The opening game of the season for both the West Coast Eagles and the Gold Coast Suns – on the surface, a Sunday evening game is not exactly appealing to the common Victorian – and the inner child in me somehow couldn’t have cared less about this game.

But I found myself gravitating towards this match. Yes, there were juicier match-ups on the billing this round, but think back to when these two sides played last year. Vastly different circumstances obviously, but no one in their right mind would’ve predicted the Suns to outwork the Eagles on that night.

To the sarcastically shock horror of literally no one, most people, if not everybody, started writing off the Suns again automatically in this one. At Optus Stadium, where the grass is green and the umpires are pretty biased(I’M KIDDING!!!!) it did seemingly look as if the odds are stacked against the Suns, because the Eagles play their home ground so well.

It was a gallant effort by the Suns to run with the Eagles for about 80 per cent of the game, but the experience factor that the Eagles have possessed for a while now gave them their first win of 2021. There’s a bit to take out of this contest, so let’s get to breaking it down with my first OFFICIAL (cause pre-season don’t count) men’s review of 2021.

 

AH S**T, HERE WE GO AGAIN

Poor Matthew Rowell, it’s almost as if the football gods looked at his first month of AFL football and went: ‘Nup, can’t have that…’ and absolutely smote him down with the worst luck since Anthony Morabito – remember him, guys?

First, it was the collarbone, and now it’s a knee injury. The good news is that it’s likely that it isn’t the three most feared letters in Australian Football – if you know, you know. There certainly didn’t look like there was much twist in his left knee either. Zac Langdon tackles him and his left knee is planted into the turf full force.

The bad news is that it’ll probably be a 6-8 week injury at best and it’ll probably be more considering that they will want to err on the side of caution with this. Knee injuries in football can really debilitate a playing career – I wish I could say I’ve been there, but I had no promising football career to begin with.

But to further this little ditty, the Suns could’ve rolled over after quarter time. Maybe in past seasons they would’ve, but they continued to just put their head down and dig in towards the contest. They’ll be a bit flat that they didn’t get it done, because they want to win games, but I feel like they’re getting the respect from the wider fanbase, because they don’t give in, they refuse to give in.

The stats will tell you this: 30-all in clearances, 11-12 in centre bounce clearances in favour of the Suns and possession count was pretty even +6 in contested ball in favour of the Eagles. It was an admirable effort by the Suns.

 

OSCAR ALLEN

This might rub Eagles fans the wrong way, but before I say anything else – I’ve been pretty high on Oscar Allen since his debut season and there’s going to be a time where he really takes the game by storm and we have him in the conversation of best key forward in amongst current-day players.

But right now, I’m still not convinced. He kicked four goals and that much should be said. Goals in the modern game are few and far between these days, and they shouldn’t be discounted by any means. What isn’t sitting well with me is the fact that he was playing off a man that is about six or seven centimetres shorter and about six, seven, probably even more kilos lighter in Jack Bowes. For the record, Bowes played a pretty good game, but it’s hard to match against a bigger forward like Allen in a one-on-one and expect to break even

Fellow Mongrel writer and Eagle nutcase Daniel Jon Kershaw loves to razz me up about Allen being a better key forward than Aaron Naughton, but until Allen is playing on the likes of Darcy Moore, he can keep this opinion in the bin, because Naughton has done just as much at the same time, I’d argue even more considering he’s the number one forward option at the Western Bulldogs.

Also probably worth mentioning that he was working across the defensive end of the ground for the Eagles in a few instances. It looked as if the Eagles were trying to exploit the Suns’ backline through isolation. Sam Collins is a great key defender and winning their best and fairest last year is a prime example, but they did look a bit smaller and there was always going to be a danger of being exposed to a potential isolation job.

Josh Kennedy’s role in dragging Collins up the ground with him at numerous stages needs to be commended, because it left the likes of Bowes, Connor Budarick and Charlie Ballard to combat a pair of talls, in Darling and Allen, that were just too powerful. It was really astute coaching that was well-executed.

Allen had the four, Darling only ended up with a couple, but it could’ve been an extra few on the board if it weren’t for a number of small errors – from silly free kicks to selfish shots on goal (looking predominantly at you Mr Darling).

 

ON THE OTHER END…

Whilst on isolation football, a big key in scoring on the Eagles, is going to be getting Tom Barrass in a one-on-one situation. Barrass is a very good third-man up defender and loves to fly and take a contested grab. But when you put him one-out with a key forward, he’s… I don’t want to say useless, but he gets made to look pretty susceptible.

Ben King had the match up with him, and I thought for the largest part of this game, he had Barrass trailing around like he wanted nothing to do with it, but the way that the Suns were delivering the footy to him, especially early in the game, where the Suns managed to wrestle the game onto their terms. King finished with 3.1 from seven marks and 12 disposals and also had five scoring involvements in a big effort up forward.

I also want to just briefly touch on Sam Day’s role for the Suns. Statistically, it wasn’t his best game – 0.2 from 10 touches and two marks. Jeremy McGovern had some really key moments throughout the game, but Day was able to impact the contest quite a few times and managed to play into the hands of his small forwards and it led to goals.

 

TIM KELLY

The first half of Tim Kelly was pretty odd… well for this set of eyes, it was. He started like a bloody house on fire, with his first two inside 50 entries precise and on the mark – both of them resulted in goals to the Eagles. After that, he sort of was just here and there until half time – the possessions he accumulated sort of felt a little meaningless.

I watched Touk Miller work off him at stages and he was looking more prominent than TK. Miller’s probably one of the more underrated and underappreciated two-way midfielders, and he certainly had himself a game – 20 disposals and nine score involvements. But something must have been said at half time, because Kelly came out and looked like a man possessed.

With no Elliot Yeo for the foreseeable future and captain Luke Shuey sitting out as well, the Eagles needed a lift from what’s left of the midfield brigade. Dom Sheed was so good at winning the footy from the source, but even someone as talented as he is can’t do it on his own.

Kelly doubled his half-time disposal tally and finished with 28 for the match, along with 13 score involvements, nine inside 50s and four centre clearances. You could see in that second half that he was running more and his disposals were looking way more meaningful than most of his touches in the second term. A very classy outing from him.

 

IN DEFENCE FOR THE SUNS

I’ve had quite a few coaches at local level use the defensive philosophy of keeping the footy off opposition hands. It’s a philosophy easier said than done at local level, but in the top flight, it’s a defensive strategy that is certainly capable of working. In fact, it has worked in the past – see Richmond’s win over Adelaide in 2006 where their gameplan was chip the footy around and piss off the Crows’ players – nice one Terry Wallace.

Check out some of these numbers:

  • Jack Bowes – 30 disposals and 14 marks
  • Jack Lukosius – 23 disposals and 11 marks
  • Charlie Ballard – 21 disposals and 12 marks
  • Oleg Markov – 20 disposals and 14 marks
  • Sam Collins – 18 disposals and 10 marks

These five, combined with both Sean Lemmens, Connor Budarick and Wil Powell – who also played in that defensive half and that’s 79 of the 137 marks that the Gold Coast took in this game. The Suns tried to make it a dogfight with the Eagles on the back of possession footy – and fairness to the Eagles, they did it a fair bit as well – but this was how the Suns were going to keep up with the Eagles.

The five mentioned there were pretty content to chip around the defensive half before something opened up – Bowes and Lukosius were the ones given the license to open the game up with their kicking skills, with the two combining for nearly 1400 metres gained. Lukosius’ field kicking has got to be up there with the best of them at the moment because he makes those long kicks look so easy, when in reality are very difficult.

 

THE OTHER BITS

Two Suns that need to be plauded for shut-down roles – Sean Lemmens for keeping Liam Ryan largely ineffective. Ryan had a few good moments in the first quarter, but kept him pretty honest up until the about two minutes before the final siren.

The other was Brandon Ellis. It wasn’t a hard tag, but he was running with Andrew Gaff for large parts on the wing and kept him down for 16 disposals, when he usually gets about 30+ a game. To add insult to injury, Ellis also had 19 disposals, nine marks.

It was hard to really tell you who won the ruck battle between Nic Naitanui and Jarrod Witts. Naitanui looked a little more prominent with the footy, but Witts had the better of the hitouts, 31-22. Maybe call it a draw?

A vintage performance from the former West Coast captain Shannon Hurn – 31 disposals, 12 marks, nine intercepts and 635 metres gained from a half-back entering the twilight of his career. Sensational effort.

A great captain’s game from David Swallow, who had the 29 disposals, five marks and kicked 1.1 – he’s just so hard at the contest and really, the sort of bloke you want leading the football club. Could’ve left so many times, but has stuck fat through the club. 110 percent respect.

I’ve ragged on him for a little while, but credit where it’s due for Tom Cole because I thought he played a strong hand as well in defence – 22 disposals, eight marks and nine intercepts.

Josh Rotham needs to be in this 22 most weeks, just a smart reader of the play and benefits well from a West Coast defence that is based largely on picking off forward entries.

Nick Holman did a nice job coming in as the injury substitute. Never been a renowned possession getter, but one thing he always gives you is consistent effort at the contest – nine disposals and one tackle won’t do it justice, but he was always harassing an Eagles defender.

One last player from the Suns that I highlighted was Alex Sexton – only the 12 touches, but was looking to bring his teammates into the game at every chance – had the six score involvements, including a pair of direct goal assists and 1.1 as well.

And on that sort of wholesome note, that comes to an end of the first men’s review of the 2021 season. The Eagles did what they needed to do, because there’s a big clash next Sunday afternoon awaiting them in the form of the Western Bulldogs at Docklands. One of these two sides will go two from two to start the year (hoping it’s my Doggies just quietly).

As for the Suns, it’s not the end of the world as they know it, and I know they’ll feel fine as that bald bloke from R.E.M eloquently puts it. Hey, they have North Melbourne next Saturday night for their first home game of the season Metricon – we can book four points in for that one right? RIGHT?!?!?

 

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