Sunday, 23 January 2022

Wobbling towards glory

Finally, Melbourne came back to Casey Fields. At three quarter time, things looked more Maurie Fields, as the Great Australian Joke loomed over fans who have grown accustomed to winning every game from now until the end of time. 

Scores were level and we were about to kick with a strong breeze, but I was still bracing for disaster. History suggests you'll win far more often than not in those circumstances, but kicking 1.8 in losing to expansion St Kilda in 2020 is the AFLW game that haunts me so you can understand queasy feelings. It was easy to imagine us taking the ball to the left of screen for 10 minutes, missing five shots in a row, then losing to a fluky goal on the break. 

Like Jack Darling, I should have trusted science. Not only did the big wind help us over the line, it scattered St. Kilda's life force across the greater Cranbourne district. Not before an 0-2 side without their best players had a tremendous bash. In a competition that is already defacto played in two divisions, it was as good a performance as you could expect against an alleged premiership favourite. Just a pity they couldn't save it for one of the other top teams and collapse from the first bounce instead of waiting until halfway through the last quarter.

The fun started from the first bounce, as we quickly turned a free kick for into a goal against while my internet connection glitched like I was using Netscape Navigator in 1999. Their express transition of the ball into the forward line was assisted by the wind, there was no explanation for the arsey snap. Last week demonstrated that letting in the very early goal doesn't have to be fatal, but in a competition where scoring is still in short supply you're playing with fire doing it two weeks in a row.

We almost had our best side available, other than latest protocol victim Lily Mithen, and a recent history of overcoming unfavourable wind, but the atmosphere was far from the uncontested footy masterclass against the Dogs. It was like Richmond throwing everything they had us while we hung on gamely like Ali in Zaire. Thank you for your service to the Saints player who legged it into an open goal and missed, providing the chance for Harris to goal from our first inside 50 of the afternoon.

That was about St Kilda's entire lot with the wind, our old frisbee enthusiast friend Cat Phillips had a long kick touched through on the line by Birch, but they were under control now. Christ knows why you'd pick this of all weeks to drop last year's leading goalkicker. Sure she had zero goals, no behinds in the opening two rounds, but if a team will ever play you back into form they start with Mel and end in Bourne.

St Kilda didn't go close again for the rest of the quarter, but neither did we, as the game devolved into a trench warfare slog. They'd turn the ball over to us, we'd give it back, somebody would get to the edge of 50, rinse and repeat. Harris' goal was our only score of the quarter, but by conveniently ignoring the dual near-misses at the other end you could say we did well to contain them into the breeze. I'm down with that, especially knowing what happened at the end, but it would be nice to pile on seven goals in a first quarter one day.

Our first go with the wind wasn't anywhere near as exciting as the second, but at this point the Saints hadn't been squeezed into submission. Like us, they couldn't handle attacking into the usual bullshit Casey winds (goes alright as a training venue if you don't live in Craigieburn, but let's admit that it's a dreadful place to play), but we couldn't capitalise on chances with a forward line that looked tremendously one dimensional. Fortunately, that dimension is in hot form, and Harris got her second after pulling in the sort of belting contested mark we could have done with at any time in the last five years. Everything was coming up Tayla, losing another chance right in front after shoving her opponent out of the way, then missing from a free after being clotheslined. It was all very exciting, but you couldn't help wish for a spot of crumb.

Naturally, the best thing to do after attacking all quarter was to concede just after the wind strengthened in our favour. It made no sense, but that's Melbourne for you. A late snap by Eliza West (still got plenty of the ball, disposed of it as if heavily sedated) missed and with a few seconds left you'd think that was the end of the action. As did the Saints defender who merrily trotted out of defence, oblivious to both the time running out and Kate Hore looming behind her. After much confusion about how far she was allowed to run around after the siren, Hore kicked the ball like a bag of sand for another point and it was all left to play for after the break.

We are the most contrary team in the league, so naturally after doing all the attacking until the last two minutes, we conceded a goal just as the wind strengthened in our favour. It makes no sense, but that's Melbourne for you. A late snap for Eliza West went awry, and you thought that was the end of it. Then one of their defenders lost her mind and decided the run the clock down with a casual trot out of the square. Hore ran her down, but after much confusion about how far she could run around, kicked it like a bag of sand for another point, leaving us an unconvincing two points ahead. 

If I'd been sucked in by the reputations of the sides the game would have been surprisingly close, but this is just what we do. At least, for now, it ends in wins. It had all the hallmarks of a Melbourne AFLW game, much contested ball, some quality ball movement, and the occasional well-crafted goal but not much that screamed RED HOT PREMIERSHIP CONTENDER. The most important thing after half time was to neutralise the wind again, gust or no gust, I didn't fancy having to run down a lead in the last quarter.

The goal that (seemingly) got us going was a joint affair. Daisy won a free with a cracking tackle, St Kilda's defence stood around watching Hore mark right in front of goal, and she converted to give us breathing room. That was until we conceded late again, leaving scores level at three quarter time. It wasn't quite breathing into a paper bag stuff but there were still a few nerves about. It's not like we were playing that well, with plenty of important players who were just going. If you're generally scared by sports you could see a situation where we botched it. But we didn't, so all smiles, happy day.

Harris continued to be our main avenue to goal, missing another, before being blocked miles from a contest then mastering the shithouse wind for a vital goal. It's wonderful that she terrifies defenders so much they'll unnecessarily clatter into her (and after last week can you blame them for being worried?), but eventually other teams will realise we've only got one target and jump on her five at a time like poor old Sam Weideman in the second half of 2020 - and look what that did for his career. Her third offered admission to the least exclusive club in women's football, the shared record for Melbourne goals in a game, becoming the ninth member.

Now that we had a lead, albeit not much of one, winning the following centre bounce and getting the ball down our end was vital. But not as vital or exciting as Lauren Pearce swiping the ball out of the ruck, spinning around and kicking a goal from 40 metres. The sensible part of me thought they'd never come back from that, but there was still the nagging "what if?" Enter the world's most famous Bunnings employee Tyla Hanks to obliterate St Kilda's collective will to live.

Other than the avalanche at the end it was not a classic performance. Did the job, but without much fanfare. So much that I couldn't for the life of me come up with a convincing set of votes. Everyone had a crack and did their bit, nobody particularly excelled. With respect to all our former tall forwards, Harris has been a killer inclusion, and our better players have plenty more to give. Famous last words but I think we're a cert to play finals, the only question is how much further than that it goes. What happens next week will give us a hint. For about six days before we do the opposite in our next game and I swing back towards glee/despair.

Now it really was over, and Daisy added an exclamation mark so good that Bianca Jakobsson forgot she was playing against us and cracked a broad smile. As you would. The Queen then set up Fitzsimon's first career goal, and seconds later Hanks plowed through the middle to make the margin seven goals on the siren. Things had gone a bit end of third quarter 25/09/2021, ending with our fourth highest score and win of all time. What had I been so worried about? Answer - everything.

2022 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Tyla Hanks
4 - Tayla Harris
3 - Karen Paxman
2 - Sarah Lampard
1 - Lauren Pearce

Apologies to Birch, Heath, Hore, McNamara, Sherriff, D. Pearce and Goldrick amongst others.

13 - Tyla Hanks
6 - Karen Paxman
5 - Eden Zanker
4 - Libby Birch (LEADER: Defender of the Year), Tayla Harris, Eliza West (LEADER: Rookie of the Year)
3 - Sarah Lampard
2 - Eliza McNamara, Casey Sherriff
1 - Kate Hore, Lauren Pearce

Goal of the Week
It loses something when you consider that the opposition was mentally on the bus, but enjoy the fun and frivolity of Daisy hunting her hapless opponent down, then snapping around the corner.

Next Week
Enough of the toilers and strugglers, it's a Preliminary Final rematch against the last side to beat us. I suspect they'll beat us easily, but that's what it looked like in the middle of last year and we put on one of the all-time great performances to rumble them. As with every other week in this competition, much will defend on how many players are DQed due to the 'cron. Given how much more of it there is around here than SA, the odds are heavily in favour of us being affected more.

Regardless of what team we field, unless the entire squad is wiped out and they have to postpone all our games a'la Footscray, this is the best test yet. I'm worried about putting up a decent score, they've held two of their three opponents this year to nine points (and yes, West Coast are rancid, but we only got one goal against them last time), and I can't our relative high scoring seriously until we've played some decent sides. Will certainly be better viewing on a Saturday afternoon than whatever nonsense I've have been doing otherwise.

Final Thoughts
Give me all the wins via any method. The more the merrier. We may as well buy Essendon's old eSports team and get into that while we're at it. Things are going so well at the moment that we could successfully run a sporting franchise on the Gold Coast.

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