on last year when we had a shit draw and were playing like arseholes), plenty of money in corporate hospitality, $700k in merchandise, and god knows how many people stopping payment on their monthly memberships or just flat out demanding a refund. The AFL is probably secretly thrilled, they'll never get a better opportunity to neck a couple of Victorian clubs and blame it on somebody else. Ross Oakley is sitting at home wondering where this was in 1989.

Anyway, for now there's a club and there's games so let's enjoy it while we can. Not a lot of happy memories to look back on if it all goes tits up. At least while the world is crumbling we can still play games for cash in Alice Springs. And given that barely anyone turns up in the Territory anyway - even for men's games - we probably didn't lose too many off the gate. As long as the NT's money keeps flowing, and it's not like governments will have other things to spend money on in the near future, that will help keep us afloat for a while.

Technically Traeger Park wasn't 'empty', apparently 80 family and friends were allowed in because they'd 'pre-booked'. I'm sure this won't be responsible for the end of civilisation but it's nice to know the rules are so flexible. Good news to the people who spent money to travel, I doubt the people who have wasted hundreds of dollars on flights to Perth for next Sunday will get the same courtesy.

Crowd or no crowd, a win would have nearly sealed our spot in the finals. At this rate who knows if the finals are even going to be played (which would still rank below Round 23, 2017 for farcical Melbourne finals misses) but I was keen on putting the Blues away and locking down our spot in the top three as soon as possible.

Given that there's less AFLW games to play they could easily shut the season down for a few weeks and come back for a delayed finals series later in the year. I started to think that the alternative would be winning a flag in front of empty stands, joining AFLX as the most disappointing Melbourne premiership triumph of all time. Fortunately the second half cured me of any notion that this team could possibly challenge for the flag.

It was another round - like most of them - where we advanced like the Allies invading Normandy with the firepower of a Congolese canoe. Can't play West Coast every week. Our scoring has otherwise been dreadful, leaving us relying on the backline to keep the other side to a manageable total, which is a terrifically high risk strategy. Sometimes it works (Bulldogs), sometimes it works and we still don't kick a big enough score (St Kilda), and then there was this. The world might have changed in the last few weeks but the Melbourne AFLW attitude to attack (at least against competent teams) has not.

We were nearly left cursing that mouthy Collingwood defender who assured us that Tayla Harris was "useless" at ground level, when Harris gathered the ball at ground level, stood up in a tackle, and had there been a teammate anywhere goalside would have had all the time in the world to handball to them for the simplest tap-in. Looked pretty solid on the ground to me, and there were plenty more opportunities for her to prove the doubters wrong.

Fortunately this time nobody was there, allowing us to get back to kicking a lengthy stream of points. When we weren't putting through points we were losing players in tackles, with Newman being throw to the ground in a suplex that Kurt Angle would have been proud of. Presumably the helmet softened some of the blow but she still went off rooted (technical term).

It took a bit of magic to finally get going, because god knows doing it the conventional way wasn't having much an effect. Hore had a bounce, shrugged off a half-hearted tackle, had another bounce, did the team thing by trying to set up McEvoy, and after getting what could politely be described as an Irish handball back snapped it through from deep in the pocket. It was ace. Conceding the reply 20 seconds later was not. That's bad enough in a competition where teams are scoring 80 a game, in a land of few goals it's just careless - leaving the play as the equivalent of when Jeremy Howe used to stand on somebody's head then kick it straight to the opposition.

Still, that wasted goal aside things still looked good. At last my prayers of finding a player who could kick set shots from 40 metres out was answered in the form of replacement player of the year Tex Perkins, who lobbed one through post high. Where have you been all my season? If we have to fake an injury to keep her for the rest of the year it must happen (don't fake an illness, the whole club will be shut down). Mind you, the rate our players get hurt it won't be required. More on that later.

An eight point lead was probably a fair indication of the game, if not the actual scoring chances. Mind you, anyone expecting ruthless scoring efficiency by us at this stage of the competition is being excessively optimistic.

The eagerly expected Tayla Harris groundball experience finally got us for their second goal. You could argue she pushed Harriet Cordner in the mark in the marking contest, but when it hit the ground she put in a massive second effort, and with her teammates having learnt their lesson and queuing up for scraps they got the goal.

I think the umpires might have been suffering from an NQR flu, not only did they miss the big old shove from Harris, but then one of the Carlton players tried to kick the ball off the ground in the back pocket, swung her foot so wildly that she only toe poked it, and when it went out of bounds he called for a throw in. There was unseemly chat on the commentary about whether we thought it went out on the full or were appealing for deliberate. Doesn't matter either way, you kick it, it goes out of bounds, you get a free. Not in the Northern Territory apparently.

Shortly after I used the precious breath that I've still got abusing the umpire (update: incorrectly as it turns out, I'm told there's no last touch inside the forward 50s in AFLW this year. I apologise to everyone involved. Now to get rid of it in the middle of the ground and we're good to go) the all-important reply goal came from a free. Cow milking type operator Shelley Scott lobbed through the set shot to restore the eight point lead, and via one last Carlton inside 50 that made me say "here we go again" for the sixth consecutive week, we shepherded the lead through to the break.

Having seen her 'best goal ever' record stolen, the returning Newman (maybe the helmet did work) tried to get it back via a three bounce speed extravaganza that took her from outside 50 to the forward pocket. She's not Kate Hore (but who is?) and missed, her sixth point of the year without a major. It's one thing being quick, but as Usain Bolt demonstrated during his brief all-speed, no other idea stint as a soccer player that's not enough on its own.

You can't assign blame based on Sliding Doors moments, but had that gone through Sarah Lampard probably wouldn't have done her ACL in a collision at the other end. This competition has so many serious injuries that you may as well start selling sponsorships whenever somebody's knee gives way. That's the fifth for us this year, one of the great (by which we mean large or immense) runs in the history of the game. It's like having an entire list consisting of David Schwarz and Luke Molan.

Lampard's knee and our lust for life departed at roughly the same time. Soon Harris kicked a goal in the way you'd have expected her to, via a mark and goal, which was fair reward for Carlton's dominance. Everything we had done well in the first half was out the window and the Blues had the ball locked in their forward line. It wasn't long after that they went ahead via - wouldn't you know it - a lightning Harris handball off the deck. I've got no trouble with being walloped by a good player but RIP to the punditry career of a certain Collingwood player, who has made the worst prediction since they said there was no need for a computer in the home.

The lead should have been shortlived, if not for Cunningham bringing the ball to ground after a marking contest (good), then possibly thinking she had less time than she did and toe-poking the ball across the face of goal (bad) for a point. That at least kept the ball in our forward line, and via a multi-player move where nobody was able to get clear enough for a shot, Hore was nigh on decapitated by a high tackle. Still feeling the ill-effects of the clothesline she missed the lot, and it was beginning to look a lot like Melbourne.

That was all part of a couple of minutes of none-more-Demon attacking, capped off by Elise O'Dea having a flying shot from 40 metres out on an obscure angle that bounced practically on the line and back into play. Jesus H Christ. She got another go from a set shot after the siren but didn't make the distance, probably dejected from being rorted out of the first one. If nothing else, and other than one point there was nothing else, it was a decent recovery from the few minutes when Carlton looked like thrashing us.

A thrashing was duly avoided, but we never even got a look at winning it. After a few minutes of back-and-forth in the last quarter the Blues put us away with the opening goal. Shelley Scott marked a ball that had an unsanitary amount of hands touching it but missed, leaving us still needing two goals in five minutes.

This was the sort of bullshit attacking performance that you had to fear when we were racking up a massive score against totally overmatched opposition a week earlier. Even Tex got into the MFCW spirit by taking a mark well within her range, playing on to kick on the run for unknown reasons and missing. Then O'Dea self reported for a kick that hadn't gone far enough that the umpire was going to pay anyway and you started to wonder if there was any way left to avoid kicking a goal. All it missed was one going through and being called back for a free off the bal found to miss a goal.

One of our earlier misses came back to haunt us, when from almost the exact same spot that Cunningham botched her attempt at soccering a goal, a Carlton player did it properly. Game over. Season now hanging by a thread pending a trip to Perth (TBC) to play the top - and as of the time of writing only unbeaten - team in the comp.

It was a very ordinary performance, not quite Kellogs FC recruit Mo Hope slaughtering us for Collingwood at the same venue two years ago but close. Daisy was nearly anonymous, O'Dea and Cunningham have dropped off massively from last year and we are desperately lacking forward options. Cunningham and Newman have kicked two goals between them this season, it's not good enough.

Sure, a player down on the bench in warm weather they were all knackered by the end but we've seen this performance on home soil before. You know we could have done the same thing at Casey. I was briefly fooled into thinking that we were a chance but am reverting to my post-2019 view that this is a side that is good enough to compete but nowhere near good enough to win a flag. Injuries are a contributing factor, not an excuse.

So, off we go to the last round again (presumably) with the opportunity to miss out on the finals by the narrowest of margins again. Where else would you rather follow?

2020 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Karen Paxman
4 - Kate Hore
3 - Libby Birch
2 - Casey Sherriff
1 - Eden Zanker

15 - Libby Birch
13 - Kate Hore
6 - Elise O'Dea, Shelley Scott
5 - Maddie Gay, Daisy Pearce, Eden Zanker
3 - Tyla Hanks
2 - Casey Sherriff
1 - Harriet Cordner, Sinead Goldrick

Feature cancelled until further notice.

Next Week
Currently scheduled to be against Fremantle at 4.10 next Sunday in Perth. If that happens it will a) be a perfect lead in to the men disappointing us, and b) tremendously important for our season. If we lose and Collingwood beat St Kilda in the next game they'll be a game ahead of us going into the last round. Imagine that, a Melbourne AFLW season going right down to the wire before we missing out. Extra degree of insult on offer from the conference system, where we'll probably be in another situation where the sides on the other half of the draw make it with less wins than us.

Final Thoughts
I've changed my mind on whether we're good or not so many times this season, but the last two weeks have demonstrated beyond doubt that we might be good enough to beat mid-table and lower teams not called St Kilda but are sadly lacking against quality. I don't expect this competition to get to the finals but if they do I now have serious doubts that we'll be in them. Some things never change.

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