Unpacking the curse of the flogged grand finalist, and the AFL falls foul of Newton’s laws of motion… again

Let’s be honest – this hasn’t been a weekend of footy for the purists.

From a scrappy Friday night affair in chilly Canberra, through to the traditional ANZAC Day Eve slugfest between Melbourne and Richmond, the quality was noticeably lacking – though the intensity remained as ferocious as ever.

We’ve still got two games to go, so let’s not bandy around the ‘Worst. Round. Ever’ tag just yet – but unless you’re a Fremantle fan or just a glutton for punishment, you won’t exactly be looking for a whole-match replay anytime soon.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t some big stories, with pre-season flag contenders falling from grace, an anonymous Docker in All Australian form, and some number one draft picks proving that patience is the biggest virtue of all when it comes to developing young talent.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

1. Is the curse of the flogged grand finalist actually real?

I wondered a few weeks ago whether teams coming off a crushing loss in a big final could still feel the effects mentally the season after.

I argued then that it was more a tactical working-out, rather than anything psychological, that caused Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs to slump to 0-2 to start the year. Now, after watching the Bulldogs fall to the most comprehensive one-point loss you could ask for to Adelaide, I’m not so sure.

The Dogs’ midfield, the competition’s most lethal for nearly all of 2021, has fallen soundly back to earth, pretty much ever since Christian Petracca, Clayton Oliver and Luke Jackson tore through them like a fart through a rented suit in THAT grand final burst.

Competition leaders for contested possessions last year, the Dogs have lost that stat in all four of their losses this year so far. They’ve also fallen back to the pack for total possessions and inside-50s, having been far and away the best in the business in 2021.

They were soundly thrashed in the latter stat by the Crows, 58-43. The Dogs haven’t had a forward line capable of kicking a winning score with that kind of discrepancy since Rodney Eade was coach. It’s been true of them for years – without utter domination in the midfield, and I’m talking winning the clearances by 20 and the inside-50s by just as much, the Dogs are going to find it tough.

There’s no denying the Dogs were tactically eviscerated by the Crows in Ballarat: their quick handballs became sloppy under Adelaide pressure, their short kicks across the backline frequently cut off, and they were routinely forced into long kicks down the line that Billy Frampton and co. feasted on with 26 intercept marks. But it’s the lack of any sort of response to the Crows’ challenge, either from the players or from Luke Beveridge, that was just as concerning.

Marcus Bontempelli is banged up and far from his best, but Jack Macrae is well down on his Herculean finals series, Tom Liberatore as sloppy as he has been in a long time, and Josh Dunkley tireless but with obvious limitations in his kicking and pace. The first two were All Australians last year, the third ran close, and the fourth was on pace at Round 6 when a shoulder injury saw him miss three months.

If you can work out just who Dunkley was handballing to in the video below, please let me know. Actually, let Beveridge know too.

Macae managed just five touches in the final term with the game up for grabs, Liberatore three after a brilliant third term, while Bontempelli at least mustered seven but was still comfortably below his lofty benchmark, with his last-gasp goal coming too late to have any real meaning.

It’s not the first time they have been found wanting this year by a less highly touted, but more determined, midfield group – there’s no question Ben Keays, Rory Laird and Matt Crouch were the dominant trio on Saturday afternoon.

It’s these four stars who were the poster boys for the Dogs’ grand final annihilation in the third quarter. You can’t help but wonder whether the ghosts of Optus Stadium are still playing on their minds seven months on.

Dejected Western Bulldogs players walk from the ground after their loss to Adelaide.

Dejected Western Bulldogs players walk from the ground after their loss to Adelaide. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

2. Give number one picks all the time they need

It was worth watching Brisbane’s latest QClash triumph over Gold Coast – their seventh on the trot – simply to see two recent number one draft picks ply their craft in difficult, slippery conditions.

2017 top pick Cam Rayner, hitherto unsighted in his comeback year from a knee injury, shone with his strong hands and bullocking presence for the Lions; while for the Suns, Matt Rowell responded to recent criticism with a tireless game at the coalface, winning a match-high 20 contested possessions and 13 clearances.

More than players taken with say, picks three, four or five, there seems to be an expectation that number one draft picks instantly deliver. Look at all the headlines that have come Jamarra Ugle-Hagan’s way already this year, for instance, despite the fact that the pick right after him, Adelaide’s Riley Thilthorpe, is currently playing in the SANFL for a side only one point better than Ugle-Hagan’s Dogs.

Rayner has taken a while, and that knee injury might mean he’s never the Dustin Martin clone he was touted as in his draft year, but he looms as a key cog in Brisbane’s mix, whether it’s up forward on in the midfield. In either role, just like his more dominant teammate Zac Bailey, he has the tools to flourish.

As for Rowell, calls from Kane Cornes for him to try for ‘easy touches’ overlooks the fact that he is an absolute beast at the coalface. How many 20-year olds in recent memory could be averaging 14 contested possessions to start their third year, and still be talked about as in a lean patch of form?

Noah Anderson can do the flashy outside stuff, and he will for the next decade: it’s going to be Rowell’s job to win it in close and make sure his best mate has the space to do so.

These players go number one for a reason: they’re among the best talents in the land. Rowell and Rayner are proving that the investment is worth it – if we’re all patient.

The excessive weight of expectation drove Tom Boyd from the game. Before risking the same thing happening to Ugle-Hagan, let’s follow the example of the Lions and Suns.

Matthew Rowell of the Suns celebrates a goal

Matthew Rowell of the Suns celebrates a goal (Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

3. Unheralded Freo defender an All Australian in waiting

Every good team these days needs an intercept marker in chief.

Melbourne have Jake Lever and/or Steven May. West Coast had Jeremy McGovern. Prime Richmond had first Alex Rance, then Dylan Grimes.

For Fremantle in their win over Carlton on Saturday night, Brennan Cox looked as good as any of them.

Four of Cox’s game-high 12 marks at Optus Stadium were intercepts, while four were also contested. Against a Blues forward line featuring just about the most lethal key forward double act going around in Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay, the Docker’s aerial influence is immense.

Unless you’re a Freo fan or one of those people with photographic memories, it’s doubtful you’d recognise him if you walked past him in the aisle at Coles – but Cox is as crucial as anyone in the Dockers’ rise to start 2022.

In the first six rounds, Cox has claimed 20 intercept marks – that’s only marginally behind May, and clearly number one at the Dockers.

His presence also takes the pressure off Alex Pearce, who can always look to Cox for an assist if the opposition’s best tall is looking ominous, while it frees up Luke Ryan to safely marshal the defence and rebound without needing to lock down too closely.

Cox’s initial move into defence was mostly borne out of desperation – a bit-part forward when Longmuir arrived at the club, injuries to Pearce and Joel Hamling forced a major structural reset in the COVID-hit 2020 year. It’s certainly turned out well.

Now 23 years old, Cox is going to be a key staple in the Dockers’ back six for some time to come. And other teams had better start figuring out how to curb his influence.

Brennan Cox of the Dockers marks the ball.

Brennan Cox of the Dockers marks the ball. (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

4. Dees still the team to beat – but they’re human

That a 22-point win where they had 31 scoring shots to 14 is the closest anyone has come to beating Melbourne so far this year tells you a lot about how the reigning premiers are going.

Yet again on ANZAC Day Eve, the Demons absorbed an almighty effort from Richmond, responded, and blew the game apart with an immaculate third term.

But I can’t be the only one who thought the Tigers might have had them when Tom Lynch kicked the goal that put them nine points up in the first minute of the second half.

It wasn’t enough for Richmond – the Dees still got them in the end – but they might just have unlocked the secret to beating Melbourne that a better team can use as a blueprint for the rest of the year. Total, relentless, suffocating pressure, and maintaining a workable forward structure in the face of the Dees’ all-conquering defensive set-up.

Unlike in the first few rounds, the Dees looked like they missed Jake Lever tonight. Loose spots began to open up in their wall of a backline in the second term, when the Tigers kicked three goals from six inside 50s in the final ten minutes to take an unlikely lead into half time.

At the other end, the Dees were wasteful in front of goal, but the majority of their six behinds game from snaps under a blanket of Tiger pressure. There weren’t that many simple shots that went to waste. Equally, the Tigers’ backline was tremendous under heavy pressure, no one more so than first-year player Josh Gibcus. He’s going to be something special.

Around pillars Tom Lynch and Jack Riewoldt, the Tigers had enough aerial presence to (mostly) stop Steven May from marking everything as he had against GWS, while Toby Nankervis went toe to toe with Max Gawn all night, and probably only lost that tussle on points.

But after half time, it became clear that this fight was like the Avengers battling Thanos on Titan in Infinity War. You could almost imagine Gawn turning to Nankervis, smirking, and saying “All that for a drop of blood…”

The Tigers couldn’t last, and the Dees’ midfield got on top in the third term, winning the clearances with ease and using that advantage to good effect. From centre bounces, there was space to be found, with the unsighted Bayley Fritsch finally breaking loose for three marks inside 50 and two goals.

The Tigers, for all their grit, are probably mid-table this year. A team like Brisbane or, dare I say it, Fremantle, with strong backlines and a group of attacking options up forward, might just stand a chance against these Demons- if they can replicate Richmond’s manic intensity for more than a half.

But if that’s what it’s going to take to beat the Dees, then we might as well start preparing for their coronation already.

5. Can we stop speculating about Dusty, please?

Ever since Dustin Martin stepped away from Richmond after Round 1, barely a week has gone by without articles pondering everything from when and if he’d return, to whether he’d request a trade to Sydney. Yes, that last one happened.

This week hit a new low, with the Herald Sun’s chief footy writer Mark Robinson comparing Martin to Michael Jordan, with both having lost their fathers, and suggesting none too subtly that the three-time Norm Smith Medallist should return sooner rather than later.

I’m fully aware that writing about this myself is reaching Sideshow Bob banning television levels of irony – but can’t we just leave the bloke alone?

It’s seemed that, despite Damien Hardwick having to repeat that there is no time frame on Martin’s return at every single press conference, the buzz of talking about the biggest headline-generator in the game pays no heed to there being no new information, or indeed any heed to his privacy. Expect the speculation to ramp up now, too, given he’s made an appearance at Punt Road and reportedly returned to training.

When Martin returns to the field is his business, and nobody else’s. Can we not just give the bloke the time he needs without mentioning it every second week?

It’s not as if there’s a whole smorgasbord of other things to talk about. Like, for example, the nine games played and 414 players that run out every single week.

Dustin Martin

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

6. AFL should start paying heed to Newton’s laws of motion

That every action has an equal opposite reaction is something every kid who did science at school can grasp. Yet Newton’s Third Law of Motion still seems beyond the comprehension of the AFL.

It’s why every year, laws are brought in trying to make it easier to score, without realising that they by definition also make it easier to be scored upon. The result has been that scores have remained as low as ever, with the only change that the rolling maul, stoppage-heavy trend of the mid-2010s has been replaced by a heavy emphasis on the mark-kick game in the present.

With that in mind, let’s talk for one last time about umpire dissent. The rule is here to stay – the AFL don’t back down over things like this. They certainly don’t admit they were wrong unless forced to at gunpoint.

But before they commit to other rule changes thinking they’ll solve whatever the newest issue of the day at AFL headquarters is, they should consider the consequences of doing it.

From now on, whether an umpire dissent 50m penalty is paid or not, the umps will be at the centre of a storm. If one is paid, like the one on Friday night against St Kilda’s Dan McKenzie, the footy world will explode with fury at the harshness of the penalty. If one isn’t – like the two not paid on the same night against Saints Ben Long and Max King – then the footy world will explode at the inconsistency of the rules.

It’s the very definition of a no-win situation, and the result is that the umpires become more controversial than ever. If the plan has been to address abuse at grassroots level, then surely the sight of the umpires getting booed from the ground every second game is a huge step backwards.

All fans want is for umpires to remain on the periphery of the game – it’s why the umps ‘putting the whistle away’ in the last minutes of a tight grand final is generally always lauded (only Collingwood fans have ever really complained about that non-free kick for a block on Brayden Maynard in 2018, for instance).

The new rule has done the opposite: now, umpires are more prominent than ever. And you don’t need to be Isaac Newton to figure out why.

Random thoughts

-I damn near cried when Jack Hayes went down with that ACL injury. Footy shouldn’t be this cruel.

-Paul Curtis needed to get his mates down to Tassie with their shirts off, because his debut was a lot better than Ollie Dempsey’s on Sunday and no one’s talking about it!

-Ben Keays for the Brownlow Medal, you’re hearing it more and more.

-We’re going to hear about Jake Bowey’s winning streak every week for the rest of his career, aren’t we?

-Fingers crossed we get a couple of cracking games on ANZAC Day, because so far Round 6 has been… not great.

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