Sunday, 28 March 2021

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.

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