Sunday 13 March 2022

Banana skin avoidance week

You might not be able to play a side ravaged by the 'cron every week, but for the first time in AFLW history we've made it through the entire home and away season without a single upset loss to the lower classes. This important achievement didn't come without a scare, as the last few minutes saw our double chance precariously hanging over a ledge by its fingernails. It seemed that our lengthy winning streak at Mt. Variable Weather was finally about to be hoist on its own wind-assisted petard (no relation to Ricky), but we survived by the smallest possible margin, ending the year with an improbable 9-1 record. Good things happened when Melbourne sides start 9-1, and this time you don't have to sit through the winter wobbles before we test ourselves in the finals.

Carlton might have been long eliminated from finals contention, but as the dictionary definition of mid-table mediocrity you couldn't write them off. It's not like we've got a lot of experience playing them, this was only our third meeting in league history. There wouldn't have been many times in VFL/AFL/AFLW history where there were more players on the field who'd appeared for both clubs than total previous meetings between the sides.

Nevertheless, as much as I tried to play down expectations of another Freo B style rampage, there was still an expectation that we'd win comfortably. Not necessarily by the sizeable margin required to nick the minor premiership from Adelaide, but enough to set up a bruise-free victory lap final quarter before reconvening for a prelim two weeks later. Alas no, as Carlton uncharitably refused to roll over and dying, recovering from a rocky start to nearly nick it in the final minute. First their men failed to acknowledge our new powerbroker status, now this.

By the first bounce, our task was simple. With a big wind on (bugger me, there's a surprise) it was a case of winning by any margin and getting a bye to the Prelim. If we reverted to Classic Melbourne and stacked it at the last hurdle we'd have needed the unlikely scenario of Brisbane blowing their game against Footscray to stay in the top two. A draw would also have done the job, which nearly became relevant at the end.

Before we get into that, a break for some cute content:

This is presented not only as evidence that we're the new People's Club, but also to consider how much our luck has changed in recent years. Not long ago that kid would have accidentally kicked Daisy's face in. I'm still struggling to come to terms with things going right for us. Fast forward a couple of hours and we're defending a slender lead into the breeze and are facing a set shot with 28 seconds left after barely looking like scoring all quarter. Not only did they miss, but we avoided calamity from the kick-in, and got the ball far enough downfield that it could do no more harm. Mission accomplished, but bloody hell not without a few nervous moments.

Beyond the usual suspects, including Tyla Hanks' Clayton Oliver-like ability to walk through traffic, best on ground was the merry prankster who gave the commentator a fake team list. At least that's what I'd be claiming if my strike rate on identifying the right player hovered around 25% until half time. Second best in the unofficial votes to the Melbourne fan whose constant urging on of players seeped into the effects mic. I was hoping he'd drop the magic during the tense finish but sadly not. Turns out not everyone is as uncouth as me.

We might have got the first two goals, but it wasn't indicative of how the game was going. Neither of them was against the play, but at a minimum they were with it. All night we were at our most vulnerable out of the middle, with almost every centre bounce leading to a Carlton inside 50. Good thing they had stuff all presence forward and we were clearing the danger easily. The problem was kicking goals ourselves, and the first nil-all first quarter in history (and only the second scoreless VFL/AFL quarter full stop) looked likely for the first 10 minutes. Harris took a fantastic contested mark at the start, then blew the chance to pulverise her old side by going goalless for the first time all year. The post-match reunion ex-teammates demonstrated a disappointing level of tolerance at a time footy is crying out for blood feuds and personal hatred.

This week's random goalscoring pair was Bannan and Daisy. Literally, they shared the full five between them. Appropriately it was the master of the Diamond Cutter who set up the captain's first, casually shoving her opponent over the boundary line and squaring the ball for a mark at the top of the square. Daisy is in such hot form at the moment that when things got hairy later she went into defence, before turning up forward agains for a second goal. Let's stuff up Geelong and give her a coaching job before they do.

In the last minute, the favour was repaid when Daisy set up Bannan. It was an unusual combo, but with Zanker injured, Hore flitting in and out of the game, and Harris well held it did the trick. I'm legally required to point out that keeping a side scoreless in the first quarter hasn't meant anything since the day Freo had zero inside 50s and ended up beating us, but it still felt like we had them well covered. You knew it wasn't going to be another slaughter but a comfortable win beckoned. Sure we had use of the obligatory wind, but by Casey standards it wasn't much more than a gentle waft so there was every chance of ignoring it and kicking on to a last change margin that rendered it irrelevant in the final quarter.

We had some very good players, especially the aforementioned psychic disposals of Hanks, but it was far from our best night overall. You struggle to see how this performance would have beaten a top team, but I've thought that all year and we've wobbled our way to nine wins out of 10 so what do I know? The good news is that in a fortnight there's no 'I bet you they won't do that against a good team' because we won't have any other option. On our day we can beat anyone in the competition - even, as we proved in mid-2021, Adelaide - but can't rely on teams playing twice in four days or losing multiple players to the big one. Of course, if that does happens I won't be giving the flag back.

Our unlikely quest to hold them to 0.0 didn't last long, but we responded to their opening goal 30 seconds later so who cares. Then they responded to our response with two, and the margin was back to an uncomfortably close two points with five minutes left in the wind power play. Enter Bannan for her third and some much-needed breathing space. Would have been a great time to win the ball out of the centre, instead we were instantly on the back foot. They got it back to less than a kick from a forward standing in so much space it was like she was radioactive. This was one of the few blemishes in an otherwise ok performance from the defenders. They weren't always clean, but stood up under a lot of pressure.

I suppose we might have kicked away with the wind in the third quarter, instead the teams had another go at achieving the elusive scoreless quarter. They went even closer this time, with Pearce getting her second with under two minutes left. Otherwise nobody got anything, and any sad men still hatewatching at this point would have been delighted.

In the interests of full disclosure, I didn't think we'd done enough to hold on. We'd been the better side , and the wind was only a minor factor but it looked like there was a massive pre-finals letdown on the cards. Maybe they've all got something next week that they fancied getting out of? Bad luck, blame the opposition for not taking advantage.

In a terrifying cliffhanger finish the margin was cut to a point with six minutes left, and other than one flying shot from Hore that extended the margin to two we spent that whole time on the ropes. The last chance came via somebody (Lampard?) doing the most ill-advised attempt at a kick off the ground since Colin Garland in Darwin. The idea was probably to boot it up the line and far enough away from goal that Carlton would be a minimum two kicks from goal, instead it shot off her boot like a rocket and out on the full, giving the Blues a chance to all but win the game. Maybe we'd have flown out of the middle with 30 seconds left and snatched it, but the precedent set over the first 99% of the game suggested otherwise.

Instead of blasting it, Vescio tried to steer the kick through, which only made the miss worse, because instead of sailing through for the point that should have made everything ok it dropped into the square for potential heartbreak crumb. Bless you Tayla Harris, who contributed at the other end by getting enough on a marking attempt for the ball to bobble over the line for a point. With an extra digit of security (two if you were happy with a draw), allowing a designated kicker innerer to take the next disposal instead of a forward at the wrong end of the ground was probably the safer option.

Via one short kick that nearly had me soiling myself, we navigated the remaining few seconds to win. It was far from convincing but it was enough. Now we're neck-deep in the premiership race and should go into any prelim thinking we can beat whoever's on the other side. And this is a good thing - both being in prelims, and going into them as one of the best two sides in the competition. Give me all the premierships. Whatever gender, whatever age group, I want our trophy cabinet to be busting at the seams to the point where premiership cups randomly pop out and roll across the floor.

2022 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Tyla Hanks
4 - Daisy Pearce
3 - Alyssa Bannan
2 - Lily Mithen
1 - Karen Paxman

Apologies to Goldrick, L. Pearce, Purcell, Heath and Gay

With a maximum of two games to play it's all but over here. After four wins in a row the world's favourite Karen will soon abdicate in favour of the next big thing. She should get her own Bunnings franchise as a reward.

28 - Tyla Hanks
19 - Karen Paxman
13 - Lily Mithen, Lauren Pearce
11 - Libby Birch (LEADER: Defender of the Year),
10 - Daisy Pearce, Eden Zanker
9 - Tayla Harris
7 - Eliza McNamara, Eliza West (LEADER: Rookie of the Year)
5 - Sinead Goldrick
3 - Alyssa Bannan, Maddie Gay, Sarah Lampard
2 - Casey Sherriff
1 - Shelley Heath, Kate Hore

Next week
Have a rest. Wednesday night is probably going to feature near-fatal emotion so you'll need the weekend to recover.

After that
You may have gathered from the last 10 weeks that I don't like Casey. It's not just because it couldn't be any further away from my house while still being technically located in the Melbourne metropolitan area, but because the wind means instant death for any chance of a top quality game. But, in the AFLW equivalent of September (I don't think SEN will be releasing an"Oh yeahhhh, mid-March to remember" version of their famous finals jingle) who gives a continental about quality? As long as we win I'm happy to sludge our way into a Grand Final, then worry about playing on good grounds.

Final thoughts
We've finished top two (top one? delete as applicable after the Adelaide game) twice within 12 months. Now that AFLW season is being shifted to start in August - because I'm sure the men's finals won't take any of the focus away - we've got the rare chance to do it three times between September 2021 and 2022. The whole thing's still a bloody mystery to me.

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