Tuesday 29 August 2023

Return of the Great Australian Free Hit

Five years and a day before this game the original free hit was declared. Back then I was so happy just to make finals that it didn't matter what state they were played in. This caused me to ignore the fact that it wasn't really the stress-free occasion that it felt like after winning. We still needed to win to get a home final, which set off the glorious chain of events that featured 90k going off their tits at the MCG, the Weid randomly running riot, Sam Frost swearing at Joel Selwood, and Hannan's iconic sealer, another massive crowd against Hawthorn, Gee God Boy Wow, and err... stinking up a Prelim in Perth.

Who knows what other great memories would have been made if we'd gone through the 2018 finals the other way, but the sense of liberation was so strong you were just happy to be involved. On the other hand, Round 24, 2023 was confirmed shortly before the bounce to have no impact whatsoever on where we'd finished or who'd we play. The value of the performance to our season will be judged later, and I think it will be looked back on positively, but the fact was we were going to finish fourth and play Collingwood no matter what happened.

There were a few moments earlier that afternoon where things weren't so simple. Port Adelaide's natural urge to do stupid things had them trailing a dead-in-the-water Richmond, meaning we'd only get a home final by losing. Thankfully they wobbled home, because I was mortified by the idea of people punting home a loss like 2009 all over again. If you thought Collingwood at the MCG was a higher percentage option than Brisbane away you'll get to test half the theory next week, but as flag aspirants I was happy to play anyone, anywhere, and at any time other than Thursday night.

It was a good weekend to ponder season manipulation, just as North took advantage of Gold Coast's status as the most useless club since University to dodge the wooden spoon. Good for them, there's a gulf of difference between picking first or second and our famously hamfisted scheme to get both but let the archives show, that my preferred option that year was to retain some dignity by getting the priority pick without finishing last. Then you don't get Scully > Hogan > May > flag, and MFC draftee Dustin Martin would probably have faded away playing for Aberfeldie.  It's also funny that presumptive top draft pick King Harley Race probably thought he'd been saved drafting by the Eagles before being screwed by the Suns. I'll hold off on hanging too much shit on him until it's confirmed we're not trading for pick one. 

Morally, the people who want to play the last round simultaneously have a point, they just can't explain how you do it without Brisbane, Geelong, Gold Coast, Hawthorn, North, GWS, and Sydney always ending the year with a home game. The 'luck' of the 'draw' got the Swans a finish at home here, and thanks to the worst goal umpiring blunder since the last one they'd already qualified for finals. The only positional interest left was whether they could stay at home in the first week by winning. They couldn't not, but only after the best part of three quarters of making life difficult. 

This season is so wacky that Sydney could end up beating GWS in the Grand Final and I wouldn't be surprised, but it was a timely reminder that we can still run down good teams. The important part is to not let them get too far in front first, and I wouldn't want to be trying this sort of thing in a final. For now let's hope that in a few days we're fondly comparing a tough, come-from-behind win with Collingwood slapping a depressed Essendon for a bit, then jamming on the handbrake at half time.

We've had last round games with no impact on the ladder before, but when we started the final game of 2013 three wins adrift of the next best side I was still fanging to win. Mostly because we were 2-19. This also had me watching with the frantic disposition of a withdrawing heroin addict, but with the safety net of a) rediscovering our dignity in recent years, and b) knowing there's a minimum of two games left. My brain said relax, my heart still doesn't like losing, which should lead to some choice meltdowns the next time we're right at the Richmond-style junction of good and ready to die at any moment.

After revealing the ridiculous number of our games decided by 10 points or less this year I've got no earthly idea how this didn't turn out the same way. It's inconceivable to me that they fizzed out so badly at the end, like a replay of the second Richmond game but with Fritsch running riot instead of the dearly remembered Harrison Petty. Maybe we were being set up for a Muhammed Ali style rope-a-dope just in case there's a September rematch. It was weird that John Longmire didn't use the sub when the game was in the balance, and ultimately at all. I thought it had to be a first, but the man who once sent Mark Seaby on as his secret weapon has already done it this year. Goes to show how much notice I take in other clubs if we're not involved.

After 25 match reviews covering the pre and regular seasons I'm both exhausted from what's happened, and terrified about the future. There's excitement in there somewhere, just wrapped up tightly in a cocoon of fear. For that reason, and the fact that everyone's moved on, in-depth analysis will not follow.

Comparisons to other Round 24 games are limited by this only being our third ever. We all remember The Ox kicking nine, but I was almost certainly there when we kicked 20.10 and still losing two years earlier and can't remember a second of it. Halfway through the third quarter I doubted our capacity to spread nine goals across 23 players. It started from the first bounce, where we turned a long kick towards goal and several ground level possessions into a stoppage 20 metres back from the where the ball landed in the first place. 

There wasn't much wrong with us for the first 2.5 quarters, it looked like a repeat of Carlton where we'd keep them to a respectable score but left ourselves vulnerable by kicking stuff all ourselves. The breakthrough eventually came but I'm skeptical of winning via defence every week until late September. 

Things just felt difficult, and we hadn't yet discovered that Fritsch was going to return in top shape, narrowly avoid more serious injury, then finish the game like it was a Grand Final. He got us going with a delightful lead and mark, as straight down the middle as you like. There were a few years where we didn't do that once all season, and a good reminder of what he brings to the side. Then, in the worst welcome back present of all time we fumbled our way from getting first hands on the ball at the centre bounce to Sydney kicking a goal on the run. 

Have I told you how much I hate letting the other side immediately reply? I think you'll find as many mentions of the phrase "straight back" this year, as 'farce', 'shambles' or '#fistedforever' a decade ago. Yes, the old 6-6-6 is designed for teams to hammer out of the middle but we're letting this happen too much. No drama letting a few go cheaply if you're going to kick 130 points per week, but we've only cracked the ton three times in the second half of the season so every score should be sacred.

Fritsch, still #1 most hated player amongst balding, broken-down, middle-aged men, got our second as well. He looked the only half likely forward, until Melksham somehow left us in front by nearly knocking himself out running into the post while marking. Counter-intuitively, being carted off with a head knock - missing the final the AFL helpfully scheduled within the concussion protocol window - would have been better for his career than what happened later. 

Even after watching more of the replay than almost any game this year (e.g. about 75% of the Kayo Mini) I'm still not sure how we were in front, but it helped that Sydney's goalkicking was in full peg leg mode. Credit also to a half-tackle, half-bump on the goalline from McVee that saved almost certain disaster. I'm almost certainly setting him up to lose a final via tragic blunder, but the kid has ice in his veins and doesn't seem to be slowing down after 23 games. I still get a rush when they raise the spectre of violent crime by calling him 'Knives'. Sure the ball came straight back for a goal, but it wasn't like he kicked it straight to them.

For once we looked more like kicking goals from marks than open play, to the point where even May had one of his rare shots on goal. Finally Brayshaw plucked one from thin air to extend the margin to nine. This didn't feel right, but when we survived the last few minutes without conceding again I was happy to grind out any sort of bullshit win. 

Two sides defending their arses off wasn't much of a lead-in to a halftime ceremony for one of the greatest goalkickers in the game's history, but if they didn't want to ruin the day with defence they shouldn't have invited us. I wondered if Franklin was thinking that he'd gone early retiring when the Swans looked finished and was now pondering getting on the PA and doing a Wolf Of Wall Street style "I'm not leaving" speech.

On resumption, everything went tits up for 20 minutes. They got a goal from a player throwing a boot at a loose ball before landing on his head, then went back-to-back via another centre bounce where we briefly had hands on ball before it was swept in the other direction. Then it went completely Mad Minute, as their third made it back-to-back-to-back. 

This time there was no false alarm when it looked like we'd go forward, they just grabbed it off the deck and pelted forward for a goal while we stood around with thumb in arse. Or, in Gawn's case finger in eye trying to make sure it was still there after being poked Three Stooges style in the ruck contest.  At first I didn't realise what had happened and mistook Max's "I'm flexing my face to make sure it's still intact" look with "I've got a traumatic brain injury and think I'm King Edward III", leading to a few seconds of massive panic. Then, just as he came back they cut to Fritsch hobbling off like his foot had cracked in seven places. So we had that going for us, as well as a fourth unanswered goal via a questionable 50 metre penalty.

You'd never have guessed it at the time, but things only got better from there. On the scoreboard anyway, because it was carnage on the personnel front. We were already sweating on Fritsch's faulty foot when Melksham departed in what looked like much better condition but turned out to be an ACL. The random explosion of his knee out of nowhere proves that no matter how dead you play nothing can rule out a serious injury. There goes the much-coveted, already delayed by a year, final shot of the movie where he and May embrace on the dais after teaming up to deliver flag. I'm sad about this, he deserved his spot in the finals and is now probably questionable to even have a job next year. Probably worth parking him on the long term crocked list just in case we need an emergency forward who knows what he's doing late next year.

Now that a minimum of one, if not both, of our most important forwards were finished, I'd have laughed at the idea of running down a three goal deficit. Next thing Bowey's clutching his shoulder and the season flashed before my eyes. Of the four potential victims we're probably best placed to replace him but it was all about the "who's next?" vibe of players dropping like flies. Then, just as SCG management was faxing next week's pie order we regenerated like the T-1000 and ran out surprisingly easy winners. It was liquid metal football, and even if I'm not 100% sure how it happened I know it was enjoyable. Nobody else was crippled, nobody shirtfronted an opponent into oblivion, job done, and stiff shit home fans.

In a game without many memorable individual performances, Viney and Petracca deserve as much credit for helping us fight back into the game as Fritsch does for winning it. They activated warrior mode, and Trac's goal opened the door for Pickett to put us within a kick at three quarter time. Now we could win without having to find a shitload of goals, and unless we lost more players I was as confident as I'll ever get that we'd finish over the top.

It's a sign of good character that we went hard until the final siren, including Neal-Bullen putting on a couple of the best tackles you'll see. He's so homebrand that he didn't even get a mention in the post for his 150th game, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I'm as guilty as anyone of focusing on the occasional howlers and ignoring four quarters of important effort but you need players like this. Not too many mind you, but he fits the bill perfectly. I've been tempted to drop him many times but in a team that values system over everything else he's the ultimate system player.

We got in front early in the final term, but the real razzle dazzle took a bit to get going. There was a delay when what looked like a Smith hanger in the square was taken away due to a JVR block. This eventually led to a goal from the blocker, and Sydney were stopping so suddenly the airbags were about to deploy. 

Sydney's sub must have thought this was his time to shine, but even with the starting squad rapidly dying in the arse the poor bastard was completely ignored.  Maybe Longmire was dazzled by the quick run of chances they had to get back in it, all ruined via shithouse kicking. It didn't cost us, but we arguably did the worst of them all when Hunter tried the worst squaring kick of all time. Nobody didn't expect him to kick it from a bizarre angle like he was the lost Pickett brother but he wouldn't have been vilified for having a ping. My ultimate blind spot with footy players is what foot they kick with but if he could get enough juice on the ball to propel it towards the square it would probably have made a little bit more distance.

We weren't safe, but near enough to when Fritsch walloped through another two for the exclamation point. I got far more excited that was necessary at the second one and yelled "fuck your home final!" at the TV, as if the collective SCG crowd could hear me. Then it was time to go into 2018 Prelim mode and protect the stars on the bench. Bayley's status has gone through the roof since then, leaving him alongside Gawn, Oliver and Petracca in the top four. May and Lever should have been with them, but we weren't far enough ahead to go the Hardwick pre-season option of playing short.

And while the stars sat it out, Sydney missed the sitter that would have given them an 0.1% chance of making it interesting. For the third successive year we've finished in the top four sides of the competition, historically giving us a red hot chance of winning the flag. That it's gone 1st, 2nd, 4th is not my concern now, every contender is flawed in some way so there's never been a better time to bust through the pack Jack Viney style and win another cup. No alternative scenarios will be entered into at this time.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Bayley Fritsch
4 - Jack Viney
3 - Christian Petracca
2 - Steven May
1 - Alex Neal-Bullen

Apologies to Brayshaw, Lever, McVee, Melksham, Oliver and Rivers.

With the main result long decided, and two of the three minors as good as beyond reach, the excitement has disappeared and we're left with players jockeying for spots on the podium, and hoping JVR wins the Hilton by kicking shitloads when it counts. Viney's got second tied up, but May's striking a blow for non-midfielders everywhere by jumping Oliver for third. 
67 - Christian Petracca (WINNER: Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year)
40 - Jack Viney
29 - Steven May (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
28 - Clayton Oliver
21 - Max Gawn (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
18 - Jake Lever, Trent Rivers
14 - Angus Brayshaw, Kysaiah Pickett
12 - Ed Langdon
11 - Brodie Grundy
10 - Kade Chandler
9 - Bayley Fritsch
8 - Lachie Hunter, Jake Melksham
7 - Jake Bowey, Harrison Petty
4 - Michael Hibberd, Judd McVee (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal)
3 - James Jordon, Christian Salem, Tom Sparrow
2 - Ben Brown, Alex Neal-Bullen
1 - Tom McDonald, Adam Tomlinson, Jacob van Rooyen

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
The Fritsch one at the end was ace, but I'm going for the long range Petracca ripper that got us back into it. No change to the top three.

1 - Jack Viney vs Brisbane
2 - Jake Melksham vs Brisbane
3 - Kysaiah Pickett (the second one) vs North Melbourne

Next week
Join us for another year of our award-winning (?) AFLW coverage. After never getting to a live game until a Grand Final somewhere in the suburbs of Brisbane I'm planning to take advantage of Round 1 not being played in Cranbourne and attend. Original recipe child is extraordinarily keen, even after a brief lull when it was revealed that Princes Park probably won't have a screen let alone Dance Cam but all signs point to seeing another flag raised.

The week after that
In a 34 year delayed replay of the first game I ever went to, it's Collingwood in a final again. We're as far from the 1989 Elimination Final as that was from the 1955 flag season, which feels wrong. I can't remember anything about that game, except going with a family of Pies fans who didn't say much on the way home. As Waverley is unavailable, it'll be our first final against them at the MCG since the 1964 Grand Final for god's sake (UPDATE - False, thank you to anonymous in the comments for pointing out there was a 1988 Semi Final at the G. I forget this as I was was all in on a cheap plug for the book).

First order of business is replacing Melksham. It won't be with Grundy, regardless of three goals in Casey's VFL Wildcard Round (*spit*) demolition of North, and as good as Laurie was when he came on I'd be happy for him to stay as sub. That means it's time to heat up the BBQ and introduce Sizzle. He's got big game experience, something to prove, and fits our Total Football aspirations. Subject Pickett to a no-fly zone, use the talls to crack open space for Fritsch and hope for the best.

At the other end, I didn't think Turner was bad but don't know what Tomlinson did wrong to require instant omission for a third gamer. The people in charge know better than I do but I'll go for experience in these dramatic times. On that note, I'm almost tempted to go for Hibberd over Bowey but will retain control of my bundle for now. It's not easy, the Taylor Swift style ticket buying experience doesn't start until Tuesday and I'm already in shambles.

A word too, in the VFL section of our program, for Luke Dunstan. He was the warm-up act on ACL Sunday, which has almost certainly finished his time with us. Jordon was probably still ahead, but after barely playing a game for us over two years he was within hopeful range of playing finals if one of the main midfielders fell over. I still don't know why he joined a team with a stacked midfield, coming off a season where he scored 11 Brownlow votes and could have been a full-timer at any number of dud clubs, and can't actually remember a single moment of his five games for us but feel bad for him anyway. If Gridley's still a thing in 10 years you'll get good points for putting him on the MFC/St Kilda axis. I'll still be rotating between Peter Kiel and Sean Charles. 

IN: McDonald, Tomlinson
OUT: Melksham (inj), Turner (omit)
LUCKY: Bowey
UNLUCKY: Hibberd, Jordon, Laurie (stays sub), Woewodin

It's too stressful an occasion to make predictions, but if we win it would be the best moment in the state of Victoria since separation from New South Wales. That would put us on the Brisbane/Port/GWS/St Kilda side of the draw, while a loss would mean playing Carlton or Sydney again. In this weird season that we find ourselves in, I don't know what to expect but am willing to nearly die before finding out.

Final thoughts
Please let something remarkably good happen in the next month.

Monday 21 August 2023

Spontaneous frustration

Sometimes it's ok when a win is as convincing as get well wishes from Jack Kevorkian. When all you need for the big picture are the premiership points, everything that led to getting them can quickly be forgotten.

This was a confirmed case of getting what we wanted eventually, but not before several hints of blowing it against the 16th place side when anything from a draw up would ensure the double chance. Hawthorn may be the best team to finish third last since our 1900 flag side, but hopes that they'd reached their limit and would gently stand aside didn't pan out. They couldn't string it across four quarters, but when the goal went through 10 seconds into the last quarter I was shitting it big time. 

We've got form for unexpectedly dying against also-rans in Round 23 at the MCG and this looked headed the same way a couple of times. Any chance - for the umpteenth consecutive week - of just winning easily? Maybe I was bitter having watched GWS piledrive a past-their-limit Essendon, who beat us when they were still fresh, but other than home soil flags the only thing our glory years lack are a ruthless, triple-figure disembowelling of hapless victims.

It probably wasn't going to happen this week, since we last played them Hawthorn has recovered to the point where people are comfortable hanging shit on Leigh Montagna for calling bullshit on their rebuild earlier in the year - as if Richmond, Essendon, St. Kilda etc... haven't spent years turning the corner only to fall off a cliff. After they beat Collingwood the frenzy for their future was nearly at women's soccer style "knock down barriers, trample people" levels, so you can't complain about having to work hard. Our premiership hopes are probably better served by a challenge. Remember Geelong winning their last two games of 2018 by a combined 150 points then failing to show up in the first quarter of the Elimination Final? I certainly do. Now that we've had the scare and survived I'm all for it, at the time I was cursing leaving the house.

The extra degree of difficulty was, for once, not rain but the latest *SHOCK REVELATIONS* from the Glenn Bartlett vs Everyone lawsuit. I'm not going into any depth lest I get dragged into the mess, but it's certainly not the first time somebody's suggested a coach was on the rack. The lawyers will work it out, but unless there's secret recordings of Goody flipping a table, or Bartlett's associate scooped up a beaker full of the coach's piss for lab testing we may never know the full story.

Luckily for Goodwin, whatever drastic twists and turns his life went through in late 2020/early 2021, we stood by him and - in a decidedly non-MFC turn, were rewarded. Winning will make people forgive you for anything short of airplane hijacking, but imagine things had gone badly at the start of that year and we'd ended up with Yze by Anzac Day as I half-expected. Once this came out we'd probably look back at the still reigning Bartlett as a hero and speak of Goodwin only slightly more fondly than Mark Neeld. Now all is well, and I hope the coach is too. As lucrative as the job is, coaching would be a stressful enough job under normal circumstances without having your personal life trawled around the internet for clicks.

As for Bartlett, he may be right for all I know (and I still stand by his right to crack the shits after that putrid 2020 Port game) but hasn't made any friends during this saga. I don't think much of his post-presidency shenanigans, but the tits up nature of his departure shouldn't detract from his administration putting the club in a good position. I doubt Alan Stockdale and his sausage sizzle powered recovery plan would have left us the same way. May all interested parties sort this out privately instead of regularly throwing hand grenades towards our very much ongoing flag campaign.

To balance the love/hate ledger, we had Max Gawn's 200th game. As Twitter continues to decay I'll submit my backed up archives for forensic certification to prove I was pro-Max from day one. Looking back at that night it seems incomprehensible that he (and Jeremy Howe) were probably only picked because Juice Newton was injured, but in a rare correct prediction I identified Maximum as a monster player and massive cult figure on the spot. Couldn't stretch my imagination to our next premiership captain, but also didn't think that person had been born yet.

Max showed a lot of promise that night, including the massive mark taken over Dustin Fletcher that makes all the career highlight packages, followed by the violent close-range shank that is politely excluded. With Mark Jamar at the short but sweet peak of his career, he only played four games in 2011, and missed the next year with a knee injury. After that I was always trying to pick him when fit, but he didn't truly reach the tipping point until that 2015 win at Kardinia Park and never looked back. This may turn out to be his last milestone game, but you don't need to play 250+ games to achieve legendary status. I flinched a bit when they made him captain, but he's been brilliant at it, and no matter what else happens he was the man who held the cup for flag #13, so beat that for a legacy.

I'm not a fan of omens, but midway through the first quarter Gawn's kid having a meltdown while being carried onto the ground seemed apt. We were letting a lowly, long-finished team do whatever they liked unchallenged. Their dinky, chippy, switch at all costs methods would have killed anyone who still thinks you've got to move the ball forward no matter what but it was working. Every free possession ended with them surgically dissecting us from one side of the ground to the other. I doubted they'd be able to do it all day, but was scared that we'd be like Collingwood and let them build too much of a gap before fizzing out. 

The good news, at first, was that they struggled to turn the festival of possession into decent chances for an understrength forward line. This usually ended in the ball either being stuffed down the throat of May or Lever, or breaking down via a failed kick on the way. Problem was that if either side looked like scoring via brute force forward entries it was them. Even with Melksham doing his best to try and contest every long kick we didn't look even remotely potent. His leaping at the ball was appreciated, especially to try and stop their intercept marking, but somebody please have a chat with Pickett and tell him that he's best suited to waiting for the crumbs rather than trying to join in. He jumps for such ridiculous stuff that it's like somebody's being held hostage and the ransom is 1x Mark Of The Year.

Our chances were reduced to quick snaps that didn't make the distance, later becoming a raft of set shots that fell short. It was such a weird day that I'm genuinely surprised we didn't lose in weird circumstances again. Maybe there was something in the tactics of the Har Mar Superstar looking Hawthorn fan in front of me who tried hexing all our set shots by holding his arm at head height and vigorously giving the thumbs down.

For all the space we were leaving around the ground, the regular avenues to Hawthorn's goals were still shut tight enough for now that they had to get the first two via crumb. Now I was having nightmare flashbacks to that zero tackle fiasco against Collingwood. This time we weren't getting close enough to lay a tackle. It should have been three goals to nil, if not for a set shot that missed everything. This got us going, setting up an end-to-end move that ended with Smith goalling from the square. Having to rely on the kindness of 16th placed strangers in the second last round isn't where I thought we were going, but here we were.

I remember a lot of games in our past where we'd kick the first couple then hoist a white flag the moment one went in at the other end, but not here. They got the third, before we responded with the ultimate tribute to doing everything the hard way, as Viney and Brayshaw nearly buggered up a pair of handballs before Gus found space for the goal. Nervous types like me could have done without novelty golfing celebrations before the game was won. 

Then we had a spot of luck when JVR just pulled in a juggling mark before getting pushed in the back, turning what would otherwise have been a gettable set shot into an absolute certainty. Which was nice, but only survived an instant reply because Hawthorn missed three free targets when bursting out of the centre. That bought us an extra 20 seconds before Sparrow, who was otherwise very good, got caught holding the ball and we were back to where we'd started. By the end they had late inclusion first gamers kicking goals, led by six points, and while it wasn't nearly as bad as 2017 you knew we weren't going to win without a struggle.

If the other side's going to kick around you, better win the ball at ground level. So Petracca and Oliver having three touches between them in the first quarter wasn't ideal. Petracca looked like he was playing with the flu, and after his triumphant comeback last week, Clayts had to deal with the clampiest of tags. It's not like he hasn't laughed in the face of them before, but it did the job for three quarters on Sunday. He didn't get much help from the rest of the team though, I know they're all trying to avoid being suspended on the cusp of finals but something better than the performative jostling at quarter time might have helped.

On a weekend where Adelaide got fatally ripped off by the video review system, we got some minor payback for last week when what seemed like a goal from a ridiculous angle was disallowed for contacting the post. While the Hawks were still mid-celebration we were bolting down the other end for Melksham to eventually kick his first after four misses, by giving up on normal goals and just throwing his boot at a ground ball. Any moaning about Hawthorn's goal being disallowed should take in the fact that Viney was well outside the boundary line when tackled for holding the ball in the first place. It was at the exact spot where they missed van Rooyen being tripped last week, so maybe that's an umpiring blind spot? Remember that in case we can use it to cheat in finals.

By now we were in a much better state, before surprise starter Henry Hustwaite went for a Marcus Baldwin style provisional Kingsley with his second. Then they got another from the bounce, led again, and there were genuine fears of a major cockup. Even when we were paid a nine metre kick inside 50 the shot failed to score. Melksham's second got us in front again at the half, but even in an off chops season like this two points was not nearly enough of a lead to feel good.

At the same time we were never really threatened in the second half, nor comfortable for most of it. For example, when a random appearance in the ruck by Oliver ended up spilling to Sparrow for a goal we couldn't have given it back any quicker out of the middle. Even if there was a downfield free kick that stopped the clock it would have physically taken longer to get the ball down there and for the player to go through a set shot routine than this took to move from the middle to through the goals.

There's a bit of wobble in our backline at the moment, but you can't help conceding when the ball comes arrives at that pace. It's in our interest for attacks to come as slowly, and kicked as high as possible and adjusted for playing against homebrand forwards, Lever was tremendous here. More worryingly, at ground level I've got more faith in McVee than either Salem or Bowey at the moment. There was one bit where he bounced out of traffic like a grizzled veteran, and I can't wait for his turn at the Fritsch 2018 treatment of playing every game before being dropped for the Prelim.

After Melksham got his third it was on the verge of breaking open but we couldn't capitalise. Finally all that unrewarded attacking paid off when one of them did an unnecessary shepherd on JVR as a hopeful punt forward was proceeding directly into the hands of another defender. This should have given back via a horror turnover but we were saved by a novelty bounce. They weren't getting nearly as much free space now, so another couple of goals would have probably made sure of it. This happened eventually, but not before a few minutes where we could have been dragged into something unpleasant.

No matter what had happened in the first quarter we were never more than a couple of goals down, so at this stage of the game it would have been comical to give away a 13 point lead. That's why them running straight out of the middle (do you sense a pattern?) to kick the first goal within seconds had me clenching like I was in a Turkish prison. It made me wonder if any team has ever stretched a straight sets exit across five games.

Things went alright after that, they didn't have the legs to keep us running around all day, and as their short kicks slowly became more chaotic we could take advantage. Just 'could', not 'did'. The downside to picking Schache as sub, vaulting him out of the Wayne Moose Henwood Club for one game imports, was that he wasn't really needed, and we had to do a reshuffle to take Tomlinson off, and send Mr. Total Football Smith back. 

I know they'd have cooked this up during the week so he'd have been prepared for all potential opponents, but I'm not sure about voluntarily changing the composition of your backline with the game in the balance. After two goals, I could have done with keeping Smith down there. Instead Schache came on just as we started piling on the pressure, and only got one kick for a missed set shot. He had a go, as you would when trying to save a career, but can't see why you'd pick him again. Looks like it's up to Lachie Hunter to redeem Footscray's losing 2021 Grand Final team.

Even when van Rooyen's third put the game back to where it was before the last break we weren't safe from something truly ludicrous happening. Enter Oliver, shed of his tag for unknown reasons, and able to pinch a goal from a stoppage to make it safe. Then on cue, Petracca made it even safer and we were free to pile on a few more goals. Or, more accurately, to not score again. After tormenting the score worm a few times recently, the last few minutes of this game look like the heart rate of somebody who's just been taken off life support. But who cares, it did what it was meant to do. I'd like to have piled on a bit of misery but shit in one hand, wish in the other, and see which fills up first. It's not what happened here that's important, it's what follows.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Jake Lever
4 - Jake Melksham
3 - Trent Rivers
2 - Jack Viney
1 - Judd McVee

Apologies to Gawn, Langdon, Neal-Bullen, May, Smith, Sparrow, Tomlinson, and van Rooyen.

And that is indeed it, with a maximum of 25 votes available Petracca is YOUR outright Jakovich winner. It's his second win, leaving him alongside Nathan Jones (x5) and Clayton Oliver (x4) as multiple champions, and once again making me feel old that I've been doing this so long.

We all knew the main event was over, but there's hope for the defenders that May's lead is not insurmountable. I can't see Lever or Rivers mowing down nine votes from here but hope they have fun trying. And the Hilton (retaining its name due no objections received) is very much up for grabs, with any of the rookies able to grab the lot with a single BOG. Best case scenario is JVR to win it by kicking eight in a Grand Final.
64 - Christian Petracca (WINNER: Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year)
36 - Jack Viney
28 - Clayton Oliver
27 - Steven May (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
21 - Max Gawn (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
18 - Jake Lever, Trent Rivers
14 - Angus Brayshaw, Kysaiah Pickett
12 - Ed Langdon
11 - Brodie Grundy
10 - Kade Chandler
8 - Lachie Hunter, Jake Melksham
7 - Jake Bowey, Harrison Petty
4 - Bayley Fritsch, Michael Hibberd, Judd McVee (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal)
3 - James Jordon, Christian Salem, Tom Sparrow
2 - Ben Brown
1 - Tom McDonald, Alex Neal-Bullen, Adam Tomlinson, Jacob van Rooyen

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
As much as I enjoyed the Melksham super toe-poke that broke his duck, for quality + context and invoking memories of Viney vs Brisbane I'd like a slice of Oliver's stoppage goal in the last quarter.

1 - Jack Viney vs Brisbane
2 - Jake Melksham vs Brisbane
3 - Kysaiah Pickett (the second one) vs North Melbourne

Social Media Watch
I've always had sympathy for footy club social media people, especially when they accidentally linked to IKEA furniture instead of the team changes. For a frighteningly low wage you've not only got to post every time something happens, but deal with replies from people who think they're speaking directly to the coach, captain and CEO combined. For however long Twitter survives they can, and should, ignore the replies, but now that you're liable for what's posted on your Facebook page they've got to moderate all those mad comments. Especially while defamation is a flaming hot topic at HQ. I wouldn't be surprised to find they've added a filter to automatically block any mentions of a certain ex-stakeholder.

Now that we've established my sympathy for these people, what in the name of Adobe Photoshop is going on with our match preview images? They always look like AI gone mad, and this week... 
... looked halfway between a tribute to the Field of Women, and an invitation to join a futuristic death cult. You've got to watch the quiet ones, but I'd like to know what Ed thinks about being pictured like the modern-day Marshall Applewhite.

The All New Bradbury Plan's Final Siren
Now it's down to who you want to play and where. I'd prefer Port also win so we finish fourth and play Collingwood at the MCG, but will take whatever's offered. There's also one last twist for the popular Draft Bradbury, where we'd like Freo to lose to Hawthorn, then drop below Gold Coast after they beat North. Having said that, the Suns are such a shambolic organisation that they'll probably find a way to stuff it up.

A special Bradbury Time mention for whoever decides free agent compensation, and has to deal with North's attempt at getting a James Frawley-style priority pick by any other name for Ben McKay. If that comes at the top of the draft it pushes us down one spot, so here's to them getting shafted for our benefit. Either way, enjoy all the simple people complaining about what Hawthorn got for Franklin, not considering that they lost him after winning the bloody flag.

Next week
After just enough games to kill off the most exciting finals race in years, we know that there's a minimum of two finals on the cards, and 6/7 of the teams who might stop us, but not yet who we'll play and where. We're the second last game of the round so the result might be irrelevant, but the last time we played at the SCG in Round 24, The Ox kicked nine so let's have a bit more of that.

Unless Brisbane jump Collingwood and we need to win to get an MCG final it's practically a free hit. There's a free week before finals so no need to roll out the randoms, but a little bit of tinkering is fine. For instance, bringing Woewodin in for Laurie, who eventually did enough to suggest he might be handy next year but doesn't seem ready for finals. Spargo is also around somewhere but Chandler's got the "he'll only get seven touches but they'll all be good" market sewn up.

We've developed a fetish for substitutes who can play at either end, so I'm going to move from Smith, to Hibberd (who was concussed at Casey, so is out of the equation), to Schache, and onto McSizzle. I still think you run the risk of snookering yourself in having to find a spot for the tall sub where none is available, but if we're going to do it I have faith that he can step back in and do a job.

I genuinely have no idea what's going to happen, the Swans have come back from the dead to be finals qualified with a week to go, may be trying to get a home final, and will be desperate to show off in front of the parading Lance Franklin before he leaves and never gives them a second thought again. I'm so down on our record at the SCG that I think they might sneak it. But remember, we struggled to 1.5 wins against the Hawks and turned in a turd in Sydney during 2021 as well. 

IN: Woewodin, McDonald (as sub)
OUT: Laurie, Schache (omit)
UNLUCKY: Grundy, Spargo

Final thoughts
What? Me worry?

Tuesday 15 August 2023

Losing on the lottery

I can think of about 150 Melbourne games over the years where the rest of the country had something better to do, but it's never been related to Australia simultaneously playing a knockout World Cup game. At some point in the late 90s (probably Round 21, 1997) the MCG scoreboard flashed "WE WON!" alongside a netball result, but fair to say there wasn't the same level of frenzy. 

Association Football fever boiled over so much that it even caused a pause in the Codewars, with the MCG showing the women's game (never 'The Matildas', only the second worst nickname in Australia until 'Socceroos' is abolished) on the big screen. At least until they'd convinced a lot of people to leave home, before pulling the pin 40 minutes before the bounce and returning to the regular programming of Wacker McStagbag giving tips from inside a fake McCafe.

Delaying the start of our game by 10 minutes was one thing, but anyone who thought the AFL of all people would hold until the soccer had been decided was a) delusional, and b) not counting on an epic shootout that went through almost every available player. The non-sports section of the family was more invested in a result than they'd ever been so I kept the insanity in Brisbane on the TV, and watched glanced the inanity in Melbourne on my phone. Besides, I knew the crowd would react when something happened, so live TV would have given it away before it happened on the streaming.

Unless you're the sort of person who says things like "go woke, go broke" with no hint of irony, it's hard not to get invested in Australia's run to the semis. You're perfectly welcome to have no interest, but I like to think there was a bitter man somewhere in the MCG complaining about people getting excited over a low scoring game just before watching us stay on nil for 95% of the first quarter.

I really wanted the team that needs a new nickname to win while our game was in play, just for the Western Oval 1987 style roar of the crowd. Instead, they missed from the spot so often that it wasn't decided until quarter time. This let Channel 7 do a "we'd definitely still be showing this if somebody else had the rights" video of their commentators going nuts, including Daisy Pearce receiving a vigorous hug that she didn't seem particularly keen on. This not at all self-interest related conversion to the world game would have set off people who still upset that the same network didn't show Sydney Olympic vs Brisbane Strikers in prime time 20 years ago.

The most exciting event in women's sports since we won AFLW left as little focus as possible on a Round 21 game with serious finals implications. If anyone was helped by the distraction it was probably the team who publicly exploded when they got a sniff of finals last year. And they got it right this time, but not before a tremendous scare. It must have come as a delight to all the fans who've recently thought they were rorted against us that we were probably dudded by an umpiring howler. That's bad, but we had more chances to win a game than all of 2013 combined, so as they say in the fighting sports "never leave it in the hands of the judges. 

Turns out that trying to win via comeback every week isn't as successful against reborn sides in red-hot form. It didn't need to come to that, you're literally not going to win many games kicking 8.8.56. Last time was Essendon 2012 when a) it continued to piss down during the game, and b) they kicked for goal as if part of the methadone program. Even then Colin Garland spearheaded us to 58. The last time we won a proper game with a total this low was Round 23, 1991. I have innocent childhood memories of everything about that season being great, but Terry Wheeler upset enough about us making the finals to say:"If that's what the final six is encouraging then maybe we are barking up the wrong tree". Terry must fall off his chair every time a Wildcard Round is suggested.

Carlton has now held us to two of our three lowest scores of the year, which either implies that they've got our number or were just lucky to meet us again just after Petty's foot exploded. Nobody expected to be mourning the loss of a converted defender like this, but I choose to believe that the Petty Effect was real. He wasn't the only factor behind our improved scoring as it had been trending in the right direction since Alice Springs, but without him we barely looked like taking a contested mark in attack. 

If anyone knows what they were going for by picking Grundy please write in at the usual address. It can't have been to help keep Gawn fresh as he still rucked enough to have 47 hitouts, and I don't think we ever aimed a kick at him inside 50 so he can't have been there to kick goals/help bring the ball to ground. Since Saturday he's been unfairly treated with less respect than early Spencil, but even he must have known it was weird to play off no VFL game, after average form when Casey did play, in a system that had recently been abandoned because it wasn't working. 

JVR was fine as Gawn's understudy, Max was doing well, I don't get it. Even when the degree of difficulty for big men was lifted by pre-match rain we chickened out on another chance for a tactical late change, not considering the varying chances of emergencies Spargo, Harmes, or Schache to contribute in the conditions. Maybe even go straight to Smith forward, Hibberd back, without waiting half a soggy, slippery game to work out that things weren't going as planned.

While many potential viewers were otherwise occupied, these teams did the polite thing and made sure almost nothing happened. If you chose shitout over shootout, you saw us absorb an inordinate level of early pressure while looking no chance to kick a good score. We can pile goals on in a rush but you appreciate an early indication that they might come at a regular pace as well. I'd just like to win a game by quarter time again, it feels felt we've been involved in far too many thrillers this year, and on further investigation we have. Last year there were two games decided by 10 points or less, six in 2021, and nothing like this since the early 1970s. I hope this is leading to us winning finals by an unexpected shitload again. Not sure how, but let me dream.

The biggest news of the opening term was Pickett finally pulling down a screamer. It looked good, but happened on the wing, and didn't end in a score. As we weren't doing anything but turning back attacks I was only paying a little more attention to it than a neutral game so not sure if it even ended with an inside 50. This is a bullshit stat, but it felt appropriate when the graphic came up to show that the Blues had 10 in a row. They were all over us, and as well as we did to hold on until Langdon of all people could get on the end of a mark in the square I'd lost all confidence in scoring enough to win.

Other than surviving until quarter time less than a kick behind, the only thing to recommend this part of the game was Clayton Oliver turning up after 10 weeks of fluctuating injury drama, without a warm-up game of any sort, and carrying on like he'd never been away. Even if they had been involved in a hamfisted plan to cover up a suspension for running guns to Nairobi, you could have expected a bit of rust. It wasn't his best game, but it wasn't anyone's on our side, I'm just happy to know that he hasn't lost the ability to hoover up bulk possessions. 

In a game that was high on pressure instead of thrilling excitement, he also did his bit tackling everything that moved. As did Viney, but with the sort of firehose-like disposal that would get more coverage if Brayshaw did it. He got shitload of the ball, coaches votes and the fan award, but burnt it at a record rate. I don't expect laser-like disposal in a high pressure game but didn't need to see the 38% efficiency figure to know it wasn't happening for him. I did expect more from Salem, who has done more weird, clearing straight to a defender kicks since he came back than for multiple years before combined. Throw in Bowey looking ropey, and it's fair to say we didn't cope with their pressure all that well. 

Adjusted for the midfield being beaten overall, Gus was very good again. There will be posts from last year where I declared with certainty that defence was the place for him, but this probably is where he's at his best. Nice to have another member of the Joel Smith Total Football Academy that we can move around as required though. Find the balance with Petracca and Pickett rotating through the middle and profit. Still doesn't mean we'll kick a score, but might keep the ball away from the opposite end for longer.

It was back to the TV after the break, and almost certainly the first time I've ever watched a game on 7Mate. Do they always slap an 'HD' over the logo that looks like it was made in Microsoft Paint? This coincided with the brief period where we looked half a chance of scoring above 60. It still involved much toil, even the one from an unguarded square reached Chandler in an unconvincing, one sideways bounce from disaster way. We had the best of the quarter, but still went into half time marginally on the wrong side of a 23-21 score that would have had Seven executives running for the open window if they hadn't just scored their biggest rating since Cathy Freeman on the other channel.

The less said about the actual gameplay the better, but we got a hint of what was going to come in the last quarter by conceding two goals right after half time. The first was a welcome back present for Oliver, pinched in front of goal after one of his handballs that might have hit the hand, but not enough to convince the umpire. Where was this guy when we needed a no contact decision later?

Before the season started I wouldn't have bet on Hunter outliving Grundy in our best 22, but he was in everything during the third quarter. Not just fancy outside stuff, but getting coalface contested ball as well. Says it all about this game, more grunt than Melbourne Zoo but only generating the bare minimum score. We clambered back to level the scores at three quarter time, but it best demonstrated how we were going that one of the goals came directly via Melksham dropping a mark.

Getting to the last change level after being played off most parts of the park all night might have been inspiration to start the last quarter well. You can't fault nearly four full quarters of effort, they just didn't cover the opening minutes here. We got hands to the ball in the middle before Carlton ripped it away and went forward faster than any team since 25/09/21. I was bleeding from every orifice by the time the third went in unanswered. Suspicions that we'd left too much of a gap to catch them were true, but not without a decent go at another return from the dead.

Last week we had to turn to a Pickett special in lieu of well-constructed first quarter goals, this time it came at the opposite end of the game, as he snuck one out of a pack to keep it interesting. Then Smith kicked one from an angle that makes you think he could be a decent break in case of emergency option, and even a permanently suspicious miserablist like me was prepared to entertain the idea of pinching it. 

I'd have taken a draw, which would have all but sealed the double chance, but the 'there should be a shootout in footy' aftermath would have been unbearable. It's hard to tell if Patrick Dangerfield was serious because he does some of the lowest quality humour outside The Bounce, but you can add this to the footy cliche bingo card along with going wobbly over the actually ordinary New Zealand anthem on Anzac Day, and trying to bring back State of Origin whenever the NRL do it.   

Last year we set off Carlton's spectacular chain reaction by snatching a game from them in the dying seconds, and it nearly happened again. We were within an alleged touch of hand from hitting the lead in the final minute, but not before Salem was gifted the sort of running shot from 50 that he's kicked more than once over the years. Somehow it fell short for nothing, but the comedy comeback was still very much on. 

Shame we'd 90% necked ourselves in five stupid minutes at the start of the quarter, because if we'd hit the front after 10 minutes this could have been Richmond all over again. The key difference - other than Carlton having a vastly better night - is that it may actually be No Petty, No Melbourne. JVR didn't have a shot after the first quarter, Melksham didn't have one at all, and surely there's no way we'll have a better functioning forward line than that (eventually) wonderful day any time before Round 1, 2024.

Enter a goal umpire finishing us off by taking the safest possible option. Petracca marked on 50, and knowing we were probably stuff all chance of a contested mark just flogged it at goal with all his might. I fully expected an intercept mark, before it beat everyone (?) and went through. You can't judge reactions without turning it into the Acting Football League, but the defender didn't put on much of a show about touching it. Compare to Lever pleading like he was an innocent man facing the guillotine last week. 

The bad news was that this time the disputed decision came in the dying seconds of a thriller, it had gone somewhere within literal touching distance of a hand, and in the moment the goal umpire probably didn't want to look like a fool if it was revealed to have clearly come off a hand. As the AFL still uses Zero Definition review cameras we'll never know if it really was, so as soon as the goal umpire's call was a point I knew it wouldn't be overturned. 

If he'd thought it was a goal old mate in the replay bunker could search for the slightest bit of contact, now they were left having to prove conclusively that it didn't scrape off a hand, finger, wrist, or dick on the way through. I'm not angry, any time from 1897 to 2012 he'd have called it a point and we'd have got on with things. This time he thought it might be a point, nobody was ever going to find otherwise, and we still had time to win. Besides, who knows what would have happened out of the middle with 41 seconds left. We were just as likely to let them walk one straight inside 50 as luckily blunder to the siren like the Collingwood or Brisbane games.

Everyone knows the review system is shit so I feel more robbed out of a great comedy moment than premiership points. As long as we're not on the losing side, please let something like that decide a Grand Final then stand back to enjoy absolute, unfettered carnage.

No doubt somebody's going to discover that the goal umpire's second cousin once used the public toilets in Princes Park so we were robbed, but if you need conspiracies to pin down losing a game where we were on the back foot from the first bounce, kicked a rotten score, and had to come from three goals down in the last quarter, I'd prefer Charlie Curnow wandering around on the mark while May was ready to kick. I'd also have preferred if May looked to his left and saw Michael Hibberd standing in about 100 metres of space.

Desperate times when you're relying on May or Hibberd (combined MFC goals - 5 in 201 games) for a winner, but that's about as much faith as I had in another Melksham Miracle. The 11th penalty taker just won a World Cup game, why not snatch the points here via an unexpected goalscorer? It wasn't going to be won by Chandler or Neal-Bullen, both of who sat on the bench for the last 10 minutes while we searched for a winner. 

This would have been a good time for Smith to pay tribute to his dad with his own Mark of The Century, but with about 15 opposition players inside the defensive 50, a goal from open play was more likely. I was already into the 'acceptance' phase while we were still half a chance, but also thought how hilarious it would be if Pickett dudded them in the final seconds again. 

That kick was safely turned back, booted far enough away to waste more time, but leaving us enough time for a final Hail Mary kick forward. That didn't go anywhere either, we lost and top two is probably stuffed, but there's still everything to play for so I'm not proceeding directly to the ocean with rocks in pocket yet.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Angus Brayshaw
4 - Clayton Oliver
3 - Lachie Hunter
2 - Trent Rivers
1 - Christian Petracca

Apologies to Chandler, Gawn, Langdon, Lever, May and Viney

First, a word regarding the recent death of Jeff Hilton. Without trawling the archives, I've got no idea why the Rising Star award is named after him. It makes even less sense when you consider that a lot of his MFC career happened after I'd lost interest in early 1995. If I had to guess, it was to follow the heavy 1990s theme kicked off by the top award being called the Jakovich, and he had the sort of classy name that lent itself to the occasion. It was certainly never intended as a pisstake, and if anybody has taken it that way and thinks the medal should be renamed then send objections to the usual address.

Back to the present, the big news is that Christian Petracca cannot in any way be beaten for the main prize. If Viney strung together BOGs from here, going the long way to Grand Final and Trac got nil they'd tie, but it's morally all over. No change in any of the minors, other than Rivers nudging to within outside range of May in the Seecamp. And if Grundy outscores Gawn by 11+ from here I'll eat somebody else's hat. 
64 - Christian Petracca (WINNER: Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year)
--- Needs four finals to win ---
34 - Jack Viney
--- Done for ---
28 - Clayton Oliver
27 - Steven May (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
21 - Max Gawn (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
15 - Trent Rivers
14 - Angus Brayshaw, Kysaiah Pickett
13 - Jake Lever
12 - Ed Langdon
11 - Brodie Grundy
10 - Kade Chandler
8 - Lachie Hunter
7 - Jake Bowey, Harrison Petty
4 - Bayley Fritsch, Michael Hibberd, Jake Melksham
3 - James Jordon, Judd McVee (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Christian Salem, Tom Sparrow
2 - Ben Brown
1 - Tom McDonald, Alex Neal-Bullen, Adam Tomlinson, Jacob van Rooyen

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
I liked the clutch value of Neal-Bullen's set shot, but you can't beat a surprise kick out of a pack so Pickett wins. We didn't, so I reserve the right not to get all that excited about it. No change to the leaderboard.

1 - Jack Viney vs Brisbane
2 - Jake Melksham vs Brisbane
3 - Kysaiah Pickett (the second one) vs North Melbourne

The All New Bradbury Plan
Suddenly we're back to chasing Brisbane and Port, and with half an eye on the Blues potentially running us down for fourth. Otherwise, everyone is too far behind to make a difference so you're tipping for strategy only.

North d. Richmond (only relevant if you're desperate to keep Richmond out of the eight) 
Collingwood d. Brisbane (for the top two plan)
Gold Coast d. Carlton (for the top four plan)
GWS d. Essendon (if one of them's got to make it back the one you don't know any fans of)
St Kilda d. Geelong (willing to risk the minimal chance of the Saints catching us to keep Geelong out)
Adelaide d. Sydney (although, maybe you want the Swans confirmed in the eight before the last game. I don't)
West Coast d. Footscray (fat chance)
Fremantle d. Port Adelaide (regrettable for the Draft Bradbury, but probably won't happen anyway)

Next week
Speaking of teams in better shape than last time we played them, it's Hawthorn off the back of beating Collingwood and Footscray. Any chance of catching somebody in uncontrollable freefall? Even Richmond didn't drop their bundle and start retiring the legends until we'd taken three quarters to beat them.

All things considered, we should win, but their recent form + the last half our second meeting and our recent loss of forward power has me even more worried than usual. Unless there's some double-secret plot behind picking him, I can't see why you'd keep Grundy in the side. I'll return to last week's suggestion of Smith forward, Tomlinson/Hibberd back, and fingers crossed for the best. 

Surprisingly, Casey played this week so we've got some (losing) form against a proper AFL reserve side to judge the other changes on. It was losing form that's left them on the edge of the dreaded Wildcard Zone, but it's probably better for their form than playing Coburg, Flotsam, or Jetsam. There doesn't need to be a raft of inclusions, but while we're crying out for somebody to grab the forward spot none of them did much to demand inclusion. McSizzle might be a chance after another week just for experience value, otherwise nada. 

I thought Jordon getting the giant Muppet Show-style hook didn't bode well for him, but who else are you going to pick? Dunstan is regularly having a million touches but I don't know if he's any sort of replacement. Maybe bang him in the middle and free Brayshaw up a bit? I don't know. Otherwise it will probably be Harmes, and with respect, we've done that recently and it didn't work. I'd still like to see more of Woewodin too, but will remain conservative for now, rest Hibberd for one more week as side and hope for the best.

IN: Tomlinson
OUT: Grundy (omit)
LUCKY: Bowey, Jordon
UNLUCKY: Woewodin

Final thoughts
On a night of fairytale results, I suppose 'Carlton not completely botching a chance to play finals' fit the script so good luck to them. You wouldn't want to be trapped in a lift with 99% of their fans who are shown on TV but even if we've got to be the victim I can't deny anyone the joy of seeing their side come good after years in the wilderness. It was not great for us, but nor is it fatal. Maybe we'll get the same goal umpire in a final and he'll subconsciously do something strange to make up for this?

Tuesday 8 August 2023

Could've been worse

If you watch long enough you'll eventually see your team lose as red-hot favourites. It's probably a good sign that for everything we've done wrong this century it's hard to think of truly catastrophic upset defeats. Sure, we were so bad for so long that it was almost statistically impossible to do anything historically remarkable but to prove anyone can be involved we did give GWS their only win of 2013. Given they'd had about 115 less years to build their side the Giants were probably still occupying the moral highground anyway.

The historical gold standard for upsets will always be letting St Kilda win their first VFL game in 49, but as there's nobody left on the planet who was alive that day it's about as relevant as the Battle of Thermopylae. Even the trifecta of Sydney-related debacles from 1992 to 1994 are strictly for middle-aged enthusiasts by now. That leaves us with either of the Carlton '06 losses (but mainly the second one, by which time we knew they were shite), or falling over against the Essendon reserves a decade later. None would have been as improbable as going down to a team on a 17 game losing streak while playing for second spot.

Given that we'd have played finals, possibly still with a double chance, this would have been worse on paper than anything for nearly 30 years, but still not as hurtful as punching a gift horse in the mouth at the end of 2017. The good news is we diced with death, but still came back to win comfortably. That's four vital premiership points, an excellent reminder for everyone involved not to let their guard down, and justification for me never automatically assuming a win, no matter the state of the opposition, for several more decades.

My nerves weren't helped by the surprise return of Alastair Clarkson. I've got no time for any footy media these days so had no idea this was happening until Sunday morning. Now we had to deal with new coach bounce, against a guy who's dismantled us more times over the years than anyone other than Ross Lyon, with a squad full of players trying to avoid being executed at the end of Mad Monday. Nice of him to fondly mention his time with us in the pre-game interview, doubt he'll sit next to Phil Egan at a past player gathering.

By this point of the weekend we'd already seen Hawthorn beat Collingwood with surprising ease, and Port lose after a bunch of players went down with the trots, so I was already on high alert for weird circumstances that might affect what should have been a regulation win. It got to the point of checking the Hobart weather report to make sure there wasn't going to be a Casey Fields-style nine goal breeze to one end. Even if North Melbourne 1925 turned up (and speaking of upsets, we did nearly stuff up a finals campaign by losing to them that year) I'd be waiting for seven of our players to fall victim  to modern concussion rules by quarter time.

All this made it a lot easier to take teetering on the brink of disaster at five goals down before half time. You'd like to think a 60 point turnaround that ended in last quarter self-preservation mode indicates even another goal the other way would have been recoverable, but it would have cranked the difficulty level up to uncomfortable levels. Some people derive sexual pleasure from launching comebacks, and I think they may also be working for Collingwood on the side, but not me. It's good when they happen, but if we could go back to nice, easy wins that would be great.

It was an undignified position to find ourselves in after another weekend where most results went our way. If we did as expected it would shore up the double chance, and give us the advantage in a now very real three-corner battle for second place. Sadly West Coast fell agonisingly short of what would have been a piss funny win over Essendon, leaving them on the bottom and giving North no reason to go full Melbourne 2009 and make absolutely sure of losing. 

It shouldn't have needed that anyway. Anyone who counts chickens pre-hatch and talks about boosting percentage should be arrested, but four quarters of good, clean fun isn't too much to ask for. Think about all the times we followed the script in interstate games while no good. There was Adelaide Oval 2014, the win that made Crows fans escape like the fire alarms had gone off, but even that only followed a two game losing streak. Mind you, later that year we nearly toppled top four chasing Port at the same venue so I suppose out of the box, near misses against strugglers do happen.

For a team that hasn't won since Round 2, North have been reasonably competitive. They've only lost by over 70 three times, never by the ton (thanks to us packing up at the end last time), and four of the 17 losses have been by under 10 points, including the last two. Yes, they just lost to a West Coast side who are still 2.3% percentage points worse than us in 2013 but the point remains that they're not as historically awful as you'd expect from a side that with that sort of losing streak. 

Maybe all they need to get going is for the other side to turn up like they're in a coma, and that's where we came in. Last week I nearly got cancelled for calling bullshit on 'expected score', so this time I'm not saying anything about the 'Pressure Gauge', except that you probably didn't need a number to know that we started loose as a goose. I'm sure standing near an opponent contributes to the overall number, but any bonuses from tackling, smothering, or general corraling were reduced by them merrily kicking around us.

Occasionally they'd kick it straight back, at which point we'd hammer the ball inside 50 as quickly as possible, straight into the loving arms of an intercepting defender. We obviously got a bit excited by Richmond leaving the Grand Canyon inside 50 last week and thought there'd be more of the same here. The problem was that all the kicks were going to 30 metres out directly in front, which any AFL team will eat for breakfast.

After surviving a video review entirely because Lever looked genuine about touching it, we had to reach deep into the novelty file for the opener. When all the obvious avenues to goal are shut, Dial P for Pickett and he'll do something bonkers from the boundary line. He's so good that (as far as I'm concerned) this only ended the day as his second-best finish.

If that didn't convince North that they were involved in a futile struggle, maybe the bit where we cannoned out of the middle, and had a free shot on the run from 40 would have helped. On a rare day where it wasn't blowing a mega gale to one end, that would have been a nice early strike against opposition who probably arrived just hoping to reach the final siren with their dignity intact. 

Instead, we got a brief, horrifying flashback to the day Goldstein kicked five in Hobart. This didn't require much effort, May tried another short kick-in that didn't go where it was supposed to, Bowey fell over reaching for it, and the sound of circus music could be heard gently wafting across Bass Strait. Like Adelaide all over again, the opposition responded to an own-goal by the world's greatest full back with several more. Next time let's have Bowey doing the dinky kick to May. Even better, just hoof it as far away from goal as possible.

Enter Eddie Ford, somebody who I genuinely had no idea existed before Sunday. That's no comment on him personally, he may have a big future in the game but I haven't watched a neutral game as anything more than background noise for a decade. Surely I'd have remembered somebody who sounds like a country music pioneer, now he will forever be remembered as an inducted member of the Kingsley Klub.

His first goal came from Lever trying his luck after winning on the video review and doing the most obvious block in history. Then he was left floundering around in space while Ford marked uncontested. This will probably set the blueprint for other teams trying to negate Lever, but won't be the first time somebody's thought they've got the answers to our backline before we change the questions. Remember that loss to the Bulldogs in 2021 when their forwards were running around like ice addicts trying to throw off the matchups? That didn't last long, and hopefully neither does this.

Things got very ropey, very quickly as they looked like an attacking juggernaut and we were back to an Alice Springs level of potency. This time you couldn't blame the weather, not only was it dry but there wasn't a hint of the usual Casey Fields South winds that generally make games there unwatchable. We were just outplayed, and being picked apart at every turn.

At four goals to one I was thinking things were getting out of hand, before thumping the big red Kingsley button so hard that plastic flew off in every direction when Ford stamped his induction by saying "please sir, may I have another?" at the end. The effect was multiplied several thousand times over by the revelation that his career record was 0-18. Even at our lowest we didn't subject anyone to a start like that. The Spencil took four years to get a win, but even that only stretched to 12 losses. 

It's hard to think of any other obvious North inductees. One was declared in a Docklands game sometime after Twitter (never, ever, under any circumstances 'X') was invented because an indignant North fan wrote in to complain that it was a false nomination. Maybe it was, because I can't work out who he was. We did concede six to Aaron Edwards in a season where he averaged less than two goals a game, but he doesn't feel like a contender. If I've got more free time at the end of the season, AFLW flag defence commitments notwithstanding, I'll come up with a definitive list of contenders for us to debate over summer.

If you'd just floated over from Easter Island, nothing could possibly convince you that we were the premiership contenders. Other than the May kick-in fiasco it wasn't even like being beaten by fluky goals or zany umpiring decisions. We were just being played off the park, and the score was rapidly ticking towards a critical point. This was a high degree of difficulty test of the theory that teams can't go with us for a full four quarters. It wasn't abandon all hope yet, we were further behind than last week, but with respect to them kicking our brains in for a bit the opposition was not as good.

That was all painful viewing, but you'd think quarter time would have been time to work out what was going on and correct it. Then they kicked the first goal after the break, the margin was beyond 30, and things were getting so ludicrous that I couldn't help but laughing. In the spirit of standing there at the end of 186 thinking "they may as well kick another goal so I can say I was here for the record margin", there was a bit of "this is shit but at least it'll provide good content for years to come".

For once there was a historical precedent for not worrying. Two years ago we turned up unbeaten, gave an unnecessarily good start to a rock-bottom North, then ran them down with relative ease. This time I could have seen winning, but not without a colossal struggle. Once they were only six goals I doubted our capacity to reach that total, let alone stop them from scoring freely from every angle.

The comeback started with Petty contesting a long ball to the square in the exact fashion we've been missing all year (I was wrong etc...), ending in a goal to Pickett. Then he got one himself, the All Australian selectors started consulting the rules to see if he could be picked at full forward, and it looked like all was well in the world. Until Smith either (delete as applicable) dropped a mark in the square, wasn't paid a mark in the square, or had a mark in the square knocked out of his hands at the last minute, leading to them crumbing another and refilling my sense of dread.

That really was as good as it got for North, and by half time we'd wound the margin back to a more manageable level. This included a goal from Pickett turning Jack Ziebell inside and out multiple times in one passage of play. Somehow chief Foxtel miserablist Gerald Healy decided it Ziebell's fault that he was danced into the ground by an artist.

The real gold came right at the end, when they should have walked through a steadier but stuffed it up, then let us go the length of the field for van Rooyen to kick one after the siren. Jayden Stephenson is the reverse of a Kingsley, every time he gets the ball I feel like he'll do something comically silly. If this was NorthBlog I'd have thrown the couch through a wall at a two goal turnaround like this. You're barely holding on to what might be the upset of the year, and even if there's a definite hint that it won't last, you get the chance to put it back into double figures and do that. Putrid. But good news for us.

Now that we'd worked our way back into it, half time brought the real relief we were after. It took a little bit to get rid of them, but the tide was obviously now running in our favour and North had the staggers. They started the second half bleeding a centre clearance, botched an exit kick, then let Jack Viney of all people pull down a screamer. That led to five minutes of attacking for nowt but points, and even if the Roos were the footy equivalent of the guy who arranged to be eaten over the internet we were struggling to build up the appropriate appetite.

It took Petty doing his Tony Lockett impersonation and kicking one from the boundary line to put us in front, and at this point I was ready to carve off one or more limbs for him. Which makes what happened next so tragic (as far as sporting tragedies go). We'd already added another and were looking like walking the rest of the game when a pox kick to his lead saw him stumble and detonate his foot for the second time this season. He got away with several weeks on the sidelines when stepped on against Hawthorn, this one is reportedly at "oh fuck" level. Please refer to George Costanza for further details:

This was very bad for the rest of our season, but in the short term we could always rely on noted goalkicking substitute... Michael Hibberd. As long as we keep all our woes to key position players, this is the benefit of having Smith in the side. He didn't do a massive amount when thrown forward, but fans of statistical oddities will be pleased to know that whatever one percenters are, he had more than any of our players since 2019. At the same time Brayshaw was enjoying the freedom of the midfield to rack up the most handballs on record by anyone not called Oliver or Viney. So that's something to remember the day by.

I was still sulking about the Petty injury when Petracca and the Anal-Bullet pushed the margin beyond 20, and it had gone 2021 a lot quicker than possible. Even when North goalled from their first decent chance of the quarter they immediately left Gawn pissbolt from the middle and land the ball on JVR at the top of the square with a defender hanging off him for dear life. 

It was basically game over, but to be remembered by anyone outside of sickos like me we needed to romp to victory, or almost lose in hilarious (for neutrals) fashion. They burst out of the middle at the first bounce, King of Comedy Stephenson missed again, and that was the opening ceremony for one of the dullest last quarters you'll ever see.

We spent the next 10 minutes with the ball parked at our end for three behinds, any of which would probably have convinced North to give in. According to the on-screen graphic we'd had 98% time in forward half, and I've got no idea where the remainder came from. 

After all that North kicked the first goal and I'll admit to being a little bit scared. But not as much as when they went straight out of the middle for Eddie Kingsley to nearly pull in a mark. That would have left it a bit too close for comfort, before it drifted back into 'forgettable' territory, as it became clear they couldn't do a repeat of the first quarter and we started rotating stars to the bench en masse 2021 Prelim style. If anyone was still watching we'd have been charged with bringing the game into disrepute.

Under normal circumstances, I'd barely be comfortable with a 26 points lead and six minutes left but North's adventure was over. They'd done enough to avoid Tasmania turfing them out for being inept like Canberra did to us. Still, for all the World Cup related soccer references on offer losing the last quarter 1-0 would have left a bit of a sour taste. Lucky it wasn't close, because the quality of the coverage started fluctuating between 2023 and 2003 quality and making it hard to work out what was going on. I thought it was my internet, then I tuned into the next game and it broadcast in glorious HD with no interruptions or downscaling, so thanks for that Kayo. Why not raise prices again?

Somewhere in the middle of all this Real Player through Internet Explorer viewing Chandler got the one in 1.6, and the only concern of the last few minutes was not crippling any other key players. The only legacy of this game is that was a bit weird, and whatever happens to Petty's foot. You can't even look back at standout performances. Usually, I do the votes first then the rest of the post (which rarely ever explains why they were handed out in that order), but at the time of writing everything's filled in except them, and the order has been troubling me since Sunday.

About 10 players could justifiably get one, none who really warranted five, so if you're outraged by the next bit don't say I didn't give it much more thought than usual. This is probably a good thing, there's been a few times this year that our top bracket have done the hard work and the fringe struggled. This was one time you can call a performance flat across the board and take it as a compliment. I won't say more of the same please, but it's sure better than the alternative.

2023 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Jack Viney
4 - Christian Petracca
3 - Kysaiah Pickett
2 - Angus Brayshaw
1 - Alex Neal-Bullen

Large apologies to Gawn and Hunter. Others to especially Chandler, May, McVee, Petty (*sob*) and Smith.

If you've been with us long enough you'll know that there's always a point in the season where I audit the votes and realise the leaderboard isn't right. It doesn't usually happen this late, so it's a good thing there's not a shred of drama at the top of the table. Next year I'm going to keep a spreadsheet from Round 1 to avoid a farce like this, but the end result is Petracca -1, Oliver -2 (has he not suffered enough?), May -1, Langdon -1 and Brayshaw -2, but +1 to Rivers. This may be the shoddiest record keeping since Essendon's supplement program, but I promise we've got correct weight now.

There are now at most 35 votes available, and only if we play all the finals. That means everyone below Jack Viney is gonski, and we could be less than a week away from doing a reverse IRA and changing from 'provisional' to 'official'. No alterations in the minors, with the McVee vs JVR vs Surprise Contender battle for the Hilton remaining the only live contest.
63 - Christian Petracca (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Allen Jakovich Medal for Player of the Year)
--- Needs four finals to win ---
34 - Jack Viney
--- Done for ---
27 - Steven May (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
24 - Clayton Oliver
21 - Max Gawn (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year)
14 - Kysaiah Pickett
13 - Jake Lever, Trent Rivers
12 - Ed Langdon
11 - Brodie Grundy
10 - Kade Chandler
9 - Angus Brayshaw
7 - Jake Bowey, Harrison Petty
5 - Lachie Hunter
4 - Bayley Fritsch, Michael Hibberd, Jake Melksham
3 - James Jordon, Judd McVee (LEADER: Jeff Hilton Rising Star Medal), Christian Salem, Tom Sparrow
2 - Ben Brown
1 - Tom McDonald, Alex Neal-Bullen, Adam Tomlinson, Jacob van Rooyen

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
Pickett's first goal will get the official GOTY nomination, but I really enjoyed the second because it had the added aesthetic beauty of a grizzled veteran being run into the ground as he tried to keep up. Where was that sort of contempt for North life members the day we let Brent Harvey kick six in Hobart?  
Welcome Kysaiah back to the season leaderboard, which has gone recency bias crazy and is now made up entirely of goals from the last month.

1 - Jack Viney vs Brisbane
2 - Jake Melksham vs Brisbane
3 - Kysaiah Pickett vs North Melbourne

Media Watch
For many years Anthony Hudson was my favourite TV commentator, so I need to watch some replays and confirm that the Dwayne style pre-planned 'funnies' have only been introduced to his routine recently.

I know he's probably hoping one of the Channel 7 callers falls down a well and he can get back into the big time, but this is the worst decline of a once great caller since late-period McAvaney thought he had to play along with BT's buffoon routine.

The All New Bradbury Plan
Due to Port finishing the season with the structural integrity of a third world apartment block the plan now covers a top two finish, as well as the usual tactical voting to influence the rest of the finalists. It's also getting to the point where we have to consider what happens if we don't get a home final. I'd rather not play Brisbane and risk ruining the legacy of a great home and away win for the second consecutive year.

Collingwood d. Geelong (we're not going to finish top, try to get rid of the side most likely to win the flag from outside the top four)
North Melbourne d. Essendon (arguably, an Essendon win affects the likelihood of Geelong making it but I'm prepared to overlook this in the interests of spite)
Gold Coast d. Sydney (Likewise, this is counterproductive to not wanting Geelong to make it but we're at the junction between the Swans taking R24 seriously or giving up and playing randoms so let's hope they're demoralised. Also good for them staying ahead of Freo)
Adelaide d. Brisbane (Finally, somebody who can put Geelong away and do the right thing by us)
Hawthorn d. Footscray
Richmond d. St Kilda
GWS d. Port

... and West Coast over Freo for obvious reasons.

Next week
Last time we played Carlton they were in absolute freefall, barely resisting sacking the coach to appease nuffies. Probably a bit harsh to refer to them as a 'dead horse' at the time, now they're the infamous form team of the competition. I liked the other version better. Fans of references to the 2021 Hobart comeback will also note that we bled bulk goals in a loss to Adelaide the next week.

Due to the VFL being a shambolic competition Casey had the week off again so it's hard to justify changes. Sounds like Oliver's coming straight back, barring any more random setbacks or hospital visits. This will either end in him playing so well that internet dickheads are even more convinced of a conspiracy (though it would be the most hamfisted one since 2009), or dying of exhaustion halfway through. I doubt he'll start as sub, so hopefully we have plans B, C and D available just in case. 

My fantasy scenario is that he runs out of juice after the sub has already been used, goes forward, kicks four in the last quarter, then reunites with this guy.

As for the Petty replacement, good luck finding one. Brown is regrettably cactus, Grundy is not a goalkicker, Jefferson is too young, McSizzle is only just returning from injury, and unless you're into one of the wildest comebacks in history I don't think Schache's going to help. So for me it's Smith forward, Tomlinson or Hibberd back, and hope for the best. If he can compete in the air and bring some of our bullshit forward 50 entries to ground that might be enough. Not sure that's what we want to be building the rest of the season around, but it doesn't look like we're going to have many other options.

If Carlton are in any way serious they'll give us a massive scare here, and I wouldn't rule out having to spin the result as a 'loss we had to have', but it'll get me through the week in a better state to assume we'll struggle but win.

IN: Oliver, Tomlinson
OUT: Harmes (omit), Petty (inj)
UNLUCKY: Anyone who couldn't put themselves in the window at Casey.

Final thoughts
I'd rather be served poisonous mushrooms than watch this again, but it did its job of confirming finals, getting us a step closer to top four, increasing the chance of hosting an interstate team at home in the finals (because that worked so well last year), and generally adding to the pre-September foundations. Now, throw the master tapes off the Spirit Of Tasmania and move on.