Monday 5 June 2023

Gently kicking a dead horse

And there you have it, we've finally seen our worst win of the 21st century. I'm not upset, where we've come from premiership points are welcome under any circumstances. Adjusted for our alleged contender status, the opposition teetering on the brink of disaster, and the most prestigious timeslot in the game this was a comically bad excuse for entertainment. 

None of this will matter if the extra win proves crucial at the end of the year, but it offered no instant gratification. We didn't look like a top side, Carlton retained just enough dignity that fans can't burn Michael Voss in effigy, and Channel 7 ended the week where they paid to have one of their executives labelled a war criminal by airing what must have been the biggest ratings disaster since Blow Up.

For all the times we've been in crisis over the years I can't remember too many games against other sides standing on the brink of emotional breakdown. If Nathan Buckley wasn't a protected species either of our 2016 wins over Collingwood could have unleashed carnage, but getting Stan Alves and Grant Thomas sacked after the finals doesn't count. 

This might have been our chance, coming days after one fan skipped work to 'eyeball' players at Princes Park, and nuffy talkback meltdowns so popular we had to pretend they weren't planned comedy routines. I've got nothing specific against Carltonians, except the pokie baron and the guy who argued with Clayton Oliver, but football is undisputedly better when big teams implode.

Generally everyone except us can get stuffed, but I've got some sympathy for the psychological damage their fans suffered after watching last season fall apart like Jean Van Der Velve at Carnoustie. I'm still traumatised by Round 23 2017, missing out via two losses under a goal might have killed me. Now they're doing a cover version of us in 2019, only without the heartwarming finals run that you could daydream about while everything burnt down around us. What they have got, which I'm sure nobody's ever done before, is one win out of eight coming by 20 goals. That's something to hang your hat on while smuggling Molotov Cocktails to Royal Parade.

Naturally, my reaction to opposition on the brink was full panic mode. We haven't been terrible recently, but you could still imagine a spectacular, tits-up shambles if the embattled opposition turned up. Given that the basic version of their troubles was given as a pair of misfiring Coleman Medal winners, how were we supposed to know they wouldn't remember that the ball goes between the middle posts. It felt like walking into a tag team version of the day Travis Cloke kicked seven straight.

I can't handle the pressure of being favourite, but even normal people could have made a case for them scoring freely again. Lever and May haven't simultaneously been at their best, Petty is out, Hibberd was rested to try and keep him ambulatory until September, and Tomlinson was there because we don't have faith in Turner yet. Good thing Carlton's on the North Melbourne plan, where you have two quality talls surrounded by teammates who may as well be cardboard cutouts. There's always the chance of somebody previously unknown catching us by surprise, but not via a night full of the aimless long kicks we eat for breakfast. Result - Carlton register less goals than the A-League Grand Final.

It's one thing keeping the other side to a sad total, but you've still got to cover it comfortably enough to make sure they can't win with a five minute burst. Our response to a fortnight of making scoring look difficult was an experimental forward structure including Joel Smith, leaving Ben Brown to grind down what's left of his body at a VFL ground named after a Curb Your Enthusiasm character. This paid off a storyline that's been on hold since Smith's four goals and a season-ending injury in the 2019 pre-season. Maybe he'd have kicked the ton that year, but on this showing probably not. He set up a goal with a lovely pass (?) into the square, but didn't have much of an impact. Doesn't mean you wouldn't give him another go in the future, but I'd like to exhaust all avenues of proven goalkicking before going for the Hail Mary of mobility.

If you were unconvinced by our forward setup, you'd have been heartened by Fritsch being given so much space for a mark that he could afford for the ball to bounce off his chest like a trampoline and still have enough time to regather without interference from a defender. The pass was wonderful, and if they were going to give us that much space we couldn't help kick a big score. They didn't, and we didn't. 

Brian Taylor is the number one disadvantage to watching on TV but he's good for content. Like whacking off over Fritsch's goalkicking technique before he missed. Then doubling down on it, only for him to miss two more set shots. Mind you, this is the same person who got confused between Queen and King's Birthday, and eventually came to the conclusion that "it's somebody's birthday anyway". Which is true, but the hint that it's no specific person's birthday is that it always happens on Monday. He should have to pass concussion protocols before picking up a microphone. 

In a surprise role reversal, Fritsch then turned provider and against historical precedent, Petracca kicked a straight set shot. Roasting Fritsch for alleged selfish play is popular, but please consider the sixth sense vision and execution required here to both see the target and get the ball through the middle of two defenders. Helps to be generous when you're outside scoring range but I've already gone all-in defending his honour so it's too late to go back.

That early outbreak of 'connection' was a false alarm, and the rare times we found targets inside 50 were usually wasted by wonky kicking. This is why I was uneasy about the focus on more accurate than usual set shots earlier in the year. It's great at the time (although, usual caveats apply that if you get the first one the rest don't necessarily happen), but no guarantee of the same thing happening every week. We're still 54 goals ahead of behinds for the season, and I'll only admit there's something in it if we're that far ahead or better at the end of the year. And expected score can get stuffed.

Carlton's attempts to feed their maligned forwards with mad long bombs was good news for us. Tomlinson looked like he had a horrible time against Harry McKay, but his presence allowed Lever to go back to intercepting, and May to torment the piss out of Charlie Curnow. I tensed up whenever the ball went near Tomlinson, but even if he was only there because Petty wasn't (if you believe they'd have played him defence) no harm done when you reach full time conceding just 44 points.

There was an early 'here we go' scare when McKay marked in the pocket, on just the sort of angle that suits his wacky, around the corner kicking. They cut to his mum in the crowd after as if he'd come back from some great hardship, now just a momentary dip in goalkicking accuracy. I doubt Jason McCartney's family got this much airtime when he came back from the Bali bombing, but my memory of that night is clouded by events that led to me spewing off a balcony.

It was a frustrating game because we won in practically every way except the piling on of goals and were still less than two kicks ahead in the last quarter. Between Brayshaw, Salem, McVee, and a pre-KO Bowey the clearing of loose balls out of defence was much calmer this time but we're still suss on escaping defensive 50 stoppages. Getting extraction master Oliver back will help, but this is the only scenario where having two top ruckman doesn't help.

Otherwise, the Gawn/Grundy partnership is a spectacle. They might not be All Australian dominant, but seeing them in the same bit of play, handballing to each other goes against everything I know. It's like Ian Healy and Adam Gilchrist batting together. You have to win the big one to earn instant immortality (and I look forward to getting into retirement home knife fights with anyone who denigrates James Jordon's premiership medal), but this combination will be memorable for novelty value even if it doesn't get that far.

I had a dream of Carlton fans coming over the fence at quarter time (see Round 19, 1998, where a pisshead got within about 20 metres of the huddle before security woke up) but it never got frantic enough for that. Neal-Bullen walked through a void of defensive pressure for crumb but nothing pointed towards a landslide. If I didn't know their final score, and you told me that a three goal quarter would be our best I'd have been more tense. The last came via another meeting between Pickett and pocket, this time without the added slapstick element of it bouncing over a defender's head. He nearly set off a one man Mad Minute from the next bounce but missed and didn't do much else.

Even if you're also tactics blind you couldn't help notice that we introduced short passes to our kick-in routine. None backfired, but there was one from Bowey that had me audibly gasping before going precisely where it was intended. I guess this is our thing now, until it goes wrong anyway, but let's see what happens next time when the opposition expects it.

At the same time we never looked like losing, but weren't safe until right at the end. Missing more set shots didn't help, but isolated complaints about only getting 13 frees should be balanced against Spargo propelling himself into a tackle like a human cannonball. After a pause for comic effect, the free was paid by an umpire miles away. Even Charleston was laughing as he got up. One day the closest umpire will counter-whistle, tell their colleague to mind their own business and go back to the original decision. In this case, rewarding the seeking of concussion worked for us. Later it didn't.

That moderate injustice inspired Carlton to show up, and by the time McKay got his second Channel 7 was one step from holding a telethon in his honour. I could handle him kicking all their goals as long as nobody else joined in. And they didn't. On either side.

It took one of the loveliest set shots you'll ever see to get us going again. I expected our questionable structure choices to affect the JVR Hype Vortex, but he did as much as you could ask for in a game with stuff all scoring. If somebody else with physical presence was down there he might have had more space for goals, but even though this was his only one he was very good. The kick was a thing of beauty, from a spot where nobody would have blamed him for missing he couldn't have steered it through the middle any better unless guided by laser.

We were 19 points up against a team so one-dimensional that the same player had kicked both their goals but it was far from safe. Curnow would probably have subbed himself off to get away from May if they hadn't already lost a player to injury. The introduction of Paddy Dow had the Kingsley Alert Line ringing off the hook. Weeks ago my eyes glazed over while a Carlton fan told me he'd never play for them again due to some tedious trade drama, now he had a half to clamber from the grave and prove himself. And went on to do next to nothing.

There was only room for one midday movie style redemption story, and McKay Mania carried on from the first bounce of the third quarter. There was a review to decide if it hit the post, and after 30 seconds of low-fi replays from unhelpful angles they finally utilised snicko to prove it didn't, which would have saved everyone time. The sense of being set up for misery remained until Fritsch pulled down his mark in the square. This led to some solid chat between Weitering and Pickett, including a spot of chesting that looked ludicrous due to their height difference. Some of it may have gone back to Pickett's piss-taking when he kicked the winning goal last year, but it still risked another Grundy vs Port fans style backfire if we lost.

The game wouldn't die, but we were still comfortably handling their attacking efforts. They got a break when Bowey was knocked to buggery by the combination of Lever's hip and a Carlton player landing on him. Not long some guy who used to play for St Kilda finished off an end-to-end move, before Curnow finally got off the leash from the next centre bounce. When they went deep into the forward line again straight after things were starting to look a bit shit. 

We survived, and a Pickett attempt at Mark of the Century finally worked in our favour by clearing the path for JVR to set up Fritsch. Because commentators like to read from their list of fun facts and talking points they ignored his silver platter pass to Petracca and criticised him for ignoring a teammate. They also thought Sparrow was Viney, which is evidence for my theory that Tom looks more like Todd than Jack.

If you were comfortable with a 17 point lead at the last change then you're a calmer, more rational individual than me. Neither of us would have guessed it would be a two goal quarter, the sort that would get both sides banned from Friday night if Channel 7 wasn't strangely obsessed with Carlton. Don't you enjoy it when the free to air broadcaster gets games like this, and no-ads Foxtel lands multiple games that end with scores in the hundreds?

The way Carlton were going, one more goal might have convinced them to quit. van Rooyen had a chance, but when his kick unexpectedly fell short we didn't have anyone there to contest it. This led to a guy with the worst tatts since a Russian prison doing a Spargo-esque dive into a tackle to keep them alive. It took more than 10 minutes of toil that made Shackleton crossing the Antarctic look easy before Gawn came to the rescue with one of his massive kicks from outside 50. It helped that they let him play on and wind up first, ignoring that he's done the same thing every time he's had a set shot from that position for years. 

This put their revolt down for as long as it took to get the ball back to the centre for Gawn to tap the ball straight into the arms of his part-time ruck opponent. This led to McKay again, only for him to lose faith and try to kick a set shot snap from 40 metres and not make the distance. They noticeably failed to cut to mum in the crowd after that, probably because she'd have been seen swearing about him not trying a drop punt.

Chandler, who has unravelled ever since oppositions realised he existed, was next to miss a sealer, and when Gawn did likewise we were the equivalent of a faulty car rolling downhill to the finish line with its handbrake off. That left Carlton needing three goals in four minutes, which would have been a stretch when they only had six for the rest of the game. They helpfully took to the challenge by wasting a minute chipping the ball around, which made no sense after they'd already switched to death or glory kicks earlier in the quarter. I assume they clammed up thinking about a nutter eyeballing them on the way into training.

A last chance to make it interesting was missed by you know who, and any neutrals still watching at the final siren should be emergency airlifted memberships to major streaming services and/or adult entertainment venues. If we assume every game will still be available to view on demand in 20 or 30 years somebody's going to sit down to watch all our wins from this era in order, get to this one and skip it. For now who cares how it was achieved, we got a win that's vital in the bigger picture and avoided going arse over on a banana peel on national television.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Steven May
3 - Ed Langdon
2 - Jake Lever
1 - Judd McVee

Apologies to Bowey, Brayshaw, Gawn, Hunter, Salem, Sparrow, van Rooyen and Viney.

Over halfway through the home and away season and the main event is shaping as a historic rout. The previous biggest lead at this stage was 19 for Nathan Jones in 2022. Even without the benefit of the extra games we now know as 'finals', he won by 27 so the signs are good for Petracca's second title. And as much as we cherish Jones, beating Oliver, Gawn, May et al is a bit more prestigious than finishing ahead of Jack Grimes (remember him?) and peak screamer/turnover era Jeremy Howe.

In the minors, its advantage May in the Seecamp and at long last the Hilton is an active contest. Why the award is named after Jeff Hilton, who came from elsewhere and never really rose or starred I don't know. Must have made sense in 2005, now I've got NFI. The ruck medal got changed from a novelty name midway so it's not impossible to switch it if the right candidate comes along. Not touching the Seecamp though, he achieved permanent Hall of Fame status by punching Brad Pearce.
46 - Christian Petracca
26 - Clayton Oliver
16 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
11 - Max Gawn (JOINT LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Brodie Grundy (JOINT LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Jack Viney
9 - Jake Lever
8 - Kade Chandler, Ed Langdon
7 - Trent Rivers
6 - Kysaiah Pickett
5 - Lachie Hunter
4 - Michael Hibberd
3 - Jake Bowey, Angus Brayshaw
2 - Ben Brown, Bayley Fritsch, Harrison Petty, Tom Sparrow
1 - Tom McDonald, Judd McVee (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal)

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
There's an argument for Pickett from the boundary, but unless the goal is good enough to break into the top three then I reserve the right to include context in the formula. And for that reason, I'd like Gawn's big bomb, which both looked tremendous and eventually confirmed that we'd win. As much as I'd like to get another win-related goal into the top three we're stuck with 2/3 losers.

Season leaderboard:
1 - Christian Petracca vs Gold Coast
2 - Lachie Hunter vs Port Adelaide
3 - Kysaiah Pickett vs Fremantle

The New Bradbury Plan
Despite Brisbane stealing my bit, there's no point estimating the future during bye rounds. Once everyone's going at the same time again I'll go ladder predictor mad, and if all goes well we'll still be on target for the top four. Looks like the ladder is going to be treacherous, so it's still too early to guess anything until we play some of Geelong, St Kilda, Adelaide once and Brisbane again.

Next week
On current form, you'd expect Collingwood to make us look stupid in front of 90,000 people. I know they let West Coast kick a bunch of goals in a row but doubt their commitment to playing all four quarters. My hopes of pulling a season-defining (CLICHE) win from our arse are based on a recent history of shapeshifting to the quality of the opposition. Either that or Mason Cox is going to become the first three-time Kingsley nominee.

This may be the week we have to make multiple changes. Oliver obviously comes back at the speed of sound, but the rest is up for debate. If Hibberd's creaky foot needs more rest I'll have Smith as a defender, but I don't give a toss about his goal and a half per game in the Reserves this is not the time to test whether he's an AFL forward. May as well pick Schache on VFL form after kicking four, but neither of them offers what Brown does. 

Brown didn't kick as many goals, and got outmarked by a Merv Hughes impersonator at one point, if we don't pick him now I'll assume he was caught pissing down the side of Kate Roffey's car. Maybe Goodwin finds his now normal hair disconcerting to look at. If we've ever got a vacancy for a medium forward I'm looking forward to Sestan, whose hair has the same effect on me as Joe Namath on Mona Simpson.

Also possibly unlucky is Woewodin. He'd be a good novelty selection for the occasion but I wasn't watching the Casey game closely enough to judge the value of his 20-something possessions. The VFL cupboard's not exactly bulging but Jordon got shitloads of possessions so he'd be a worthy inclusion. Except he's not what we need right now, so we can waste his time as sub again.

On the occasion of a game I can actually go to, get ready for the stitch up when either the Redlegs membership doesn't get you in as promised (promised to somebody anyway, apparently there was an email but it never reached me) or the vacant seating will be in such bits and pieces that I'll have to sit halfway down an aisle amidst strangers. And if everything else goes well, there'll be the usual corporate box of drunken buffoons screaming nonsense directly over our shoulder. If it's anything like previous years they'll be the sort of humanoids who'll lustily abuse Grundy like a traitor even though their club is paying for him to play against them.

IN: B. Brown, Hibberd, Oliver, Jordon
OUT: Smith, Tomlinson (omit), Harmes (susp), Bowey (inj)
LUCKY: Chandler, Spargo
UNLUCKY: Turner, Woewodin

Final thoughts
I'm still keeping September free, but am open to offers for the last Saturday.

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