Monday 3 April 2023

Vigorous Roo-ting

For the first time since going back to shift work in 2019 a calendar error finally landed in my favour. Another game I expected to watch on TV ended up being the first of a handful I'll be able to attend in person this year. This should have been the sign to put your house on Sydney, I hadn't seen a win in person since Hawthorn in Round 7 last year. And if you had, you'd be reading this from emergency accommodation now, because for the first time since the famous 'Bruce McAvaney whacks off' game in 2010 we not only beat them at the MCG - and even that's only happened once in the meantime - but did it comfortably.

The other side of the coin for omen punters was the bird suicidally hurling itself into the path of my car on Friday morning. It wasn't a swan but near enough is good enough, especially when it made a sound like somebody had kicked a footy into the bonnet. I wasn't as concerned with positive or negative mysticism as the real-world evidence of losing to Sydney twice on our home ground last year after being in winning positions both times. 

Their opening wins over Flotsam and Jetsam didn't concern me, nor did a Hall of Fame forward now going like a Russian tank, but the pair of 2022 flops sent me into this stressed to the eyeballs. So retrospectively forgive me for holding my breath and waiting for a fiasco to break out when we were five goals up at quarter time. Also for thinking "I knew this was going to happen" when it got back to a kick the difference in the third term. Then the machine cranked up again, all was well, and we went home looking like a top side again. 

Second only to not realising we were playing on Sunday until extended teams came out, the biggest shock of the week was the top deck of the Ponsford being open. I was sure that now the home of footy has become the home of saving money they'd rope it off and force Row level four fanatics/personal space appreciators to fend for themselves. I'd like to think my digital sooking about this paid off, but more likely it was the bare minimum expected attendance they'd open it for. Facilities were in full vs Gold Coast 2013 mode, with no food and the absolute minimum of staff but unlike others we're not savages and can look after ourselves up there.

Yay atmosphere and all that shit, but this was the perfect attendance for my comfort requirements. You didn't have to go to Row MM to get an aisle to yourself, and several clear rows in front and behind me so I didn't have to listen to anyone talking shite. When I'm at home the benefits of not having to cart myself there are obvious, but when my knees were shaking with tension as we clung on to a lead in the third quarter, it reminded me why being at the ground is always the superior option.

Had we given up said lead and lost by any margin from one up you can guarantee that previous paragraph wouldn't have made the post. Probably because I'd have been unable to type due to punching a seat in frustration. I'm amazed to be living in a relative glory era, where sadly two good seasons in a row represent our best run for 60 years, but do feel slightly cheated at losing almost every time I was there in person. When we looked like falling over I was waiting for Kate Roffey herself to appear and issue me a life ban. Could have spent the rest of the year in the [DELETED ON LEGAL ADVICE] section with Glenn Bartlett.

When somebody looks at the score progression in 20 years, probably with the contents of the Pacific Ocean lapping around their ankles, it will look like we put the Swans away from the first bounce but let the historical record show that as much credit for our quarter time lead goes to the defenders as the people who kicked the goals. The start of the (temporary) post-Gawn era was ropey, allowing them to extract the ball out of the middle and go forward with ease. The bad news was that usually meant sticking it down the throat of May, Lever, Hibberd etc... Even with Petty playing some nebulous (defensive?) role in the forward line we had them covered.

So, after a few minutes of backs-to-the-wall defending it felt like a bit of swizz to get the opener. Much to the apeshit delight of Melbourne fans everywhere it was set up by the debuting van Rooyen. Even if you take out the goals, his first game was very good for a key position player. Have a look at his forward 50 tackle numbers then take a sedative. I didn't put any excess expectations on him, but by full time the frenzy was so furious that when Clayton Oliver rightfully declined a chairing for his 150th supporters were ready to jump the fence and carry JVR off instead. The man who answers the question  is still a kid but didn't do much wrong here. It was one of the better debuts I've seen in a good side. We had a few players float to the top in dreadful sides (and I think Kyle Cheney of all people is still the only man to get five votes on debut) but it's harder to look good in a quality side.   

His success here doesn't mean picking the kid in the finals last year would have generated the same result, but now that you find out Gawn was absolutely cooked by the end of the year it makes you wonder how he would have gone even without the extra pre-season. I still think that Geelong's horror start aside they'd have delivered the same pummelling to us that Brisbane got in the Prelim but beating the Lions post-sledge controversy would still have been satisfying. Also, it's not like we didn't have multiple chances to win, even with Gawn, Lever and Brown all moving like the elderly and Jackson mentally flicking through for expensive Perth property, so there's no need to rewrite history and assume he'd have singlehandedly won us the game.

We survived letting the ball get to the top of their square straight from the centre bounce with just a point conceded but were still left defending grimly for a few minutes before getting another against the run of play. Then, after setting up the first, the man that answers the question "who is a pirate's favourite AFL player?" got one of his own after being touched up in a ruck contest and we were - against all odds - doing very well.

For a second it looked like the baton of 'wasted key forward goals' that McDonald got from Hogan was about to be passed at the first opportunity but the defence held firm to get us out of jail again. I think my paranoia about giving goals back from the middle dates to when we'd only kick five a game so each was precious. We're in a better position to waste them now, but I still don't like seeing the ball fling straight from the centre into the opposition attack. No matter how good your backline is, give them enough chances and they'll either score, or create repeat stoppages until they do.

On the topic of the greatest Melbourne defence of my lifetime, I never really cared for State of Origin (and thought it was PISS FUNNY when New South Wales beat Victoria) but finally get what they meant by "don't let the Big Vee down". You can't immediately replace Salem, but for a brake in case of emergency pre-season option the good Judd looks right at home. My favourite bit was when he took a contested mark against Franklin, and though he will no doubt end up back on the frozen tundra at Casey at some point this year we may have one for the future here.

If I was a Sydney fan I'd have forgotten their dual 2022 comebacks and tipped something over when all their wasted attacks ended in us going the other way for Spargo to pull down one of the weirdest hangers in recent memory and make it three goals to zip. It was set up by a wonderful kick from Chandler who may - say it under your breath - be doing the Spargo role better than the premiership player himself. If Round 1 was anything to go by we can have both of them and Pickett but since Chandler removed the tracksuit he's been like Clark Kent emerging from the phonebooth.

With the ball in our defensive 50 at all times other than when we were kicking goals, they finally got one via Franklin. Which was one step above what he did in the final last year, for it was worth. I thought he'd just forced through some lucky slop but on review he did well to turn in traffic and get the kick off. Now that he's 99% shot as a key forward and can't kick 50 anymore maybe he could do the biggest surprise switch in history and turn crumber? Or he could just run out a big money contract while blocking the development of a replacement.

Conceding an out-of-the-box goal like that wasn't the end of the world, but given our record in centre bounces to this point you won't be surprised to learn that they went straight from the restart to lining up a shot within about 15 seconds. Luckily their set shot kicking was putrid all day and we got away with it. Considering the battering we got at centre clearances last week, I wasn't happy with this trend. It's good if other teams can't go with us for four quarters, but that's not going to help if we lose it before then like last week.

It helps when you get a leg up from the opposition, first missing the shot that would have undone most of our hard work then giving away a 50/free goal for light 'dissent'. Apparently we're doing that again. Which we weren't until Saturday night when an umpire filed a hurt feelings report on GWS at a crucial stage of the last quarter, making other umps think "shit, now I have to pay those as well". The usual progression is the AFL assuring us that the decision was correct and how we should all respect umpires, who will collectively realise how stupid it is to give frees for light frustration and let players go troppo again. How's this crackdown going at local level? Anybody willing to cost Norland Reserves a game because somebody complained about a decision? I doubt it if they have any interest in their personal safety.

Against all logic we got to five goals without a miss. Historically this is ludicrous because a) we rarely get that many goals in a first quarter, and b) almost never convert five times without missing. This one came from Brown on the end of a golden kick from Spargo. Both of their days peaked at this moment, Charleston only had a handful more touches, and Brown disappeared with a back issue after looking about 11% fit most of the day anyway.

When Oliver made it six straight with a power running goal, a day that started with 'Melbourne losing to Sydney at the MCG, name a more iconic duo' was becoming 'Sydney and first quarter collapses at the MCG, name etc...' I didn't think they'd curl up and die after quarter time like the Grand Final but against all the logic of clearances being important we'd built a decent buffer to defend.

All positivity went straight out the window when they kicked the first two goals after the break and I considered spewing. I'm delighted with how we ran the game out, but at the time it was all internalised 'woe is me/why can't we just put a bloody side away for once/maybe I should have stayed at home on the couch covered in an old man blanket' self-indulgent misery. This ignored how we're the most ebb and flow team in the game, and after Chandler ripped a snap from his arse and Fritsch dismissed a defender the 30 point lead was back. Then they got the next two goals and it was brown undies time again.

The renewed hope of a rampage didn't last long, as we went into a brief period of disarray highlighted by Franklin (remember him?) being allowed to lead completely unchallenged into the forward pocket. I know he's only there on reputation now but after he'd been so comprehensively squished by May in our last meeting this unnecessarily risked getting his tail up. He did not, and as far as I'm concerned May's off the hook for both goals and hands down won the Shit Driving vs Suspended Driving derby. Say what you like about his off-field antics, and adjust for recency bias if you remember the glory days of Tassie Johnson, but find me a better MFC defender since and I'll take you to a fancy French restaurant.

Some blamed Brayshaw for not getting in Franklin's way, but it's hardly his job to stop a 1500 time goalkicker leading. I reserve the right to get upset by his wonky disposal many times over before worrying about what he did here. As happy as I was to see him back in defence, we are definitely entering that period of the year where I fall out of love with Gus and wonder at which point of his long term contract we'll end up paying somebody else to take him. He's not bad, I just don't know how we're going to afford everybody in a couple of years and he seems the most expendable of the long-termers. Maybe flip him to Collingwood so they can get something back for what they're contributing to Grundy's contract.

Speaking of the only fit ruckman on Collingwood's books, he might have started slowly here but by the end this was truly a Grundy Funday. The problems start when you expect him to play like Gawn, nobody's going to do that now or for many years in the future after he retires. Doing the same long kick-in to the ruckman routine that dates back to Mark Jamar doesn't suit him so I'm not upset that he didn't pull down half a dozen contested marks, but he was very good when the game needed to be won.

Approaching half time we were still wobbling when Hunter kicked a much needed steadier. In the time-honoured tradition of screwing your old side over he did his best work against the Bulldogs, and his bounce handpass special move hasn't worked since, but even if his Melbourne career doesn't end as the second coming of Robbie Flower, he's been a worthwhile addition to the system. It was also nice to see ex-wingman Double J James Jordon back, playing a game that should cement his spot for a few weeks.

Our only problem was not holding the steadier until the break, conceding late to some Next Big Thing forward who politely chose not to announce himself by kicking eight and getting the Rising Star nomination against us. It was still a 15 point lead and you're never going to turn one of them down at half time but I was still prematurely upset that we hadn't gone on with it. I'm too old for patience, I want everything now because history says things might never be this good again in my lifetime.

The third quarter was simultaneously shithouse and great. It was where the All-Australian club of Oliver, Petracca and Grundy went supernova and decided the result, but not before the Swans teased a comeback that would have given me the mental and physical shits. 

It started well, with Sydney giving away a pointless free kick/50 combo gift for Oliver's milestone game. I can't think of Ladhams without Mrs. Doyle asking Father Ted to imagine a fictional male 'standing over you with his lad in his hand', and ironically he made a dick of himself here, getting spooked by a quick handball and knocking the ball from Clayts' hand before play on was called. Naturally, when something about 13% similar happened to a Sydney player later their fans were up in arms that they didn't get a similar result. Stiff, and let me be clear about this, shit.

What temporary rot there was started with agitator Tom Papley legging it from a stoppage and smacking through a visually appealing goal on the run. Some would have baulked at his OTT celebration but I say if you don't like that then you can't appreciate the aftermath of nearly every goal of Kysaiah Pickett's career. I was more concerned about them getting another goal not long after, and on the side of two shots by Franklin which were honestly a bit sad that's what they did. 

Now the margin was back to six, we didn't look like scoring and I was starting to panic. The game was being played in a perfectly reasonable temperature but I was getting chills like we were at the Mawson Station Cricket Ground. Enter, once again, leading underdog Kade Chandler, who ran his guts out to get on the end of a mark 45 metres out on the boundary line and still had enough poise to convert the set shot. By this point he still hadn't kicked a boring goal, continuing a Blease-like streak at the start of his career, hopefully without the Blease-like ending. To think, Slamming Sam is only 32 now, if he hadn't been concussed out of the game after going to Geelong he'd have been right in their target age range now.

Further breathing space was provided by two in a row from Fritsch, and even when they did get a goal back we ruined it from the next bounce. No wonder Sydney lost heart shortly after. They had a final chance to make it interesting via the forward whose only contribution was a) having a name that rhymes with 'party', and b) missing a lot of set shots, had a ping after the siren.

If it had gone through the margin would have been under four goals and officially 'interesting. He didn't score, meaning we'd have to go through the almost unprecedented Double Stranglewank (new readers: I can't explain this, just Google the term on your work computer and surely nothing bad will happen) to lose. From available data in The Wank Files this has never happened since the phenomenon was identified. The only time we've gone from four goals up to less than a goal twice was that Round 22, 2018 game against the Eagles, and if we hadn't hung on to win there that I'd probably still be bouncing off the walls of a padded cell.

Neutrals knew it was over, Swans fans who could tear themselves away from complaining about umpires knew it was over, and deep down so did I but didn't dare to think it in case something went wrong. It had reached the "we should win, but..." stage where I spent the first few minutes of the last quarter sneaking looks at the clock to make sure enough time was being eaten up by stoppages and general play away from Sydney's end. Good thing it barely went down there, and we spent the opening minutes threatening to shut the gate. It finally landed in a locked position with Chandler's third, breaking the most famous streak since The Undertaker by finally kicking a bog standard, ordinary set shot from a sensible angle.

Another 50 metre penalty gave Rivers the chance to kick a moral sealer from 40 metres out directly in front. He missed, they went the other way and got one that kept it too interesting for my liking. But what that did was set up an even better finish, with van Rooyen continuing what I assume was the worst day of Ladhams' life by taking a tremendous contested mark over him. 

And lo, the crowd went off thy collective teet when he got another one straight after. Both set shots were beautifully taken, hit so cleanly you could picture a beautiful future together if he wasn't from WA and likely to get the bug for non-stop cross country flight around the same time West Coast and/or Freo offer him the contents of the Reserve Bank. Our counterespionage program should start next week, pointing out the pitfalls of playing in a smaller market by displaying that ludicrous back page West Australian story criticising Luke Jackson two games into his Dockers career. As well as the usual "geez, you wouldn't want to do this trip every fortnight" stuff, double down with some chat about how well Jesse Hogan looks now that he's back playing on eastern standard time and start negotiating a 10 year deal.

Dominance had already been established by now, and while I don't need to tell Melbourne fans how good it feels to pile on misery against a side that's given up, the ending was good fun. Sparrow snapped one from the pocket and went nuts in the general direction of the MCC, and Petty got reward for being in a ton of contests, before Melksham kicked one of the great novelty goals literally on the siren. He'd been so bad since coming on that I wished we had a second sub to replace him but this was great, kicking from such an obscure angle that he had to shift photographers first, and casually slotting it despite being interrupted by the siren midway. Doesn't detract from otherwise doing nada since coming on against Brisbane, but it was a nice exclamation mark on an enjoyable day.

That made it 50 points flat, and could you realistically asked for much more? I'd have driven over granny to get that margin midway through the third quarter. It's also a good sign that maybe we've learnt to play against good sides on our home ground, which has been one of our few downfalls in this glory period. Who knows if either the Dogs or Sydney will turn out to be any good by the end of the year but we've taken their best and ripped both a new one in the end so the signs are positive. But apologies to St Kilda, you don't win shit after Round 3 so we've plenty more twists and turns to go through before we find out if we're remotely within range of flag.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Christian Petracca
3 - Brodie Grundy
2 - Steven May
1 - Kade Chandler

Massive apologies to Langdon, lesser but still serious apologies to Fritsch, Jordon, Lever, McVee and van Rooyen.

After a brief stint at the top for defenders and ruckman, it's back to the classics. Trying to give out votes with Oliver and Petracca playing gives me an appreciation for why the Brownlow is a midfielder only award. Here's a free idea for the AFL, cut out a couple of the 'comedy' segments and Darryl Braithwaite singing One Summer and adopt the famous 5-4-3-2-1 system. Midfielders will still win, but it gives more scope to fling a few votes to players in unfashionable positions.  

12 - Clayton Oliver
8 - Christian Petracca
7 - Jake Lever (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
5 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), 
4 - Kade Chandler, Kysaiah Pickett
3 - Brodie Grundy
2 - Ben Brown, Steven May
1 - Lachie Hunter

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
With apologies to Melksham's free hit, the award goes to Mr. Excitement Kade Chandler for the third straight week - this time for the crucial set shot late in the third quarter. Not sure I've seen a streak like this since the heyday of Jeff Garlett. Not only did his set shot in the third quarter torpedo Sydney's momentum, the pissbolt from one side to the other to get there was wonderful. I'm already out of topical weekly prizes so he can have a retrospective Rising Star nomination, issued on compassionate grounds to recognise how long he had to sit on the bench, thumb in chocbox, waiting for an opportunity that he has grabbed with both hands.

Season leaderboard:
1 - Kade Chandler vs Footscray
2 - Jake Melksham vs Footscray
3 - Kade Chandler vs Brisbane 

Crowd Watch
The usual dickheads will have something smart to say about the crowd, but if you expect more than 42,000 at a Melbourne/Sydney game in direct competition with the biggest one-day sporting event in Victoria then you're just looking to have an argument. Newsflash to people who took the brave decision to follow popular clubs from birth, bandwagon supporters might remember an affiliation with a side once they've won the flag but it doesn't automatically translate into massive crowds. I'm impressed that Collingwood can draw 60k against an interstate club, but expecting everyone to hold the same standard is like the USA lecturing random developing nations about not being rich enough.

And speaking of crowds, I'm not concerned enough with public safety to report this directly but if the MCC is reading you might want to consider the likelihood of somebody standing on the edge of this and rolling all the way to the offices of Slater and Gordon.

Given that they've had crowds double the size of Sunday already this year and nobody's gone the lucrative plummet yet maybe I'm overreacting, but I can see somebody coming around that corner holding kids, pissed as a fart, or both, landing the front of their foot on the floating bit and going down like nine pins. 

I want to know what it's covering up, don't tell me the original tactiles got damaged so they thought the best solution for a feature that's supposed to aid visually impaired people is to either trip them on the way up or make them walk the plank on the way down. When this reaches the Human Rights Commission, don't forget where you read about it first. 

Next Week
It's back to The Place Where The Good Thing Happened for a fixture where we'll be supported by every tipster except the Kiss of Death. West Coast were already no good before ending the derby without a bench, including the sub coming on and then being injured. They started the year with an anonymous side, now it'll be out George McGovern and Luke Shuey, in any fit Western Australians down to Darren Kowal and Mark Bradly. If you think this means I'm already mentally banking the points then you may be a first time reader. I accept that the great likelihood is victory, but will need to be several goals up before my central nervous system accepts that's what going to happen. I still love Jayden Hunt, but he's going to kick six isn't he?

As for changes, Pickett comes back in quicker than the hit that got him rubbed out in the first place, and please no more Melksham for anywhere from one to four quarters, but the rest is up in the air. I'd rather not take the piss out of the Eagles by trying squad rotation at this early stage, but if Brown's back is dicky there's no point flying him across the country. I'd like to float the controversial option of McSizzle as the sub. It's never been the done thing to pick a tall, but here's somebody who can play at either end or run around the ground once the other side has expired. And if JVR goes down to Second Week Syndrome he can swap in for him and we don't lose a key forward. Not knowing/caring about 90% of West Coast's list I don't know if Petty needs to go back to defence yet, which could complicate things, but otherwise I don't see any reason to force Brown to fly across the country if he could do with a rest. For an example of what can happen see a sore Gawn being carted over there for a dead rubber last year then ending the year barely able to walk. 

Otherwise there doesn't seem like anyone's booting the door in, and even if Spargo only had six touches he did one delightful squaring kick that make my liver quiver so I'm not turning on him yet. Besides, other than team balance with Pickett's return, who are you going to replace him with? Casey won comfortably, but on the strength of the Swans players listed in this report they may have the depth of a muddy puddle so who knows what to make of it. 

If you're keen on more youthful key forwards, Jefferson and Sestan kicked six between them, but that's the least of our problems at the moment. Give it a few weeks, we'll start kicking 6.6.42 and somebody will be panic rushed into the side but the time isn't right for either now. See also Tomlinson, who was reportedly very good but not required if May is upright. Otherwise I'd have had Laurie back but he only had eight touches so please continue to bide time. Blake Howes had 34 touches and 16 marks, so that's something if you can get over the other side being so anonymous that the person who kicked 50% of their goals is represented on the AFL website by a ghostly apparition rather than a profile picture.

IN: Pickett, McDonald (sub)
OUT: Brown (inj), Melksham (omit)

I hope this will turn out to be a 'pick whoever you like, it doesn't matter' fixture but I'll believe it when I see it. If the shoe was on the other foot, as it was so many times against the Eagles, I'd be setting the line at +100 and promising to graciously accept anything better.

Was it worth it?
Undoubtedly, even after suffering the traditional right shoulderblade injury from sitting on the train for an hour this was everything I wanted in an afternoon. I still get a pang of regret going through West Richmond station and looking at the most convenient house I ever had for sports but at some point will have to recognise that was nearly 15 years ago and now I live in the sort of outer suburban conditions that earlier in the day required me to collect a dead rat from the garden with a shovel. 

Final thoughts
This turned out to be a lot of fun, but the best bit is that we can play better. Last week was lost via the sort of 20 minutes of insanity that we've nearly eradicated from the system, and the follow-up went a long way to proving the theory that most sides can't go with us for four quarters. We get back into the top echelon of the ladder, Pickett returns, hopefully Gawn follows no more than a month later, and we beat the teams we're supposed to. If all that happens we can go on with confidence that any side in the competition is beatable, and that's probably as good a situation as you're going to find yourself in during the home and away season.

1 comment:

Crack the sads here... (to keep out nuffies, comments will show after approval by the Demonblog ARC)