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.

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