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.


  1. We played and beat them at the G in a semi in 1988 which still rates as one of the great days of my life

  2. Sad for Melksham. He deserved the chance to light up the G next week.

    Also, was at the game; and heard it described as The Battle Of the Boat Shoes. Given the Swans are even more toffy than the Dees, fairly accurate.

  3. When I saw Salem doubled over like he'd been hit by a train in the final minute I saw our season slipping beneath the waves (after Fritsch, Melksham and Bowey).


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