Sunday 4 April 2021

When you're hot you're hot

Against all odds the AFLW fairytale continues, as the team that people (e.g. me) suggested were barely good enough to sneak into the finals a few weeks ago registered their fifth straight win - and fourth in a row against a premiership contender. It's still unlikely to end in a flag, but who would bet against this side doing something remarkable?

Though I'm quite smitten by this side (in a purely platonic, sporting way), the timing of their game couldn't have been been any more inconvenient for me, wedged between two lengthy overnight shifts at Kruger Industrial Smoothing. 

The plan was to go to bed at 09:00, wake at about 15:00 and watch this on full-express mode, fast-forwarding through not only all pre-match content and quarter breaks, but also recovering 30 seconds after every goal, with the intention of having it all wrapped by 17:00, balancing my interest in watching teams called Melbourne with my desire not to drive home in the morning like Lachie Hunter. 

I missed the target by an hour, wide-awake at 14:00 and unable to relax while knowing a Melbourne side was an hour into a final. Everything's come a long way in 15 years, when I rode the heartstopping finish to the 2005 home and away season, then opted to go to work instead of attending our first (and as it turns out only) final.

So, it all got a bit In Bed With Mercado, as I propped a pillow up and started watching on my phone. The Kayo mobile app has never let me down during a Melbourne game, which is amazing because every time I watch a neutral game it crashes about 13 times an hour.

Unlike any game played within a reasonable distance of the CBD, there was no guilt at not seeing it live. I think we've established by now that I'd rather do a faithful recreation of the journey of Burke and Wills than venture to Cranbourne. Distance is one good reason not to go there, the other is cyclonic winds. In this case of the 30-something degree variety. Sod that. 

The setup worked for us in the end, but it's hard to understand why they'd play finals at such a venue. I'm not angling to be nominated for my own Mr. Spectacle award, but playing on a ground where one end is rendered practically unplayable by the conditions can't do much for neutrals. Under a system where you can't have more than two finals in the same city on the same weekend, this would have been a perfect opportunity to book dear old Princes Park for both days and turn it into a finals hub.

But for our purposes, long may Fortress Casey continue, especially when interstate teams have to fly to Melbourne Airport then car their arse halfway to Phillip Island for a game. It still felt a big comical having teams line up for the national anthem at a ground with '[CLIP ART TRAFFIC CONE] Advanced Traffic Management' as a fence sponsor. Also the traditional owners of Casey Fields would have welcomed their mention, after about 912 games where there was no M.C, and therefore no interest in acknowledgement.

Anyone who remembers when North's theme had 'THE KANGAS!" artlessly pasted over the top of 'North Melbourne' would have loved the new recording of the national anthem. By decree of ScoMo 'young' and free has been replaced by 'one' and free, and there was obviously not enough time for the AFL to organise a new recording, because they just bunged the word 'one' on top of 'young' on the same tape they've been playing for 20 years. It was an appropriately slapstick start to a game that featured an almost total inability to master the conditions and some of the most shambolic goalkicking ever seen.

To the naked eye, Freo winning the toss and electing to kick with a wind so fierce that you could see the pole bending on a child's flag was a bad thing. After COVID shafted them out of an almost certain flag last year, they've dedicated their 2021 campaign to becoming the worst first quarter team ever to breath air, averaging a first quarter goal every three weeks and making Baileyball look potent. Now, after a month of goalless opening terms I didn't fancy them using the roaring forties to pile on a big total for us to chase.

There were no such problems, the warm weather might have been right up the Dockers' alley, but the wind completely bamboozled them. Unlike our last meeting, when their 'attack optional' strategy also left them goalless for the entire first half, conditions stopped us from building a big lead in the first quarter, but under the circumstances a one goal lead was gold.

It was not even a lucky lead, the sort where you pull off one fluke inside 50 after the other side has kicked five behinds from directly in front. The ball spent most of the quarter down our end but never quite close enough for the tap in from the square that the conditions demanded. The soon-to-be best on ground Maddie Gay discovered this when she marked 25 metres out on a slight angle and sliced the ball out on the full. 

Though the wind could have brought down an Airbus A380, Tyla Hanks couldn't blame it for her miss. After one of those delightful swerves through traffic that she's made famous this year she missed an open goal. Another shot was barely touched through by a defender - though at the same end Hanks was rorted from a few weeks earlier I suspect goal line technology would have seen it differently. I didn't like missing opportunities to kick goals into the wind, but the longer the ball stayed down our end the closer we were to escaping the first quarter unscathed. As that sort of thinking is incompatible with the AFL's new compulsory spectacle policy I'm expecting them to disqualify us from the rest of the season.

The breakthrough, for once very much with the run of play, came from Bannan, whose path around a defender was assisted by just flat out dropping the ball on the ground in the act of kicking, then taking advantage of her opponent exiting stage left trying to smother the original kick to retake it on the bounce and stuff the goal home. Given that the Freo player didn't lay a fingernail on her it was, presumably, legal. Not that she didn't do the briefest glance at the umpire in the immediate aftermath, expecting it to be taken away.

Given that they couldn't clear the ball from the defensive 50 if their lives depended on it, the ball returning to the centre post-goal was an opportunity for Freo to win a clearance, go forward and put some pressure on at their end. This theory didn't take into account the presence of Lauren Pearce, who you would be doing a disservice to describe as the female Max Gawn. She is, in her own right, a fantastic player, without requiring comparison to A. Popular Man.

Ever since the big switcheroo post-Collingwood debacle that sent Daisy Pearce forward, Zanker into the midfield and Cunningham further up the ground, our pressure has been incredible. Freo knew what was coming but couldn't do anything about it, and for a time they looked like kicking 0.0 with Hurricane Bertha at their back. It took 10 minutes and a series of last-ditch efforts by our defenders to unconvincingly wobble a point through.

The rest of the first quarter was largely played (warning - incoming cliche) between the arcs. The Dockers got another behind, leaving them a goal down and having entirely wasted the advantage. I'd have been more comfortable if I wasn't worried that we were about to do exactly the same thing. Nerves were calmed by a goal in the first 30 seconds, featuring Scott toe-poking a wind-assisted Paxman bomb home from the line.

Freo were now arguably in an even bigger hole than our last meeting, and all that stopped us from having the game won at half time was the lack of a key forward target. In a great moment for footy equality, both our men and women alike are in the same boat, they're winning but it feels like they'd be doing it a lot easier with a big forward to kick to. Maybe that's too simplistic, and by aiming at one player we'd miss the chance to share the goals. 

Besides, a different forward structure may have detracted from Shelley Scott's rich vein of form. When her snap from outside 50 landed perfectly and bounced through an unguarded square we were three goals up and flying. This season she's doubled her previous career best goal tally, and this put her right in the middle of the highly competitive race to become our all-time top goalscorer. She ended the day on 24, one behind Tegan Cunningham, and one ahead of Kate Hore. 

I'd still like to see what we could do with a strong marking, long kicking forward, but in a week where we've made a Preliminary Final I'm prepared to stick with the Stinear Method. And won't the coach be littering his greatest hits compilation/application for other jobs with footage from the last few weeks My only opinions on what constitutes 'good coaching' are entirely done on the vibe but it feels like he's on fire (Jane Lange cameo in Perth notwithstanding). The positional moves have all been winners, the way we've set up in games has been great. Whether our form extends to making a Grand Final - or better - will be decided over the next fortnight, but it's shitloads better than what was expected either before the season started or in the wake of our Victoria Park capitulation.

Further opportunities to pile on the misery were missed, including Cunningham doing one of the worst set shots ever. She has lost all momentum as a forward but played a very good game further up the ground, doing plenty of work in the defensive wall that kept Freo pinned in their own half most of the time.

Our inability to kick the Dockers while they were down came back to haunt us eventually, but not until after the break. Courtesy of the ball being stuck down the other end for about 90% of the quarter, Freo went scoreless and into the break behind by 19 points. This didn't feel like nearly enough, and almost wasn't.

Freo must have huddled around a 'how does wind work?' YouTube video at half time, because this time they took to the task like you'd have expected them to the first time around. This time they got the ball down their end and we were unable to extract it, inevitably leading to the first goal, a bomb from outside 50 that just dropped over the line. That was fine, you thought, if they were going to have to get all their goals like that a 15 minute quarter would expire before they could do too much damage.

Cue much nervousness, as it briefly looked like we'd be forced to come from behind in the final term. Knowing our luck the wind would have turned 180 degrees during the three quarter time break. It was one thing to hold them out, but we looked as likely to score as they did in the second term. That was until Tarrant got on the end of handballs from Hanks and Hore (the real Triple H) to kick her first senior goal. Makes sense, she did get recalled to the team off the back of five goals in a VFLW game, only to be plonked in defence out of necessity. Her finish here suggested a move back to the forward line in the future.

This was nearly one of those goals that turns out to be counterproductive because it prompts the other side to kick two. The first came straight out of the centre, followed by a snap towards a vacant goalsquare that rolled wide. You'll never say no to a goal, but ultimately it might have been better if Tarrant had missed and we'd locked the ball in down the other end, instead of eventually losing one - and very nearly 12 - points off the lead.

Considering how badly sides had struggled into the wind all day, I was confident that a 10 point last quarter lead would be almost blunder-proof. Enter the latest Demontime outrage, a Freo goal with 53 seconds left that left them within a kick. The remainder of the quarter was spent on the back foot, barely avoiding conceding another. That would have changed everything, giving Freo the chance to cynically waste time in the last quarter. I wouldn't have blamed them, that's what we (unsuccessfully) tried to do a fortnight ago. 

In the end, there were few worries, they played another quarter that suggested none of them has ever played into a head-wind, leaving us to make the result safe via the less desirable method of kicking lots of points. When a Gay miskick extended the margin, slowly, beyond a goal I was reasonably confident that we weren't going to bottle it. There were 10 minutes left, but every attack successfully wasted more time. On the rare times Freo got it beyond their 50 it usually pinged straight back in for another go.

The lack of a killer blow still kept the door open for a traumatic finish. Even with five minutes to go it would have taken one goal from a quick break and another from a centre clearance to stitch us up. If you were writing the script on behalf of the World Wrestling Federation it would end in Roxy Roux winning it over against former adversary Libby Birch, setting off the brawl of the millennium. In reality, Roux barely got near it all day, restricted to three kicks by the fact that her teammates couldn't get it over the halfway line for 75% of the game.

For the second time in three weeks, the coup de grace came from Maddie Gay, who can't kick a set shot to save herself unless it's the fourth quarter and Freo are involved. After a near miss, via beating our old mate Roxy to intercept a kick-in and another time-sapping miss by Parry, Gay finally landed one. The Freo players were convinced they'd touched it, the goal umpire was not going to ruin the occasion. As far as late goals in qualifying finals go, it didn't set off the same reaction as Spargo's from the square against Hawthorn but I still thrust my arms in the air - nearly flinging the phone across the room - and yelled "YES!"

On paper it was a surprisingly comfortable victory. In reality the margin between comfort and trauma was much narrower. Had one player failed to run past the mark at the correct angle a few minutes earlier we could very well have been defending a lead of less than one straight kick. But you make your own luck, and our commitment to both avoiding administrative 50s and TORMENTING Freo's half-forward line came together to deliver the goods. 

Every week since the first Adelaide game this has been the good shit. The only downside to next week is that to have any chance of seeing a Grand Final live we have to go for Collingwood against Brisbane. If it's an all-Victorian decider it gives us the chance of the ultimate revenge over the Pies. On the other hand, it also offers the prospect of seeing them beat us for a premiership live. Let's get rid of the Crows first then work that out.

2021 Daisy Pearce Medal
5 - Maddie Gay
4 - Karen Paxman
3 - Lauren Pearce
2 - Lily Mithen
1 - Sarah Lampard

Apologies to Cunningham, Hanks, Scott, Sherriff (the most apologised to player in the history of this award), and Zanker. 

Having all but seen off the Hanks challenge, Paxman's four-peat is nearly certain. Tyla is the only player who can still overtake her and win outright, while Lauren Pearce can only dream of grabbing a share of the title via dual BOGs in Prelim and Grand Final. And fat chance of winning both those games if Paxman polls zero twice. What a legend.

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

Crowd Watch
The only MFC-related celebrity they could find in the audience - at least in the times that I wasn't fast-forwarding - was Ben Brown. On the weekend where he lost his record as the last player to kick 10 in a game, I reckon he was trying to promote tp the community that he plays for Melbourne now so people would stop associating him with 128 point losers North.

Media Watch
Bec Goddard is my underrated commentary highlight of the season. She won't be to everyone's tastes, but her stream-of-consciousness special comments are like a lucid Malcolm Blight, without the smug self-belief that everything she says is prophetic. Mind you, if Dwayne referred to trees in the background as 'broccoli' I'd call him a [censored on legal advice], so perhaps I'm being overly generous. A rising Jason Bennett lifts all boats. 

Next Week
It's Adelaide at Norwood Oval next Saturday afternoon. In an NQR fixture quirk this will be the first time our women have ever played in the state of South Australia. Our only previous away game against the Crows was played in Darwin. By my count, this will be the first time our Redlegs have played at the ground of their Redlegs since 1974. There is also some chance of the game being relocated to the Adelaide Oval, where we last played in... err... 2020. [Hello from the future - never mind that the game did get switched to Adelaide Oval, I was wrong on our last appearance at Norwood Oval - against all odds it actually happened in 1992].

At the time of writing, nobody's said anything about Meg Downie limping off late in the last quarter like her ankle had burst. It didn't make the injuries section of the match report, and I haven't seen any obituaries for her season so I'll assume it's either a) not all that bad, or b) she'll come up as a surprise omission. Not a lot left in the tank if neither she or Daisy is fit. Presumably Tarrant would go back into defence and either McEvoy or Fitzsimon - the only players left on the list who've played a senior game - would come back in. 

For the last five weeks my expectations on this team have been confounded, so while my head says a two-time premiership team aren't going to fall for the same sort of manic pressure as our last meeting, the heart says we can do it. Go well ladies.

Final Thoughts

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