Saturday 24 September 2022

Princes pork

For all my whinging about starting AFLW season in September, it's nice to extend our Grand Final weekend winning streak be another year. Round 5 in a rushed season that's playing second fiddle to the men's finals and race hate scandals isn't nearly the same as kicking 100 of the last 107 points to win a flag, but it's still nice to be involved in something at this time of the year meatier than a half time sprint.

Considering how easily the Blues were dismissed it's hard to comprehend why I thought this was a danger game. They might have been mid-table, but as we've discussed at length the gap between the top six, middle six and bottom six is like the difference between the Gross Domestic Product of the USA, Estonia and Tuvalu. 

Earlier in the day, expansion walkovers Hawthorn and Sydney had a perfectly good, competitive game, which furthered my theory about playing in divisions for a couple of years. If they had hired me to run the league, and there's still time, I'd have narrowly had the Blues amongst the top nine sides but a run of injuries would already have them in deep relegation trouble. But, even at the stage where they're promoting players directly from the the scrapheap into their starting lineup, they can be thankful that the 18 team competition offers enough dud sides that they should finish the year without being disgraced.

With paper-thin lists, injuries are an absolutely valid excuse for struggle (mind you, we made finals for the first time after activating the 'break in case of emergency' recruitment rules), but my heart positively dripped blood for them as commentators lamented their youthful team, compared to our experienced, cohesive lineup. You'll certainly remember Carlton's battle to put a team together since joining the league in... its first game.

Regardless of how they got to this point, and how little pressure comes from the sides below, the Blues are as mid-table as any team in the history of the game. They're leaning into the gimmick so hard that they'd drawn their last two games. I was worried that we'd keep them close enough to leave the door open for an unprecedented threepeat of ties. That's because I'm a panicky idiot, serious pundits would have had their house and that of every living relative on us winning. If you lived through Sydney breaking a 26 game losing streak against us in 1993 you'd have trust issues too.

While we may have never won major honours in AFLW, we've also avoided losing as hot favourites too many times. There was GWS in season one ("surely they'll never play games at 5pm Friday again" I said) , and that first game against St Kilda, both caused by players kicking for goal as if blindfolded. Other than Mo Hope unleashing a Ms. Kingsley on us in Alice Springs, we've usually only lost to genuine contenders. That's no comfort to me, I expect everyone down to the South Morang Under 11s to keep things interesting against us.

Considering how many times we've beaten good teams, it was a bit baby out with the bathwater to declare us no chance of a flag based on one loss to Brisbane. Slowly roasting a mediocre Carlton hasn't fully changed my mind, but I am willing to accept that having Tayla Harris romping around the forward line like a Viking would have improved our chances. Instead we tried to beat a top side with an underdeveloped first game spearhead who was expected to make something of forward entries which could only be described as 'chaotic'. This situation shoudn't be repeated unless Tayla is injured or belts somebody again. 

The Blues were, to put it politely, shithouse. Yes injuries, but even if pre-season form is as untrustworthy as a politician it turns out beating them by 70 points was a hint of things to come. It wasn't so savage this time, instead of a six goal first quarter they were slowly drowned under a steady wave of goals throughout the first half, and a couple of exclamation marks later. Their response was to kick one goal, score a point in the second half, and barely have any chances other than that.

I've scoffed at inside 50s as a serious stat, but if they ever tell a story it's when a team registers a comically low amount. It might have pissed rain for 10 minutes before half time but 13 is a horrendous night. The only side to have less this year, and only by one, was when Sydney kicked 0.2. Even Freo went inside 50 times when their final score was one measly point. 

If there's ever been a team capable of keeping a team away from goal to that degree and still losing due to kicking 0.7 plus nine on the full it's us, but there was no such drama in this case. From the first bounce you could tell it would take self-destruction on an apocalyptic scale to offer the Blues any hope. Still, there were a couple of nervous minutes before the scoring started. Watching any variety of Melbourne you never know when the opposition will come out flat, then get a second life when they realise we can't put them away.

We were very good, but it wasn't without help from their rancid play. Let they whose team hasn't done 3000 turnovers cast the first stone but at one point a player was pinged for a last touch free because she completely missed her teammate with a handball. I'm not sure I've ever seen that before. Our first goal was born from an intercept in the middle, before Harris took a massive contested mark at 50, turned around and low-key booted the cover off it for the opener.

As much as I don't like it, Harris as second ruck is apparently what we're doing now, but I will note that when she went forward it was generally within the sort of range where damage could be done. Compare to pre-suspension when she'd mark on the wing and look up to see nobody who could get on the end of her kick. We desperately need somebody else who can take a contested mark inside 50, by the looks of it that will never be Bannan or Zanker. Each have their charms, though neither contributed much here, but neither's going to be a KPF. 

I suppose you park Georgia Campbell at FF for Casey in next year's VFLW and hope for the best, or try and pinch one off another team. There must be prospects at one of the rock bottom teams who don't want to wait years for a win, let's exhibit big club energy and pinch one of them. This was probably the method we used to get Olivia Purcell from Geelong, and she'd turned into a possession gathering machine. Her 30 tonight is the most we've ever had in a game, and while I'm not going to sign a stat dec vouching for their efficiency, it's can't hurt having somebody win so much ball. 

Compare Purcell's accumulation with the three Carlton players who reached half time without a touch. Three more had one each and it was no wonder they barely looked like scoring. At the other end we threatened to kick a large score, and might have with a bit more marking power. See, for instance, a certain T. Harris, who dismissed two opponents to take the grab that led to our second. She does good work up the ground, and a link player would have come in handy last week, but that's all academic if you can never get the ball to a player within range to score.

You'd be mad to trust any Melbourne lead, but after keeping them to a point in the opening quarter, Paxman's ice cold Petracca in Perth style finish (and come to think of it, Harris' first was a bit like his opener that night too, so it's was nice of them to pay tribute to the greatest event in the history of the world) made it obvious where this was going. The only question was how far. 

Even when we were three goals up against Brisbane you could tell they were capable of scoring,  while  Carlton looked a half chance of finishing goalless. So I still thought "here we go" when they finally got one in completely unorthodox fashion, with a hopeful kick at a ball that hit the deck after a ball up, which then only got past a diving Birch on the line by taking a zany bounce. If that was the best they could do in a quarter and a half we should have been right. Turned out to be the best they could do in four full quarters.

It doesn't feel right now that it was still only 14 points the difference late in the first half. Enter, at last, Sabreena Duffy. After much speculation of whether she actually existed, the ex-Freo forward ran onto a handball from Daisy, took advantage of a quality shepherd from Hore, and opened her account for us. She didn't get much of the ball (and please, for the sake of headline writers everywhere can she win a game after launching into a tackle Ginnivan style so we can do 'Duffy Duck'), but still looked good and will comfortably retain her spot from here.

The Blues were still barely alive before letting another in just before the break. With one play to navigate, another Daisy handball found Harris storming towards goal, and she booted it through mid-tackle to extend the margin to four goals. Even I was ready to concede it was game over at this point, though I'd never have said it publicly.

If, like me, you were hoping to plunder Carlton for a record score, there wasn't much to offer in the third quarter. They were kept at arms' length while we picked up a million inside 50s for nowt but points and intercept marks. Even the goal we did get had an element of luck about it, bouncing straight back into Hore's hands at the top of the square with 40 seconds left.

By now the hard work was done, and with the four points easily in the bag the last quarter was about a) percentage, and b) any implications for next week. So Paxman lightly bumping a player with her head over the ball in the opening minute was a bit of a concern. It was more of a collision than an assassination attempt so I'd be outraged if she ended with anything more than a token fine.

I'd love to have run away with it but it again took until right at the end to get our only goal. At least it was a good one, with 50 gamer Lauren Pearce turning her opponent inside out, regathering and snapping. I know the Blues had lost the will to live by this point, but if more teams could allow our forwards to be in one-on-ones that close to goal it would be much appreciated.

So, it was all very good. I still don't know if it translates to winning finals but you can only beat who's in front of you - and given that about 14 of those sides are going to be the drizzling shits then we should win a lot more games than we lose this year.

2022 (Spring) Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Tayla Harris
4 - Olivia Purcell
3 - Tyla Hanks
2 - Sarah Lampard
1 - Karen Paxman

Apologies to Gay, Mithen, Paxman, West and Hore.

It could be the first time we've ever had a leader with higher votes than kicking efficiency, but welcome to the wild world of AFLW.

14 - Karen Paxman, Olivia Purcell
10 - Eliza West
8 - Tyla Hanks
6 - Tayla Harris
5 - Eden Zanker
4 - Maddie Gay, Lily Mithen
3 - Sarah Lampard (JOINT LEADER: Defender of the Year)
2 - Libby Birch, Kate Hore
1 - Lauren Pearce

Goal of the Week 
Apologies to Paxmania at the start of the second quarter but I've got to go with Harris kicking an intercontinental ballistic missile that Vladimir Putin would be proud of. I enjoyed it so much she leaps into second place in the seasonal leaderboard.

1st - Alyssa Bannan vs North Melbourne 
2nd - Tayla Harris vs Carlton
3rd - Kate Hore vs Brisbane

Next Week 
It's back to dear old Perth to take on the Dockers. Last time this happened we won by a record margin and Daisy kicked five, but I've got no expectations of similar slaughter this time. For one, they won't be so short on players that randoms are being called two hours before the bounce and invited to come down for a kick. 

The good news is that while Freo are from of COVID (and haven't 'health and safety protocols' gone out the window recently?), they're still not very good. They just won their first game of the year against a West Coast side that had previously been propped up by the most generous draw in history, and drew against the same side we just trounced. Due to my deep mental scars I'm prepared to focus instead on them nearly beating Footscray and wondering the same could happen again.

It should not, which would set us up for a blockbuster against the Dogs a week later. Then we roll home downhill against some of the shit teams on to Qualifying and/or, Preliminary and/or Grand Final glory.

Final Thoughts
This was the eighth time this year that a side has scored fewer than 10 points, which might be a necessary evil when you're sprinting to get to 18 teams as soon as possible but makes the season feel like a placeholder that the league is just trying to get out of the way before coming back seriously in spring 2023. It won't stop me getting excited if we win the flag - I've got a lovely spot right next to my framed men's premiership merch for whichever gender wins one next.

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