Sunday 3 September 2023

The best premiership defence is a good offence...

... even if it takes 40 minutes to warm up, and is assisted by the opposition playing like they'd seen a ghost at half time. In a 10 game season every win is vital, and coming back from two goals down to stomp a finals contender into dust is about as good a start to the season as you'll get.

This didn't always look like happening, at one point we were heading for a disappointing night against Collingwood on the level of when Mo Hope became the first AFLW Kingsley. Then, after a speech from the coach that must have been quoted liberally from the lyrics of My Chemical Romance the Pies came back for the third quarter in a state of total misery and were dismantled in expert fashion.

The real milestone was not the unfurling of flag #1, it was that after seven full seasons I finally got to a live game in Victoria. It helped when somebody recognised that a marquee match was best played at a civilised venue instead of the furthest of outer suburbs. I'm sure there's a Casey local who's been there for every game rain, hail or shine and felt slighted at the flag going up at Princes Park, I say they got 8500 people to this and should play big Friday night games there every week. Instead there's one jammed into 5pm next week so it doesn't get in the way of the men's finals, then Friday night coverages switches to hotspots like Frankston and Cairns.  

You wouldn't get this many people every week, it was certainly boosted by Round 1 + flag raising + general Melbourne vs Collingwood excitement. I don't think they expected to more than double the crowd of last year's opener, leaving the queues for everything inside the ground in such an unruly state that they were tangling with each other and causing total chaos. Having the hot dog fans intertwine with the schnitzel faction and the queue for the whizzer is still better than Collingwood playing Essendon on their training ground at 11.05am Grand Final day. Here's to that being their only involvement on 30 September, but christ knows why you wouldn't play that at a decently accessible ground in prime time. For better or worse there's a public holiday on Friday, play it at Princes Park on Thursday night and see how many you get. They probably tried to before the Pies sooked about playing a home game at Carlton's ground. Make them play there against Port in prison bar jumpers and if they don't like it FO and start a new competition.

Anyway, not much has changed in AFLW land since that glorious day in some obscure part of Brisbane last December. Our list is basically the same, despite the league introducing the long predicted rule that allowed the shit teams to swipe anybody who'd agree to join them. Plenty of other clubs lost players to this, we won a flag and kept the whole side intact except for the retiring Daisy Pearce. With minimal list alterations the biggest news out of our camp was the Paxman rebrand that sees her now referred to as Paxy Paxman (according to the website), or simply 'Paxy' (according to the team introductions at the ground) like a Brazilian soccer player. I'll be going off this advice, before inevitably botching it and being cancelled by Round 4. The same people who happily call players 'Dusty', 'Buddy' and 'Jeffy' will scoff but what somebody wants to be called is the least of my worries. However, I'm not altering history so don't get snippy on behalf of other people if see the 2017-2022 vintage name crop up on an old post. 

One change I'll never involve myself with is calling this stadium 'Ikon Park'. Maybe Optus Oval for nostalgia purposes, but otherwise bootleg sounding sponsor names for venues can get in the bin. It's nice to see the place has had a little bit of a sprucing up since I was last there several million years ago years ago. You still wouldn't want to be there with many more than 8500 people but it's come a fair way since the days when I still had free time, went to a Casey/Northern Blues game, and found a disused washing machine at the bottom of the Legends Stand.

Regular national TV exposure from AFLW coverage has also helped Carlton land a full complement of sponsors around the back of the stand. Some of them look like companies one step off a Ponzi Scheme, but every dollar helps when it cost the Blues millions to build the thing before the league 'gently encouraged' them to stop playing there. I would like to draw your attention to the pissweak state of the signage for this well-known ball manufacturer:

It's the grown-up version of kids sticking felt letters on fuzzy paper, and compares unfavourably to the sleek, canvas Puma ad to its right. Of all the letters to remove I can't believe somebody's tried to prise away 'U', when the obvious thing to do would be to make the bottom like say 'F_U_K_ER'.

Then there's this mystery company who must have stopped sending cheques:

And as for Ideal Fasteners, I'm sure they're great if you need something fastened but my philosophy is to never trust any organisation that still puts www. in its website address.

I was especially keen to see the flag raising live, before that plan was nearly destroyed by my near suicidal decision to try and park in a nearby street. It meant just getting to the top of the stairs as the all-important bit of cloth was hoisted. Can't say why it matters to me, but it does. Somewhere in a personality psychologists would have a field day with lurks a sentimentalist at heart. There was a further heartwarming moment when my kid (who remained surprisingly keen to attend until losing interest just as we started playing like the Harlem Globetrotters), insisting we sit as far back as possible. I'd never outlined my Row MM philosophies to her, it must just carry down in the DNA. Technically there was one row further back that only had two seats, but the novelty value of that was overwhelmed by a giant pole obstructing the half the field.

After barely having time to watch All The Goals videos in 2023, the combination of watching a game at that ground for the first time in over a decade, supervising a nine-year-old, and driving back to Parkville after first passing through at 4am that morning meant I couldn't do this game even the usual levels of justice without a replay. I was discombobulated in a way that hasn't happened since my contact lenses went troppo while we were playing St Kilda in 2010 and most of the game was like trying to watch SBS via aerial on Channel 28 in 1989. This meant I got to enjoy the live experience and Channel 7 teasing me with Jason Bennett before restoring the usual cast of sub-Footy Show buffoons for the big finals. We'll always have the 2021 Prelim, which is the night they should have handed Brian Taylor a map to VFL venues and informed him that they'd found somebody else.

If you're looking for consistency between the men's and women's game, winning here required coming back from the brink of death to win after wasting a truckload of forward chances. Eight seasons in I've come to terms with being patient and waiting for something to come of our inside 50s, but there was still a rush when the new era of Paxmania opened with a turbo burst from the middle and immediate forward entry. Maybe this would be the year we'd go into attacking juggernaut mode. It actually did happen later this evening, but not here. 

Like most of the early attacks we got nowt out of it, but even if it took us time to find the formula, and she missed a chance to snap the first goal, Harris was in absolutely everything forward. Freed from having to be the second ruck helped set up a night of marauding around the front half of the ground getting involved in everything. I'd argue this was one of her better games for us. 

All this early attack only resulted in points, including Sherriff missing a sitter from 30 metres directly in front, and I was sourly thinking that any minute they'd get a lucky one and waste all our early dominance. Enter human highlight reel Alyssa Bannan, the most exciting celebrator in years. Even if she never got another kick I'd think back fondly to realising we'd won the Grand Final because of her celebrations, but if she plays/reacts like this all year it will be the local equivalent of box office gold.  

I felt bad for our MC/hype person, who was appropriately over the top enthusiastic but had to scramble after every goal to work out who'd kicked it. Set shots allowed plenty of time for pre-perusing of names, but open play goals were usually followed by awkward silence while you knew she was yelling "who the bloody hell kicked that?" off air. This isn't an isolated thing, last week your friend and not mine BT left several seconds of dead air while he frantically tried to identify Bailey Laurie. Our equivalent had the misfortune of scanning for #16, accidentally merging with #18 and telling us that the first goal of the year was kicked by 'Casey Bannan'. Still better than my two game stint as a ground announcer before self-reporting as shit at the job.

9-0 was a much better reflection of the game before things went undeniably tits up for the next quarter and a bit. It was nice to see Eliza McNamara lay on the assist, I can't even imagine the process of fracturing my spine, and considering the headline of her return video was "I had to learn to walk again" it's amazing that she's playing contact sport again less than 12 months later with no obvious side-effects. And because they AFL's attempts to break up the good teams failed on us we get to roll a very good player straight into a premiership winning side.

Our player retention makes us worthy premiership favourites, but my gender-interchangeable theory of being vulnerable to relying on low scoring, defensive wins looked spot on for the rest of the half. Our backline was so good last year that the season ended with a winning Grand Final score of 19, but they were all at sea in the first half. When the ball was evacuated from defence it usually worked well, but once it was trapped at their end we looked more vulnerable than any time in recent memory.

Having said that, the first goal wasn't their fault, with Purcell dragging the ball in like a fishing net. I'm prepared to whinge about umpiring decisions, but that was gratuitous. In went the goal, up went a pair of horns in tribute to former Pies legend Brodie Grundy, and we'd torched 15 minutes of dominance. Being clearly the better side to that point was rendered useless when they hit the lead right before quarter time. Never mind, you thought, if we hammer the ball down there enough somebody's going to have to kick goals. Then they got the first two after the break and our post-flag homecoming was in shambles.

I'd have been prepared to go under oath in footy court to argue that we were still the better side, even with Brianna Davey hoovering up possessions and clearances at a seemingly unstoppable rate. It's just that at the time I had zero faith that we'd kick another three goals, let alone hold them to a low enough score to win but from there things almost entirely went our way. 

Collingwood's hadn't disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle yet so they were still making us work hard. We did get a stroke of luck when Sabrina Frederick ruined her status as Most Likely To Kingsley favourite with every betting agency in Australia by missing a point blank snap through an unguarded goal from the square. She flirted with W. Kingsley status but kicking three of her 26 goals from 60 games against us in 2018, but thankfully GWS did their usual witches hat impression two weeks later, let her get four, and we were off the hook. 

For now things were going so badly that we gave away a holding the ball free on the line because it was too locked in to be rushed. I'm sure Goldrick would have gotten away with it if she'd done some pantomime fake attempting to handball. By now even I was ready to admit that the Pies were on top, as we looked to be in full 'escaping a burning building' panic mode. The bit where their leading goalkicker went off injured probably helped.

Our comeback started from an unlikely source, as Georgia Campbell achieved a rare feat only previously known to have been done by Colin Sylvia. She goalled with her first kick in her second game, and in a unique twist it was stretched across two seasons. The commentators didn't mention it but we know it was her first kick because she only had one for the game but it's a start. You couldn't fault the competitiveness, or contribution to Harris' menacing roaming around the forward 50. It was a developmental performance but there were positive signs.

People keep thinking her dad is Tony, which would be good because she could pay tribute by a) wearing a glove, b) looking like an extra in Underbelly, and c) having a failed tilt at an NFL career, but is not true. I'm not surprised that Adrian Campbell's two game stint with us (five goals though) at the end of a putrid season has been forgotten, but thanks to the loose as a goose father/daughter rules she could pick us over the Bulldogs. Even the great man Bennett's research failed him, announcing Adrian had played for us first before joining Footscray. I forgive him because he didn't double down by talking four quarters of pure SHIT like most other Channel 7 callers.

I remember Campbell Sr. purely for participating in our slaughter of Richmond on the day a bird shat on my hand at three quarter time. Sadly it seems the YouTube account that posted the first highlights I'd ever seen of that game since (including Channel 7 being dickheads and skipping an eight goal last quarter) has been terminated. It's not quite as big a loss as the off-air Sunday Footy Show clip of Dermott Brereton talking about "the big tits", or Ted Whitten introducing the Austin McCrabb Medal but not far off.

The luck continued when that goal was nearly given back by letting one of them walk out of a string of attempted 'tackles' before another close range miss. Maybe we'd have still steamrolled them after the break but a goal here would have ramped up the degree of difficulty. Instead we got to the half a manageable eight points down. With Shelley Heath put on Torment Davey duties, you thought that if we started taking opportunities they could still win. She did, we did, they did, all in spectacular fashion.

By this stage I was so tired that the drive home threatened to look like an episode of Highway Patrol, before being shaken back to life by some of the best play in AFLW history. Teams have scored more, but usually against putrid opposition that couldn't defend themselves. This was fantastic, not only digging out of a hole but surging to a match-winning lead.

The party started straight out of the middle, where Davey won the first clearance but kicked it straight to us due to having Heath hanging off her the whole time. Next thing you know Zanker's getting a favourable novelty bounce to boot a goal over the head, and we were within a kick. One turned back attack later and the Pies went "that'll do us", letting Heath storm into an open goal. She was lucky not to be hurt after the attempted smother smashed her into the ground, before the concussion risk trebled with a mobbing from teammates. Shelley survived, went back to tagging the BOG elect into the ground, and came back to double her career goal tally later in the game.

A lot of the focus was on the superstars but Mackin had a great game. She was about the only defender I had any confidence in early, but played the third quarter like she's been at this game for a lifetime. It would take a lot of smarts on top of natural talent to pick up a completely foreign game but we should recruit an Irish male player ASAP just to retry the same training program she was on. Mackin's sister is also on our list now, and if she turns out to be as good then we should open an office over there. 

Last year my votes underrated Kate Hore's season more than any best and fairest winner before, but she celebrated her elevation to the captaincy with another great performance. We're used to her as a forward, but she went behind the ball and controlled the game like a general here. Her calm under fire at either end of the ground was one of the key reasons we went bananas before three quarter time.

Now that you know what happens, Zanker missing from barely any distance or angle isn't so bad but you could read on her face after that she'd lost confidence in her set shots. In a roundabout way it turned into a seven point play when the captain tired of saving us at one end, and went forward for a goal. Via a lovely centre clearance started by Hanks, we were straight back inside 50 again, eventually leading to Harris making good for the missed snap in Q1 and somehow leaving us 17 points in front. 

We missed another shot but things were going so well that it wasn't long before the ball was back down there again. Next thing Harris dropped a kick on Bannan at the top of the square and the party atmosphere was in such full force that the big smile and 'thank you' point for the assist came before taking the shot.

In Mad Minute fashion there was nearly another via the spelling adjacent Tyla/Tayla combination. Hanks picked off a handball in the middle and hit Harris with the most beautiful pass possible. It was the best bit of another first class game from Hanks. 

The kick hitting the post was only a minor downer on probably the best 10 minutes this league has ever seen. If you're one of the weird characters still trying to force people on the scale between skeptical and hostile to get excited about AFL I'd be wary of waving this around as an example in case you're countered with one of the many slopfests that will happened in a still drastically unbalanced competition. Still think a few years of two divisions would have been good for everybody but it's too late for that now. Easy to say when your side would be a confirmed D1 starter in any season of the competition.

I was a little worried when they had a shot in the opening seconds of the last quarter, but it fell short and any hope they had of launching a challenge soon fizzled out. Not before Zanker might have gotten herself suspended for what looked more like just jamming two knees into an opponent's back for the sake of it. If things come to that she'll probably struggle to launch an "I was trying to mark it" defence due to never actually putting her arms up. There was also a Bannan knee injury scale that looked a lot worse on the replay than at the ground. I thought she was just battling cramp, but the TV footage would have made you think her ACL had exploded like a hand grenade. It had not, and for the sake of entertainment value in the league it had better not.

The fun continued with Heath running through a half-arse tackle for her second, capping off a great second half. Davey continued to get the ball all night but was never as dangerous again after Shelley went to her. The Pies were playing like they hated life, and had to wear goals from Zanker and a back from the death Bannan (+ further elite celebrations) before they could go home and wonder where it all went wrong.

This was not very good for a bit, then it was world class. I can't see an Essendon 2000-style unstoppable rampage to the flag but it's hard to see how we don't end up at the good end of the ladder again. Imagine how unusual it will be when they finally force equalisation on this competition and we have to come to terms with being shite for the first time. The good news is that neither of those will happen anytime soon so sit back and continue to enjoy the show.

2023 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Tyla Hanks
4 - Kate Hore
3 - Blaithin Mackin
2 - Shelley Heath
1 - Tayla Harris

Apologies to Bannan, Mithen, Paxman and Zanker

Goal of the Week 
I've got a fondness for either of the runners up, but I can't help but enjoy a player kicking a goal over their head from the square. I don't expect it to survive in this spot until the end of the season but it's got the glory of an early clubhouse lead. 

1st - Eden Zanker (Q2) vs Collingwood
2nd - Shelley Heath (Q4) vs Collingwood
3rd - Alyssa Bannan (Q1) vs Collingwood

Next week
Goodbye blockbuster fixturing, hello a team not from Canberra in Canberra at 5.05pm on Sunday. GWS somehow finished above seven teams last year despite being total piss. With no interesting players traded in, and the national draft reduced to nearly zero importance you wouldn't think they'd give us much trouble but stranger things have happened. I'd like to firm up the backline by getting Chaplin back, but otherwise all is well. Like most teams in this competition we've got fish pond depth so may as well try to stick with a settled side while we can. Dees win by more than enough.

Website watch
There was much celebration when prize money was (sort of) equalised with the men's competition, and hopefully we end up pocketing the jackpot in both divisions. As far I'm concerned the greatest step forward is that they're finally displaying AFLW match stats in the same format at men's games. No more base level stats that belong in 1970s newspaper reports, unsortable columns, and insultingly patronising tooltips explaining what each stat means. If you're still not sure what a kick is you'll need to do your own research.

Final Thoughts
That's 50% of the Humiliate Collingwood double ticked off. Let's have more of the same, without the first half scare, on Thursday night.

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