The Dees registered their first win of 2021 in a game that started as a scrap, graduated to a mistake-ridden hackfest and ended in a fatigue-affected display of how not to deliver the footy to a teammate.

It was Melbourne that settled first, managing to gather the footy, find teammates and finish in front of goal whilst their opponents squandered their first six shots at goal in a display that looked like they were kicking the rust off after a long layoff.

The Demons rode the efforts of their key defenders and a slight resurgence from a fort=gotten key forward, whilst the Dockers saw their two returning defenders go down with injury yet again. Some may term this a disaster for the Dockers, but as you’ll see as we progress, this is not the end of the world. Simply put, they have too many big defenders, anyway.

Let’s jump into Melbourne’s win over Fremantle and see what we can uncover as our takeaways from this contest. Here are The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly.

 

 

THE GOOD

 

THE DEFENSIVE PILLARS

Are we giving votes in this one? Do you give three to Jake Lever, or Steven May?

These two were mighty in defence, repeatedly cutting the Fremantle forward forays off at the knees with a brilliant combination of intercept possessions and pack-crashing spoils.

Many will probably gravitate to Lever, as he was able to position himself perfectly, not only to break up forward fifty entries against his own opponent, but his ability to zone off and help out his teammates was excellent as well.

Me, I am more of a Steven May man, and I’ll tell you why.

Match-winners are hard to come by. They’re the best the game has to offer, and when Nat Fyfe drifts forward, you need someone to stand next to him and simply beat him for the footy. And you need someone to do it over and over. That is not an easy task – Fyfe is one of the best players this century, is a tremendous overhead mark and knows how to get himself into dangerous situations.

And none of that fazes Steven May.

The former Suns captain wore him like a cheap suit when Fyfe went forward, and though the Freo captain may have been able to lose an opponent at times when he moved back into the middle, his impact inside 50 was limited by May’s attention to each and every contest Fyfe was involved in.

Of his 27 touches, Fyfe had only two of them inside attacking fifty. That is the value of Steven May.

Lever finished the game with 18 touches, 12 intercepts and four contested marks. Throw in six spoils to go along with that.

May ended up with 24 touches, eight intercepts, eight Rebound 50s and five spoils.

So, I’ll just get my calculator out, here… of the 57 times the Dockers went inside 50, the combination of Lever and May controlled 31 of them. That, my friends, is as good a defensive pairing as you’re going to find.

 

THE 100-GAMER

Damn, I love how clean Clayton Oliver is.

I mean with his hands… not in terms of whether or not he washes regularly – I’m sure he does, by the way.

In a game where the elite midfielders were fumbling and bumbling all over the place, it was refreshing to see that one player was able to cleanly glove the footy, take contact and not absolute crap his pants in terms of releasing the footy.

Last season, I heard Garry Lyon searching for a way to criticise Melbourne, and he chose that Oliver releases the footy too early as the avenue to whack his former club. Of all the options, he chose that one.

The reason Oliver releases the footy quickly is… get this… because he can! He doesn’t double grab, he is a step or two ahead of those around him and he is always looking to set up the play to a teammate in better position. He doesn’t have to hold onto the footy for the sake of holding onto the footy – he is a step ahead of everyone else; why slow down to allow them to catch up?

Oliver finished with a game-high 34 touches, had seven clearances and a game-high nine score involvements as he fought through an uncharacteristic non-domination by Max Gawn to power the Melbourne midfield.

With 100 games now under his belt, Clayton Oliver is, unbelievably, about to enter his peak years. He stands strong in the tackle, seems to relish making his teammates better and at 23, will be a star for years to come.

 

NOT A BAD DEBUT

So, he had a bit of pressure on him, with the comparison to Simon Black coming before the game. You know, the 300-gamer, Brownlow and Norm Smith Medallist who went onto captain the Brisbane Lions. Yeah, no pressure, James… you just do you.

And that’s exactly what he did in this one, collecting 15 touches, five tackles, two direct goal assists and a snag of his own in an impressive first appearance for the Dees.

All comparisons aside, Jordan showed plenty and looked completely at home in the type of game where a young fella could easily lose their way. He refused to be dragged down to the level of a few players around him, with his outside work and opportunism enough to have Dees fans smiling at things to come.

 

THROWBACK SATURDAY

So, how good was it to see Tom McDonald attack the footy and actually clunk a few marks?

Surprising? Yeah, a little. People in footy have short memories and forget the type of player he was in 2018. He snagged 53 goals that season, and although he looks like a robot at times (both him and Adam Tomlinson may or may not be cyborgs), his attack on the footy in this one was good, and he even showed a nice bit of creativity to set up James Harmes for a running goal.

The best aspect of McDonald’s game was his ability to take the “get out of jail” mark to set the Dees off and running. The “get out of jail”, or GOOJ mark is when a defender has no option but to go long and high in the hopes a half-forward can attack the ball in the air and take a grab. Usually, the defences are well set up to combat this, so it really becomes an important component of the game if you can get someone doing it often.

Tom McDonald did it three times in this game and all three resulted inside 50s for his team. Conversely, the role McDonald played in doing this was something Freo were unable to replicate, often forced to fight at ground level to push the footy forward.

I don’t think any of us expect TMac to have a season anything like the one he had in 2018, but if he can provide that hit-up GOOJ-mark role for the Dees, he will remain a valuable contributor to this team.

 

THE BAD

 

THE FUMBLING… THE CONSTANT FUMBLING

It would be an interesting stat to keep, and there was a point during this game where I started to wonder whether I should keep it, myself. Then I thought better of it and realised that with these two teams playing each other, the number of times the players double-grabbed the footy, or put it to grass would probably go close to outnumbering the number of times they took the footy cleanly.

We can put it down to pressure or rustiness, but the skills in this game were deplorable. The Dees were marginally better than Freo, and that is probably reflected in the scoreline, however, neither team should be hanging their hat on their performance here, walking away and thinking they did a good job.

They didn’t.

The much-spoken about midfield of Fremantle emerging as stars were guilty of it – Andrew Brayshaw, Adam Cerra and Caleb Serong all leaving the footy behind at stages and missing targets by hand. The Dees were no better, particularly early, with even Christian Petracca losing the footy on a number of occasions.

I suppose the difference with Petracca is that when he loses the footy, he doubles down, goes back in and wins it back again. The Freo players kind of just allowed the fumble to become the result of their efforts – the buttering up just wasn’t there, and that is probably the most disappointing aspect of the game for them.

Petracca got better, and he moved into the category where Clayton Oliver, Steven May and Jake Lever already resided. That neighbourhood was scarcely populated in this game – it was the postcode of the suburb called “No Fumbles”. From what I could tell in this contest, it must be a gated community, as access was strictly forbidden to the majority of players.

Fyfe has a house there, so does Clayton Oliver, whilst Steven May and Jake Lever reside there as well. That’s about it.

 

THE UGLY

 

HEY, WELCOME BACK… AND BYE FOR NOW

After a long absence from the game, Alex Pearce returned to the Fremantle lineup and assumed his customary role as deep… forward? Yep, he lined up as the forward target and came to realise how bloody frustrating it must be for modern forwards to make leads and have the ball kicked at your feet, two metres in front of you.

Pearce had six or seven kicks inside 50 early in the game directed at him – none were any good. And as the second quarter commenced, he went down clutching his knee (and ankle where it appears as though his captain stepped on him), his game over without making an impact.

He was joined on the sidelines later in the game by another returning to the Freo lineup after injury, Joel Hamling.

I don’t want to be harsh here, but Hamling looked nowhere near it in this game. He tried for marks when spoiling was the preferred course of action, was beaten for ground balls and generally looked out of sorts.

As he limped to the bench following a marking contest in the third quarter, I remember thinking that this is probably the worst-case scenario for Freo other than one of their young stars or their captain going down hurt, but the more I thought about it, the less I felt that way – and I’ll cover that right below here.

 

SOME QUESTIONS

 

ARE THE PEARCE/HAMLING INJURIES THE WORST THING THAT COULD HAPPEN?

No one wishes injury on anyone. Let’s get that straight. Nobody wanted to see Alex Pearce or Joel Hamling limp off, injured, but if there is one thing Fremantle has an abundance of, it is defensive players who can step up and take on a bigger role.

Luke Ryan, Brennan Cox, Ethan Hughes and (the absent pair of) Taylin Duman and Griffin Logue are all very good defenders and when you have that many good ones, someone is always going to miss out, or take on a lesser role.

Luke Ryan was the standout defender of 2020 and he did it in a defence that demanded he become a leader. He took on big jobs, became the defensive general and had some of the most complete defensive outings of the season en route to being crowned the inaugural Mongrel Punt Defensive Player of the Year… but he won’t be named that again playing alongside Pearce and Hamling.

Ryan was All-Australian, he was damaging and he was reliable. He will definitely remain reliable, but as the make-up of the Freo defence changes, his impact is not guaranteed to be the same.

Ditto for Brennan Cox, who made huge strides in 2020 but would be thrust into a support role behind Pearce and Hamling (and Ryan). he is too good for that.

So, now we have Cox and Ryan as the top two defenders going into Round Two. Just like last year, with Hughes and Duman likely to be their backups. Yes, the losses of Pearce and Hamling are not ideal, but the Dockers have cover and they have the kind of cover that has the ability to shine. On a scale of worry from 1-10, I’d be at about three in regard to this situation.

Injury-prone players are going to get injured. It’s how the team responds that will matter.

 

WHILE WE’RE AT IT, PEARCE PLAYING FORWARD?

I am sure it raised a few eyebrows, but far out the Dockers did him zero favours with some absolutely horrid delivery in the first quarter.

You could see they wanted to get Pearce involved, but kicking the ball at the shins of a bloke playing forward for the first time… well, a bloody long time, just seemed completely unfair.

So, looking at this Freo team, what were the other options? Brennan Cox seems a little more likely to be a success as a marking target than Pearce – he would have been my choice to move forward, allowing Pearce to ease back into the defence with quality (Ryan, Hamling, Hughes) around him.

And now… it seems like it’ll be a while before we see him back there. Again.

 

DID LLOYD MEEK STIFLE MAX, OR DID GAWN HAVE A BAD DAY?

Interesting – I am not sure Max was playing his usual role. With May and Lever in complete control, the necessity for him to drift across the half back line was removed. As a result, Gawn just seemed to … float.

He was steady in the last quarter, but this was not the type of performance Max’s mum will be putting clippings into the scrap book to cherish.

Meek was solid – he is a lump of a lad, and he was string enough to move Max off the spot a couple of times to win possession. By no means disgraced, he held his own against the best tap ruck in the game, although Gawn did get a couple of nice touches to get the Dees off and running from stoppages here and there.

 

IF YOU HAD TO PICK THREE PLAYERS WHO DISAPPOINTED MOST, WHO WOULD THEY BE?

This is tough, because I hate torching a player just for having a bad day. I mean, it happens to all of us, right? Only we’re probably not on camera when it does.

I did not like the efforts of Blake Acres in this one. Found it hard to get involved, and when he did, he didn’t do much with it.

Connor Blakely was unable to crack the Freo team early in 2020 and I think we are seeing why. Was a non-factor in this game.

And for the sake of annoying a Melbourne supporter, I thought Kossie Pickett was all sizzle and very little in the way of steak in this game. Three free kicks against, four turnovers from 12 touches… but hey, he can certainly leap.

 

OTHER BITS

 

You can see why the Dees retained the services of Nathan Jones, cant you? He can kick, and he can hit targets. He may be getting on, but you afford him space outside at your own peril. Also, I loved his bump on Andrew Brayshaw early in the piece.

How’d Angus Brayshaw go? I’m still not convinced he is a wingman, but Simon Goodwin seems pretty certain. Laid a couple of very slid tackles in this one, but more is required.

Three direct goal assists for Charlie Spargo in this one – that’s a small forward earning his pay.

 

And that’ll do me on this lovely Saturday. Even in a game where 80% of the players forgot how to kick or handball and 15% of the remaining players forgot how to catch… how good is it to have footy back! Never go away again… never go away again!

 

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