Monday 5 April 2021

Keep the Red and Blue flag flying

I don't know if anyone else remembers what they did on a random Friday night in 2005, but luckily I've kept comprehensive notes of what happened the last time we started a season 3-0. Apparently I donned an IRA style balaclava, sang the theme song while shaking a Ponsford Stand railing like the Ultimate Warrior, argued with Geelong fans (who, to be fair, had the last laugh), climbed a fence to tell randoms on a train how good the Dees were and ended the night as the passenger in a minor traffic accident. No cocktail of drink and drugs needed, I was high on winning.

There's been a bit of water under the bridge since, in both my life and that of the footy club. They may have generally done bugger all in the intervening years but I've matured, confining my celebrations this time to triumphant fist-pumping and squealing noises whenever Kysaiah Pickett went near the ball. In the spirit of recent events in Canberra I briefly considered having a celebratory Sherman over my desk at the final siren.

The lesson of what happened next in 2005 was another good reason not to toss dignity about the window and roam the streets telling people about the Dees. That year we lost our next start and were down to 11th place by Round 19, only making the final via a white-knuckle comeback then losing our only final by nine goals on the day Steven King kicked Jeff White's face off. So while I'm overjoyed to have three wins in the bank this early in the season. In my lifetime we've gone 12 months without that many victories, I'm not going to turn them back just because the opposition weren't Hawthorn 1989, Essendon 2000 and the US Marine Corps.

Usually after we've had a few wins old players will be wheeled out to declare it the best Melbourne side since Norm Smith and every player on the list will be the subject of a double page newspaper spread. This time I'm expecting the opposite, with media and neutral fans alike invoking the 'who have they beaten?' rule to treat us like frauds. It's fair enough to question whether this form is sustainable against top teams, but there's no need to be entirely self-deprecating about our position. We've played three half-decent (and perhaps no more) sides, have been challenged every time and gone on to win comfortably every time. 

Obviously, the draw has been kind to us (which is fine to say after winning all three, originally it looked like we were walking into a coach-killing trap), and the Giants suffered casualties at a faster rate than any opposition since the Viet Cong, but I'll take it without complaint. You don't have to queue for Grand Final tickets, just be happy that it's not going badly this time. And by comparison to every other season 2006-2020, and most of the ones before that, it's better than the alternative.

To get to 3-0 we had to bypass GWS, who have gone from playing in a Grand Final years ago to being included in 'who'll win a premiership first?' discussions alongside Gold Coast. They were rotten last week, but this was always a danger game. Even though you can fit all the people who care deeply for them in a Skoda Octavia there was always going to be a response to their winless start. Especially as it came at the same time everyone is watching a documentary where Leon Cameron says "fuck" a lot and treats Steven Coniglio like a stooge. 

Not that the Giants were much good last year, but Neon Leon's cause has been made harder by a black death style injury crisis that has left him fielding a side chockers with randoms. With no better idea on how stop us they resorted to the oldest move in the book, going the big scrag. There's no hard feelings from me, I'm in the camp that believes in winning by any means necessary. If that means dragging the game back to defensive levels not seen since... last year... then best of luck to you. It might also delay the inevitable change of tone from "yay, footy is back" to "boo, there's not enough defence", at the end of a week where teams have been thrashing each other off the park.

The first line of negativity was a comprehensive campaign of abuse against Clayton Oliver. This worked an absolute treat, cutting him out of the game to the point where Goodwin caved in and send him forward. That almost came off, leading to three shots on goal but all were missed because he was too busy concentrating on how he was going to counter-niggle the opposition after converting. It's a good template for other coaches to use on him but they've tried this before and he's usually back to having 30 touches with his eyes closed the next week.

No matter how many important players the Giants were missing, I still went into this game on high alert. It didn't help that we've got a worse record in Canberra than the Palmer United Party. Not only were there pre-game nerves to contend with, but other road users putting a Leon style tag on me. Cars swerving into my lane, cyclists doing turns at random, and one dickhead wandering from between two buses onto a main road while staring at their phone. 

None of this would have been relevant if it hadn't endangered my chances of being in a comfortable position for the first bounce. I don't imagine it would go down well if you knocked somebody over and were caught watching footy on your mobile while they were being extracted from your bonnet by the jaws of life. 

Good thing I avoided road tragedy and caught the opening seconds of the game, because they offered a preview three key storylines. There was GWS players grabbing opponents whether they had the ball or not, the decriminalisation of throwing the ball, and Max Gawn constantly pulling the piss out of anyone in a GWS jumper. 

These factors combined with some good old fashioned crumb for our first goal, with Anal-Bullet ripping the ball off a pack and rolling it through from an obscure angle while running towards the boundary line. It would have won the Davey nomination about 14 of 16 weeks last year, but this week we've upper the ante on entertainment value and it would have finished second to Langdon in Round 1, Pickett in Round 2, and [no spoilers, but you know who I mean] last night.

Based on how easily that goal came you might have been forgiven for thinking we were going to romp to a famously one-sided victory. Considering how often the ball went forward we might have, if we'd had tall forwards to take advantage. Instead, on the weekend where Josh Bruce and Harry McKay combined for 17 goals our plan seemed to be "if they can do it, anyone can", followed by an endless stream of hopeful hoofs to the top of the square.

This tactic didn't do much for Tom McDonald, whose improvement over the first two weeks came to a crashing halt in probably his worst game in attack. He was relieved of his duties by Max Gawn, who wasn't required to roam the back line due to the lack of GWS talls (and now that they can't hurt us until Round 16 at the earlier, we wish Preuss and Hogan a speedy recovery), and could scare the bejesus out of the Giants defence instead.

As an alternative to tall forwards, GWS turned to Toby Greene as an alternative source of goals. I don't like him because he got on the cans and belted a security guard, but I do appreciate that he's the best villain in the game. Other than unprovoked violence against the working man, there should be more players like him. His act is even better because it's all done with a serial killer-esque 'lights on/christ only knows who's home' expression and the simultaneously least and most villainous first name ever.

Greene was almost their only resistance against us. See, for instance, the goal that almost immediately cancelled out ANB's opener. After the umpire missed Jetta doing the biggest throw since Jack Fitzpatrick on Queen's Birthday, Tobes was caught marginally high and wasn't going to get the free until he threw himself into the ground like he'd just suffered a crippling spinal injury. I wish we had somebody like that. Let other teams hate as long as they fear.

Our first goal was not only wasted quickly, it almost instantly turned into two in the other direction. From the next bounce, GWS burst forward and nearly capitalised on the slapstick Benny Hill-like scenario of May failing to grasp a handball because he was instinctively protecting himself from the football rocketing towards his cruets. I didn't much like our midfield being beaten that easily, but they redeemed themselves as the night went on.

The score gradually drifted out to an 18 point Giant lead, and when Gawn hit the post from 20 metres out (refilling the gag bank for every second rate footy 'comedian') I was preparing for a deluxe cracking of the shits. Temporary respite came from Petracca, who marked 30 metres out and wisely chose 'forceful snap around body' over 'seemingly easy set shot' for the goal, which for him was the high percentage option. You can still see the cupping related trauma on his legs, which makes you wonder what traumas we've visited on Jay Lockhart's split bollock.

This time we managed to hold out for a good five minutes before giving the goal back, ending the first quarter 16 points down and back to looking like we were going to concede every time the ball went inside 50. I think our problem was that the Giants didn't have enough talls, removing the temptation to do the sort of pointless long kicks that May and Lever (usually) eat for breakfast.

Just as I was preparing to call for a leadership spill, Goodwin and Co's Plan B came to the rescue again. For all the cliched whinging about coaches not having backup plans, the last couple of games have been a throwback to his first Stranglewank-heavy season, where we wouldn't start playing until four goals behind.

If Bayley Fritsch should stop leading to the pocket - more on that shortly - maybe Luke Jackson should start. After missing multiple chances from directly in front this season, he opened the second with a goal from right in the middle of postcode 3131. This was even more direct than the opening goal of the game, coming from a textbook centre clearance.

Fritsch was obviously inspired by Jackson's finish, remarking his territory by goalling from almost the same spot two minutes later. This reduced the margin to less than a goal, shortly before GWS players started dropping like flies. First to go was Phil Davis, whose usual tactic against us is to climb onto the back of a key forward and ride him like a mechanical bull for four quarters. We put him off by effectively not playing any talls, leaving him to do a hammy chasing Luke Jackson around the half-forward flank.

The Giants activated (*spit*) the medical sub, only for Leon's mate Coniglio to do himself a mischief almost immediately after. If you'd only taken up watching Melbourne in the last couple of years the opposition losing players to injury might seem like a positive. Others remember a famous day at the MCG where they lost three players to injury and still beat us by 10 goals. Thankfully, any similarities to the incredibly tedious 2014 Melbourne side ended there. Meanwhile, as the Giants lost players hand over fist, we've still never used the sub. Like Kade Chandler and Oskar Baker before him, Jake Melksham will now be credited with a senior match after a relaxing four quarters of watching from the bench. Can't even remember him being shown on TV, he might have ducked out for a Kentucky.

As soon as we were within striking distance we weren't, with Josh Kelly responding to the suggestion that GWS would have been better off with Christian Salem and a pre-Melbourning Dom Tyson by kicking his second. Some unkind people tried to nominate him for a Kingsley, and I'd like to remind them that he's still going to be earning a million dollars a year soon so mere words cannot hurt him.

Regardless of that goal, we were by some distance the better team in the second quarter. One Giants defender recognised this and paid tribute by slapping the ball straight over the line in the back pocket, gifting Charleston Spargo a goal. A minute later we were in front, with Pickett getting his conventional goal out of the way before settling down to the important task of monopolising the week's highlights packages.

You'd never be confident following Melbourne, but even after going behind again we had much better control of what was going on now. With all their injuries you hoped it was just a matter of running GWS off their legs and taking advantage of our famous fitness advantage. Do we still have one? It's hard to know without a rapidly backfiring pre-season documentary to base wild assumptions on. 

We do know that Darren Burgess is all but certain to go back to Adelaide next year. The club tried hosing speculation down but made it even more obvious that he'll be doing a bunk sharpish. I think this is a bad thing for us, but probably good for him - the natural lifespan of any fitness guru is for fans to think they're geniuses for a couple of years then hold them personally responsible for every injury. Knowing our luck we'll be on the verge of something special then hire an escaped lunatic with forged credentials as his replacement.

Deep cynicism about our ability to take advantage of wounded teams aside, I was confident we would outrun them after half time. The only question was whether our makeshift forward line could kick a big enough score to make up for the inevitable fluky out the back goals and nutso umpiring decisions. 

The return to 2019 level scoring didn't do us any favours. As much as I like defence and was perfectly satisfied with the way the game was being played, you can't help a bit of FOMO seeing the Bulldogs and Essendon (!) rack up monster scores. Remember how much fun it was scoring 146, 159 and 146 over three straight weeks during 2018? I need that back in my life. Then we had Hogan and McDonald, now every week is another step closer to B. Brown, Weideman, or both coming back to claim the goals that are rightfully theirs. And a step closer to their return date being pushed out by another week.

While our backline looked nervier than any time in the last three weeks, I did enjoy Jayden Hunt's game. Though I refuse to accept that half back is his best position it doesn't mean he can't contribute in the role. Problem is that we've been here earlier in his career, and once opposition coaches realise what's up and stick players in his way he'll be stuffed. GWS didn't bother, allowing him to rebound through the middle of the ground all the live long day. During the week they accidentally sent this out:

Letting Hunt (back, we are to happy to report, in his jolly red and blue headband) rebound like a madman would have been in the top five.

Other than when we got ahead of ourselves early in the last term, that was as good as it got for the nominal home side. For the third quarter in a row we goalled in the opening minute, this time after 15 seconds, and were not headed again. Fritsch's goal finally prompted our players to engage in some manly jostling with their opponents. About time, considering one of our most important players spent the whole first half being scragged to buggery. I'd have preferred it to have come from direct flag-flying two minutes into the first quarter rather than waiting for a post-goal "stick that up your arse" opportunity, but it was better than nothing.

This is where things got psychedelic, as they often do when Pickett is involved. Unless his name is Gawn there's nothing more frightening than a ruckman taking a mark deep in defence, and Maximum's opposite number couldn't have telegraphed the destination of his kick any better if he'd had handed out written instructions. Pickett saw it coming a mile off, charged in to spoil, scooped the ball off the ground, changed direction while leaping to his feet in the same motion, then almost lost the ball behind his back, turned around and snapped the goal. The combined 60% of the crowd who were either Melbourne fans or Canberra neutrals who couldn't give a shit about the Giants went wild.

Now two goals up, our cause was further enhanced by the Giants losing another player. Another way to look at it was, we were going to come off as complete cockheads for losing. Which is why I nearly broke an inanimate object after Lever slaughtered May with a floaty switch kick, leaving four GWS players to raffle the goal. Lever had an old school Tom McDonald style defensive game, generally solid but with a couple of ripping howlers that allow people to complain about him.

At one point the commentator screamed "Cumming over Gawn!1!!!" and indeed we were when he took a towering mark at the other end. McDonald is handicapped by not being 208cm tall, but if he could get back to taking forward marks like this he'd be kicking 50 goals again before he knew it. The only problem with Gawn creating aerial terror is that as much I despise the "hurr hurr he can't kick straight" wankfest there is enough evidence - including from earlier in this game - to suggest there's a point to it. No issues this time though. Bit early for a captain's goal but appreciated nonetheless.

Though we packed it in later in the quarter and failed to press home the advantage, another Fritsch goal left us 19 up at the last change. Exactly how far GWS were in front on the day we inexplicably dumped 12 goals on them in the last half an hour.

Thankfully, for both our season and my nerves, there was no similar comeback in Canberra. The Giants did have one last burst of defiance that scared the bejesus out of me. This time we were the ones to concede a goal in the opening seconds, before our old mate Toby got another almost immediately after to reduce the margin to six. Cue the sound of both supporters and players alike shitting themselves. At least I wasn't wearing white shorts.

Just as I was pondering a bit of self-harm, Pickett took advantage of the most wank-handed attempt at a spoil this decade to pluck the ball out of mid-air and kick a steadier from the square. This was much to the delight of one Hawthorn supporting child in the crowd. Maybe the reflected glory of being this close to the new Most Exciting Player In The League will lead him to be the first kid to chose us over the Hawks since me in 1988. 

Thank god, that was all the encouragement the Giants needed to give up, and we ran away to a relatively easy win. Gawn kicked a snap so hard that you could hear a satisfying *THUD* through the effects mic, Pickett got his fourth after the umpire ignored Fritsch doing a Jake The Snake Roberts DDT on an opponent. Brayshaw and Jordon then added the exclamation marks, before we let in the traditional Seemingly Meaningless Late Goal That Will Ultimately Cost Us A Finals Spot.

All-in-all, a job well done. Of course it might have been as easily done if all their players had remained upright but can't help it if we're lucky. In the end all that matters are entries in the 'W' column. We've got three, GWS has none and if we find a way to finish the home and away season below them on the ladder I'll spew up. 

2021 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Max Gawn
4 - Kysaiah Pickett
3 - Ed Langdon
2 - Jayden Hunt
1 - Christian Salem

Apologies to Brayshaw, Jackson, Fritsch and Viney.

8 - Clayton Oliver
7 - Kysaiah Pickett
5 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Steven May (JOINT LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year), Christian Salem (JOINT LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
4 - Jake Lever, 
3 - Ed Langdon, Christian Petracca
2 - Jayden Hunt, Adam Tomlinson
1 - Charlie Spargo

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Everyone loves an electric small forward, and the way Pickett is going he might go past Christian Petracca's record of 18 weekly nominations by the end of this year. With apologies to ANB he's the man again in Round 3. Due to the number of manouevres executed in a confined space within three seconds I'm sticking with last week's goal as the clubhouse leader for the annual award.

For the weekly prize he wins the services of a bodyguard, to keep away both supporters and the sort of media leeches who cling to exciting players as if they had some role in their success.

I suspect Foxtel wasn't taking their responsibility to cover this game very seriously. Which is understandable when it probably lost the ratings to Channel 31.

The first hint that they didn't give a rats was the commentary team, a C-Grade combination of Kelli Underwood and Leigh Montagna. In the Fox Footy commentary depth chart they're only marginally higher than the break-in-case-of-emergency callers that aren't allowed to have their faces shown on screen.

Possibly due to the fact that Foxtel is losing about $400 million a year, they were calling the game off the TV, revealed when they suddenly appeared on a 'Sunday Ticket' set that had clearly not been built inside the Jack Fingleton Memorial Scoreboard. I don't mind this but would appreciate the illusion that they care enough to send callers. Now we know Kelli was just making up the claim that "they call him Slick Fritsch". I don't think they do. It almost made me wish people would stop being mad at Eddie McGuire so we could have him back, unnecessary Collingwood references and all.

On a semi-related topic that I don't have anywhere else to discuss, can somebody explain the horse racing lunatics program on SEN just before 6? I tuned in expecting to hear the end of Carlton/Freo, but not having the rights to it they gave valuable airtime to a pair of unhinged characters alternating between shouting about horse racing and leaving dead air because they'd run out of things to shout about. I have heard this remarkable presentation once before, where they were screaming their tits off about 'the punt' with a recording of Lisa Simpson singing about the Springfield Nuclear Plant in the background. It was amazing, like they'd resurrected the old Gladiators of Sport and let them on during daylight hours.

Next Week
After three weeks of playing top eight contenders who may not actually be top eight contenders, Geelong next Saturday should prove a real test. Mind you, they lost to Adelaide and only got past Brisbane via the most squibbed umpiring decision in the history of VFL/AFL football, so who knows if they're any good. Despite this, beating them will not only equal our best start since 1994 but will firmly clamp shut the "beaten nobody" crowd. I'm too broken by years of disappointment to even consider the idea that we might win.

As for changes, I've got nothing. Who are you going to play forward if McDonald is dropped? Whether Mitch Brown, Daw or Darren Bennett, they're all going to have the same issues if they don't get any support. If anything I'd be tempted to bring one of them in, perhaps not Darren, and give him some help, allowing Gawn to float around the defence saving us as required, but can't think of anyone deserving of going out of the side.

LUCKY: McDonald, Jones
UNLUCKY: Melksham, Chandler, Baker (if I just add the unused sub every week I might end up with 22 different unluckies).

Final Thoughts
Now that both our male and female teams are unstoppable there's going to be a tremendous letdown when we start losing again. For now I'm choosing to ignore all caveats and exemptions about our unbeaten record and roll around in it like this:

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