If you told me at the start of the season that Melbourne and Sydney were heading into Round Eight as two sides inside the top four, with the former remaining the only side unbeaten, I would’ve had to slap you so hard you’d fail the concussion test.

But this is what’s happening in 2021. Arguably the two biggest surprise packets in the AFL this season have been Melbourne and Sydney – both sides from different… I guess backstories is the word I’d use here.

Melbourne – we talk about their 2018 year; a game away from making their first Grand Final since 2000 and proceeding to ultimately crumble down to a bottom-two finish in 2019 and then fluffing up opportunity after opportunity last season to make finals. Pressure fell on Simon Goodwin at the start of the year, the sort of pressure that currently sits with Nathan Buckley – the immense pressure of getting results on the board.

Sydney – the past couple of years have seen the side sort of rebuild and put games into their younger brigade of players. Even in 2017 and 2018 where they made finals but never really were going to pose a genuine threat for the title, there was a changing of the guard slowly occurring within the red and white.

So, what did we get here? Scoreboard wise, it was low-scoring, but it was always going to be that way. One, the weather was a problematic, raining on and off all throughout the late afternoon, and two – these top-tier clashes will always come down to a war of attrition, never a shootout – see last Friday night’s game as an example.

But never mind that, Melbourne – bloody hell they’re 8-0, the last time they won eight from their first eight was when a bloke called Ron Barrassi was coaching them in their first season. Sydney, to their credit, gave them many a challenge on the way – continuing to solidify themselves as a finals contender this season.

Let’s try and break this game down as best we can.

 

The Seven-Million Dollar Man

There was always big debate about re-signing someone on massive money over a long-term deal. I mean look at the bloke playing at Sydney currently running around in the number 23, I think he’s in year eight of a nine year deal? I won’t break into the ins and outs of that one, but you’re always running the risk of losing money if said player breaks down with injury.

There is no question the current formline of Christian Petracca is worthy of attracting big coin, and I did have my queries lingering over whether Petracca can carry on with his form after signing the big deal. But I think that was put to bed with a strong performance on Saturday night, despite receiving close attention from both Callum Mills and James Rowbottom, in particular.

Running the numbers on Petracca, he had the 28 disposals, five clearances, three score involvements and kicked a very classy goal in the third term.

Was he the best player on the ground? I doubt it. Was he even Melbourne’s best? Nope. The ten clangers will indicate that he was very untidy, but it was a game that was always designed to be untidy and the conditions didn’t help either. Clayton Oliver had the 35 disposals and ten clearances and 21 of James Harmes’ 31 touches were contested possessions and I thought both were better men tonight in the red and blue

As I thought the following chap was…

 

The Beard Running With The Hick

I never thought we – that’s me and possibly the vast majority of you reading this – would be here saying that Tom Hickey has become one of Sydney’s most important players, but I’ll explain that shortly.

But Max Gawn was going to have his hands full against the journeyman in this one. Since last year when he was in Eagles’ colours, I think Hickey’s work around the stoppages following the initial ruck contest has been most impressive and now it’s finally starting to be recognized for what it’s worth in this Sydney team. He’s probably not going to win the hitout count most weeks, but the modern-day ruckman is just as efficient around the ground as he is in the ruck contest.

Makes this encounter a little bit more enticing considering where Gawn stands in the fashion of the best ruckman this century.

Well, Gawn further exemplified what makes him stand out from the rest. He looks unassuming and unlikely in the way he goes, but he’s got an amazing ruck craft and once you see it a handful of times, you begin to really appreciate his worth to this Melbourne side. Gawn had the 43 hitouts in comparison to both Hickey and Callum Sinclair, who combined for 29. Of those 43, 12 of them were too advantage and also picked up three clearances, three marks and 16 disposals for his trouble.

Hickey’s numbers read as 16 disposals and six clearances, but I think a large portion of that work was attributed to him playing against Luke Jackson, who was providing the chop-out to the bearded one. Nothing against Jackson at all, but he’s still young and learning the craft in his second season. Against Gawn, however, I think Hickey looked second-best for most of the night.

 

Millsy’s 100th

I’m sure this won’t be the first time you’ve read this, but what was stopping Callum Mills from playing in the middle two years ago? Everyone knew exactly of the potential that he possessed, but for some reason, John Longmire was sort of stubborn and reluctant about playing him in the middle alongside Luke Parker and Josh Kennedy.

Well, now he’s getting that chance. Father time is slowly catching up to Kennedy and Parker is in the prime years of his career – he won’t get a full paragraph here, but I thought Parker again was simply outstanding in this contest, it’s actually crazy that he’s been so consistent, but not many people in the media are actually batting an eyelid about him.

Back to Mills – I can’t believe he has already reached 100 games. It only feels like it was a couple of years ago he won the Rising Star award in his first season when in reality, it was actually five years since he achieved that feat.

Before this year, Mills hadn’t actually reached the 30-disposal mark in his career. But on Saturday night, Mills reached 30-plus for the third time this season, registering 33 disposals, ten tackles and six clearances in this contest. He also led all Swans for contested ball, registering 18 contested possessions for the match – combined with Parker, that’s 34 contested possessions between the pair.

There are a few underlying factors for Sydney’s turnaround in form, and one of them falls on the shoulders of Callum Miils, who is rapidly coming into his own as an elite midfielder with good balance of contested work and outside class.

 

The Rejuvenation of Tom McDonald

Remember 2018 Tom McDonald? Well, he’s back!!! Unfortunately for the Simpsons fanatics, he’s not back in Pog Form – but for Melbourne fans, he’s back in career-best form and you love to see this.

The 2018 version of Tom McDonald was quite fun to watch seeing him thrive in multiple positions – him on a wing was pretty fun to watch, you wouldn’t have thought for a man of his size that he’d have such aerobic capacity. But his biggest strength without doubt is his marking hands. Just for reference – McDonald averaged 6.7 marks per game in 2018 and 1.7 contested marks per game and also kicked over 50 goals.

I’m not sure what the hell happened to him the last two years – injury certainly played its role here, but it somehow got to the point where Melbourne were very open to trading him away. Fortunately for them, no one really stepped forward to enquire, bet those looking for a key forward would be feeling pretty silly right now – looking in your direction Collingwood!!!

What makes this all the more interesting is that Ben Brown is in the side now too – basically the man who was going to come in and play that key forward role that he made his own almost in 2018. What does that mean for Sam Weideman? He’s out of contract at the end of this season and the Dees have shown to date that the forward line can function without him. Brown, himself, kicked three goals to back up the two he kicked last week, if I’m Weideman, I’d be a little concerned about my place in the team, ongoing.

For McDonald, however, this was a game that validated to not just the team, but to the man, himself, that he belongs in the Melbourne side – four goals in a low-scoring game is almost an equivalent to eight in a high-scoring match. He also recorded 18 disposals and five marks for his trouble, including an incredible pack mark in the final term that eventually resulted in the game-sealing goal.

 

Shutdown Swans

There are a few Sydney players here that I will make mention of and give props to, because I thought given the roles, they were very good in helping their side give it a real crack against the unbeaten Dees.

The first and most notorious one here is Harry Cunningham. I’ve long been critical of what he actually does for this side and have long asked what he brings – he’s got a tank, and sometimes he can get the footy and use it, but it’s not consistent enough. I actually got grilled by a Swans fan about a month ago on Twitter for suggesting he should be dropped.

But he had the job on Kysaiah Pickett, who you’d argue would be amongst the top five small forwards in the competition this season. Not only did he keep him goal-less and nine touches, but Cunningham picked up 22 disposals himself.

The second bloke I’ll touch on is Robbie Fox, who had the job at stages on Bayley Fritsch – I say at stages because I’m not sure if it was a direct one-on-one match up all night. I actually thought Fox had a good 2020 and it was baffling to see him delisted, but so good to see him get re-listed and given another chance. Quite a few times he was able to impact contests and that’s what he’s so good at.

Fritsch is another who has been in ripping form to start the season, with 18.8 in six matches – in past years he’s been dreadfully inaccurate. Managed to escape suspension with a blatant elbow, but should’ve just took the week off anyway, because he hardly saw it – nine disposals and no goals.

And the last one I’ll mention is Will Hayward. Since his draft year, I’ve been a big fan of how he goes about his footy and is often a very handy and consistent contributor in front of goal. Not sure what his last 12 months have been about – Horse has thrown him in defence, to the ressies and I’m sure if he draped him in chum, he would’ve thrown him to the sharks as well just to see how he goes.

But he was handed the task of Jake Lever. Lever is at his best when he’s flying in as the third tall and plucking intercept marks, but he struggled to do that all night as Hayward was constantly on the move and posing himself as a genuine forward threat, forcing Lever to actually follow him and defend him. Even though the Dees won the game, I thought Hayward did a tremendous job and picked himself up two goals for his trouble – should’ve been three given he messed up an opportunity dead in front, but who am I to complain?

 

Under The Radar

Just a quick one on James Jordon here, because I think he deserves major props for his game.

I do understand that he tapered off as the game progressed, but a big reason for Melbourne’s turnaround in form is due to these younger players being given a crack and making the most of it. I’ve touched on both Jackson and Pickett before, Trent Rivers is another one who I rate really highly as a kid with enormous upside and even though he didn’t feature in this one, Tom Sparrow has played five of a possible eight games this season.

But in the case of Jordon, he’s a kid that is very capable in a high-pressure situation and he showed plenty in the first half, especially around the contest. 11 disposals in the first quarter alone, and would go into half time with 17 for the match on the back of finding the footy in the source and the one thing that I noticed was his quick hands, every clean take at ground level was almost followed by a sharp handball to a team mate or at least to the direction of a team mate.

He finished with 23 disposals for the match, including 13 contested possessions, behind only Oliver, Harmes and Petracca for the club. He also had eight tackles as well, but did go at 47 percent disposal efficiency, which was the one downside to his game, but both Simon Goodwin and Melbourne supporters should be encouraged by the young fella’s effort towards the contest – it is only his eighth career game after all.

 

What’s To Say About Buddy?

Mmm yes, this is a bit of question.

I try not to be too harsh on Buddy, because he has been absolutely cruelled by injury over the past few years.

But matched up on Steven May for most of the match, you just knew that he was going to be in for a rough night at the office. Just looking at the facts, May has played in most of Melbourne’s games since crossing over from the Suns at the end of 2018 and has since been a key pillar, and one of the most damaging full-backs in the game.

Buddy was held to only the six disposals, three marks and held scoreless, but the one thing I will say about him in a positive manner is that he laid five tackles. From key forwards, that’s rarer than you might imagine. I don’t think work rate was an issue. It’s the amount of time he’s spent on the sidelines over the past couple of years that’s hurt his ability to make an impact.

Like most people, I want to see him get that 1000-goal milestone, and I fear that we may never see another player kick reach that milestone in this lifetime unless Steve Hocking continues to tinker with the rules like an absolute schmuck or they somehow find a way to increase longevity in the key forward. Unfortunately, only the former of those will most likely happen.

I don’t want to say it’s the end of Buddy, he’s been a champion of the game and a first-ballot hall of famer, but what will be said here is that the clock is ticking on his career and everyone knows it. Let’s just see what the next few weeks has in store for him before we actually consider putting a line through him.

 

Quick Bits

Death, Taxes and Jake Lloyd running and creating plays off the half-back line – 28 disposals, seven marks, 577 metres gained and 20 kicks going at 93 percent disposal efficiency which tells me he was very clean in conditions where it could’ve easily gone awry.

On the other end, it was Christian Salem getting it done for the Demons off the half-back line – 27 disposals, nine rebound 50s, 10 intercept possessions, 603 metres gained and going at just a fraction above 70 percent efficiency.

In his first game covering the loss of Adam Tomlinson, Harry Petty did a solid job – was never going to have big possession numbers, but was often impacting the contest in the air. Had six intercepts and five marks for his troubles.

Mills will get a lot of plaudits for his inside game, but defensively, James Rowbottom was just as tough and just as gritty. He laid 12 tackles – a game high – along with 22 disposals, but no clearances and just three score involvements.

Ed Langdon on the wing was very good, continuing to piece together a good start to the season – 24 disposals, five marks, five tackles, 420 metres gained and going at 75 percent disposal efficiency, which is pleasant considering how much he’d butcher it last year.

The work of Alex Neal-Bullen lately has caught my eye and again put in a solid shift in this one – 16 disposals, eight tackles – including a pair inside 50 and four inside 50 deliveries. He’s always been a player capable of being a good contributor without needing to star.

Hayden McLean took three contested marks in ordinary conditions, I like how he’s been given games to really showcase his value to the side, especially with Sam Reid injured and Logan McDonald stuck in the VFL for the time being.

Also, a special shoutout to an A3 Footy Podcast favourite in Jordan Dawson, continuing to use the footy so efficiently by foot – 16 of his 19 kicks were effective kicks, which meant the percentage was just over 84 per cent.

As I was driving home from Williamstown doing commentary for the VFLW (small shoutout to Peter Holden and the WARF Radio crew), listening in on Triple M, AFLW player Kate McCarthy gave Dane Rampe a bit of a clip during the score review which led to Charlie Spargo’s goal in the last quarter, mentioning something about him not being able to climb the goal post to get a hand on the footy. I just bloody love her commentary.

And it’s time to put an end to the review to what was a very hard-fought game of footy. Well done on the Dees for making it eight from eight to start the season – I still can’t believe that.

Next week looms as a massive chance to make it nine from nine as they host Carlton at the MCG on Sunday – I reckon the extra day’s rest will benefit them greatly, but I’ve learned with the Blues to never count them out, even if the difference between their best and worst is vast.

As for Sydney, I don’t think they’ve lost any admirers, 5-3 after eight games is something I’m sure a lot of Swans fans would’ve taken at this point at the start of the year. Next week sees them take on Collingwood back home in Sydney in what’s a golden chance to make it win number six for the year and keep themselves in striking range of the top four.