It may “only be the pre-season”, but if you’re looking for an inkling as to where your team will sit, and what style they’re going to play in 2020, you are probably wanting to cast your eye over the Marsh Series at some stage.

Whether it is improvements in particular players, or the overall intent of the team, the pre-season series offers up plenty for the footy-starved public, and the encounter between the Port Adelaide Power and Western Bulldogs offered just that.

Adding to the interest was the fact that this, if you overlook some of the early-season skill errors, was a ripping contest, and I’m sure the good people of Whyalla would have been happy with their day spent at the footy.

As always, The Mongrel was watching, and here are some of the takeaways from the game.

 

SAM POWELL-PEPPER IS TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY

Writing this makes me smile.

We’ve been waiting for Powell-pepper to have the penny drop, and if the first two outings of the 2020 pre-season are any indication, if that penny hasn’t landed, it is in the process of doing so.

It’s not about the stats, and as I write this section, I am trying not to look at them – it is about intent, and it is about endeavour, and late in the game, it was Sam Powell-Pepper throwing himself into contests as though this game was worth four points, and wasn’t just a practice match.

He tackled, ran hard to space and was one of the catalysts for Port taking the lead late in the last quarter. I don’t care whether he had ten touches, or 25, when it counted, he was front and centre.

Now, for the record, he collected 25 touches and gained 434 metres for his team, indicating that when he got the footy, he was looking to press forward. He also ran at 72% efficiency, which whilst not brilliant, is an improvement on his numbers from last season, and around the mark you’d want from him this season.

I’m on the SPP bandwagon, and it has started rolling early this season. Great to see.

 

BAILEY SMITH TAKING THE NEXT STEP

For those playing along at home, this is the second game of the Marsh Series that Bailey Smith has amassed double figures in tackles. In just his second season, he is making the statement that he will be as hard at it in the middle of the ground as any player years his senior – he looks like he means business in 2020.

The Dogs have a stacked midfield, and whilst Bont and Macrae are great ball-winners, they are not big tacklers – Dunkley is, and with Smith now saddling up in the middle, the Dogs have a fantastic midfield combination taking shape.

Smith has no fear, but unlike many who are hard at the footy and the player at such a young age, he possesses something that many take a long time to develop – poise. His 20 disposals were an almost even mix of contested and uncontested footy, and his 75% efficiency is the sort of delivery a very good mid should be executing.

Sam Walsh and Connor Rozee were two names on the tips of everyone’s tongues in 2019, but when looking back on their draft, I wonder whether soon enough we’ll be adding Bailey Smith’s name to the discussion about who the best player is from that year? Maybe it should be mentioned already.

 

TIM ENGLISH IS MUCH BETTER

So, this was something I watched with interest right from the first bounce. Is English ready to take it up to the league’s big men? Can he handle to physical pressure? Would Lycett beat up on him?

It did not take long to get answers, with English getting the better of Lycett in the first stanza. He outworked Lycett in the ruck, and was more effective around the ground as well, taking three intercept marks in the first quarter alone and slotting home a goal.

If those who doubted English, or the Dogs’ decision not to pursue an established ruckman (Ryder/Jacobs) to aid in his development, of which I was one, this game may have changed their opinion.

English’s leap and timing look to have improved significantly. He drifted forward to finish with a couple of goals, and registered four clearances on his own.

There will be times during this season when English is pushed around by a bigger, stronger opponent. There will be times when he fades into the background as he did in 2019, but given what we saw today, those times we start being fewer and further between in 2020, and we might just start seeing English have some big wins.

Round One versus Brodie Grundy looms as a huge test. In their two encounters last year, Grundy compiled six Brownlow votes. The first mission for English – restrict the influence of the Collingwood big man.

 

ROBBIE GRAY IS LOOKING LIKE ROBBIE GRAY AGAIN

If I can find footage of the piece of play from Gray in the second quarter, where he paddled the ball along the boundary, refusing to concede a boundary throw in, turned inside, used his evasive skills and was instrumental in setting up Kane Farrell for a goal, I’ll post it below.

But in case I can’t locate it, you’ll have to take my word for it. It was the most Robbie Gray thing that Robbie Gray could do, and he did it like… like Robbie Gray.

For Port fans, watching Gray hobble through 2019 must have been difficult. He was a shadow of himself in most games unless it was a Showdown, and looked to be labouring at times. Not so this pre-season.

Gray looked lively. He was nimble, danced around players and created opportunities for his team. This was something that Port really missed in 2019, and if they get a return to form from their four-time All-Australian, they will give a few highly-fancied teams some real worries.

He didn’t kick a goal in this one, but his thee direct goal assists should give you an indication that he was “on” in this game, and was brilliant to watch.

 

BONT IS SHAPING INTO 2020 BEAUTIFULLY

So, just after half time, I was alerted to the fact that Bont had amassed seven clearances to lead all players. He just keeps finding the footy, and when he gets it, he draws players to him like Joe Ganino attracts desperate older women.

His 27 touches, nine clearances and five tackles were the typical Bontempelli game, as he ran through the guts, and then lifted his work rate late in the piece.

It must have been tempting to put him on ice in the fourth quarter, but Bont is obviously running on top of the ground at the moment, and is looking to get everything he can out of this pre-season. His first game in the marsh Series was blindingly good, and whilst this one was somewhat more subdued, it’s amazing that a subdued game from him can stack up with the best of others.

Injury aside, this could very well be the year of Bontempelli, and if he is able to maintain his form, it could spark something special for the Western Bulldogs as well.

 

MARSHALL OR GEORGIADES… OR BOTH?

So, let’s assume that Charlie Dixon’s groin is a two week injury, shall we? Is it the end of the world?

No, not by a long shot.

After week one of the Marsh Series I started musing as to whether Mitch Georgiades had jumped ahead of Todd Marshall in the Port Adelaide forward pecking order. Maybe Marshall read it?

“Sticks” responded with 2.2 from 11 disposals in a display that showed as much promise as anything he has conjured over the last 12 months, but that doesn’t mean we should discount Georgiades at all, does it?

The rookie launches at the ball with a reckless abandon, and late in the game, it was him, sailing into packs, trying to clunk that one big grab to swing the momentum to his team. He carries himself like a genuine forward, and his clam demeanour under pressure to slot a goal after the lovely spot up from Rozee is an indication of things to come.

If Dixon plays, do you give the second tall position to Marshall, backing him to take the step the Power have been hoping for? Or do you throw the chance at Georgiades and give him the big stage to strut his stuff?

Or do you do both?

 

SLING TACKLES

Righto, this is becoming an issue already.

Umpires seem panicked, and are paying this free kick when the player getting tackled is contributing to the slinging action.

One was paid against Bailey Smith in the third quarter that was just wrong. He tackled Travis Boak really strongly, and given it’s Boak… the former Port captain isn’t just going to fold up like an accordion, is he? He tried to stand in the tackle, and threw his boot at the ball, thereby exacerbating the tackling motion of Smith and winding up being dumped.

Look, I think there is a huge onus on the player being tackled to protect himself, and hate seeing players bailed out with this rule. If it is a slam tackle, or a spear tackle, pay what you have to, but when a player is contributing to the result of a tackle, please… please take it into account.

AFL players are crafty. Last week, I saw Kade Simpson of Carlton confront a player and then drop at the knees and attempt to get a free kick for high contact. It was cheap, particularly in a pre-season game, but players will milk situations, and it is a matter of time before they milk this as well.

 

JOSH BRUCE A GREAT PICK-UP

Five marks inside 50, and three  contested marks to go along with four goals… not a bad debut in the red, white and blue for Josh Bruce.

Imagine how potent he will be once he has someone to take the additional heat? Someone like, say… Aaron Naughton.

Bruce was great for the Saints last season, and his move to the kennel is an underrated one. His hands are excellent, and his set shot technique saw him guide through goals that most in the comp would have struggled with. His acquisition to the Western Bulldogs could have a huge impact on their 2020 premiership aspirations, and it wouldn’t surprise me if his presence aids in making not only Naughton a better player, but Sam Lloyd as well.

 

OTHER BITS

Speaking of Sam Lloyd, his stats in this game read really well, with three goals for the afternoon. But two of them did come from hand offs. Yes, they were goals, but they weren’t earned goals. They were more gifts.

The class of Connor Rozee was evident in flashes in this one, and it was interesting to see him thrown into the middle, in what is potentially a sign of things to come. His clean hands, vision and delivery were first class in this one, which was in contrast to fellow second-year star, Xavier Duursma, who had a lot of trouble hitting targets in this one.

It’s probably a bit unfair to focus on Duursma, given his tender age, but he looks as though he enjoys the attention when things are doing right. As such, the scrutiny when things don’t go right should be accepted as well. A quick check of the stats – 12 touches at 67% efficiency. Not a great day at the office for him.

I love Tom Jonas. In a masculine, “hey, he’s really cool” kind of way, and I liked his game in this one. His tandem with Tom Clurey is vital to the success of this team. Interesting to see Trent McKenzie slot into defence as well today as well. I forgot he was on Port’s list, if I am being honest.

Steven Motlop… disappointing after such a great start in the first week of the Marsh Series. Didn’t expect two big games in a row, did ya? He doesn’t roll like that.

Great second quarter from Bailey Williams, taking a few intercept marks and zoning off his opponent, but what a wake up call in the third, when he found himself isolated on Charlie Dixon. The lumberjack tossed him out of the way like a feather before marking. the man is a beast.

Lachie Hunter had 22 of his 29 touches come uncontested as he once again worked that wing position as well as any outside player in the game. I have no idea why he gets so little love when experts talk about the best outside players in the game. he knows how to get his hands on it.

Only 41% of game time for Dan Houston. Looked good while he was out there, though. Is this the season he well and truly breaks out as a star mid to back up Boak? At least until Wines gets himself right?

Overall, a really fun game of footy, which was needed after the turnover-fest of the Hawks and Dees yesterday. Plenty for each team to take out of it.