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?

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