Sunday 6 November 2022

For a feud dollars more

One way or the other we've seen off every decent in the competition since 2017, except Adelaide. Even Brisbane, who could easily beat us to a flag in three weeks, were toppled in a final last year. But, until Friday night we'd never beaten the Crows in a seriously important game. Round 1 this season was good, the mid-2021 win even better, but they've had us on a leash when it counted. There was the humbling in the last round of 2019, the 2021 Prelim disaster, and a Grand Final where we escaped humiliation but never looked any reasonable chance of winning.

All this has left me with both fear towards, and hatred of Adelaide AFLW. Regardless of the fact that we could very well play them again in a Grand Final (and if we learnt anything from the men's season it was not to prematurely claim superiority over a side that hasn't been eliminated yet), it might be time to start treating them like everybody else. Coincidentally, the aura started to fade just as they had to start sharing players with Port Adelaide, and have gone from an unstoppable juggernaut to just one of the - admittedly minuscule - teams who deserve to be at the top of the ladder.

Beating them at our last start was irrelevant here. 10 weeks ago may as well be a lifetime, especially coming in off the back of the easiest finals lead-in of all time. Maybe somebody got to play Footscray, North and Hawthorn in consecutive weeks at the end of 1927 but I bet they didn't hold all of them + and one other side scoreless in both the first and last quarters. The dream run of the millenium saw us fall a point short of finishing top and left us vulnerable to the biggest non-drug related comedown in history. Now we've come back from the dead to win in heroic fashion, put ourselves on what appears to be the weaker side of the finals draw and the sun came up Saturday morning in red and blue.

It's easy to talk like this now, but cross to me halfway through the first quarter and I was having kittens. Starting favourites was understandable, but after thrashing Hidem, Foldem and Flee in glorified training runs, I didn't consider us dead certainties like the bookies. Sports betting is a cancer, and I'd never bet against my own side but still perked up at Adelaide paying $4.20 to win. If that's the scale they were grading on, West Coast must have been about 200-1 last week.

My discomfort with starting raging favourites against a defending premier who'd finished one spot below us on the ladder went into overdrive when we conceded the quickest goal in league history. Purcell won it from the bounce, but her handball was picked off, Adelaide pelted forward for the opener, and I swore in front of the kids.

Couldn't go forever with other teams failing to score in the opening quarter, but this was a bit ridiculous. It still left us with a good recent first quarter average, so no harm done as long as we didn't spend the next five minutes under peak defensive stress, eventually conceding a second goal and confirming that you can't actually play the shit teams every week.

Initially, it didn't look like we had any hope of escape. It was a lot like that 2021 Prelim, and consistent with Adelaide's status as a grown up, competent, side, they didn't allow the sort of freewheelin', piss takin' run as the dud sides, instantly burying anybody who touched the ball. It wasn't until we got running that things started going well, showing that the Crows had the right tactical idea but just couldn't drag it out across four quarters. For now, there was a bit of tits up about us. Even on the rare occasions we escaped their clutches and got forward, it looked unlikely that anyone would convert.

By the end we'd found a multi-pronged forward line - including from some random sources that nobody saw coming - but at first Harris and Pearce, D were miles off it. Harris has an excuse for going goalless a third week in a row because she ended up doing a lot of rucking after Pearce, L hurt her shoulder (and did a bloody good job of it), but hasn't looked her usual terrifying self inside 50 for weeks. With her goes about 99% of our contested marking power, so you can see why I had so little faith in overcoming an early deficit. This is also partly due to me being a massive, yellow streaked, coward. Which is why I was almost ready to scuttle the fleet and head for the lifeboats when their ruck shoved Pearce out of a ruck contest and snapped a third. 

At the time I was outraged, but in their defence the umpires did ignore LP doing the exact same thing later. Even with umpire whinging removed, it was an especially painful goal to concede because it put the brakes on our first decent patch of play all night. We'd just narrowly missed goals when an end-to-end move saw Zanker dispose of her opponent in the marking contest but drop the mark, and Mackin almost got to a bouncing ball in the square but ended up kneeing it through. She nearly killed a defender in the process, which might have come in handy.

These half chances were as good as it got, so thank god the backline held firm under pressure and stopped us letting any more in. Birch was incredible again, but while they'll be pushed out of the votes, a word please for Chaplin and Gillard who were also fantastic in helping stop the Crows early, and almost completely blanketing them after quarter time. Chaplin also got genuine laughs telling the joke in the huddle before the third quarter, so that's another win for her. Not bad for somebody who was delisted without playing a game nine months ago.

Already three goals down, it also looked like we'd lose Lily Mithen, seemingly knocked into oblivion in a collision. That's just what we needed, not only a player down for the night but probably next week as well. She might have kept her head wrapped and loaded the bandage with metal 1980s wrestling style, but turned out to be naturally made of iron, returning with no ill-effects to be one of our best players. After Paxman instantly bounced back from a head knock that still has her head bandaged several weeks later, you start to wonder if they're playing to a different concussion protocol in AFLW. Or do lighter bodies mean less damage in collisions? Ask Dr. McCrory.

Finally, deep into the quarter and with the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse roaring down Royal Parade, something finally went our way. The second movement of an otherwise innocuous tackle on Harris made contact with her back, giving us a cheap, nasty, and free chance to get on the board. If anyone in this league is going to effortlessly hammer through a goal from that distance it's Tayla, but perhaps put off by the big Carlton logo behind the goal, she kicked it like a bag of potatoes and barely registered a point. 

That was our absolute lowest point of the night, and where you could have been forgiven for throwing your hands up in the air and walking out of either Princes Park or your own house. 90% of the time you won't go wrong following that instinct, but to the credit of everyone involved the next three quarters couldn't have gone much better. 

We'd been overwhelmed, but the quality of game itself was an astronomical improvement on the dreck served up by half the competition. Makes you wonder what it would be like if these were the matchups you got in Division 1 every week why the rot played each other. The terminally miserable are never going to care, but you've got more hope of retaining open-minded viewers after this than some woeful slopfest featuring Carlton and Essendon.

Then, just when you thought all was lost and the women were heading into the previously male domain of straight set exits, we belatedly turned up and Adelaide couldn't cope. I'm not into claiming game-changing moments that don't lead to a score, but if there's ever been a team-lifting moment that ended in a turnover, this was it.

Bannan is like an electrical storm, she shows up at random but offers a spectacular visual effect. Six bounces in one run were just two short of the leading total for our male players across 24 games. I don't blame her for not making perfect decisions after having just charged down the ground like a juiced up racehorse, but it's still a shame that the kick found Hore stuck behind two opponents instead of the three players standing on their own. Even if she'd shanked it to one of them due to fatigue, there would have been enough doubt to declare it the greatest run since Cathy Freeman.

As well as the game went from here, it's fair to admit that a stroke of luck got us going. Purcell did well to walk out of traffic before her snap, but the kick only narrowly avoided a defender who should have rushed it through (and may very well have, thank god for the lack of video replay), and still had take the right bounce in the square. No complaints from me, the way we'd gone until then I'd have taken the cheapest, most administrative 50 in the history of the game to get us moving.

Now there was room to run that didn't exist in the first quarter, and Mackin increased the available space with some of the widest dummy sells in the history of the game. One of them saw her tilt so far to the side that a light breeze might have left her cartwheeling across the ground. It was genuinely thrilling stuff, and in conjunction with Goldrick fanging off half back at maximum speed, this is the greatest overseas combination we've had since Stynes and Wight.

Things were getting interesting in unexpected ways. The world's most underrated player Sarah Lampard previously had one goal in 50 games (and even that was a free hit against first expansion slurry West Coast), but wandered forward to thump one from distance. This was a fine time to try something new, bringing the margin back to under a goal and all but wiping out our dreadful start. If the plan had been to run Adelaide off their feet it was starting to work. With Daisy Pearce struggling to have an impact we still lacked firepower, but namesake Lauren had no such issues, doing a marginally less obvious shove from a ruck contest than the earlier one, and putting us in front.

It would be an understatement to say I didn't foresee the game flipping on its head like this. Instead of  holding a side scoreless in the opening term we did it in the second, but it's not like Adelaide didn't have chances, it's just that the backline was on fire. Birch is so good it's not funny, and at this stage I'd like to remind you that we effectively got her for pick 8, with about as many years left to play. That'll do nicely.

Considering where we'd started, it was an achievement to be ahead at half time. Without any sort of wind that might encourage the Crows to run up another big score to the left of screen, we escaped the first 15 seconds without conceding this time and things were looking up. Not that the game was won yet, far from it, but we had more run, looked more likely to score, and their attacks were being turned away with the greatest of ease. 

Enter greatest show on turf Bannan again, to kick her first (complete with an elite finger aloft celebration) and increase the margin to eight. It might have been RIP Adelaide if Hore hadn't missed a sitter from directly in front not long after. Alternatively, it might have prompted the Crows to kick nine unanswered goals and win in a canter so best consider it part of the plan and move on. I was NOT interested in this way of thinking when they flung straight down the other end and immediately kicked another.

Now our lead was four points at the last change, with no recent experience of a tough last quarter, West off the ground clutching her shin like Nancy Kerrigan, and the Adelaide coach declaring that he was confident his side was going to run the game out better. I was, quite frankly, shitting it. Like almost every scenario involving this side, it was premature panic. Our run of keeping sides scoreless in the last quarter ended, but only to the tune of one point, while down the other end we piled on three to win in what would have seemed like absurdly comfortable fashion an hour earlier.

In a completely random turn of events, Lampard got the party started with her second. I haven't seen such an unexpected goalkicking rush in a final since Sam Weideman, but at least he was expected to be a forward. Her set shot was so good that I'd encourage more forward excursions in the future. 

The final death blow was struck by one of the all-time zaniest AFLW goals. With 10 minutes left, and a 10 point lead, we were by now means safe. And when Bannan marked on the edge of her range I didn't hold out much hope, then she deviated to the right mid-run up, and sprinted just close enough to goal that she still had to kick over the outstretched hands of a second defender. It was absolutely glorious, but you can understand why that would make the opposition shut up shop and start thinking about the flight home. 

The last remaining interest from the Crows was to start niggling, as if they hadn't pissed away a match-winning lead by playing three quarters with the handbrake on, but we refused to show anything but the most token interest. Zanker chucked another one on for good measure, and against all odds we'd pissed it in. Not really payback for the 2002 Semi Final but it'll do for now.

2022 (Spring) Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Lily Mithen
4 - Tyla Hanks
3 - Libby Birch
2 - Olivia Purcell
1 - Sarah Lampard

Apologies to almost everyone, but especially Chaplin, Gillard and Mackin.

Now there's a maximum of two games to play, everyone outside the top three is gorn. Realistically, Purcell must win this from here. I would never have seen it coming pre-season, but accumulation is boss. 

27 - Olivia Purcell
--- Needs two more games ---
21 - Tyla Hanks
20 - Karen Paxman
--- Abandon at hope ye below here ---
18 - Eliza West
16 - Lily Mithen
15 - Tayla Harris
13 - Kate Hore
12 - Libby Birch (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Defender of the Year)
5 - Sarah Lampard, Eden Zanker
4 - Maddie Gay,
3 - Tahlia Gillard (LEADER: Rising Star Award)
2 - Shelley Heath
1 - Alyssa Bannan, Lauren Pearce

Goal of the Week 
Congratulations to Lampard for being apologised to in a different category this week. I loved to see her smash through the first like her leg was a baseball bat, but good luck beating the Bannan extravaganza.  
I liked it so much, that I'm promoting her to second place on the overall leaderboard. You can't beat the game winning supersnap against North, but this was tremendously enjoyable in its own way. The Princes Park ground crew is still trying to unscrew the player on the mark out of the turf.
1st - Alyssa Bannan vs North Melbourne 
2nd - Alyssa Bannan vs Adelaide (QF)
3rd - Eden Zanker vs Gold Coast

Media Watch
There must have been somebody watching who thought commentator Alister Nicholson was the same guy who used to play full back for us. He was good, joining the list of Channel 7's perfectly sensible commentators who you'll never see during the men's season because they prefer blithering idiots with 'personality' over competent media professionals. 

Next week
Nothing. Have a well-deserved rest. Cheer for whoever you think we're a better chance of winning against...

... the following week
Now that we've lost our chance of finally playing Geelong, it's a Prelim against Richmond or North. We can beat Richmond but the Roos would be interesting. A little too interesting for my liking, so let's get rid of them ASAP. As long as West's leg didn't fall apart when the tape came off, I don't see any reason for changes. After demanding Duffy for the first half of the season she might have missed her chance now. If you were playing a video game and there was no element of sentiment involved, you'd probably say she was more likely to kick goals than Daisy at the moment, but the captain is the heart of this side so she stays no matter what.

We've had a good run with injuries, and have natural replacements available for each part of the ground. Duffy as the replacement forward, Ivey in the middle, Caris in the ruck, and Wilson or Brown in defence. Other than Duffy, none are nearly as good as what they'd replace but are good enough to play a role in the machine. What we've got on field is a 50/50 proposition if we end up playing Brisbane at the end, but for now it should take care of any of the other options.

Next question is where the Prelim will be played. Sorry to people who enjoy games played in Falkland Islands style conditions but Casey is out. With the Big Boring League a month away, I expect Docklands is also off, so back to Princes Park I suppose? Not ideal, but having won comfortably there twice this year there are worse places they could send us. This team has so much heart that I'm confident they could play in a minefield and it wouldn't affect them, so here's to avoiding shitting of bed in a fortnight and we just might get another look at a Grand Final.

Final Thoughts
Eight years of membership later, my daughter still couldn't give a rats for footy of any gender (and is still bitter that I wouldn't let her go to bed before the final siren on 25/09/21. Bad luck.) but has been around long enough to pick up the vibe. When I offered the view that the women might win the flag she said, "that wouldn't mean as much to you as the other one though". Which is true, but that's like being upset because your Powerball win is inferior to the GDP of the European Union. It would still mean a tremendous amount because I absolutely love this side. Unlike the men, I don't need a premiership to validate my own supporting life, I want it for the players and coaches who have done so much for this program since 2017. But also a lot for myself.

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