Saturday, 15 January 2022

Who's next?

Once a soccer fan laughed heartily at my suggestion that the AFL would start a summer competition just to try and screw over the A-League. That's about the only thing I predicted correctly, I'd never have considered playing women coached by Ryan Ferguson, in hot, humid conditions, at a rebranded Punt Road in the middle/tail end/early stages (delete as applicable in the future) stages of a global pandemic. 

It was my first game back on Foxtel's coverage since Round 22 against Adelaide, and it was clear we were in for a huge night when the first thing I heard on commentary was a claim that Richmond's men had played their "first game of Australian Football" against us in 1908. Quite generous of the VFL to admit a team that had never tried the sport before. A while back mad people were trying to have VFA premierships included in their tallies, now the year a side turned up is being treated like Year Zero. It was not the last weird thing said on the call, which didn't even have the Brereton/McGuire style zany tangents factor to recommend it.

I could have done with extending the pre-match commentary improv when we conceded a goal after 20 seconds. Don't think our AFLW team has ever let one in that quickly. It came from a hefty clearance inside 50, then through by a basketballer who was only there because her game had been wiped out by COVID. We could sympathise with 'cron related team chaos, having lost the handy collection of Gay, Heath, Lampard, Scott and Sherriff to the wonderfully corporate 'AFL health and safety protocols'. The commentators kept referring to them as such throughout the game, long after everyone was clear that it was the league's 'protocol', not that of any government or the Federal Court.

The flip-side of losing a quintet (!) of key players was that we got back everyone who had been mysteriously absent (for the same reason as it turns out) last week. At first Goldrick, Magee and McNamara played like they had the Omicron, Delta and Ebola strains at the same time, racking up about 10 clangers between them in the first 10 minutes, but when they settled they were very good. McNamara was especially fantastic. You could cut her some slack for being hesitant at first when her last appearance on national television saw her bumped into oblivion during last year's Prelim.

Our very good friend the protocols hit the backline especially hard. Lampard is underrated, and Sherriff is always bobbing up down there before going on Langdonesque trots down the ground. This wouldn't have been so bad if we could keep the ball away - or god forbid score ourselves - but they were well up for it at the start. We turned back a few attacks but couldn't get anything going out way, barely squeaking a metre inside 50 on our first alleged attack. Things were going so badly that even when Harris did a tremendous spoil to win what had originally been a five-on-one contest, we didn't even get a point out of the subsequent mark in the pocket. Parry was a touch unlucky to be called play on when she moved about 4 millimetres off her line (especially considering how much wandering about there was on the mark throughout the night), but it looked like we'd struggle to reach double figures.

Enter Tayla Harris again, finally getting us on the board with a screaming pack mark. That's precisely the sort of goal we'd been missing the last couple of years. Not that there hadn't been 2500 efforts to set one up, just nobody capable of bringing them down regularly. Afterwards, Foxtel put up a graphic suggesting the goal had been kicked by McNamara, which is an easy mistake if you've never heard of or seen the most well-known player in the competition.

Considering the rancid first 10 minutes, a seven point quarter time deficit was positively generous. Last week we made our domination count first before doing bugger all. Richmond failed to do likewise. They might be no better than a fringe finals side but we've lost to worse.

The folly of not taking your chances (and with apologies to the guy in the Coles ad, getting a point for "just having a crack" only carries you so far) came back to haunt Richmond when Kate Hore arrived. She opened the quarter with a missed snap, then got another chance via Harris' second attempt to murder an opponent in a marking contest and levelled scores. Now things were getting interesting. Her second goal came from another set shot, which was nice but nowhere near as aesthetically pleasing as Bannan belting through the middle, taking two bounces and running her opponent into the ground before converting. She backed up for a second straight after, and christ on a bike the margin was 19. The next started with Pearce, Lauren in the ruck and ended in Pearce, Daisy getting a delightfully soft free. Still had to kick it though, which has not always been our forte, but through it went for six in a row and a big lead.

The party wound up there, but it was a delightful turnaround from those rough early minutes. Eliza West was particularly impressive in the comeback, playing so far inside that Donnie Brasco would have approved. Declaring anybody The Next [insert great player here] is fraught with danger, but she might go alright in the heart of our midfield after a few years at the Karen Paxman Finishing School. She's a second gamer off the rookie list, the recruiting hits just keep on coming. Piss off expansion sides, they're all ours.

Just when you thought Richmond's spirit had been broken and they might call it a night, we discovered that all the scoring was happening to the left of screen. They got two quick ones to start the second half, while our forward line had gone into full retreat again. About the only interesting event down our end was Harris nearly killing somebody else in a marking contest. It was a bit unnecessary in a semi-pro competition but you tell her to settle down. If she gets through the season without suspension it will be a miracle. 

Tayla's flirtation with an early holiday was as exciting as it got until the last minute, when the Hall of Fame combination of Daisy and Paxy combined for a steadier. We shambled our way forward for Zanker to have another shot after the siren that might have finished them off. It just fell short, but we'd done well to lose less than a goal off the lead. 

Richmond wouldn't reel in a four goal deficit unless we contributed with self-destruction, but when they kicked a freaky opener I did get a bit nervous. Hooray then for the 50 we got for the super administrative reason of the ball being put on the ground after a free. Even when they forgot to set up a mark and let Hore dash towards goal it shouldn't have been fatal, except when they failed to kill the ball, allowing it to be slapped into Harris' path to toe-poke home from the line.

Our COVID ravaged backline couldn't keep them out all night, and they made it ever so slightly interesting by reducing the margin to 17 with three minutes left. They had another kick soon after, but did their bit by wasting half a minute before missing anyway. Don't know why the clock kept going after that free and not the next one but it helped run the clock down until we were safe. 

It was not a perfect night, but considering the challenges we've already had with team selection a 2-0 start will do. We had to play the 'get out of upset jail free' card halfway through the first quarter, but the banana skin has been avoided. Get the COVID five back in the side and let's start doing some real damage..

2022 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Tyla Hanks
4 - Eliza West
3 - Karen Paxman
2 - Eliza McNamara
1 - Kate Hore

Apologies to Birch, Goldrick, Harris, L. Pearce and Bannan.

8 - Tyla Hanks
5 - Eden Zanker
4 - Libby Birch, Eliza West
3 - Karen Paxman
2 - Eliza McNamara, Casey Sherriff
1 - Kate Hore, Sarah Lampard

Goal of the Week
You couldn't go beyond the Bannon run. It was even better when she celebrated with a Diamond Dallas Page impersonation. That means nothing to 76% of readers, the rest are nodding sagely, remembering that magic evening when DDP dressed as La Parka to fool Randy Savage.

Crowd Watch
With the crowd capped, you could understand people watching from outside the fence. Especially when it means you can neck a Slurpee at the same time.

Also, have you ever considered how attending an AFLW game may be your best chance to be caught on camera coming out of a grimy portaloo. That way you'll be a part of the national game's broadcasting history. Try to make it a more exciting game than this so there's a chance somebody will watch it again in the future.

Next Week
In theory, it's St Kilda on Saturday afternoon. Who knows how many first-choice players either side will have after the old 'health and safety protocols' wreak havoc with team selection. This week we had so few players left one of the two emergencies wasn't even a listed player so anything could happen. If all last week's outs are in, and most of this week's ins recovered from a rocky start to be very good indeed, god knows where that leaves us. Which is just the level of in-depth analysis I know you're coming here for.

As for playing the Saints, I'm still scarred by that loss to them in the first season but surely not. Ok, if we lost 12 players to the big one and have to field players plucked from local parks there's a chance but with all we know now about clubs called Melbourne being good we're surely not going to fall over against strugglers like this. Worried anyway. 

Final Thoughts
I've forgotten what it feels like to lose.

Monday, 10 January 2022

You can win 'em all

On Saturday 29 June, 2013 we kicked off top-level women's football, our men won their second and last game of the season. Now the Melbourne Football Club may never lose another match. That's what I call progress.

You may have heard that our men's team did something absolutely bloody spectacular about four months ago. Scientists are still trying to work out what happened that night, and how close I was to dying at half time, but knowing the immeasurable joy that came from the last time we watched Melbourne play, I wasn't sure if I'd ever watch football in the same way again. There's previous form for going out on top, my peak years following Formula 1 were the lead-up to Jordan finally winning a race (the mere thought of Damon Hill at Spa still makes me misty-eyed), and several years of being right into the NRL effectively ended the moment I saw Wests Tigers win the flag in 2005. It's still the only time I've ever seen a team I follow win a major competition live, but for the first time since it seems feasible that it might happen in the AFL too. 

But no team affects me mentally, spiritually, and sometimes physically like the Dees. The only other club that goes within a million miles is Wimbledon, and even all the promotions (and in latter years, great escapes from relegation) together can't match what I felt on September 25, 2021 - a day that will truly live in famy. 

You may recall that halfway through the last quarter of the Grand Final, I bawled my eyes out like a baby. There were serious doubts that I could ever take footy seriously again, whether played by men, women or other. I'm pleased to report that when Lauren Pearce beat her opponent all ends up at the first bounce and tapped the ball straight to a teammate I got a rush that suggested everything's going to be ok. Maybe I'll re-evaluate after we've won both competitions several times in a row, until then I'm still prepared to get a bit silly about Australian rules football.

There are no guarantees this AFLW season will even finish, but our chances of making finals (again a top six, though they change the rules in this competition so often that it could end up as 12 finalists plus two wildcards) were greatly enhanced by beating one of the better teams. Or at least that's what I perceived them to be, in reality they've been 1-5, 2-5 and eighth over the last three years. Forget the bit where we lost to them in 2021, Footscray may actually be shite. That would remove a little of the shine from running them around like a training drill for the first 20 minutes here, so let's go with the fantasy about them still being serious contenders.

It was, like so many of our other AFLW games over the previous five years, a one quarter win. Everything after the opening term was good enough, and plenty of players contributed siren to siren, but the win was entirely set up at the beginning. When we lost the toss and had to kick into the wind I had my first "here we go" moment of the season, expecting to let in three unanswered goals, fail to take advantage of our turn with the breeze, then heroically battle back into it after half time before kicking 0.8 in the last and losing by a point. Old psychological habits die hard. 

Instead, we flicked two fingers at the conditions and spent the first quarter gleefully kicking around the Dogs like they weren't there. There was a mention in the commentary about how much Footscray coach Nathan Bourke hates possession football and is all about exciting spectacle. I don't think he meant it to come via his team struggling to get a touch but I was certainly entertained.

Even when they did shamble forward, our backline was immense. Libby Birch was just there last year, doing a job without ever looking dominant. Maybe it was the motivation of playing against her old side, but she was back in All Australian form here. They might want to edit the nomination tape to remove the bit where she gathered the ball on the line and flubbed a five metre kick straight to an opponent. Things were going so well that we even got away with that. All of this was achieved with a negligible contribution from Karen Paxman. I've got no doubt she'll be back, but maybe it's a Jack Viney style scenario where so many good players have turned up that she doesn't need to carry the rest of the team on her back anymore.

At first, there was a sense that our lovely linking play out of defence was going to run aground on a lack of attacking power. It wouldn't be the first time. Tayla Harris took a couple of strong marks up the ground, but still felt like we were lacking the killer touch inside 50. Then again, other than when teams play the competition's Flotsam and Jetsam, does anyone have the sort of firepower I've been longing for since 2017? And now that I've seen the twice-in-a-lifetime avalanches in finals Preliminary and Grand nothing's ever going to compare, so I may as well just take what I'm offered. 

In the absence of a star goalkicker we'll just have to keep sharing the goals around. It's strange how we've had nine players kick three in a game (including Alyssa Mifsud, who can be assured that if she ever Googles herself and finds this that I'm still thinking about how good she was in season one before disappearing off the face of the earth), but nobody's ever got four. One of the equal record holders is Richelle Cranston, who randomly turned up in Footscray's backline after her stint at Geelong. This competition has an A-League style fetish for recycling players. I thought one of the Dogs players looked familiar, turns out she played two seasons for us, achieving the rare feat of being traded in and out of the same club.

Contrary to the opinions of the former AFLW player paid to spruik odds during the breaks, betting on an honest, entertaining, but still semi-professional competition is a bit weird. However, if you'd asked me to back our first goalkicker I'd have chosen - in order - Hore, Harris, D. Pearce, Zanker, and about nine other players before Casey Sherriff. That's no reflection on her ability, she has been very good over the last couple of years, but I didn't expect a defender to wander forward and kick the sort of set shot our forwards have been missing since day one.

A second goal immediately after suggested some very good times in our future. The commentators were generous to Bulldogs fans by not mentioning what had happened the last time their team was on Channel 7, but by the time Zanker kicked a third I was noting that our run against the entire Footscray Football Club (trading as Western Bulldogs) from midway through the third quarter in Perth was up to 118-8.

A three goal lead into the breeze was a good platform to build on. Alas, even after winning many more games than we've lost over the years, this side has rarely played two great quarters in a row. Logic suggested that having done that against the wind we should have piled on goals in the second. Then classic Melbourne AFLW turned up and put on 1.6. That they only got 1.0 was credit to a backline that picked off aimless kicks inside 50 with the greatest of ease. The only problem was that they'd wised up to our hardly revolutionary tactic of kicking to a free player and started to put pressure on. We'd extended the gap by a goal at half time but I was hoping for a quarter of depravity that would make every other player in the competition's liver quiver. Unless they play for Geelong, who we don't need to worry about because we're destined never to play them for premiership points.

Not many AFLW sides would have blown a 23 point halftime lead, but we spent much of the third quarter giving it a red hot go. The margin got within two kicks before Harris forcibly removed her opponent and kicked a steadier. I was unnecessarily suss about recruiting a spearhead who averaged less than a goal a game, but I'm on board for more of this:

Minor scare aside, if we weren't going to lose from 23 points in front at half time, it would have been nigh on impossible for Footscray to overhaul a five goal deficit at the end. The wind had died down, but while that could have been expected to hurt us, it also didn't do anything to help them score. Indeed they did not, adding no goals nothing by the siren. We only kicked 1.2 of our own, but with nine (plus?) weeks to play there was clearly a spot of "that'll do for now" amongst the players. 

You can understand the reluctance to go full bore when the result was beyond doubt, when there had already been a raft of injuries. It was a big night for the weird subsection of hate-watching men who ring talkback radio and pretend they're concerned for the welfare of female players. They'd have been having a fit watching players go down like nine-pins here. The worst was the Bulldogs player who blew her ACL to the bejesus belt, but at various times we had Lauren Pearce, Lily Mithen, Karen Paxman and Ali Brown on the bench for treatment. All survived in such good shape that the match report on the AFL site denies that we had any injuries at all, but when the Dogs temporarily looked like mowing us down I was bricking it.

Hore added the exclamation mark with her second, going past Tegan Cunningham to become our all-time top AFLW goalkicker. There's plenty more where that came from if we're not forced to give her away to some shitbox expansion team. There's no doubt that the rush to add four new teams to an already stretched thin talent pool is going to cause chaos next year, and no chance the league will risk Hawthorn or Essendon being as putrid as Geelong, so watch for them to be given every advantage under the sun. I'll chain myself to objects to keep a lot of our players, but Hore and Zanker are a must. Witness the bit where Eden did a video game style spin-move through traffic and took off up the ground unchallenged. It was ace, and she's pictured doing that while wearing brown in 2023 I'll go the big vom.

And on that bombshell, it was a welcome return to watching footy. No matter what happens with the pandemic I suspect I'll be doing a lot of it from home this year so may as well get used to it.  

2022 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Eden Zanker
4 - Libby Birch
3 - Tyla Hanks
2 - Casey Sherriff
1 - Sarah Lampard

Apologies to Hore, L. Pearce, Gay and Mithen

Goal of the Week
Harris was solid most of the night, but her goal in the third quarter was a delightful hint of things to come. Here's to more opposition defenders being shoved around like shop mannequins before the year is done.

Uniform Watch
Why were our numbers so comically small? The Jaguar logo is way too high, causing them to have to squeeze in digits that look like they're off early 90s Auskick jumpers. These are the sort of things you complain about when you've got nothing serious left to worry you. 

Next Week
Unless there's widespread COVID chaos and we lose 15 players to the 'cron, it's back to our rightful place in primetime, against Richmond on Friday night. Their thumping win over St Kilda has got a question mark over it due to the Saints seemingly being shit, but there would be nothing more Melbourne AFLW than following a good win by kicking 2.11 in losing to a midtable side. In fact it would make perfect sense if we fell over here, but I don't think we will. 

The good news is that there are players to come back. Presumably, our Irish players aren't locked up in a hotel with Novak Djokovic so I'd be keen to see Goldrick back as soon as possible. Magee went from NFI to very handy at warp speed last year so she's welcome to have another go too. I searched Twitter to see if Goldrick was injured and all I found were tweets referring to how good she is at Gaelic Football, which is ace but I'm more interested in seeing her pissbolting out of our backline at speed.

Elsewhere, attempts to keep the competition afloat start with Freo and West Coast relocating here for a few weeks and playing the wackiest double header of all time at the Western Oval against the Suns and Giants.

Final Thoughts
Things can never be the same again after 25/09/2021 but I still reserve the right to go off my nut over any footy team that starts in 'Mel' and ends in 'Bourne'.