Friday 16 September 2022

Kicking like the wind

(Editor's note - I was already burnt out to a crisp, then the men being eliminated in farcical fashion sent me completely off the deep end. I look forward to crawling out from under the digital rock eventually, but in the meantime thanks to Olivia for taking the guest reporter challenge.)

Greetings from your newly minted AFLW guest reporter (unless Adam ever needs a men's match report from the Members'...) I come to you extremely well qualified for the job as both a woman and a lifelong Demons supporter – inherited rather than by choice, though I've never wavered (well apart from maybe a small wobble in the depths of the Neeld debacle) – but I'm still sometimes confused by the finer points of free kick rules. 

My supporting life only really goes back as far as the last couple of years of the Daniher era, although I have vague warm and fuzzy memories of the Demons being mighty in the (very) late 90s – early 2000s, when they weren't losing the Grand Final by a significant margin. 

By the time the AFLW started I was close to despairing of ever seeing a successful Demons team, so discovering there was a team called Melbourne who were actually very good and would continue to contend in every season made a nice change from hoping to at least avoid the wooden spoon. Even after many years of getting close but never actually winning the elusive flag they've still been good enough for me to maintain my enthusiasm, albeit only enough to get me to a handful of games. Casey Fields is a lovely ground (when not blowing a gale) but it's a long way from anywhere I'd consider a convenient location for me to attend games at. 

This week I started watching on significant delay for various reasons, and the delay was then compounded by a lengthy pause for blog-writing-related technical issues. Consequently, by the time I was watching the second half I had seen the final score, but by that point of the match it was pretty clear which direction the result was heading, and the journey still held plenty of interest. 

We were wearing a pretty spectacular guernsey for indigenous round, which was nearly identical to the men's one from this season but nonetheless a beautiful design. Like the men's indigenous rounds earlier this year we were competing as Narrm, a name change the commentators seemed to adjust to without incident. This also meant that there were a few formalities before the bounce, but they all went off without a hitch and very soon the game was on. 

Both sides came into this game undefeated and St Kilda also had an impressive percentage, but that was off the back of strong victories against two brand-new hurriedly constructed expansion sides, so this would be the much-improved Saints' first big test this season. 

The opening minutes seemed to be pointing to a tight and scrappy contest, but it wasn't long before we got it inside 50 via a great intercept mark from Sheriff. Her kick didn't hit a target and St Kilda took it out, but the kick was picked off by Tayla Harris, who sent off a lovely kick to the goal square, where it was marked behind two Saints by Kate Hore. The unfortunately named Hore kicked truly against a significant wind, and the Demons were off. 

Thoughts of St Kilda producing a quick response were soon seen off by a similar sequence of the Demons getting inside 50 without a mark, the Saints getting the ball back and kicking it out only for it to be marked by a Demon and sent straight back in, this time being marked by Megan Fitzsimon. She again put it through, apparently with an assist from Tayla Harris occupying the St Kilda defender on the goal line, according to the commentators. The broadcast gave only the briefest of close-ups as the ball crossed the line, so viewers had to take their word for it. 

Our next came a few minutes later via some sterling ruck work from Eden Zanker at a throw-in, hitting it straight into the path of Eliza West, who kicked it to a player who went unidentified as the commentators were busy talking to Lily Mithen from the bench. It looked like Maeve Chaplin to me, but the wide angle and lack of visible jumper numbers made it hard to be sure. At any rate, probably-Chaplin sent it back inside to be nicely marked in a contest by Jordan Ivey. She decided she didn't have the distance and passed it off to the pocket, where everyone's favourite mullet Karen Paxman pulled down another nice contested grab. She again kicked straight in spite of the wind, and the scoreline was starting to look ominous. 

Barely a minute later we got another without St Kilda, for all their good work early, registering so much as a point. This time Zanker pulled down the Sherrin from a ball up in the forward pocket, and kicked a lovely snap from almost directly in front, which duly bounced through for a goal. 

By now there were less than five minutes left in the quarter and the Saints could be forgiven for hoping things might slow down, but a free to us in the middle led to an inside 50 off the boot of Fitzsimon, which bounced off Zanker's back into the hands of Alyssa Bannan, who was promptly tackled but got rid of the ball in the direction of multiple Demons. Some juggling led to a kick towards the pocket, which didn't hit a target but was mopped up by our fearless leader Daisy Pearce, who passed it back to Mithen. She took the sensible option and sent it to the top of the goal square to a waiting Bannan in miles of space. Even the commentators pointed out what poor defensive work this was from the Saints, as Bannan went back and, like every other shot for goal so far, put it through for a major. 

With only a little over three minutes left in the quarter St Kilda players and fans were no doubt hoping to run down the clock without further scoreboard damage, and in fact they got through nearly two minutes before a St Kilda player’s attempt at kicking the ball far away from our 50 was smothered and the ball quickly sent back inside to be marked by Zanker almost directly in front, a few metres outside the goal square. As was becoming the theme of the game, she duly turned around and kicked a regulation set shot goal. 

The dream run finally came to an end late in the quarter, with yet another forward 50 entry ending in a rushed behind. At quarter time St Kilda fans were no doubt bracing themselves for a bloodbath, but in fact the Demons would remain goalless for the rest of the game. This was not for lack of trying, and there may very well have been a wind factor impacting our kicking for goal, but as it turned out St Kilda were unable to capitalise on Narrm's three quarters of inaccuracy, so our blistering first quarter turned out to be enough to get the four points. 

Of course, in the midst of the second quarter the lack of scoring did seem to open up the possibility of a Saints comeback, but the fact that it took them most of the quarter to finally score their first goal made a six-goal turnaround by the home side in the remaining half appear unlikely. 

The second quarter started with what appeared to be more of the same, with Daisy Pearce quickly sending the ball inside 50, only for the Saints defence to finally wake up and intercept the kick, leading to some juggling which ended in a behind for the Demons.

In a pattern that would soon become familiar, the by now usual centre scrimmage led to a kick which ended up in the hands of Libby Birch via a lovely contested mark just outside our 50, and she sent it inside where Bannan took another great contested mark only to miss the set shot. Just about everything the Demons did seemed to be working, apart from our goalkicking. 

Fortunately for Narrm, St Kilda weren't faring much better. A nice passage in the middle of the quarter ended in a mark just barely on the Saints 50 by a tall redhead called Shierlaw, who sent it inside only for the kick to be picked off by the ever-reliable Paxman. Shierlaw would feature quite heavily in the Saints forward line for the rest of the afternoon, but scoring shots continued to be few and far between for both sides. 

St Kilda finally got their first late in the quarter, when Shierlaw was the beneficiary of a free kick paid against Libby Birch in the Saints forward 50, and against all trends of play kicked truly in front of goal. Giving away a free in the opposition's forward 50 is never advisable, but unlike the men's game two days earlier this one was never likely to turn the result around so I'm prepared to forgive Birch, who was otherwise very good in defence. 

At half-time the Saints late burst of life suggested a comeback was possible, but they were still in need of a five-goal turnaround against a significant wind, and so far they hadn't managed to capitalise much on Narrm's scoring slowdown. Even so, trusting teams called Melbourne (or Narrm) to hold on a lead has been a risky endeavour this year so a touch of nervousness seemed warranted. 

Or it would have, had a significant viewing delay combined with a lengthy half-time pause not led to me spotting the final score while searching the AFLW app for a list of players. Incidentally, I'm not sure why the app can’t show the same stats as the men, the framework would already exist and surely it's not that much harder to collect the data for the women's games? I would have loved the score breakdown the men's games get that shows touched and rushed behinds for this game. Ah well, maybe next year they can fund it with all that TV rights money. 

Knowing how the game turned out did allow me to approach the second half in a much more relaxed mindset, though even without that I wouldn't have been terribly worried unless the Saints started to look like getting a run on. As it turned out, the ball spent most of the third quarter camped in or near the Demons' forward 50, resulting in four scoring shots which all ended with behinds. The Saints finally broke through with around four minutes left in the term, with a passage that ended in a player clunking a mark inside 50 and then putting the set shot through for a major in spite of the strong wind. 

At three quarter time it was clear the Saints would need to do something remarkable to steal a win, and what they'd shown so far suggested that while they are no doubt a good side they probably didn't have it in them. They came in to this match undefeated, and looking like they might finally have got it together after several pretty ordinary seasons, but Narrm have consistently been a top side and are hungry coming off a Grand Final defeat last season, so it was always going to be a big ask for St Kilda to knock over the Dees. 

Mick Stinear, being interviewed as the players prepared for the start of the final term, made some interesting comments when asked how the Demons could improve their goal scoring in the final term. He said words to the effect that they needed to "work together to score a goal instead of all going for the same outcome". I wasn't quite sure what he meant, and I'm still not totally clear, but I think he may have been referring to not getting in each other's way, or possibly taking risky shots when there's a better option available? That's something the men could spend some time thinking about. 

Soon after the siren sounded the Saints made things interesting by getting their third, again through Sheirlaw. They were now only four goals down, so if they managed to get another quickly a comeback could be at least possible, though the clock was now very much against them. It turned out this would be the last goal of the game, though not for lack of trying. 

Fortunately for Demons supporters' nerve,s, at the next bounce the ball was very quickly sent in a Demons direction, with Fitzsimon again getting on the end of a forward 50 entry. She was very good in the forward line all day, starting well with a contribution to our first quarter hail of goals. This time her kick was accurate but the ball was touched before it crossed the goal. By my recollection this was just one of many near-goals saved by the St Kilda defence, but I don't have the relevant stat available to verify this impression or the energy to trawl through the full reply to check, so you'll have to take my word for it. 

As the clock ticked towards certain victory territory the Saints were putting up a decent fight, but neither side was getting much reward for effort on the scoreboard. St Kilda nearly set up another, with Sheirlaw again taking what should have been a good contested mark within range, but she dropped the ball on the way down and apparently none of the umpires had a good view because the mark wasn't paid despite her having clear control of the ball well before the fumble. I don't pretend to be an expert on these things, but I agreed with the commentators that it was very stiff not to give Sheirlaw the mark.

In any case, the Saints kept control and created a shot from somewhere not long after, but it only went through for a behind. Kelli Underwood, leading the commentary alongside an assortment of active players from other teams, initially called it correctly only to backtrack and call it a goal, by her own admission based on the crowd response. I don't subscribe to the vehement dislike of Underwood expressed by some, but I did think that was not the only time her commentary left something to be desired. 

Kelli seemed to be a fan of a Saint called Greiser, making repeated references to "the G-train" any time said player was anywhere near the ball. I have no idea whether that's an actual fan nickname or one Underwood was trying to popularise, but either way I found what had started as an amusing distraction distinctly grating by the time the final siren went. It seemed like Greiser was almost the only St Kilda player Underwood knew at times, which was a bit disappointing. 

The final quarter would bring some more questionable commentary on both teams. An inside 50 for the Dees ended up in the hands of Bannan vaguely in the vicinity of the goal posts. As she turned goalward Underwood said with much excitement “she knows where the goals are, she loves to kick them!” Alas, no goal was forthcoming this time. Eventual we set up another shot with another Fitzsimon mark but her shot was quickly smothered. 

The clock was running down but there was still time for more commentary fun when a Saints kick to a contest featuring Greiser inside 50 was described by Kelli Underwood as "set up for the G-train", only for Greiser not to get anywhere near it while the Demons almost immediately got the ball and send it back out. 

With the game all but won, Lauren Pearce, after a very good day, had a chance to end it on a high note with exactly one minute left, but like all of our shots after quarter time she only got it through for a point, with the shot intercepted by a St Kilda defender on the goal line. The Demons were still more than four goals up, so it had zero impact on the eventual result, but it was disappointing nonetheless. 

All in all, this was a match that highlighted the differences from the men's game, with a relatively low score being enough to hang on despite three quarters of inaccuracy, with the significant wind at the ground no doubt an important factor. Our vast experience kicking into a gale at Casey seemed to put us in good stead early, but perhaps the wind changed as the game went on, because our accuracy certainly didn't last for four quarters. 

The shorter quarters would seem to make it easier to defend a lead even when scoring is hard, though the opposition only scoring half as many goals in the final three quarters as us in the first definitely helped. Against a top team we might not have gotten away with it, but St Kilda, though significantly better than in previous seasons, are not quite there yet. 

Overall, despite early signs of a four quarter display of dominance over lesser opposition this turned out to be a match for us to bank the four points and move along, rather than one supporters would look back on fondly as a gripping contest. It did at least provide a nice distraction from the mens side's disappointing result two days earlier. 

2022 (Spring) Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 Eden Zanker
4 Eliza West
3 Karen Paxman
2 Olivia Purcell
1 Tayla Harris 

Apologies Birch, Fitzsimon, Harris, Mithen, L Pearce and Hore 

Zanker was extremely influential, taking many good marks and kicking two goals, on top of her share of ruck duties. Eliza West was in everything around the middle, and was a key part of the delivery to our forwards. Harris also had a good day out, taking 4 marks, many of them contested, and did well in the ruck but scored only a solitary behind. One of her excellent marks has even been nominated for Mark of the Year, so at this point I'd say we're finally getting some return on the potential she didn't quite live up to last season. Olivia Purcell recorded a PB 26 disposals, but I thought she didn't have as much impact with the ball as some, which just goes to show how the stats don't always tell the whole story. 

Paxman was dependable as ever, taking good marks at both ends and kicking a goal in our first quarter blitz. Though she wasn't best on here, I'd like to take this opportunity to put in a vote for the best player award to be renamed after her. Surely after winning it so many times she's earned it. 

There were many players who had good games today but couldn't be fitted into the votes due to the many excellent performances. Lily Mithen was her usual busy self according to the stats, and Lauren Pearce also had a good day in the ruck. The other Pearce, our esteemed captain, had a quiet day from what I could tell, but she can't be expected to be a superstar every week. Over in defence, Libby Birch did well outside of the Sheirlaw free, cutting off more than one Saints passage with an intercept mark.

My choices have caused a bit of shuffling in the places, with Eliza West now drawing level with Olivia Purcell in second. Zanker also zooms into third with this week's BOG. The votes were of course decided by the very scientific method of my impressions of what I could see on the broadcast plus the comparatively meagre available stats, so some details may have been missed. If this game ends up stiffing someone out of an award I'll front up to a stewards inquiry at the end of the season, until then register your disagreement via the usual channels. 

13 Karen Paxman
10 Eliza West, Olivia Purcell
5 Eden Zanker
2 Libby Birch
1 Maddie Gay, Sarah Lampard, Tayla Harris 

Goal of the Week 
There was of course a selection to choose from, but my vote goes to Zanker's snap, as one of the few not to come from a more or less regulation set shot. It was a good goal, but I’m not sure it's goal of the year material, so no need to knock off the season leader. Perhaps into third though. No offence to Daisy but I think Zanker’s was a better goal all things considered. 

1st - Alyssa Bannan vs North Melbourne 
2nd - Tyla Hanks vs Adelaide 
3rd - Eden Zanker vs St Kilda 

Next Week 
It's ladder leaders Brisbane back at our home deck in the windswept grasslands of Casey Fields. We have a decent record against them, but they've been in dangerous form so far, so anything could happen. At time of writing there's been some whinging about what could well be game of the round between two of the leading teams of the competition being held in the far reaches of Melbourne's southeastern suburbs rather than the perfectly good stadium that will be sitting unused at Docklands, but nothing's come of it. Won't make any difference to me as I won't be going regardless, but I'm always in favour of home games at more accessible locations. 

I don't have many suggestions on selection changes because I don't think anyone played terribly, but we will need to bring our best against the Lions, so some accurate goalkickers would be useful. Maddie Gay is apparently a chance, but at this point in the season I'm not sure it's worth the risk of rushing her back if not fully fit. It should be a good contest, but it could well be the end of our unbeaten run. Alternatively, a victory over the Lions would put us in an excellent position for another run at the premiership before Daisy retires to coach Geelong. At least one Demon side is still a legitimate chance of a flag this year. 

Final Thoughts
We played well but less than stellar opposition probably made us look excellent in comparison, so let's bank the points and move right along. Kicking accurately in front of goal for four quarters instead of one would be handy against the Lions.

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