Tuesday 21 November 2023

Going down in flames

Back when Twitter still had some life about it people were always demanding that you "name a more iconic duo". Turns out the correct answer is 'Melbourne premiership defence' and 'straight sets finals disaster'.

Last week suggested an uphill struggle to go back-to-back, but I thought we'd do the obvious thing and stretch things out for another week before being dismissed. Instead, the wheels came off with such force that they bounced up Royal Parade, onto Sydney Road, and are currently on the Hume Highway somewhere near Albury. 

There will be no chance to avenge our loss to Brisbane, no Preliminary Final, and no chance of a Grand Final in Victoria, because we've ended the season with downhill skiing records never to be beaten. We've got the option of playing the Chris Scott 2021-style illness card after late-season COVID anarchy, but as Alan Partridge said, "knock it off with the fancy words. It went tits up".

For all the sooking about us retaining players when expansion clubs were granted shoplifting rights at the end of last season, don't say we're not interested in equalisation. After Adelaide pounded Sydney on Saturday night, AFLW was one game away from being confirmed as a four team comp with the other 14 making up numbers. Now we've provided the "look, anything can happen" example by going out to a sixth-placed side that we'd thrashed two months earlier. 

That's a lovely feelgood story - until the Cats are held to nil by Brisbane in the Prelim - but it's giving me 'consuming water in a third world country' level shits. Pound-for-pound I'm more upset about this than our last Semi Final Fiasco. All those years thinking the men would never win anything beyond AFLX makes 2021 an emotional support flag that will take years to lose impact. On the other hand, the women have been somewhere in the mix for eight seasons straight so it's tormenting me that we got so far behind AND still nearly took it to extra time (or better) when starting hot favourites.

If you'd offered me premierships in both grades in exchange for an endless string of finals defeats I'd have done a tendon signing up, but as we won the flags without (as far as I'm aware) the help of Faustian pacts there's no reason to be losing games in Victoria hand over #fistedforever so I reserve the right to be gloomy about it for months.

You can't say we'd have played the same way/kicked the same score if the margin had only been three goals at the last change, but based on evidence from the rest of the season it's not difficult to imagine us finishing all over them. It's just the bit about trying to pull off the biggest three-quarter time comeback in the competition's history that got us. The death-or-glory recovery deserves credit, but it doesn't mean anything if you don't finish the job. We got what we deserved for the three quarters before, which completed a run of the nine worst our W side has ever played.

Much like North, apparently the Cats just needed a second look at us to get things right but let's remember the best bits of 2023. Like when we were tonking lowly sides with such ease that the coach let somebody else take over for a night (the club is pretending it didn't count but until I get advice to the contrary on MFC letterhead, Demonwiki is counting Shae Sloane as being in charge against Hawthorn), and I foolishly pondered whether this team could score a better points-per-game average than the men. That went out the door when the good teams turned up, but I still had faith that we could repeat right until last week, when the forward line disappeared into a massive sinkhole. 

When you look at how foundation clubs like Carlton and Footscray are going, it's a mark of quality that this is our first ever three game losing streak. Regular readers will know this all coincides with my AFLW membership purchase, which is reaching 'Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I' levels of joining backfire. I don't know what was supposed to be in the membership packs, but they still had plenty of the bag/water bottle combo to shift, because when I asked the staff member outside the ground if it was too late to collect mine she reached into one of several boxes and handed it over without even checking if I was really paid up. Shame, they might have seen the red flag next to my name and saved me from watching us drop another steaming turd in the middle of Princes Park.

Somebody's going to complain that we'd have won this at Casey, and you never know what weird things will happen there but if we weren't good enough to beat Geelong at Princes Park then forget the venues and concentrate on the bigger picture. Besides, for the good of the competition you can't play finals in Cranbourne. I'm sure Cats fans appreciate the irony of a team playing finals at a premium venue instead of an undersized ground about 100km from the Melbourne CBD.

It didn't need to turn out this badly. The woe of being held to one goal last week was nearly removed by fanging straight out of the middle and landing a pass with Hore after 20 seconds. She was too far out, but it was a nice reminder that we could find forward targets instead of booting the ball straight to defenders. We then switched to the innovative tactic of playing with zero forwards, and spent much of the first quarter down the other end, unable to escape and feeding them repeat entries until they couldn't help but take advantage.

For now we kept the ball down there for a bit, which was an improvement, but with absolutely not a cracker of crumb to be had you had no faith that somebody was going to pluck a goal from nowhere. Then we blundered around with some dreadful turnovers and next thing you know Geelong had the opener. This summarises the first three quarters - them converting from everywhere while we struggled to create any chances in the first place. 

I'm sure Casey Sherriff is appropriately sad for her teammates, but for the purpose of contract negotiation she must be secretly chuffed at how bad the forward line has looked since her injury. She may have only kicked 4.7 in 10 games but can now claim 'underappreciated role' status. My problem is that on the surface it doesn't look like we tried to replace her (and yes, the obvious question is "with what?" but fark me somebody's got to be paid to think about plans B, C and beyond), and it led to Bannan's influence being nuked. Between Hore's goal against the Lions and Zanker trying to win it single-handedly on Sunday, we haven't had a more awkward-looking forward line in years. And even then, a lot of the time low scoring games saved us.

The Cats were into the same Big Book Of Beating Melbourne as North, leaving no space for artisan rebound football. Instead we kicked straight at packs, and in many cases directly to their players with none of ours in the ara. Even when we did get the ball in the middle our players would look up to see nobody ahead and just madly boot it forward in hope of a miracle. There was no damaging ball movement until the last term when it was too late. I was sour on West by the end of the season but credit to her for not only being the best ball-winner but leading the disposal efficiency. However, when most them are close-range handballs to somebody about to be tackled what's the overall benefit?

We're were reduced to defending a siege, with Geelong doing us a solid by dropping a couple of marks inside 50. They seemed to pull down all the ones we booted straight towards them, including Gay having unpleasant flashbacks to playing for Carlton and turning over multiple exit kicks. Not that there were any good targets to aim at but any contest would have been better than a Geelong player 60 metres from goal. Everything was on their terms, and I'd have been sweating up like a doped racehorse if not for the memories of running all over the top of them in our last meeting. I sat there gritting my teeth and thinking things might still turn out ok if we didn't do something stupid like, or I don't know, going five goals behind.

Eventually, we gave them so many chances that they got a second. It was just the sort of goal from nowhere that we haven't gone near kicking in this final series. We'll get into snap, uneducated, and possibly dangerous suggestions about drafting and recruiting later in the post but for the love of all that is holy please find me a forward who can turn a loose ball inside 50 into a goal. 

I'd have been sweating up like a drugged racehorse if not for the memories of finishing over the top of them in the last meeting. People who hhate Melbourne (and admittedly I would have been pissing myself laughing watching as a neutral), this was the modern equivalent of "who would have thought the sequel would be just as good as the original". Against North we got the ball forward but were wrecked by their defenders, this time the only player with any sort of aerial presence was Gillard, who was a) on the last line of defence, and b) trying to break the world record for spoils.

The forwards were basically fictional characters by this point. Not much point having the league's top two goalscorers, a player renowned for running into open goals, and one who is probably the best contested mark in the competition on her day if they're never down there. We weren't going to kick goals from 80 metres out like Malcolm Blight, and with a 0.0% chance of crumb it was back to hit and hope in the off-chance that Geelong might do something stupid and let us get a steadier. But by now we'd lost the chance to stamp authority and they were having a wonderful time. 

You will recall, now that we need to pretend this isn't as embarrassing a loss as it seems, that the first time around they had us on the rack in the opening minutes before we goalled from a ludicrous free, then followed that with another straight from of the middle. You can't get silly frees in the forward line if the ball is never down there, and when Geelong had a Goal of the Year contender hit the post via wild ping from the pocket this was in danger of turning to shit even quicker than last week.

In the dying seconds we just got forward quick enough for Zanker to mark and miss from an obscure angle, but tellingly the ball movement was assisted by a free. Otherwise we'd never have strung together enough possessions without turning the ball over.  

I'm baffled as to how things got so bad for us in attack. Harris has not had a good season but I didn't like the idea of dropping Campbell and not picking a proper second ruck. Harris was backup ruck in a flag last year, but this was the point where we really could have done with somebody crashing packs and taking big grabs inside 50. When she finally got on one well within range later in the game she did a ridiculous pass to somebody in a worse position so who knows what the hell was going on. We should have sent her back into the ring mid-season to get the bloodlust going.

A 14 point margin at quarter time wasn't ideal but somehow it could have been worse. Still, we had three quarters to get things right and overrun them right? Apparently not. The added novelty value was Geelong fielding four of our exes, and it worked much better than when Port Adelaide tried a Barry/Toumpas/Trengove/Watts led-recovery. Everyone remembers Shelley Scott, and most will recall Chantel Emonson and Jackie Parry, but you'd do well to recall the four game career of Erin Hoare. She's one of only two players to have a career Daisy Pearce Medal tally of one, scored on debut in Round 1, 2018. And now, despite not having a kick all day she's in a Prelim and we're not. Parry was a forward who didn't kick a goal in her last 13 games for us, so who else would you want to open the second term with a goal?

We were in deep shit now, and even a good side had to be doubting themselves at a time like this. The ideal scenario was to do a men's Prelim Brisbane and come back to stamp out the underdog, but we kept going backwards at speed. When they got another goal almost straight after I was ready to discuss surrender terms with the captain who sounds like a Miami Vice character, the ex-MFC contingent, and that midfielder who used to carry Kevin Keegan's 1980s hair. 

After her rocky first quarter, Gay randomly ended the half as a hero by pulling down a tumbling kick in the dying seconds. The way things had gone I expected it to fling off the boot at right angles and kill a boundary umpire, but she converted after the siren and the comeback was ever so slightly on. The problem was wasting several minutes forward after the break without another goal, then conceding. By the time one of their players was allowed an eternity to run after a loose ball like Rocky chasing the chicken, then tap it through after a few half-hearted 'tackle' attempts we were absolutely rooted.

With the first choice forward options exhausted, our last desperate move was putting Lauren Pearce down there. Now, she's a great ruck and can take a mark but may be the least reliable set shot in Australia. We were stuck one one goal approaching three quarter time, so when she took a much-needed grab inside 50 it would have been an excellent time to rise above the ruck goakicking curse a'la Gawn 2021. We achieved full 'escaping a burning building' panic mode when Harris marked well within her traditional range on not too bad an angle and passed to Gay 50 metres out. 

At one point our 22 point recovery against Brisbane in the 2022 summer season was the greatest of all. Not sure if that's been topped since but if anybody's come back from 23 points or more they surely haven't wound in a five goal last quarter deficit. It felt stupid to stay, but I thought if I sat through Geelong beating us by 186 I could pay my respects to the death of our premiership defence in person. Last week fans voted to hear Zombie by the Cranberries at three-quarter time, and in the absence of any songs about violent civil disorder they should have played the theme from Poseidon Adventure.

We started the last quarter with Gillard in the ruck, which felt more like "let's see if we discover something for the future" than a tactic that might get us back into it but blow me down we went straight out of the middle for a goal. After mocking Pearce's goalkicking she pulled down a great mark, then did the sensible thing and dished it to a passing Hanks to finish. "Bit late for this" I thought, until Zanker whomped through a pair of set shots to cut the gap to 18 and our chances of winning were nudging just ahead of 'peace in the Middle East'.

It still needed three goals, but for the first time all day we were on top and finding space in attack. So the obvious turn of events was for Geelong to take a fortuitous mark in the square that seemingly ended it all again. In the end, it did, but not without a tremendous scare. After losing a few more minutes attacking as if drunk, we got the ball to Zanker for her third, and a minute later Mackin II was kicking a goal on the run to make the margin an even six points with a couple of minutes left.

I'd been reduced to watching the clock tick down on the AFL app, wondering how much of a lag there is between it and the real time remaining. Extra time would have done me nicely, not just for the novelty value of being there for the first time it's ever happened in a Melbourne game, and my life flashed before my eyes when Pearce grabbed the ball out of a ruck contest and ripped a snap that looked like it might go through - from my vantage point - for a millisecond. 

If my failing memory serves me correctly they had eight seconds to navigate and just got away with it. The ball was flying back towards our goal at the siren, but even though Gillard optimistically tried to claim a mark well after the siren I think she was helped by the defenders breaking off into celebration when they realised it was over. If we'd won it would have toppled coming from a shitload down in 2003 as my finest Princes Park moment, but instead I went home flat as a tack. Lucky the train across Royal Park got dismantled about 70 years ago or I'd have considered making contact with overhead wires.

Last time we ended a season this early it was at the hands of COVID-19, but at least that came after a win. So it's been a bit of a shambles, but let's agree that the pieces are there and just need to be arranged into a format that stands up all season against everyone. I appreciate the good times we had, but like watching the men all next year and thinking "yeah, but what are they going to do in the finals", I'm not going to be able to truly enjoy winning regular season AFLW games by any margin until we start winning finals again.

2023 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Eliza West
4 - Lauren Pearce
3 - Eden Zanker
2 - Tyla Hanks
1 - Sinead Goldrick

Apologies to Purcell, B. Mackin and Paxman

Final results
How many years have I been doing this and only just realised you can't have a 'final leaderboard'. That's what I call post-straight sets clarity. Anyway, as there are now zero votes on offer may we offer a hearty congratulations to Tyla Hanks on her victory. After sharing the title with Olivia Purcell last year, this is her first outright victory. Paxy remains the boss, with five career titles.

No alterations in the minors, with Pearce winning her umpteenth consecutive ruck count, and Tahlia Gillard just holding off a last minute contest from Goldrick to take the award for defenders. No score in the Rising Star, so Aimee Mackin and Georgia Campbell can argue it amongst themselves but we'll be showing 'No qualified players' on the all-time leaderboard. The carryover mark for AFLW is three games, so Georgia Gall will be the only existing player to start next year eligible for the title.

34 - Tyla Hanks
29 - Kate Hore
15 - Lauren Pearce (WINNER: Ruck of the Year), Olivia Purcell
14 - Eden Zanker
11 - Blathin Mackin, Shelley Heath, Eliza West,
9 - Tahlia Gillard (WINNER: Defender of the Year)
8 - Sinead Goldrick
6 - Tayla Harris, Paxy Paxman
5 - Alyssa Bannan
3 - Sarah Lampard
2 - Lily Mithen
1 - Libby Birch

Goal of the Week
It would have been Pearce if that snap went through, but under the circumstances I'm going with Aimee Mackin's ice-cold finish in tense circumstances. Nobody would have blamed her for missing it - god knows the players who have grown up playing the game probably would have - but she gave us hope of pulling off the most ludicrous of all comebacks. Doesn't influence the overall result, so congratulations to the captain for holding on to win.

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

Next year
Time to throw the baby out with the bathwater and try to change everything. Firstly, if the same conditions are there that almost had Paxy doing a post-flag runner to Perth for this season I wouldn't be surprised if it was on the cards again. If we can do the right thing for a legendary player and start to plan for the future at the same time it might work out for everyone. Otherwise the only first-choice players over 30 are Goldrick and Pearce, and they're not going anywhere so any other improvements are going to come via draft or trade.

From the risky suggestions department, are we sure Tayla Harris is a going concern? For all the free-scoring mayhem this year she kicked three goals and barely went near it in games that counted. I don't know if there's an injury problem, and don't doubt she can still play very good games but if you're all in on Zanker and Bannan for the future it might be a chance to improve elsewhere. Double on this if they like Gall and want her to play more senior games next year.

I'm assuming Watt retires, and without knowing contract statuses I'd suggest the majority of Fowler, Ivey, Johnson, Taylor, and Wilson will get the chop now that the real national draft is back. There's 'depth' and there's depth, so now that topping up with experienced players hasn't helped it's time to put some kids on the list and hope for the best. We're never going to have things as good as they've been over the first couple of 18 team seasons, but the pieces are definitely there to have another crack if we can fill in some of the gaps.

Final thoughts
I'm happy to take the piss out of us for losing finals left, right, and centre. Opposition fans can join in after submitting written acknowledgment of how good it was that we won a pair of flags first. Now I'm taking a long break from anything footy-related beyond trawling old newspapers for Demonwiki. See you in 2024 for M, W, and probably WTF.

Monday 13 November 2023

What a time to stop being alive

Just when you'd started to recover from the horrors of September, our worst finals performance of 2023 turns up out nowhere. This time we didn't kick ourselves out of a game, or lose in the dying seconds due to collective insanity, it was just a siren-to-siren munting by better prepared, significantly more up for it opposition. And in the week where they put all the names of members on a banner I'd like to apologise that we're now 0-2 since I joined.

Speaking of memberships, my kid won't care but I still haven't admitted to trading her membership for my cursed AFLW one. Junior was surprisingly keen to attend so I thought mentioning it would unnecessarily risk controversy. As far as a first final went it didn't give offer the same sort of inspiration that I got in 1989. In fact, after five minutes interest was lost to the point where the rest of the game was spent reading me facts from a Taylor Swift magazine and occasionally looking up to ask semi-relevant questions like "have we kicked a goal yet?" My response went from chuckling at the mad idea that we wouldn't get one, to nearly chucking shit as full time neared with us on 0.not much.

On the occasion of my second AFLW final I'm glad to see that it's traditional to make players stand arm-in-arm waiting for them to turn the top 40 tunes off. Last time it was the last song Madonna did before disappearing, this time I've got NFI what they were playing but just when you thought they were finally getting on with things somebody hit the wrong button and started playing Enter Sandman again. No wonder when the anthem started with an unusually zingy orchestral flourish I thought they'd accidentally played Austria.mp3.

Turns out it would have been better for us if they'd just played the radio for four quarters and decided the result via Rock, Paper, Scissors, because what followed made the shambolic pre-game events look like The Beatles at Shea Stadium. When you win 80% of the time the rest is going to come as a shock, but this was arguably our worst performance in W history. The last round of 2019 ended in a bigger loss, but we still hadn't played a final at that point. Now we've gone Prelim/Grand Final/Flag/top two, then into abject disarray against a side that was trampled a few weeks ago.

North are well-known for losing to the teams above them, but they're not the fourth pillar of The Good Teams for nothing. This might have been their finest moment, treating everything we did in the spirit of playing a mid-card mediocrity. The sad thing is that we didn't play badly for much of the game, it's just that the forward line suffered an Optus-style outage at Optus Oval, and after picking off our attacks with the greatest of ease North caught us out by flinging the ball back the other way at warp speed. If we'd converted anything in the first three quarters then maybe the conditions weren't there to be tormented on the counter.

If people went troppo over women's selection like they do the other stuff, then Eliza West getting the hook would have been controversial. I can see where they were coming from though, she gets a lot of it but is involved in more butchery than all the Nightmare On Elm Street movies combined. Maybe if she was involved it would have pissed about with the space-time continuum and we'd have won by lots but I don't see how 95% accumulation, 5% finesse would have helped on a day where the opposition had clearly done the same 'where will all the aimless kicks land?' studies as Brisbane.

My enjoyment of the first quarter wasn't helped by sitting at ground level. I don't care that this is how people did it for 150 years, it gives me the shits. We'd started in the stands before being driven out by a speaker that blasted everything at 350% volume like a jumbo jet taking off directly overhead. The ball coming straight towards us from the first bounce was a good sign, but North escaping without going close to conceding a score was not. Then when the ball got pinned at their end we couldn't extract it, eventually leading to an out of the arse snap into the wind. This kicked off a day where they kicked goals from every angle while we committed arson on forward entries and murder on set shots.

Like last week all over again we couldn't escape their pressure, leading to desperate kicks forward that usually landed with the opposition. They kept missing shots, including one politely from almost directly in front, but we couldn't do anything but thump the ball as far away from goal as possible and hope it didn't come back. But it did. What we needed was a repeat of the first game when they gave away a stupid 50 to get us going.

We'd come from behind against North once this year so even though we were wading knee-deep through quicksand it was only just over a goal the difference so the towel wasn't poised for throwing in yet. When Hanks won a holding the ball free near enough to right in front of me (related: that clip is probably approaching succulent Chinese meal levels of not needing the link) I thought a) this will get us going, and b) god I hope we get some kind of score for the quarter. It was a point, and a goal probably wouldn't have saved us, but from my perspective as good as level to the goalline bullshit it didn't fully cross the line before being touched. There was added confusion when the umpire signalled that it hit the post, but I watched this bit of the replay just to see if we got on camera (answer: no) and it bounced off the player into the opposite post. So if it was already touched before fully crossing the line then what does it matter if the post was involved?

Under the circumstances, it's a miracle that we got to quarter time just nine points down. This wasn't much more than their lead in the last meeting before we held North to two behinds for the rest of the game. So in two meetings this year they've gone goalless Q2-Q4 and we've done it Q1-Q3, so stand by for another pearler if we somehow get another crack at them in the Grand Final.

At this point, it was back to the stands, not just because of the reduced visibility but also somebody in front who was keen to talk to anyone. Not to mention an old man immediately to the right who had clearly only turned up because it was a final and was on the verge of sooking about the quality of the game as if he'd expected it to be North 1996 vs Melbourne 1964. I'm not defending the entertainment value of the first quarter (and the next three from our perspective), but once you've arrived at the ground carrying on about the standard is like going to the wrestling and carrying on about it being rigged.

The second term is what killed us, holding them to a handful of inside 50s but conceding the only goal and not scoring a cracker. Purcell turning a set shot into North nearly kicking a goal via yet another botched attempt at finding a forward target said everything you needed to know. I'm pinning all the blame on our forward entries. The defence might have crumbled under siege, but we had enough chances to get back into it. Even then it was only 15 points at the break, so if you were still a believer in us out-running teams then there was hope of making it interesting.

As much as I hated Harris starting the second half in the ruck and playing Pearce forward, it almost paid off when LP pulled down a mark right in front of goal after a minute. I haven't gotten over her missing from the top of the square against Adelaide last year and thought "this could go anywhere" shortly before it went anywhere but through the middle. So basically we gave up a ruck who can pick up contested possessions in the middle, and a forward who might be well down on her best this year but can take marks and kick goals.

That's when it got a bit perverse, with North kicking three quick goals to blow the margin out from 'unlikely' to 'bloody impossible'. It was approaching unmitigated fiasco territory midway through the last quarter when Hore finally pulled down a mark (or was it a free? I was losing the will to live by this point) directly in front, not far out and put it into the post. I'd have started flicking through the record books for the all-time lowest MFC scores if my kid hadn't captured the phone to play lo-fi games that would have looked shit on the Sega Master System. 

Fortunately North saved this team from being the first to go goalless since the 1956 Thirds by going into self-preservation mode long enough for Bannan to belatedly turn up. The way things were going I expected it to somehow end in us conceding at the other end but she converted, jumping us ahead of our previous lowest AFLW score. Her traditional frenzied post-goal celebration seemed a bit odd under the circumstances but I suppose when you've got the music in you etc... etc...

I'm not going to hold it against the North fans for going off their nut at the end, especially when heaps more of them turned up, but the guy doing on his feet whinging about the umpiring deep in the last quarter of a record-breaking thrashing could wind the siege mentality in a bit. 

All in all, it was one of the filthiest performances you'll ever see. I think there's a way back but not sure how far it will go before turning into a sheer drop from a cliff.

2023 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Kate Hore
4 - Tyla Hanks
3 - Olivia Purcell
2 - Shelley Heath
1 - Sinead Goldrick

Apologies to Gay, McNamara and Paxman - just because the field in front of them was so thin.

Hopefully there's still 15 votes in this, but even if that's the case it will only prolong the Hanks vs Hore battle because everyone else is now officially stuffed. The captain reduced the gap by one, leaving the field open for any combination of final result between them. No change in the minors, with Goldrick narrowly eating into Gillard's lead, and nothing close to votes for A. Mackin or Campbell that would save the Rising Star. 

32 - Tyla Hanks
28 - Kate Hore
--- Done for ---
13 - Olivia Purcell
11 - Blathin Mackin, Lauren Pearce (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Ruck of the Year), Shelley Heath, Eden Zanker
9 - Tahlia Gillard (LEADER: Defender of the Year)
7 - Sinead Goldrick
6 - Tayla Harris, Paxy Paxman, Eliza West
5 - Alyssa Bannan,
3 - Sarah Lampard
2 - Lily Mithen
1 - Libby Birch

Goal of the Week
Get stuffed

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

Next Week
No need to burn the place down yet, this may have been one of the great debacles but unless we regroup going out in straight sets could top it. Due to Channel 7's women's cricket commitments, there's no Friday game again, as if they don't have multiple other channels to put a footy game on. Great news for fans of Pie In The Sky, which couldn't be blown out of its timeslot on 7Two with explosives for something like an AFL final. 

To be fair a Friday game could only have been Adelaide vs Sydney, so an ancient repeat featuring Dr. Meinheimer from Naked Gun will probably rate better here. But that means they occupy Saturday night, and we're back to squinting in the sun at Princes Park from 3.05pm Sunday. And after waiting for years to play Geelong, it's a second game against them this year. Last time we withstood early stress to grind them into dust by the last quarter, but after this week it feels like if we're ever going to lose a final to a team outside the top four this could be it. Surely not, but the coaches will be up all night trying to find ways to look dangerous again.

The problem is that this is nearly our best side. Sherriff's mystery fracture has ended her year, and Lampard isn't going to be ready so what can you do except trust the survivors? I'm sure West will come back, and I'd prefer Wilson over Ivey, but otherwise for players who have appeared once this year you're down to Watt, Gall and Colvin - none of who are going to help if Geelong has reviewed the same tape of our forward entries. If they didn't have enough faith in Campbell to play her for a full game I suppose you could bring Watt back and park Harris inside 50 to try and create some sort of contest. Otherwise we're just going to have to hope that the players haven't entered a misery spiral and can secure a ticket in the Prelim lottery. Then it's back to Springfield and here's hoping for a better result than last time.

Final thoughts
We've nearly achieved a modified version of the famous 1996 Fitzroy banner. This time it's 'Broken by Brisbane, F'ed by North', and you can sit back and wait to see how the AFL completes the trifecta. 

Monday 6 November 2023

Red and Blue Alert

If it all goes tits up this year you can blame me for signing up as an AFLW member right before finals. When my daughter's renewal notice for the M arrived I realised that she wouldn't even notice if the money was redirected into causes under my name, then we almost immediately lost top spot and automatic Grand Final hosting rights. Sorry about that.

Losing our return trip to Premiership Alley wasn't the ideal way to end the home and away season, but as there's only four decent teams the season is probably just as likely to end in flag as it was last week. The good news is that we didn't also lose the McClelland Million, with St Kilda doing us a favour for the first time since not drafting Petracca and unexpectedly beating the Lions last week. After dropping to 1-2 against the other contenders there may be a few alpine activity-related accusations flying around, but while defeat may have cost us top spot it didn't make the coveted cash disintegrate like some bullshit cryptocurrency scam. 

Speaking of the white stuff, you can fret that this time might turn out to be downhill skiers but at least they're not engaging in Eric Clapton's 'no snow, no show' philosophy. I'm so far outside the target market for Pride Round that all I can do is offer a supportive thumbs up and genuinely wish everybody well, but if there was ever a year to celebrate other reasons to be proud they should have done half-half jumpers showing a negative drug test. 

Given that AFLW players are getting an average of $60,000 this year they're probably looking at the shenanigans on the other side and thinking "Drugs? We can't even afford food", so it's ironic that they played this as if under heavy sedation against opposition frothing to rip them apart like an outlaw motorcycle gang on bathtub speed.

In the end, as long as the trifecta of injury scares are resolved in the positive, does it really matter? Sure if we want to host the Grand Final, Adelaide needs to do their part of the Finals Bradbury Plan but we've got to get there first. Winning here would have made that easier, offering the closest thing to a Qualifying Final bye against Gold Coast. But even if we got through week one the easy way, we'd likely still have needed to beat one of the big hitters in a Prelim. I'll take the two guaranteed home finals and am happy to slay the dragon at *checks list of eligible SA venues* Norwood Oval if required.

Regardless of how much there was to play for, team selection still left me suspicious that we were comfortable gently gliding to the end of the season. I was all for Rhi Watt's record-setting debut in a throwaway game against dreck, but the logic of ditching Campbell here escapes me. She's still developing but has shown a bit this year, so pissfarting around with the ruck division a week from finals felt suss. Anything could be happening behind the scenes, but this + introducing Ivey for the first time since Round 3 last year was strange. All the best for her making a fairytale run to the flag but in a short season with no pre-finals bye I'd think you'd want pre-finals stability.

Just when you thought the drama was over, unexplained hamstring phenomena took Paxman out rogue canine style during the warm-up. Even at the tail end of a great career Paxy would be hard to replace at short notice, but the emergency reintroduction of green as grass tall forward Georgia Gall didn't do much for our structure. Maybe they knew we'd be bombing kicks towards defenders all night and thought she could help bring the ball to ground. Either that or the other emergencies had ducked over the road for a milkshake and couldn't be found.

In the same way we should never be allowed to lose at Perth Stadium again, it would have been nice to go unbeaten at Springfield forever, but Brisbane were so up for the contest that we might not have handled them with a full side. Craig Starcevich's old school motivational technique of showing players highlights of them losing the Grand Final. It obviously worked, but I hope old mate who was falsely awarded Tahlia Gillard's BOG medal realised how lucky she was that key defenders are constitutionally banned from winning AFL awards.

It's a shame we can't play the Lions again next week, because the niggle value of this game was so high that there's no way they'd have been able to recapture enough steam to do it again. They've got the coveted Round 10 Cup, and their players carried on like Footscray fans after beating us in 2022, as if one mid-season win erased the stain of playing the worst hour in the history of Grand Finals. If Brisbane go on to win the real thing I'll recognise that this was the start of something big, for now I'd like to read from the Book of Malthouse and say it was their Grand Final.

Just seeing a Melbourne side play at this ground gave me fond memories of the day we won the version. It doesn't look like much has changed since our original visit other than the locals kicking a competitive score. Seems like the brick wall of death in the right of screen forward pocket has almost entirely been covered up. Last year there were handy gaps at either end so you could slide across a wet ground and into a career-ending injury. Otherwise, it still looks a lot like Casey Fields North but with bonus Kardinia Park style train noises.

Now that you know the result, the opening minutes perfectly explained what was going to happen. We've had games that got better after a ropey start - including our other appearance at this venue - but Brisbane had us on the back foot from the first bounce. They were so dominant in the first quarter that we deserve some credit for recovering to get in front, except for the bit about not kicking another goal after.

Our backline has spent most of the year waiting for something to happen so it's probably good that they've been subjected to a pre-finals barrage. They held up well in one-on-ones, including Air Gillard flying through with spoils all over the place, but weight of numbers and inability to stop quick transitions got us eventually. When we finally escaped confined spaces and got the ball inside 50 it was plucked out of the air with the greatest of ease. Then, when Brisbane finally gave us a chance via a shizen handball in defence we turned two players running towards the loose ball into conceding at the other end.     

Thanks to Channel 7 you were lucky to know any of this was happening. I'll take up weapons to defend Jason Bennett but he should demand a trade after your home of finals warmed up by broadcasting like community television. The commentators clearly weren't there - as shown by a background during half-time that would have meant they were hovering in an airship - and they would have had all sorts of trouble calling off the screen while battling random, often transition-free zooms and picture freezes. No wonder there was so much awkward silence, they were probably slapping monitors and yelling "is this thing working?" away from the mic.

Our forward line fizzed, but they never got much of a chance to do anything with the rushed, panic kicks coming towards them. The start and end of the Adelaide game showed they can score against good sides if we can get the ball down there with some degree of poise. None of that was allowed here, and Brisbane knew exactly where to stand for our desperate kicks from packs. They kept dropping easy marks, we didn't have anyone close enough to take advantage. Then even after they lost time regathering, somebody was on their own for the next kick. This was not our night in any sense.

We were in serious danger of joining the scoreless first quarters list before snatching one against the run of play. Even with Sherriff kicking from close range at next to no angle I'll admit to having grave concerns about where it was going to end up. She made mockery of my inner-turmoil (and took advantage of a reverse mozz after her inaccuracy was mentioned on commentary) to make scores a whole lot more reasonable than they deserved to be. This was almost stuffed up by allowing the ball to get back into Brisbane's 50 in the dying seconds. We survived, then made up for it by conceding scores out the yin yang to end the next two quarters. 

But first, the 'maybe everything's going to turn out ok' revival. There was no serious wind involved (but unlike certain other venues they've been smart enough to build a structure behind one of the goals to stop Hurricane Bertha whipping through), but we turned the game around in the second quarter after finding some space. I was open to the idea of wearing them down like so many before, but in an extreme version of Adelaide there was no point running the game out better if you're a million points down.

The tide was turning in our direction. Even when Harris, who earlier nearly legally killed an opponent with a knee to the head in a marking contest, briefly seemed to have done her shoulder she cured herself with an overhead mark and goal. Good thing she came back, because we'd already lost Watt to concussion. Later Chaplin had to be assessed after another head knock, and Goldrick was hobbling around as if crocked. Shit time for an injury crisis.

We gave the goal back, but the game were turning in our favour. After being well held all night superstar mode was engaged when Hanks goalled, then Hore put through a snap from a weird angle and things were looking up. Until they weren't. After getting in the way of almost everything thrown at them until then, our defenders all missed a player standing alone in the square. It nearly got worse, in an attempt to reach half-time without further damage Bannan went behind the metaphorical ball, found herself with the actual ball, and was pinched for holding it. Just as I was doing my bit for all those "you don't get toxic male behaviour in AFLW" people by yelling obscenities they charitably missed an absolute sitter.

You'd like to stay that set up an exciting second half, but that would only be correct if you're a Brisbane fan. It might have turned out differently if Hore hadn't toepoked a loose ball in the square into the post. This indirectly led to Brisbane kicking two in quick succession and us getting none for the rest of the game. If there was anything that encapsulated our night, other than dump kicks falling straight into the arms of defenders, it was Purcell winning the ball from a contest, doing 95% of a fend-off but being caught at the last minute for holding the ball.

You can assign some of the blame to our reduced capacity side, but there were a few "can't play XYZ" every week performances. Zanker worked hard defensively but never looked like kicking a goal, Bannan may never have had a worse night, and under finals-like pressure West's already wayward kicking went to pieces. She's a great accumulator but should be named the league's first Designated Handballer and entirely banned from ever kicking. Meanwhile, without Watt we were back to playing Zanker and Hanks as second rucks. You can't factor in somebody being concussed, but if either of them do it next week in place of Campbell I'll spew up.

The umpiring was baffling, but when we were still in front after ludicrous decisions like the whistle going for a Mackin 'high tackle' (e.g. she was burrowed into) before the contact, you can't blame the decisions. We were just carrying too many fringe players to go one short for most of the game against ravenous opposition.

We were in deep shit late in the quarter, but within the range of a miracle comeback. Until they kicked the last two goals. It started with another late holding the ball, and finished with Heath being done for a dangerous tackle even after bringing player to ground without her head going close to contacting the turf. This made the points and double chance safe for Brisbane, even with one of their players ending the quarter bleeding like she'd severed the carotid artery.

Any chance of making Brisbane nervous died with another pair of intercept marks handed out like Christmas gifts. I'll take any opportunity to demand extra crumb but no point here because ball wasn't reaching ground often enough. We ran the game out much better - albeit against opposition who'd done what they needed to - but continued to attack as if drunk, completing our first goalless second half since that absolute shambles of a loss to St Kilda in 2020. The Lions didn't get one either but fat lot of good that was for us by now.

Even when we did have chances they were blown in novelty fashion. When Bannan snapped on the full it tempted me to look at her career stats to see proportion of damage done against good teams vs bad but I stopped before it made me sad. She was having such a bad run that even a kick off the ground in the square was called in danger. I'd argue that if there's a loose ball that close to goal you should know there's probably a boot in the vicinity and you dive towards it at own risk but it wouldn't have changed anything. 

It's our worse loss to them - and the only one that didn't end with a final score of 15 at Casey Fields - and means having to go back-to-back the hard way. So be it. Once the flag is in the bank we'll look back and laugh at the joy they took beating us here.

2023 Daisy Pearce Medal votes
5 - Kate Hore 
4 - Lauren Pearce
3 - Tahlia Gillard
2 - Tayla Harris
1 - Libby Birch

Apologies to Goldrick, Hanks, Mackin, Purcell and Zanker.

And just like that's it's on again. With somewhere between 10 and 20 votes in the tank, the captain is within striking range again. As for everyone on eight votes or less, better luck next year. In more important news, the Defender of the Year committee has met and rule Blaithin Mackin is not eligible, which is tremendous news for Gillard fanatics everywhere as she has inherited the lead. Pearce is even more provisionally your ruck champion again, and it's looking like a blank year for the Rising Star.

28 - Tyla Hanks
23 - Kate Hore
--- Needs four finals ---
11 - Blathin Mackin, Lauren Pearce (PROVISIONAL WINNER: Ruck of the Year), Eden Zanker
10 - Olivia Purcell
9 - Tahlia Gillard (LEADER: Defender of the Year)
--- Abandon all hope below here ---
6 - Sinead Goldrick, Tayla Harris, Paxy Paxman, Eliza West
5 - Alyssa Bannan,
3 - Sarah Lampard
2 - Lily Mithen
1 - Libby Birch

Goal of the Week
It's got to be Hore from the pocket in the second quarter, just when everything looked to be turning our way and that we wouldn't concede another goal for the season. It was all a bit of a letdown after that. No change to the overall leaderboard. 

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

Next Week
It's back to Fortress Princes Park to play the only top four side we've beaten this year. What could possibly go wrong? After an early scare we did North surprisingly easily last time, but I'm not taking a repeat for granted. If all of Chaplin, Goldrick and Harris survive, and we get some of Paxman, Mackin and Gay back (+ Campbell for Watt as the enforced change) then I would certainly expect to win. For god's sake I've had enough of losing finals this calendar year so let's at least get through this one, no matter how much toil and struggle it requires, then take our chances in a Prelim.

For some reason, we're playing at 3.05pm Sunday, even though there's no game scheduled on Friday. Remember the bit where I suggested tying a longer season to viewing metrics was a swizz?

Final thoughts
At least now there's no case for the league forcibly breaking us up. Which is something.