Sunday, 14 February 2021

Home Alone

Shutting fans out midway through the season is fast becoming one of the great AFLW traditions. For the second year in a row, fans have been locked out mid-year due to pandemic related nerves. Let's have another go at getting the full competition in without a break in 2022 shall we? By then the Coronavirus vaccine will apparently have us all so full of 5G that you won't even have to watch the games on TV, they'll be beamed directly into your head.

In one way, things are looking up. Last year the first game behind closed doors (half-arsed as it was, still allowing friends and family in) ended in defeat. 12 months later we're recovering from a wonky start to rumble the league's glamous side, offering some outside hope that perhaps, just maybe, if we're lucky, Jupiter aligns with Mars, and interstate teams are allowed to play against Victorians sometime before April that a team called Melbourne may actually be premiership contenders.

It was a night for reuniting with old friends. This is certainly not a reference to Casey Fields, which may as well be in Zanzibar for the good it does me, but to the return of Darren Crocker as opposition coach. Just when I thought that this post had cured me of referencing everything back to the Bailey years. In these circles, he's best known for being the opposition on that day when we were operating the most powerful tank since World War II, did weird things at the selection table, weirder things on the day, lost by 10 goals, and people still went home happy.

Over a decade later, via two further stints as caretaker for the North men, the league's most famous 'break in case of emergency' coach is back to have a crack at the women's game. This time he wasn't assured victory just by turning up. For all the efforts of the league to extract the grassroots enthusiasm from the competition so it's as tediously businesslike as the male equivalent, gratuitous chucking of games for the purposes of getting better draft picks still hasn't come to this league.

And for us, why should it? For we have never been a bad side. Given how many sides they've rushed into the competition in such a short time you'd be hard-pressed not to remain at least a mid-table mediocrity in this competition. But I thought if we were going to take a step back in any year it would be this one, having dumped so many senior players in the off-season. Instead - and god knows what's going to happen from here - we're going to end the weekend somewhere between the only and one of five undefeated sides. One of these options would be a touch more impressive than the other.

After beating two fair to complete bollocks teams in the opening rounds, this was our first real test. The tone was set early when the two midfielders ripped into each other at the opening bounce. At first, it looked like the Roos were going to have our measure, they just looked more likely to eb able to move the ball around in a fashion that would lead to scores.

We did have one marvelously constructed opportunity to score in the opening minutes, with an express end-to-end transition that started with Goldrick in defence, then went through Paxman, Cunningham and Hore. It was comforting to find that much space against good opposition, suggesting that some of the solid gold ball movement from the last couple of weeks wasn't just down to playing a pair of sides that currently hold percentages in the range of 32-33.

Goldrick's role in this setup was the first of a few fantastic runs out of defence. The only way to describe her play was 'marauding'. For somebody who has played about 15 games of the sport in her life she is a fantastic reader of the play. 

The result was that Hore was marginally too far out and her shot was touched through, but you couldn't fault the quality of the setup. On the other hand, you could most certainly the question the NQR kick that cost us the first goal at the other end. Karen Paxman's status as the greatest player ever to wear our women's jumper practically puts her above criticism, but for once her solid as a rock delivery went astray, and a disastrous kick across goal led to North's first. She then botched returning the ball after a free, gifting North another. Well, even Muhammad Ali got knocked out a few times... 

Things were not looking good. Even if the league is full of them, you can't play the shit teams every week. Our willingness to crack in and have a crack (copyright - S. Blease) showed that we could match North most of the way, but all signs were pointing towards a demonstration that we weren't in the top echelon of teams yet. And maybe we're still not, but this was the first real sign of 2021 that the 'good' sides should be worried about us.

We had plenty of inside 50s in the early going, but were always left just outside kicking range. Casey Sherriff got the best value for her kick, running in like she had no confidence of carrying the ball 40 metres, then nearly managing it. Indirectly, this led to our first goal. 

One North player's blatant attempts to scoop the loose ball through for a point fell short, before another shit herself trying to clear the ball, shanking out on the full in the pocket. From the obscure angle, Hore hit the ball on the wrong side, causing it to float away from goal, where it dropped like a rock right into the waiting arms of Jackie Perry. Her conversion reduced the margin to a both understandably close and inexplicably close three points. We narrowly avoided giving it straight back out of the middle in Ms. Demontime, getting to quarter time four points behind.

There was still nothing on offer to suggest we were going to win, but that late goal was enough to keep things interesting. Then, just as I was hoping to get to play out the last three quarters with our dignity intact, we turned into the Harlem Lady Globetrotters. It started with another superb chain, this time via handballs, ending with Hore expertly stepping around an opponent to put us ahead. She is very good. So is Goldrick, who started another move that ended in the ball being speared onto Cunningham's chest for another.

Next thing you know Shelley Scott is lobbing one through from distance and angle, we were the best part of three goals in front and the game was being played entirely on our terms. It's not so much that North had packed it in, they just had no answers to us running rampant. It helped that we were converting at a (for us) a ludicrous rate, three goals from three inside 50s.

Just as you thought it was safe to think the best of a team called Melbourne, the Scott goal was returned a few seconds later. The defence battled hard all night, but this time they couldn't have made it easier, leaving a North forward on her own in front of goal for a simple finish.

We were, perhaps, lucky to get the reply. After Parry was perfectly legally tackled right in front of goal there was the lightest hint of squash on her back right at the end, leading to another goal. I don't want to see players give away frees for that level of incidental contact, but unfortunately the AFL do so that's the rule. This week anyway, the AFL comes up with interpretations more often than Victoria has lockdowns.

The good times kept rolling, with Parry adding another at the end for her third (equalling Mifsud, Cunningham and Newman for the most in a Melbourne AFLW game), and the team's sixth of the quarter. It was the second highest scoring quarter we've ever played, and considering how North looked to have us under control in the first term was a fantastic advertisement for our side. 

Now the Roos must have been lamenting not being able to play shit teams every week. Having conceded two goals in total in their last two games they were all at sea here. It might have been our second best scoring quarter, but considering the competition was easily the best 15 minutes we've ever played. No good side has ever been carved up like that. 

The second quarter may have been end-to-end butchery, but no Melbourne side of any gender plays two good quarters in a row, so when North got the opening goal of the third you obviously thought "here we go again." The lead was still three and a bit goals, welcome but still not enough to guarantee a win in one of the best quality AFLW games yet. There was too much time left to run the clock down, I wanted to win by adding more goals. Turns out the clock running option was the one to go with.

After a few minutes of crushing forward pressure North got another and things were looking ropey. Not nearly as ropey as a few seconds later when they plowed straight out of the centre for another, cutting the margin under 10 points. God bless the administrative 50 that saved us. Paxman got a free in the middle, and as the ball was thrown in front of her - bouncing into her hands - she was marched within range and exercised her champions' prerogative to call things down a bit. The serenity lasted a couple of minutes before North kicked their seventh, officially raising the total scores well above many 2020 men's games at the same stage (if you're into arguing that sort of thing).

Again, the last 90 seconds of the quarter saw us defending grimly, trying to hold on to a seven point lead. Somehow we got away with it, but the margin wasn't nearly enough to be confident about after kicking a combined 2.1 in last quarters this year. 

A couple of early goals would have been nice, but while all the attacking went our way at the start of the quarter - heightening suggestion that there was some sort of mystery Cranbourne wind at play - but there was no real goalscoring opportunity. Cunningham dropped a mark after a kick was perfectly set up for her lead, but otherwise it was all hopeful hoofing into the 50, and none of the liquid football of the second term. 

Naturally, North went straight down the other end and scored. Our AFLW games against North at Casey are like the men playing them in Hobart, every game a guaranteed thriller. At least we win some of these ones.

The umpires came good for us again, handing Alyssa Bannan a free for a hold in front of goal. She sprayed it, leaving us three points up with three minutes to go. If nothing else, the ball was at our end. Now a few minutes after demanding that we keep scoring and win it the 'real' way, I was right on board with running the clock down by any means necessary and hanging on.

North had their chances, but via some frightening close shaves at their end (including Colvin sticking her leg into an opponent, preparing to crack the shits when the whistle went, then realising it was her free) we got it down our end long enough to ensure against all but the most light speed transition. Obviously that's exactly what you expected to happen, but expectations were defied. We even got another goal, with Scott coat-hangered in a marking contest and allowed to kick after the siren. The last player who kicked a goal after the siren that didn't influence the result was Harley Bennell, so let's hope things turn out better for Shelley.

The loss of a three point margin, along with a 3-0 start stuffed up any chance of a 'Three is the magic number' headline, but might come in handy for percentage when things get hairy at the end of the year. Either way, we've built a fantastic base from which to tackle the rest of the year. Given that we don't know who the opposition will be for the last six rounds (or if there will be a last six rounds) it's hard to make predictions but surely, SURELY a 3-0 start in a top six in a competition with a lot of ordinary teams will be enough to see us slip into the bottom of the finals at the very worst. Now, watching us lose the next six and be replaced in the league by Hawthorn.

2021 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Sinead Goldrick
4 - Kate Hore
3 - Tyla Hanks
2 - Jackie Parry
1 - Karen Paxman

Apologies to Gay, Sherriff, Mithen, Cunningham, Scott.

Leaderboard
10 - Karen Paxman
7 - Lily Mithen
6 - Tegan Cunningham
5 - Sinead Goldrick, Tyla Hanks
4 - Kate Hore, Lauren Pearce
2 - Jackie Parry
1 - Alyssa Bannan, Eliza McNamara (JOINT LEADERS: Whatever It Ends Up Being Called Award for AFLW Rising Star)

Next Week
Who bloody knows. Presumably a Victorian side. Maybe nobody at all?

Final Thoughts
There should be more of it.

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