Saturday, 27 February 2021

The carnival is back in town

Footy has gone down some strange roads in the last few years, reaching its most unusual point when games for premiership points were played at 4.40pm on a Thursday in Cairns. However, there has never yet been a game played at 9.30 on a Friday morning that could be considered essential viewing. Despite the involvement of the premiers - and some other team - this wasn't likely to become the first. Any sane person who'd only got home two hours earlier would have taken the hint, stayed in bed and watched a two minute highlight package later. Not me, I'm so still astonished - and grateful - that they broadcast these games that I felt compelled to watch.

Not that two professional organisations, one of which suddenly wins premiership for fun, should schedule their games to suit me, but it would have been helpful the time-honoured tradition of playing the seconds game early, then the (relatively) important match second had been followed. Did the senior players, up to and including flavour of the decade Dustin Martin, have something else to get to in the afternoon? 

In an inauspicious start to what history suggests will be another inauspicious season, I refused to get up when my alarm went at 9.30 on the dot, expecting that the game wouldn't start until they'd had a few minutes of commentary faff and had to reboot the server a few dozen times. Seems like broadcasting even the most frivolous match can now be done seamlessly, because not only did they carry this to the end without somebody tripping over the power cord, as I later discovered there was even a studio host involved. 

Not only did the surprisingly professional production - as much as you're going to get for a practice game at Casey - have a host, it even offered fancy graphics and quarter time replays. Young people will grow up thinking this is normal, imagine when they find out you had to wait for a gardening show to end before you could watch Friday night games on delay? I can't get a cracker of footage from the day we beat the Tigers by 121 points in 1993 but future generations will be able to rewatch decades old Port Adelaide intraclub games whenever they want. It's partially unfair.

Like the stream of the North game last year, the joint production meant we got to see their member ads as well as our own. This meant seeing Richmond telling fans that now was the time to stand up and be proud of their side - not after either of the first two flags apparently - followed by that man Martin placing multiple premiership cups in the middle of Punt Road Oval. 

Talk about a quick turnaround, we finished two games ahead of them in Paul Roos' last season (albeit after they'd played finals for the previous three...), now they're enticing their second hundred thousand members with multiple premierships and we're still expecting to be discovered trading while insolvent at any moment. Not surprisingly our ad, which in the smallest of victories ever was a better production, focused more on the 'footy is back' vibe than any hint of on-field success.

My lack of faith in modern technology meant missing the first 10 minutes. When I finally got around to watching, nobody had kicked a goal and we were on zero it was comforting to know that nothing important had been missed. In fact, it was like season 2020 was still going. A weaker person might have used the suggestion that we have no forward line left to go back to bed but I forged on and was moderately rewarded. 

My relaxed attitude to tuning in coincided with our first score, with Petracca marking after a beautiful lead. If our talls are destined to be in injury related hell for the first half of the season we could do worse than repeating this piece of play several dozen times a week. Sure, he missed and Richmond pinged straight down the other end for the first goal but the setup was exquisite.

Even with both teams fielding relatively strong sides you had to be guarded about taking anything that happened seriously, but to be fair to us for once we finished the quarter strongly. Much of what went on fit right into my core beliefs, including Nathan Jones going forward and kicking a goal, and a marauding Tom McDonald getting up the ground and kicking long for Gawn to mark inside 50. When the MFC Truth and Reconciliation Commission finally sits it may take them a while to get to 2020 but whoever told McSizzle to bulk up before last season should go in the dock.

Petracca went back into the midfield eventually, to great effect, but was in everything up front in the opening quarter. It's refreshing to know that, on the least available evidence, he doesn't look to have gone backwards from his breakout season. If Richmond had trouble containing him, Truck may absolutely torture some lowly sides. And let's be fair, if we don't kick seven shades of shit out of a few strugglers this year we're not going to trouble the best sides when it matters.

Though we always looked like conceding when the ball went anywhere inside Richmond's 50 that wasn't the hands of Steven May, we held up well. Double J James Jordon, the man with the squashed finger, created a goal from nothing, then in the dying seconds a lightning transition set up Fritsch's in the square for his first. In another accidental nod to everything I'm into, the season preview post, rush-released before this game, demanded that we find a way to get the ball to him somewhere other than 40 metres out hard on the boundary. Five metres out directly in front without an opponent in the same postcode will do.

While the lid was firmly welded on, it was a positive end to the quarter. But it was classic Goodwin-era Melbourne, the ball movement looked alright but the moment the other side got the ball players ran around like they were escaping a burning building. This is what will stop us becoming an obvious premiership threat. A homegrown golden generation of Gawn, Petracca and Oliver (plus quality ring-ins like May) should keep us away from the bottom for a while, but I can't imagine us winning a flag in any circumstance other than catching fire at just the right time a'la Footscray 2016. Which will do me nicely, but relying on doing it that way reduces your window for nicking a flag unexpectedly.

My first major shock of the new season was having no issue with the new rules about standing the mark. Quite literally standing, no running from side-to-side, doing star jumps or switching off with a shorter teammate. You can still hurl abuse at an opponent Lynden Dunn style, but throwing clumps grass at them during the run-up is now a grey area. Is this worth getting upset about? I'm a rule change sceptic from way back, and obviously 50 metres is an excessive penalty for such an administrative breach of the rules, but the best way to avoid the penalty will be to just stand still. 

If the other bloke runs around you blame Steve Hocking, then do it to them when you take a mark. If this is what improves scoring and stops the AFL from introducing all sorts of other stupid rules or deleting two players per team then so be it. Anyway, once umpires have been abused in every city for penalising excessive lateral sway the standard for a guilty verdict will be so high - remember the hands in the back rule? - that it won't make a difference anyway. Look for it to be ruthlessly patrolled for a month then all but forgotten until somebody becomes the 21st century Jim Stynes and accidentally takes a step with three seconds to go in a thrilling Grand Final.

Back to Casey Fields, a name that (probably don't open this link at work) sadly still hasn't been adopted by a porn star, where the result wasn't nearly as important as putting in a competitive performance against the best team in the competition. Which is what you say when you don't expect to win. Try telling me it was a meaningless practice run when Jason Castagna turned Oskar Baker inside out to kick the first goal of the second quarter. For a moment I forgot what I was watching, how I was watching it and said some very uncharitable things. That was as far as the angst went, by the time they got another one straight after I was back to rationalising how we couldn't be expected to beat the premiers but this would translate well to playing other fringe finals contenders.

There's a chance that the sort of wind you're never going to get at a proper AFL venue was having an impact. While there didn't seem to be your usual Cranbourne gale, Richmond was certainly doing the bulk of scoring to the left of your dial. In their road stood the mighty Steven May, and further afield Lever was taking some nice intercept marks, but thinks looked decidedly wonky whenever the ball hit the ground inside our defensive 50. This may be the season where teams start doing NFL style squib kicks into attack rather than bomb long and risk May or Lever intervening. 

If you can avoid those two I'm not sure about Tomlinson as the third tall, but he may have to do for now. He's a step up from the numerous times that Richmond managed to craft a premiership-winner vs not-actually-a-defender matchup. Given that Majak Daw didn't play in either game yesterday who knows where he's at, but he could be an option due to being built like a block of flats. I don't expect him to provide a Steven Silvagni level of defence but could be reasonable cover for a year until we can find somebody else. Or he might make people wish they weren't so mean to Oscar McDonald, who knows.

The breeze may have been more across the ground than straight down the middle. When the last remaining member of the McSizzle dynasty marked on the sort of lead he didn't get to do nearly enough last year and tried to steer the ball through from 30 metres it drifted left and into the post. Considering he's got 101.43 since becoming a permanent forward I'm willing to trust that his aim was true. For the same reason I can't believe your Essendons and Norths of the world weren't interested when we were frantically trying to trade him. Get the ball in his hands and he'll kick goals. Not on this occasion, to be fair, but you know what I mean.  

While the wind didn't stop the Tigers kicking multiple goals down the other end, we were more than holding our own. Other carryover highlights from 2020 included Langdon romping up and down the wing and Gawn taking vital contested marks all over the ground. I didn't expect any drastic changes but it seems we're basically playing the same style as last year and hoping for the best. I would expect nothing less in a season where the coach is under all sorts of pressure to keep his job. 

No doubt Richmond are of the same 'if it's not broken...' mindset. The difference being that their style ended up collecting both cup and flag. To be fair to Goodwin, and somebody has to be, our style worked alright last year. We lost to all the top sides but were only blown off the park by Port. Maybe a radical change would suit our list better and instantly vault us into premiership contention? I don't know, ask Adem Yze in about Round 6.

One thing we've never been blessed with is consistency, and to nobody's surprise we followed up a three goal first quarter by struggling to kick any in the second term. It took the long-forgotten Kade Chandler to get the breakthrough, and he ended up making a mockery of my prediction that he'd struggle to get a game this year by kicking three. Admittedly I did say "unless something NQR happens", and this almost qualifies.

Still don't know where he fits with Pickett, Bedford (who kicked a couple of ripping goals in the second game), Laurie etc... but it was a positive performance considering he missed all of last year after breaking his hand three different times. How do you even do that? He must be on the same anti-calcium diet that ruined Sean Charles. There was even another hand scare later in the game, which doesn't bode well for him getting through the year with it in one piece.

Meanwhile, imagine being a young player who is not only cut off from the endless supply of groupies by Coronavirus restrictions, but is then left in a hotel for half the year without full use of the hand? In the preview I spoke of players spending last year living like Alan Partridge, and his string of injuries reminds me of this injury, which had similar consequences.

We finished the second quarter with a rush, and Gawn soon got another from what must have been his sixth contested mark of the quarter. Fortunately, he was in the square so we didn't have to hear the usual 'hilarious' gags about his goalkicking. He proceeded to make sure of it like he was kicking from 50, thumping the ball into the carpark. This was good news for the lunatics who'd committed to watching the game through a fence, colder than a witch's tit, when they could have watched it in perfectly good quality on any internet-connected device up to and including their fridge. Now they could go home with the footy as a souvenir.

The margin was reduced to seven at the half, and considering how likely Richmond looked to score every time they crossed the middle of the ground this wasn't a bad result. Otherwise, we held up pretty well against them. Luke Jackson also took a massive Maximum style grab at one point that made you dream of the original drifting forward and creating havoc more often. Personally, I'd rather get Brown and/or Weideman going and make sure Max is free to get us out of jail in defence, but either way having a huge man like that marking everything that comes near him is a good thing no matter where it happens.

With both the Browns absent, and Weideman reduced to special comments duties, our goalkickers were the eclectic bunch of Jones, Jordon, Fritsch, Chandler and Gawn. It's now how you get them, I'll take everybody in the side kicking one each if it means getting 22 goals in a game again before I die. This egalitarian attitude to sharing the goals barely survived half time, with Gawn adding his second almost immediately after the restart. 

Max truly a man for all seasons, taking the centre bounce, going forward to win a free, thumping the ball through from 50, then taking the relieving mark in defence when Richmond threatened to respond within seconds. It was a minute of the toppest (?) shelf of big man football. Considering how much Collingwood had to pay for how long to keep Brodie Grundy, Max should get a share in the MCG when he re-signs. 

I'm still not convinced by him as captain but he might demand the position for life in lieu of several years at a million dollars plus, and we should do it. If you look purely at hitouts then you might say we can do without - after all, we'll never forget the day James Harmes created a goal from the centre bounce - but that's the most overrated stat since inside 50s. It's everything else he does that makes him so important. Chiefly the marks, some of the grandest grabs you'll ever see. Jackson projects to be very good but he's a different type of player, once Big Max goes so do the big marks, and I will mourn them for the years to come.  

Any argument that the wind was having an impact was boosted by us quickly retaking the lead, with Fritsch taking a smart mark in the forward pocket. It was the same angle he kept running to last year, just 20 metres closer to goal. I had to stop myself from getting excited. A realistic analysis of this performance suggests that they're in the same place they were 12 months ago, good enough to beat lowly teams (except in Cairns), unlikely to knock over the top four. That's fine, fifth place will do me nicely. At this stage, high expectations are just setting yourself up for disappointment.

While you had to adjust your feelings for it being a scratch match, I did almost crack an Ararat when Petracca snatched a ball out of the air and casually snapped another goal around his body. The ability to effortlessly do wonderful things is the mark of a superstar, and whisper it very quietly he may be on the verge.

Things were going well, but there were still a few concerns to keep you grounded. It was the second goal in a row where Richmond ripped the ball straight out of the middle and created a scoring opportunity. Even more worrying than the midfield disappearing was that their kick found the unusual defensive matchup of Riewoldt vs Hunt. This time he missed, but if I was Mr. Owl Enegy I wouldn't fancy being left defending tall forwards. Maybe they're grooming him for the Neville Jetta role of bravely taking on men twice his size every week? God knows why he's even at that end of the ground after showing far more as a forward but I guess that's a lost cause now. Or at least until we're panicking about scoring 5.7.37 three weeks into the season.

Richmond's first of the quarter came from an out of the arse handball and snap, but now it was our turn to burst out of the middle and kick the response. Thrillingly, the move was started and finished by the A-Grade brigade of Petracca and Oliver, who found excessive space to fling it back and forth a couple of times before the Hamburglar booted it through from 50. Sure, he got lucky that the defender on the line was stitched up by a novelty bounce but that's life in a sport with an obscurely shaped ball.

If there was wind it was now working in our favour, and the next goal went our way too. A series of handballs, started with a lovely one from Spargo mid-tackle, ended with Chandler alone in the square for his second. In the sort of free-flowing extravaganza that AFL executives will toss over now but will have been ruined by coaches before Anzac Day, this prompted Richmond to kick one straight away.

Just when you thought we'd done enough to hold a competitive lead going into the last quarter, they got another to cut the margin back to eight. The first outbreak of DemonTime for the men's season (the women are already experts), almost cut the gap to less than a kick, as we were left standing with thumb in arse while they took a shot after the siren. How many times are we going to see similar in the 88 quarters of the home and away season? They missed, and while I still wasn't confident about holding on, nor was I sourcing petrol to set myself alight in the event of a loss.

Given that Richmond packed away some of the stars in the last quarter while we seemingly plowed on under the 'what could possibly go wrong?' rule, it's hard to know what to think about it. Holding on into the wind, which picked up just in time for us to kick into it, seemed to suggest that things weren't going to end well. The sudden outbreak of breeze was demonstrated by an early Langdon shot from outside 50 that fell flatter than a shit carter's hat. Build a roof everywhere. 

Once we did get a goal Langdon was involved again, finding Chandler - whose hand was obviously now back in place - on his own in the pocket. I'm sure Richmond fans aren't too upset by this result but they should ask why our players ended up standing on their own inside 50 so often. He restored the double figure margin. Which lasted about 25 seconds.

If there's any queries to come out of this game it's how many times we were butchered in the middle. Sure Oliver and Petracca performed a couple of surgical extractions, but otherwise we were regularly beaten at the drop. Centre bounces not so important in a season where every game ends 45-39, but if the rule changes are going artificially increase the number of goals kicked we're going to have to put up with a lot more six vs six contests in the middle. Obviously getting Viney back in there will help. As will playing sides who haven't won three premierships in four years.

Even though I'm violently in favour of standard length quarters, I was beginning to burn out on lack of sleep and could have done with them shaking hands up pulling up stumps once the King of Sizzle engaged in a perfect lead/pass scenario with Petracca and extended the margin into double figures again. This almost evaporated instantly when, you won't be surprised to discover, Richmond barrelled out of the centre and kicked deep into attack. There stood the almighty Steven May, recovered from a head knock a few minutes earlier that had briefly left him looking dead and me ready to go on anti-depressants.

They did get a goal not long after, but maybe gifting goals back is the in thing for 2021, because it only prompted us to add another. This time via Spargo flattening a defender with a beautiful tackle at the top of the square and extending the margin back to nine. I'm right on board Spargo this season. It might backfire on me but for now, shut up and take my emotional investment.

Given that Richmond is *checks recent results* good, and have a shitload of fringe players trying to get a game, they wouldn't do the honourable thing and lie down. There was still time for another loose ball inside 50 to cause havoc. With what small defenders we have nowhere to be seen Jake Aarts kicked the goal. A reminder that we're still waiting for him to go off with the blood rule as a chance to use the obscure 'cuts to the Aarts' gag that's been ready since his debut.

If it was a real game I'd have been filling my shorts at the prospect of conceding another and losing in ludicrous circumstances. Can't pretend that there wasn't a little bit of tension anyway, but blow me down their goal begat one of ours. Footy will be high tension viewing this year if you expect to let in a goal within a minute of kicking one. The sealer came via Fritsch barely dribbling the ball through in the middle of a tackle, and for once we managed to avoid letting them get it back at warp speed. 

Job done. The good players were very good. There were pleasing cameos from Chandler and Jordon. Nobody got seriously injured. I'm satisfied. The last time I said something like "1 down, 27 to go" we went on to completely fuck up the season, so this time I'm not tempting fate. We looked good against a strong side, but it's not worth getting over-excited about. When it comes to Melbourne, unlike [insert a cause you're not keen on], the science is never settled

2020 Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance votes
5 - Max Gawn
4 - Christian Petracca
3 - Kade Chandler
2 - Steven May
1 - Clayton Oliver

Next Week
Officially, this was nothing more than two teams having a kick in the park, and the first 'official' game is Monday week against Footscray. It's shithouse timing for me, a few hours later and I'd have been able to go. I'll be watching remotely and looking forward to making my return to the stands in the only appropriate way, by socially distancing myself from everyone in Row MM of the Ponsford Stand for Round 1.

Final thoughts
Stuff the Community Series, let's start the real season next weekend.

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