Saturday 9 March 2024

Open. Shut.

Considering our long history of being unwatchable, I can understand why the AFL doesn't trust us with the first game of the season. Given how many years they had Carlton and Richmond bore the tits off everyone I'm surprised we've been the opening act six times in the last 30 years. Don't stay up for the next one, after another repeat of the same low-scoring sludge we've lost 15 times in recent years, they won't be asking us back anytime soon.

This was nearly enough to turn me off the sport of Australian Rules football, but as I set up these links to previous opening games we're going through them anyway. The teenage misery years helped me avoid the unmerciful humping by Geelong in 1996 (made up for it later...), but I do remember being shocked by the next year's 'eventual wooden spooners beat reigning premiers' false start. There was a temporary setback in 2000, and a near-permanent setback in 2007, before we returned to raise the flag 15 years later. Not much joy in all that, but '22 was good.

We'll judge the historical context of this year's loss later. For now, you can either drop your bundle and try to sack somebody, or curl into a ball and hope for the best. I'm taking the second option with a side serving of confirmation bias for my theory that we're a fringe finals side that will need everything to go right to contend for the top prize.

The key difference between all the opening rounds since 1897 and this 'Opening Round' was the AFL torching convention by not giving it a number. Who cares where they play the games, just have a split round instead of playing a full card of Round 1 games next week, featuring all the teams who have already played. It's harmless stuff, unless you're a sicko like me who values order over marketing department bullshit. They also played the first game in Sydney, which has never happened in the history of the game if you ignore 2012.

I thought the focus on the frontier states (where footy is the game of the future and always will be) was a sad attempt to leap into a gap in the NRL calendar, only to find out that their season proper started on the same night. They may as well be honest and admit it was a consolation Gather Round. Hopefully the competing clubs are cut in on what bung the AFL got from New South Wales/Queensland for doing it. Just send a cheque, best we stay clear of whatever coke and hookers side deals they had going on. 

Channel 7 and the AFL are practically two wings of the same cartel these days, but the artificial "how much fun are we having?" excitement about being in Sydney was hilariously overblown. The highlight was their vigorous, dignity-free walloping over the crowd, when the last home and away game at the SCG, against the same opposition, drew more people. I'm looking forward to the crowd for GWS/Collingwood being talked about as the dawn of a new era when 90% of them are going for the visitors. Like the NRL in Vegas, Port Adelaide in China, and AFLX, they're well within their rights to do unusual things, just don't piss in our pocket by pretending it's a game-changing historical moment when any sensible person can see otherwise.

Even before spending four quarters making the sound of a slowly deflated balloon, I didn't want to be involved in this nonsense. Surely the only reason we got the call-up was because somebody still harbours fantasies about a CityWars rivalry between 'Melbourne' and 'Sydney'. This dates back to the Swans' first home game in Sydney (with the added bonus of us coming off a 1-21 season, all but guaranteeing a home win), but in the 40 years since nobody's found a way to make people care about the meekest organisation in Australia against a reheated Victorian side. For this, they got two solid defensive sides with ridiculously malfunctioning forward lines, and not surprising one of them (guess which one) sat on a sad-looking 1.8 just before half time.  

Meanwhile, in the core footy states plenty of people who don't live their life on the internet thought this was another practice match. Like it or not, Victoria is still the powerhouse of the game and there hasn't been a flatter build-up in recent memory. They were rooted for a big Round 1B angle until Carlton launched a miracle comeback against Brisbane, setting up their game against another side who has already played, while we're against... one that hasn't? What a farce.

They'll build up a frenzy eventually, but I'll be interested to see how strong it is by September. This season is so drawn out that it started a day earlier than 2000, which was brought forward for the Olympics. Playing for premiership points on March 7 helped us lose the weather lottery, setting up the sort of greasy, humid conditions that are usually followed by us toiling for four quarters to kick a rotten score. And here we are again, but blaming the conditions would be an even cheaper deflection than blaming umpires, and I sure won't be doing that after they gifted us one of the most ludicrous advantage goals of all time.

Officially, Round Zero Dark Thirty began 2024 but it may as well have been a continuation of last year. We didn't need a moist footy to kick barely defensible scores that left us relying on good luck and/or the opposition necking themselves spectacularly. So that's something to look forward to. No need to drop your toaster in the bath yet, I'm not panicking until Pickett, Petty, McAdam etc... come back and it still resembles the Oscar McDonald at full forward era.

If you're searching for bad omens (and at 0-1 who isn't?), there was a bit of 2019 about it. Troubled pre-season leads to three quarters of competitive footy against decent opposition before total collapse in the final term, while an ex-player has the time of his life in new colours. I'm not expecting the same kind of death spiral, but if we mix a slow start and injury drama it could end in collective loss of will to live. Famous last words, but don't hold your breath if you're waiting for the coach to be booted. He's going to get McGuire/Buckley levels of protection until the lawsuits are sorted out. Though I wouldn't rule out secret documents in the safe that will be used to 'persuade' him to 'spend more time with the family' if things go really bad.

I was woefully underprepared for the new season. It would have been easier to watch a couple of neutral games first before emotionally committing. Like a surprise nuclear strike I only had a few minutes to come to terms with impending doom before the blinding flash and shockwave. We got the doom, but with none of the expected fireworks.   

I'm happy that Blake Howes and Caleb Windsor made their league debuts, but sorry they had to do it in a weird round that will confuse the piss out of everyone in years to come. Howes can also cherish his first touch in league footy being met with a giveaway "no idea who that is" pause from an underprepared commentator, then the second had an equally telltale pause as they frantically scanned the team sheet for his name.

To nobody's surprise, the season started with us indiscriminately hoofing the ball inside 50. As the first one reached the contest I had a brief, hopeful flash of "maybe we'll pull down a mark" optimism. And you know how that went. Cue opening minutes where we had the ball down there a lot but NFI how to turn that into goals, with our backline easily dismissing anything Sydney threw at them. Whoever proposed this matchup for the first game must have been thinking about chowing down on a cyanide pill.

With artisan goals off the agenda, we nearly got the opener when Gawn gently dismissed Grundy in a ruck contest. He hit the post and it was all downhill from there. Max hasn't had a worse Round 1 since Port Adelaide beat him up while the rest of the side stood around going "gee, that's not good". This was great content for simpletons and Channel 7 personalities (plenty of crossover in those groups) who had "stir up Grundy controversy" right under "treat this like the greatest night in the history of our sport" in their talking points. On his return to first ruck duties, Grundy played the sort of quite good but not great game he did multiple times for us in Gawn's absence last year, while the callers carried on like Polly Farmer had been reincarnated.

Any sceptical rugby fans who'd turned in for the first time (and been temporarily paralysed so they couldn't turn it off) would have thought he'd left us in the most acrimonious circumstances since T. Scully, when in reality it was a perfectly amicable split. Unless you buy into the unlikely idea that he'd have replaced Gawn as first ruck, pretending he'd have done exactly the same thing for us as against is incredibly dumb. Mind you, I might have been a bit more interested in holding him to his contract if I'd known we were going to go from two All-Australian ruckmen to an ageing Gawn, a Brisbane discard, and kids so raw that they'd give a cannibal food poisoning. 

While the Grundy experiment wasn't a spectacular success, he was good enough during Gawn's early-season injury, didn't do anything horribly wrong, and helped get Max through to the end of the year in one piece. Now, if Tom Fullarton or A. Random don't come good we'll run the captain into a coma by Round 10. I don't care what happens at centre bounces, we need him in one piece to get us out of jail with contested marks around the ground. 

Whatever the answer to the second ruck question is, I don't think the answer is Josh Schache. Remember picking him instead of Grundy in a final then leaving him on the bench all night? For want of any better options it was fair enough to give him a go, but he's got Jordan Gysberts-level intensity and doesn't kick goals so no need to see him again until we're desperate in about Round 19. 

van Rooyen wasn't much better in front of goal, but I know which one I trust to do something if he gets the right support. The other night he was on the Weideman 2020 plan, expected to beat the entire opposition backline to kicks arriving as if dropped from space. I hope any combination of Petty, Fullarton, McDonald or B. Brown (who I never expected to see again but just played in a Casey practice match) will shift focus enough so he can get his confidence up. There's structural work to be done too, but based on last year's experience we've got stuff all hope of that being addressed.

If this is a replay of 2023 (and to be fair we nearly blundered into a Prelim), get ready for months of May, Lever et al working themselves to a standstill keeping the other side to gettable scores and hoping we can pluck something from our forwards to cover it. Sydney's forward line was almost as bad as ours, but if nothing else they had targets, and we generally kept them quiet. The locals helped with some bonkers kicking for goal, but not for the first time our defenders would be justified cracking the shits about their hard work being wasted. By the end, May should have sent himself forward and ordered somebody else to go back and see how it feels.

It took a goal from thin air nowhere to get us going, with one of the 10,000 forward stoppages ending with Viney struggling manfully through a tackle to put ball on boot. He was very good, but it was easy to stand out in our midfield with Petracca well held and Oliver slowly working his way back into it. Sparrow was fine, but it could have been better considering how many key players they were missing. Salem got a lot of it, but I don't know whether bulk collection of ball in the middle is better for us than accurate kicking in defence. I'm confident Oliver's going to be ok, he was rusty, and perhaps a bit nervous, but you could see that his sixth sense instinct for being in the right place was still there. It was 100% "will be better for the run" stuff.

We wasted all these chances while Sydney produced goals directly from the arse. How often has the difference been us spending minutes/hours/decades trying to find a traditional route to goal, only to concede to some fluky kick over a pack? It was a mark of how (relatively) well everything else was going, and Sydney's equally wonky attack, that we were only a couple of goals behind.

Unless you were committed to one of the teams, the second quarter must have been like watching paint dry. We kept them to one goal, and finally rose above the forward flops to get the much-needed reply from ANB. Then we didn't, as he surely became the first player to have goals taken away by mystery video reviews in consecutive games - as if we needed another reminder of that Carlton final. Now that we've been on the wrong end of this twice, I'm begging for the result of a game to be reversed after the siren when the final kick is shown to have brushed a fingernail. For extra impact, let it happen to a team whose fans will take it really badly. Later the goal umpire asked for replay when the ball had furiously cracked off the post and I'm not sure any of this was good for football.

Just as I was about to spend half time watching the Grand Final edition All The Goals video and crying, Langdon did what the forwards couldn't and found acres of space inside 50. He converted the set shot despite an unnecessary lecture from the umpire about how he wasn't allowed to run off his line when practically right in front. That took us to the dizzying heights of 2.8 at the half, and it was a mark of how ordinary the night had been that we were still a reasonable chance of winning.  

Even in the most self-indulgent era of this page I'd have struggled to go into forensic depth on this game, but the third quarter was easily the only bit worth watching. There was even a brief, lovely moment where we hit the front. It didn't last, but nice to know the evening wasn't completely wasted. After an early goal to Fritsch, we were let off the hook but some dreadful Sydney misses. Then we did our bit for the game in expanding markets by gifting them a goal via a 50. The rest of the game featured players from both sides dancing around on the mark after being told to stand so apparently that rule has gone the same was as dissent, which will lead to controversy when an umpire shocks everyone by enforcing the actual written laws of the game.

The goal that put us in front was one of the most shameful applications of the advantage rule in history. We won a perfectly normal free kick, somebody toepoked it forward, and the umpire didn't call play on until it had gone another 10 meters beyond the spot the original free was paid and Fritsch found the ball in acres of space to turn and snap. That has definitely happened against us at some point because I remember being outraged by it, so as morally suspect as it was, I'm glad one finally went in our direction.

Considering that freebie, you couldn't really argue giving the goal back via a rare defensive meltdown. In the interim, Bowey blew his shoulder with a brave defensive effort, then had to sit on the sidelines watching the game go up in smoke. I was ready to crack the sads when we conceded a late one via Spargo lightly whacking somebody off the ball. Mind you, everything is off the ball when you're watching Channel 7 broadcast everything on 500x time zoom. Thankfully, that was wiped out by Petracca reemerging from the Witness Protection Program to burst from the middle Mad Minute style for the response. It may have been Alice Springs-level humid, but if we were still capable of outrunning teams in the fourth quarter things might have turned out ok. We're not and they didn't.

After 30 minutes of acting like a normal team, it was back to attacking misery after three quarter time. The Swans slowly pulled away, and our only goal came in Three Stooges fashion when JVR dropped a mark onto his upper leg, with the momentum propelling it over his head and through. We were in a better position for a comeback than... say... Brisbane last year, but went back to having all the firepower of the Mongolian Navy.

We were already long finished when the pain was prolonged by ground invaders. It should have been Extinction Rebellion protesting the extinction of our forward line, but turned out to be just two plonkers going for a run across the ground. This seems to happen quite a lot in Sydney, but unless the flange is on display it's not a 'streaker'. In this case it appeared to be a close relative of Jordan Gysberts in long pants, which is about as far away from streaking as you can get. Commentators love to talk up the fines for this sort of stuff, ignoring the fact that the sort of people who are likely to interrupt a major sporting event for the lols are probably not the type to bother paying fines in the first place.

So it ended in slow, drawn out sadness, and you'd be forgiven for getting a bit sad about any pre-season optimism flying out the window at warp speed but I suggest not trying to launch a military coup just yet. Things can only get better, and if they don't we'll have a great time burning the place down.   

2024 Allen Jakovich Medal
5 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
4 - Jack Viney
3 - Judd McVee
2 - Tom Sparrow
1 - Blake Howes (LEADER: Rising Star Award)

Apologies to Fritsch, Lever, Oliver, Salem and Tomlinson 

... and a reminder that we're changing the name of the Rising Star after the passing of Jeff Hilton. He was attached it in the early days of this page as a cheap excuse to talk about a 90s cult figure, but I don't want the name to come off as a pisstake now so it's being retired. All the remaining awards are named after somebody from that decade, so it's about time we moved into the 21st century. A snap poll of Twitterists preferred another obscure figure over a fitting tribute to somebody like Nathan Jones. Poor Chunk, first I failed to deliver on the promised LOYALTY statue, now this. Stay tuned for a shortlist of potential nominees.  

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
I can't justify sending van Rooyen to the top because it was a complete fluke, but he can start the year on the leaderboard because there aren't many other options.

1st - Jack Viney (Q1) vs Sydney
2nd - Christian Petracca (Q3) vs Sydney
3rd - Jacob van Rooyen (Q4) vs Sydney

Next week
It's our old chums Footscray, who are arriving via the traditional method of playing their first game of the season in Round 1. This season could go in any direction for them, and it doesn't bother me whether they make finals, finish last or burst into flames, but I really need to win so we don't have to put with 'club in crisis' video packages with foreboding music and clips artistically shown in black and white to emphasis trouble in the air.

Because this competition is run like a Tijuana whorehouse, the VFL doesn't start for three weeks so god knows how we're supposed to decide on changes. When I started writing this post I couldn't find any mention of Casey playing a practice game. Then updates started appearing on their Twitter, for the first three and a bit quarters before the person who runs their account finding something better to do. I was astounded to see a mention of Ben Brown, and had to double check to make sure they weren't talking about Kynan. If he's got any mobility left he could come in handy, especially when Petty breaks again five minutes after returning.

As far as changes go, nothing happened to dissuade me from a deeply held belief that you can't have Spargo and Chandler in the same side. For now it's advantage Kade, but not by much. I feel bad for chucking Laurie, but he's never done anything yet to suggest being a first choice player.  

Pickett obviously comes in, and Billings should get a full game to see what happens, but otherwise the depth warning light is flashing before the second game. I'll have a McSizzle cameo to fill the gap until Petty returns, and will give Kynan Brown a run, but otherwise blah. We've still got enough available quality to win but the Veil of Negativity is slowly descending towards me. 

IN: Billings, K. Brown, Pickett, McDonald, 
OUT: Laurie, Schache (omit), Spargo (omit to sub), Bowey (inj)
LUCKY: Chandler

Final thoughts
I'm still all-in on a fairytale run to the flag, where we make finals in unspectacular fashion, then shock the world by making the Grand Final, only for Joel Smith to return on a technicality, kick six, then voluntarily retire while being off on the shoulders of jubilant supporters. Could happen.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. The toaster is in the bath, finger hovering over the switch. Let’s see what next week brings!


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