Monday, 4 April 2022

One Step Beyond

It's official, as if you didn't already know, there has never been a better time to follow Melbourne in 60 years. The men are the best team in the country, and after six years of battling away at the top of the ladder, the women finally get their chance at a flag. We - some of us from very much afar - have been on a wild AFLW ride since 2017. 

When our women's team graduated from an occasional collection of exhibition game players to an actual club, the men were still a bit shit, and had recently said goodbye, farewell, and amen to Paul Roos' storied coaching career with a 111 point loss. The idea that they'd play finals a year later much less win the bloody comp not long after was still ludicrous. After losing their first game (appropriately enough in the rain, against Brisbane), this version of Melbourne FC Women has given good value ever since. They only missed finals the first two years because there was no reward for finishing third, and otherwise have done no worse than a 4-3 season in 2019. Now, in their third consecutive finals appearance, they've finally got an opportunity to win it all before being scattered to the winds as the league props up a ludicrously optimistic set of expansion clubs. 

It's not quite 'now or never', but there seems to have been an appropriate build to this moment. Adelaide and Brisbane have both won flags, and our fellow Class of 2013 chums Footscray also managed to nick one before turning into perennial disappointments. Here we are effectively in the same boat as Carlton, who have done nothing more than occupy a spot for six years. They did use the failed conference to blag their way into a Grand Final... where they were thrashed by Adelaide. I'm not certain we'll fare any better, but it's a great leap forward just to have the chance. 

A short nine years after the first one, the league had some ordinary luck with scheduling a game at the MCG. It landed on a day with pissing rain, and even with live attendance severely necked by COVID the 6436 attendance would have been a letdown. Mind you, last time we played the Lions at Casey a massive 743 turned up, so it wasn't that bad. Also outdrew the GWS vs Gold Coast men's game by 2000, but that's more their shame than anything else.

Regardless of how many people were there, playing in a stadium should have suited us well. You can't judge anything from thrashing Freo after losing a third of the team to the 'cron, but comparing our ball movement at its best to the usual slopping around Casey in unplayable winds suggested anywhere with half-decent structures around the ground should work in our favour. Unless the day coincides with shit weather, making it hard to string together any decent chain of possessions and all but wiping out our most dominant forward. 

Eventually we found other avenues to score, but not without a tremendous struggle - and a stroke of good luck at the other end. Channel 7's lead in program featured unlikeable motorcycle cops letting an Irishman off for using his mobile while driving, partly because he "had a good attitude" and because they enjoyed his accent. This was followed by narration featuring the phrase "to be sure, to be sure" and background music from Riverdance. Even more offensive, them believing his BULLSHIT claim that in Ireland you can hold your phone as long as you're looking for directions. 

The umpires must have been watching 7 during their warmup, because about 45 minutes later they took a similarly pro-Irish stance and ignored Goldrick hanging off the back of her opponent's jumper like she was abseiling. It saved a certain goal, though the Brisbane player didn't do herself any favours by distracting from the contact by dramatically throwing her arms around like a windmill. Still, it was a big let-off when we looked a chance to end the afternoon on 0.0. 

Despite totally outplaying us, it was Brisbane's only score of the quarter - and indeed the only score full stop. As the sides slugged to that solitary point I could almost hear the whinging of people who were upset that the game had been given its own timeslot, denying them the chance to watch the Suns/Giants shitebuster. It wasn't a great game, but the high-pitched, womanly noise of excitement from the crowd whenever something exciting happened was a reminder that defeated middle-aged men were not the target market.

Finishing the quarter a point behind felt like - and turned out to be - an all-time great let-off. The backline held up well, with an assist to some suicidal attacking by the Lions, but we just didn't seem to have any hope of kicking a big score. They didn't look likely to romp to victory either, but I was confident if the final score was 15-10 they'd be the one ahead. So it was flat-out, Ronald Biggs level theft when we kicked the opening goal. I've got NFI who got the last one in the exhibition games, but let the record show Alyssa Bannan did it first when it counted. She paid tribute to the milestone with elite, Wonaeamirri level celebrations.

Regrettably, this goal against the run of play didn't cause the Lions to withdraw in shame. In fact, they were soon back in front and we only got to the half level courtesy of a missed shot after the siren. We'd done well to hold them up long enough to get into the break on level terms, but I was still convinced they were going to romp by us in the end. When they got the first goal after half time I'd have almost had my house on it, because if we'd learnt nothing else from several hundred match reviews over the years I'm a coward who will wave the white flag under any duress. I was just cutting out fabric to create my instrument of surrender as they went forward again, but soon to be two time premiership player Birch saved the day, opening the door for the lightning burst that ultimately won the game.

First Bannan (who I will stop instinctively typing as 'banana' by the end of her career) ran onto a loose ball to put us back in front, then Lauren Pearce snatched one out of a ruck contest an thumped it through a minute later to give us extra breathing room. From the first quarter, when it was clear Harris would be well held in the conditions, I thought crumb was our path to glory. Enter Eliza McNamara, knocked into next week in her previous Preliminary Final start, beating three opponents in the pocket, then rolling a snap past three more - stitching up almost half of Brisbane's team in one moment. 

It was so Langdonesquely unexpected that considering the occasion it's almost the greatest AFLW goal we've ever kicked. When it went in I was walking through a car park and the excitement caused me to thrust my phone in the air and yelled "YES!" to the confusion and fear and a pair of matrons walking the other way. Even if I'd tried to explain they wouldn't have understood..

I'll never be comfortable with any sort of realistic lead, but when Bannan got her third at the start of the last quarter it looked time to put the feet up and go on a victory lap. And based on how the rest of the game had gone, that should have been it. But this is Melbourne, there's always got to be some spanner in the works to keep things interesting. We couldn't just throw another couple on and win in a canter, it had to get uncomfortably close.

Their first goal was bad enough, but things got EXTRAORDINARILY nervous when they got another one with 30 seconds remaining. Even worse is that it came after we'd won the AFLW equivalent of a 6-6-6 free (6-6-4? 4-6-6?, 6-4-6, 13 11 66 Pizza Hut delivery?) after Daisy flapped her arms like a mad woman to alert the umpires to Brisbane being out of position. We might have used this opportunity to dink the ball around, run the clock and look towards next week. Instead the kick was botched and it was straight down the other end to face 30 seconds of terror.

Appropriately, the job fell to our old chum Greta Bodey, bouncing back from twice missing kicks after the siren to convert this time. It would have been ironic, in a rude way, if this ended in somebody else sinking us with a kick after time ran out. Clearly knowing that there was stuff all time left she was quick to kick it, sadly not rushing her routine and landing it in Row Z of the Warne Stand.

Somehow we acted more like modern Melbourne than the classic version and held on. I hadn't taken a breath for so long that I might have started to turn purple by the siren. Making a Grand Final is all well and good for the fans, but it's the veteran players I would have been shattered for if we'd thrown it away. Original recipe players like Lampard, Mithen and Lauren Pearce have time for another crack, and Paxmania looks likely to go on longer than Dustin Fletcher, but I was particularly invested on behalf of Shelley Scott and Daisy Pearce.

After 3.5 quarters of wondering if Scott had gone a year too far, she put in a couple of superb defensive efforts when the game was on the line. And obviously, everyone wants to win for Daisy, who has not been through the same trials as Nathan Jones but has been the female face of our club for nine years and deserved a shot at glory. There's never been a player so beloved that you can double the value of your baby simply by handing her a texta. Why did I never think of that?

Daisy Pearce signing a baby at the G' 👶

— 7AFL (@7AFL) April 2, 2022

2022 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Karen Paxman
4 - Alyssa Bannan
3 - Eliza McNamara
2 - Shelley Heath
1 - Lauren Pearce

Apologies to Birch, Gay, Goldrick, Hanks, Mithen and Purcell

Just when you thought it was safe to write Paxy off, she's roared back to within one BOG of pinching the lot. And if it's a BOG in a Grand Final that carries us over the line her trophy should be delivered on a golden throne held aloft by peasants. With one to play it's congratulations to Birch and West, who have sealed victory in their respective categories. 

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

Next week
There was one last part of the equation, crossing our fingers that Freo would topple Adelaide so the Grand Final would be played here. It was unlikely before the bounce, and looked even less so when the Crows jumped to a lead. Freo kept it interesting until about three quarter time, but a missed shot that would have cut the lead to less than a kick was their final gasp. Adelaide went straight down the other end to kill them off and it was no MCG Grand Final for us - for the next five months anyway.

If we're going to do this it will come the hard way. So, all roads lead to Football Park at 12:30 on Saturday. As a believer in games starting as early as possible there's never been a better time for a Grand Final. A decade ago I'd have paid to fly to Adelaide and get my live Grand Final one way or the other. No chance these days so best of luck to those of you who are going to step into the abyss and try to punt us home the double. Why not go for the Thursday night game as well and make it a treble? If you've got time for all that I'm so envious it causes me physical pain.

Based on our last two starts against the Crows, this isn't going to turn out well. Both times they've stopped us kicking a decent score - and in the case of last year's Prelim almost any score at all. Bannan coming into form is a good insurance policy against Harris being well held. Still, we're not going to win this 15-10, it's not enough to save it in defence we'll have to go on the attack. A good start will help, I wouldn't fancy trying to chase them down. But we can do this. In the middle of last season we upset them - albeit at Fortress Casey - and it could happen again. It'll be ironic if I survived my near death experience on 25/09 and this is the game that kills me.

Final thoughts
Gut feeling says they'll beat us, but I'm still full of hope. Either way, this time next week we could own all the AFL premierships. Preposterous.

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