THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – ADELAIDE 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

The knives have been out for the Adelaide Crows for a while now. Ever since their dramatic collapse in the 2017 decider, there has been as much talk about where the Crows are going poorly as where they’re going well, and some of it has been entirely justified.

The Adelaide of 2018-19 were a shell of the team they were in 2017, and successive seasons without finals have contributed to one of the most spectacular falls in recent Aussie Rules history. The club was choc-full of talent, but the results were not forthcoming. Something was up, and something had to change.

Turns out plenty did change, and as we head into the 2020 season, we see an Adelaide team minus a lot of familiar faces. The ones that are left are charged with picking up the pieces and restoring pride in a club that promised so much and delivered so little over the past couple of seasons. A new coach, a sole-captain, and a semi-changing of the guard sees the Crows in a stage of transition, with many writing them off, but with established names still in the side, and some exciting youngsters coming through, have reports of the Crows’ death been slightly exaggerated?

Can Adelaide defy the critics and begin the climb back in 2020? Let’s explore with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

A MIDFIELD OF MERIT

With all the comings, and mainly the goings after the 2019 season, you would think the Adelaide Crows were a team devoid of stars.

Reading newspaper columns about the Crows, it was as though I was flipping through the football version of an obituary. Yes, there were quite a few leaving, but how many of these players would you have counted in the Crows’ top ten players?

Any?

I wouldn’t have had them in there based on their 2019 season form.

But what I failed to read anything about was those still left on the team, and when you start looking at those players, you come to realise that the Crows have plenty of talent remaining on their list. Yes, they may have lost some very good players, but that real talent that left were at the end of their time in the league, and the others were simply starved of opportunity.

They retained the absolute quality they had in the midfield.

Brad and Matt Crouch, and their combination with Rory Sloane make up a trio that can match it with any midfield in the competition. If you threw a loose ball and picked the top three from any club and asked these three Crows to go head-to-head with them, I’m not sure that the other clubs would be winning too many of the contests.

Brad Crouch is coming off a best and fairest season, and at one stage was probably in the top handful of mids in the league based on his performances last season. Rory Sloane is all heart and is coming off his second highest disposal average in a season last year. And then there is Matt Crouch, who is just two seasons removed from breaking the record for most disposals EVER in a season (that was subsequently broken by Tom Mitchell in 2018).

I suppose the big question mark in relation to that Adelaide midfield isn’t with those three, is it? It’s with the next couple of players who step into the middle when one of the big three are out, or in need of a rest. Who is capable of becoming the fourth and fifth midfielders now that Hugh Greenwood and Cam Ellis-Yolmen are enjoying the Queensland sun?

Is this the year the two 2018 draft picks, Ned McHenry and Chayce Jones lay their claim on permanent spots in the team? Is it time for Wayne Milera to step into the mix?

The top tier of the Crows is still really good, but what they’re now lacking is depth. Injuries to key personnel could hurt them more than it would other teams at the moment due to the talented role players looking elsewhere to become something more. If they find some depth, and some players who are desperate for the opportunity to make a name for themselves, 2020 will see this team put the pieces in place for a return to glory.

 

THE KEY TO THE TEAM

If I asked you who you thought was the key to the Crows fortunes, who would you say? Rory Sloane? A Crouch brother? Tex? Talia? Laird?

I’m not sure how many would agree with me, but I think a healthy Tom Lynch is vital to the Adelaide Crows, and sadly, they haven’t had a healthy version of him for a couple of seasons.

When I look at the other blokes listed, I can see someone else on the list capable of filling their role; maybe not to the same level, but good enough to hold the fort without too much damage being incurred. Sloane and the Crouch brothers are interchangeable. Tex can be covered by Darcy Fogarty or Elliott Himmelberg. Talia has Tom Doedee and Kyle Hartigan who can play on the deepest forward, and Rory Laird has Brodie Smith or Wayne Milera who can slot back in at half back and play the role of small defender.

But who replaces Tom Lynch when he is out, or he is playing hurt? Who gut runs to offer an option for those running out of defence? At times it was Walker in 2019, and at those times he was unable to get back and make the next contest. He was working hard up the ground, but making ground back to offer an option in the next passage was often too much to ask. Lynch makes those contests.

In one of the sections below, I’ll talk more about Lynch, but it is no coincidence that when he is fully fit and able to play every game, the Crows fire. He is the link man, the set-up man and the one man capable of blowing his opponent up and continuing to run.

If he is able to stay on the park , he becomes the Crows’ most valuable asset in 2020.

 

DEFENSIVE PILLARS

Tom Doedee became somewhat of a forgotten man in 2019. After injuring his knee in game one of the season, he had to sit by and watch his team fall apart for the second straight year. It had to be a bitter pill to swallow for Doedee (who fancies himself as a bit of a movie buff for anyone who uses twitter). He joined a contender and is now part of a rebuilding team.

But he is a major part of that rebuild, and his presence in defence might make the process a little quicker.

Doedee’s return to the Adelaide defence is exactly what the Crows need heading into 2020. Adelaide were forced to rely on their warhorse, Daniel Talia, and Kyle Hartigan to hold down the key defensive posts, but many have forgotten just how good Doedee was in 2018. There were plenty who thought he could have been the NAB Rising Star (Jaidyn Stephenson took out the award), and his presence in defence last season would have made a significant difference to the way the Crows set up.

Remember how many people were saying the departure of Jake Lever would cripple the Adelaide defence? Tom Doedee made them reconsider their opinion with the way he started 2018, and if he can recapture that form, Adelaide will find they’re generating plenty of run due to Doedee’s efforts.

The other defender we cannot continue without mentioning is Daniel Talia. A dual All-Australian, Talia made the squad in 2019 as he held the wobbly Crows back six together almost via force of will. Rarely beaten, and with a style that is completely without fuss, Talia took on the league’s best forwards every week, and often played a lone hand deep in defence. He was aided by Hartigan, but that is like saying that Batman was aided by Alfred the Butler. Yeah, he helped, but it was Batman doing all the grunt work.

As we head into 2020, the Crows remain pretty solid in defence. Talia, Doedee, Hartigan, Jake Kelly, Rory Laird and Luke Brown still make a formidable force to be reckoned with. It will be more to do with the supply coming in to their opponents that views just how heavily they’re scored against in 2020.

So whilst many predict doom and gloom, the Adelaide defensive pillars look pretty solid. Injury may bring them undone, as it did over the last couple of seasons, but with a bit of luck, things are nowhere near as bad as others will make out.

 

ROLL ON IN, FOG

There are a few players in the league that cannot hide their intent to find contact with the opposition. One is Cam Zurhaar at North Melbourne. Another is Mitch Robinson in Brisbane. And the third bloke that leaps out at me is Darcy Fogarty.

I was a little taken with the Fog after watching him in 2018. After Adelaide’s injury-riddled start to the year, Fogarty was able to play ten games, and whilst it took until 2019 for him to have a genuine break out game, the signs were there early that this bloke danced to the beat of his own drum.

There was one instance I watched a couple of times, and though the details may be a little lost now, there’s a couple of parts I remember vividly. Fog was in the goal square one-on-one with his opponent, but his teammate was running back with the flight toward the contest. Doing the team thing, Fog held his ground, allowing his teammate to come back with the flight and mark.

It was a fundamental piece of play, and Fogarty played his role to perfection, but it was what happened in the process that made me take notice. His opponent, frustrated at Fogarty holding him off with his body, launched into Fogarty, taking him to ground and landing heavily in his back. It was an F-U kind of move, and one that veterans hit a kid with to teach them a lesson. It wouldn’t have tickled.

But there, laying on the deck was Fogarty, looking up at his teammate with the footy. He was smiling.

It was the smile of a very satisfied young man combined with that of a serial killer. It was one that reflected the joy he felt not only in his teammate taking the grab, but in his opponent feeling he had to give him a whack to teach him a lesson. It was the perverse smile of a bloke enjoying himself, despite having an AFL player land square in his back on purpose.

At that point, I started watching Fogarty closer. I liked his aggression. I liked his swagger, and I liked the fact that if you chose to get in his way, you were taking your life into your own hands.

We often lament the league being devoid of characters or players that enjoy a bit of rough stuff. Darcy Fogarty is a throwback to a time when footy was played a little tougher and a little harder. I’ll be watching with interest to see just how long it is until the AFL tries to umpire his style out of the game. Until then, I’ll enjoy every moment.

A little prediction? By the end of 2020, Darcy Fogarty will start to rival Tex Walker as the Adelaide player most disliked by opposition supporters.

And he’ll relish it!

 

ONE OF THE MOST UNDERRATED SMALL FORWARDS IN THE GAME

Lachie Murphy kicked 19 goals in 2019 to rank fourth on the Crows. He also lay 68 tackles to slot in as fifth overall at the club. Lastly, he had 29 tackles inside 50 to be the best in the stat within the Adelaide Football Club.

But not many supporters other than those who follow the Crows would have much of an idea about him.

That should all change in 2020.

With Eddie Betts off to Carlton, the door is now wide open for Lachie Murphy to cement his place as the number one small option in the Adelaide forward 50. With attributes that Betts simply no longer possesses (repeat tackling pressure, endurance), Murphy’s pressure-forward game could be the undoing of many unsuspecting opposition defenders.

His 11 tackles against Port in the Showdown last season emphasised just how much he relished the intensity of the contest, and his courage when flying for marks has also been noted on several occasions. He is one of those annoying little small forwards who gets in the way, lays tackles, hassles, bustles and interrupts.

Is Lachie Murphy the answer to the forward woes of the Crows? Not completely, but he definitely forms part of the solution. His pressure is the right addition to the power game of Walker and Fogarty, and the hard run of Lynch. Murphy adds an element of ferocity without the ball that many on the team have not displayed to this point

If the ball hits the deck in the Adelaide forward 50, I expect Murphy to be heavily involved in 2020. No longer forced to create space for Eddie Betts at the fall of the ball, Murphy could have licence to hit the scoreboard as often as possible. He is one of the Crows I am expecting bigger things from this season.

When several of the 2019 Crows made their exit, they left the door open for others to seize the opportunity. Lachie Murphy should walk right on through that door and grab this opportunity with both hands.

And the contenders to usurp the role? Tyson Stengle. With four games in three seasons, he needs to make a statement. Jordan Gallucci – has shown signs, but doesn’t apply enough pressure just yet. Myles Poholke – just two games in 2019; I reckon Murphy has them all covered quite handily at this stage.

 

FITTER, LEANER… BETTER?

People love laying the boots into Tex Walker, don’t they? I mean, he hasn’t exactly made it difficult for them over the journey, but coming off a season where a lot was expected from him, Walker would be about correct if he rated his season as… average?

I think we judge him pretty harshly – he was top ten in the league in goals for 2019, and was also 12th overall in marks inside 50. Whilst that is nothing to write home about, it is definitely nothing to sneeze at considering the list of names behind him who get nowhere near as much scrutiny.

Word is that Walker is looking lighter and leaner (which are kind of the same thing) coming into the 2020 season, with a view to becoming more of a mobile forward – this is a very positive step. Tex lost a lot of mobility after that horrific knee injury in 2013. With those huge legs, he often turns like a container ship, and to be able to hit the ground carrying five or six less kilograms would be like getting a second lease on forward life.

Of course, I should probably drop five or six kilos as well… it’s not bloody easy!

It seems there are a few in the media who want Walker to fail, but his story is one of incredible success given how much was expected of him. People forget that this bloke was taken at pick 75 in 2007 as part of a now-defunct NWS scholarship program. What he has managed in his career to this point is remarkable. Whilst everyone can jump on, or jump off at will, I am starting 2020 firmly on the Tex-bandwagon. I’m pulling for him to show those who have written him off that he is not the spent force they have categorised him as, and if he does, I am looking forward to him letting them know about it.

So, what is his pass mark, then? He kicked 43 goals in 2019 and was belted for it. Is his answer 50 goals this season? He’s done it twice before – why not?

Personally, I’d prefer meaningful goals. Last season Tex kicked goals that were… well, they didn’t really matter at times. I want to see him stand up in big moments, put the team on his back and prove that despite no longer being captain, he is still a big leadership presence in this team. If he has those moments, 43 goals is juuuust fine.

The haters will hate, regardless.

 

MILERA TIME

I was ready last season. Having watched Wayne Milera take a significant step in 2018, I was certain that 2019 would be the year that he became a prolific ball-winner either off half back, or moving out onto the wing.

And it didn’t quite happen.

Perhaps reflective of his team’s performance, Milera stagnated in 2019 and failed to take the step I anticipated. If anything, he went backward. Sidelined with injury after Round Five, Milera never really fully got going last year, looking a little lost as Brodie Smith and Rory Laird occupied the positions at half back he was probably most suited to.

The problem here is that Smith and Laird are still in those spots, and they’re actually really bloody good in them! So what else is available for Milera in 2020, and can he make it work?

The Crows are screaming out for another player to transition into a genuine midfielder. Having watched Milera pinball around at half back on occasion, he seems as though he could effectively make the step into the guts and operate in traffic, at least as someone to ease the burden on the Crouch Brothers and Rory Sloane. If not him, then who?

The other option is the wing. Paul Seedsman (another who failed to fire in 2019) occupies one and will need to lift, but if Milera can adjust to a life in the wide open spaces, and use that speed to break lines, his impact on the 2020 season could be marked.

 

THE HEART AND SOUL OF THE TEAM

The Crows will be looking for someone to make everything alright in 2020. After a tumultuous couple of years, it appears as though those who wanted more than the team could offer are gone, the coaching staff has changed and those who remain can get down to the serious business of playing football.

It won’t be easy, and there will almost definitely be some lumps to take, but when the chips are  down and the Crows look to someone to stand up, Rory Sloane has to answer that call.

I don’t know one footy supporter that dislikes the way Sloane goes about it. He is hard as nails, never shirks an issue and is the first to throw his body into harm’s way if it means winning the footy for his team.

With the sole captaincy now his, Sloane is looking to lead his team into a new era, and he has some quality young players coming through to impart his wisdom to.

With the second highest average of disposals in his career posted in 2019, what can we genuinely expect from Sloane in 2020 as he takes the reins of the club he placed his faith in?

Whilst Sloane has Crouch x2 to work with, and work off, it is his in-and-under play that kick starts the Crows. For the past three seasons, it has been his grunt work at stoppages that has ignited them, and as he has averaged right around six clearances per game over that timeframe, anything less would not bode well for his team.

He gets a great mix of contested and uncontested footy, but there has always been a bit of a question as to whether he gets enough of it. His career-high in disposals is 25.22 back in 2016. He has never been over 25 touches per game again. If ever the Crows needed him to be prolific, it’s now.

 

WAS THE MASS EXODUS A COMPLETELY BAD THING?

There are a lot of doomsayers out there, aren’t there? People wanted the Crows to fall in a heap and were forever posting stories about camps, and coaching issues, and management, and this, that and the other. Many believe that where there is smoke… you should fan the flames, and when the Crows experienced a player-exodus at the end of 2019, all those who predicted doom and gloom smiled satisfied smiles.

They were right, and they could tell everyone they were right – apparently it means a lot.

But when you look at what Adelaide lost at the conclusion of the 2019 season, you have to ask yourself whether it was an entirely bad thing? Let’s go blow-by-blow.

Alex Keath – stepped into the role of defender after the Round One injury to Tom Doedee. Would you prefer Keath or Doedee in the role? Doedee is 22. Keath is 27. I’d take Doedee. No great loss given Doedee’s return.

Josh Jenkins – It’s easy to say this is not a significant loss, but I reckon this hurts in varying degrees depending on how Darcy Fogarty plays. Despite his issues with the coaching staff, JJ still managed two goals per game in 2019. I’d prefer he was still on the team, but his departure opens the door for Fog.

Eddie Betts – Done. Time was right to go. Had 37 goals in 2019, but so many were junk time goals that, whilst they were great on the highlight reel, they weren’t all that meaningful. I’m sure he leaves with nothing but the best of wishes from the Adelaide faithful, but I’m not sure there’s a lot of genuine regret. It was the right time.

Hugh Greenwood – Lack of opportunity finally saw him look elsewhere. At 27, he is exactly what Gold Coast needed and his tackling will be missed, but he was never going to get the chance to star at Adelaide with three players like the Crouch brothers and Sloane in front of him.

Cam Ellis-Yolmen – Preferably, you would like to have kept either of Greenwood or Ellis-Yolmen for their inside presence. Losing one didn’t hurt. Losing both… that hurt, and I think we’ll see the best of CEY at Brisbane.

Sam Jacobs – Surpassed by Reilly O’Brien and now goes to GWS where he will be the number one ruck. This was a win for everyone.

So, in the wash-up, the biggest loss here is the pair of inside mids in Greenwood and CEY. Had the Crows managed to keep one of them, it solves a little of their depth problem in the midfield, but in terms of the others; they’re all very coverable. Not that you’d know by the way it was reported, of course.

 

THE BAD

 

AND ROUND AND ROUND WE GO

Getting a heap of the footy is one thing. Doing something with it is another.

In 2019, Matt Crouch got a tonne of the footy yet again, but on too many occasions he was unable to do a lot with it. The reasons this occurred are many, with coaching instructions, a lack of forward presence, and perhaps some self-doubt all factoring in. As I watched Adelaide in 2019, I saw a version of Matt Crouch who looked a lot more comfortable changing direction and making the switch than I saw him take the game on and get the ball forward in a meaningful way.

My hope is that Matthew ‘Stevie’ Nicks requires something a little different from Crouch and implores him to trust his judgement and delivery in 2020, because as much as 32.6  disposals per game at 71% efficiency look great on paper, the actual eye test provided a very different perspective.

On our socials, people have recently said that both Lachie Neale and Tom Mitchell do not hurt the opposition with their disposals – I disagree, but if they said Matt Crouch didn’t hurt, I couldn’t argue against it.

I understand how important it is to keep possession of the ball and not turn it over, but I also understand that a team unwilling to back their skills and take the game on probably won’t go that far.

Matt Crouch had the ball 620 times in 2019. That was good enough for 19th in the league. He was not in the top 100 for metres gained. That’s what happens when you kick backwards and sideways every second time you get it.

 

STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN

Is this a rebuild for the Crows? It has that feel to it, doesn’t it?

No one expects them to contend, but are they looking to bottom out? With some of the talent on the list already, the rebuild should be a relatively quick one if they get the right players lifting.

But it is hard to get motivated if there is a feeling that you’re starting all over again. Sure, there can be a feeling of excitement to be part of something from the ground up, and there are teaching and mentoring opportunities for those who are nearing, or are on the wrong side of 30, but the motivation to do the extra sessions, the little things around the club… that’s what falls away.

Matthew Nicks has a big challenge ahead of him. His presence is the fresh outlook the club desperately needed, but he needs those players around 30 years old to buy into what he is preaching immediately.

And he has to restore some confidence in Bryce Gibbs along the way.

Gibbs was supposed to be the cherry on top for Adelaide when he came on board in 2018, but his confidence took a  battering last year, to the point where he actually looked lost out there at times. 12 years in the league, 265 games and suddenly he’d forgotten how to play?

There are several things Matthew Nicks can do to win over not only the team, but the supporters in short order. The first is an early win – a big scalp – the second is imbue the mids with the licence to play footy and not keepings off, and the third is to get Bryce Gibbs playing good footy.

If he can do that, the Crows will start the turnaround a lot quicker than some speculate.

 

THE UGLY

 

THE WHAT IF…?

I don’t like this “what if?” at all, but I feel it must be asked.

What if this clean out wasn’t enough? What if the residue of the last couple of years, and the disharmony that was reported is still clinging to the walls of the place like a particularly stubborn case of rising damp? What if Matthew Nicks is confronted not just with an unsettled team, but an unsettled team with unresolved issues?

My hope is that we are now in a period where the Crows are able to put the last couple of seasons behind them, but part of me worries (because I’m a worrier, I guess) that all may not be as well as it could be.

What I want to see is what happens when the Crows get three or four goals down on the road. I want to see them fight back. i want to see them show the kind of spirit good teams – cohesive teams show. I want them to dispel any lingering doubts about their group and the way they’re uniting as a club.

And I want them to stand as one and deliver – not in a power stance, for god’s sake! I want them to show heart and fight. That’s what builds character, and that’s what builds a team. And I don’t think we’ll have to wait too long for that opportunity to arise.

 

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