Sunday 16 April 2023

Ruck and maul

Every time in the last two years we've threatened to fall over as favourites I've declared it the new Adelaide 2021. This was finally as close as you'll get, with every similar element other than being close enough to get ripped off by cowardly umpiring. We unexpectedly lost, at the same ground, with our defence sprung open like an unlocked door. I was worried that South Australia Week would lead to us accidentally being fixtured at Football Park, and we played accordingly.

You can't sugarcoat a five-finger stinker like this. Brisbane was bad, but we arguably came out better due to a) injury, b) throwing it away in one burst of stupidity, and c) the rug-sweeping post-blackout blast. This started badly, looked set to turn good for about 10 minutes, then spun into farce. Hopefully it's the sort of defeat you can write off in a few weeks as a loss 'we had to have'. Even if we didn't, every premiership aspirant has a 'forget it and move on' debacle, there's no need to take poison in Rundle Mall yet.

Focusing on our fizz out shouldn't detract from how well Essendon played. Even post flag I'd still rather lose to the Real IRA than them, but they did us like a dinner here so good luck to them. We could fall back on blaming missing players, but if the shoe was on the other foot you'd piss yourself laughing at them trying to dodge scrutiny for a sketchy performance due to the lack of key players. Ironically their injuries probably sank us, I'd much rather have taken on 2m Peter and The Weid than A. Random Ruckman and friends.

If there's anything to be said for this rubbish, it's that it included many elements which shouldn't regularly be repeated. Our defence shattered like a retreating army, Oliver couldn't get near it when it counted (albeit still forcing his way to 40+ disposals because he's a great man), players were getting themselves knocked out in slapstick fashion, and the opposition were generally doing whatever they liked with nobody capable of stopping them. I'm not entirely sure but don't think this was the real Melbourne. I'll get sad retrospectively if we play the same way next week, but recognise for now that it sucked hard enough to take the chrome off a bumper bar and will move on.

This episode of Spontaneous Combustion: The MFC Way was bad news for everyone who'd been roped into travelling for Gather Round. Forget adjusting interest rates on inflation figures judged by the price of cabbage, the number of Victorians who could justify going by air, road, or rail to watch their side play the usual teams in a different local should have the Reserve Bank convening an emergency meeting on Monday morning. Advantage to the lazy and disengaged, I scared the kids on the couch for the first two quarters, silently fumed on my own during the third, and was basically resigned to our fate by the start of the fourth. Total cost - $0, total precipitation felt 0.0ml.

For all the intense pulling of pud over the 'success' of this weekend (most of it starting on the first night for an... Adelaide home game), and talk like an initiative that resolved the war in Ukraine, the downside to double headers was exposed when our 'sold out' game began with about 20,000 people in the stadium. I don't blame Port and Bulldog fans for not coming early to sit in the rain and watch some other dickheads play (though Footscray supporters might have been more interested if they'd known we were going to go tits up) but it suggests not to bother with curtain raisers for the local sides next time. 

In order to justify the SA government's investment they counted our crowd as part of the later game, even though Adelaide Oval was half empty by the end. The AFL website doesn't even list a crowd for our game, while other sites are going for the kayfabe-defying claim that we get a share of 45,115 total. 

This concept is obviously here to stay because of the major bunce on offer, but if you've got four nights to fill give the two local sides standalone games, and either play double headers with all the tourist teams, or send us all on the Freo/Gold Coast style tour of the suburban grounds. Apparently Perth wants a slice of this action now too, but unless you're trying to find something for the locals to do of a weekend that doesn't seem a sensible use of taxpayer money. Whether interstate people can accept it or not, this doesn't work without the combined weight of Victorian fans, so putting it somewhere without a realistic land connection to us is bonkers. Sydney would work (even if the locals couldn't give a shit), Perth, Queensland, Tasmania etc... would be shite. On the other hand, I won't be attending so play on Madagascar if it suits.

I thought playing in front of a half empty stadium might give us comfort, but it was obvious from the start that we were off like sour milk. The absence of Lever and Hibberd didn't help, and now we're in misery mode you wonder if whether the former had to miss, we could have waited a week to manage the latter. This is classic loser talk, I want to believe it would have made a difference but would probably have ended in Hibberd's achilles shattering into a dozen pieces. Without either of them, the survivors of our backline fell victim to the literally biggest parade of Kingsley Kandidates for years, with previously unheralded ruckmen wandering around our defensive 50 like Lockett and Loewe doing an impression of Leopold and Loeb.

I'd have taken losing to Essendon better if Adem Yze got the job over Brad Scott, but you can't fault the Docklands roof closure advocate for realising that this was the perfect week to hoof the ball inside 50 and hope for the best. That's usually football suicide against us, but without Lever, Petty coming back off two weeks in attack, no serious Hibberd substitute, and apparently Grundy having no power to impact defensive contests it worked a treat. I encourage others to try the same, because once we get a real side back we'll take 72 intercept marks, kick 20 goals on the rebound and win in a landslide.

Scott also wins the Mike Larkin Award for weather forecasting, correctly predicting that he could get away with a tall forward line long enough to have an impact before the forecast rain hit. I wasn't surprised when Ben Brown coincidentally failed to come up just as the remnants of a cyclone headed towards Adelaide, but we'd have got a half out of him before the rain came, and if we made it that far without an injury one of he, McDonald, or JVR could have been subbed out when the rain came.

Our backmen will be defamed from all angles after this. They weren't very good, but even if Tomlinson was wiped out, May had his worst game for god knows how long, both Bowey and McVee looked shitscared, and Petty barely got a hand on it until the third quarter, their job would have been a lot easier if we hadn't been obliterated at centre clearances again. For all the clearance power around the ground, inability to get hands on the ball first at bounces is becoming a trend. I know they're happy to attack on the rebound, but that's fine when the world's best defence was together against Sydney, conceding three goals straight from the middle here while the game was still alive shows the risks. I'm not expecting one Mad Minute a quarter, but any sort of repeat stoppage that stops the ball being dropped deep into the opposition 50 seconds later would be nice.

Turns out you can't play West Coast every week. Like last year the good times ground to a halt shortly after we thumped them. Last year we dragged through the motions once more against North before our first lost, this time we proceeded directly from Premiership Stadium to Disappointment Central.

So there was Oliver being tagged to buggery, Grundy tapping the ball to nobody, and Essendon picking their way around the field almost unchallenged. Which was concerning. Not necessarily fatal if we could short-circuit them by scoring, but our first few attacks looked like early Paul Roos. Next thing they were two up and I was clenching both jaw and bunghole at the idea of being turned over by a side I'd predicted to be complete shite this season.

The second goal set off alarm bells, with Tomlinson failing to come to terms with a ruckman and giving away a free. Enter a guy who'd never kicked more than one in a game, across three clubs and 66 games in 12 seasons for his first of two, and wake up Kent Kingsley because you've got work to do. Phillips went missing when the rain came, our entire side had gone well before that.

After that nervy start, sanity looked to have resumed when Pickett won the raffle of several players on their own inside 50, then Fritsch got another courtesy of being walloped around the head after a mark. Now we could get back on with things from a neutral position, and when Bayley put us ahead via the most casual, opponent free forward lead possible it was easy to pretend that Essendon had fired their best shot and would now go away. This didn't reckon with them taking the ball straight back inside 50 to find holes you could have steered the Titanic through.

Tomlinson's "I'm only here for a week" horror show continued when he gave away a free at the top of the square. His best moment all day was realising that the close range meant the goal was unmissable and using his free hit to vigorously dissent the decision. The 50 made no difference from there, why not tell the umpire what he's done wrong?

I didn't like conceding, but when they burst forward, took advantage of McVee's fumble and got another seconds later I was boiling. I'm grateful that both the socially acceptable Judd and Trent Rivers turned back the opportunity to fly across the country every two weeks and re-signed during the week, but the only thing more potent than a media curse is the new contract curse and it got them both here. It seems to have taken everyone on the list down with them, but not before one bright period on either side of quarter time where Melksham rolled back the clock to either 2018 or Carlton 2022 (delete as applicable) with two goals. He was practically never seen again, other than trying to do a pro wrestling trying small package on an opponent in the third quarter. Then again neither was Pickett, who I'd nearly commit a felony for if he'd sign a long-term contract with us, going missing along with everyone else.

We briefly got away with comical defensive efforts like allowing players to mark uncontested on the line. They missed, Pickett was coathangered to set up our fourth in a row and what you'd like to think would have happened next didn't. A fifth goal in a row went begging when Melksham ignored teammates to go for glory. Usually I'm against bullying players for instinctively taking shots, but when your snap doesn't make the distance you probably should have done something else. This was the closing ceremony for the Milkshake, who went from what looked like a career extending performance to pulling his Casey jumper out of the closet. For those who do like complaining about players having a ping, is that the commentators started to get sooky about Fritsch not sharing later. I'll back the guy who's kicked goals in about 35 consecutive matches thanks.

Then the rot really set in. We couldn't get keep the ball out of our backline long enough to look comfortable, and an unnecessary 50 against Petracca got Essendon going again. Got them going a little bit too strongly, because we didn't kick another goal for almost an hour, sinking like a trace half an hour before the rain set in.

The only good bit about throwing the game away before half time was the moment of justice for Round 9, 2021. A defender who shall not be named in case this post is tagged for harassment found himself holding the ball in that pocket, with no idea what to do next and thumped it straight over the line. I'd seen this before, but presumably having been shown a DVD with on screen caption stating THIS IS A DELIBERATE, these umpires rightly paid it. As discussed many times before it's redundant whinging about not getting the free in 2021 because we went on to - and I want to be clear about this - win the premiership, but the joke will still be on me when it turns out that was the same umpire who squibbed it last time. 

We got a look at what probably would have happened last time when Stringer's kick missed. Thank god that for everything else going wrong we were spared from a performance by him that would tilted the commentators into full Rankin' Wankin' mode. I'll take being dudded by journeymen, hasbeens and dickheads, but not him. Some people just grind your gears, even if they've never done anything to us.

I was surprisingly calm when their next goal came via ruckman crumb. God knows where most of our team was at this point, half of them barely had a touch. Chandler had his worst game since emerging from Tracksuit Time (though he got the obligatory ripper goal when the game was stuffed), JVR had a wholehearted bash but only one kick outside the free that delivered him a goal, and your guess as to the whereabouts of Tom Sparrow is as good as mine.

We barely held on in the dying minutes of the first half, and Essendon missed three decent chances to pour another goal on and make it an even more uncomfortable break. To cap off one of the more forgettable halves of recent times, Spargo managed to concuss himself in ludicrous fashion by ducking into a player who couldn't do anything but run through him. He wasn't even trying to rort a free, he already had the ball and was (I think) considering a highlight reel Matrix move under the oncoming opponent to play on. That didn't work, and he ended up standing the mark looking like he'd just been knocked out in a pub carpark, before being subbed out.

That incident said all you needed to know about how we were going. If somebody threw 18 rakes onto the field we'd have stepped on them Sideshow Bob style. All was not lost, despite playing like we'd seen a ghost the margin was only 17. If we were that far in front I'd be convinced we were going to lose by a point (insert more references to Adelaide 2021), and was not insurmountable for a side that's proved it can both run games out and score in a burst.

You'd think the belated arrival of the biblical rains would have worked in favour of the team that had been conceding marks to huge men inside 50 all game. That it might have, if they didn't instead switch to kicking goals out of their arse from every angle instead, while we had nothing from forwards tall or small. By their third in a row to open the quarter I'd have stopped watching if I had anything better to do.

We broke even from there, but too little too late. I don't know if Oliver's tagger gave up because the game was won, or if Clarence was just set on proving you couldn't hold him for four quarters but he went on to 30 touches in the second half - including 20 in the last quarter. That's all well and good, and spoiler alert he probably wins our best on ground by the sleaziest default since Jordie McKenzie at 186, but it didn't help us when the game was there to be won. 

From the 'Where's your Plan B?' files, I could have gone with switching Petty and McDonald halfway through the third. Petty had his best period of a rocky afternoon during this 30 minutes, but we were beyond the point where the game could be saved and Sizzle was slowly frying to death at the other end. He was my favourite player for a couple of years, and I'll always fondly remember his indulging in my Twitter shenanigans before switching to an all-political whinging agenda but four goals againt West Cosat B or not, I think he may be gorn as a serious attacking factor.

After the three goals that effectively killed the game, the remainder of the quarter became a literal, soggy slopfest. That suited Essendon, they'd already done the hard work and were content to run the clock down. For our part we could have done with the police helicopter to pluck half the side from whatever patch of water they were floundering around in. 

If you were hoping for a reverse Sullivan Line miracle, the Petracca goal at the start of the last quarter might have interested you. I was just going through the motions by now, it wasn't going to happen and the best we could do would be a replay of Brisbane and storm home when it didn't matter anymore. There was a slight stirring deep in my soul when Neal-Bullen legged it inside 50 from the next bounce but that ended in ball vs behind post and it was over again. Even their sub, the main who provoked the greatest of all #fistedforever era images got involved with two goals.

When Fox spent Kelli Underwood and Dwayne on the early game I thought we were going to be free of nonsense here, only for Anthony Hudson to get over-excited and suggest "who knows" when we were five goals down with 10 minutes to go. He'd already lost #1 in my commentary rankings to Jason Bennett, but now I'm relegating him below the sensible and measured Adam Papalia in the Pay TV division.

Things were going so badly that we ended by losing two line-ball video reviews in a row. At least the first one was called at the time, the next didn't come until everyone was back in the middle ready to restart. It certainly hit the post, but let's see the same thing happen in a Prelim and hopefully the crowd will invade the field. What happens if it's the last play of a thriller, and the siren goes as the ball crosses the line? How long do they get to call a wildcat review before the game is declared over? Or are they off the hook the moment the siren goes? No such issues for us here, we'd been dead for 45 minutes.

If there's anything you can take as comfort from this, it's that a) it's game 5/23, and b) we beat all the teams we were supposed to last year and look how that worked out. In a season where the ladder looks to be more crowded than a Beijing elevator every loss harms our chances of finishing in the top four, but means you could conceivably win it all from anywhere in the eight. If you make it. And when, suddenly, that's what I'm looking at in Round 5 you know things aren't going as well as they were a week ago.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Christian Petracca
3 - Ed Langdon
2 - Jack Viney
1 - Bayley Fritsch

Nobody deserves apologies, but Grundy, Hunter, Petty and Pickett were all in the mix for the poorly contested one vote spot.

On a day when nobody deserved a vote, the cream rose to the top again. Good luck beating them from here. No movement in the minor awards.

21 - Clayton Oliver
15 - Christian Petracca
8 - Brodie Grundy (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
7 - Jake Lever (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
5 - Max Gawn 
4 - Kade Chandler, Kysaiah Pickett
3 - Ed Langdon
2 - Ben Brown, Steven May, Trent Rivers, Jack Viney
1 - Bayley Fritsch, Lachie Hunter, Tom McDonald

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
I could almost go for Chandler again, but I'll do something for diversity in awards by giving it to Neal-Bullen for his goal on the run in the last quarter. For the weekly prize he wins a ticket to the next Gather Round at Fukushima Power Plant.

Season leaderboard:
1 - Kade Chandler vs Footscray
2 - Jake Melksham vs Footscray
3 - Christian Petracca vs West Coast.

Next Week
The good news is footy's not going to ruin your long weekend, but only because we play on Monday night. Richmond are ebbing away and haven't gone near us since lockdowns were a thing but I'm still terrified that they're going to rear up with one last gasp and leave us looking shaky as all buggery. You would hope valuable lessons were learned here (please also mention connection - Simon Goodwin editor) and it'll be back to the swashbucking days of old but don't put your life on it. If we win well it will confirm suspicions that we've corrected our issues with playing at the MCG, seemingly by losing the ability to beat decent teams anywhere else.

We don't do selection table massacres, but with one enforced out and two certain (I think) ins this should be as close as it gets. Obviously, if fit Lever and Hibberd come back, and Spargo misses with his self-inflicted concussion. The first two outs are obvious, I see no reason for continued Melksham or Tomlinson. If Lever or May go out again I'll have one Disco Turner with the lot please. And it's time to move on from the Milkshake - he's still ok as an emergency option but please commence plowing games into Laurie, Howes et al.

There's some chance Gawn will be fit but let's not rush him back just to try and win Round 6. Otherwise, McDonald didn't do it against a non-chaotic team so Brown gets his spot back and I'm open to any sort of random, left field selection. Why not pick Sestan so a large primetime audience can be introduced to the Brad Green at Manchester United style anecdote about kicking 22 in a game. If he ever does debut I pledge not to mention it except in extraordinary circumstances.

IN: Brown, Hibberd, Laurie, Lever
OUT: Spargo (inj), McDonald, Melksham, Tomlinson (omit)
UNLUCKY: Jordon (remains sub)

Final thoughts
This was pure drizzling urine but I was over it about 10 minutes before the siren. Apologies to everyone who remembers the good old days of blowing a lid over similar defeats. Life's healthier this way.

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