The opportunity for atop two finish was knocking, and the West Coast Eagles have well and truly opened the door to it.

People, we have to look at this realistically – if the Eagles finish second (or top… it’s still in play!) book their spot for the last day in September. And Eagles supporters, book your tickets!

If you get a chance, go back and watch the first quarter of this game again. It was the best fun I’ve had watching a game this season. Kennedy and darling on song, Tarrant having his 43-straight contests without being outmarked stopped pretty quickly, and Willie Rioli doing the sort of things that are better suited to a magic show – this was a showcase for our game, and amazingly, north Melbourne were able to hang in there!

There was a lot to like in this one, and a bit to screw your nose up at… but not much. I suppose it depends on which team you follow. I follow neither, so I’ll be doling out the good, bad and ugly of this game without any team coloured glasses.

Hope you enjoy.

THE GOOD

THE BIG BIRDS

Remember earlier this season when everyone was on Jack Darling’s back? The Mongrel remembers.

How about when people were lamenting the form of Josh Kennedy just a few short… days ago? Oh, The Mongrel remembers that as well.

And what about those people who were talking about Robbie Tarrant not losing a marking contest all season? Oh, you best be sure that The Mongrel remembers that, because Fox Footy showed a damn graphic right before the game reminding everyone.

So, what happened in this one? Kennedy snagged the lazy seven goals and broke Tarrant’s unbeaten marking streak in the first quarter, then did it again. Darling then did it twice as well as he snagged a couple of goals (but should’ve had a bag, himself).

The West Coast’s power forward duo had lights flashing and sirens sounding all over the footy world as they tore the North Melbourne defence to ribbons. It’s probably unfair on Tarrant, who fought on well in an undermanned back six, but the Eagles looked genuinely scary, and a team like Collingwood, who have seemingly lost every key defensive player they could, would be very glad their game with the Big birds was in the rear view mirror and not on the road ahead in the home and away season.

Kennedy’s hands were great, and darling started the game like a man on a mission, his first goal around the corner a sight to behold.

Suffice to say, if these two play out the rest of the season in this form, the Eagles will be close to going back-to-back.

 

WILLIE MAGIC

Before I oversell this move, I have to add that later in the game, Ben Cunnington sold some candy to Rioli that sent him sprawling across the Optus Stadium turf in what was as close to payback for his teammates as you’ll get.

But that does not take away from the sheer brilliance of Rioli in the first quarter. I could describe it in a million words and not do it justice. It was poetry in motion, it was balance, poise and skill rolled into one package, and that package was named Willie Rioli.

No more words on this one – just vision. Sit back, smile and enjoy.

OPERATION CUNNINGTON

This may fly a little under the radar, and that’s fine, but the defensive efforts of the West Coast midfielders on Ben Cunnington at stoppages were absolutely first class in this game. It started with Luke Shuey, who locked down on Cunnington in the first ten minutes so well that the North ball-winner could not get a touch.

Yes, that impacted Shuey as well, but with Sheed, Yeo and Redden to rely upon, it was a sacrifice the Eagles were happy to make. Yeo and Redden all rotated through Cunnington, who had so many blokes around him at points, he looked like Joe Ganino after a few beers at the pub. He never leaves alone, people – never.

Cunnington finished with 21 disposals but was soundly beaten on the night. When the opportunity arose, his hands were still clean, but he was unable to impact the game in the way he usually does.

The evidence of the Eagles’ determination to shut Cunnington down best came in the form of Elliot Yeo, fighting through Cunnington’s attempted fend off on the wing to pressure a rushed disposal. That effort in the third quarter typified the collective effort of the disciplined west Coast midfield, shutting down the supply to the outside mids, and forcing the Kangaroos star into hurried, pressured disposals.

On an individual note, this game came at a horrible time for Cunnington, who in my book, is locked in a battle with several other mids for an All-Australian spot. With Patrick Cripps notching 39 touches and 19 clearances in the other game today, Cunnington’s inability to influence this contest may work against him – it is the fourth consecutive game he’s had fewer than 25 disposals.

ZURHAAR

Okay, he is now my favourite Kangaroos player. If there is a body to run into, Zurhaar is the best man to run into it. At just 21, he plays like a man who is completely unafraid to mix it with some of the biggest bodies in the league.

It was him crashing into Luke Shuey on the wing as he kicked to create a turnover. It was him rampaging through Andrew Gaff in the first quarter in a tough contest, and it was him kicking three goals to be North Melbourne’s most potent forward for the game.

I think he is more than well-equipped to play the role North had Jack Ziebell playing last season 9and for parts of today) as the forward who bobs up and wins the footy with sheer desperation.

A question for North fans – could you see Zurhaar being your Plan B up forward on a regular basis?

When I watch him, I see a genuine presence about him – like a player who could move to the goal square and kick a couple in quick succession to give North a boost. He finds the footy, is not scared to put his body on the line to win possession, and will happily knock someone else over in the process if it gains an advantage for his team. He could be the sort of player that sends shivers through the spine of opposition defenders as he gets another year or two under his belt.

I’m not saying that he’ll be an undoubted superstar of the game, but the eye-test tells me that he is doing plenty right, and could be the kind of player that North come to rely on.

He didn’t look overly fit in the JLT series, and I remember thinking he had a bit of work to do, but he has obviously done that and then some. I’m looking forward to his first really big bag of goals – something tells me it is not too far away.

TOM BARRASS

THUMP!

How many times did you hear that from the fist of Tom Barrass slamming into the Sherrin this afternoon?  If you wanted to understand his value to the team, watch this game back – he was a monster in aerial contests inside defensive  50 for the Eagles, and when he wasn’t destroying packs, he was taking contested marks – three, behind only Josh Kennedy.

Barrass’ importance to this team was played down by many, and with Shannon Hurn working overtime in his absence, the Eagles did a fairly good job of covering for him whilst out, but today was a shining example of the freedom he allows the rest of the West Coast defenders to zone off and have confidence that should a long ball come in over their heads, Barrass will take care of it.

And that’s what he did against North, compiling 17 one percenters, compiled mostly of spoils. At just 23, the eagles have the future of their defence shored up in Barrass. A great reader of the ball in flight, he will be one who eventually contends for an All-Australian blazer of his own, but for the time being, he can continue to be the garbage man of the West Coast defence, picking up after others, and leaving the place spotless.

AND A BIT MORE ON YEO

I touched on him above, but there was so much more to Yeo’s game.

How great was he putting the foot down on the outer wing and sending the message to the young North Melbourne midfielders whose name escapes me (well researched, Mongrel!) that he simply could not go with him. He may have shanked the kick, but the next one hit Josh Kennedy, and the entire play stemmed from Yeo’s willingness to take the game on.

Yeo’s 26 touches, nine clearances and seven tackles were another all-round performance by the dual Worsfold Medal winner, who might be starting to warm as a contender to win his third consecutive medal.

Yeo has the ability to appeal to all footy lovers. Those who appreciate the skill see it in spades from him. Those who appreciate the gut running and willingness to take the game on see plenty of that, and those like me, who like a bit of the rough stuff (again… Joe Ganino at the pub leaps to mind) love when he locks onto an opponent and refuses to allow him the space to work.

Yeo is a complete package, people. I’m sure I am preaching to the choir if you’re a West Coast fan, but whilst many will point out that Brad Sheppard doesn’t get the plaudits he deserves from the Eastern Media, it is Elliot Yeo that is flying under the radar most. He is a beast.

THE GAFF YOU KNOW AND LOVE

I have not perused the stats before writing this, and I have to admit up front that I have not seen every West Coast game this season. I’ve seen plenty, and one thing that has really stood out to me over the course of the year has been the inability of Andrew Gaff to find the time and space he needs to operate at his best.

There is a bit of a feeling in the AFL, and it is evident to me sitting on the couch watching, that players think they can get to Gaff via physical pressure and intimidation. I wonder when they’ll work out that they can’t?

He ran, and ran, and ran today, and although he was on the receiving end of some Cam Zurhaar attention in the first quarter, Gaff bounced to his feet, didn’t remonstrate and went on his merry way.

Stats may indicate that he wasn’t as good by foot as he has been in other games this season (I haven’t looked yet, remember?) but the eye-test tells me that he found some open space in this game, and when you do that as a team, you sign your own death warrant. At one point he received the ball inside the centre square with 15 metres of space around him. Immediately, I thought “uh-oh”. You know he was going to hit a target inside 50.

And he did – Jack Darling marked but couldn’t convert (notice how close to the man on the mark he kept getting?).

Now we’ll have a look at the stats. 33 disposals at 82% efficiency… I feel vindicated. Plenty of ball off half back and the wing, giving him the space to operate that he needs – well worked by the Eagles and Adam Simpson. You often hear coaches get roasted when things don’t work, but whatever West Coast were doing to free Gaff up today worked, and I liked what I saw.

THE JETS

If you’re a West Coast, how could you not like what you saw from Lewis Jetta early in the game? His run and carry outside defensive 50 was something to behold, and it was as if he knew he could take on anyone in that North Melbourne forward half and run away from them.

He had 714 metres gained for the afternoon, which put him comfortably ahead of the next player by 114 metres, and ahead of the next best defender (Ahern) by 224 metres. Jetta can be guilty of going missing at times, but when the game was there to be won in the first half, he was as influential as any player on the park.

The fact that just one of his 21 touches missed the mark when he was picking up so many metres is… hang on – Champion Data rant incoming.

Dear Champion Data – are you guys absolutely stupid? How can Lewis Jetta possibly have gone at 95% efficiency if seven of his 21 touches constituted turnovers? Fix your statistics. You are paid a shitload of money to do this job for the AFL, yet your method is so flawed it’s ridiculous. A turnover is not effective – stop saying it is.

So, I suppose I enjoyed the blistering run of Jetta more than the kicking, in the end.

THE BAD

LOWER THE EYES KID

I listened to a podcast during the week where Kevin Bacon spoke about working with Clint Eastwood. He said he learnt so much from him about not ranting and raving, and just carrying a bit of weight with your voice when talking to people.

Apparently Eastwood doesn’t say “action” or cut” or anything like that. When he starts shooting he says ”go ahead…”

How cool would that be? He is quoting himself as Dirty Harry to start the shot! But it was what he said when he was finishing a scene that caught my ear.

“That’ll be enough of that,” he says.

And someone needs to wander up beside Jack Petruccelle or Willie Rioli and whisper that in their ear the next time they bombs long inside 50 or take an ill-advised shot without looking for a short option first. They burnt a couple of teammates in this game by not having a good look despite having the time and space to do so, and though it isn’t a big deal, they’re the little things that create trust amongst teammates.

So Jack and Willie… that’ll be enough of that.

THE UGLY

NORTH STARS NO-SHOWS

North fans have rammed names down my throat all year as to who they think is underrated and not given anywhere near as much credit as they deserve. Maybe they’ve been correct in some cases, but I reckon there are two names I won’t hear much about this evening after I post this review.

Shaun Higgins and Jack Ziebell – the reigning best and fairest winner and their esteemed captain hardly gave a yelp in this game. Higgins in particular was completely shut out of the game, and looked like he wanted no part of the heavy lifting for North, whereas Ziebell tried but couldn’t get near it and was shifted forward… where he also couldn’t get near it.

Add to them the emerging midfield stars in Trent Dumont (grassing handballs from four metres away is not an effective disposal) and Jy Simpkin, and you have a midfield that absolutely failed the test today. They were beaten 43-34 in clearances, and that was most evident at stoppages around the ground where Cunnington was nullified and North had scarce little else to combat the Eagles.

In the end, stats told a vivid story of the North mids – Simpkin 12, Ziebell 12, Higgins 19, Cunnington 21, Dumont 26.

Probably their only shining light was Jared Polec, yet his decision making with the ball sometimes seems as though he is prone to a bit of panic – at one point both Marley Williams and Shaun Atley turned to him and chastised him for not giving a handball, and popping the ball out on the full in the back pocket. They had a point – both guys were on for the handball, and Polec’s kick nearly hit Williams in the head on the way through.

QUICK BITS

Paul Ahern as a half back flanker, hey Rhyce Shaw? I like the move. Ahern finished 2018 strongly, but really struggled to find a place in this team in 2019, despite looking a lot fitter. Maybe that sweeper role off half back is exactly the kind of role that could work for him.

After last watching tom Hickey play (he got whacked against Brodie Grundy whenever Naitanui was off the ground) I think I was justified in not expecting too much from him today, but he exceeded expectations, and was probably a bit ahead of Todd Goldstein in the wash up. I thought Goldy picked up a few cheap ones late in the game, but overall Hickey provided good service to his mids and even snuck forward to snag a goal.

Another quieter game from Liam Ryan after starting out well. Nine disposals is nothing to write home about, but five score involvements from those nine touches indicates that when he does get his hands on it, good things happen. His centring kick to Oscar Allen in the last was vintage Ryan. And when I say vintage, I mean last year, or early this year because he hasn’t really been around long, right?

Hey – I saw something that is so rare in the modern game that it deserves to be pointed out. Jake Waterman laid a perfect shepherd at half forward in the first quarter to open up space for his teammates. I couldn’t believe it – that is UNSELFISH footy, and you rarely see it because players are taught to run to position to receive. Waterman finished with a couple of goals which I am sure many will use as his pass mark but I liked the shepherd, which helped free up space for delivery to Josh Kennedy for his third goal. Nice work, Jake.

I touched on Polec above, but what did we think of his game overall? He needs the ball on the outside – that much is apparent, and probably needs to use it better than he has to date. Are North getting bang for their buck out of him? He had seven inside 50 deliveries and 600 metres gained, so the run over the ground is there, but is the impact? He is down a couple of touches per game on last year at Port, and I reckon it won’t be until next season we see him at his best at North.

A bit of a strange game for McGovern here, with his standard seven intercepts, but I really felt he didn’t have to do a hell of a lot. He was playing opposite Mason Wood, who, as mentioned, robbed his own teammate of a goal to give him two on the game, but with just three score involvements for the day, it’s not as though Wood was able to impact in anything too meaningful.

And so, North go into full experimentation mode next week. Ahern to defence was nice, but I am sure Rhyce Shaw will want to throw some things around to see what works in a legitimate contest so he knows what he has to work with next season. They’ve got the Hawks on Friday night in a blockbus… average game for Friday Night Footy, and I reckon the Hawks will be playing around with their game style a bit as well to see what they have going on heading into 2020.

The Eagles travel to take on the resurgent Blues in a game that now becomes very interesting. I think I might want to cover that one to see how Elliot Yeo goes against Patrick Cripps head to head. I’m salivating already… but that may be because I am hungry and Mrs Mongrel is cooking burgers.

Mmmmmm, Mongrel burgers…