Tuesday 24 October 2023

Keeping the standards up

It's getting to the point where the women might apply to play out the year as Narrm to distance themselves from the men. Just as all the finals and trade distractions ended and gave us the chance to focus on a prime-time, top of the table AFLW clash between premiership contenders all the focus went to the crossing of the Joel Smith Line and it was back to square one.

Enthusiasts knew where to look for a side that's won as many AFL-branded premierships with 0% of the drug furore, and unusually for a Melbourne home game that was Princes Park. Apologies if you live in Clyde, but playing games at grounds with a seating capacity above double figures is a good thing. Also, even if it means paying rent to Carlton we've never lost in seven starts there, including a pair of finals. After kicking her entire career goal tally to the left of screen there I know Georgia Campbell is with me, and Shelley Heath will be happy to go there every second week and tag superstars of the competition into the ground. 

Basically what I'm saying, and please don't write into the club to complain like somebody once did when I still had life force to do spicy, controversial tweets, is that Casey can GAGF with extreme prejudice. We've won a lot there, but we've won a lot everywhere except Adelaide Oval and Alice Springs. This is only partly self-interest about Parkville being half the distance from my house than Casey, we've got a side on a run of sustained success that will probably never be repeated, they deserve to play somewhere with at least two sides. The crowd here was only 800 more than against an interstate club at the other place but looked infinitely more professional. There's a time and place for games in local parks, and this wasn't it.

Our cherished (?) unbeaten record at the ground looked shaky 13 minutes into the first quarter on Saturday night. With North two goals up [EDIT - We actually got our first goal after theirs, but I'll leave this intact as a reminder to myself in the future how frazzled I was by late October 2023] , and our attack in full Can't Play XYZ Every Week mode the danger of consecutive defeats against other sides was real, with another to come in the last round. There are too many good teams at the very top of the ladder to ever assume we ever had flag in the bag, but this would have left us in the frame to visit either Adelaide or Brisbane for the first final and the other in a Prelim. After what happened about six weeks ago I can't face another round of people trying to engineer the ladder to keep us in Victoria so the best thing to do is just keep winning.

Just as things were getting wobbly we discovered the old-school AFLW method of blanketing opposition until they're a gibbering wreck. That's where things went wrong against the Crows, instead of jumping to a lead and trying to run them down in a relatively high scoring game we'd have done better in a 25-20 slopfest. From that high point, North didn't score a cracker until the last minute, avoiding the surely unprecedented 'feat' of going scoreless across the last three quarters. Like a certain other red and blue outfit who have recently been in the news, no point being a great defensive side if there's nobody making it count at the other end. 

It took me until about halfway through the third quarter to appreciate that we were the better side and it would probably stay that way, because I'd gone in worried about the implications of losing and the first quarter didn't do much to help. In contrast to a men's season where there were so many weird results that the near-miss of a GWS vs Carlton Grand Final doesn't seem all that bizarre, there's as much chance of a side outside the AFLW top four saluting as there is of cycling across the Atlantic Ocean. Effortless dismantling of the dregs was good fun and great for percentage but we needed to be reminded that the best sides were beatable before playing them again when it matters most. 

Even if she's not at peak goalscoring form, the ongoing absence of Tayla Harris was worrying. Then we had to dip into our questionable depth with a pair of late changes, and I went in lightly panicking about being undone in a crucial game. For once it's not all about ladder position either, because the reincarnated McClelland Trophy is decided on combined AFL/W performance and comes with a million dollar cheque. The players get half the cash, and the way some of the men are going I expect their share will be managed by trustees Britney Spears style. 

For all the weird shit they've done since, the men did their share of the work with a reasonable home and away finish, now they need to sit back (and please, do stay home gentlemen) and hope we outlast Brisbane and Collingwood. Surely it's no coincidence that we're playing the Lions in the last round of the home and away season, offering great "who's going to get the money?" content involving lots of people who were playing for a hot dog and a handshake in the league's early years.

I'm still mentally in the era where we were asked to throw money in a bucket to stave off insolvency, so automatically thought about the money when the Lions were involved in a thrilling finish with Adelaide in an earlier game. The bit about the highest finishing side hosting the Grand Final slipped my mind while I was doing Bradbury Plan calculations on how we'd still get a home final AND a mil if the Crows finished top. As usual they didn't do us any favours, meaning that while Brisbane's percentage likely means they'll finish behind us on this ladder no matter what, the big bucks will likely still be on the line in our Round 10 return to Springfield. 

The result of Adelaide/North next week will be important in making sure we get one of the home final or Tattslotto jackpot, if not both. Normal people don't concern themselves with this sort of stuff, which is why the AFL website doesn't even bother carrying an updated McClelland leaderboard. Their ladder page does carry a link to 'AFL Preseason', even though that hasn't had a ladder since about 2001. Good stuff.

I'll excuse the CEO for having other things to worry about at the moment (although, was that who the cameras cut to sinking a glass of red in the stands?) but the Chief Financial Officer must have been going through their worst post-premiership agony when we were two goals behind. Our excuse for the first was the umpire missing disposal so illegal that it should have had a lawyer. That was a blow considering it was already clear that we wouldn't be teeing off on North like everyone else, but the second was self-inflicted. A long, hopeful kick to the square should have easily been chopped off but two defenders misread the flight, went to spoil the lone forward in the area, and watched it fly over their head.

The only reason I mention that Gillard was responsible for that goal is because the rest of her game was at the same level as the day she was RORTED out of the BOG medal in the Grand Final. It's not easy to show how good you are as a key defender when the ball is at the other end for most of the game, but given the job of stopping a real-life contending forward line she either spoiled or intercepted everything that came her way. Sometimes I worry that we don't have any promising young players waiting in the wings, then I remember that a lot of the Rising Stars have already risen. Gillard is 19, Bannan is 21, Hanks, Purcell and Zanker are 23, and only three players here are over 30.

We haven't got much of a fringe, but the less-celebrated players certainly stepped up here. Our record for disposals in one AFLW game is 32 (I'm glad you asked, the answer is Olivia Purcell in R8 last season), and as Charlotte Wilson now has a total of 37 in seven appearances even she'd probably admit to being spare parts but played as good a four touch game in defence as you'll get. See also Georgia Campbell, whose only kick was from a free but is developing nicely while Pearce is still around. Also, I'm incredibly biased towards Maeve Chaplin because of her elite post-premiership celebrating, but she may have finished off late-withdrawal Gabby Colvin.

At the other end of the star-studded card, Tyla Hanks is tremendous. The neck-and-neck race with Kate Hore to be our most important player was blown to pieces on Saturday night. Hore is great, Hanks is even better. For all the whinging about how we kept our list together while everybody else was torn apart by expansion, we nailed our draft picks in the early years of the competition. Other than the top players the inaugural draft looks a bit ropey now (although what about the value of Mithen and Lampard at picks that add up to 221?) but we followed up Zanker in 2017, Hanks in 2018, Birch via flogging all our picks in 2019, Bannan in 2020. Then we got Harris practically free from Carlton the next year and were even more off to the races than before.

List management triumphs aside, we were in deep shit here until North charitably helped get us going with a needless 50. Darren Crocker doesn't look any different than when we gifted him a caretaker win by furious tanking in 2009, but if he didn't have hair to pull out I'm surprised it didn't end in his bald scalp pouring blood from being torn at anyway. Even at our worst we've always found a goal somewhere, but the early signs were that we'd struggle to score so this was an own-goal of epic proportions. Maybe we'd have started slowly then gone over the top like an invading army again like the Collingwood game, but this certainly helped.

The gift was delivered to Casey Sherriff, who could do with a freebie after toiling away forward all year for not much return. I'm too tactically dense to understand if there's an important role being played, but I'm prepared to accept it even without a Stinear Math presentation to explain, but at the same time you've got to hit the scoreboard eventually or crumb fanatics might start asking whether we could find somebody else who's more likely to pluck goals from unexpected places.

It's simplistic to say that goal changed everything, but you can argue a connection to North nearly failing to score again. For the first time in a bag-laden season (in all senses of the word) we spread the goals around. I thought it must have been a while since we had all single goalkickers, then found out it last happened in the Prelim. Still, after the Zanker vs The World effort against Adelaide it's good to know we don't need her, Hore, or Bannan to go bananas to beat top sides.

After tormenting a bunch of glorified amateurs last week, the only time Banno got near it here was a fend-off/spin combo that literally turned into a holding the ball tackle, but our other peak forwards got their share. When Hore pulled down a fine contested mark in front of goal early in the second it didn't seem right to be taking the lead. If you ignore the obvious point about the game not going the same way etc.. etc... turns out that one point lead would have been good enough for a draw.

Things got a bit weird for the next goal, with what seemed like and was commentated as a mysterious ruck free to Campbell. At the time I thought it was a fair balance for the umpires missing the massive drop/throw for North's first, but was confused when the match statistics arrived and Campbell hadn't been credited with a free. Just when I thought I'd exposed Champion Data's business, wiser viewers pointed out that it was actually the slightest of downfield frees for Purcell being held off the ball. 

Now that I see a replay, yes indeed she was being ejected from the contest with what seems like a rugby tackle so fair enough. The commentators completely were no help explaining this, but they also spent half the night calling Fitzsimon 'Fitzsimons' like no lessons were learned from Trengove/Trengrove. 

The half time lead was only nine so we were still in 'anything could happen' mode before Hanks kicked off the second half by bursting through a pack like Sonic The Hedgehog, then turning all the opposition players around her into dust before kicking it on the outside of her boot. 

My local Bunnings has a plaque to commemorate being opened by Tony Shaw (recently revealed to have accidentally sent a picture of his snag to an innocent party in 1989), by the time Tyla is finished the one she worked at will have her picture 20 foot high on the outside. Unlike certain other bulk possession winning premiership winning midfielders associated with this club I'm positive we can get to that point without a raft of scandals and public bust-ups.

It's not that North gave up after this, we just treated them like somebody holding a ball just out of reach of a small dog. I don't think they knew how the margin had blown out this far, It didn't get much worse, the next quarter and a half was largely played in the middle with no more goals kicked until Zanker bunged one through at the end to keep the ColemanW race interesting. The Roos were already well out of time by then, but it was a nice exclamation mark. 

Now the focus was on our beloved Shutdown Watch, after getting back into the goalless last quarter game against the Eagles, this was a chance to keep North entirely scoreless in the fourth in the same style as the 2022 Spring (never Season 7) Prelim. We achieved a 15th goal free quarter in 16 starts. That's equivalent to the entire MFC careers of Mitch Clark and Shane Valenti, which is probably not the measurement this team is comparing with but seems pretty interesting to me. Though to be fair, I am writing this at 4am which explains a lot.

Regrettably the full shutout was not achieved, as they shambled through a hopeful long behind in the last 30 seconds. There's a couple of Demonwiki pages that have gotten so long the system won't let me edit them anymore (hence the split of Unknown Players into multiple pages, with Tribunal results to follow now that it crashes whenever I try to add the newly discovered 'Rod Grinter slaps somebody in the '92 Reserves Prelim' incident), and the way this team is adding to the scoreless fourth quarters list I'm concerned/delighted that it may be heading down the same path. The tally remains 15 since 2007, so please refer to earlier obscure Clark/Valenti comparison again.

Even before assuming results next week went as expected this already nearly made sure of a top four finish, then Essendon imploded against West Coast (who must have been inspired by their coach going off like a pork chop last week) and we're now two games and 160 percentage points clear of fifth. That means playing out the rest of the season to answer the question of 'who' and 'where'. If the answer to question B) is 'the state of Victoria', here's to it being at Princes Park and not Mt. Variable Weather. I'm open to keeping our winning streak at the ground - dating back to ruining Carlton's going away in 2005 - rolling through three more finals, at which point we should be given rights to the ground in the same fashion as Brazil being given the original World Cup for good after winning it three times.

2023 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Tyla Hanks
4 - Blaithin Mackin
3 - Tahlia Gillard
2 - Shelley Heath
1 - Olivia Purcell

Apologies to Pearce, Mithen, Hore, Sherriff, and Wilson.

When Ron Barassi said "you give me possessions and I'll shut up" he was setting the criteria for every award in the game. Hore does heaps from one end of the ground to the other but Hanks gets a shitloads of touches and bulldozes through clearances for fun so she was probably always going to finish in front by the end of the year. There's a reason why in more than 25 combined leaderboards between men and women we've had about two non-midfield winners, and one of them was a ruckman. 

On the men's side you can justify that by the many years when our forwards couldn't get near it, and defenders were regularly losing the will to live after watching the ball go over their head all day. In W-Land it's almost been the opposite, until this year we've never been a high scoring side, but have won so much that the defenders don't have to do a massive amount of work.  

There's still a maximum of 30 votes left, but while you never know, in this case you probably do and we may be naming a provisional winner next week. There's no movement in the minors, but Original Recipe Mackin is firming up her controversial DOTY campaign. Still no votes in Rookie of the Year, so unless Campbell gets in first then Mackin II is still a chance of creating the first sibling winners in Demonblog history. Votes have always been handed out in an unbiased, non-storyline driven fashion but I'd secretly love that to happen. 

28 - Tyla Hanks
19 - Kate Hore
11 - Blathin Mackin (LEADER: Defender of the Year), Eden Zanker
10 - Olivia Purcell
9 - Shelley Heath
6 - Eliza West
5 - Alyssa Bannan, Tahlia Gillard
4 - Tayla Harris
3 - Sinead Goldrick, Sarah Lampard, Lauren Pearce (LEADER: Ruck of the Year)
1 - Paxy Paxman

Goal of the Week 
It can't be anything other than Hanks barging through the pack, selling more dummies than Baby Bunting and leaving several North players considering their future in the game. I enjoyed it so much that it's going into the top three. 

1st - Kate Hore (Q1 #2) vs GWS
2nd - Paxy Paxman (Q4) vs Geelong
3rd - Tyla Hanks (Q3) vs North Melbourne

Next week
One week at a ground with sides is enough, back to Casey to play Freo on Saturday. Remember when they were ripped off out of a flag by the cancellation of 2021? Whatever happened next hasn't been kind to them. If the state of West Coast is anything to go by, losing players to them can't have done much damage. Can't be easy for Perth teams to fly all the way across the country then arrive and realise they've still got to get to Cranbourne. May as well divert the plane to Tooradin Airport and take your chances with an emergency landing.

If Harris and Lampard return as expected (EDIT - I must have missed the bit where Lampard is out 2-4 weeks with a fracture wrist, so that's not happening) we'll be winding up for finals nicely, and while they're probably the last of the mid-table mediocrities before you get into the absolute slop we should win without too much drama. If the wind affects the quality of the game in any way I'll see you back here afterwards for more hanging shit on playing in Cranbourne.

Administrative announcements
I could do with a pre-finals bye, so if you're super-keen on joining the team and want to do a guest report for next week let me know. You get to hand out votes, declare the Goal of the Week winner, and even provide balanced pro-Casey coverage if that's your thing. And at the point where I'm saying I need a rest, remind me sometime in December that I want to do a countdown of all our W games from Flag (hopefully occupying the top two spots once this year is over) right down to that time Adelaide beat us by 10 goals. 

Speaking of December, with Christmas coming, why not stuff somebody's sock with one book or another?

Final Thoughts
Two quarters of looking helpless against the Crows shook my faith but this result has reinvigorated me. By the time we leave Springfield in the last round (potentially to return to Premiership Alley the following week if results leave us with an away final against the Lions) I might be back into a misery death spiral, but for now I'm a believer that back-to-back is possible again, and that's all you can ask for. 

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