Monday, 25 April 2022

Every Which Way But Lose

Every great empire goes tits up eventually. The Romans met the Visigoths, the French dropped successive games in Vietnam and Algeria, Britain threw it all away over the Suez Canal, and Melbourne sacked Norm Smith. With an appropriate level of respect to the original best team of the last decade, I hope the Richmond version is Jack Riewoldt doing pantomime diving actions midway through the last quarter of a losing effort.

If trying to start a fight with one of the most successful players in recent history is the key takeaway from continuing our outright second best winning run in club history, in front of 70,000 people, maybe winning is starting to get boring. Alternatively, he went on so much that it was a genuinely comic moment that deserves to be seen in every format from .GIF to .WMV. 

Even if Jack knew my opinion existed, I'm sure he wouldn't give two shits, so it's probably just a transparent attempt to start an argument with Richmond fans. After all, at this point, there's no other set of fans who can reasonably taunt us about anything. Geelong and Hawthorn have won more flags this century, but at this stage that's about as relevant as Adelaide's back-to-back or Fitzroy 1944. Now that the Bulldogs have stopped crying about popular music I'm over them, so may as well fight with the side we're chasing into immortality.

Richmond circa Round 6, 2022 is not the future Hall of Fame model of a couple of years ago, but I still sensed some good old-fashioned post-flag arrogance towards them during the week. There's never been a better time for swagger than 5-0 with a premiership in the bag, but treating the Tigers like a has-been bump in the road was full of risk. We've all had a surprise loss to Adelaide. They might have half a side that only enthusiasts have heard of, but the rest are still pretty handy. It ended up going about as you'd expect, but was far from a certain win in advance.

If you subscribe to the theory that we're doing a cover version of 2021, there were some similarities to last year's groundbreaking win over the Tigers. We remained unbeaten, the medical sub sat on his arse all night, and they were kept to a criminally low score. On the other hand, was no post-quarter time outburst, no beloved player in milestone game subplot, and somebody informed the post-match host who'd won the medal before they started speaking. This points to a toil and struggle, come from behind win against dreck next week, but for we're alone at the top of the ladder and everyone else can crane their neck looking up.

Our 13th consecutive win didn't come without some frustration. But have any of them? Even the Gold Coast landslide that started it all had some ropey moments in the first quarter. I'd love to kick the shit out of somebody from first bounce to last, but it's not our thing. On this particular night, our thing was an almost unprecedented display of shithouse kicking for goal. With Richmond offering up an endless stream of chances with their dodgy exits from defence, and willingness to set up rebounds by booting to our cavalcade of superstar defenders, we tried again, again, and again to put them away. Got there in the end, but not without racking up an ugly final score of 9.22.

You can find examples of us kicking < 10 goals and > 20 behinds in 196219631976, 1988 and 2000, but none of them came in a win. For that, you have to go back to flag year '59. I prefer the dead-set insanity of Round 7, 1940, when we kicked 34 of the afternoon's 35 behinds. Any way you slice, hook, or shank it, this was a rarity. Not, however, completely unexpected considering some of our struggles to kick straight this year. 

It was a massive night for "if they'd kicked 22 goals instead of 22 points they'd have won by heaps" style analysis. Stop the madness, it's not how this sport works. Maybe if teams kicked-in after any score, but the different ways and places to restart the game based on the outcome means there's no simple switch one column to the other = profit equation. If the first shot misses, the conditions for the next 21 behinds don't necessarily exist. You might still kick them, but it won't be the same players, doing it in the same way, at the same time. Or the first could lead to the opposition booting seven in a row out of the middle. Any professional who offers this insight should be sanctioned under the David King top eight rule.

I'd like somebody who does actual, robust statistical analysis to look at the real value of behinds. Is it ultimately worth less than a point because you put the ball in the hands of the opposition, or a more because it improves the prospect of a seven (or more, if you played against us 10 years ago) point play?

Regardless of what the boffins at the Ponds Institute come up with, when your team is playing you want the result that puts six points on the scoreboard, not one. I've got no complaints knowing the end result, but was in agony by the time we reached 0.6, and at regular intervals for the first three quarters. We've won plenty of games in the last year, but even the most passionate forward line fanatic would agree that a lot of the credit goes to defenders. Occasionally we go bananas and rain goals on the opposition, but generally the secret to our success is slowly chipping away on the scoreboard while the other lot lose their mind bouncing off a brick wall defence.

For this reason, we're vulnerable to days where the backline does their bit but the forwards don't. See Bizarro Queen's Birthday or last year's GWS fiasco. If we contain games lost due to a misfiring attack to one or two in the middle of the year again we'll be well placed to run riot again when it counts. I don't think I could handle going 22-0 anyway, it would feel like being set up for a September collapse that would have neutrals pissing themselves for the next 30 years.

This team is an enigma wrapped in a riddle, so even though we don't put up huge scores I wasn't panicking at being two goals behind in the first quarter. Neither felt like it was the sort of thing they'd do regularly, so the door remained wide open. The problem was that for most of the first quarter it looked like we were going to try and win 4.6.30 to 0.31.31. 

Our cavalcade of crappy kicking covered almost every element of the game other than somebody falling over while running into an empty goal. Perhaps the strangest was Gawn's 'mark' on the line. He may very well have controlled the ball marginally before it went over, but considering the goal umpire called it a point, and somebody gave Max a video review spoiler that caused him to sprint off for a kick-in, I don't know how the decision was overturned when the only video footage had a goapost in the way. If you're going to refer points for video review, maybe spring for cameras in those posts too? It was a classic first quarter decision, no way they'd have done the same thing if the game was on the line. Being an all round good sport, Maximum missed the kick. It's not right seeing him take shots from hard in the pocket without some Essendon humanoid yelling over the fence.

From the "if they'd just done X, Y would have happened" file, who's to say that if they hadn't paid the original behind, the kick-in would have been booted back to him 50 metres out and he'd have got the goal anyway? And that if that had happened maybe Richmond would have piled on 17 in a row before quarter time. All we know is the game ended with Melbourne in front and Clayton Oliver went home with a medal, so best to trust the process.

We were holding on well enough, but could thank a desperate May spoil on the line for not going three goals down. He hit the post with such force that I thought it was about to topple into the front row Leigh Matthews style. The video replay on that would have been interesting, the AFL equivalent of when stump cam catches somebody being clean bowled. Not sure I've been so protective of a player's fitness since early Jesse Hogan, who I expected to be struck down by death every time he changed direction.

We had a lot of opportunities, but after taking the piss out of the person with their finger on Channel 7's ad button, Richmond guaranteed that they'd keep being booked for prime time games kicking two. It was painful but exactly what we deserved.

After six behinds varying from unlucky to criminal, the answer finally came via Ben Brown. Welcomed with open arms after an extra week off for needlessly elbowing somebody in the head during a VFL game, he used the old Inspector Gadget arms to pull down a big grab in the pocket. Fans of 25/09/2021 will recognise it as similar to the start of that last quarter, and with significantly lower pressure this time he snapped it through. That was almost the last we saw of him, as we reverted to our old tricks of only having one forward at any contest, tipping opposition defenders off as to who they should jump on whenever the ball went inside 50.

Brown O'Clock only struck once, but his goal got the party started. In a classic Melbourne-esque piece of business, Richmond rode their luck as we missed shots for 95% of the quarter, then lost interest for a couple of minutes and ended up behind. We'd been mediocre at best, but it was the same in the first half last week, and for large parts of every other game this year. You can't argue with the end result. 

The unexpected lead came from Weideman, arriving from a start so anonymous that you could have forgotten he was playing, bouncing a snap through off the umpire's tockley. In a Hans Moleman-esque twist, it took a left turn off one post and crashed into the other. I was ready to break things if they'd involved Force Majeure and called a point, but we were saved by the little known Flange Deviation Rule, which deemed that the ball would have crossed the line fairly if not impeded by the unmentionables. For comedy value, it would have been better if the umpire had hit the deck squealing "ooh me plums" in a voice three octaves above Kenneth Williams but we had to console ourselves with six points and the lead.

I simultaneously couldn't understand how we were winning, and not further in front. In every element other than placing ball between large posts we were matching, if not exceeding, the opposition. I'll go hee if Petracca is 80% fit, but tellingly things got a lot better when Oliver threw off the lightly applied shackles and decided to rack up possessions like they were going out of fashion. In the second of two 40+ touch career games, it sure shit on the time he got 44 and we lost by almost twice as much.

After Richmond had thrown practically everything in their arsenal at us for no reward, I was hopeful that they'd do the honorable thing and stand aside so the premiers could put on a primetime show. Sadly not, but their wonky disposal did offer us a few opportunities to get going. This was a good sign, but wouldn't be worth much without conversion. You couldn't argue the desperate lunge that touched Spargo's first effort through, but incidents like Pickett opening his angle to about 90 degrees before missing, then Neal-Bullen kicking his set shot like it was a bag of wet cement were causing me actual physical misery. I'm not ready to lose again, it may leave me in tears.

Finally, the six points in one go breakthrough came from a Fritsch free. For some reason, Brown kicks most of his goals in the first half, and Bayley in the second half, so Spargo did his bit for that stat, played on and rolled it through. It was a bit risky, from 30 metres he'd have looked a dick if it hadn't bounced through. We didn't have to wait long for him to have a slapstick miss. Give the chance to instantly cancel one of their goals he flubbed what seemed like an absolute sitter of a snap. 

As much as I love Spargo, who did a kick inside 50 in the first quarter that would have required extra sensory perception to pull off, in the heat of "I never want to lose again" passion, I might have yelled unkind things. Sorry Charleston. And as the captain once said:

I know our expectations are through the roof, and that I promised to sit down, shut up, and enjoy the serenity in the wake of a premiership, but our last five minutes of the first half were vile. We couldn't stop them scoring forever, but Spargo's miss was so bad that we got what we deserved when they pinged straight down the other end for a goal. Turns out we were kicking to the Wasted Dominance End, because just like Richmond in the dying minutes of the opening term, we found a way to turn a solid position into a deficit. I wasn't crazy about the defensive contributions of Hunt or Smith, but we still had them on the run, regularly filling their shorts while turning the ball over, but missed the opportunity to sink the slipper. Overall, we'd been the better side but that wouldn't help if we didn't outscore them by 4+ points in the second half.

If there were suspicions that this would be the night the lights went down on Jake Bowey's winning streak, they went into overdrive when Joel Smith started the second half by handballing straight to a player running into an open goal. It was classic Melbourne vs Richmond, as best demonstrated in this classic clip.

We responded with another pair of points, but just as it seemed the 1940 record was in danger, Weid reappeared to offer a steady boot. As far as respectable hauls go, it ranked alongside Dean Kent's four in Hobart 2016 for the least impressive overall performance but they all count. If anybody had an excuse for coming down with nervous leg it was the guy who permanently lives his life on selection death row. But he did not, and now sits on eight goals in four games. Still feels like McDonald offers more around the ground, but who am I to argue with scoring impact? It's not like any of our forwards are playing four quarters at the moment, but they're all doing their bit.

This kicked off our most dominant period of the night. Naturally, there were more points to come (including Sparrow playing on instead of taking a set shot for some unknown bloody reason), but they were followed by a (relative) rush of goals. Suddenly Fritsch was in everything, kicking two, and setting up two more. He nearly landed a full house with a third goal, but an Oliver pass was probably rightly deemed not far enough, and he missed a panicked attempt to thump it through.

You knew we were officially on top when the Richmond player nobody's ever heard of conveniently suffered a match-ending injury. Fortunate timing, coming just when they were being overrun. Mr. A Random was lucky they didn't put up a screen and shot him on the spot, because he was suffering from a life-threatening... corky. Good thing the replacement did bugger all, we're the dickheads who wouldn't even swing a rort to get Jordon on in a Grand Final and other sides are taking advantage of the most minor complaint to make a change. Meanwhile the camera cut to Toby Bedford, now level with Kade Chandler and James Jordon for Tracksuit Time appearances, and he was nearly falling asleep. We didn't even bother to rouse him when Luke Dunstan copped a bump to the head in the last quarter.

Speaking of Dunstan, he had a solid debut. After 116 games it's not like he didn't know what he was doing. I wouldn't be dismantling our premiership midfield to play him permanently, but the season is young so it's handy to have experienced, competent players like this in the tank just in case. Also, in an odd twist he's the first ex-St Kilda player to join us since Jamie Shanahan in 1998. A few have gone the other way since, meaning it still falls short of the total embargo in direct exchanges with Hawthorn between 1985 and 2011.

We'd played our rare 'comfortable last quarter' card against the Giants, so nobody would have been surprised when Riewoldt popped up just before the last change to keep it interesting. It was the sort of night where we still had time to miss two more shots before the siren. Lest anyone claims sour grapes for the Bowey incident, we have discussed this before, but isn't it weird how bad Riewoldt's record is against us? He's kicking three goals a game against Brisbane and Port, and since 2007 we've kept him to 34 from 21 starts. He's also done his bit, with 46 behinds. Which makes our wayward goalkicking a roundabout tribute to his storied career. It makes no sense when you consider some of the ratshit backlines he'd have played against in that time. I doubt it keeps him awake at night, under a blanket made of three premiership flags stitched together, but it's an interesting anomaly for abnormal people like me.

In an era of moderately higher scoring but insane volatility, I wasn't going to relax over a 21 point lead. You wouldn't think they'd suddenly discover a path through the Great Wall of Melbourne after three quarters of torment, but it couldn't be ruled out. The best thing to do was start kicking goals. That we did. Only once, but combined with them having NFI how to get through Petty, May and friends, and a suicidal approach to moving the ball it was enough.

And what a fun goal it was, with the Weid kicking a fallaway snap that went higher in the air than it did forward, and curled back at the last minute to drop narrowly over the line like a bowling bowl hurled from a second story window. Realistically, that was enough. The game went back into the same pattern of us missing shots, while they struggled to generate any in the first place, and Oliver wandered around collecting possessions like Super Mario grabbing coins.

When Richmond got a goal that made it less than four goals I tensed up a bit. No need to worry, for the last five minutes nothing happened. They put on another point after everyone had lost interest, while we remained stationary on single figure goals and a metric shitload of behinds. I hope when we're eventually dragged into a thriller it will turn out we were deliberately putting the feet up in the last few minutes with the game won, and not that we're only got three quarters and 25 minutes in us.

It was all very good. Nothing to make you start queuing for Grand Final tickets now, but the latest in a string of professional, no nonsense wins that are setting us up nicely. There's no time for complacency, we're still only a game and percentage inside the top four. You wouldn't expect some of these teams to hang around, and most of Geelong's list will be tucked up in bed with a hot chocolate by Round 20, but there's plenty more work to be done. Can't ask for more than beating everyone we play.

For all the well-premature "I can't see who's going to beat them" wankery from attention seeking media nuffies, we're not going to win every game this year, but it's satisfying to know that even after a year and a half of exposure to our system, other teams can't consistently break it. Eventually somebody will get lucky, or the forward line will go to bits and fail to cover a score of 64, but teams are regularly lining up against us with hours of footage about how it's done and still can't work out a way past. How are we ever going to watch again when this is over?

Still, this means STUFF ALL in April. Ask Geelong 2008, Richmond 2018, and sadly not Essendon 2000 about playing a brilliant season then forgetting to show up when it counts. There are going to be challenges that we'll have to adapt to, but the base we're working off is so good it almost makes me emotional to think of how lucky we are to be here. Even if the entire list retires to go Hare Krishna tomorrow, the memories cannot be erased. And if they don't, then we might just give flag #14 a shake. A year after discovering it was all real, I'm still struggling to comprehend being in this position. Ironically, it may not be fully appreciated until it's over.

2022 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Ed Langdon
3 - Max Gawn
2 - Harrison Petty
1 - Tom Sparrow

Apologies to Bowey, Fritsch, May and Neal-Bullen.

15 - Clayton Oliver
12 - Christian Petracca
11 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Ed Langdon
8 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
7 - Jake Bowey (JOINT LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
4 - Angus Brayshaw, Luke Jackson, James Jordon
3 - Ben Brown, James Harmes, 
2 - Alex Neal-Bullen, Harrison Petty
1 - Charlie Spargo, Tom Sparrow, Jack Viney, Sam Weideman

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Almost worth a one-off rebrand as the Ben Holland Medal for Miss of the Year, but I'd need a week to sift through the contenders. Instead, it's got to be The Weid. For one, crumb floats my boat, secondly it went through in an NQR way, and thirdly Sam's joy at kicking goals is infectious. There should be more of it.

For the weekly prize, he wins a Get Out Of Casey Free card to, be played as required on any Thursday night between now and September. No changes to the overall rankings.

Current podium: 
1st - Langdon vs Essendon
2nd - Petracca vs Essendon
3rd - Pickett vs GWS 

Next Week
Back to the MCG on Saturday night. Let's see how the crowd improves against Victorian opposition on a non-public holiday weekend. Hawthorn's early flirtation with mid-table mediocrity should drag a few through the gate. Like most of the sides playing above their pre-season predictions, I don't think they can keep it up all year, but for now there's genuine mystery about which version will show up. One week they're folding like a house of cards against St. Kilda, the next they're pulling out balls to the wall wins against Geelong, then they kick the first five goals against Sydney and lose by 40. Lunatics.

Obviously the COVID Connection of Lever and Viney return. There may never have been a more obvious selection than Lever, but I do feel bad for Dunstan if he has to go. Viney's got enough runs on the board that surely you wouldn't waste him in the seconds (if the VFL moves Ben Brown to walloping somebody, Jack might go off like John Bourke), but I was so fond of the new version's game that I'm prepared to offer him the free game and match payment as sub. Bedford's done nothing wrong, because he hasn't had the chance, but after missing Casey's game this week, it's time to try something different. 

Speaking of the reserves, I caught some of the warm-up win against Richmond and was disappointed that there was no sign of the 7ft leviathan Richmond fans have assured me will be the next big thing in goalkicking. Did a search for him on Twitter to find out where he was and only found somebody begging Richmond for information on if will every play. Maybe don't put him in your Coleman Medal futures bets just yet. 

With El Gigante absent, the most important thing I discovered is that Bailey Laurie will debut before  the end of the year. Otherwise, Casey unpicked themselves from a dodgy situation to win comfortably ("there's an idea" said 23 senior players) but without anyone striking the sort of knockout blow that would make you want to mess with a winning side. McDonald was good, but not so great that I foresess an instant return to the seniors. Melksham was also solid, but it feels like he's been reduced to 'break in case of emergency' status. Meanwhile, I'm pining for Hibberd to replace Hunt, but he's going to need a warm-up run first.

IN: Lever, Viney
OUT: Dunstan (to sub), Smith
LUCKY: Hibberd, Weideman
UNLUCKY: Bedford

So, we stay sensible with the changes for what has to be a danger game. You know it's dangerous because I can go. Worked out alright against the Giants, here's to doing Hawthorn over in similar fashion. I don't want to jinx it, but if Bowey wins here he'll tie the record for best start to an MFC career. Fortunately, he doesn't seem subject to any stress at all, as a baffling post-match TV interview proved. No matter what happens from here, his ride from game 1 to ??? will be talked about forever. Let's keep winning for his sake, he might flip out when we lose.

Final thoughts
More, more, more. How do you like it?


  1. I should be stoked that we defeated the premiers of 2 years ago but geez it was frustrating to watch. I've been more relaxed watching some of our losses over the years. The umpires gave us an armchair ride and we still only won by 22 points. It would be nice to bank some of those free kicks for a future match rather than use all in one go.
    Nibbler is one of my favourite players. I love the endurance running he provides and his support of the midfielders. The stats sheet says he was our 3rd highest possession winner but nearly every one was a clanger plus the dropped marks. He wasn't alone though and it was probably one of those games we try to forget about.
    (Mostly) rising about the mediocrity were great games from Sparrow, May and Maximum.

  2. In the famous words of Lloyd Christmas, I like it a lot!


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