Sunday, 10 April 2022

Operation successful. Patient dead.

So, this is what it feels like to lose a Grand Final? Probably better here than 25/09/2021 or I'd have been carted out in a pine box. This is not intended to play down the respect I've got for our women's team, it's just that we're about 25 years of gloom, despair, and agony away from what I'd been through before that enchanted evening. 

I love this team, and we've had such a good season that the result still hit me right in the feels. So much that I chickened out and turned off with 30 seconds left to avoid seeing Adelaide players celebrate. It's no shame that the lead-up couldn't cause the same sort of psychological trauma and near loss of plot as the last one. Everyone else should get a refresher course in the sanctity of Grand Finals, even if you don't go for the competing clubs, everybody leaves you alone when the men were playing, in this case everyone in Australia tried to call me or knock on the door from 12:30 AEST.

Another good reason for not going off the deep end was that this time we were massive underdogs, against opposition that regularly treats us with contempt. This helped in not getting my hopes up. I was desperate to snatch every flag on offer in the world of AFL, but it would require a colossal upset to beat the South Australian All-Stars in their last start before Port come in six seasons late and ruin it for them again. I still held out hope of springing an all-time surprise. I'd even looked at the picture of the premiership men hanging above my desk and wondered if they'd bring out a women's version too, they would have complimented each other nicely. 

The problem, apparently, is that while the men have discovered a love for playing in Adelaide, it's becoming a dead-set graveyard for our women. Whether at Norwood, or now twice at the main ground, we've never gotten close to them in South Australia. Doesn't help that they're the best club ever to play the women's game. The stat that we were only one win behind them all time floored me, but I'm sure they'll cope with the sadness of going 2-4 in 2020 by drying their eyes on any of three flags.

As unlikely as it was to happen, it's not in our nature to storm out of the blocks and put the game away before the other team know what's happening. That would have calmed the nerves. Instead, it was an instant dry-weather replay of the Prelim. Maybe the weather wasn't to blame against the Lions, even in the sunniest of sun we couldn't craft an effective kick inside 50 if our lives depended on it. Hooray then, that the Crows did their best Brisbane impersonation, blowing us away in every aspect other than actually kicking goals. 

Like last week, if the opposition can't/won't take advantage of our slow start, we only need a few minutes to get on a run and turn the game around. I'll admit to having serious doubts about our chances of pulling that move off again, as Adelaide squashed us with their pressure. There was talk on the commentary of us struggling to play on a bigger ground, but the highly authoritative says that Casey is longer and wider than Adelaide Oval, so that seems a convenient excuse. Mind you, the non-St. Jason Bennett commentator didn't know who half our players were so you can't believe everything you're told.

Last week we were saved from the opening goal by an umpire missing the most blatant free kick since 1858, but they got us this time. Birch kicked off her worst game for the year (and one not befitting the only premiership player in our side) by unnecessarily knocking an opponent on her arse. The resulting kick fell short, but right into the hands of a completely unmarked player. After our horrendous attempts to go forward, this sort of bad luck/poor defending convinced me it wouldn't be our day.

The backline was just holding on, despite filling their shorts every time the ball came near. Sinead Goldrick was the exception, galloping around like she'd been playing the game all her life. Probably didn't hurt that she's played a metric shitload of high-pressure Gaelic finals. I change my favourite AFLW player every week, but she's currently a contender. How long that will last is anyone's guess, it's a fair commitment to come here for seven months a year on average money. Even if she never comes back, Sinead's progress of learning the game from her late 20s onwards has been outrageous. She obviously gets it, so if she stays in Ireland we should keep her on the payroll to scout both male and female players. It was a day for Irish runners-up, with Lauren Magee running second in a half-arsed Grand Final sprint shown on delay at quarter time.

It not only felt like last week's, and our two previous meetings with the Crows, but a lot like the reverse of last Thursday. Then, Port held on gamely against misfiring forwards for as long as possible before being swamped. This time it was our turn, and when they got the second goal I was ready to surrender. The atmosphere of disappointment was not helped by inviting my mum over for the occasion (of course we've never seen any other Grand Finals together your honour), and after never seeing an AFLW game in her life she spent from midway through the first quarter until our first behind commenting on how terrible it would be if we didn't score. Yes, thank you, I was aware of the enormous potential for embarrassment. Lucky we'd been through similar in the 2021 Prelim so I knew how to cope.

We looked so unlikely to score that Daisy was relieved of her duties in the forward line and sent up the ground. And rightly so, imagine it was her last game and we'd left her to rot inside 50 while the ball was constantly at the other end. She had a bash at getting things moving but it couldn't have been any less our day. Eventually we got a point, which was something, before Bannan injected some life into the contest with our first goal. Of course, this happened at just the moment I ducked my head around the corner to pick something up. Sums up the day really.

Regardless of whether I saw the goal or not, it happened. And when we resisted our natural urges to give it straight back out of the centre, we got to half time just 10 points down. Which was 10 points worse than what we'd toiled to in the first half against Brisbane, but within comeback range. Still felt unlikely, but if the tables had been turned I certainly wouldn't have been reaching for the silver polish yet.

Considering only 16,000 people showed up, the half time show felt like it was trying a bit hard, but it was nice to finally see one, after missing the September version while having a stress-related medical episode. Not sure I've ever heard a longer intro for a musical act at a sporting event. Poor old Jessica Maubouy is standing there in 26 degree weather, wearing the sort of raincoat people take off to reveal nothing underneath in adult movies, and the announcer gave every fun fact other than her mother's maiden name and credit card PIN. Obviously, I'd never heard any of the songs before, but that's consistent with the 2019 men's Grand Final when I had to ask who Tone On The Phone was, only to find out she'd been at number one for about 12 weeks.

Any hopes of a comeback were briefly (and as it turns out, permanently) dashed when the Crows got the first after the break. We weren't dead yet, and after doing next to nowt for weeks, Kate Hore got a goal at the most important time, putting us back within two kicks. For the last few minutes of the quarter we looked half a chance of unexpectedly storming over the top for a funny/piss funny premiership. But that's where the goals stopped, unable to make things interesting by taking half-chances. We didn't get another one for the rest of the game, which was an appropriately tragic way for it to end. 

I was deflated, but spare a thought for Tayla Harris. She battled all day to get a kick against multiple opponents and was left with the unique record of losing three Grand Finals to the same opposition for different clubs. The third might not have happened if she'd done something different after marking 40 metres out, directly in front, with the chance to cut the margin to less than a goal. It should have been "cometh the hour, cometh the woman", so god only knows why she thought a 10 metre forward/20 metre towards the boundary dink to Paxman was the right thing to do. 

There's a time to be selfless, and there's a time to walk back and wallop through a post high kick that blows the game wide open. To nobody's surprise, Paxy from an angle was not the better option, and she missed. We got to three quarter time without any further damage, but it was a golden chance missed to send them into the last break with pulsating nerves.

Usually, speculating over the importance of the next goal is only for dickheads like Brian Taylor. In this case I knew we were cooked if Adelaide got it. Our only hope was them running out of gas while we created a couple of goals via brute force before holding on like grim death. Alternatively, get the first early, and hold off on the second until after the siren when the ball is in Daisy's hands 20 metres out. Alas, the dream finish was thwarted. The Crows had plenty left in the tank, our Plan B envelope was circling the baggage carousel at Adelaide Airport, and after a few early minutes of thumping the door down for no reward, they went the other way and finished us off. It is, as always, the hope that gets you.

Ash Woodland didn't do much (though five tackles as a forward probably helped disrupt our malfunctioning backline), but there was still a bit of the Curb Your Enthusiasm music about the league's leading goalscorer winning a premiership against us three years after we delisted her. By my count that makes her the first ex-Melbourne player ever to beat us in a Grand Final.

I was gloomy for the rest of the afternoon, and the atmosphere was not helped by Kayo suggesting I watched the replay no matter what part of their website I clicked on. Could have tried to watch Micronesian Premier League volleyball and it would have still tried to lure me into either the full game or mini replay. How about no, no, no, fuck off, and die.

And... that was it. If we'd lost the other game by any margin the SWAT team would have had to knock me off my roof with rubber bullets but this just left me in a state of misery. I wanted the premiership for myself first, the players second and the fans third, but I'm still proud of everyone involved. This side never hit any amazing heights (even the rogering of Freo B carries a COVID asterisk), but you don't go 9-1 and win a Prelim without being a good side that plays with a shitload of heart. Alas, family-friendly values and general loveability will not deliver premierships. Time to recruit our hearts out and come back next time ready to rip somebody's head off and shit down their neck. 

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

Probably should have done a vote audit earlier, turns out I'd given Hanks an extra two votes somewhere, and Paxman was in fact right behind her. Lucky people aren't betting on this or there'd be unrest. That means that Paxmania has come from the clouds to claim another title. I'd also undercounted a shitload of Mithen votes after apparently losing the ability to do maths around the start of 2022. Speech and bladder control expected to follow shortly after.

That's five in a row for Paxman, not nearly as dominant as she used to be but a picture of consistency across the season. Congratulations to minor award winners Libby Birch, pocketing her second defender of the year trophy, and this year's Rising Star, Eliza West.  

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

Next year
Three years ago Adelaide walloped us in the last round and I was sure our premiership window had slammed shut so hard the frame would pop out. COVID came just in time to save us from fading out in 2020, but the recruitment of Birch and later Harris, plus drafting Bannan and McNamara, and Daisy's late career revival helped keep us afloat. This carried us to a Prelim last year, where our pretty good side was rumbled by a very good one. And here we are in 2022, one game further into the season, same result.

Pending departures to the four expansion clubs, and whatever wacky format the AFL uses to cram an 18 team competition into 10 (?) weeks, I think we've got enough quality to stay near the top. I presume we'll be without Daisy and Shelley Scott at a minimum. Otherwise, Paxman, Goldrick and Colvin are the only over 30s and they all seem to have a bit left in the tank. The rest of our side is somewhere between relatively and actually young, so they should keep us near the top for a few more years.

The forward line needs work. If Daisy isn't around that's one less experienced option, and the last few weeks showed what happens when everyone realises Harris is our only long kicking option. Wouldn't mind finding a crumber, some good old fashioned front and centre goals would compliment Tayla bulldozing through packs. We've never really had it, Newman barely kicked any goals and they've obviously got no interest in Petrevski. At this point I'd take a chance on a speculative rookie who's handy at kicking goals over her head from 10 metres out.

Explosive midfielders would also help, it's clear that West and Purcell are more your get ball/kick ball players. This is fine, but we could do with some balance. I'm not expecting the female Christian Petracca to walk through the door but quicker transition inside 50 would stop the opposition sending four defenders to Harris when ball leaves boot. The defence is ok but not impenetrable, so we've got needs in all parts of the ground. Not all of them can be solved in one off-season, but you can't just hope that Adelaide will lose half their squad to Port and that we'll naturally take their spot at the head of the table. 

The good news, if you're into that sort of thing, is that the next season is apparently going to start in August. Spare a thought for me having to work out how to make the difference between summer and winter 2022 seasons on Demonwiki. I don't think a summer season answers any of the competition's big problems, but what do I know? Maybe the idea is for it to pop up just as interest is flagging late in the men's season, and for the later rounds to fill gaps in the schedule while finals are on but I can't see how it's supposed to compete for publicity. Do the AFL care? Probably not, I think they're just happy to tick the social inclusion box and get on with their lives. I reserve the right to take it very seriously, even if the games are playing at 6am on a Tuesday.

Final thoughts
Grisly ending aside, this competition is good fun. Let's do it again in a few months.

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