Sunday, 11 April 2021

Interstate of Disaster

A Melbourne side riding a wave of momentum into an interstate Preliminary Final then running out of gas and kicking no goals in the first half against a side they'd beaten a few weeks earlier. Where have I seen that before? Yes, it's all over for Melbourne AFLW in 2021, our best season yet, featuring a stirring five weeks of brave performances but ultimately ending the same way as every other senior Demon side since 1964.

Only the most demanding of fan would be rude enough to get upset about the women stacking it with a Grand Final on the horizon. Mostly because they gave us so much joy in the lead-up to the fizz-out, but also because unlike the men they didn't concede the first 10 goals. 

In a special, none-more-Melbourne AFLW twist we were played off the park and lucky to only lose by three goals but still registered more scoring shots. Other than the golden run to the finals, I'll remember this season best for turning bulk forward opportunities into minimal goals. This has been a problem for years, but after 25.10 in the first three weeks it looked like we'd cracked the accuracy code. Then we came home with 35.66. Which is a bit disappointing, but considering we made it work between the Collingwood game and yesterday, who am I to argue? 

Though the game was originally announced for Norwood, it turns out nobody had bothered to ask Adelaide Oval if they were free and the game was relocated. This was talked up as good for us because the AO is closer to the dimensions of Fortress Casey. Forget width, our problem was playing on a ground that was enclosed rather than a glorified public park.

Another area where Norwood might have had the advantage was in producing an Australian flag that didn't look like it had been dragged through the Battle of Okinawa. They might have misunderstood the order to fly the flag at half-mast for Phil the Greek and instead sent up something that could only be described as tattered. The only people who get really angry about the flag are the same ones who refer to themselves as 'patriots' and do racism on Facebook, but even I thought this was a bit NQR. May as well have sacked the Julie Anthony tape and invited Roseanne to sing the national anthem while they were at it.

Maybe I was just looking for a controversy to take my mind off what I suspected to be impending disaster. After the last few weeks you'd be bonkers to bet against this side doing something special but the idea of Melbourne qualifying for any typ of Grand Final is so preposterous that I could only see the result going one way. And it did. Not as violently as our prelim in Perth, but both ending with players watching the Grand Final from the couch the next week after never seriously threatening to make a game of it.

We got our season rolling a month ago by applying a fearsome level of pressure to the Crows. This time they adopted the old "let's get them before they get us" philosophy, pouncing on us from the first bounce and not letting the pressure up until the game was well won. Who knows if our players went in tired after five weeks playing out of their skins or just had their life force squeezed out on the day but it didn't take long to see that we were in all sorts of trouble.

While they had almost all the ball in the opening minutes we still chipped in for the first behind. Didn't fancy our chances of defending a 1-0 lead until the siren though. Not that you'd know that from the commentator who yelled "they've got nobody forward" shortly before the ball landed with an Adelaide player on her own inside 50. A backline that spent the day under siege got away with that one but it wasn't long before the Crows were threatening again.

From a purely ruthless view, we should have benefited from the collision that put both Eliza McNamara and Adelaide's captain out of the game with concussion. Eliza came off worse, carried off by trainers looking like she'd just gone 10 rounds with Ronda Rousey. She's had a very good first season and should have many years of improvement ahead of her but those of us looking for any reason why we might win thought there had to be some effect on a team from losing their captain. Apparently not. Probably helps that their side is full of premiership players, and they carried on like nothing was wrong.

The new 12 day rest concussion protocol means Chelsea Randall - former MFC exhibition game star gone on to bigger things - will miss the Grand Final. Here Daisy unsuccessfully trying to cheer her up by saying "oh well, at least now we've both got next week off." Which, as you can see, has gone down like a fart in an elevator.

After a few minutes of scrap where we never went close to scoring, red flags, danger signs, alarms and distress flares were all simultaneously deployed when Adelaide got their first. Cunningham has found second life playing on the ball after her goals dried up, but the dangers of allowing non-defenders into the backline were exposed when her arm dragged across celebrity supplement spokesperson Erin Phillips' shoulder for a free and goal.

In retrospect, after that we may as well have shaken hands and booked an earlier flight, but as strange as it sounds when we only kicked one goal for the day there was a golden chance to equalise shortly long after. That we missed is not so surprising when you consider our final score of 1.9. The ball bounced for Tarrant in the square, but she was off balance when gathering it, and in trying to get past the opponent standing in the way she whomped it into the post. It was probably touched as well, but after the alleged goal umpiring howler in the last Adelaide game we may very well have gotten away with it.

This kicked off a brief period where we looked in the game, and weren't being piled on by a dozen opposition players at every turn, but a series of inside 50s came to nothing. With our forwards pushing up the ground we were left without targets, and responded by just endlessly stuffing the ball down the throat of Crows defenders. For fans of comparisons to the men's game, this was May/Lever vs Freo all over again. 

At odds of $1.01, Karen Paxman was our best player by the length of the straight. It was nowhere near her best individual game, but with teammates going missing as if they'd wandered through the Bermuda Triangle her performance stood out. While others hit their physical and/or emotional limit she plowed on, racking up 10 touches in the first quarter. 

Paxman may be one of the greatest players in the history of the competition but can't do it all, and was caught in front of goal to gift the Crows another chance. They missed, but the manure truck had already reversed into place and was busy burying us neck deep in sheet. Which makes it outrageous that early in the second quarter, despite our All-Australian ruck being thrashed and half the side struggling to get a touch, we could have had the margin back under a kick. Zanker took our first mark inside 50, but her darting eyes betrayed a lack of confidence in converting which was duly proven correct. It left her on 2.8 for the year, the only knock on an otherwise career-best season. She can take heart from the fact that Kate Hore kicked 1.7 in 2019 and has bounced back to be an All Australian who makes TV ads.

Of course, after five minutes of the ball down our end for nothing but points, Adelaide went the other way and kicked their second. We'd done well to restrict them to two goals for the half, but looked so unlikely to get any of our own that even a 10 point margin looked insurmountable. For those with long memories it was better than the last time we played them in a must-win game, when we went to the break behind 5.4 to stuff all. 

In this case there was hope. It was to prove misguided. If the plane home lost gas at the same rate as the players we'd have to recruit a new team next season. Probably better the comedown here with only enthusiasts watching rather than in a standalone Grand Final - especially at the MCG against Collingwood. If nothing else we can take out of this weekend that they lost their prelim in even more heartbreaking circumstances.

When the Crows kicked two goals to put us away midway through the third quarter I was tempted to change my Kayo channel to this:

... but couldn't be mad. This team has given us plenty of enjoyment over the last few weeks, and while you don't want any season to end in shambles you have to fondly remember some of the hard as nails performances they've delivered over the last few weeks. Though there was no lack of effort here they were several steps behind their opponents and were in grave danger of being wiped off the table. Once the result was beyond doubt it was time to activate Operation Save Dignity and ensure the margin didn't get too unsavoury. In a way it worked, we didn't concede any more goals, but nor did we kick any.

The best chance came to Kate Hore, who had battled up the ground all day with nary a sideways look at an opportunity in the forward line. She got a chance when an Adelaide defender was so shocked at having to do some work that she kicked out on the full. A point didn't help much. Nor did one from Shelley Scott, whose tremendous mark was followed by a less tremendous kick that left us on a sad-looking 0.5 at the last change. 

If nothing else we narrowly won the last quarter, albeit against players who were in self-preservation mode to make sure they'd be right for the Grand Final. There was never any chance of a miracle comeback, and shortly after Nigel Carmody called Paxman 'Pacman', the Crows activated party time mode by rolling a novelty goal through from the boundary.

Now that Adelaide knew there was no earthly way they could be beaten they turned off and let us make the margin look far more respectable than we deserved. The last remaining question was whether we'd kick a token goal or be left alongside expansion luminaries like Richmond 2020 and Gold Coast 2021 as sides to finish a game on 0.? We were saved from this added humiliation when Zanker's kick dropped over Hore's head and allowed her to run onto it from the square. It also lifted us above our previous record low score, the 1.0 registered during that 2019 Adelaide fiasco. 

This prompted a too little/too late rally. When Scott was having another go, special commentator Abbey Holmes deviated from cheering on her old club to offer some hope. "Never say never" she said. "Never" replied Scott, as her kick fell short and was touched through. Neither she or Hore got to Cunningham's goal record, both falling one short to end the year. As well as her midweek win in the Colac Sportsmens Club 'Sports Star of the Year' award, Shelley's consolation prize is to now hold our record for most behinds kicked. Which is not something people are going to run on the ground to celebrate a'la Plugger's 1300th goal.

There's no junktime like a finals junktime, and with Adelaide practically standing back and waving us through, Hanks and Parry also added points, extending the score to 1.8. If the game carried on until Wednesday we might have kicked 1.28.34 and won. Time ran out a couple of days early, with another point on the siren somehow leaving us just 18 points behind. 

While any chance of winning flew out the window during the second quarter, I was both confused that we'd got so close and a bit deflated that we hadn't got a few points closer. Which is an appropriate way for a Melbourne season to end. 

2021 Daisy Pearce Medal
5 - Karen Paxman
--- Daylight ---
4 - Tyla Hanks
--- Moonlight---
3 - Shelley Scott
2 - Gabrielle Colvin
1 - Lily Mithen

Apologies to Gay, Heath, and Zanker, who might have got anything from 3 to 1 but ended up with none.

Final Leaderboard
The four-peat is complete, with Paxy crossing the line with more than a game in hand. Other than Gawn's six year streak in the closed-shop Stynes, this makes her the first player ever to take home four consecutive awards - beating 2012-2014 Jones in the Jakovich and 2009-2011 Frawley in the Seecamp. I reject the idea that any particular player 'deserves' a premiership, but like Daisy it will be tragic if she never gets a red-hot crack at an AFLW flag. Good thing they've got about 15 between them at state level.

Tyla Hanks' challenge petered out in the last few weeks, but it would be rude not to mention her going from five votes over the last two seasons combined to a strong second place here. Also good to see her Bunnings ad make a comeback just in time for it to stop being relevant again.

In the minors, Eliza McNamara will be pleased to wake up and discover that she's pocketed the Rising Star Award. In addition to the 2022 rookies, Krstel Petrevski, Megan Fitzsimon and anyone else who didn't play this year remains eligible under the new four game or less qualifying rule. 

Finally, Sinead Goldrick will be even more surprised to be named Defender of the Year considering it didn't exist until about two minutes before I typed this. I'm pleased to correct this oversight, and will be retrospectively awarding medals for previous seasons. It was not a highly competitive field, with Libby Birch dropping from 20 votes last year to none, but we did very much enjoy Sinead's Salem-esque runs out of defence.

36 - Karen Paxman (WINNER: Daisy Pearce Medal for Player of the Year)
27 - Tyla Hanks
21 - Lauren Pearce
20 - Lily Mithen
10 - Kate Hore, Shelley Scott
8 - Maddie Gay
6 - Tegan Cunningham, Eden Zanker
5 - Sinead Goldrick (WINNER: Defender of the Year Award)
4 - Daisy Pearce
3 - Eliza McNamara (WINNER: Rising Star Award)
2 - Gabrielle Colvin, Sarah Lampard, Jackie Parry, Casey Sherriff
1 - Alyssa Bannan

Next Year
Now that Zanker is a confirmed midfield ball-winner and Cunningham has gone two years without looking like a dangerous goalkicker, you'd think our key recruiting focus would a tall forward who is ready to go in Round 1, 2022. Scott is always welcome, and Bannan has years of development ahead of her, but we're still lacking somebody who can take contested marks. With limited teams to trade with I don't know where we're going to find one. Any mature age key forwards left in local competitions that fancy a go? 

While we could also use another good ball user in defence, if we can keep all our star players I'd expect to be deep in the finals mix again. Whether we're good enough to win a flag will depend on how much use our fish-pond depth gets, and how the fringe players and kids go.

For fans of drafting for fun names rather than need, I've assessed the potential draft crop (e.g. Googled '2021 AFLW draft prospects' and clicked on this article) and my wishlist includes Makaylah Appleby, Jorja Livingstone, and Peppa Poultney. Fortunately, Gypsy Schirmer will only be available in the SA portion of the draft, reducing any temptation to end up in controversy for referring to her teammates as tramps and thieves.

I don't know if what his contractual status is, but surely after five years of relatively successful coaching, surely Mick Stinear is going to want to have a crack in the men's system. Maybe not, he might think head coaching in a national competition > coaching in the VFL or Under 18s. And he's probably right, but I bet AFL teams don't see it the same way. Either way, he's got every right to be pleased about what he got this year from an inexperienced that has regularly been clobbered by injuries. The mid-season switcheroos with Pearce, Zanker, Cunningham etc... were a big hit, and should form part of any application he puts in for another job.

If he does go I'm sure there will be a huge romantic Daisy For Coach push, but let's not rush into anything. I'm sure as far as much-loved individuals rushed into the top job it won't go a bit James Hird and end in people being injected with Mexican harness racing drugs but you wouldn't want to rush into anything.

Final Thoughts
All things must pass, but it's been an enjoyable ride. The competition still has a way to go but despite adding new teams that have offered two-thirds of bugger the better teams are improving all the time. Must be about time to dilute the talent pool by expanding to 18 sides. May as well follow the Eddie McGuire plan and add sides in Darwin and Tasmania, thinning out the available players to the point where your grandmother has a shot at getting a game.

Anyway, until they get the dud teams going and the era of death, taxes and Melbourne being competitive ends I'm going to have fun watching them. And when they finally drop their bundle and plunge towards the bottom of the ladder, I might not enjoy it as much but will still be watching. Hopefully that's a few years away and we can have a genuine crack at the big one (the AFLW premiership, not COVID-19) again next year. Let's reconvene for another go in 2022.

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