Sports

Even stars need to be called out for dog acts, and Port Adelaide’s path forward is clear

We’re only eight-ninths through the action of Easter weekend, but more than enough has already happened to get tongues wagging while we wait for Hawthorn to take on Geelong on Monday.

From Port Adelaide’s stirring comeback and Carlton’s latest clutch escape, to the Bulldogs and Swans steadying their ships, and especially to Fremantle and Melbourne’s statements of intent, this felt like a week to set up the rest of the season. Every team has settled, and we know have a good grasp of which teams are switched on, and which ones are in for a long few months.

Players are also in the spotlight; some for good reasons, like Bailey Smith, Joe Daniher and Charlie Curnow, and others (hi, Trent Cotchin) not so much.

Let’s dive right in!

1. Even the stars have to be called out for dog acts

There’s no way around it – this was a dog act by Trent Cotchin at the Adelaide Oval.

It was unnecessary, it was dirty, and it was very disappointing to see, especially from a triple-premiership captain and one of the game’s most decorated stalwarts.

Any attempts to brush it off as an accident or simple clumsiness overlook both the eyes of Cotchin as he went to ground, as well as the hand-eye coordination required to be a premier athlete in one of the world’s most brutal sports.

Almost as disappointing was the almost jovial reaction in the aftermath from some sections of the media, with former legend Jason Dunstall chuckling on commentary and another in Nick Riewoldt brushing off Cotchin’s act as that of a grumpy old man.

“I think we can all start to notice the grey tinge in Cotch’s hair… this happens when you get old in footy,” Riewoldt laughed on Best on Ground.

“You get old, you get grumpy, you’re not quite as quick as you used to be, and you lash out, you do.”

There’s a disparity between the treatment some of the game’s elite players get when it comes to moments like this. A Toby Greene, say, on in yesteryear Lindsay Thomas, would certainly not have been given the benefit of the doubt for a lash-out like Cotchin’s.

Joel Selwood, too, escaped even the level of scrutiny Cotchin received a few weeks ago, when he placed Collingwood’s Jack Ginnivan in a headlock after giving away a free. Indeed, perhaps the only reason Cotchin’s received that much scrutiny was because of Taylor Walker’s furious reaction afterwards, which made it instantly worthy of discussion from commentators.

Did it deserve a suspension? Probably not – though anyone who saw the sickening laceraction Magpie Isaac Quaynor suffered in 2020 at the hands of a boot spike knows the capacity for injury of a boot to the shins.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that Cotchin is a deliberately dirty player; neither is Selwood, though I say that with a touch more trepidation. Both have made careers out of going harder and tougher for the ball than anyone else, and occasionally that is going to lead to some less than savoury incidents. He doesn’t become an awful person overnight for one ugly moment on a footy field.

But the least we can do is make it clear that Cotchin’s act on Saturday isn’t on. He needs to be better than that.

2. North Melbourne deserve Good Friday

Until North Melbourne have a resounding win on Good Friday – and indeed, probably even after that – there will be debate over whether the marquee spot should be theirs.

Even giving them leeway to build the fixture against the Western Bulldogs, and improve to the level where it becomes a competitive match, doesn’t do them justice. Because they’re North Melbourne, and they’re playing the Bulldogs: even at their best, those two sides shouldn’t be expected to attract the same crowds as an Essendon, or Collingwood, or Carlton.

But none of that should matter. Because both in their off-field approach to the occasion, leading the charge in raising money for the Good Friday Appeal, and their innovation in pushing for the fixture in the first place, the Kangaroos have already earned the right to call the day their own (from a footy perspective, that is).

Throughout modern football, the Roos have been willing to test the waters and expand the game’s horizons: they, more than any other team, brought about the advent of Friday night football. They deserve more than to be just the canary down the coalmine, ready to pass the buck to one of the bigger Victorian teams if and when the manoeuvre is deemed profitable.

Equally, it’s not as if the crowd was that bad considering some of the other Victorian matches through the weekend. Melbourne could only muster just above 20,000 as the reigning premiers put on a clinic against GWS, while in balmy sunshine on Easter Sunday, the red-hot Blues pulled in 33,000.

Good Friday is, and should remain, North Melbourne and the Bulldogs’. Let’s put it to bed once and for all.

3. Time to fix the push in the back rule

A few years ago, simply placing a hand in the back of your opponent would trigger the umpire’s whistle. Now, it’s more complicated than that – and it’s become a farce.

Tom Hawkins got away with an obvious one a few weeks ago under the guise of guarding space; then, this weekend, it was Max King’s turn to shunt an opponent forward to set up a goal.

Adding to the confusion, a push in the back was finally paid on Saturday night, triggering howls of protest from Melbourne fans as it denied Christian Petracca a wonderful goal.

The rule as it stands is all but impossible to interpret for umpires; indeed, like so many of the AFL’s recent rule changes, it has made things significantly tougher for the game’s most maligned figures. If they pay every one, we’ll see fifty free kicks costing goals every week.

Maybe this is what that rules of the game committee should be working on: less bringing in new rules, and more ensuring the ones we currently have are working, please.

4. Let’s talk Taylor Walker and Jordan De Goey

Few professions offer an easy path towards redemption for past crimes than sport. Do your time, perform well on return, and not only is all forgiven, but it becomes a point of pride for some to gush over.

For some of you, Jordan De Goey and Taylor Walker’s performances on the weekend were triumphant, shrugging off their troubled recent off-field histories (yes, that ‘troubled’ is indeed doing some very heavy lifting) to be near best-afield in their respective matches. For others, that they’re even playing is a point of contention.

For what it’s worth, I thought the commentary around the pair was, for the most part, reasonable. There weren’t many overt mentions of redemption (though Dwayne Russell’s rising tone as he exalted Walker’s ‘first goal at home since his suspension’ was a bit on the nose), and nothing quite as crass as Bruce McAvaney’s famous description of an indecent assault charge against De Goey as a ‘hiccup’ during 2020.

As a commentator, too, it’s part of the job to call the game as it happens. If Walker or De Goey do something worthy of acclaim, then you can’t exactly downplay it – though being careful to praise the act and not the person is important.

So, in that spirit, let’s have a nuanced discussion about Walker first. He was exceptional against Richmond, proving the difference when the match was set up with four goals in the first quarter and a bit.

Credit where it’s due – but it’s also key to acknowledge that it’s not as if he’s made a return from a career-threatening injury or illness, a la a Sam Docherty. He was a very good player when he racially abused Robbie Young, and he remains a very good player now. You don’t have to applaud him as a person to recognise that.

Now, De Goey, who is putting together an All Australian-calibre season on the field. From a playing perspective at least, it’s not hard to see why Collingwood have kept him despite the trouble he brings. With three final-quarter goals as part of four and 21 for the match, the Magpies’ reduced the final margin against Brisbane to seven points in no small part thanks to him.

There will be many people – not without plenty of cause – to say that neither De Goey nor Walker should have had the chance to be out there in the first place. But they were, and they performed well – that’s undisputable.

5. Where to for umpire dissent?

You knew the moment that Harris Andrews conceded a 50m penalty on Thursday night for throwing his arms out that we were going to see countless more incidents like that go unpunished for the weekend.

And we did. In virtually every other game, there was at least one instance where a player, as Andrews did, threw the arms in exasperation over a free kick, and wasn’t punished.

Like with the hands in the back rule, this isn’t all the umpires’ fault. Of course the view of what is considered dissent will differ from umpire to umpire: it’s human nature. They’re not going to see every single one of them, either. And surely nobody wants to see 50m penalties handed out like tic-tacs, which would surely happen if the umpires applied a more stringent view to the rule.

Would we really want to see a game come down to a 50m penalty for something like this from George Hewett, for example?

The solution is clear: bring the rule back to only obviously demonstrative displays of abuse or dissent… y’know, the kind that was already there.

There are surely better ways to improve behaviour towards umpires at local level, ones that don’t once again leave the umps at the highest standard with yet more work to do.

6. Port Adelaide’s way forward is clear

The obituaries might have had to be shelved for Ken Hinkley after Port Adelaide’s second-half fightback against Carlton, but in the end, the Power are 0-5 and almost certain to miss finals.

What that means for Hinkley after ten seasons in charge remains to be seen, but it’s hard to envision a 2023 with him at the helm unless things change right now. Fortunately, the seeds have been sown for the Power to do just that.

Leading the charge in the second half were two of Port’s much-hyped crop of young guns, Zak Butters and Connor Rozee. In the absence of Ollie Wines, Butters was a tyro all day in midfield, with his zip around the contest and work rate everywhere else helping him set up forward foray after forward foray.

Rozee’s was a more interesting case: solid without being spectacular in the first half, his injection onto the ball after the break, replacing Travis Boak for large chunks, played a huge role in the Power’s resurgence. Excellent by foot, the Power’s inside 50s immediately looked more clinical whenever he was involved.

Having struggled mightily to date this season across the half-forward line, this move might well be the making of Rozee, for whom comparisons with Sam Walsh have long ceased to be funny. He may have failed to fire for a number of years, but there’s no reason a Darcy Parish-esque renaissance can’t come with a move to the middle.

When the Power shelved banging the ball in and hoping for the best, their game plan for the first four and a half weeks, suddenly things began to turn. Robbie Gray’s smarts came to the fore with three goals, Ryan Burton thumped through two from 50 (his first goals since 2019), while Sam Powell-Pepper’s stints as second ruckman gave Port some badly needed extra grunt around the ball in addition to his presence forward of centre.

To be sure, they were helped by the fact that Carlton more or less stopped dead after half time; but a better first half from Aliir Aliir could have reduced the margin to something that could have been overrun. Noticeably rusty after three weeks out with an ankle injury, last year’s All Australian centre-half back won’t play many worse games.

Nothing’s going to change for the Power if they go back to their usual set-up in weeks to come: Rozee forward, Boak in the guts, and no designs on ball movement save for chip-mark, chip-mark, bomb long, pray. But even if finals are off the table, there’s still time for Hinkley to convince the Powers that be (pardon the pun) that he’s worth sticking with for another crack in 2023.

Random thoughts

-I’m still laughing about Darcy Gardiner picking a fight with Nathan Kreuger on Thursday night and getting comprehensively beaten.

-The AFL has a problem if a perfect Saturday night featuring the reigning premiers at home can only draw 20,000.

-Jacob Weitering. Clutchest player in the game. Can’t wait to see him play a final.

-Some losses just make you go ‘eek’, and Essendon’s on Sunday night was one of them.

-Heads-up: I am going to spend a fair chunk of next week’s column talking about Fremantle. I promise.

-The below banner is completely accurate. I’d hold a grudge for 17 years over it too.



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