Wednesday, 5 July 2023

House of Orange topples House of Cards

You may remember the familiar feeling of our season seemingly cartwheeling off the rails when a malfunctioning attack cost us a win against the Giants. Unlike 2021, this version involved torrential rain and a massive payoff from the Northern Territory but you'll have to wait to find out if it turns out to be a speedbump on the way to glory (assumed spoilers from the future: it didn't). That one also didn't end in our leading goalkicker out for two months with a burst foot.

The feelgood factor that was thumping when we tonked Footscray in Round 1 is a distant memory now. Now, top two is dead, top four is shaky, top eight is no longer assured, for the first time in many years we've literally been Kingsleyed, and it's at the stage where people start fantasising about rebooting the season by sacking the coach. Like all those other great premiership teams that reacted to a bumpy patch by turfing the boss after Round 16.

GWS is in far better shape than when we tonked them last year, but I still expected to win. Not by a lot, and probably not even remotely comfortably, but in some way that ended with the vital four premiership points in the bank and some buffer on everybody fifth and beyond. Maybe everyone else knew it had been pissing down in Alice Springs all week, but the first I learnt of it was when the coverage started. I was worried that heavy rain would be a leveller, but didn't expect it would drag us down to the level where we'd lose to a team kicking seven goals.

Who knows if things would have turned out better in the dry, and you can argue that our best parts of the Essendon, Port and Geelong losses were when it was pelting, but this performance featured mismanagement around water that would make Oceangate flinch. After weeks of whinging on any available format on behalf of Ben Brown, I was already stressed about his return going tits up Free Ricky Petterd style. Then he finally gets another chance in a downpour, and instead of a Machiavellian last-ditch change to the team involving the seemingly better suited Melksham or Spargo, we invoked the 'what's the worst that could happen?' rule and carried on regardless. Apparently the answer involved wooden-legged kicking, an indefensible score, and defeat to a textbook mid-table mediocrity.  

I doubt Spargo would have had any more luck than Brown, Smith, Grundy, Gawn etc... in pulling down contested marks from aimless long bombs with a wet ball, but I'd like to think it would have turned out better than turning 70 inside 50s into five goals. I usually reject the I50 as a legitimate statistic, but sometimes the numbers are so damning that you can't sweep it under the rug. If nothing else, it was better than doing 70+/six goals at Kardinia Park and still losing by 80.

Bad luck Channel 7 having to broadcast this monstrosity. When this part of the fixture came out they didn't know that a) conditions would be shit, or b) we'd be trying to win a flag with the Ross Lyon method, but it's hardly a marquee fixture under any circumstances. I bet we'll find out later that they got paid more to show up than we did. The weather didn't have any impact on the level of nonsense, despite surrounding Brian Taylor with sensible people like Jason Bennett and Nathan Jones, we still got endless coverage of that bloody tree, and a road train behind the goals that reportedly smelt like an abattoir. By full time our attempts at scoring had pushed its stench into a distant second. 

The ratings landed this game 15th for Sunday, with an audience of 300,000, not helped by what looks like zero viewers in Brisbane, and a massive 10,000 in Sydney. I wanted to compare to the last 3.20 Sunday game, then discovered that was GWS vs North and realised that this may not be the premium timeslot I'd thought. And even that got 40,000 more. Then again, before that Collingwood vs North only roped in 262,000 so maybe these numbers are a scam that we shouldn't take seriously.

Nobody needs what passes for in-depth analysis on this game. Imagine the ball being kicked back and forth in the middle of the ground for most of the match, one team making the most of the limited times they were able to break through, and the other attacking as if they'd just seen a ghost. It was horrible, but before we get into full whinge mode could I please have a minute for our defence. My view on them is clouded by an incredible level bias, but they must have been fuming watching their hard work undone by the shambolic blundering at the other end. Last year May caused a scandal by telling one of the forwards what he thought, and I'm surprised he didn't lead a hijacking of the flight on the way home after this. 

The most offensive part was that we won every key performance indicator except the one that counted, and even got enough free kicks to make sure people couldn't blame the umpires for once. If anybody, it should have been the GWS fans (be nice) threatening to spraypaint AFL House after being pinged for deliberate after their player was bumped mid-kick. I've seen some rotten ones in my time - including giving a free against a player whose shot rolled out of bounds in the forward pocket - but this was the best since they got into this 'insufficient intent' nonsense. 

It's heading towards AFLW style last touch between the arcs, which is horseshit but has come just in time for me to be too old and broken down for complaining about rule changes. Also, what's the point of whinging in real-time now that intergalatic flange Elon Musk has all but necked Twitter? This was the sort of game that the platform was made for, sharing the community experience of other people who feel just as miserable as you do. Then halfway through the first quarter it jammed up, told me I'd exceeded some mystery limit and never refreshed beyond a tweet about Bayley Fritsch's injury. Hope all Teslas spontaneously catch fire.  

Twitter falling off its perch for good would probably be a good thing for society, and while it wouldn't exactly ruin my life the platform has been so tied up in my matchday experience since 2009 that there will be a massive void when it dies/is stashed behind a payroll that no sane person will participate in. Now they've butchered Tweetdeck as well I'm pretty much done with it as a daily tool but will still post the odd piece of random shit, respond to notifications etc... If it takes a shortcut and permanently implodes send me a fax or something. I might get into the Facebook competitor, just because it's named after the most depressing movie of all time. If the Russians in that film aimed like we did here they'd have dropped their entire nuclear arsenal on Christmas Island.

Also broken - see what we did there - Bayley Fritsch's foot. Obviously, when you consider how badly our forward line did, they didn't expect somebody to stand on him. I'm sure the plan was to sub Brown, Grundy etc... and introduce Melksham as fresh legs when everyone else was waterlogged, but going in relying on nobody getting injured just highlights the risk of playing so many talls in that weather to begin with. Then, when Plan A went in the bin we just carried on like nothing out of the ordinary happened. 

Fritsch might not have had any more luck pulling down our bullshit forward 50 kicks than anyone else but might have been good for a couple of goals at ground level. It's not as easy as saying 'he'd have kicked one, we'd have won by four points' because who knows where the game would have gone if circumstances were different, but I feel like we'd still have dominated everywhere else in the ground and fed him plenty of opportunities. Now, at the point where we'd kicked less goals in our last four games than Sydney did against West Coast, he's out for two months and you'd be forgiven for booking holidays in September.

It should have been clear what was going to happen after spending 10 minutes hammering away at their end for nothing by points before conceding one from their first decent inside 50. Under normal circumstances we'd be able to cover a team reliant almost entirely on good luck for their goals, but after three weeks of kicking eight, we adjusted for the weather with five and it cost us dearly. I've got no time for rigorous statistical analysis these days but it looks like we haven't lost a full-length game to a score of 47 or under was... 1922. You won't be surprised to find out it was due to kicking 3.10.

Since the dreaded sub rule was introduced there haven't been many times (ever?) that somebody's come on and taken control of the game. It helped that for the two years you could only sub an injured player (or for some teams, an 'injured' player), but other than Kade Chandler killing some hapless West Coast player last year, the next best I can think of was Melksham kicking a nice goal in Round 1. When he got a goal soon after coming on here I had romantic visions of a one-for-the-road match-winning performance. Then he only got four more kicks and was about as much use as any of our other forwards.

I'll get into a knife fight to defend Ben Brown, and would like to point out that while he never went remotely near kicking a goal, he did set up two of our first quarter flubbed opportunities. The second involved a lovely pickup and dish to Petracca, who kicked one of his four behinds. By now his goalkicking has become a meme, but that's not what he's there for. It's complimentary, but at less than one a game we can win without it. I'm no trained psychologist but he doesn't look to be having a lot of fun at the moment, maybe if Oliver ever comes back it will free him up from feeling like has to drag the team along on his own.

Conversely, you know that Jack Viney absolutely loves it when he's called upon to stack teammates on his shoulders and enter battle. That he did here, and for once I give not the slightest shit that many of the disposals didn't go exactly where desired. He had a massive go in shit conditions, and helped set up the chance to kick a winning score. I'm sure if you went back and investigated his 10 inside 50s they were as much hit and hope as the other 63 combined, but if I'm going to take loose kicking into attack from anyone it's the guy who's wrenching the ball out of a pack while up to his ankles in water.

So, come quarter time we were 1.5, they were 1.0, and if any neutrals were still watching they need their heads examined. The quality of the Port game was about as good as you're going to get in the wet, this was the exact opposite. With nothing else of interest, Channel 7 was eventually left scanning the meagre crowd for footage of kids jumping up and down in muddy puddles like Peppa bloody Pig.

You could try blaming the lack of quality on GWS fielding half a side nobody has ever heard of, but they won so best of luck with that. This was good news for our exes, including Toby Bedford getting a push from the commentators that made it sound like he'd be receiving top Brownlow votes before it turned out he had two kicks. His pressure was good, but so was ours across the board (well, across the parts of the board not called the forward 50) and look where that got us. Then there's Jesse Hogan, who I still pine for on a daily basis. These weren't the conditions for him, but I still get sad watching Giants games where he's just plodding around and... wait I've just discovered that he's kicked more goals this season than anyone in our team except Fritsch. Still time for a triumphant homecoming.

We weren't to know the game was going to be this low scoring, but it was pretty obviously not going to degenerate into a free-wheeling shootout. So gifting them a goal via an unnecessary 50 at the start of the second quarter didn't help. On what should have been a good day for crumb our small forwards continued to be one-step from non-existent, leaving Jake Bowey of all people to grab one off the deck and heave it through. At the point where Pickett is struggling to have an impact more than any other time in his career to date, what happened to running him through the midfield? I didn't like the idea when it was floated pre-season, but calmed down when he was still finding ways to kick goals. Now we're expecting him to play like a key forward, and he's entirely lacking zing when the ball goes to ground. 

Bowey's goal was, you won't be surprised to discover, followed by more behinds. When Petracca got to 0.4 before half time I was excited for him finishing with a total even more ridiculous than Troy Longmuir's 0.5 in Round 1, 1999. The difference was Troy had Jeff Farmer next to him kicking six, while on this occasion we reached half time tied at 21 apiece with five extra scoring shots. It was genuinely poor viewing, and even though I'm certain that the longer the season goes the more we'll get nice dry days that suit us this was hard to get through. 

Remember the good old days earlier in the year when Pickett looked likely to run riot on a weekly basis, and we were getting goals from random sources like Chandler, Pickett, Gawn, Spargo and Hunter? I ever saw Petracca kick 3.0 once, albeit against many West Coast players who may be figments of your imagination. Now we've spent weeks, in all sorts of weather and against varying degrees of opposition, making goalkicking look more complicated than open heart surgery. Who cares when it's enough to win, but if it goes wrong welcome to I Love You (But You're Boring) territory.

Things went so badly that we won the free kick count by 15 but none ended in goals. As an added bonus after being gifted one from a 50 earlier, we also gave the Giants the first after half time from a free. When they temporarily flicked the circus music off and got a couple of proper ones soon after we looked to be knee-deep in the contents of that smelly truck.

Just when this looked like rivalling the famous 3.16 slopfest against the Giants in 2014, we launched what passed for a comeback and got two in a row. I knew things were getting weird, but didn't expect Bowey and Grundy to be our key crumbers. At least Brodie didn't shhh anyone this time, probably because he couldn't find anyone in the crowd to aim it at. He did remember to do the horn thing at the last minute, almost apologetically like he wasn't that into it.

This embarrassment of seeing defenders and ruckmen kicking goals briefly spurred Chandler, ANB and Pickett into combining for another. More points (really?) cut the margin to four at the last change, and maybe everything was going to be alright. It looked that way when Langdon randomly introduced beautiful set shot kicking to our repertoire. Of course there was no pressing home of the advantage. Please enjoy this nightmare reel of all our dreadful last quarter inside 50s. You'll probably put a foot through your internet-connected device. The worst bit of seeing that video is the memory that we were still in front with five minutes left, but were just floundering with every attempt to put the game away. In the conditions one goal might have done it, but we were comically bad at converting opportunities. 

Just when I was ready to stuff a grimy, tainted four points into the same sack as NT government money and take off home ASAP, we went down to the sort of goal our side wouldn't have kicked if they kept playing until Wednesday. We were struggling to make the distance from 40 metres out, then GWS discovered the best way to bypass our defence was to just punt it over them from a mile out. There was still time to win, lose, or draw, but I didn't see us pinching it with any sort of artisan goal. That wasn't required, any sort of weird finish or comically incoherent free kick would have done me. 

It was not to be, we spent the last couple of minutes racking up even more inside 50s to no avail, mark, crumb, and most of the time no contest. Can't rely on winning via bullshit frees if you never give the umps a chance to pay one. It's popular to slaughter the Anal-Bullet for everything, and I'm starting to lose a bit of interest in him myself, but his part in the slapstick shenanigans will be the one you'll remember fondly if this game turns out not to matter. I mostly understand why he didn't have a shot when pelting inside 50, but his attempt to square the ball to a free Lachie Hunter missed by so much that I didn't even realise that's what he was doing until the release of Garry Lyon's Horror Files. 

There's no guarantee Hunter would have kicked it, unless he drew inspiration from his wing colleague Langdon doing the only other decent set shot all day, but any sort of shot would have been nice. Mind you, we still had another deep inside 50 after that so can you blame any specific individual? After doing dead set nada all day Joel Smith sensibly worked the ball into the post to give us the chance at a goal from a forward pocket stoppage. We didn't, GWS won, and it was all a bit shit. Gently begin nudging your hand towards the panic button.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Jack Viney
4 - Jake Bowey
3 - Steven May
2 - Christian Petracca
1 - Tom Sparrow

Apologies to Brayshaw, Gawn, Hunter, Lever, McVee, Petty and Salem. None deserved a vote, but neither did many of the players who got one.

Petracca might have a near unbeatable lead from here, but it won't be the most inspiring thumping victory of all time. If we play four finals (yes, yes, fat chance) there's a maximum 60 votes left to be awarded so no need to introduce the dotted line of death yet, but good luck catching him from here. No change in the minors, but May's two BOG lead on Lever is going to be hard to run down.
50 - Christian Petracca
26 - Clayton Oliver
23 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
22 - Jack Viney
13 - Jake Lever
12 - Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Trent Rivers
11 - Brodie Grundy, Ed Langdon
8 - Kade Chandler
7 - Jake Bowey
6 - Kysaiah Pickett
5 - Lachie Hunter
4 - Bayley Fritsch, Michael Hibberd
3 - Angus Brayshaw, Christian Salem, Tom Sparrow
2 - Ben Brown, Harrison Petty
1 - Tom McDonald, Judd McVee (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal)

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
It's been a while since we had so few options to choose from. I enjoyed the Bowey snap, but for game importance and unusual character I'd like Grundy out of the ruck please. No alteration to the overall placings.

Season leaderboard:
1 - Christian Petracca vs Gold Coast
2 - Lachie Hunter vs Port Adelaide
3 - Bayley Fritsch vs Collingwood

Next week
It's a Bradbury Plan eight pointer against St Kilda at Docklands. After years of torturing us with low scores while coaching Freo, Ross Lyon must be firm in the jompers at the prospect of getting us just as we're averaging about seven goals a game. As long as the roof doesn't malfunction and subject us to another storm the conditions will be more like September than what we've been through recently, so I won't chomp down on the cyanide capsule unless we lose 50-55 again.

Just when my engagement in this season has hit rock bottom, I should be able to go to this. It will involve taking advantage of the free tickets for kids scheme and carting Original Recipe Child to her first Docklands game. After seeing the TV ad for that promotion she's convinced that a) they sell Prime at the stadium (non-parent note - this is a piss-tasting drink that nobody would buy if not endorsed by some YouTube wankers), and b) that she'll be able to meet Christian Petracca and discuss how his cousin is her gymnastics coach. If that's what it takes to get me to another game I'll deal with the consequences later.

I was going to threaten to start my own conspiracies if Oliver didn't come back next week, now he's hobbled off during training again and is still no certainty to come back. Remember when this started off as a 4-6 injury, then he was miraculously ready for an early comeback? Well, we're back to the start. I don't trust that we're doing a black ops swizz, so if he's not right then it's back to Double J - and for god's sake let the man play a full four quarters. Either of them replaces Harmes, whose I love deeply but was terminally treading water both literally and figuratively. 

Elsewhere, Spargo can rotate with Chandler, JVR and Smith shuffle around to try and cover Fritsch's absence just because I don't want Melksham to do it, and we'll have the heartwarming scenario of debuting the son of a club legend by making him sit on the bench in a tracksuit for three quarters. Either that or go back to the classics and make Chandler the sub.

Otherwise I don't think we learnt anything from tonking the GWS reserves so you're just tinkering around the edges at this point. I'm going to assume we'll win because I can't face the alternative. 

IN: Jordon/Oliver, Spargo, van Rooyen, Woewodin
OUT: Fritsch (inj), Chandler, Harmes, Melksham (omit)
LUCKY: Neal-Bullen, Smith
UNLUCKY: Every living person at Casey + Hibberd

Final thoughts
A few years ago this would have ended in me overturning the couch and scaring children, now I just hit the channel button a few times before the siren went so I didn't have to see happy opposition players (fact fans: it landed on SBS Food), lightly piffed the remote, and got on with my life. I'm 51% still invested in a barnstorming finish to the year, 49% over it and willing to proceed directly to 2024, and 100% anesthetised by flag and unable to muster up an appropriate level of rage. I'm impressed by the incandescent rage that some people are generating at the moment, but am not feeling it. Yet.

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