Sunday 28 March 2021

A cat couldn't scratch it

Once time travel is invented you'll never kill Hitler for everyone clogging the servers to maliciously visit their past or future selves. For instance, 15-year-old me can expect the mid-age mediocrity version to lecture him while holding a fork to the throat. On the other hand, I will be on high alert for a visit from 2007-2016 Adam, who may leap from the shadows and garrote me for becoming the sort of person who willingly skips live games.

While I did intend to go last night - having long since come to terms with Fortress Docklands - my commitment didn't stretch to setting an alarm for the 30 minute window to redeem a ticket. Having only missed the main event by a few minutes I thought I'd better do the right thing and try to get one through the general membership sale. That took my barcode, offered me a seat for $23 and I said no, no, no. 

Last year finally finished off a near 15 year run of feeling like I had to be there every week. Kind people offered tickets but I was happy enough to stay home, sit under an old man blanket and not have to mingle with anyone outside my direct family. For reasons that will become clear soon enough I'll be hard-pressed to get to a game from Round 9 until about 2025 anyway so why not get used to it now? 

Of course, I woke up on Saturday morning feeling bad about my decision, and briefly contemplated paying the $23 to sit in the middle of Saints fans. Latent guilt probably contributed to the all-encompassing headache that struck me down at about midday and has never really gone away since. I'm sure that, like the time a headbutt from a baby caused what later turned out to be a broken nose,  adrenalin would have carried me through the game before a 'watch out innocent motorists' Grand Theft Auto style drive home.

So after watching our AFLW team pull off the female equivalent of a ballsy win (that post is on the way - this two games a week stuff is going to kill me) while dreaming of weapons-grade painkillers, I activated the far-less-impressive-than-it-sounds Demonblog Towers Megawall, put my feet up and hoped for the sporting equivalent of soothing music.

After being battered at centre bounces for much of last week, plowing out of the middle and laying a goal on for the returning Jack Viney within 30 seconds was the most calming scene since the old man snuffed it in Soylent Green. It wouldn't have happened without Pickett's midfield cameo, adding an element of electricity to our usual see ball, get ball, dispose of ball by any means necessary tactics. He caused the Saints trouble for the rest of the night, making my earlier suggestion that we should play Chandler instead look progressively more ridiculous.

To the untrained eye St. Kilda had a side chockers with randoms (including Shaun McKernan, who fortuitously chose them over us shortly before all their rucks got injured), but still fielded the core of a team that won a final last year. I had to respect this, given that it's better than we've done for 13 of the last 14 seasons. Which is why it was heartening to see us run them around the ground for the first few minutes, barely allowing them a touch. 

The only problem is that we've been in this situation many times before, and the hot start only lasts until the other side get their hand on the ball. The difference at the moment, and who knows if it holds up against really good teams, is that we've got a backline other teams are shitscared about kicking long to. Mental torment from kicking it to Steven May about 25 times in our last meeting seemed to affect St. Kilda's thinking at the start. They found some success kicking to leads instead, but it's nice to have a defensive combo (and I'm almost ready to promote Tomlinson to a fully-fledged member of the New Jurassic Pack) that can so successfully interrupt one opposition avenue to goal. Two rounds in we're amongst the top four defensive sides in the competition, and the only one of Gold Coast (!), Port and Richmond that hasn't played a confirmed struggler.

If the Saints were inspired by their near miss in Alice Springs, so were we, spending much of the night kicking it long into attack and hoping for the best. This generated 31 scoring shots from 54 forward entries, but most of the remaining 23 were sat right on top of the comically named Dougal Howard. He's probably done enough to be just outside Kingsley range, but it's still telling that in his 66th game this added nine to his previous best disposal tally.

Given the midfield had a much better time of it this week - especially Oliver, who overcame a high-level scragging campaign - there's no telling how much better it would have gone with our first choice forward line. It's typical just as new rules artificially bring back the full forward we've got two that are crocked. If Taylor Walker can kick 11 in two weeks I'm confident Ben Brown and Weideman can do damage when they return. No doubt just as they recover from their various calamities, coaches will work out how to take the game back to a grim defensive struggle and we'll reap none of the benefits.

For now, Tom McSizzle is trying his heart out and having some success (and if he kicks two every week that will do me), but the job is too much for him on his own. With Gawn regularly saving our bacon down the other end, the only other genuine tall forward target is Jackson, who is a great mark but - for now - a rotten set shot. He's got natural talent out the wazoo, so no worries there but I'm impatient to get back to kicking blockbuster scores a'la Round 8-10, 2018. 

We've done enough to beat teams around our level, but are we going to get away with kicking such (relatively) low scores against the better sides? Because as much as we like going 2-0, and SHOULD beat the pants off the bottom four, we need to overcome some (preferably all?) of Richmond, Geelong, Brisbane, Port, West Coast and Footscray. All of them beat us somewhere between comfortably and comprehensively last year, leaving us vulnerable to the dual Cairns letdowns that ruined the season. 

Our second most potent mark is Fritsch, who is shit hot at finding the ball on the lead but usually winds up kicking from Row Z, contributing to a 25.28 record since the start of last year. Given the angles he's usually on I don't blame him for missing, and appreciate his talent at getting the ball in the first place, but there has to be a plan to put it in hands in better positions. He had the chance to press home the advantage barely a minute after our first goal, but given that he was kicking from Fritschville (postcode 25.28) there was no surprise when the shot drifted wide. He had two more misses before bringing the house down by randomly converting just as we were desperate for a goal.

Let off from going two goals down, St. Kilda didn't take long to look dangerous. First it was that man Membrey, who has only kicked five against us once (when Hogan booted seven down the other end. What could possibly go wrong?) but always seems on the verge of a double figure rampage when we show up. When he converted here I fully expected this to be the night he finally attained his destiny, but when for the rest of the night he was either being tormented by defenders - often the very good Tomlinson - or kicking behinds.

The second goal came through Nathan Jones, who was much better this week despite being stationed in the Death Valley half forward flank position that famously destroyed Luke Tapscott's career. It was created by a slightly awkward kick into space by Petracca that nearly ran away from Jones and made them both look silly. He also got one over his brother, who looks a bit unpleasant. I'm sure Nathan thinks well of him. The member of the family that it's ok to like didn't get a huge number of possessions, but was solid with what he did.

Suspicions that Petracca wasn't entirely right last week were reinforced by evidence of his legs having undergone the cupping session of the millennium, possibly via an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner. I've seen people come out of Guantanamo Bay with less visible signs of torture, but whatever they did worked a treat because he played another fine game. He'll have his ups and downs but it's almost time to admit that he's reached a level where opposition sides know what he's going to do but can't stop him doing it. That, my friends, is the superstar tier of the game.

Jones' goal opened the door for St. Kilda's best period of the first quarter, but after they wasted two opportunities Viney cropped up for a career best equalling second. Jack spent half the night on the bench while being eased back after injury, but his first quarter was vintage Viney. It was also a reminder of how ridiculous it was that some people had keys in their hand ready to drive him to Kardinia Park in the off-season. Find me another player who is as consistently savage with his tackling. That's what made this goal, dragging some hapless bastard down like a shark in the ocean.

Because things were starting to go well, we did the only obvious thing and conceded two goals to end the quarter. In another example of the AFL website being the worst ever created by a major sporting organisation the 'highlights' didn't bother to show either. Maybe they didn't want to show the wonky free against May that caused the second one. Either that or Hamish McLachlan's brother was protecting him from a libel suit by deleting the initial claim of a free against Gawn for staging.

After slaughtering a barely AFL standard forward line last week, 150 gamer May (who was either booed for belting a St Kilda player once or because some people can't recognise quality when they see it) had far more trouble with Max King. 

For fans of discredited theories, this isn't the brother people think we could have got with the pick traded for Jesse Hogan even though we only traded him specifically to bring May in. Nor, not surprisingly, is it the one that used to be on our list, now plays for South Croydon, and appears to have just turned 47 (before/after). This one will be a shit-hot player for years to come if he can avoid the same cavalcade of chaos that ruined Hogan. May still had a fine game, and by the standards of some of the defences we've had over the years he was practically Team of the Century material, but he looked more vulnerable when left one-on-one here than he has for a long time.

Given that we'd clearly been the better side in the first quarter, conceding in prime DemonTime was not only painful for us, but to the umpire who had to try and justify his decision to an aggrieved May while he walked to the huddle. Eventually, probably worried about a John Bourke style incident, the umpire made a frivolous claim about "taking his run" and legged it. Later May and King two jostled in a contest and play went on for about 10 seconds before the Saints man was given a free. This one was definitely there, but if you're going to wait that long to make a decision the Brisbane Lions must have some hope of being called back to Kardinia Park for a kick to win the Friday night game.

Whether the initial free was there is open to debate, but reduced the gap to an uncomfortable two points at quarter time. I'm in love with our defence, and they did well again here. Salem is the most underrated of the lot. He plays with rare calm and generally hits a target every time. Lever was also very good again, though he one tremendous blunder later in the game and gave a post-match interview in a voice that suggested Gareth John style larynx trauma.

The margin was not fair reward for how well we'd played, but then again we shouldn't have been four goals up at the break last week so swings and roundabouts. Not long after there was plenty to get upset about, conceding the first uncontrollable rush of goals for the season. I suspect it won't be the last, but let's see how many times it costs us games this year, especially against top sides.

If, like me, you think the defence is the barometer for the rest of the side, their first goal after the break was enough to make you sweat up. May, Lever and Gawn all jumped at the same ball, which then deflected off May's head and into the path of King. By the time Tomlinson was pinched for a deliberate in the pocket - and it was a bit harsh but what do you think is going to happen when you hit it straight at the line these days? - and the margin hit 16 points things were looking a bit shithouse. Just as I was about to launch into an expletive-laced tirade about the difference between a mediocre team with a good coach and Melbourne, we piled on three goals in as many minutes and retook the lead. Never a dull moment.

The second was the best, after generously allowing Anal-Bullet to kick the previous one, Pickett kicked a goal of rare beauty. In the space of three seconds from start to finish, the ball slipped through a defender's fingers to him, then with his back to goal, and surrounded by three Saints players and one teammate he ducked under one tackle so he was facing the right way, then ran around three more defenders and kicked the cover off the ball for the finish. If that doesn't win Goal of the Week at a minimum the award should be abolished.

In contrast, Sparrow's goal looked run of the mill. In isolation, it was actually a delightful finish. When he called the ball while running into the 50 I don't think he accounted for the defender coming the other way, and while 40 years ago he'd have been hospitalised he was now able to bring the ball to ground with the lesser-seen attacking spoil, gather it on the bounce, step back inside an opponent and put us ahead again.

The bit where they were kicking bulk goals gave me the shits but our response was excellent. There was even a chance for a fourth, but Fritsch missed his third set shot. Forget the Coleman, where can I bet on somebody leading the league in behinds? It's hard to be upset because he gets the ball so much, but Jesus H Christ did we not learn anything from his goalkicking woes last year? Compare to the end of 2019 when we threw him forward in a panic and he got goals from a variety of spots. Tellingly the last one of the season was from Downtown Fritschville, now he's spending the rest of his life trying to do that again.

Somehow, this late burst of goals saw us actually win the quarter, much to the dismay of Brett Ratten, who'd gone from my fantasy coach (other than Choke Yourself With A Tie of course) to a bloke stuffing his face full of lollies for want of any idea what to do next. No judgement from me, that's been my work life for years. The good news for him is that in a game of wild momentum shifts, a four point lead meant bugger all. 

Nerves were nearly calmed in the opening seconds of the third quarter when Petracca plowed out of the middle and narrowly missed another lightning opening goal. Nevertheless, it was clear that any momentum we carried into the half remained with us. St. Kilda did their bit by leaving Ed Langdon standing 20 metres from goal without an opponent in the same postcode. When Maximum chipped over the top to him, Ed was so confused at the lack of anybody within 20 metres that he briefly hesitated, before coming to his senses and casually wandering in to goal. Langdon is not only an excellent addition to our team, his rolled-up long sleeves form an underrated tribute to our future senior coach Adem Yze.

That moment of defensive madness cost them two goals, we stormed the 50 straight from the bounce, they shit themselves trying to handball out of trouble and Spargo got another. We were one goal from delivering the fatal blow, at which point we started blowing chances at a rapid rate. You don't need to have seen the game to know that this led to us conceding against the run of play. Twice in fact, both due to blooper reel quality dropped marks, first by Lever, then Jackson. I didn't enjoy either, but if you hung every Melbourne player for a tremendous defensive error gallows bookings would be so backed up that they wouldn't have got to Simon Buckley yet.

The Lever one wouldn't have happened if the umpire had shown an interest in the Saints player headbutting Hunt's knee. Don't know what Jayden could have done different, other than look like a goose by theatrically leaping over the top of the contest, but that's the sort of free the guy who is clonked gets paid 99 times out of 100. The other time they give people's outrage a workout by calling it contact below the knees.

In this case, the contact was firmly to the head, offering St. Kilda an excuse to send on their substitute, while for the second week in a row our reserve was left running laps of the boundary and pondering what VFL ground he'll be playing on next week. I'm pleased Baker was not required, because it meant we didn't have any serious injuries, but isn't it a touch farcical that teams can be advantaged by an injury? Given that a 75 interchange cap is bollocks anyway, what about teams get five more when the other side uses the sub? Mr. Hocking, I patiently wait your invitation to join the Impulse Changes To The Laws of the Game committee.

Now we were drifting like a Taiwanese ship at the Suez Canal and the other side had a fresh player to add to the contest. This was not good for my physical or mental health, and I can't imagine how things would have gone if I'd had to sit next to some dickhead St. Kilda fan. It might have gone the same way as the 2006 Elimination Final, the last time I ever went too close for comfort to biff with an opposition supporter.

Enter a Mr. B. Fritsch of Coldstream, who chose this of all moments to get us out of jail with a difficult set shot. He'd had enough practice. It began at the other end of the ground with a bit of classic Nathan Jones, picking up a loose ball and contemptuously pushing an attempted tackler onto his arse. It was a bit of a wank-handed effort, but Jones still did well to escape. We pinged down the other end, where McSizzle found Bayley at roughly the same angle he took all his other shots from but much closer to goal. I was getting ready to have a massive sook when he thumped it straight through the middle.

This came at just the right time, taking the margin back to 15 and giving the Saints something to get disheartened about during the 3/4 time break. I don't trust any lead that hasn't crossed the Chris Sullivan Line but the more the margin the merrier.

We'd run the game out spraying shots as if drunk, but it a quick one-two punch at the start of the quarter ultimately made it safe. First McSizzle, via a centre clearance aided by manic pressure from Pickett, Oliver having a sixth sense about where the ball's going to go, and Brayshaw - for all the shit I give him - bravely running into a contest where he could have been decapitated. I've never questioned his bravery, just the disposal, which is why he got very lucky that Sizzle managed to get a hand to what should have been an easy pass but almost flew over his head. He plonked it through, the margin was over 20 again, and we were either going to win or look like cockheads in losing.

Pickett returned to put them away for good, on the end of yet another Gawn/Oliver combination, pinching a loose handball from mid-air, wheeling around and kicking it over his shoulder. I might be forgetting something crucial, but this may have been the best small forward game we've seen since original recipe Aaron Davey.  

We've got form for running away from teams - see the Adelaide, North, Collingwood romps last year - and were threatening to do likewise here. Spargo had another good game, and nearly capped it off with a miracle goal. I'd have argued that Pickett's was still better, but this would have won Goal of the Year due to the impossible angle. Charleston responded to what he thought was his good fortune by pulling a series of funny faces that will look even better when turned into a GIF.

Even he was surprised that it went through, and the goal umpire came to the party by calling it a goal. Alas, Snicko ended the dream, clearly showing that it clanged the post on the way through. Hard to argue, incidents that can conclusively be proven via technology are the only time video referees should be used. Just a shame that it cost him whatever shithouse prize is on offer from major sponsor Rebel Sport. When it was Toyota you got to borrow their car for a year, Rebel probably loan you a towel.

Despite the disappointment of Spargo not instantly becoming a national celebrity, we continued to pile on the pressure. Every minute that passed reduced our chances of being stooged in a miracle comeback but I'd still have enjoyed a good old fashioned exclamation mark sealer. Instead, not for the first time, they got a couple of quick goals to keep it interesting. 

Cue slight clenching of the fundamental orifice, until the best thing Jayden Hunt has ever done as a defender set up the steadier. Don't know why he's abandoned the headband, unless he lost the rights in a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors with Langdon, and I still refuse to accept that he is best used down back, but the gather and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile kick into the 50 were top shelf. There a Saints defender hung off McDonald's jumper like Errol Flynn swinging across the room on a chandelier, then proceeded to whinge about the free at length before, during and after the goal. 

Job now officially done, we packed up and let them play out the last 10 minutes like it still meant something. Apparently Jack Higgins now plays for the Saints, which I only discovered at the end because he'd done chuff all until then. Also briefly clenching his ringpiece was Clayton Oliver, who failed to heed coaching instructions about not bumping and narrowly avoided a holiday when he clubbed into an opponent's shoulder rather than the head.

So, our best player survives into next week, nobody got injured, Petracca's legs have been rejuvenated by some sort of medieval witch doctor, and Melbourne is 2-0 to start the season for the first time since... err... 2017. For now, all is well. We haven't done anything that could lull you into a false sense of security about being a guaranteed finals side but have banked two wins against opposition that should be around our level by the end of Round 23, and nobody in their right mind is going to complain about that.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Christian Salem
3 - Kysaiah Pickett
2 - Adam Tomlinson
1 - Christian Petracca 

Apologies to Gawn, Jordon, Lever, McDonald, Neal-Bullen, Spargo and Viney.

The defenders only lasted a week a top, midfielders are back, probably never to leave again.

8 - Clayton Oliver
5 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
4 - Jake Lever, Christian Salem
3 - Christian Petracca, Kysaiah Pickett
2 - Adam Tomlinson
1 - Charlie Spargo

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Poor old Ed Langdon, kicks an absolute pearler that looked hard to beat in Round 1, then concedes the clubhouse lead by half time the following week. Replacing him in the box seat is Pickett for his bonkers effort in the second quarter. He went this way, he went that way, St. Kilda's defenders had no bloody idea what was going to happen next, then he kicked the cover off it on the run. Delightful stuff. For a weekly prize he wins a year's supply of haircare products to run through that lovely barnet.

Finally, Channel 7 found the perfect use for Brian Taylor. Not bricking him up behind a wall, but including GEE GOD BOY WOW! into the ad for the game, then not having him on air. Like a one-hit-wonder singer, we don't want to hear anything new, just keep doing the classics.  

Given that the combined scores weren't even at a 2018 level, the commentators mercifully didn't spend half the game tossing off over how good the new rules are. It also helps that James Brayshaw wasn't there, he's making a concerted bid to win our inaugural Mr. Spectacle award by tonguing Steve Hocking's chocbox whenever six goals are kicked in an opening quarter.

The Mr (or Ms. - your move Caro) Spectacle award will be given out on Grand Final day to the media personality who best fetishes the idea of spectacle. So far it's Brayshaw vs Gerard Whateley, who went off on one about Essendon not getting to choose which home ground they played at in Round 1. Send your nominations to the usual address.

Crowd Watch
For a team that has an even longer history of tragedy than us, St. Kilda has a lot of celebrity supporters. Regulars Shane Warne and Eric Bana were joined by Ed Sheeran, roped into feigning an interest by the late Michael Gudinski. When was the last time we had a genuine celebrity take interest? Hamish Blake had a bit of a run while Jim Stynes was President, we assume Natalie Portman wasn't huddled in front of the TV at 1am in Los Angeles (UPDATE - she's apparently in Sydney and was no doubt watching on 7Mate), and I don't think either of these people still resides on Planet Earth:

Also, whoever is responsible for the giant, googly-eyed Gawn head in the cheersquad is a genius. I haven't seen anything that terrifying at the footy since Neeld was coach:

Next Week
It's GWS on Sunday night in Canberra. Why not. I know they're contractually obligated to play games in the ACT but it remains unusual that a professional side who made a Grand Final two years ago (albeit forgetting to show up and play) is punted off a ground now named after them in favour of a parade where you have to pay silent homage to woodchoppers. This is appropriate because most of their home games are played without noise and the club should be dismantled with an axe. 

I wanted to know if the famous Blacktown International Sportspark, host of one lightly attended game in 2012, was still a feasible venue and discovered that "After Blacktown Council spent $27 million on an AFL stadium & training facility, GWS abandoned the facility." Perhaps not. 

We should just be happy to play in Canberra early, not mid-season where the temperature feels like nine below zero. It's a ground we've been traditionally crap at, pissing in a six goal win against North on debut, then losing every other time except for an underwhelming win over the first year Giants. All that means nothing now, and for the third week in a row we've got the chance to climb the ladder by sticking a foot on the head of another team around our level. This means we've got every chance of winning but you wouldn't stake your house on it. 

Watch out if the 2-0 start leads to a string of positive media and player profiles, that's usually the first sign things are about to go tits up. Also, be wary of the Giants being dragged through the media by their ankles after being (at the time of writing) belted by Freo.

As for changes, unless there's something tactical that goes right over my head I don't see the need to mess with a winning formula. I'm frustrated by Brayshaw, and as much as people rightfully pointed out last week that he's not being played as an inside midfielder I would ask if that means we're obliged to play him somewhere else. Likewise there may be an argument for Hibberd over Hunt, but for now I'm going to stick with a solid but unspectacular winning formula.

If anything, there might be something to be said for changing our forward structure. I want to keep fast-tracking Jackson's development in a half-decent side (as opposed to when we used to slaughter the kids - hello Jimmy Toumpas - by dropping them in quicksand and expecting everything to turn out ok), but we need to take focus off McDonald. It's a left-field option, but Daw is kicking goals out of his arse in the seconds, including another three in pissing rain against North this week. The way their seniors are going fixing up the players who can't get a game isn't much of a recommendation, but might be worth giving him a spin at some point. Probably not this week. 

IN: Nil
OUT: Nil
LUCKY: Brayshaw, Hunt
UNLUCKY: Daw, Melksham, Hibberd

Speaking of the reserves, any chance of starting that competition proper? You've got 22 teams (!), playing 16 games (?) across a 19 round season (!?) which doesn't start until the week of AFL Round 5. I know for our purposes that practice matches are as good as playing for premiership points, but you get the feeling they're not taking the poor old VFA/VFL/East Coast Frankencompetition very seriously.

Final Thoughts
When you're unbeaten after two rounds without having played particularly well there's only one thing to say:

Melbourne AFLW, your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?

This post is brought to you by the crippling headache that left me in bed until about five minutes before the first bounce. If I had half the guts of the players who wore the jumper on Saturday I'd have crashed through the pain and walked to Casey Fields carrying an anvil. You're welcome to your own views on where AFLW sits in the hierarchy of Australian Rules Football but I love this team. 

Three weeks ago it looked like we'd been handed a league endorsed death sentence, forced to play three of the four best sides in the competition while others got to fill their boots against the league's flotsam and jetsam. Now, after overcoming various injuries to win the lot, it has given us the chance to go into the finals in red-hot form.

Even if we don't win a final, this season is streets ahead of 2020. Considering the experience of the players who were traded, the improvement in the second half of the season has been huge. Last year we probably would have plummeted out of the finals race if the season had finished as planned, now qualification has not only been achieved legitimately, we're going into April (doesn't have quite the same ring as September) after the best three weeks our women's team has ever had. Narrow escapes and all, the last fortnight has shown that this group is tough as nails.

But nothing comes easy for Melbourne, and on the first weekend where we could go to the supermarket without a mask for a year, our very good friend the pandemic became an issue again. Somebody in Brisbane has caught the big one and it's spreading like wildfire, which is bad news for both the poltroons who fled there from lockdown Victoria and for three of Queensland's AFL/W teams. The winless Gold Coast women are free to stay home and wait for the league to deliver them a raft of priority picks, everybody else is in disarray.

Comically, the news came too late to stop the Brisbane men playing, but early enough for scary messages to be broadcast to their fans at Kardinia Park. This temporarily left some doubt about their women playing the next day. There was, we were told, no problem with the men staying in Victoria after the news of the outbreak because they all adhere to some sort of league-mandated biosecurity rules. I can believe that for the full-time professionals, but who knows if a Brisbane AFLW player stood next to Patient Zero on the train at some point in the last week. 

Had we not already confirmed a finals place, it would have been none-more-Melbourne to go into the last round needing a win, only for the game to be cancelled and points shared because somebody had been exposed to The Big One. 

What would have been the COVID-219th change to the league fixture was averted when Brisbane players and staff alike came back with negative tests at 6am on the morning of the game. Until then they were unable to leave their hotel floor. This is not as bad as it sounds when you consider that they were staying in the entertainment mecca that is Glen Waverley. Could have ducked down to The Glen food court, or stood outside the station and seen where buses used to depart for VFL Park. Otherwise, they were probably not going far from the hotel anyway.

The game went on, but we all know what happens next. A Brisbane player will get the sniffles this afternoon, and after a retest everybody who's gone near her will be quarantined. Brisbane have their week off for everyone to be confirmed negative, while we forfeit the Elimination Final due to a shortage of players. But would even the most infectious varieties of the bug dare mess with this team? They've beaten every other big hitter in recent weeks, I don't fancy the B117 strain's chances.

There were more storylines in play than the opposition potentially being exposed to a deadly virus. After a morning of pouring rain it was sunny at the first bounce, but anyone who's ever been to Casey Fields knew that another storm would be far behind. And a week after his still unborn child saved him a round trip to Perth, Mick Stinear was now back in charge of Jane Lange's Red and Blue Army. Nice that our win means he doesn't have to go interstate, whether or not Coach Jr has arrived by next Saturday.

To say things started badly would be an understatement, with Daisy Pearce doing - to an unknown degree - her knee within the first two minutes. The general feeling of love for Daisy led to an afternoon of progress reports on her condition that made it sound like she was JFK in Dallas. The concern was reinforced when she later appeared wearing a brace that looked like Robocop's left leg. Fortunately, her injury wasn't as career-ending as Kennedy's, and there are hopes that she'll be ready for the second week of finals if we make it.

Eden Zanker was having a better time, racking up possessions left, right and centre. You're hard-pressed getting decent stats for full AFLW games, let alone quarter-by-quarter breakdowns but I think she got four frees in the first term alone. By the end of the day, her tally was six for and three against, which must be approaching the modern record for male or female players. She had another fantastic game as a midfielder, racking up a further 19 non-free related disposals and bamboozling every opponent who came near her. She is still 21-years-old, offering the prospect of many fine seasons to come. Until the AFL package her off to Richmond with Kate Hore as part of the 'get popular teams going' recovery package.

For the home viewer, the idea that we were already in the finals and simply playing to stay home in the first week had a calming effect. I'm sure the players felt otherwise, desperate to avoid having to spend their whole weekend flying halfway across the country. As it turns out, even if we'd lost and the Adelaide/Collingwood game had gone the same we we'd have stayed in Victoria anyway. Victoria Park to be precise, which would have been a great chance to redeem our rancid last start against them.

Our problem was, for now, that the Daisy-free forward line didn't look likely to kick a goal, and with Brisbane on the board first we were left chasing. While last week it was future superstars like Hore who got us going, this was the return of 'stand back and leave it to the legends'. Hore still had a hand in our first goal, kickstarting the sequence that led to Shelley Scott swooping on the ball and snapping the goal to put us ahead. It barely made it inside the post, but Tyla Hanks will tell you that's not always enough to guarantee that they'll pay it. 

The force of Scott's kick was so strong that it altered the weather, provoking well-known Casey weather phenomenon The Big Piss. All of a sudden the heavens opened, leaving the handful of enthusiasts in attendance legging it for whatever minimal cover was available. There was not only pelting rain, but a vicious wind that suddenly favoured the end Brisbane were kicking, leading to one old lady in the crowd almost being lifted into the sky by her umbrella.

This unexpected advantage didn't help the Lions, the ball stayed camped at our end for the rest of the quarter. We were doing all the attacking, but the random gale-force breeze meant we'd have practically needed to tap-in from the line to get another. It left us a point up at the break and no closer to knowing where we'd be playing next week.

The Köppen climate classification divides weather systems into tropical, dry, temperate and polar systems. Casey is a mixture of all five that would have caused Mr. Köppen to throw his hands up in the air and retire. By the start of the second quarter the sun was brighter than ever, and never went away again. Who knows what happened to the storm, maybe it drifted west and capsized a few boats in Patterson Lakes.

We also need a classification system for how badly umpires are sucked in by players milking frees. For instance, Brisbane's first goal of the quarter, derived from a forward holding the ball to the returning Meg Downie and pretending she wasn't making any effort to get rid of it. Maybe the umpire was confused by all the whistles going off at other grounds in the Casey complex. The noise was a menace, constantly making you think that off-the-ball umpires were calling mystery frees. Some have suggested, with a straight face and obviously never having been there, that we could play low-crowd senior AFL games there. Cobblers.

Brisbane's next goal was also umpire powered, beginning with a disallowed mark in our forward line for an alleged off the ball shepherd. Everything that happened from there was mostly our fault, allowing the ball to ping down the other end, where a Lions player brought what house there was down with a lovely running goal. At this stage you couldn't have got to me to say we were going to win if you'd clamped a car battery to my Lou Rawls.

One of the best things about AFLW this season is that it's the last refuge of the jaunty mark technique. Now that the men have to stand still we've lost all the old Trengove style dancing about and throwing your arms in the air like you just don't care. Now that it's been found to improve scoring there is next to no doubt that rule will be introduced across the board next year, so enjoy the star jumping, side-stepping and running towards the mark hurling abuse at an opponent while you can.

When nothing's going right for you may as well try something illegal, and Paxman's much-needed goal had its genesis from a massive throw by Scott. Not, to be fair, the worst decision the Brisbane Lions were on the end of that weekend. In the spirit of friendship we gave the goal straight back via a 50 caused by Colvin unnecessarily shoving her opponent post-mark. She should have claimed a PTSD allowance from being kneed in the face last week. 

Suddenly, goals were falling faster than the rain. Scott was in everything, and got her second by wandering through Brisbane's defence and kicking a snap that was the polar opposite to her first one. This was high, wobbling, and just dropped over the line. They all count.

Nothing generates more excitement for teams called Melbourne than conceding a goal in the last minute, and having fought back to a five point deficit with seconds left everyone knew what would happen when they kicked long to a one-on-one inside 50. Arguably we had two players pushed in the back in the lead-up, before it rolled out to a Brisbane player in the clear, sinking the slipper just as the siren went. Typical. Couldn't have just taken a few more steps or tried a pass?

When the Lions got the first goal after half-time, courtesy of a farcical attempt by Paxman to side-step a player on the mark, the gap was out to 17 and we were in deep shit. Hard to believe that Brisbane didn't score for the rest of the afternoon. As they disappeared, Paxy took over, recovering from a low-impact first three quarters (goal aside) to run riot in the last. She also helped set up a much-needed goal here, with her long bomb to the square turning into Snapmaster Scott's third. 

Also surprisingly effective, new Irish cult hero Lauren Magee. Or, as commentator Jo Wotton insisted on called her 'Maggy'. I thought she might have been privy to information about some sort of tricky Gaelic pronunciation Tadgh Kenneally style, but Jason Bennett called her 'Magee' and where he goes I will follow. Magee is a fierce defender, and already seems to have developed a Goldrick-esque sixth sense for where the ball will go. Her development since looking completely lost on debut has been amazing. Men's recruiters - get on the plane to Ireland as soon as you can. 

Still didn't like our chances of overcoming an 11 point margin. If it was the other way around I'd have expected to lose by a point, now I expected to lose by six goals. We'd pulled four goals out of thin air, you'd have been brave to suggest we'd get two more without the Lions offering a response. But here we are, on the way to a home final next week. It started with Bannan - who I may stop instinctively typing as 'Banana' eventually, charging into the 50 and slamming home a goal. She is an elite celebrator, almost achieving a Wonaeamirri altitude after goals.

Around the same time, we were also treated to the hilarious now, not so much when she's got brain damage scene of a Brisbane player cracking heads with a teammate then blaming a completely innocent Paxman. Paxy just look at her with barely disguised contempt. She later showed a similar lack of respect for the umpire calling play on, refusing to move and being buried by the player on the mark.

In retrospect, the goal that put us ahead came a lot earlier than I remembered it. Hanks had been blanketed all day, but came up with a corker when it counted. She fought for a ground ball like her life depended on it, then spun backwards through two defenders and kicked a checkside goal. It was marvellous, and though she had an otherwise quiet day she'll either be a star for us or part of the blockbuster Good Players for Magic Beans forced trade to Punt Road.

Cue 10 minutes of both sides defending their hearts out, with only one more point kicked. Gay had a chance to make it seven points with four minutes left but her set shot winning streak ended at one, leaving Bannan to be carried over the line by two Brisbane players for a line drop out. Or as they call it in Victoria... a behind. 

That was it for scoring, though it was a close-run thing. In the last minute, the Lions had it right at their line, and our attempts to get it as far away from goal as possible in the closing seconds ended in an out of bounds free (*hiss*). We brought their last, hopeful kick inside 50 to ground, and via multiple moments where we might have conceded a free, they finally found one to pin on us, Paxman being caught dropping the ball a second before time expired.

The siren provoked celebrations from our players, who either hadn't noticed that the ball was in the hands of a Brisbane player 45 metres out or didn't have any faith in her kicking it. The distance and angle were difficult to overcome but I've seen AFLW players convert from more difficult positions. Even though I'd never heard of the player taking the shot I was reasonably confident that she was beyond her range. 

Indeed she was, not without about 0.5 seconds of panic as the attempted Malcolm Blight style long bomb came off the boot. It died on the way down and was punched clear, preserving Brisbane's NQR final score of 6.0, and ensuring that everyone on our side gets to sleep in their own bed next week. 

Like everything else this side has done in March this was good shit. Another formidable opposition beaten, with the handicap of losing our most famous player in the second minute. Now that we've made finals the right way, time to keep the ball rolling and do some damage.

2021 Daisy Pearce Medal
5 - Shelley Scott
4 - Eden Zanker
3 - Lily Mithen
2 - Lauren Pearce
1 - Karen Paxman

Apologies to Birch, Gay, Hore, Magee and Sherriff.

The dreaded line has arrived, confirming that whether we get knocked out next week or make the Grand Final, that this is a race with two realistic winners and two with the outsidest of chances. The inaugural Rising Star remains up in the air if Bannan can outpoll McNamara (or somebody comes from the clouds), and I should probably introduce a defender of the year award like the men's competition.

27 - Karen Paxman
23 - Tyla Hanks
--- Needs two more games ---
18 - Lauren Pearce
17 - Lily Mithen
--- Abandon all hope below here ---
10 - Kate Hore
7 - Shelley Scott
6 - Tegan Cunningham, Eden Zanker
5 - Sinead Goldrick
4 - Daisy Pearce
3 - Maddie Gay, Eliza McNamara (LEADER: Rising Star Award)
2 - Jackie Parry, Casey Sherriff
1 - Alyssa Bannan, Sarah Lampard

Next Week
It's Fremantle at home on Saturday afternoon. This is great if you're a Dockers player that wants to fly home, hopefully miserable, at a decent time but shithouse for me. I'll be going into full media ban mode, watching on delay later in the afternoon and hoping to catch up on good news. I've become an expert at using the Kayo 'from Start' button this season, no longer even worried about clicking 'from Live' out of habit.

We've won every game at Fortress Casey this season but this is a genuine 50/50 proposition. Hopefully, it's played in half-decent weather and not a classic Cranbourne monsoon. After winning everything for two years, the Dockers have dropped three of their last five (albeit the last two by under a goal) and we hope that self-doubt has started to creep in. For fans of agro in footy it will also reunite Libby Birch and Roxy Roux after their near-biff two weeks ago.

If I had to bet a kidney on it I'd suggest Freo are going to be bounce back and win, but who am I to doubt a team who has played three weeks like we just have? If it's not going well halfway through sub out Stinear and put Freo expert Jane Lange back in charge.

Final Thoughts
I was about to throw my toys out of the pram after the Collingwood game, but this team has been unexpectedly great to watch since. May it continue for another three weeks. Go well ladies.

Monday 22 March 2021

Flying high again

If you're looking for the Round 1 men's report go here.

To paraphrase the pre-scandal Eddie McGuire, it's been a big week in beating Freo. First, the men to get their season going, then the women do them over to confirm a finals berth with a round to play. As they sing in England, "can we play you every week?" 

I saw the former as it happened, but after spending far too much time writing a review that simultaneously spun out of control and didn't go anywhere I needed a break before contemplating any more footy. So, after loading the live stream on Kayo and clicking pause I went about my business for an hour before finally sitting down to have a crack at what I expected to be a guaranteed loss. 

Just when you thought it was safe to watch sports again an endless stream of interruptions left me using the pause button more frequently than any time since the VHS release of Basic Instinct. By the time I finally got around to it, making up as much time as possible by skipping the pre-game and all the quarter breaks, I'd missed the historically significant news that Mick Stinear was absent due impending childbirth, and that Jane Lange would replace him, making her our first female head coach. And, as it stands, the only person to remain unbeaten while in charge of a Melbourne senior side. I'd retire on the spot and make sure nobody could ever take that away from me.

A few weeks ago being asked to coach us against the Dockers in Perth would have been akin to hazing. We'd just been steamrolled by Collingwood and were sliding out of the six at terminal velocity. Freo, on the other hand, had lost one game in two seasons so could reasonably be expected to take care of us. Of the three games in the nightmare end to our fixture, this looked the least likely to end in a win. Then strange things happened on both sides of the continent. Last week we conjured up arguably our best ever performance, while the Dockers had to play the miracle finish card to fall over the line against Carlton.

Then, to show they weren't harbouring any hard feelings from being dismantled, the Crows did us a solid by kicking seven shades of shit out of the Dogs on Saturday. This ruined Footscray's percentage, meaning that a win here would confirm a finals spot. Even a loss would have still required the Dogs to make up a shedload of ground next week. Given we're playing Brisbane (good) and they're playing Richmond (not very good) you wouldn't rule it out. And as this club is committed to both men and women alike getting their chance to miss finals in the last round it was best to make sure of it ASAP.

After last week I might have fancied our chances at Casey, but was less confident about springing a surprise in Perth. Couldn't have too many complaints about having to play there, despite two teams being based in the city this was our first visit for three years. And what a day that was at the ground that helpfully reminds you 'John Hughes in Victoria Park is your car buying destination' and has a siren that sounds like it's warning of an impending Scud missile attack. There we achieved the near-impossible task of stopping a side going inside 50 at all in the first quarter and still losing.

In another Bermuda Triangle style contest, this time the Dockers went goalless for nearly three quarters and are still entitled to be upset about not winning. To fight back from four goals down, then lose to a set shot from a side that kicked 3.20 over a not too distant fortnight. Under the same circumstances I'd have shamelessly cracked the shits.

It was important to get off to a good start. Given the warm conditions, I didn't favour having to run down any sort of margin in the last quarter. The players were on the same wavelength, going for the jugular right off the bat. When Maddie Gay marked inside 50 she wisely realised that based on her recent goalkicking record she'd probably land it on Rottnest Island (this becomes important later), and passed to Hore, who had been left in acres of space. 

The official record shows that she kicked it, not that we know for sure due to the cameraman seemingly suffering a stroke at the crucial moment and failing to pan left to show the ball crossing the line. Kate loved it and our score went up by six so we just have to assume it went through. After that Atari 2600 broadcasting moment, a replay sponsored by Playstation 5 also failed to show the ball crossing the line. Not quite as bad as Foxtel missing an A-League goal then replaying it courtesy of a fan's mobile phone footage, but close.

The irony of missing a Kate Hore goal while watching on Kayo is that she's just been elevated to superstar status in their new ad, sharing screen time with Dustin Martin and A. Random from the Melbourne Storm. Her inclusion is an important moment in media diversity. Nothing to do with being a woman, but as a representative of clubs that never win anything. There are dozens of us. No doubt that the league will find some way to shift Hore to Richmond in the next couple of years, reasoning that they'll get more publicity value from her playing out of Punt Road.

Already a one-time All-Australian, Hore's campaign for back-to-back honours was given a boost by her second goal. She finished it, but it was born of a Shelley Scott free. When she was forced off under the most low-key blood rule of all time, due to split webbing of the hand, Tegan Cunningham was about to take it before the umpire decided to give Hore a go instead. That was about as close as our all-time leading goalkicker came to connecting ball and boot all day. Her contest was good and she did a few handballs, but that's not much help when your job is to kick goals.

Now we had two goals on the board without reply, and the locals were being dismissed unexpectedly easily. This must have been the threat from the eastern states that their premier was so worried about. Things were going so well that even got a free for their runner legging it through play. What more could you possibly ask for? How about multimedia superstar Hore switching from kicking goals to creating them, fanging into the forward line and landing a perfect pass with Daisy. If she keeps playing like this you can forget Kayo ads, she'll be hosting the Channel 9 news. The captain's new life as a forward has been an unqualified success, and her high-risk pass to McNamara was executed perfectly. Original AFLW star, meet the future generation.

If the Dockers - and bloody hell I'm sick of writing about them after this weekend - hadn't just come from the clouds to win I'd have almost been confident. By now, my late start and the first 97 interruptions had me an hour behind and I was tempted to sneak forward for a look at how it was going. Those blasphemous thoughts were stopped by Freo almost kicking their first, only denied by the first blatant throw that's been spotted in one of our games all year. The local umpire might have had active Fling Vision but weren't as successful with distances, allowing Bannan to run about 45 metres before disposing.

If future Logies host Hore's quick snap at a third hadn't been touched I'd have burst with excitement. Regardless, a 20-1 first quarter was still a great start. Like last week, the opposition weren't playing badly so you could easily imagine a comeback, but any sort of buffer was appreciated. 

It almost got better a minute into the second quarter when Paxman used her god knows how manyth possession to flash another shot wide. She played another fantastic game, taking her spot at the top of the table back, turning back the recent Tyla Hanks challenge for title of best player. While she missed, our other Hall of Fame Legend had better luck, with Daisy rolling the fourth goal through from a pack.

This prompted Freo to finally have a proper bash, putting the brakes on our scoring but wasting chances at an even more rapid rate than their men. Even after Shelley Scott burst through the middle of the ground, then air-handballed straight to an opposition player they only turned it into their fifth point. Nevertheless, with early 90s nostalgia fired by a player called Cuthbertson, the Dockers were storming back into it. 

There was a brief stoppage as Colvin's head bounced off an opponent's knee and was split like a ripe watermelon. At this time I discovered, five years late, that in this competition the clock keeps running while a player goes off under the blood rule. Here's to some extreme shithousery when a player chows down on a blood capsule in the dying seconds of a thriller. 

Freo took advantage of Colvin going off to have her eye-socket reattached to miss another set shot. As this rate we were going to lose 4.4.24 to 0.25.25. After several minutes of either defending or watching the other side needlessly booting points, we nearly delivered a rope-a-dope knockout blow right at the end. Hore had another chance on the run but narrowly missed, keeping Freo alive after the break. The margin was still only 23, and never before have I been more worried about losing to a side that hadn't kicked a goal to half time

The third quarter was our turn to do all the attacking without converting goals, and theirs to nearly hit us on the counter. Only the unluckiest set shot of all time cost them, doing a dramatic fade to hit the post at the last moment. We'd been riding our luck for over a quarter now, and there was deep suspicion that once they got their first goal that five more would follow closely behind.

The pressure was momentarily relieved by the umpires. There could be no complaints from the frustrated Freo player who slapped Birch after a mark and gave away a 50, but Scott's free for what seemed like a perfectly normal tackle was a less clear cut. It prompted special comments rookie Will Schofield to complain about the decision in a way that will probably stop him ever being invited to another AFL broadcast. Never mind that he was right, that's not what they're looking for.

They finally got the long-awaited, floodgate provoking goal at the eighth attempt. We might have got to three quarter time without further damage, if not for Tarrant's comically bad kick across the defensive 50. With 20 seconds left she just needed to hit a target, instead rolling it past Birch's ankles and into the path of a Docker forward, who kicked a goal and crucially decided to hang shit on the combustible Birch instead of the player who'd actually stuffed up, guaranteeing some ill-feelings.

Those goals left all the momentum with Freo going into the last quarter. The warm conditions were not going to be our friend, and if there's ever been an AFLW quarter where a side needed to waste as much time as humanely possible this was it. Sinead Goldrick's hammy tried to do its part by exploding, not realising that the clock would stop while she hobbled off. This was not only bad news or our prospects of winning, it was shithouse luck for a player who deserves to play finals.

At this stage, we still weren't guaranteed to be playing finals and were genuinely rattled, only holding out for four minutes before the margin was reduced to a kick. This time the charismatically named Roxy Roux declined to start a fight with Birch. You're not allowed to endorse violence, even if both parties are into it, but I reckon they'd both go well in a Ramsgate style brawl.

Considering Freo's last start miracle comeback, I had little faith that we could keep them out, and lo they went ahead with eight minutes left. It would have been bad enough losing under these circumstances, without the added insult of going down to a forward with one of the worst neck tatts ever. 

For all the shit we hang on umpires, most of it justified, they got us out of jail again. When a Freo player failed to run past the mark at the correct latitude, a 50 metre penalty carried Gay to within set shot range. Range has not been her problem this year, more that the goals aren't 40 metres wide. The idea that she'd convert now, with the season all but on her boot was like announcing you're about to become a millionaire when buying a Powerball ticket. The million to one scenario finally came off and she put us in front. I felt a great deal of solidarity with the fan behind the goals who looked traumatised as it went through. No matter who you follow nothing will give you the shits more than launching a miracle comeback, getting in front, then losing.

But Freo remained alive, and our five point lead was nothing more than a one point loss waiting to happen. When the ball pinged straight into Freo's forward 50 I was almost certain that they were going to beat us via a frivolous free. We had some reserves of luck left to draw on, and with seemingly no other avenue of escape, a loose ball bobbled perfectly into Sherrif's hands to hoof it as far away from goal as possible. 

That helped waste another minute, but with two minutes to play it was back down our end. Cue 120 seconds of Freo doing everything but kicking the winning goal. You don't want to be too harsh on semi-professional players, but another ROTTEN kick by Tarrant nearly cost us again. Somehow we kept them bay, and I'm still not sure how. When the siren went the ball was going into the 50 at speed again but Freo was narrowly thwarted and we were in the finals. Hooray for teams called Melbourne. Hooray for Jane Lange's perfect record and piss off to the AFL for trying to stooge us with the world's worst draw.

As far as finals-clinching wins in Perth it wasn't nearly as heart-attack inducing as West Coast 2018, but I did still throw my arms up in celebration at the siren.

2021 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Karen Paxman
4 - Kate Hore
3 - Lauren Pearce
2 - Eliza McNamara
1 - Daisy Pearce

Apologies to Birch and Gay

The legend is back. We've got at least two games to play so the gauntlet has been thrown down for Hanks to run her down. Good luck with that.  

26 - Karen Paxman
23 - Tyla Hanks
16 - Lauren Pearce
14 - Lily Mithen
10 - Kate Hore
6 - Tegan Cunningham,
5 - Sinead Goldrick
4 - Daisy Pearce
3 - Maddie Gay, Eliza McNamara (LEADER: Rising Star Award),
2 - Jackie Parry, Shelley Scott, Casey Sherriff, Eden Zanker
1 - Alyssa Bannan, Sarah Lampard, 

Next Week
A game against Brisbane that was going to be crucial to our finals hopes is now practically a dead rubber. They're playing for a top two spot, while we'd need something tremendously NQR to happen to finish that high. The key question is whether we'll have to go back to Perth to play Freo again in two weeks. That would be a bit shit. It will depend on what happens in North vs Freo and Collingwood vs Adelaide, but the best result would be staying in Victoria. That may end us risking another dismemberment against the Pies but I'm willing to have a go.

We'll know more by the time our game starts because North/Freo is being played first. On this note, if it's your lifelong dream to write a Demonblog report I'd like to offer you the chance to do the Brisbane game. Whether live at the ground or off the TV, the floor could be yours. With the men's game straight after I'm going to go postal if I have to remember what to write for both. If you're interested in taking up the challenge, handing out the votes and making obscure cultural references for your own amusement contact me via Twitter or email First in wins, unless you appear to be a loony.

Media Watch
Adam Papaglia is the Western Standard Time version of Jason Bennett. A perfectly competent and capable caller who gets the job done with a minimum of unnecessary waffle. Like Bennett, this is why he'll never get a regular gig doing prime time AFL games.

Final thoughts
When they came up with that rancid draw I just wanted to swap one of the good sides out for West Coast or Geelong. Now that we've qualified the noble way I'll admit the Ms. Bradbury Plan was a cowardly way to look at it. Unless there's a morale shattering fiasco next week we can go into the finals with our heads held high. I still don't think we win the flag, but we have now officially exceeded pre-season expectations. And how often can you say that about a Melbourne side? 

Sunday 21 March 2021

Mainly happy returns

Fans of complaining about things you've got no control over rejoice, footy is back in the city where it all began. Given the occasion, there would have been no more Melbourne FC way to celebrate than by losing in tragic and/or bizarre fashion to understrength, foreign opposition. Pigs, however, have taken flight, because for once we didn't ruin an otherwise joyful event. It was grim and gritty but it ended in four points, and for now that's good enough for me.

I imagine this win was the sporting equivalent of floating onto land after six months in a life raft. We went perilously close to tragedy and our long-term survival prospects are questionable, but for now everyone's just happy to be alive. 

In the absence of a recruit intended to turn us into a rampant goalkicking machine (because of course he got injured about 25 seconds after pulling on the jumper), it didn't look like much had changed. If not for sitting in the stands with actual Victorian humans for the first time in 18 months I might have been convinced that this was just an extension of the 2020 season. Steven May was still offering better defence than the Berlin Wall, Clayton Oliver would have 30 touches if he was put in a blindfold, and our forwards kicked for goal like they had been.

Shame it wasn't treated as Round 19, 2020, because we'd had jumped Collingwood into eighth. Instead, hope springs semi-eternal for the new year, as we bank one win and hope for a minimum of 12 more to ensure a rare finals appearance. 

Another key difference between the seasons is that this time we beat Freo, assisted by playing them on a dry day at the MCG and not in pissing Cairns rain with an unnecessarily tall forward line. As Ron Barassi cryptically noted in 1985, "a win is a win is a win." And that's about all this was, homecoming vibes notwithstanding. Nothing shows that we're deep in mid-table mediocrity, the sort that will likely end in another ninth place finish, than a Round 1 win that nobody is all that happy about.

Mind you, only the truly miserable would be unhappy. Considering how badly this could have gone you might as well enjoy it, even if we're more chance of winning the T20 World Cup than an AFL premiership. It was, on the balance of things, good news. No matter how, the points were banked, the MCC didn't have deploy their anti-hoon tunnel, and the coach has dodged his inevitable Trial By Media for another week.

Round 1 wins have been a novelty over the last few years. Other than the early season optimism golden era of 2015-2017 we have traditionally dropped a bollock at our first start, squeezing out any sense of pre-season optimism. Enthusiasm levels were helped this year by not playing West Coast in Perth an hour after the season was suspended.

There were certainly some nerves about going back to live sport. Outside of work and shopping I wouldn't have been in the company of over 10 people for a year. Not that I thought much of crowded spaces before COVID, but they were a fact of life. Now, after a glorious year away from the community, even a lightly attended match against interstate opposition was enough to make me contemplate watching from home. Seeing a win was reward for acting like a normal member of society.

My enthusiasm for a return to the 'G was not helped by the new rules that force you to sit in an assigned seat. After 10 years of doing everything possible to avoid people sitting beside, behind, and preferably in front of me, this did not appeal. I know why they're doing it, it's just not my go. 

At least we were able to play on our home ground, with the AFL enjoying a rare outbreak of decency for towards the small clubs but refusing Essendon's request to shift their game from Docklands. Sure between them and Hawthorn there would have been more than 21,000 in the ground, but then they wouldn't have been able to experience the joy of blowing a massive lead and losing by a point.

I couldn't argue with the quality of seat provided. Level 3 of the Southern Stand, near the 50 metre arc. By reasonable standards it was a major upgrade on the area that my premium membership usually occupies. The only problems were a) I don't often use the Redlegs seat, and b) by landing in Row A I was offered this world class view:


It wasn't an issue when the ball was on the other side of the ground, but seemed a bit farcical that the closer the ball got to you the more you had to adjust to watch the play above or below a set of prison bars. Given that there are only about 10 rows in this part of the ground there's limited scope to shift for a better view. Try telling that to the people who were occupying the seat I was supposed to be in. They were welcome to being stuck halfway down the row, I just took an empty aisle seat and correctly guessed that nobody would show up to claim it.  

My plan to get what I considered a better seat occupied too much of my time in the lead-up. After encouraging reports from Thursday night that nobody bothered to check a ticket after the first bounce the idea was to start at the assigned spot, then sneak into the top deck of the Ponsford or Olympic at half time. The MCG thwarted this by closing Level 4 everywhere other than the Members' Stand. For now I'll wear it, I'm semi-confident we can get everyone in the country vaccinated quicker than the 17 years it'll take for me to land an MCC membership.

So, with all other options exhausted, I gave in and tried to enjoy my lot as best possible. If not for the vision-obscuring bars (thank you pisswreck drunks who can't be trusted not to topple over a regulation sized wall) I could see myself in this spot for the rest of the season. It was a new spot for me, after hundreds of MCG games since the Southern Stand opened I can't remember ever seeing a game from that spot. Though strangely enough I did see the Storm (a team called Melbourne you can trust) kick the living suitcase out of St. George from almost the exact same place in 2000.

The only time I cursed myself for giving in without a fight was when two people mysteriously appeared in the top level of the Olympic Stand during the third quarter. Half time could have been used to make absolutely sure that area was closed but I assumed that if it was open surely somebody would be sitting there. By this time my neighbours were busy converting their half-time snacks into powerful backdoor emissions, making me even more jealous of anybody watching in free-range conditions.

After all this, you can imagine how well I'd have taken a loss. It went the right way in the end, but not before a tremendously ropey start. After a summer of self-flagellation, and more "we must do better" content than you could shake an angry fist at, our midfield was wiped off the face of the park for the first 10 minutes.

This was not what we expected when Gawn was pitched against A. First Gamer due to a Freo injury crisis. Hitouts may be the most overrated aspect of any ruck performance, but in this case the ones Max was winning were nearly counterproductive, due to the lack of connection (thank you Simon) with his midfielders. The Dockers seemed to know where the taps were going better than the people who'd spent all summer watching them. In fact Max's entire first half was a bit ordinary, also struggling win touches around the ground. Things improved after that, even interrupting the May/Lever show for a couple of crucial intercept marks. Having said all that, it's a bit rude to grade him on the Gawn curve when most teams would have been thrilled by the same level of performance. GWS' ruckmen are going down faster than Spinal Tap drummers, they'd have cut off a digit to borrow him for a week.

For the first five minutes we were reduced to forwards standing around waiting for something to happen, defenders desperately trying to keep the ball away, and everyone between the arcs struggling to stop Freo heaving and hoing around the ground in acres of space. Fortunately, the shock of returning to Victoria for the first time since June 2019 (also the last time I saw us win live) left their forwards flummoxed, and they missed a string of easy chances.

The wobbly kicking was contagious, Petracca was given the chance to steady the ship after being sat on in front of goal. He's a 50/50 proposition at the best of times, but the angle was so slight that it felt easier to miss than kick. Challenge accepted.

Then it was back down the other end, where the next in the queue of potential goalkickers also doubled as a Kingsley prospect. Alex Pearce hadn't kicked a goal in five years, and due to a knee injury hadn't played at all since mid-2019. So it obviously scared the shit out of me when they started him as a key forward, vaulting him to the top of a long list of obscure Freo players expected to dick us. He kicked this one like a backman, and we'll never know if that was the entree to a 13.1 afternoon because he soon disappeared with another knee injury.

Pearce's departure introduced us to a rule so good the league kept it under wraps until two days before the start of the season. Yes, the substitute is back. At one point the idea was to cover for players suspected of concussion, then for reasons only known to the dickheads in charge, mutated into cover for any injured player. Now, thanks to complicated protocols meant to stop coaches from faking injuries just to get a tactical sub in, there is a 23rd man invited to sit on the bench with his thumb up his arse and wait for a teammate to hurt himself.

I could almost accept this, other than the ridiculous scenario of the player who doesn't get called on still being credited with a senior game. That's how they did it before interchange (including one of our 1964 premiership team) but back then players were just showing up for a kick on the weekend in between selling cars or running pubs, they deserved some sort of acknowledgement for wasting their Saturday sitting on the bench in a dressing gown. 

In 1975 we left a debutante on the bench all day, then dropped him never to be seen again. Now it's a super-professional competition, and handing out free games for doing nothing seems like a major extraction of piss. I wouldn't be surprised if the AFL had another unpredictable change of heart and decided that these games don't count. For once I'd agree with them. You don't need to tinker with anything in the past, Clint Bizzell can still have the game where he blew a hammy in the warmup and wasn't replaced, just don't try and pretend that Kade Chandler played a game of AFL football on Saturday afternoon.

For his part Chandler was well-compensated, paid the same as Freo sub Gyro Gearloose for doing three quarters' less work, and escaping the one game club in the most administrative fashion possible. That's about all he got out of the weekend, going from narrowly missing senior selection to not playing at all. This means he's an absolute certainty to be dropped next week so he can get game time, leaving some other poor schlub to hang around Docklands on Saturday night and hope for the worst. I'm more upset that Goodwin is in favour of this rule than anything he's done as a coach.

While Freo missed a truckload of chances early, few came through their tall forwards. It was nigh on impossible to get past May, Lever, and to a lesser extent Tomlinson, who chewed up and spat out everything that came near them. The Docker forward line was hardly Franklin/Roughead 2008 (and perhaps only marginally better than Dawes/Frawley 2014), but I haven't seen such domination between these teams since Ross Lyon used to keep us to five goals in every meeting.

Despite this, one laughably suspect measurement suggests Maggie Tabberer was the most effective player on the ground. Treat that with the contempt it deserves, but don't completely write off player ratings before appreciating Blake Acres' 81% game time losing to Kade Chandler's 0%.

Even one of the deaf, dumb, and blind All-Australian selectors would have identified how good May was here. He has been impeccable since the start of last year, leaving you wondering how his career would have turned out at properly functioning clubs. His blocking of everything that came near him was no surprise, so under the circumstances I was more excited by Lever's performance. He was given plenty of opportunities to float around without an opponent, but it's becoming obvious why they paid so much for him. His reading of the ball in the air is A+. 

They won't get that sort of armchair ride from the opposition every week, but on this occasion it was the stuff of legend. As an season ticket holder of the Defenders' Union since the Phil Gilbert era I loved it. Steve bloody Hocking wouldn't have. He'll probably fine us for keeping them to eight goals.

Speaking of backmen, as much as I want to see Tomlinson play another game to prove this wasn't a fluke, that goes double for Nifty Nev Jetta. You've got to adjust for the quality of an attack that kicked as if drunk, but that was his best game in ages. Maybe he'll be this year's Michael Hibberd, unexpectedly clambering off the scrapheap to revive his career. Based on yesterday's defence, if he wants to get back into the side Hibberd may have to be the new Jayden Hunt, whose career we've decided to ruin by putting him back in defence.

On the topic of people appearing at various ends of the ground, our second miss came courtesy of Tom McDonald, the only lowlight of his best quarter since wrecking Carlton in 2019. He ran everywhere, he took big, fat, contested marks and other than his worst set shot in years nobody could have any complaints with how he played. What he does when (if?) Brown and Weideman come back I don't know, but let's roll with it for now and see what happens.

After six combined behinds in a row, the breakthrough finally came through Pickett. I would have picked Chandler, but Kysaiah (still never 'Kozzy') more than justified selection. It wasn't just the goal, but his pressure was - brace for a cliche - elite. One goal a week will do me if he harasses defenders like that, some of them were dead-set shitting themselves whenever he was around.

Though Pickett kicked the goal, the setup was pure Spargo. Charleston's performance will go under the radar because nobody outside the bubble knows who he is, but some of his disposals into the forward line were sublime. I'm biased after jumping on his bandwagon in the pre-season but he's got footy smarts out the yin yang. Give it about three weeks before I turn and call for him to be dismissed.

Freo fans would have been disgusted that after several minutes of doing everything but kicking goals, our first immediately begat the second. For the time the midfield fired simultaneously, and a Gawn > Oliver > Harmes combination ended with the ball being belted inside 50 again. Having already missed a set shot, Langdon opted for a 9.9 degree of difficulty on his second shot, kicking a running checkside from the boundary line. It was bloody delightful, and the Alan Shearer style arms aloft running celebration against his old side just added to the spectacle.

The contest was all very fumbly and suggestive of two teams that will be on the couch by mid-September, but you can only beat who they put in front of you, and as their hot start went tits up Freo clearly became rattled. With every hopeful kick forward hoovered up by the defenders, we were able to counter with two more goals by quarter time. After 10 minutes on the back foot, weathering multiple shots on goal, we'd come out 24 points ahead. It was nowhere near a fair reflection of how Freo had played, but you make your own luck. Ultimately that's what won us the game.

The first was admittedly a touch lucky, with the ball taking a bastard of a bounce over a hapless defender and sitting up for Fritsch to toe-poke through. The next was a bit more artistic, Double J James Jordon sticking the ball down Petracca's throat for him to kick one 10x more complicated than what he'd missed earlier. Truck was in everything in the first quarter, and was one of our better players on the day, but if he was 100% fit I'll walk backwards to Mildura. I'd still rather him half-crocked over most of our players but the real worry is repeating the Joel Smith Debacle with a much higher valued asset, unnecessarily making a minor injury worse. If he makes next Saturday night I'll be convinced that he's not in traction somewhere.

When some bloke I'd never heard dropped a mark in front of goal and set up Double J for his first career goal shortly after play resumed things were starting to get ridiculous. Some teams might have taken advantage and crushed them before half time. Not us. It didn't help that the midfield was still being held well by Nat Fyfe and the Nobodies. The next 10 minutes were a reboot of the first quarter, with Freo parking the ball in their forward line and having half a dozen goes at placing ball between large posts. The difference was this time they did it twice.

The resurgent McDonald got us out of jail, in perfect pocket position to mark a Fritsch kick that fell out of the sky like a dead pigeon. It reminded me of the goal he kicked from the opposite side in the first quarter of Round 1, 2019. Back then he was coming off a 50 goal season, had just signed a bonanza contract, and was a live chance to win the Coleman. Not long after, his season followed the rest of the club down the toilet and he's never recovered.

Comparisons to that Port game didn't end with McDonald's goal, when Freo charged at us early in the third quarter my mind flashed back to our capitulation that day. The difference was that this time we hadn't stupidly rushed two key midfielders back from injury on a warm day after one half-arsed VFL practice match and retained enough life force to hold on.

Again, Freo did all the hard work before blowing it late in the term. McDonald turned provider to set up Harmes and we'd restricted them to taking two points off our lead. Still wasn't worth forming a queue for finals tickets over, but was enjoyable enough when you consider how much rubbish we've seen over the years.

Given that we lost the rest of the game by a point it's up to you to decide how excited you get. I was fairly shitting it when we started the third quarter with a missed Sizzle sitter, only for Freo to kick two quick goals. For the mental health of the fans, Round 1 is too early to blow a 30 point lead. Which is probably why Essendon decided to throw a 40 point lead away instead.

This is where SpargoMania erupted, first setting up a Fritsch goal, then getting one of his own to steady the ship. His goal also owed a lot to the run of Pickett, who was having a marvellous quarter. When he wasn't terrifying the opposition at ground level, Kysaiah was trying to take Mark of the 21st Century. I barely saw it live because much of the jump was obscured by the bloody railing in front of me, but it was un-Australian to deem his towering leap as an unrealistic attempt. We've been through this with Pickett before, but surely when you barely miss getting your hands to it that's realistic enough? If you consider this in conjunction with the dangerous tackle fine he got last year for a perfectly normal tackle, there's enough evidence to suggest a conspiracy against him. Did his uncle belt somebody from the umpiring department 20 years ago?

Charleston's goal pushed the margin back over four goals and offered vital breathing space going into three quarter time. Which is why conceding the reply straight out of the middle was so painful. I internalised my grief, the guy behind me responded by stomping his foot with such violent force that he'll be going to the same stress fracture clinic as Sam Weideman. Much to the delight of the AFL, who think stoppages = Satan, there weren't many repeat ball-ups in the middle of the ground, but if there was ever a time to defend in the middle this was it. Instead, we parted like the Red Sea and allowed them to get it straight back. DemonTime is officially open for 2021.

There was no comfort in a 17 point margin. You'd rather have been in our position than theirs, especially with the strength of our defence, but on a (relatively) hot day, with reduced interchange and rules designed specifically to help teams score quickly you couldn't rule out a disaster. 

I don't know if I'd have been as confident defending the same lead against a top team. Nobody was terrible but there were plenty of warning signs for the rest of the year. Harmes was alright in this class but I don't fancy him against the big sides, Jones went as hard as usual but god knows what role he was playing, and Hunt should have his manager on the phone at 9am Monday morning looking for a team that will play him as a forward.

Then there's Brayshaw, who I just can't get into. He's got obvious natural skill but where's his career going? He gets plenty of possessions, few of them damaging. This was a great opportunity to see which journos give their bests on number of touches alone. Not much point getting them if they're turned over. At one stage he and his brother were trading clangers like Randolph and Mortimer Duke. He laid a couple of ripping tackles in the second half, but other than being able to consistently get on the park, what did he offer that Viney wouldn't? It's not a vendetta, I just think he needs another reminder, like the one that worked a treat at the start of 2018, that nobody is a protected species.

Considering how many fans were looking for a chance to try and sack Goodwin, you can only imagine the outrage if we'd blown it from here. When Freo had the first opportunity of the last quarter I was prepared to throw logic out the window and join the protests. That man Petracca got us out of trouble, via Hunt magically appearing at the right end of the ground, Jones doing a Hollywood bounce handball, and a quick snap not clattering into Frisch as it bounced through an otherwise unguarded square.

After all the shit that has been poured on him over the last 12 months, and the desperate attempt by the same people who stuffed up his 2020 pre-season to trade him at any price, I was delighted that  McSizzle kicked the sealer. Based on his two earlier misses from much simpler spots it made no sense that he would lob this one through from the 50 metres out on the boundary, but such are the mysteries that keep you watching footy through all the half-baked rule changes. One of those helped him on this occasion, allowed to run out on a ridiculous arc while the man on the mark was forced to stand still and watch him go.

Between his performance and Oscar mysteriously showing up as Carlton's sub and kicking two goals it was quite the week for the much-maligned family. In classic footy fan tradition, the same class of people who have spent the last five years slaughtering Oscar are now convinced that we were idiots for delisting him.

Though Freo got two late goals we were never in danger of the margin getting close enough to cause alarm. Mainly because so much time was wasted at the other end on set shots that were about as successful as trying to drop punt a bag of fertilizer, and equally as stinky. The chief culprit was Luke Jackson, but as the game was already won I'm prepared to concentrate on the quality of his marking instead. His impact in the ruck and around the ground was limited, but the grabs were top shelf. Bit of goalkicking practice wouldn't go astray. Seconds before the siren he had another opportunity, this time sensibly passing to a wide-open Petracca, who failed to score and all but confirmed that we'll miss finals by the percentage equivalent of one to five points.

Breaking our longest winning drought at the MCG in 101 years was good, but it was still no reason for histrionics. I offered a generous round of applause and went home. There's a minimum of 21 more games left, best leave something in the tank.

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal
5 - Steven May
4 - Jake Lever
3 - Clayton Oliver
2 - Christian Petracca
1 - Charlie Spargo

High-level apologies in alphabetical order to Jordon, Langdon, McDonald, Pickett and Tomlinson.

Aaron Davey Medal For Goal of the Year
Nobody will be surprised to learn that it's that man Langdon. I've got great respect for McDonald's goal in the last quarter, but for sheer excitement value best of luck toppling this:

For the weekly prize, Ed wins a $1000 voucher for the closing down sale at Jayden Hunt's World of Headbands. 

Cancelled for the second straight year due to COVID restrictions. We'd have probably won.

Media Watch
After more than a year of not having to worry about choice in broadcasting, the pressure was on to find a radio stastion that complimented my viewing experience. I'm far more open to boofy, bloky, matey behaviour on the radio than television so considered Triple M, before Brayshaw lost all credibility by calling his nephew the best kick on our team. Then it was over to the Tobin Brothers, who have decided to try and tap into the zany market by crapping on at length about their quaddie and reading text messages from listeners with one foot in the grave.

By virtue of 3 All Wankers being permanently excluded due to personal animosity (apologies to Tonsils Granland), SEN won by default. I've been off them since Finey's Final Siren was cancelled, but while Youse Blokes Maher wouldn't give you a time check if you held a gun to his head, it was an otherwise adequate call, despite reception that sounded like the broadcast was being delivered through a can attached to a string.

Crowd Watch
Easy enough to do anything when there's only 21,000 people there, but entry to the ground was reasonably efficient. Until the person who'd just stood for five minutes waiting for a bag check only remembered to get their mobile phone ticket out the moment they reached the barriers, causing a traffic jam, and much dark muttering.

Wish I'd had more time to prowl the outside of the ground, because I was dying to see how many people turned up thinking they could buy a ticket on the day only to be directed to the shizen Ticketmaster mobile website. Also interested in the fate of the guy who sat next to me on the train with his membership dangling merrily from a lanyard. What chance he got all the way to the turnstile then discovered the card is about as useful as a Video Ezy membership this year.

Matchday Experience Watch
With so much time away from live footy, I'd forgotten about novelty quarter time promotions. While tooling around on my phone I looked up to see a footy rolling past a comically oversized can of paint. There's plenty of time left to work out whether the contestant was supposed to land the ball on the roof of the can, or whether near enough would be good enough.

The Little League was also given the arse, replaced by a sponsored 'skills competition' for a handful of kids. Strangely, the real deal seems to have been played at other games in Victoria, so who knows where it went here. Maybe that's how we've remained an 'unassisted' club, throwing youngsters under the bus for sponsorship money. Stiff shit kids, we've got a training base to pay for.

All Your Training Base Are Belong To Us
Speaking of... the idea of a dedicated training/admin venue near the city (thank you Casey, but no) continues to look like a pipe-dream. The best idea so far is putting the oval at the Wellington Parade end of the MCG precinct and constructing buildings over Jolimont Station, but good luck getting that past the locals.

If Gary Pert's radio interview is anything to go by, they're still desperate to pretend it's 1986 and build a social club as part of the complex. I've not had a drink in five years so am probably not the target market, but suspect that it's just a Trojan Horse to build a lucrative Collingwood style function venue. Which makes sense, how else is the place going to make money on the 350 days a year we've not playing over the road?

Pert was there for the start and finish of Collingwood's project, and helped get the government to chip in $10 million, which would all be fine if we had anywhere to put it. You can put the footy ground anywhere, ask anybody who regularly goes to Cranbourne for training, but to bolt the function venue, (sorry... 'social club') on as well the place will have to be somewhere appealing. I don't see it happening. We'll probably end up building it out the back of Docklands somewhere and lose millions because people don't want to have their wedding reception next to a fish market.

Next Week
At the time of writing we haven't had a good look at St Kilda yet, but next Saturday night would be a fantastic time to prove we can beat mid-table Victorian sides too. The most interesting storyline, other than whether Docklands will top the MCG by opening Level 4, is whether we still play better there than on our home ground.

Based on their pre-season game with Carlton they're going to be running around like headless chickens, offering both plenty of opportunities for us to hit them on the break, and for them to find an avenue to goal that doesn't involve kicking at May or Lever. Considering how badly they fell for the latter in our last meeting, surely they're not just going to do the same thing again. Ratten is no idiot, he'll come up with an alternative.

As for changes, I'm sure more will come out about Casey's practice match against the Northern Bullants, but at the moment all we know is that they won by 57 points. Not all that impressive considering they're now a standalone side. Apparently, Viney played, and as long as he's alive that's enough for me. On reputation, you might chuck Sparrow to make room for him, but I'd rather make a statement that we're not resting on our mediocre laurels by chucking Brayshaw instead. He wasn't terrible, but can we not reasonably expect more? Won't happen.

IN: Viney
OUT: Brayshaw (omit)
LUCKY: Hunt, Jones, Sparrow
UNLUCKY: Chandler

For the second week in a row I think we're a red hot chance of winning, but wouldn't at all be surprised if we lost. That's mid-table mediocrity for you.

Was it worth it? (featuring Final Thoughts)
Under normal circumstances, this result would be filed under Ron Barassi's "A win, is a win, is a win" file. But after all this time away, I reserve the right to get sentimental. The novelty will wear off soon and the seating arrangements will start to give me the shits to the point where I'll probably just stay home, but for now I'm chuffed to the bollocks to have seen us play - and win - live. Let's have more of it.