Saturday, 2 April 2022

Last man standing

I had one perfectly good reason for not going on Friday night, but didn't expect it to be superseded by the Wide World of Illness. All available testing confirmed it wasn't COVID19, but I may have accidentally discovered COVID22. There was cold, there was flu, there was a slapstick faint on the bathroom floor. Without ever registering an official temperature - probably due to a cheap and cheerful thermometer that just spat out random numbers - my internal heat settings veered from red hot to Arctic Park at the drop of a hat, and at one point it got so bad I think all my DNAs shifted across by one. I've had more enjoyable times. Some of them, in recent years, have even involved watching footy.

Because everything that's happened to me during footy season since 1998 can be tied to a particular game, I know that Port 2005 was the last time I watched footy in such a state of sickness misery. One positive was that by Friday night I was at the end of the doom cycle, that Football Park debacle may as well have been seen under the effect of mind-altering drugs. The only thing I remember is being thrashed, and having to employ a guest reporter due to not remembering a second of what happened.

While I might have been over the worst of Random Fever by Friday, I could still have done with the game being postponed until about 4.40pm Sunday. All my physical and mental life force had been drained away, and I was half-tempted to go to bed and watch as if live on Saturday morning. Against all odds I was back to normal by the end of the first quarter, swearing like a trooper as we missed every set shot under the sun. By the third quarter I was dealing with reality again, lying sideways and desperately wanting to go to sleep. So, while I survived in one way or the other until the final siren you will forgive me if I miss anything obvious.

The good news is that we won, which is never a bad thing. Even better, we still nearly kicked 100 points with Ben Brown sitting on his couch after a savage protocoling. The average news is that it wasn't terrifically convincing. The excellent news is that the payback for 2019 is complete, and we've dropped Essendon to 0-3 for only the second time since 1897. It's offensive that they've had such a good run while we've done it 11 times since I was born. This is almost as bad as Geelong winning at least seven games in every season since 1974. There are winners and losers in every field, and until recently we were very much in the second category. Now things couldn't be much better, so who cares what manner the wins come in? Annoying Essendon fans is an added bonus.

This is all easy to say when you know the result, but I was ready to climb off my deathbed and stomp around like Godzilla in Tokyo as we spent the first quarter doing everything but registering a huge score. Losing the Inspector Gadget armed focal point of the forward line didn't help, but early in the piece it felt like Essendon were waiting for somebody to put them out of their misery. Sure, they had the first shot of the night but other than that we were blatantly the better side.

When Weideman, resurrected as a late replacement for Brown, took a nice mark practically dead in front I thought things were about to get started for 1) the evening, and 2) his career. His miss was a bit tragic, but he made up for it shortly after, and was on the way to one of his most productive nights yet. There was a brief intermission after the goal when, after his best few minutes since mid-2020, he was needlessly benched. At the risk of sounding like a crusty 'back in my day' style commentator, what was the point of this? He surely didn't need a rest, and the extent of the feedback from the coach was a quick word of congratulations as he went past. I'm not saying to play him 100% of the game Langdon/May style, but any danger of applying the 'when you're hot, you're hot' rule in these circumstances?

It's revisionist history to pretend Weid hasn't had a kick since the 2018 finals, but even factoring in some pretty good games early in the original COVID roadtrip season this was undoubtedly his finest performance since that final against Geelong. Maybe Friday nights at the MCG are his thing? I'm just happy that he's still the only person in Australia with bigger bags under his eyes than me.

We need to see if he can do it regularly, but now I feel guilty about my crisis of faith when Sam was announced as our late replacement. At the time I was upset that they didn't keep it in the Browns and replace Ben with Mitch. Part of that was a misguided sense of protection, I want Sam to do well and feared him stressing out under the pressure, having two kicks and going back to the seconds looking like a failure. Stuff my feelings, it was undoubtedly the right choice. Mitch might have just kicked seven in the VFL, but it would be extreme extraction of piss to convince Weid to re-sign with us, then prefer a journeyman, country squire looking forward when our first choice was exposed to the big one. If we hadn't picked him Weid would probably have been outside Fair Work Australia at 8am Monday trying to get his contract annulled. 

The Weid was not flawless, balancing one cracking goal from the boundary line by missing a sitter, and he lacked the presence of a Brown or McDonald at his first half of 2021 best, but it was a start. I'm worried about McSizzle, who gave away an odd 50 by jumping all over the guy who'd just taken the mark and claiming he heard some mystery play on call. No doubt if he'd been in Dallas on 22 November 1963 he'd have seen several puffs of smoke from behind the Grassy Knoll. Tom proceeded to test the umpire's attitudes towards dissent with a response best described as 'animated'. Fortunately, like holding the ball, nobody gives two shits about Brad Scott's big ideas anymore and he got away with it. Disappointed at failing to be gifted a goal, the Essendon player missed and things continued to go our way.

Our wayward kicking carried on the trend from the end of the Gold Coast game. We'd gone from 10.1 to 12.10 and were 1.5 here before two late goals that - not for the last time - seemed to indicate we'd decided to win quickly then have a quiet night. I'm not expecting 12 goal wins every week but it would be nice to show somebody premiership contempt eventually. First McDonald, then Petracca merrily bouncing out of a tackle to set up Viney. It was far from Trac's best night, and after his last three performances he was due a night off, but when he gets his hands on it something wonderful usually happens.

If you remember when when our midfield consisted of journeymen, plumbers and journeymen plumbers while Nathan Jones tried to hold it all together you'll be as astonished as me at the idea that you can turn the tap off on Petracca and that just encourages Oliver to go nuts instead. He's definitely over any holding the ball hesitancy from Round 1, and is back to Classic Clayts wandering through packs like The Matrix. At one point he even did the sort of flick pass that would have gone down a treat in the VFA in the 1940s. Your regulation boring player just throws it, Clarence goes out of his way to use an antiquated method of disposal. He might knife you for saying it, but coupled with his zany moustache - far worse than anything Lynden Dunn ever had - he's practically a footy hipster.

Speaking of midfielders, Angus Brayshaw used to be one. Here I was pre-season thinking they were playing him in defence as punishment for not signing a new contract, but he's doing a fantastic job. Sure, a couple of times he was left isolated against Jake Stringer and beaten but no hard feelings, we've got other players who should have been watching him. When you've been conditioned to kill for contested football, there's a natural bias against players racking up a shitload of touches uncontested but I was still gaga for Gus on the mop inside 50. You've still got to do something right to get 20 marks, the second most for us since records have been kept, and the most since Round 6, 1970.

Almost as good, two time Rising Star nominee, one time premiership player and zero time loser Jake Bowey. His undefeated streak is now beyond James Jordon's 9-0, with his eyes firmly on the all-time list. Makes you wonder what damage we did to Jimmy Toumpas by dumping him into a team that won one of his first 16 games. As much as I think the Toump was affected by the worst environment for young men since the Russian army, he didn't have the ice cool calm of Bowey. This guy carries out his business with zero emotion or concern for the feelings of others like a serial killer. I just hope he's not on the Ronda Rousey career path, where he looks unstoppable until the first loss and is never the same again. Unless Steven King is involved his downfall won't start with a kick to the head. For now I love him so much there's a chance of crossing out all the other bozos and voting 1 Bowey at the Federal Election. 

The problem with not putting a side away was demonstrated midway through the second quarter, when after spraying everything like an F1 driver with a bottle of champagne, the Bombers discovered that the ball is meant to go through the big posts. We're absolutely generous in giving suckers even breaks, so their first goal was quickly followed by a second, as 35 minutes of dominance sailed out the window. Worryingly, after threatening to take a record number of contested marks last week Peter Wright started to get into it. None of their other forwards even worried me, but even though I'd trust May to defend for my life I was shitscared of Wright. I reckon Gold Coast should look at recruiting two players like that.

Just after they got back on the board we blew another two chances. I knew that the one time commentators didn't crap on about Gawn's suspect goalkicking would be when he'd miss. They won't make that mistake again. Given his record against Essendon, Maximum must have been missing the sweet sound of one of their fans having a sook over the fence. No matter who they go for, there are few people in society I have more contempt for (other than actual criminals, perverts etc...) than the sort of humanoid who sits in the front row and talks to players while they're lining up for goal. At one point an Essendon player was having a shot and one of our fans was showing off to a woman by yelling in such a smug, self-satisfied way that she should have dumped him live on air. I'm not auditioning to be a Behavioural Awareness Officer, but have some self-respect. Imagine your friends, family and colleagues seeing you acting like a peanut on national television? I'd never go out in public again.

Just when we looked doomed to going behind at half time, enter Tom Sparrow - still a better lookalike for Todd than his own son - to kick a lovely set shot. He's got a record from that distance/angle so I was strangely calm about his chances. That would have been good enough for a respectable half time lead if we hadn't led one in at the end. Like the Suns, Essendon was the second best team but doing a fine job of staying in it. This week we won by more but it was significantly more stressful.

Who knows what sort of nonsense went on at the breaks, but like the second quarter we opened the third by conceding two quick goals - and with them the lead. Now I was boiling, and only partially due to the recent collapse of my immune system. This week's version of "I'll lose, just not to them" was partially down to wanting to repay the favour from 2019, but mostly because for all my efforts to be diplomatic, and unavoidable in-law connections, I just don't like Essendon.

It was one thing going behind, but when they got another I was in full panic mode. A bit ridiculous considering our demonstrable form for wild mood swings. The problem was it felt like now they'd worked out how to convert that we wouldn't have the scoring power to go with them. My Ben Brown fetish is well-known, but this was overrating his contribution a bit. A rational analysis shows we've still got plenty of other scoring options. Thank you then to the Essendon defender who must have sensed that I was getting a bit squeamish and gifted us a goal with an old fashioned howler of a kick. This begat a Harmes goal, before Weideman showed that it should have been him and not Dom Sheed kicking to win the 2018 Grand Final by slotting one from the exact same spot.

Now, you foolishly thought, we had them again. Petracca had barely touched it all quarter, Spargo and Pickett haven't fired a shot all year, Neal-Bullen was way down on his hot form, and Jackson was just good rather than superhuman but we'd still found a way to run them off. Enter Jake Stringer, potent lover, and according to some unhinged sources the 'best player in the game'. For a few minutes he was, kicking two in a row to make things interesting again. 

I didn't want interesting, I wanted a calm last quarter that wasn't physically or mentally taxing. And that's where it should have gone, because anything Stringer could do Weideman and Petracca could cancel it out. After being squashed to within an inch of his life all quarter, Trac kicked a ripper from the boundary to give us a respectable margin going into the last quarter. For about 30 minutes it had the clubhouse lead for our goal of the year, even if he'd desperately tried to give it back by indicating it had been touched. Good thing it's not cricket and they don't just take your word for it, and the rigorous review process (?) didn't find anything wrong with the kick. Thank god for that.

It wasn't like I was comfortable with our three quarter time lead, but when we wasted 10 minutes of both sides kicking for goal like they'd just gone blind it looked like Spargo's first was going to be enough. Even better when Fritsch kicked what should have been the sealer a few minutes later. It almost backfired on us, quickly turning into two goals at the other end, and almost a third. In the end it cost us -7 points and I was left wishing he hadn't got it in the first place - it's a horribly cynical, joyless way to look at the game but we'd probably have been better off if the ball had just been stuck at the other end for the next few minutes while the clock ran down.

Enter Ed Langdon, who after nearly 120 minutes of non-stop careering up and down what can be referred to for the first time as the Shane Warne Stand side, snuck forward to kick one of the most outrageous goals you'll ever see. Five minutes to go, 11 points in front (a one point loss waiting to happen), and he does an inside-out, reverse banana type thing with three defenders converging on him. I didn't believe it had gone through until they cut to the shot of him looking absolutely BAFFLED at what he'd done. 

The goal was certainly worth celebrating, but given how often we'd been beaten out of the centre I was more concerned at the time about them getting back in the middle, standing in the correct formation to avoid an administrative free kick, and running the clock down effectively. Then we lost straight out of the middle, and if that goal had been wasted straight away I'd have cracked the shits as much as it's humanely possible to do when your side won a flag four competitive games ago. 

In a scenario almost as bad as the bit where we somehow turned a 6-6-6 free into an Essendon attack, we cracked like an egg at the bounce and they got it forward. Thank god we didn't concede or I might have expired. For zany, irregular moments in the middle of the ground please also see the bit where Essendon failed to contest the bounce so Jackson tapped it straight to one of them. There can't be any team in the league who is worse at taking advantage of uncontested bounces than us, I don't think we've ever had it to our advantage.

To their credit, Essendon withdrew in shame at having let Ed kick goal of the year through them, and at last that counted as the sealer. Second half specialist Fritsch chucked another one in to make sure of it, then Oliver's 666th gained metre set up the Weid on his own in the square for a fourth and it had turned out a lot more comfortable than expected. Last week I wanted to stuff the premiership points in an overhead compartment, this week they went in the boot of the car. I'm not taking anything for granted but we're one step closer to our title defence.

2022 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Angus Brayshaw
3 - Ed Langdon
2 - Jake Bowey
1 - Sam Weideman

Apologies to Harmes, Jackson, Jordon, Sparrow and Viney

Sometimes I think the votes are so predictable that I may as well be running the Brownlow, but here we have joint leaders, a 10-0 player in second, the other ruckman and random forwards. And this is only Round 3, anyone could finish this year with a vote.

8 - Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca
7 - Jake Bowey (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year), Ed Langdon
4 - Angus Brayshaw, Luke Jackson (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
3 - Ben Brown
2 - Alex Neal-Bullen
1 - Steven May, Sam Weideman

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
There's no way he 100% meant this, because you'd be carted off to a funny farm for trying, but whether Ed was trying to centre it to the top of the square, or just throwing it on the boot and hoping for the best, this is one of the wildest goals I've ever seen. His "what have I just done?" reaction is priceless.

I've forgotten to give out weekly prizes so far, and even though that gag wore out its welcome a couple of years ago I'd still like to offer Ed a $100 gift voucher for the International House of Headbands.

Current top three goals for the season: 
1 - Langdon vs Essendon
2 - Petracca vs Essendon
3 - Pickett vs Gold Coast 

I think it was as sensible a call as you're ever going to get with BT involved. So, for once, the point of this segment is not to hang shit on the commentary but to ask if Channel 7 has retired dear old Nuffy Cam. 

In the last few years you couldn't watch one of their games without the camera switching to some mutant in the stands doing their block over every contentious umpiring decision. Unless I missed something crucial, there's no way we just got through four quarters of a game against people who live and breathe conspiracy without NuffyCam being activated at least once. I never understood why the AFL allowed its product to be shown like that, and presume it's been dialled down in conjunction with the anti-dissent crackdown, but we will miss it (for about three weeks before the heat dies down). 

Next week
From Essendon in a bit of crisis, it's on to Port knee deep in it. Ken Hinkley's never done anything to me, but an 0-4 start could get him the sack. About time I got a new 'Melbourne causes unemployment' reference newer than Stan Alves or Grant Thomas. It's no certainty though, having just suffered their own version of our Adelaide Oval 2021 debacle (albeit without a dead set ROOTING by the umpire at the end), they'll come out like their lives depend on it. I would be lying if I said their forward line didn't worry me. We've done reasonably well in defence for the first three weeks, but the Naughton/Wright experiences suggests we're super-vulnerable to talls - and they've got a lot of them.

I should have more faith, but this still feels like a flashing red light danger game. I'd feel a lot better if we could get one of our flag defenders back - Hibberd and Lever have been on the verge for weeks so either will do. Apparently Petty isn't far behind, which by our standards this year should have him back in the side by Queen's Birthday. I'm hot for the way our system has held up so far but still feels like we're relying on kicking a decent score rather than knowing the other side is going to be held to bugger all - there's probably a 7.10.52 in our future somewhere. Probably the first time I'm able to go to a full game at the 'G.

If available, the defensive inclusions are obvious. The action is all going to be at the other end of the ground, newly complicated by Weidemania. My initial feeling was that if they didn't rush Ben Brown straight back into the team I'd burn AAMI Park down, but after discovering that this is a bullshit Thursday night game and realising he'll only be free of COVID jail that day I'll concede it might be a bit risky to rush him back. We're much better for having him in, but it save us making a decision between Weid and McDonald. The Sizzle isn't doing a lot forward but he still works his coight off for four quarters, and can be used in defence if there's an emergency. On the other hand, Weid is desperate for some confidence so it would be a stitch sending him back to the VFL straight away. 

It's a shithouse choice to make, so I'll squib it and assume Brown doesn't get picked anyway. Bit rough to lose two games because somebody you know catches a stroke of the 'cron, but just be thankful we're not West Coast, forced to rely on the WAFL All-Stars just to field a team.

Should Lever or Hibberd not make it, I'm not sure if there's any value in changes. Hunt has been ordinary but looking at the Casey backline for this week I'm not sure any of Smith, Baker, Rosman or McVee are going to do better. Didn't think Baker or Rosman were defenders in the first place, which may indicate a thinness in our defensive stocks.

I think we'll win via another terrific struggle, and that if Nuffy Cam is ever going to come back it'll be Port fans faced with the prospect of their season swirling down the S-Bend.

IN: Lever
OUT: Hunt (omit)
LUCKY: McDonald
UNLUCKY: Bedford, Chandler, any fit defender.

Final thoughts
There's never been a good reason to complain about a 3-0 start, but if you're struggling to cope with us not winning by 74 swashbuckling points every week remember than the Prelim/Grand Final were twice in a lifetime outbursts that didn't represent much of what got us to the finals in the first place. There was a lot of slog - and that's not necessary a bad thing because we seem to be quite good at it. 

This was like many of the games from last year that you'll never watch again - the first three quarters of Hawthorn 1, North, Essendon, Carlton, Sydney, Hawthorn 2, or either of the Adelaide games. There were plenty of times in that glorious campaign where even Brock McLean's mate Blind Freddy could tell we were the better team, but the door was left wide open for the outsiders to have a crack. More often than not we got away with it, but don't be surprised if we randomly spin up a slurry performance at some point. Extra MFC points if we get through the games against respectable teams then go tits up against some rubbish.

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