There are, I am reliably informed, more than 170,000 words in the English language. Despite this, at the sounding of the final siren today, I reckon supporters of both the GWS Giants and Essendon Bombers found themselves uttering one word – one group through exasperation, the other through anger. For those of you that can’t work it out, it has four letters, starts with ‘F’ and sounds like tuck.
This was a great game, a brilliant game of footy. It was the sort of game that sneaks up on you and constantly reminds you how exciting, tense, frustrating and magnificent footy can be. Since I’ve been reviewing games for The Mongrel Punt I have found that I like, and perhaps need, to take copious notes throughout a game. I like to try and remind myself of every interaction, every event big or small that happens throughout a game, so that when I sit down to write my review I can do so knowing that I will capture every aspect of the game I found important. Today I found myself putting my pen down a lot to just watch the footy.
Games like today’s can do that – turn neutral observers into willing participants. They can make you forget everything else going on around you and instead demand you focus on the 44 (or 45 as the case was today) blokes running around on the park.
People may forget about this game come the end of the season. There will be more important match-ups this year; match-ups with finals implications; match-ups on the big stage; match-ups under lights; that will all garner the title ‘best match of the year’. But the people who make these arguments (and I very well could be one of them later this year) will be missing something if they leave this game off the list. This was a high-intensity battle, a game that ebbed and flowed almost perfectly, between two young teams with elite midfields and exciting, albeit developing, players at either end.
Below are my five key points, but there were hundreds I could have written about today.
- The Youth
I’ll give you some background first. I am a (relatively) proud West Australian who supports West Coast and loves to boo umpires – please don’t hold that against me. I like my steak medium-rare, my footy exciting and my Vic Bias meter to be finely tuned. With this said, I hope you can understand how ready I was to hate Archie Perkins.
Coming out pre-draft to say you don’t want to leave your state of origin, as he did, sent my Vic Bias meter crazy. “Imagine”, I thought to myself, “an 18 year-old West Australian making public this attitude – that he only wanted to be drafted by West Coast or Fremantle. The Vic footy media (or is it mafia) would be apoplectic with rage, claims of draft-tampering would be thrown faster than you can say ‘clickbait’, and Gerard Whately would set aside 30 minutes of AFL 360 to excoriate the young man.”
I had plenty of lines prepared to write about Perkins had he had a bad game – things like “I see that umbilical cords don’t extend beyond state lines” (admittedly not my best work). But he didn’t have a bad game at all. In fact, he was fantastic. For a kid playing his sixth game of footy, he won 13 disposals playing across half-forward, kicked his first goal in AFL footy, and had four score involvements. Yes, he’s young and made some mistakes, but his effort and attack on the ball today won me over and made me a fan of his for a long time.
Speaking of being a fan, I’m not sure how many seats are taken on the Tom Green hype-bus, but if there are any spare I would pay an ungodly amount for one of them. It’s incredible to think he is just his second year of footy. He gathered 28 touches today, 13 of which were contested, and if he doesn’t have the best pair of hands in the comp already, he has to be amongst the top few. I lost count of the amount of times he was tackled, got his hands free and managed to shoot out a handball to a teammate today. But it’s not just his hands that are special. The way that he can work through traffic is incredible too.
Sometimes you get the impression that young players forget how big their bodies are and how quickly gaps between players can close – you don’t get that impression with Green. His spatial knowledge is Pendlebury-like (does he have a basketball background?), and his size allows him to work his way through traffic. Constantly, I had to remind myself that he is just 20 years of age – imagine Green in five years when he’s got another few pre-seasons under his belt.
Any article about exciting youth in the AFL has to include at least a cursory mention of Nik Cox. He was pretty good today, going about his work neatly and without being a star. This, of course, doesn’t mean that he is missing star quality – far from it. He had 11 touches today, took two marks and had five tackles. But there are two kicks that I want to talk about – one that resulted in a behind and one a goal.
In the second quarter, Cox had a shot for goal from (just about) where the 50m line meets the boundary line, on the wrong side for a right-footed kick. Cox, in his eighth game of footy, summed up the situation and figured, “oh well, I’ll try on my left”. That a young man is confident enough to try this so early in his career is admirable. That Nik Cox, at 200cm tall, tried is amazing. That he nearly kicked the goal is scary – scary for anyone who supports a team other than Essendon. Perkins has an enormous amount of talent, and looks to be a really exciting player, but once he grows into his body, Nik Cox could be a generational talent. Essendon’s GM of List and Recruiting, Adrian Dodoro, cops a lot of flack around the AFL, but he might have just unearthed two of my favourite players for the next ten years.
The Giants’ back-line today was punctuated by youth. Excluding Lachie Keefe, none of their other six backmen were over 23 years of age. I thought Jack Buckley and Connor Idun were serviceable without being really good. Buckley needs to work on his disposal out of the backline, while Idun was neat but probably needs to offer a little more offensively. The two young half-backs for the Giants, Lachie Ash and Isaac Cumming, continued to grow in confidence as the game went on, and I particularly liked Ash’s daring runs off half-back. Both are really good kicks and strike me as players that you just pencil in for 150 games as soon as they show up at the club.
The player I really want to talk about is Sam Taylor. I thought he was fantastic today. For a young tall defender having played less than fifty games, he looks a long-term leader in the Giants back-half, taking up where Phil Davis has left off. Taylor took eight marks today, three contested, and had a game-high 12 intercept possessions. He was an immovable force at times, and looks set to control the defence of GWS for the next decade.
- The Midfield Battle
The strength of both of these teams lies in their first picked midfield – Zach Merrett, Andy McGrath and Darcy Parish lining up against Tim Taranto, Jacob Hopper and Tom Green. It is a battle that both sides will hope they can count on for the next few years. In fact, with the inexperience at either end of the field for both sides, it could be argued that the game was to be decided by which midfield could stay on top for longest. Ultimately I think this was the case – Essendon seemed one or two short through their midfield, probably a sign of where they are in their list build. While the three mentioned above are the Bombers’ go-to mids, their next few selections leave a little to be desired – Perkins is too young and Jake Stringer was injured today. On the flip-side, the Giants had Josh Kelly, Toby Greene and Callan Ward to help out.
In his 150th game, Zach Merrett was a star, rising above all others (and all cheap shots, Jeremy Finlayson) to take out my man-of-the-match honours. His field kicking was disappointing at times, but when the Bombers needed a lift at the start of the second, midway through the third, and late in the fourth, Merrett rose to the fore. The sooner the Bombers get him to sign on the dotted line, the better Dodoro will sleep at night!
Merrett’s partner-in-crime, Darcy Parish, continues to prove his status as an elite midfielder, collecting 35 disposals today. Similar to Merrett, I thought Parish was a little wasteful, but it can no longer be denied that he is in the best twenty mids in the comp, and rising fast. The Bombers third banana, McGrath, I thought was a little down today. I rate him as the best kick of the three, and I thought the Bombers could have used McGrath’s influence on the outside of a few contests. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to happen for him today, but he is a class player and, like most class players, won’t have two bad games in a row.
For the Giants, both Tim Taranto and Tom Green took the honours as best mid. Taranto seemed to drift in and out of the game a bit today, but when he was in the game he was far and away the most dominant midfielder. To see evidence of this, we only need to look at Taranto’s efforts in the first and third quarters. In a game where he gathered 29 touches, he had 19 in these two quarters – quarters that the Giants won by an aggregate of six goals. For a game that was decided by the midfield, this is huge and shows the importance of Taranto on the rest of the Giants team. Similar to McGrath for the Bombers, I thought Hopper was a little down, he gathered 23 touches with 14 contested today and had eight clearances (McGrath had a game-high 12). His ability to push forward was important, kicking the second last (and ultimately deciding) goal of the game.
- Same-Day Travel
I thought about this pre-match and figured it would be interesting to see how the Bombers went with the same-day travel. I recognise that there were COVID implications for the travel, and that the nature of it was not all of the Bombers’ own choosing. Nevertheless, ‘in these uncertain times’, it’s interesting to see how AFL clubs adapt to the changing nature of the competition.
Living in the west, and with family in the east, I am familiar with travelling and trying to engage with long-missed family members on the first day of arrival. It can be fine one time and horrible the next – the travel, that is, not family. Today, the Bombers kicked the first goal of the game, but then did seem to look a little flat for the next twenty minutes or so as the Giants piled on six goals. Eventually, the Bombers got back into the game, and by half time had whittled the margin down to just seven points.
After the Bombers kicked the first of the third (as they did with every quarter in this game), the Giants again piled on the goals, this time just four, kicking out to a five-goal lead. I thought that might have been all she wrote, and that the Bombers might have done their dash, but with great credit to their team culture and the want and desire by a few key players, they found themselves back in the game, and had it not been for a 50-50 non-call, could have won it.
What does this say for same-day travel? Who knows. I think between Melbourne and Sydney it certainly has some merit, as players really value time spent at home. Unfortunately for the teams out west, this won’t really be an option, but it’s not the first time teams out west have had to deal with systemic disadvantage (see what I said about my Vic Bias meter).
- The Returning Giants
Before the game today, I thought that much would be decided by there form of the ‘returning Giants’ – by this I mean the returning from injury Lachie Whitfield and the evergreen Shane Mumford (didn’t he retire about eight years ago?). After a dominant display upon return last week, Whitfield would have been a favourite for fantasy coaches who remember his ability to score seemingly at will. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case today. Whitfield had 19 touches and looked short of a run. This can happen for a player in their second game back from a long injury lay-off, and is definitely not a sign of worry for a player of Lachie Whitfield’s ability.
Any time Shane Mumford takes part in a ruck battle, you can guarantee I will be in seat 1A. I love the way the big fella goes about his business, lumbering around the field like a giant ready to wreak havoc on the next midfielder who crosses his path. He nearly took out Merrett in the opening few minutes today, “accidentally” falling across him (as only Mumford can) landing in his back and leaving Merrett prone on the ground for a few seconds. Mumford’s match-up against Essendon ruckman, Andrew Phillips (a journeyman himself) wouldn’t have been one that would have had the fans clamouring for tickets, but it should have.
I thought Phillips got the points today, battling manfully against Mumford, taking his “accidental” hits well and delivering a few of his own. Phillips eventually finished with 13 touches to Mumfords 10, while he won 26 hitouts to Mumfords 24. The Bombers do have a good young ruckman in 19-year-old Nick Bryan, but if Phillips can keep delivering performances like today as second in command, the hierarchy will be very happy.
- Forward Pressure
Within one minute of quarter-time today, the Giants were up by five goals. The Bombers managed to kick a late goal, but with a four-goal margin, most people would have thought that the Giants would run away for the next three quarters. Of course, this didn’t happen and there are a few reasons why. One of the key reason I thought was the Bombers defence after quarter-time decided to move their line up about 20-30m and start to put pressure on the Giants using their handball game coming out of half back. This meant that not only did the Bombers cause turnovers along half back, but they would also force the Giants into long kicks out of their defensive half, allowing the Bombers’ intercept markers like Francis and Ridley to easily pick off these kicks and re-start attacking forays.
As with the points raising in the same-day travel section, I wonder whether the Bombers would like their time back to adjust to the Giants style of play half an hour earlier – it might have led to a different conclusion.
- Jeremy Finlayson should be the recipient of a two-match ban from the MRP (I’m not holding my breath after last weekend). His elbow to the back of Merrett’s head in the first term was an act of unfathomable cowardice and needs to be penalised as such.
- Two metre Peter continues to somewhat of a career resurgence at the Bombers. He was all but a lost cause at the Suns, unable to break in ahead of Ben King, Sam Day or Jarrod Witts, but looks to have a new lease on life at the Bombers. He was ok today, gathering eight touches, 10 hit outs and two goals, but if this the worst it gets for him, the Bombers will take it.
- I have struggled to decide what sort of game Kyle Langford had. Some of his field kicking, particularly inside 50m, was absolutely horrible, but he finished with 20 touches, nine marks and three goals. They’re not bad stats, but I don’t know that I can say he had a good game?
- Nick Hind’s pace off half-back is a real weapon for the Bombers and I hope they start to use it more offensively. It’s fine to kick and mark the ball every now and then, but when you have a guy who can run like the wind (and is not a bad kick either), you need to play to his strengths.
- What to make of Cale Hooker’s ‘mark’ in the last minute or so of the game? Had it happened thirty seconds later, it would be an enormous story, but the Giants took the ball the length of the field and eventually kicked a goal, so maybe that eases the tension for the decision? For me, sitting on the couch, I thought it was a mark.
I hope that I have done this game justice – it truly was one of the greats! The Bombers will have to lick their wounds before facing up to Fremantle next Sunday at Marvel, while the Giants will take on the unenviable task of playing Richmond off a loss at Marvel on Saturday night.