Friday 25 February 2022

A long haul into the unknown

All you work from home people must have been thrilled by the idea of a midweek practice match. Set your Netflix viewing schedule back a couple of hours, move the mouse cursor enough so you stay 'online', and kick back for the first outing of the reigning premier. Alternatively, after continuing to cart my arse hither and yon since April 2020, I finally ran out of scheduling luck and had to watch a tepid midweek scratch match on delay.

This shouldn't be an issue, after all these took place behind effectively closed doors for years and we were satisfied reading 200 word summaries in the paper, treating best player lists like gospel when Staff Writers probably made it up from the nearest pub. I still don't know why anybody goes to the trouble of broadcasting these games, but I'm eternally grateful that they do. It doesn't matter that the coverage is cheap and cheerful (with a clock that started counting up, then counted down at a different rate to the one on the scoreboard, ), some sort of Melbourne FC win was committed to tape, so that post-nuclear survivors can watch it on crackly, hand-powered televisions while not toiling the fields.

Speaking of the end of civilisation, I went offline all day to protect myself from the score and missed the outbreak of World War III. When 9/11 happened I was waiting for Sports Tonight to come on (still waiting), this time I was sequestered away trying to block out the result of the most frivolous, throwaway practice match known to man. Now that's progress. Maybe if the bomb drops we can get out of our contract with Casey and upgrade to a nice crater closer to the city. And if things don't turn out that well... at least we'll be the last team to win an AFL premiership.

In the age of rampant technology and people having to give you their opinion on everything, it's scarcely believable that I got through the day without knowing the score. Maybe everyone was too busy focusing (incorrectly) on Putin rather than Petracca, or more likely because the wider public couldn't give a rats about the pre-pre-season, but I managed to watch the first quarter and a half on 40 minutes delay, and the rest on 10 hours delay without having the final result or margin blown.

I couldn't explain to a neutral why watching without knowing the result was so important to me it just was. Even in the early stages, when North were on top, we were set to claim practice matches were valueless and their fans were betting the house on a top four finish, I was just happy to be watching Melbourne again. It's not just because they're the *swoon* reigning premiers (still hard to believe), but it just seems right. Any half-thoughts about scaling back my emotional commitment post-flag went out the window. My days of going to every game are gone, I'll be lucky to get to five games in person this year, and am busy working out how to balance the requirement to see our flag raised in person with the reality of having to get up at 2.20am the following morning, but the buzz is alive and well, even in a game where the commentator had Ron Manager-esque love for the word 'aplomb'.

Given that we had to come back from four goals down to beat North at their lowest ebb last year, I didn't expect to open the season with an Optus Stadium style scoring rampage. Teams in the pre-season rarely do, Hawthorn plundered us for 100 point wins two times this century, but most teams are happy just to get to the end without losing half the team to crippling injury. You can't just roll into town and beat the Alberton League by 214 points anymore, and we've only cracked the pre-season ton against an AFL team once. This was literally as close as we've gotten since. Doesn't confirm that we'll win anything when the real stuff starts, but it was nice to wake from the off-season and discover everything is still pointing in the right direction.

Didn't hurt that we were fielding a near first choice side, which was a far cry from the day where our goalkickers included Zomer, Weetra and Meesen. Absentees included Petty, Lever, Viney and Fritsch, but you've got to leave the people wanting more. The only one we're guaranteed to be without in Round 1 is Petty, so it's a good thing that Adam Tomlinson has made a well ahead of schedule from his burst knee. I've been so lax on off-season news that I had no idea he was fit, and watching on phone in a parking lot (this is my life now) there was a moment of "is that?...." before instant happiness when I realised it was. If I had to pick one, I'm going to back a premiership player over pretty much everyone right through to Nelson Mandela, but this gives Tomlinson a great chance to reverse the 2021 scenario and establish himself in the side while the other guy is injured. As he warmed up for three quarters, poor old Sam Weideman must be wondering when somebody will stack it ahead of him.

The early stages were pure pre-season blah. We were reminded that the umpires are in practice mode too when North got a free courtesy of the forward respectfully bowing down to Hibberd and burrowing his head into him. Our answer was McSizzle channelling his rage about lockdowns into a huge grab in the square, but there was a touch of going through the motions about it. 

I wasn't upset that we approached the end of the first quarter on one goal, we were moving the ball well and defending superbly (aided by the Roos punting the ball out of bounds about eight times in the first 20 minutes), our attack just wasn't connecting. But surely we've come to expect that by now, long periods of struggling to score as if Paul Roos was back in charge, before whipping out a flamethrower and burning the opposition to a crisp within 45 seconds.

Just as I was researching Employee Assistance Programs for Jake Bowey in case he finally played in a loss, the game's most entertaining side (since September 2021) proved that they could also do it on a humid Thursday morning in Cranbourne. After 15 minutes where North threw everything at our backline and were all but laughed at, the breakthrough came from Charleston Spargo kicking a goal that would be an early 'of the season' contender if the camera had been a bit closed than the Rialto. He ran onto a bobbling ball in the pocket and toe-poked it through from an obscure angle, causing me to get over-excited and nearly throw my phone into the car roof.

It came from the same pocket as Petracca in the Grand Final (albeit on the other side of the continent), and kicked off a similar Mad Minute. From the next bounce, Oliver plowed out of the middle with the greatest of ease to sat the ball on Ben Brown's head, the Sparrow set up consummate February specialist Kade Chandler for the third, and in the blink of an eye we'd gone from pottering around like the occasion was beneath us, to draping our enormous, premiership cup sized bollocks over North's eyes Arabian Goggles style. If there were enough cameras, one might have cut to a frustrated David Noble angrily tearing up his quarter time notes. I feel his pain, we've all briefly threatened a world class team before going tits up.

North barely fired another shot, but our second quarter was more measured, stretching from siren to siren instead of stuffing all the action in at the end when the opposition lost interest. Other than Oliver going off clutching his hand, a brief scare before he returned to being best on ground, things couldn't have gone any better. On a rare day where conditions at Casey didn't obviously affect the quality of play, Chandler felt the spirit of the ground's traditional owners (gusty winds) and thumped a goal through from behind the centre circle. 

I hope some of this translates to the real staff, especially for Chandler, who will probably spend the whole season wearing a tracksuit as unused sub again, but it was still good clean fun. The goals were good, but like last year the best viewing for sickos like me was at the other end, where our backline ate forward entries for breakfast. You're always going to concede goals somewhere, but never before have we had a defence that seems less likely to leak. Sometimes you're happy that the ball has gone down there because they sweep it away so majestically.     

By half time the margin was out to 40, and I was reasonably comfortable that we couldn't lose. And if we did, who cares? Well, me for sure. I'm still referencing 2008 pre-season losses, you'd best believe that throwing away a big lead in a nothing game would still be mentioned 15 years later. It was obvious that there would be no comeback when North burst out of the first bounce of the third quarter and kicked it straight to a completely unmarked Hibberd. Seconds later we're down the other end with Brown having a shot, and Brayshaw is trying to one-up Spargo by thumping goals out of mid-air. Neither went through, but it showed that foot was still firmly on throat.

When Brown converted on his third chance for the quarter it was as good a time as ever to bench the probables and give the possibles a go. Maybe they were going to but were interrupted by another goal to Harmes, wearing a haircut that looked more like he was playing against the Viet Congeroos.  

After 10 goals in a row, it finally took Rivers flubbing a handball in front of goal to let them in. These things happen, but it did take away from Oliver ghosting through North's forward line a few seconds earlier. In a Reject Shop version of the Mad Minute they got a second straight after, with a bloke who looked like Brad Johnson's illegitimate offspring taking advantage of a dropped mark. This one took the focus off a beautiful piece of individual play too, with Jackson leaping like an Atlantic Salmon to tap the centre bounce over his head. As long as he resists the dump truck of West Coast's money it is PISS FUNNY how we recruited him just in time to learn from and ultimately replace Gawn. And unlike some other cowards over the years, if he does piss off he helped us win a flag so will still be a good bloke to me.

On the topic of piss, Joel Smith seems to have streaked some through his hair, but like the rest of our defence he was very good. He wouldn't be in my first choice side, but is a handy backup. I was also mad for Hibberd, who I've wrongly written enough times in the past that I wouldn't dare now. If Melksham comes alive again this year it will scientifically prove that Essendon injected them with quality gear.

We only added a goal to the half time margin, but the Chris Sullivan line had been breached so there was no need to worry. It took me until 11.45pm to finally watch the last quarter, but our defenders were so on top that North could have played until Wednesday and not overtaken us. Maximum casually whomping through a goal from the boundary line made it even safer, and I was having such a good time that instead of enjoying it I wondered why he was going back in the middle and not to the safety of the bench. 

North were so far into 'valuable learning opportunity' territory that even Brown was able to crumb a goal. He ended on five, and while that was a bit short of Fred Fanning's 18 against the Ballarat League it was good enough by modern standards. While he and McDonald kicked eight between them, the piss continued to be taken out of Weideman, left endlessly warming up without being brought on. Then he finally got a chance and had to play in the ruck. Which, surprisingly, paid immediate dividends, as a hitout straight into Oliver's path allowed Clayts to wander through a gap the size of Tasmania for our 18th.  

It was so low key (and nothing says 'unofficial' practice match like match reports ignoring quarter scores, goalkickers and best players) that I barely noticed the margin reaching 93 points. One more goal would have been nice, setting up the coveted 99 Red and Blue Balloons headline that's been in the tank for years. Alas no, and after Salem was carted off injured, they got a charity goal despite Hunt being suplexed into the turf. It was the lowest key thrashing we've ever delivered, but you're not going to give it back.

It was all good stuff but you've got to adjust for quality of opposition. Now that I've finally seen a side chockers with stars I know North are nowhere near it. They'll improve this year, but like any competitive lowly side their very good players and promising kids are just marking time until 15 space-filling battlers can be slowly replaced. Best of luck to them, I'll be busy concentrating on the shit hottest list this club has had since the 1950s.

2022 Paul Prymke Plate for Pre-Season Performance
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Christian Salem
3 - Ben Brown
2 - Ed Langdon
1 - Christian Petracca

Apologies to practically everyone.

Next Week
Stiff shit anyone who wants to warm up for the regular season against the best available opposition, because we're playing Carlton. It'll be a fond reunion with the coaching of Michael Voss, last seen losing a pair of crucial games to us in 2010. I'll be watching on delay again, and won't be liking it. Here's to us sending out a couple of random, bottom of the list players just for laughs.

Final Thoughts
Ultimately this means as much as beating them in a game of Australian Rules Football on the Nintendo, but it's still lovely fun to win. Who knows if we'll get the coveted home soil premiership, but early signs suggest there's not much of a drop off from last year. Good.

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