Monday 25 March 2024

Pork A Hawk

NB: Due to the excessive time taken to finish this post, the following scenes of injury-related misery are no longer as relevant. Can't be bothered coming up with a new angle, so enjoy the panic when it was still fresh.

You don't often see a game won by quarter time with the opposition held to five goals and still finish the weekend expecting to be disappointed. There's a first time for everything. In this case, the history books will show a comfortable early season win, but the Veil of Pyrrhic Victory is dangling due to the greatest defensive duo of our lifetime both suffering injuries of TBC severity. At the time of writing, Lever and May could be anywhere between perfectly fine and dead so I encourage you to activate any spiritual beliefs and hope for the best.

Here's to looking back at this alleged crisis in September (preferably post-flag) and laughing at the fear that went through us (me?) when May briefly looked like he'd never walk again, then relaxing just in time for Lever to hobble off with a knee injury. Early indications are that it's not a total blowout, but think of all the times we've been burnt over the years by leg injuries that turned out to be so much worse than they looked.

Ironically, the swathe may have gone through our tall defender ranks about five seconds after we were left unexpectedly flush with big forward options. In addition to the incumbent Brown and van Rooyen, Harrison Petty returned, taking us from the flattest attack in town two weeks ago, to more targets than a Glenn Bartlett lawsuit. It was quite the change to our last meeting with the Hawks, a box-ticking exercise featuring the  Josh Schache for Adam Tomlinson tactical substitution that will have future generations saying "Pardon, what?" End result similar, but this time at the start of the year when trying to get things revved up, not half-arsed end-of-season banana peel avoidance.

Last year Hawthorn had a solid run at the end of the season, causing a lot of people to get sooky towards Leigh Montagna after he claimed months earlier that their rebuild still had a long way to go. We still don't know if this is true, but plenty of teams have perked up at the end of a season, then turned up for the next one looking putrid. Regardless of where they're, and how many injury excuses they've got, I'm not entirely sure we took Hawthorn seriously. See, for instance, picking Marty Hore as the sub. Maybe somebody had a premonition of backline carnage, more likely they thought there was no need for a potential game-changing inclusion late in the piece. 

Bit harsh on Marty, welcomed back with open arms last week, then told to sit on the bench and wait for somebody to fall over. I suppose if it was close they could have opened a spot for him by replacing one of the big forwards with McSizzle, but we all suspected this was unlikely. I never take a win for granted, but while I'd never say it out loud we'd have needed a serious of significant cock-ups to lose.

Considering almost total midfield dominance against depleted opposition, you'd expect the big men to have done all the damage. Only if you were stuck in the David Neitz era. Other than Hogan kicking seven in a loss to St Kilda, every substantial haul (in respect to currently suspended players we will not call them 'bags') has come from a smaller player. That's where the fatal damage came from again, with Fritsch, Pickett, and Chandler combining crumb and set shot for 10 between them. You wonder how we'll go against the good sides, but the required job was done efficiently here.

In a random return of Banner Watch, I enjoyed the complete rewriting of history that suggested "some clubs rebuild, the Dees just reload", when we only recently finished the biggest reconstruction project since Pompeii. I remember half-successful teams using us to make themselves feel superior, so nice to be on the other side of the equation at last. You wouldn't claim it against Geelong, who have been constantly rebuilding for 40 years without collapse. The good news is that you can put anything on a banner at a Hawthorn game and it will never beat their May the Fourth 2019 disaster. 

When we last met, Hawthorn's big tactical idea was clamping an old-school, disruptive tag on Clayton Oliver. Many have tried and failed but they got him one game back from an off-field drama-filled injury absence and had a bit of success. In retrospect, considering what he would have known that nobody else did, you can see why Goodwin went as far off as he ever does about it. 

Sam Mitchell could turn out to be the next Norm Smith for all I know, but even in our saddest years we'd have known the opposition was going to try the same thing. It worked so far as it restricted the  Man Who Made Mooroopna Famous to just a good game instead of BOG, but at the price of clearing the path for Petracca to go right off. It's easy to be casual about routine wins that we'd have jumped off an MCG light tower for a decade ago, but even if the old premiership window eventually slams shut at one and done you'll look back at some of the players who were involved and realise they were 100x more fun than you remember.

This time Slamming Sam had a second idea, trying the AFL equivalent of a non-league side parking 10 men behind the ball in an FA Cup tie against Manchester City and hoping for a nil-all draw. They spent the first quarter racking up uncontested marks and possessions in a game of keepings off that would have thrilled Supercoach fanatics but failed to come to grips with a) still needing to score something, and b) savage punishment of the inevitable turnovers. There would be no repeat of that early-COVID slopfest when Geelong treated us like traffic cones for most of the day. We still nearly came back to win that day, and the gap between Cats 2020 and Hawks 2024 is the equivalent of my house to Jupiter. I'd say we wish them well for the future, but that would be a lie.

Last week we raised the spectre of Ron Barassi's epic "you give me possessions and I'll shut up" rant, but this would have caused him to throttle somebody. There were many handballs, kicks, and marks, and when somebody was standing on his own in acres of space it worked just fine. The problem was that after slowly inching forward to the point where they had to kick inside 50, they found us set up like the Maginot Line. In our premiership year, we were held to a draw by an almost as crocked Hawthorn side when they attacked from different angles, and occasionally just (accidentally?) scuffed the ball along the ground to their forwards. This was frontal attack into a brick wall, and they got what they deserved. 

We've all been there, and if you're watching a rebuilding side it's nearly mandatory to have a few games where you hope to be competitive in defeat then finish the first quarter in fear of a triple figure loss. The Hawks deserve some credit for getting away with half of that, via a brief attempt to keep things interesting in the middle quarters, but after being thrashed so often over the years I'd love to beat the snot out of somebody. Anybody will do.

The ruthlessly efficient clobbering started with a couple of missed set shots, but you got a hint of how it was going to turn out from the first one. You've not seen many better end-to-end transitions that included a dropped mark, finishing with Petracca effortlessly taking up a loose ball and dropping his kick right on Petty's head. After booting them from everywhere in his brief run as Tony Lockett Jr, his return set shot can generously be called 'rusty'. It eventually required Pickett to snatch a mad, loose handball across goal and bounce one through. And bounce it did, taking a massive upward pitch as it crossed the line, vastly improving the visual spectacle for anyone mad enough to be watching a 4.35pm Saturday game.

Petty didn't have much success before being redeployed elsewhere due injury crisis, but he is great at making a contest. This goal never happened without him helping bring the ball to ground, then keeping the defender occupied. If he plays forward again, and once May returns I see no reason he wouldn't, there'll be a game sometime this year where he takes to an opposition like Godzilla in Tokyo. I'd get more emotionally invested if I didn't fully expect him to continue the slow disintegration of the flag club by legging it towards South Australia at the first opportunity.

The best way to eliminate NQR set shots is to boot your goals through an unguarded square, which is where Bayley Fritsch came in. After playing well in a loss, then badly in a win, he realigned the planets with a five goal day. The first was a gift, coming right through the pack and into his arms, but there are years where he'd have turned to play on, tripped over, and watched the ball roll through for a point. 

Another delightful move out of defence saw Pickett go to the other end of the scale, marking on the edge of the centre square, seeing Gawn running towards goal, and realising that a wheeling, long bomb from outside 50 was a better percentage option. He was set up by Neal-Bullen, who had a very good game. ANB is the ultimate middle of the team player, and this is a good thing. He just shows up every week and does his thing within a tightly controlled window of rarely being dominant or playing shockers. He's played 150+ games, would have been a life member this year even without the automatic premiership induction and only gets two paragraphs on Demonwiki. The best compliment is to say he is very much appreciated. Also responsible for a great moment in Australian TV history by spewing on the Gabba.

Speaking of life memberships for premiership players, I note that stopped being talked about once the AFLW team won. They clearly hadn't considered if it would apply to both teams, and there's no way they can't do that without shitloads of bad publicity. If you accept that Daisy Pearce and Paxy would have got one anyway (+ likely foundation players Mithen and L. Pearce in the future), the test case is when Ben Brown retires. There's zero dispute about his contribution to the greatest night of all time, but he probably won't make 50 games and wouldn't get the nod under regular circumstances. 

It's apparently been retrospectively applied to all senior premiership players since 1900 so unless they slip me a bung to go quiet, I'm going to have to call it out for nerd reasons if he goes in (+ eventually James Harmes, Luke Jackson, James Jordon etc..) with Harold Hay from Cumloden (?) College and his seven games, but skip over the likes of Libby Birch, Casey Sherriff and Eliza West who departed well short of 10 years' service. It was a silly corner to paint yourself in to start with, but they're stuck now so start bulk-producing certificates. Can't wait to see how it's handled the first time a player from either team departs in acrimonious circumstances. 

Finally, on this space-wasting topic, I'd like to reboot my idea to restart our Hall of Fame and use that to properly differentiate the greatest on-field contributors (including coaches) from deserving players, administrators, volunteers etc... They should keep getting life memberships, hopefully with many more premiership players to follow, but the Hall of Fame is reserved for the peakest of peak players. On paper we've already got one, but it's been done in such a half-arse way that you could almost start again.

Anyway, as I was saying, by the time we'd gone five goals to nil up at quarter time, Mitchell's tactical masterplan had been blown into so many pieces it was only identifiable by DNA. Surely if there's any team to try possession footy against it's not the one that has spent years trying to stop teams getting the ball inside 50 quickly? The longer teams take the better, and here he was trying to sneak through an unlocked side door. Better luck next time.

Holding them to one point in the opening quarter was a blow to Steven May's insurgent Jakovich campaign. If only that was the worst thing to happen to him on Saturday. This week he was not required to launch a one man war on the opposition, and still ended the day being carted off to hospital. 

After years of being regularly walloped by Hawthorn, it would have been nice to claw one back here. Sadly they switched to playing normally after quarter time, ruining the spectacle for bloodthirsty neutrals. This was a lot like our first game against them in 2023, where we opened an early lead that briefly threatened to challenge our record win against them/anyone, withstood a barely serious challenge, then won comfortably without doing anything amazing.

Much to the joy of bored commentators barracking hard for a storyline, Hawthorn got the first of the second quarter. Which lasted about 19 seconds until cancelled by Pickett's third. That didn't stop them from embarrassingly trying to talk up an unlikely comeback. At least when they weren't going full Rankin' Wankin' over a second gamer who is already called 'The Wizard'. Let's hope he has better luck with nicknames than old 'Beast Mode Barometer' Rhys Mathieson, who is now plying his trade at the elite private school sounding 'Wilston Grange'.

Anthony Hudson and Jason Dunstall should have made up for Dwayne constantly talking out of his ringpiece but treated the occasion like a Round 21 game between bottom four sides. It was disappointing to hear Dunstall come out against fun by accusing Sam Frost of defending too aggressively. If you're just playing for time until the kids get good then what's the point of playing him if it's not to keep spirits up with his ferret up the leg style insanity? Hopefully Hawks fans get as much "everything else is shit, but that was fun" comfort as we got from him in 2019.  

If you didn't think we could lose a second quarter after being 32-1 in front, then you haven't paid enough attention over the years. After plenty of pressure for no result, Hawthorn finally got a second after May was crunched in a marking contest. Nothing unfair about it, and when you put yourself about like he does then this sort of thing is inevitable. It's fine once you know he's relatively fine, but there's nothing like the feeling of first seeing a top player on the ground in pain and not knowing if they're winded, slightly injured, or out for the next 12 months. It looks like a rib injury of some magnitude, and as our luck has changed a bit in recent years I'm confident May won't end up in an Iron Lung. May bounced back from Tom Hawkins elbowing him in the head, played a Grand Final with 6cm of tear in the hamstring and survived Le Belting in a French restaurant, so I'm sure he'll be back in fine form before you know it.

To the disappointment of Captain Bollocks, who screamed the immortal commentary line "They were 32 points down at quarter time, now they're only 30 points down!" no miracle recovery was forthcoming. The final margin was up in the air, but even with the gap reduced to 26 points at the half you knew we weren't going to lose to anything but outright corruption or surprise injury crisis. I could take losing May, but when Lever also hobbled off and was shown having a really shit time of it on the bench I was in full disarray over him doing another knee. Doesn't seem to be going that way, but I'm bracing for the worst and hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Any lingering resistance was put away when Chandler extended his coveted #37 goalkicking record with a lovely set shot, then Fritsch snapped one mid-bump and any remote chance of the Hawks making it interesting had gone up in smoke. Good. The heartwarming Ben Brown renaissance didn't carry into a second week, but he did pull off a military grade deception in going back for a set shot, then passing to Chandler for another. Then Petracca burst out of the middle to finish a play that began with Gawn being eye-poked Three Stooges style for no reward. Max should have got some back by booting the guy in the shins, but the best revenge is living well. 

I'm all for punting home the underdog, but the talking up Hawthorn still being in it when they were six goals down at the last change was uncouth. "That might get them started!" shouted the usually sensible Hudson when they reached 5.6.36 in the opening minutes of the final term, only to concede the last four goals of the game. It took eight seconds to set up the reply, with Petracca charging through the middle and laying it as well on the leading van Rooyen as he's ever going to get.

Both Hawthorn games last year were so boring they could have been used for general anaesthetic, and this was heading the same way before Bailey Fritsch tried to launch a one man Mad Minute. He pulled down a juggling mark for the first, and was fed another A+++ pass by Petracca for the second, before sadly failing the NBA Jam "He's on fire" test by spraying the third. 

This was all being done on James Sicily, who somehow got to play after challenging a suspension for kicking on the basis that he did it but not very hard. By now he was probably wishing he'd just hauled off and kicked the Essendon player in the dick so he didn't have to be involved in this, but apparently in an era where the league has gone responsible/soft/'woke' (delete as applicable depending on your political affiliations) on everything else, we've got precedent that you can toe-poke somebody in the shins if upset. Meanwhile, last year Lachie Hunter was fined $1500 for gesturing at a passing opposition player while standing over the boundary line, so work that out.

Once that excitement was over, it was back to some of the junkiest, junk time you're ever likely to see. Unless you're Christian Petracca, who pissbolted to the defensive square to put on an ultra-late spoil that saved a near-certain goal when the game was already enormously well won. He celebrated like he'd kicked a goal at the other end, and if there was an election held today I'd write his name on the ballot.

And... err... that was it. I wonder if Petty and McDonald got bored at the end and started discussing whose career high six goal haul was better. The answer is Petty, but more accurately they were both winners because 23 Hawthorn players only got five between them here. It could have been more savage and demoralising to the opposition, but like Fritsch in the fourth quarter we're just heating up so I'm willing to take it without complaint.

2024 Allen Jakovich Medal votes
5 - Christian Petracca
4 - Bayley Fritsch
3 - Alex Neal-Bullen
2 - Kade Chandler
1 - Tom McDonald

Big old apologies to Salem, Oliver, Pickett and Rivers

8 - Steven May (LEADER: Marcus Seecamp Medal for Defender of the Year)
7 - Christian Petracca
5 - Clayton Oliver
4 - Bayley Fritsch, Max Gawn (LEADER: Jim Stynes Medal for Ruckman of the Year), Jack Viney
3 - Judd McVee, Alex Neal-Bullen
2 - Kade Chandler, Tom Sparrow
1 - Jack Billings, Blake Howes (LEADER: Rising Star Award), Tom McDonald

Aaron Davey Medal for Goal of the Year
I didn't mind Fritsch's mid-bump snap, but it's got to be the Pickett party starter from outside 50 in the first quarter. But not enough to vault him into the top three again.

1st - Kysaiah Pickett (Q4) vs Footscray
2nd - Jack Viney (Q1) vs Sydney
3rd - Jack Viney (Q1) vs Footscray

Next week
Party like it's 2020 and you're not allowed more than 5km from your house, because we're playing two games within a few days in South Australia. This time it's Locals 1 and Locals 2, instead of weird opposition like North, Brisbane and Essendon. First Port Adelaide, who usually go off like spoiled milk late in the year but will probably be 100% up for it here.

With no injury/suspension returns, changes have to be judged against our Reserves being easily beaten. The AFL website had to come up with positives from each state league side, and other than an alleged BOG from Tomlinson the best they could do was:

Other big Demons in consideration to fill the hole expected to open through injuries to Steven May and Jake Lever included Tom Fullarton (12 disposals) and Josh Schache (nine disposals, one goal).

Which seems wildly optimistic, and only possible if Petty goes forward again. If both Lever and May are out, then Tomlinson can play, but otherwise I'm happy to leave Petty, Hore, and McDonald together until it goes up in flames. Making somebody a sub first up is putrid, but with apologies I'd like to go for double Brown and pick Kynan. Or Tholstrup, or Moniz-Wakefield. Now that players debuted in 'Opening Round', all bets are off on ruining the experience for first gamers.

IN: Hore, Tomlinson, K. Brown (sub)
OUT: Lever, May (inj)
LUCKY: B. Brown
UNLUCKY: Woewodin + all the potential debutantes.

Final thoughts
We're unbeaten in games with a proper round number, so that's pointing to a 23-1 season followed by the traditional straight sets exit.

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