Richard Fejo representing the Larrakia People delivered a powerful and touching Welcome to Country prior to the Essendon vs Richmond inaugural ‘Dreamtime in Darwin’ Round 13 fixture.

The match itself seemed energised by being played in its spiritual home and subsequently endowed with highlights before a premiership-contending Richmond were finally able to translate their overall dominance onto the scoreboard to win by twelve behinds against an enterprising Essendon side.

 

Read on for extended analysis of five notable stories within the game:    

 

DREAMTIME IN DARWIN

The ongoing fight against COVID-19 in 2020 has led to the AFL throwing out the instruction manual and great credit must go to them for enabling a season of any sort to proceed in this most sensitive time. Another such change was enacted on Saturday night when the traditional ‘Dreamtime at the G’ moved for the first time in 16 years to its spiritual home in the red top end.

As outlined in the opening salvo, Richard Fejo gave an impassioned ‘Welcome to Country’, warmly inviting Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike to join together in celebration of this wonderful culture. The small-town setting did not lend itself to the Hollywood extravaganza of a fireworks show such as that occurs in Melbourne, but its low key earthiness brought a meaningful authenticity to the pre-match.

I’m not about to declare the virtues of one approach over the other, apart from the comment that the Sir Doug Nicholls celebration has been one of the best innovations in recent times, and playing a genuine blockbuster in Darwin has only added to the new history being written about Marngrook and Australian Rules Football.

The idyllic setting at TIO stadium enhanced the interaction with the crowd, and great Indigenous players of the past, Magic McLean, Gavin Wanganeen, Xavier Clarke among others were feted during the coverage and by fans throughout the match. The game itself was filled with highlights, none more so than Richmond’s rising star Shai Bolton continuing his sharp ascent up the player rankings to be firmly in contention for an All Australian berth and claiming the Yooriken Award as best afield. His 29 touches included twelve contested, seven inside 50s, six score involvements, three centre clearances, an important snapped goal in the second quarter and 544m gained for his team in another impressive display.

Marlion Pickett may have played his best game since last season’s fairytale GF debut with 18 disposals, nine inside 50s and drove his side forward for 602m. Another Tiger clearly revelling in the familiar surrounds, Daniel Rioli returned to probably his best form for 18 months as he collected sixteen disposals and a game-high four tackles inside forward 50, if not for some poor decision making in front of goal could have capped his night with a bag too.

For the Bombers meanwhile, fleet-footed forwards, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti and Irving Mosquito on debut were busy with two goals and a big run-down tackle for a free kick apiece to be among their team’s better contributors on the night. Mosquito’s second goal in particular was a moment to behold as we gathered cleanly and burst through a pack and clinically finished on the left from 40m, bringing rapturous applause from an adoring crowd.

Finally, despite the oppressive conditions for what is nominally a winter sport, the highflyers were out in force, with Matt Guelfi to cut off another Richmond goal thrust, Jack Riewoldt finding range with two big pack marks, Kyle Langford impressive once more for the Bombers with two excellent marks on the wing and Dylan Grimes completing a hanger over the much larger Bellchambers throwing up their nomination for mark of the night. That honour, however, goes to James Stewart who climbed high above Tigers ruckman Ivan Soldo to clutch a screamer in the middle of a purple patch in the third where he scored both of his goals.

 

RICHMOND RESPONDS TO NEGATIVE PRESS

The reigning premiers endured a challenging week in the media with personalities split about 50/50 in defence or against Tom Lynch’s recent off the ball work. While Jono Brown used his standard outdated ‘boys will be boys’ defence, the more measured opinions were from those calling for an immediate response from the AFL to suspend all ugly striking incidents and finally rid them from our game. The defence from Hardwick of his player was admirable, but a very rare misstep from the usually assured coach as he played the man (David Schwarz in this case) rather than staying the course and extolling the numerous positive aspects of Lynch’s play and character.

Indeed, the big Tiger centre half-forward came out keen to remind the public of his enormous talent with the first goal of the game outpointing the exciting Ridley with Francis flailing behind, and then again besting Francis after a brilliant spinning manoeuvre bought time and space to Pickett to find his forward. However, after this point his night flatlined as Ridley and Hurley kept his output under wraps with a late mark and goal his only notable contribution.

Unfortunately, he is likely to be subject to more speculation during the week as yet another unnecessary off the ball incident, this time with Hurley will be thoroughly assessed. Before anyone complains about media’s fixation with the player, perhaps he could critically self-assess and remove this untidy aspect that has crept into his game before it really costs his team.

Hardwick was more circumspect in his post-match press conference than in recent times, putting a timely exclamation point on a special match celebrating an enormously important part of this native game.

 

A DIVERSE APPROACH TO THE RUCK BATTLE

Once an abundance of riches with two Maddens and Salmon on their books has in recent years become a weakness as the Bombers struggle to turn to an effective big man, despite having players in the role who should be better. Highly-paid Hille, Leuenberger and Bellchambers all had the physical attributes to compete with the best in the league, but just never displayed the consistency when required. This year alone Essendon has installed Bellchambers, Sam Draper and journeyman Andrew Phillips as their first-choice ruck.

This match the selection committee opted for rookie Draper in the centre with Bellchambers to take up a key position in the forward line. The Bomber number 2, more than capable as a marking forward over the journey was thrashed by Grimes and Balta, the Tigers running off him at every opportunity and more concerningly outpointing him in the air. Draper fared better but was soundly beaten by Ivan Soldo. 13 disposals and fourteen hit outs another promising outing from the talented Bomber big man.

While Mabior Chol had a rare quiet game, Soldo was the premier big man, in contention for votes on a night that saw him collect seventeen disposals, twelve of which were contested, nine intercepts and five clearances. Big Ivan started the year slowly and briefly lost his position to Toby Nankervis before injury struck and he gained a reprieve. As the season reaches a crescendo though he looks to be hitting top form and will need to when he’s asked to go toe-to-toe with Natanui and other obstacles threatening to stop the Tigers run at back-to-back flags.

 

COACHING STRATEGY

From a neutral spectators viewpoint the coaching battle was enthralling in this match; firstly Essendon’s efficient game plan to move the ball centrally at all costs allowed them relatively easy passage to goal, and their defensive structure to restrict access to the hotspot in front of Richmond’s goal heavily reduced their opponent’s capacity to make use of the vast number of inside 50 entries. The Bombers disposal efficiency was up 5% and their scoring efficiency inside forward 50 up an absurd 12% highlighted the benefit of this instruction that was carried out very well by the sash.

Credit must go Worsfold/Rutten for their pre-game planning in this regard and especially to Zac Merrett whose 34 touches, 517m and team-high eight score involvements was creative throughout to set up many of Essendon’s attacks. Also, Kyle Langford’s role and execution deserves praise as his ability to win one on one contests, particularly in the air opened the path for Essendon’s preferred direct attacking style.

Richmond appeared frustrated by Essendon funnelling their attacks into a defensive trap and didn’t score their second goal until time on in the second quarter, however a reset at half time allowed their overall dominance to reflect on the scoreboard later in the match. A subtle switch where the Tigers launched express attacks out wide, utilising Jayden Short and Oleg Markov’s pace to find Pickett, Bolton and Martin, before bringing the ball more central only once they’d reached CHF brought about a change in scoring fortunes for the Tigers and stretched the Bomber defence too thinly to be effective. In addition, Richmond provided space to their better distributors like Houli to get on the end of the chain and deliver with precision to the leading forwards.

Of course, having such an incredible resource as Dustin Martin makes Hardwick’s job a little easier, his talisman taking the mid-year AA snubs in his stride as he quietly compiled 30 disposals (17 contested), importantly twenty by foot where he is so dangerous. Nine score involvements, nine inside 50s, five centre clearances and a game-high 651metres only tell part of the story. It’s the moments where he isn’t afforded a statistic that are so beneficial to his team, and so incredibly hard to counter. A win in a 25/75 situation against AMT where he reached around his opponent to knock the ball back to his advantage before firing out a handball to a supporting runner in the arm wrestle of the first quarter, and also in the third where he pushed hard to put pressure on Merrett, spilling the ball clear before collecting and bursting through to hit a streaming Lynch lace out.

Another win to Hardwick was his use of Liam Baker as one of the primary zone players in the defensive end, his ability to handle the ball cleanly in slippery conditions accentuated his 87.5% disposal efficiency while distributing the ball 16 times. Five score involvements from deep in defence great reward for a fantastic game by a player who continues to grow in stature within this side.

The Tiger mentor took the points overall in this match and can look forward to another finals campaign with his charges in good shape for the challenge ahead. Rutten and Worsfold would be pleased with the improved form of their team, and in particular the younger players starting to build structure around the field. Mild concerns over the lack of impact from the prolific Smith and Parish, but they just encountered a superior opponent on the night. The distinct lack of multiple or in fact any A graders will continue to slow this team’s progress towards the top half of the ladder.

 

ILL-DISCIPLINE IS SELFISH IN A TEAM GAME

A coach’s lament is players allowing their ego to traverse team plans, and this match saw numerous examples that will be painfully reconstructed by the brains trust in the review. Firstly, Tigers skipper Trent Cotchin, never one to be accused of being anything but the perfect team player allowed his frustration to get the better of him and threw his opponent to the ground after Essendon was awarded a free kick. The ensuing 50m penalty resulted in a neatly taken first league goal for Dylan Clarke, and would also likely lead to Cotchin’s consequence being forced to change his own child’s nappies for a week such was Hardwick’s displeasure with silly infringements that he implemented the penalty.

The Bombers were hardly choirboys in this department and two repeat offenders, Tom Bellchambers and Jake Stringer added contentious but entirely consistent self-serving acts at vital stages to release pressure on a Tigers side lacking the killer blow for much of the match. Now if you solely drink from the metaphorical Gatorade cup spouted by renowned buffoons like Luke Darcy who did everything but call for a Royal Commission into the two incidents, then you would be simmering over the super slow motion replays arguing with anyone within earshot that you didn’t think there was much in either decision after a seventh and eighth viewing.

It is reasonable to ask if Grimes and Vlaustin respectively embellished the illegal contact, and the answer is probably yes to a degree. However, that does not for a moment excuse Stringer taking the easy option again to not fight for front position but lazily push out his more committed opponent without the umpire noticing and generate the self-acclaim a goal line major generates. The fact is there was a push in the back, and an 11-point Essendon lead closing on half time was extinguished due solely to Stringer taking the selfish route rather than bustling to protect a courageous McDonald-Tipungwuti marking with the flight. This was the second such incident of Stringer displaying macho idiocy, initiating a brawl with Grimes again after the Tiger had respectfully avoided AMT after a brilliant mark. All this behaviour can achieve is turning the ball over and losing trust from your teammates. It was his first game back after seven matches out, but a return of just three touches, including a goal at the back end of junk time would have powerbrokers wondering about his actual worth moving forward.

Which brings us to Bellchambers’ clumsy ‘marking’ attempt on Vlaustin midway through the last quarter. A player who has a penchant for cynical challenges, this display of false bravado was as badly executed as any across his stuttering career. Tigers defender Vlaustin flew for a customary intercept mark and upon landing and clutching the ball to his chest was met with Tom’s big mitt slapping across his upper shoulder and neck. The resultant headthrow might receive its own justice in the form of a ‘shooting stars’ meme, but there can be no denial whatsoever that illegal and forceful contact well after the mark had been completed resulted in the correct outcome of a 50m penalty and subsequent goal.

Coaches will often bear the brunt of supporter frustration, but blatant departures from the team brand are often telling in the critical moments.

 

And lastly to celebrate another wonderful Dreamtime match, here are five sleight-of-hand observations to recognise Dusty’s deft taps-ons throughout the evening: 

Kamdyn McIntosh the 1980s man

The Tiger number 33 had fallen out of favour in recent seasons but appears back to his best in the past month as he took to the field for his 100th match. The rugged 2017 premiership player has a look in 2020 that would not be out of place superimposed into a copy of the 1980 Grand Final, with his lush moustache, thick hips, trim but wiry upper body and yellow boots. In time he’ll look back with pride at his milestone match, claiming 18 touches and 420 metres, five score involvements, five intercepts, and five inside 50s and two strong contested marks in a performance that saw him just outside the best players on the night.

Jack Graham

From being spoken of as a potential captain in waiting to being omitted twice in 2020, Graham was inserted into the starting midfield and played his best match of the season matched up against the Bombers leading ball winners. His impact was consistent throughout the match and his 23 disposals included a game leading ten score involvements and three direct goal assists in the type of performance we’d hoped to see more often when he burst onto the big stage in late 2017.

Jordan Ridley

The young Essendon backman has been a revelation this season, forcing his way through a series of outstanding performances into the consciousness of All Australian selectors. Moving onto a rampaging Tom Lynch after Aaron Francis was injured he kept him quiet for the remainder of the game save for a couple of unstoppable passes on the lead from the dominant Tigers midfield.

Displaying maturity beyond his years Ridley was one of Essendon’s best again, just missing out on votes with an assured 16 disposals at 100% efficiency, five intercepts and eight marks. Indeed, his only blemish was in the third quarter when he flew for a mark in the goalsquare, spilling it on his own and allowing Martin an easy goal.

Broadcasting standards

One of the ongoing mysteries of AFL coverage is the continued poor broadcasting standards of the host network, Channel 7. There must be some metric the boffins in head office are analysing that claim to support the direction of constant nonsense delivered by the noise-pieces in the commentary box. This time it was the vanilla Luke Darcy who managed to pontificate about the great ‘skill’ of players choosing to snap regulation shots on goal around their body; required Matthew Richardson of all people to get him back on track after overly criticising a perceived umpiring error; and basically claiming martyr status for Tom Lynch’s actions last week, possibly in a desperate attempt to get an invite to Jono Brown’s birthday party.

In between these lowpoints he managed to chatter incessantly over what was a pretty entertaining match that a caller with a better grasp of the game would’ve allowed the pictures to tell the story. There must be a better solution.

 

STATS, STATS, STATS

  • 17-5, 12-4, 14-7, 23-8 might look like the one-sided score in a lopsided Olympic fencing competition between Zorro and a minnow nation, but this is, in fact, the extraordinary quarter by quarter inside 50 count in last night’s match.  For reference the Tigers were 20+, while the Bombers returned 16- on season’s averages.
  • While the game was played at a great pace and only resulted in a 36-36 tackle count, the Tigers feared forward defensive pressure came to the fore with an incredible 11-0 tackle count inside 50 differential. Rioli’s game high four were well supported by two from each of Lynch and Kane Lambert.
  • The free-flowing nature of the game led to an inflated 18-8 bounce count in favour of the Tigers (well up on their 5.8 season average). In particular, the Tigers were well served by their playmakers off half back, with Jayden Short 5, Oleg Markov 4, Pickett 4 supplemented by Martin 3, and Bolton 2 to literally run the Bombers off their feet.

 

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