Sunday 16 October 2022

Golden casket

Fans of Melbourne 1954-1964, Adelaide 1991-2019, and Geelong in general already know it, but following a side that wins almost every week is tremendously satisfying. It might not end in a flag (and for several years didn't even guarantee making the finals), but there's something calming about knowing you're objectively better than almost every team in the competition.

However, if we were going to do something silly and lose to a mid-table struggler for the first time since Footscray 2021, this was the week. With Goldrick, L. Pearce and Sherriff missing from last week, and Gay still injured, Gold Coast caught us wrist-deep in our reserve stocks, with two players making their first appearance of the season, and a pair of Casey ring-ins (including one with a decidedly upper class surname - and who is still, apparently the #904 tennis player in the world) as emergencies.

Considering everyone expected the Suns to lose anyway, this would have been a good opportunity for them to come out firing and hope we collapsed under the weight of expectation. Instead they waved the white flag by parking a player behind the ball from the first bounce. Not the first time there's been a surrender in a Melbourne/Gold Coast game, but at least this guy waited until the last quarter.

The early result of this anti-spectacle cowardice was that we got plenty of the ball but struggled to convert that into scores. Which was fine from a Suns perspective, if they were going for a nil-all draw. Eventually, they were reduced to panic bombing the ball straight to our defenders, and ended the evening with one goal. And that was all they deserved for trying to sandbag their percentage before being thrashed anyway. If the Bulldogs do as expected and beat St Kilda on Sunday they'll be a game behind anyway, what's another 5% to have a serious crack at winning? I'd have - as they say in Sydney - blown up deluxe and tried to sack everyone if we'd been done the same in their position. Instead, we remain firmly in top four calculations with two (keep it quiet) easy games to end the season. 

This was not only a night for overcoming a team trying to bore their way to a narrow loss, but for demonstrating how well we've done recruiting from other clubs. Between them, Libby Birch, Tayla Harris and Olivia Purcell cost the equivalent of pick 8, 15, 17 and Chantel Emonson. I wish Emonson well at Geelong, and hope whoever was drafted in those spots is having a lovely career, but all three imports must be in All-Australian contention. When I foolishly declared us a spent force a few years ago it failed to take into account the piratical ransacking of other teams to improve our lot.

It's easy to be frothy after keeping the opposition to a single measly goal for the third time in four weeks, but our inability to break through for more than a point in the opening minutes left the door ajar for them to sneak one on the rebound. Then, much to the surprise of commentators who acted as if beating Sydney was an achievement, the Suns discovered that you can't play teams with a percentage of 30 every week. Once things got rolling we may have had our best ever game for finding targets by foot, and after conceding three goals in the last few minutes of the quarter the Suns were never coming back. I don't think I've ever been as confident in such a slender lead

The usual stars did starrish things, but this was one of our more across the board performances. I very much enjoyed Maggie Caris tackling everything that came near her. She's been on the outs all year due to L. Pearce/Harris but was very good, and should probably send the tape around to all the clubs that need rucks if the alternative is to be stuck in the queue behind a pair of All-Australians for years to come.

Given how much better we were at moving the ball in our direction, it was nice to finally get some reward when Daisy pulled down a contested mark in the square and did the high-risk Russell Robertson play on from a metre out. In her 50th game, and probably the last time she'll ever be the sole representative of the Pearce dynasty in our side, she looked as dangerous forward as any time since taking a baseball bat to the Freo reserves. It didn't last the four quarters but helped get us off to a positive start.

That encouraged the locals to switch off and allow us to turn one of the cleanest centre clearances you'll ever see in this competition into another goal. Caris put it straight into West's path, she did a lovely handball to Purcell, and the AFLW equivalent of Clayton Oliver hit a leading Hore with a delightful kick. I've never thought about the best seven seconds in our AFLW history but this would have to be up there. A miss would have detracted from the moment, but while she's occasionally wonky from close range Hore showed that she's probably distantly related to Travis Cloke with a perfect shot from distance. It helped to come a mile off the line and all but run around the player on the mark but they all count.

By this stage I was almost satisfied that we'd broken them, but no matter how well you've done in one quarter, calling it over at 13-0 would have been a bit optimistic. Turns out we wouldn't have needed to score again to win. The third made all the difference, allowing me to figuratively put my feet up and light a cigar. Maybe it was the pisstake nature of it, with Mithen about to bomb a kick to the square when she was called to play on and handballing backwards to Harris instead, who stepped around an opponent and lamped it through from the exact spot Mithen had started in.

We have a list for everything, so I can exclusively confirm that keeping the opposition scoreless in the opening term two weeks row isn't anything new. In 2018 we did it three times straight and somehow still lost twice, so this was definitely an improvement. The damage was mostly done by now, and the second quarter lacked fireworks. For the first few minutes it also lacked scores, until another golden kick to a lead found Harris running through the middle of two defenders. Everything about it was delightful, and if all the other sides could give her this much space it would be most appreciated. This, temporarily or not, put her back ahead of Darcy Vescio as the all-time leading league goalkicker, and even if we've only got a 1/3 share of her career total I'm just happy to see a Melbourne player holding a major record.

Gold Coast's innovative 'lose by as little as possible' theory was heading for disaster, but that goal prompted them to temporarily put the brakes on. They even got their lone goal of the evening, for what that's worth. The value was determined at about 90 seconds of relaxation before Zanker dispatched a defender to take a contested mark and drill another set shot.

That was our lot for the half. Sadly we were denied a tremendous highlight from my new favourite player Mackin, who gathered a bouncing ball inside 50 at about 100km/h like she's been playing the game all her life and was about to kick a cracking goal when she started going too fast and fell over. Her goals will come, and I'm confident she's not going out of the side any time soon.

Whether percentage comes into the final ladder or not, it would have been nice to emerge from half time with flamethrower in hand and burn the Suns to a crisp, but they had all the play early. This was good news for everyone except the player who was left on Planet Koozebane after coming off second best in an aerial dual with Birch. Silly to get involved in the first place. The Suns will be advocating for 15-a-side games, because even with one of their players on the ground they turned this calamity into a rare shot on goal.

Given my hatred of inside 50s as a stat, I spend a lot of time discussing them, but a 45-9 tally was outrageous. We could even afford Bannan failing to get a boot on ball from centimetres out and only ending up with a point. It looked like we were set to take the win and get on with our lives, but the home side had other ideas. After keeping us goalless until the last minute, a clumsy clothesline to Fitzsimon got her on the board, before Zanker did something quite outrageous with a second left, ripping the ball out of the ruck and hoofing it through from 30 metres out. 

Regretfully I didn't see this goal until later, watching on an hour delay I was trying to get through the breaks as quickly as possibly so when there was a ball up with four seconds left I decided to get a head start on the last quarter. We were winning so comfortably the extra bump in our score didn't even register, and I only discovered it happened from watching the highlights. Oops.

Considering the margin, the early minutes of the last quarter featured a surprising number of Suns players being assassinated off the ball. None of it was worth the tribunal getting involved, but you could have been forgiven for thinking the sides had serious bad blood between them. In reality, no matter the genders involved Gold Coast are so irrelevant that even Brisbane has to work hard to pretend there's a rivalry.

The game was already long dead five minutes in when Hore won a free burying her opponent in a tackle. As Harris swept through to play on and kick her third the commentator got his words mixed up and said something that sounded like "Kate Hore got her pissed". And given that they're two of the great goalkickers, why not. Hore got one of her own not long after, via another series of beautiful passes that started with Paxman (perhaps the first player to turn up with her head bandaged due to injuries suffered a week earlier), before West found her standing in a postcode of space 25 metres out directly in front. 

From the average start, we were now in our third straight week of free scoring fun. Alas that was as good as it got. Duffy missed a shot after the siren but nobody was worried, another mid-table mediocrity had been pushed out of the road on our way to glory. Congratulations to the Suns on knowing their role, and if they've stuffed the salary cap as badly as the men and need to dump a couple of good players on us we'll be happy to show them a good time.

2022 (Spring) Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Olivia Purcell
4 - Eliza West
3 - Libby Birch
2 - Shelley Heath
1 - Tayla Harris

Major apologies to Hore and Mithen. Other apologies to near on everyone, but mainly Hanks, Hore, Lampard, Paxman, Pearce and Zanker.

Racking up of bulk possessions is always a reliable indicator of votes, and with Hanks missing out this week the award is Purcell's to lose. I certainly did not see this coming in pre-season but she has been excellent. In the minor awards, there's nothing for the rookie of the year yet but Birch captures the lead in the backline award from the world's most apologised to player.

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

Goal of the Week 
I was intending to give this to Harris from the first quarter, then I discovered that the Zanker goal had happened. She might have been saved by the timekeeper's finger slipping off the button but it was a quality finish. So good that I'm promoting it to second for the season. Congratulations all.

1st - Alyssa Bannan vs North Melbourne 
2nd - Eden Zanker vs Gold Coast
3rd - Tayla Harris vs Carlton

Social issues corner
It's not hard to improve a Gold Coast jumper that looks like the local Maccas franchise, but we still won the battle of pride jumpers. Usually, I'd confine my analysis to fashion (I like to be comfy and current) due to a) being outside the target market for these jumpers, and b) mortal fear of cancellation, but Gold Coast's inclusion of a 'straight ally' flag got me involved on a technicality. I'm all for the intimately involved communities flying flags, but trying to get one from long distance for showing a basic level of human decency is a bit rich. Otherwise, hooray for everything.

Next week (incorporating the Ms. Bradbury Plan)
It's Essendon next Sunday, and I've been caught out expecting big wins against very average Bomber sides before so let's not get ahead of ourselves. But if you take a dispassionate, neutral view we should win in a canter. All four of the key injured players could be back for our second consecutive game against a side that's just had a training run against Sydney. Essendon are clearly the best of the expansion sides but have also had a reasonably soft run, so really shouldn't give us much trouble here. Which makes it almost certain that they will, and I'll come out of this looking like an absolute cockhead. In more important matters, Essendon have fielded three players this year with 'Van' surnames, which must be a record.

The good news, if you're keen on not jinxing the process, is that percentage probably won't come into the race for the top two. It could decide whether we or Brisbane win the minor premiership, but unless we do something silly and lose to either Essendon or West Coast, while Collingwood beat North, Brisbane and close a 50% gap on us, then it should be a simple case of winning and heading back to Fortress Casey. I don't mind playing the Lions or Crows in a Qualifying Final but would rather it happen at Mt. Variable Weather than at their grounds.

Assuming everything goes to plan I don't see us passing Brisbane, who will run up their percentage piledriving Hawthorn, before the more touch-and-go fixture against the Pies in Round 10. Given that you get stuff all for finishing top, other than the perceived easier fixture game against fourth place I'll cop it (UPDATE - I was in full VicBias mode and forgot that finishing top also gives you choice of Grand Final venue. Not confident enough in the finals to claim we're a certainty to make it, but I guess finishing on top will help) . It's been so long since we played Collingwood that I'd almost rather take the challenge of finally winning a final against the Crows.  

Final Thoughts
I still think the season is in the wrong place, but there is something to be said for enjoying wins in mid-October. Let's revisit this in January when, for the first time since 2017, I'll be left with no team to follow in any sport played in the southern hemisphere. Happy to be consoled with a flag.

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