Footy… you just never know what you’re gonna get.

On paper, this game would not have had casual viewers terribly enthusiastic. A dominant team taking on one that’s sitting in that dead zone of mediocrity.

When this week’s assignment arrived by mongrelgram, I thought it’d be a bit of a chore to watch the game. I thought we’d see Adelaide show something, but didn’t expect them to be in it for four quarters, and I definitely did not expect I’d be reviewing one of the best matches of the year.

Make no mistake, that’s what we got.

We saw quality players on both sides launch beautiful link up plays, we saw players take gutsy chances, and there was still plenty of contested ball, high flyers and amazing snaps to suit even the most discerning AFL afficionados, all wrapped up in a cliffhanger ending that was not without that aftertaste of controversy that will ensure it’s talked about for the next few weeks at the very least.

Melbourne came into the game undefeated for the season on the back of a midfield that’s taken an evolutionary leap in performance and cohesion. With quality on every line and a recruitment strategy that is almost mind-bogglingly underrated, plenty of people would have had this as a lock in their work tipping comp. The team must have been confident too, deciding to omit Ben Brown after an ordinary outing against the Blues. Mind you, he kicked three the week before and a pair in his debut in Demon colours, but such is the depth of the squad that no player can take their spot for granted.

Adelaide, on the other hand, have been a bit hot and cold. Their round 1 win against Geelong showed how good they can be, before they seemed to quickly forget that “long and down the line” was not their only option. Their work rate has been criticised, along with their structures. This game won’t silence all criticism—not by a long shot—but it’ll give supporters more than ample reason to keep rocking up to see their side have a crack, no matter who they’re playing.

Well, enough hype, let’s get into it.

Starting with intent

Melbourne had a late change, losing Christian Salem to general soreness, replacing him with Neville Jetta. Losing Salem from the backline hurt would have hurt. His ability to launch plays from the back half has been instrumental for the Dees this season. Bringing Jetta in does give them some pace and flexibility, but with only seven touches and three tackles for the game, he may be one of the first magnets in danger of being put on the VFL board for next week.

The game started as most expected though, with Gawn providing his mids with some quality taps to work from. A quick bit of movement before resulting in a bit of a chaos ball entry from Weideman that McDonald cleverly tapped to Langdon for a smart goal to open the scoring would have had a few Crows fans nervously glancing at each other. They need not have worried though, as Adelaide quickly woke up and started increasing the pressure, grinding the ball forward. A big bomb to the spot should have been killed by Steven May, but Riley Thilthorpe managed to rove it nicely and snap truly.

Each way goals to Gawn and Walker kept the match tight. May was manning Walker tightly, but chose the wrong moment to zone off, leaving Rivers to try and match big Tex’s muscle, and he was found wanting as Walker marked and converted.

Melbourne started to take advantage of their dominance in the clearances to put on three goals in quick succession, including a massive 60 metre running goal from Trent Rivers. It was such a pure strike of the ball that it’s hard to believe it’s only his third major in his 19 appearances for the club. He’ll be very happy to add that one to his highlight reel.

With Adelaide staring at an 18 point deficit with just a handful of minutes to go in the opening term, the crowd seemed a bit subdued. Unfortunately, anyone who headed off to the craft beer bar for a sneaky IPA found themselves wishing they’d saved the $76 and waited a bit longer to buy their round as James Rowe kicked two goals in a minute by roving a sneaky Gawn tap and backing it up with a nice snap to keep Adelaide in touch.

Keeping up the effort

Adelaide seemed full of belief in the middle of the game as they increased the pressure and played with a confidence and willingness to take risks that footy fans love to watch. They blended in tempo football where they controlled the ball at half back with daring runs through the middle and courageous play-on chains of possessions.

Melbourne were just as ambitious though, with Oliver, Petracca, Langdon and Brayshaw forming a weaving forward push that attempted to swarm the Adelaide defensive structure, which seemed to be very much about playing a man-on-man accountable style of footy.

In the modern game, zone defence, press plays and set structures give teams flexibility and the necessary link ups to launch into attack, but Adelaide reminded us that in the end, it’s always going to come down to one ball between two players and seeing who is willing to take that extra step to pick it up or lay the big tackle. I love seeing players competing for the ball, taking each possession that their opponent gets as a personal affront, and this game showed that I’m far from alone, as there seemed to be a few with similar inclinations in both coaches boxes too.

Adelaide kept up the pressure and managed to pull ahead halfway through the second quarter, setting up some exciting back-and-forth as the lead changes a couple of times before going into the main break with the score all square at 8.4 apiece.

The struggle continues

The second half was all about willpower. Adelaide came out strong and full of intensity, bringing increased tackling pressure and putting on two quick ones, the first from a Keays snap that was pure class, and an O’Brien free kick on 50 that he handed off to Seedsman with the sort of handball that only a ruckman could be proud of. Seedsman converted though, and Adelaide took a two-goal lead and the crowd were definitely up and about.

Melbourne were not going to take it easy though. Their quality shone through as Oliver got in and under to win the contested balls while Petracca was running by for the handoff, or vice-versa if one of them was out of position.

Petracca again lifted his team with a very nice long goal set shot that shows just how potent a weapon he can be. Very few players can run, link up, get the hard ball and convert from outside 50 like he can, and it’s easy to see why he’s the favourite for the Brownlow. Make no mistake, if he decided to break his contract, there’d be letters of offer from every AFL team in the land, and probably a bunch of other sports too.

It’s the lament of many backmen that you can win your contests for 99% of the game, yet that 1% where you miss a half chance is where you can find yourself just wanting the ground to open up and swallow you.

Kozzy Pickett had done next to nothing for more than half the game, but his third touch of the ball wasn’t particularly clean, but he collected his own fumble, accelerated along the boundary and snapped a goal from the square to put the Demons back in front.

Adelaide started looking a bit tired. So many young players seemed a bit reluctant to put in the gut-busting chase that they’d been willing to provide earlier. The on-field leadership gave them a bit of a rev-up though, and both teams rose to the challenge and traded goals with Berry and Oliver adding majors before three quarter time, where Melbourne had a three point lead, but looked like they were building up.

Bringing it home

Melbourne stuck to their structure and it was soon rewarded with Oliver intercepting an Adelaide kick out of defence, weaving in between three defenders to find Spargo open for a bread and butter goal. As was the story for the game though, McAdam responded for the Crows shortly after with a long shot from just beyond 50.

Melbourne kept on peppering the goals, but were just a little wasteful. Much of that can be put down to the sheer desperation Adelaide showed though, even when Clayton Oliver put through a monster goal from outside 50 to put his side three goals up with less than nine minutes to go in the match. His ability to gather the ball, fend off, find space and bang it home took a bit of voice out of the crowd, but if the Adelaide players were affected, they didn’t show it.

Adelaide surged again as Melbourne controlled much of the play. They looked in control, but Adelaide’s daring kept the Demons from shutting the game down. While many teams in the same situation would go into their shell, the Crows kept taking chances, using the corridor and lifted their efforts.

The Final Moments

Let me just be clear here; Melbourne did not do a hell of a lot wrong. On tired legs, they tried to surge back against a Crows side that was equally spent, but buoyed by a roaring crowd, some great on-field leadership, and the determination to make it stick.

With under two minutes on the clock and down by five points, Adelaide launched forward with courage and banged it inside 50 with a high ball that Walker tried to claim as a mark. I don’t think it’s unfair to assume he was trying to put a bit of a con on the umpire, as I reckon he was about the fifth person to put his hands on it in the contest, but he managed to get it away to Sloane who found a running Keays who was quickly tackled by Petty as Petracca attempted to strip the ball. He may have been better off shutting down Keays with a solid tackle though, as Keays managed to get an arm free and handball the ball away to Sloane who blindly banged it forward to find Walker who took a quality contested mark about 40 from goal.

In the sort of moment that every player imagines at training, he’s kicking from about 45, just off centre and with his team down by five points, he lifts the entire crowd with a perfect kick to take the lead by a point.

The game still had one more twist though, as the final 45 seconds saw Melbourne come away with an easy clearance to Petracca who put in as good an inside 50 as you would want in these moments, finding Kozzy Pickett leading into an open lane. Unfortunately, Pickett couldn’t pull the mark in and the ball bounced away for Adelaide’s Nick Murray to collect at the top of the square under enormous pressure from Spargo. With only a point in it, he elected to handball towards the point post, finding the boundary line, perhaps expecting Spargo to play along and tackle him so he could make it look like the handball was the only option he had. Spargo didn’t play his role though, and as the ball went out, there was a collective tightening of sphincters around Adelaide oval, but with 28 seconds on the clock, the umpire called for a throw in, much to the absolute dismay from the commentary team that included Garry Lyon.

A boundary throw in results in nothing meaningful, a ball up had Max Gawn attempt to take it out of the ruck but unable to get a disposal off. It was a clever option, and would have worked if not for Sloane locking his arms around the ball with every ounce of strength that he had to force another contest.

A chaos ball ends up in Seedsman’s hands, but his attempt to clear is smothered by Brayshaw who pops it to the square, but no mark is taken and Adelaide manage to run away from goal for the bare few seconds needed to find the siren and the victory by the narrowest of margins.

Even if you’re not a supporter of either team, this was a fantastic game to watch, and even if you did see it, I’d recommend catching the replay anyway.

Was there a missed deliberate call?

Well, I don’t think anyone doubts that Murray was deliberately looking for the boundary line. He wasn’t looking for a teammate, he wasn’t trying to rush a behind. Footy’s an odd game though, and one of the few where umpires need to take intention of the player into account to such a degree. The call could have been made and AFL house would have justified it, but they’ll be just as able to justify putting the whistle away here.

To be completely fair, there were plenty of missed or generous calls all game. From Clayton Oliver’s throw that wasn’t called through to more than a few high frees that seemed to have a fair bit of mayo given to both sides. The free kick count did finish at 24 apiece, but that last non-call will definitely be a topic of discussion for the next week.

As another example, Langdon’s bouncing goal from a bunch of scrappy play had Scholl claiming it was touched, and vision suggests he may have a point, but as usual, the video has all the quality of a potato. With the money and tech in the game, it’s amazing that we can’t get one of the 60 frames per second clear enough to see more than a blur. I’m sure there are reasons for it well beyond my understanding, but it just amazes me that a sport with this much in the way of resources and a broadcaster that can cover games across the nation can have poorer freeze frame capability than a $500 Go Pro.

Enter the Bogan

When the game was there to be won, Walker stepped up.

Tex Walker does not seem like a complicated bloke. He likes his footy, is partial to a beer, but if there is a man who lives for his club more than the big bloke from Broken Hill, I’d like to see it.

Of Adelaide’s last three goals, two were from Walker’s boot, and the one in the middle was launched from his own contest at the mark and handball to a running mid.

Looking over the game, it seemed this was the case for most of Adelaide’s goals. Steven May is no slouch, and matched Walker in shoulder-to-shoulder strength, but Walker frequently went up the ground to impact the play and managed to hurt May on the overlap.

Now let me be completely above board here; I’m a massive fan of big Tex. He’s an old school country footballer and doesn’t pretend otherwise. He has the sort of vibe that if he wasn’t playing in the AFL, he’d be almost as happy lining up every week with his Broken Hill mates and tossing back the beers in the change rooms after the game.

For all that though, even his detractors would have to admit he’s an enormous talent as a forward that makes the players around him even better. He’s the type of leader that sets the example with what he does and reinforces it with his ability to play the team game.

Whenever his teammates scored, Tex was almost always first on the scene to congratulate them and pump up his teammates. Part of that is being a forward, sure, but if you watch the game back, it’s definitely something he seems keen to do.

Even though he’s not the captain anymore, he’s the soul of this team, and it seemed fitting that the winning shot came from his boot in an absolute textbook kick.

If it seems I’m being a bit over the top in my praise, just listen to Mark Riccuito’s interview with him post-match. I may be a fan, but Tex should be grateful for Covid distancing rules, as I haven’t seen such fawning over a player from a broadcaster since Bruce MacAvaney’s attempts at verbally impregnating Cyril Rioli left the airwaves.

The Ruck battle

Melbourne kept up the class and dash that we’ve expected from them, as Gawn and Jackson continued to cause trouble for their opposing ruck duo of O’Brien and Thilthorpe.

Max Gawn played a game that Adelaide should be very familiar with. It reminded me of Shaun Rehn’s work back in the 90s. He’d sit around half back, sweeping up the forward drives with contested marks and deft taps, as well as sneak up the ground to try and help set up his teammates for a mark inside 50. Gawn is a bit more mobile than Shaun though, so was able to get right up to the goal square on many occasions, as well as flood back if the ball was turned over.

Thilthorpe looked at the game Gawn was putting together and decided that copy-pasting his moves was worth a crack. He managed to surprise even himself when he’d rove some long bombs that came off a marking contest, and his two goals showed remarkable agility for the big lad.

Unlike Gawn, he decided to let his teammate deal with the backline stuff though.

O’Brien put in a solid day, but struggled to give his mids the service that Gawn could provide. He didn’t let Gawn dominate, but big Max did manage to put together four clearances and ten marks to go with his 32 hitouts, so he wasn’t too far off it.

Midfield

Clayton Oliver vs Rory Laird was a match up that had everyone salivating. Both had loads of the ball, Oliver amassing 38 touches to Laird’s 35, but it was how they earned it that set them apart, with 27 of Oliver’s being contested to go with his eight inside 50s and nine tackles. Oh, and three goals.

Oliver was immense for the whole match, and his partnership with Petracca makes both of them better players, as shown by the fact they amassed 24 clearances between them, and made 1450 metres gained.

Petracca and Sloane had their moments on each other too, and while Sloane played his role when it counted, Petracca’s ability to play inside and outside while linking together possession chains had him slightly ahead in my book.

Ben Keays and Paul Seedsman also amassed some nice numbers, both as possession gathering and for their defensive work. Seedsman had a few ordinary moments, but when you’re pulling in 35 touches and eight marks, they may come with a few forgettable ones.

Ed Langdon and Angus Brayshaw kept busy and supported Petracca and Oliver well, without taking the game on in the way that everyone knows they can. They definitely had their moments, but not quite the impact that we’ve come to expect.

The difference

It’s hard to pinpoint where the game was won, which you’d expect when the game comes down to a single point. I think something must be said though for the coach’s battle.

Matty Nicks was willing to roll the dice. He’d swap around his midfielders, bring players up, send Tex into a wingman-type position and encourage players to take risks.

Goodwin by contrast seemed content to stick with his structure and gameplan, making very few noticeable changes as the game remained in the balance. Now, when a team is undefeated, that’s forgivable—why mess with a winning formula, but it may have been the little detail that cost him in the end, as Adelaide kept changing their approach and disrupting the structure and style of Melbourne far more than expected.

Other bits

I don’t know what sort of grass Adelaide Oval has, but it suited the Crows. Their below-the-knee work was sublime, with full-pace pick-ups of ground balls by just about every player. Even the bigger lads seemed at home chasing the unpredictable bounce of the footy. It’s great to see that in an era where teams recruit athletes and try to make footballers out of them, the knack of knowing which way the ball will bounce isn’t a lost skill.

Jake Lever was booed all game, but he had a brilliant game for the role he plays. His sweeping style of mobile defence resulted in 17 intercepts. Compare that with Adelaide’s leading interceptor Tom Doedee who managed seven, his impact becomes apparent.

Walker was reported for dangerous tackle on Clayton Oliver. This could go either way really. On one hand, he’s had a few tackle reports that have seen him miss matches. On the other hand, Oliver was unaffected, and there didn’t seem to be much force involved. I’d say it’s likely he’ll get a match and have it downgraded on appeal.

Fogarty will probably have the same result from his report due to a strike on Lever. It was a weird elbow to the back that looks absolutely terrible. Not a lot of impact, but I wouldn’t be against giving him a week just for doing it from behind. No one wants to see that.

Next up

It’s almost a shame that the Crows will be so sorely tested so quickly after an amazing win. Taking on Richmond at the MCG will be an even bigger test for the team, with the question being asked if they can back up this performance without the crowd behind them, and with the Tigers at the only ground they ever want to play on.

I really think Adelaide will be in this game for a majority of it, but after putting it all on the line against the Dees, I think the Tigers will be just a bit too much of a challenge for them.

Melbourne taking on the Bulldogs at Marvel stadium was already an interesting matchup, but made even more so after this loss. Will there be more list changes, or will they try to settle the squad? Will Petracca have Libba chewing on his ear at every pack or will the Dogs trust their own midfield to carry the day in one-on-one contests? The Bulldogs have a ruthless efficiency about them at Marvel, as the Saints found out this round after being on the end of a 111-point shellacking.

The six-day turnaround for both sides will probably hurt Melbourne more with the interstate trip and the sheer effort that went into the game being taken into account, and with that in mind, I think the Dogs may make it two losses on the trot for Melbourne. The Dees supporters won’t be putting away the whole cheese platter yet though, they only need a few more wins to make finals and September success is more important than anything for a team that looks to be building very nicely.

 

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