It isn’t very often that a preliminary final rematch from the previous season incorporates one team in the top four and one team who, heading into the game, were 17th on the ladder, with just the basket case that is the Gold Coast keeping them from the bottom. That’s exactly what happened on Sunday though, with West Coast, who are chugging along nicely this season despite their last start loss to Collingwood, taking on Melbourne, who have looked insipid at times this year, and though they’ve been somewhat better since the bye, thanks to Carlton’s rapid rise in form, they sat in the second to last spot on the ladder.

It’s difficult to diagnose precisely what has caused Melbourne’s downfall this season. There are myriad contributing factors, with injuries to key personnel, a limited preseason, the loss of Jesse Hogan to Fremantle and their midfielders’ stunning lacks in both form and confidence all dragging a side who looked exceptionally well placed to compete for a drought breaking flag again this season into the bottom four. The positives for Melbourne supporters are that they will have what looks likely to be a top three pick at this stage, as well as getting miles into the legs of Jake Lever and Steven May.

As tough weeks go for reigning premiers, this previous one might well have been the toughest of West Coast’s season, and it hasn’t really been that bad. Their one point loss to Collingwood was disappointing, but such was their early ascendancy in the contest, and so stoic was their defence, that they could afford to essentially not score in the second half and still pull off a miracle victory. More damaging, however, to the Eagles’ prospects, was the news that Nic Naitanui would be out for most likely the rest of the year with syndesmosis. He makes a huge difference to an already excellent West Coast outfit, and though they won it without him last year, I reckon they still would have liked to have him in September this year. Coming up against one half of the All Australian ruck duopoly in this top four versus bottom four clash, here’s what happened:

SELLING THEIR SOUL FOR THE HEART OF THE NATION

Please don’t construe this as me not enjoying Melbourne’s pair of games in the top end, with their Round 11 game against Adelaide in Darwin and now this game against West Coast providing excellent spectacles, with good crowds, and a great, festival-like atmosphere that is difficult to match at the many and varied coliseum-like stadia around the country. I also understand that not all clubs are in the strong financial positions of clubs like West Coast, Collingwood and Richmond, and thus have to seek other ways to make money for the club by selling home games. It’s why Port and St Kilda played in Shanghai earlier this year, and why North play home games in Tassie.

My gripe with Melbourne playing games in the Northern Territory is that, despite winning both their games there last year, it’s probably cost them two wins in 2019. I’d strongly suggest that their two point loss to Adelaide would have gone differently at the MCG earlier this year, and while yesterday was a close enough game for the majority, with Melbourne having more scoring shots at the end of the day, I would have given them even more of a chance at their home ground.

Look ultimately it’s semantics to argue whether Melbourne would have been better served by playing this game at their home ground. Financial stability is just as important for a footy club as on field results now, in this hyper competitive market, and the Dees’ ability to take their brand to new markets is hugely important for them. From my insular perspective as a Geelong supporter though, if my club had the option of 11 games at our home ground or nine and two at another venue, I know which I’d choose.

PUTTING ON THE FRITSCH

Bayley Fritsch has been a remarkably good acquisition for Melbourne, since being drafted from Casey at the end of 2017. In a forward line which is now missing Tom McDonald, Sam Weideman, Jake Melksham, Mitch Hannan and Jeff Garlett, after having lost Jesse Hogan to Freo over the offseason, Fritsch stood up on Sunday afternoon, playing what must have been his best game in the senior side. His first goal came from 50 on the run with no one near him, before he read the ball better than anyone to mark 20 out, which takes a lot of effort against a West Coast defence which normally kills the ball better than anyone. With two in the second quarter, he marked again right on half time to have the margin at the long break just a solitary point.

Such was his influence at half time that Adam Simpson had no choice but to move Brad Sheppard onto him in a lockdown role, which no doubt he would have preferred to avoid, given Shannon Hurn’s omission prior to the first bounce with an injury. Even in spite of this, his goal just after half time put the Dees in front for the first time since early in the first. If the Dees had have won, he almost certainly would have been best on ground, with his kick over the top to Hunt setting up Corey Wagner for his second. He also teed up Jordan Lewis perfectly in the first, though he wasted that opportunity, which was really the tale of the tape for the Dees. In any case, the Dees number 31 ended the day with four goals from 22 touches, with a massive 14 marks, three of which were contested, and ten score involvements.

With Melbourne’s notable forward half omissions, they really needed a big game from Braydon Preuss. I’ve written on the Dees in each of their last three games, and his best was when Gawn was out, against Carlton, which makes his decision to move to Melbourne even more mind boggling. He just isn’t a natural forward, with another series of dropped marks, and no influence. He managed just seven touches today, with his one mark coming in the defensive half, and a missed tackle on McGovern late in the first quarter allowed the Eagles to kick their fifth of the quarter, to his side’s one. Goodwin can’t afford to drop him, given the limited backup, but he will need a lot more from him next year if Melbourne are to rise back up the ladder.

Goodwin’s best move was to put Jordan Lewis on Jeremy McGovern at the first bounce. Making the two time All Australian accountable limits West Coast’s ability to build from the back half, and it would have been a coaching masterstroke if Lewis had have converted his two chances in the first. Instead, he ended up with 2.2, with his second a gift after Elliot Yeo laid a late bump. While it was a soft free, the former Hawk had done excellently well to outbody McGovern in the air and get out the back.

OH, DARLING

Jack Darling’s last month has been better than any other key forward in the competition. If you think otherwise, it’s fine but you’re wrong. Tom Lynch has been good for Richmond, but he hasn’t had the impact Darling has had. Ben Brown has lifted, but again, his impact is not the same as the often maligned Eagle. He’s kicked 16 goals in his last four games, and 27 in his last eight, with another four on Sunday against the Dees in another best on ground performance. If we were doing our Mongrel All Australian side this week instead of last, he’d be in mine as my second key forward, behind Jeremy Cameron.

It wasn’t just his four goals on the weekend which saw him sew up three Mongrel votes, though it certainly helped that he managed four straight when every other player on the ground managed 21.19 between them. With Josh Kennedy well held by the increasingly impressive Steven May, who was among the Demons’ best for the third week in a row, Darling stood up and made sure the Eagles’ forward line would function around him. Four of his nine marks were contested, along with three inside 50’s, and with two goals back to back in the last, he no doubt got his side over the line.

It wasn’t just Darling, though he was the focal point of the West Coast attack. Their small forwards, and indeed their entire forward set up, as it currently stands, is the best in the league. Darling being in such dominant form means that Kennedy’s recent scratchiness is forgivable, and when the ball gets out the back, which Melbourne allowed too often in the first quarter, they have the pace to score almost every time. Both of Petrucelle’s goals were classic examples of that, while Liam Ryan was buzzing all day, even if he didn’t have quite as strong an impact on the game as he would have hoped.

Willie Rioli, however, was the standout small on the ground, in my eyes. Whenever he went near the ball, good things seemed to happen. His knock on to set up Sheed and then Kennedy for West Coast’s fourth was exactly what you would expect from a Rioli in the top end. JJK’s snap from the boundary really made Melbourne’s misses even more damning. The small’s day early was very good, with a couple of knocks and shepherds to set up goals for teammates, and then managed to kick one through hastily on the line. His tackle on Jayden Hunt about halfway through the last ensured the Dees wouldn’t go forward, and really hammered the final nail in the coffin. His eight score involvements were a team high, while he also laid three tackles, took seven marks and sent his side inside 50 three times.

I’ve mentioned it a couple of times, but Josh Kennedy’s last month has been average by his own lofty standards. Kicked two but had just six touches and was well held by Steven May. Hasn’t had double figure disposals since the last time they played Melbourne, and since kicking three against Essendon in Round 14 has managed just two goals in three games. Most worryingly though, his timing is completely off. The Kennedy of yesteryear would have nailed a snap from 20 in the last, but despite May getting a poor bounce, the Eagle missed. I’m not sure Adam Simpson would be concerned quite just yet, with Jack Darling firing at the moment, but if a form slump like this continues it may hurt the Eagles come September.

GLIDING, BUT NOT SOARING

Can Eagles glide? I assume so, but I’m no ornithologist. The Eagles as it currently stands are just doing enough to stay in the top two hunt. Brisbane have gone past them on percentage, though it is a fine margin, and could easily be made up over the coming five weeks. Ultimately the Eagles won this game on the basis of

1. Better goalkicking, booting 14.7 to 11.12

2. Greater efficiency and pressure in the last, scoring from their first five inside 50’s and laying 13 more tackles in the fourth quarter

They weren’t excellent on Sunday, but I guess more important than anything was that they got the win after last week’s loss. They’re building towards September, acknowledging that it isn’t a sprint but a marathon. Even last season, they had patches of scratchy form, but hit their strides at precisely the right time to win the flag. If I were an Eagles’ supporter, acknowledging that yesterday’s win wasn’t spectacular, I wouldn’t be overly concerned. At this stage of the year you don’t want to be playing your best footy.

Especially important, I thought, was the form of their small defenders with Hurn out. After Sheppard moved onto Fritsch, the Dee’s impact on the contest was diminished greatly, while Frankie Watson looks a talent, with dash and the ability to take the game on. Jetta’s decision to take the game on in the back half early in the last quarter ultimately set up Yeo, who kicked a remarkable goal from 50 to level the scores. Despite being well held by Brayshaw for most of the day, his big moment came and he seized it.

 

2020 VISION

Melbourne has the capacity to shape the top eight from this point in, but that will be the only impact they have on 2019 from this point on. Instead, it’s time to look forward to next year, and so throwing Jordan Lewis forward to allow Petracca more midfield minutes was a good one. Their first goal was absolutely brilliant footy. At times this year watching Melbourne we’ve seen them play the kind of footy that saw them win two finals last year, but it’s come much too infrequently. Their work out of the middle for Viney’s goal was 2018 vintage. Oliver, Gawn and Petracca were all involved, as was Harry Petty, who looks a talent in spite of his kicking for goal this week.

Petracca’s decision to go to the top of the square instead of having the shot from the boundary was a strange one in the third. I reckon he would have tried to kick it last year, but he’s trying to be too unselfish this year. It almost cost them on the rebound, with a bad bounce costing West Coast a goal. His burst out of the centre to set up Fritsch showcased his talent, but the latter missed. He’s another who has dropped off from last year, but I imagine with another preseason under his belt he’ll be back near his best next year.

With Tom McDonald and Sam Weideman out of the side on Sunday, it was Angus Brayshaw who carried the mantle of the Dee who has suffered the greatest drop off in form. I wonder if Simon Goodwin’s decision to make him accountable for Yeo was an effort to get him more involved in the contest then, but whatever the reasoning it was an interesting, but good decision. Yeo is often the accountable mid for West Coast, leading the league for tackles, and while he had his obligatory nine on Sunday, he managed just 16 touches to Brayshaw’s 15, with the Eagle far less damaging forward of centre than he was last week.

Clayton Oliver’s ability to spin in and out of trouble is as good as anyone’s in the competition. He so rarely gets tackled, and he did it twice in essentially the same passage to set up Petty’s miss in the second. Another excellent day for him, with 34 touches, 20 contested, six tackles, an important goal in the third, nine score involvements and a game high nine clearances.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

I reckon a couple of times today we saw the Melbourne of 2018 come out to play. They looked bold and took the game on, and even held a slender lead early in the last quarter. It ultimately came to naught though, with poor ball use and kicking for goal costing the Demons what would have been a famous, unlikely victory. Their game against a resurgent St Kilda outfit next week will be interesting, if ultimately meaningless, before a fortnight against Richmond and Collingwood that has the potential for massive September ramifications.

For the Eagles, I can’t imagine too many supporters wanting to go back and rewatch that one, though rest assured it was an important, gritty victory. Lose that one, and a home qualifying final looked unlikely, but a win kept them out of second spot on percentage alone. With no Naitanui, their midfield worked hard enough to earn a victory, which would be another encouraging sign for Adam Simpson. They should win their next two, against North at home and Carlton away, before a fortnight against Adelaide and Richmond which will tell us more about how well placed the Eagles are for another flag tilt.