Fremantle and Geelong have had a fantastic rivalry for the last decade, scattered with drama, intrigue, upsets, people punching Ballantyne and some overall good footy.

This game was not part of it.

It’s not as though the game wasn’t entertaining; it just wasn’t good. Though despite this, I enjoyed it. It was definitely a grind, but I love a good scrap. Free flowing, high scoring footy can be great, but I appreciate a good defence. Sometimes these low scoring games give you a really good chance to see the courage and combative nature of the sport, as well as the strategies that often go unnoticed in the faster games. So, while most probably turned on to something else by half time, you could count me as intrigued, if very frustrated.

In wet conditions, the Cats thrived on the contest in the wet and the Dockers shied away from the hard yakka. Ironic given the connotations behind their respective mascots.

To win a game of footy you need some polish and some grunt, or preferably a bit of both. A lack of polish was a bit understandable, yet the Cats showed some at times. A lack of grunt is inexcusable in any game, and the Cats showed a great deal more than the Dockers.

THE WINNING SIDE

Footy is a simple game, really, and made simpler when played in the rain. Whoever adapts best to the conditions first generally wins. In dry footy, it’s ok to want to be slick and use handball and short kicks to control the footy, but in wet footy the game is won by getting behind the ball, expecting marks to be dropped, gaining territory and building pressure, both on the scoreboard and around the ball. In this, Geelong taught the young Fremantle side an absolute lesson.

Geelong won this game simply by being in the right spots at the right time and structuring up intelligently around the ball. On the few occasions Fremantle players won possession, they looked rushed and panicked as Geelong players crowded around, forcing the ball free to one of their loose men. Conversely, Geelong had numbers everywhere – not just around the ball but spread out evenly. They were ready to pounce on a spill, ready for a quick short or long kick forward, or set up for an intercept mark if needed. The importance of knowing where the ball will go and trusting you have to right players in the right spots is what separates the good from the poor sides. We can talk about stats and contested possessions all you want, but those structures are what win games of footy.

This wasn’t a pretty game by the Cats, but it was an effective game. At many stages, especially late, it looked very much like a training drill. I’m not going to say the Cats played particularly well, but they didn’t actually need to. They just won the footy, set up some structures and then got it forward. There was no need to be clean or particularly skilled because they were so dominant around the contest that they knew they could just win the next one, and if they didn’t their pressure would cause a turnover. A very simple game, played very simply, limited the opposition scoring to virtually non-existent and created plenty of chances themselves. They didn’t take those chances, missing some absolute shockers, but then, they didn’t need to.

Mark Blicavs was huge in this game. In previous matches, Sean Darcy had managed to have the better of the Geelong ruckman, but in this game Blicavs came with a clear plan to be as physical as possible against his larger opponent. 19 touches and nine clearances are good numbers for any midfielder, but for a ruckman is extremely impressive. Throw in four inside 50s and 6 tackles and you’ve got yourself a complete performance.

Mitch Duncan was terrific in the absence of Selwood and Ablett. When the stars are out, those in the shadows have their chance to shine and Mitch Duncan took the opportunity with sheer determination, getting involved mostly off the half back and wing, he wandered forward regularly to kick a goal and involve himself in four scores.

Speaking of those in the shadows, Sam Menegola got to remind the Dockers of exactly who they threw on the discard pile several seasons ago. I’m not sure what it is about Dockers and getting rid of good players for nothing, but Sam Menegola is one of a growing list and was absolutely among the best against his former side tonight.

I really liked Zach Tuohy’s game. Geelong set up much of their game off half back and Tuohy was the key in them doing so. 26 touches for a half back flanker was disposals than any Fremantle player excluding Brayshaw, highlighting the dominance of the Cats’ possession. Games are won by good half-back flankers and when you’ve got won who can defend as well as attack, you have a rare species.

Tom Hawkins had an interesting night. Opposed to the much smaller Luke Ryan for most of the game, Hawkins was kept reasonably quiet but popped up exactly when he needed to and kicked three goals. Not dominant, his work to bring the ball to ground was appreciated by the Geelong forwards and when you’re a big forward on a horrible night, opportunities can be few and far between, so him taking them was an important step in creating scoreboard pressure.

 

THE LOSING SIDE

The Dockers were pretty woeful it has to be said. If I was Freo, I’d be seeing what I can do to move back to a Queensland hub because they were a lot more competitive on the sunshine state than they have been in their two games at home under Justin Longmuir.

It’s easy to be soft on a young side, especially in the wet, and especially when depleted with injury, by saying that the bigger bodies of Geelong were the difference. But that is grossly unfair on the sheer stupidity of the Dockers’ decisions and the ineptitude in which they played. Sure, they battled hard. They tried hard for most of the game. They weren’t completely out of the contest for most of the game and the two goals on the scoreboard I don’t think fairly represented the effort they put in. It was there. They just didn’t win the ball enough and when they did, they made some very, very dumb decisions with it, that ultimately cost them the game.

First, it’s wet weather footy. Fremantle are not a clean side on the best of times. Sure, they’ve worked hard to bring their skills towards an elite level, but they’re not there yet. They’re not a one grab, hit a target quickly side on a dry day, so why they continued to attempt that style of play in the wet is beyond me.

When they have the ball, they move far too slowly. Once again, you can put some of that down to learning a new game style, but you shouldn’t. There’s considering the plan but there’s also common sense. If you have the tallest guy in the ground all by himself at centre half back and you can set up a play through the middle, you kick it to that guy. You don’t wait and then go long to a contest. Too many times they missed the first option, waited, and then went to a contest which often became a 1 v 2 or even 1 v 3 against them. They may have a semi-functioning forward line this year, but there’s no point in that if you’re not giving them a chance.

Crumbing. Fremantle have never been a great side when it comes to crumbing a marking contest, but they were extra dreadful tonight. How difficult is it to have a player behind the contest? Especially in the wet? Especially when you know the team that you’re playing against is going to have at least one. Not only does it give you a better chance at winning the ball, it gives you a chance to defend if you don’t. Dumb footy.

It’s never easy losing one of your better midfielders in the first five minutes of the match. After a terrible performance last week, Tucker would’ve been determined to make amends. But a hamstring injury very early on saw him sit on the side lines, where he will sit for the next few weeks as the already shallow list of Freo’s starting 22 begins to look a little thinner again.

I thought Andrew Brayshaw was very good, a lone soldier in the midfield for the Dockers. 27 touches, 6 clearances and 8 tackles is about what we’re beginning to expect from this young player as he continues in his breakout year.

After Brayshaw, though, the list of quality looks pretty thin.

Ryan battled hard against Hawkins, but the weight of numbers beat him

Caleb Serong looks an absolute gem coming through. Playing on Dangerfield for most of the game, Serong picked up 22 touches including ten contested and was clearly one of Freo’s best in a breakout performance for the first year player.

The poor performances were a lot easier to find.

Michael Walters was flopping like a dead fish trying to find a kick from the umpires. Sure, one dive got him a set shot which he deservedly missed. Sonny really needs to impose himself more in these games.

Darcy was dreadful. Won plenty of taps, but they went nowhere. Soundly beaten around the ground by a usually inferior ruckman. Gave away 6 free kicks too which is just not giving your team the best chance.

I’m going to highlight one of Bailey Banfield’s actions which should probably end his career, but definitely summed up Freo’s night. Chasing a loose ball in the last quarter, the Fremantle forward allowed his direct opponent to win the footrace, pick the ball up cleanly without pressure – despite Banfield being on his tail, break through a very soft tackle as if no contact was made and then run forward and deliver cleanly to Hawkins inside 50. Sure, it was an excellent bit of play by O’Conner, but it was such an inept display of pressure by Banfield that if I was the coach of Freo’s WAFL side Peel, I’d be dropping him back to the amateurs. I’ve often said it doesn’t take a huge amount to impress me, but it also doesn’t take much for me to be unimpressed.

Despite all this, I don’t think it was all bad for Fremantle. They did show bits and pieces at times, but they need to improve and improve quickly if this rebuild is going to come to any kind of fruition.

THE UMPIRES

Speaking of being dropped back to the amateurs, Mr. Banfield might want to take a few of the umps back with him.

I was going to look into why the umpiring seems worse this year, and I was wondering whether it was a perception, or the way we over analyse the game these days or perhaps a myriad of reasons. But last round and this, and in particular tonight, the umpiring ruined what was, at times, a surprisingly enjoyable match.

And this isn’t at all to try pin a Freo loss on them- they were just dreadful. Sure, Dean Marghetts has that reputation for some reason and is an easy target, even though he’s not a bad umpire, but the two guys he was working with made him look absolutely elite.

I do feel sorry for the umpires. Australia Rules is by far the most difficult sport to adjudicate. Not just because the rules are complicated and up for interpretation, but because people keep asking them to do different things. The AFL keeps asking them to adjust their interpretations slightly to keep the game flowing, the crowd complains if there’s too many free kicks that they’re over umpiring and if there’s too few free kicks that they’re not being fair with their decisions. It’s an impossible situation. And when you’ve got a couple who aren’t great anyway, then you’re in for a nightmare situation.

Here’s an example. The AFL wants the game to keep moving. A player gets tackled and drops the ball. Play on is called. This happens again and the again until the ball comes free and no incorrect disposal is paid despite there being four or five chances. Then after the ball comes free there’s a technically correct, but very minor free kick that the umpire does pay. This not only creates inconsistency and frustration, but it doesn’t actually solve the problem of the game opening up. If the first incorrect disposal had been paid, the game would’ve moved on much earlier with three or four fewer tackles and pieces of congested play. Sure, there might be 50 or 60 free kicks paid, which seems ridiculously high, but should we not leave it up to the players to adjust to the rules rather than have the rules adjust to the players?

I’m not certain and short of getting rid of the holding the ball/ incorrect disposal rule altogether, I’m largely without an answer. All I know is that the umpiring in this game, and others recently, have been so poor that if they were players not one of them would be on a list next year. And the fact they are shows the talent pool of umpires if much too thin.

Something to work on.

A NOTE ON UMPIRING FROM SAM

Hi, I’m Sam Marcolin. You may remember me from such classic segments as ‘What Happened?’ and the irregularly updated ‘Mongrel Votes’. What some of you will know is that I’m a Geelong supporter who oscillates from ‘one-eyed’ to ‘rabid’, and so it may come as some surprise that I’m willing to criticise the role of umpiring in a game the Cats won. As Matt said above, the umpiring was not, I don’t think, the decisive factor in the contest. At the end of the day it was a team that was both harder at the ball and cleaner with ball in hand that ended up with the win, but I digress.

I wish I had have catalogued the number of auspicious umpiring errors in this one. While they tended to flow one way, I think accusing the umpires in this contest of bias is providing them with far too much credit. I would in no circumstances want to be an AFL umpire; it’s an unrewarding task resplendent with what is at times undeserved criticism. However, it would take a serious level of cognitive dissonance to look at the quality of umpiring at AFL level over the last fortnight especially and suggest it has been up to scratch. That fact is attributable to any one of a number of factors; umpires being in hubs; crowds and, at times, a lack thereof; criticism from senior and respected figures; and changing interpretations of the rules coming from head office.

Look, what this has been a longwinded attempt to say is that the AFL really needs to stop moving the goalposts on umpires. Tonight was no doubt a poor showing from the men in green, with far too much leniency given to players dropping or throwing the ball, too many free kicks that seemed to arise from fairly innocuous incidents and too many instances of frees being paid for actions which looked like they should have been a free even if they in reality weren’t. However, what I think has become abundantly clear lately is that ‘rules of the week’, changing interpretations from game to game and an unwillingness to admit fault is creating what seems to be an increasing level of fan awareness of umpires and their inconsistencies. I’m a big advocate for the fact that umpires shouldn’t be noticeable on the ground (here’s looking at you, Ray), and at the moment I think too many fans are picking up on umpires during games. I have a lot more to say on the matter but since brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief, and leave things there.