Cast your mind back to the 2018 Finals Series.
The Melbourne Demons, full of hope and playing their best football in years, headed to Western Australia to take on the West Coast Eagles. The Dees were flying and after so much heartbreak, their supporters were ready to believe again.
What happened on that day saw hearts not just break, but hopes and dreams shattered. The West Coast Eagles welcomed Melbourne to their home with open arms…
… and they squeezed the life out of them for the next 120 minutes as they rampaged into the Grand Final. It was almost cruel – you could visibly see the disappointment and resignation on the faces of the Melbourne fans who allowed themselves to believe.
It set in motion four straight wins for the Eagles, looking as though they owned the Dees for the next couple of seasons. And coming into this game, the contest loomed as a huge one. Could the Eagles revisit the form that swept them to a premiership, and do so against the team that they beat back in 2018? Or would Melbourne confront some of their own demons, return to the scene of the crime, and send the message that they are the real deal in 2021?
This game was a huge one. For both teams, it dictated just where they’ll sit heading toward September. Yes, there’ll be other matches, and yes, a win or loss next week negates what occurs in Round 21 to an extent, but in terms of the 2021 season for each of these sides, this was the game that would define their season.
And it was the Demons who reigned supreme.
Here’s The Mongrel’s good, bad and ugly… without the shitty “lightning strikes” references. I am guessing you’ve already heard that little beauty enough already, right?
BATTLE OF THE HEAVYWEIGHTS
So, this was billed as Gawn v Naitanui for the mantle of the number one ruck in the game, right? With respect to the other big men in the AFL, these two are your best of the season to date. Who would have thought that it would be the efforts of the back up ruck for the Dees that would play such a pivotal role?
And of the West Coast backup???
I’ll get to him a little further down.
Luke Jackson firmed as the favourite for the rising star award in the wake of his four goals last week, and did himself no harm in terms of his role this week. Whilst six hit outs are nothing to write home about, Jackson’s work around the ground, and his ability to present as a “get out of jail” target for his teammates made people sit up and take notice.
Doing his apprenticeship under Max Gawn, it is clear he is starting to pick up on some valuable diamonds of info from the bearded Demon. His work to beat Nic Naitanui to the tap in the third quarter, and then take off to have a second effort in the chain that led to a goal for James Harmes was inspiring. The down-the-ground vision showed a meandering Nic Naitanui… jogging behind the play.
Jackson is learning to play to his strengths and compensate for his weaknesses… of which there seem to be fewer every time I watch him. He has a few years left yet where he’ll tag team with Gawn before assuming the role as the number one ruck position, and you have to give the Dees credit for the way they have developed him – he is a star in the making.
In regard to the Gawn v Nic Nat clash, Gawn had the better of Naitanui for three quarters before the big Eagle stormed home in the last. Naitanui’s four touches and 11 hit outs gave West Coast plenty of drive out of the guts, but at this stage, it was clear that the Dees were in “save game” mode. Gawn added just two touches and four taps in the last, but some of his work around the ground in the earlier three quarters was excellent… and he treated Nathan Vardy like his slow cousin at stages, just bamboozling him in ruck contests.
On the night, despite a late flurry by Naitanui, this game belonged to Big Max. Your All-Australian ruckman.
THE CONTESTED KING
The Eagles were coming.
Late in the last quarter, they had all the momentum and looked as though they were a chance to pull off an unlikely victory. Jack Darling had just marked and goaled to give the Eagles a genuine chance, if they could… just… win… this one… centre… clearance.
And then Clayton Oliver swooped in, went harder at the footy than his opponent, and won the ball for the Dees – game over. Just like that, the red-headed Demon who handles the footy in the wet almost the same as he does in dry conditions, thumped his hand into the chest of the Eagles and tore their hearts out.
During the week, I wrote about Oliver’s journey to top 400 contested touches in a season for the second time. Only two others have done it – Patrick Dangerfield and Josh Kennedy – and Oliver is getting closer and closer each week, likely to hit that target in the first week of finals. With 21 contested possessions in this game, despite some heavy attention from Mark Hutchings at stoppages, Oliver moved to 348 for the season. The Dees will play two finals – he is going to do it again.
Oliver is a freak, and I mean that in the nicest possible sense. His ability to find the footy irrespective of what is going on around him make him one of the best inside mids in the game, and his telepathic combination with both Gawn and Christian Petracca means that as soon as his hands touch the footy, he is creating for a teammate. You don’t see Oliver get stuck with the footy, indecisive about what to do next – he knows before he even gathers it.
At 24, Oliver is a huge chance to pick up another Bluey Truscott Medal and continue his journey en route to becoming one of the best players this club has ever had.
THE BIG BOY BEN
In the second quarter, I felt the Dees started bombing the ball inside 50 a little too often. I guess that’s what happens when you start seeing your full forward clunk some marks and kick goals, huh?
Ben Brown started the game brilliantly, with four grabs in the first quarter and a couple of goals, his presence in the air started to look like the player that kicked 60+ goals for three consecutive seasons with the Kangaroos. Working against a solid defence, his presence may have caused the Dees to get a little over-exuberant, and it took until the third quarter for them to settle down and start lowering their eyes again.
Brown was great as a target, brought the ball to ground and also aided in the set up of a couple of goals in ruck duels. He should not leave this team for the remainder of the season.
THE SMOOTH MOVER
They say the cream rises to the top when the wet weather rolls in. I’m more of a believer that things can go either way. You either see the best ball-handlers rise to the top, as I mentioned above with Oliver, or you see the increased pressure and double-grabbing get to players, dragging them down to the level of others.
Add Tim Kelly to the class of Clayton Oliver in terms of sure skills with the wet footy. As others fumbled the footy in close, the hands of Kelly were magnificent in gathering the footy and dishing off to a teammate. The Eagles’ midfield, when healthy has always been top-notch, but there have been big question marks as to how the team functions when the ball is wet. Tim Kelly does his bit, and then some, in rectifying any issues the team has in that department.
His recruitment has been a source of debate over the last couple of seasons – was he worth the price? Will he be the one to elevate the Eagles back to glory?
The answers to those questions, right now at least, is yes… and no. Not yet, anyway. West Coast play a conservative style of footy, owning possession and waiting patiently for an opening. With the skills of Kelly, they failed to capitalise on a player that can take risks and make them work for him and the team. Until that changes, Kelly will be stuck in a system that he can play very well in, but probably not dominate in.
And that opens up a whole new area of discussion… one I am sure Eagles fans are having as I write this. Did the game plan, once thrown out the window after the break in play, hinder Kelly and this side?
BULLISH ABOUT ALEX
What do you think of when you think of Alex Neal-Bullen?
Hyphens? Yeah, I get sucked into thinking about white-collar people with two names because they’re very progressive and all that shit, but the way ANB plays is anything but white collar. He puts his working boots on, is unafraid to get his hands dirty, and adds a healthy combination of grunt and opportunism to this Melbourne side.
I might be going out on a limb here, but ANB is the kind of player I look at as a “glue” player, inasmuch as the role he plays has the capacity to hold this team together. Working across half forward, he was consistently able to slip under the guard of the Eagles defenders en route to collecting 19 touches, eight tackles and two vital goals.
Putting this out there – Neal-Bullen is the type of player that makes good teams very good, and very good teams great. Unsung and probably underappreciated by those outside Melbourne, his work in this one spoke of a man who knows what is required to win games of footy, yet he doesn’t need to be the focal point of the offence.
Opposition coaches would be well-served checking the vision of this game, and watching just how easily ANB was able to find space, and how hard he worked without the footy. He could become a real thorn in their side in around a month’s time.
If Tim Kelly and Clayton Oliver were like a wonderful steak dinner… medium rare with a mushroom sauce (hello to our friends at The Squire’s Loft in Essendon – love your work!), then Elliot Yeo is like a double stack burger that drips down between your fingers as you bite into it. A little messier, a little more working class, but there is no way you’re going to put it down and opt for the salad.
Yeo collected a game-high 14 clearances in this one, including seven in the last quarter as his team threw caution to the wind and went all-out in an attempt to pinch the game. He was angry, combative, and if you ever question who the heart and soul of this current Eagles unit is, watch the way Yeo played in this one. I have no doubt it’s him.
I heard one of the Bozo commentators yapping about Yeo being “back” as of this game. I’m not so sure – I don’t believe we will really see him back until he gets an uninterrupted run at a pre-season, so 2022 looks more like the timeframe for him to be back at his best, but what we’re getting right now is probably best termed Yeo-Lite. Sounds like a yoghurt… good, but not filling. The filling part comes when he is able to apply the defensive pressure he is renowned for, rather than standing in no-man’s land at times, waiting for the release footy. He was caught out defensively a couple of times in this one, and it is something that he’ll have to tighten up on.
Still, this is a bloody good version of Yeo, but he has had to work back into this from from a long way back this year. I reckon his best will be on display in 2022. Then he’ll be back.
LOSING IT AT SELECTION
Nathan Vardy played again, I see. Here’s how I see the Eagles selection meeting going over the weekend.
Adam Simpson – How’s the weather looking for Monday?
Adrian Hickmott – Wet weather… slippery conditions…
Luke Webster – Hey, what do you think about playing a tall bloke who struggles to touch the footy when it’s dry?
Simpson – You talking about Oscar Allen?
Jaymie Graham – Oh, burn…
Webster – Nah, I mean Nathan Vardy. He has been huge for us… premiership player… was part of the chain of possession from heaven back in 2018. Why not, right?
Hickmott – You’re kidding, right?
Webster – Nah, think about it. Time winding down, players fatigued, and there is Vardy, the same height he was at the start of the game. Adam, you’ll be looked at like a genius!
Simpson – A genius, huh? Hmmm… okay, I’m sold.
Hickmott – Oh, FFS…
Graham – Defenders are good at defending.
And that’s that.
In horrible conditions, whilst Oscar Allen was once again thrown into defence to cover the early loss of Shannon Hurn (and the extended loss of Tom Barrass), Nathan Vardy jogged around Optus Stadium and picked up the lazy two disposals…
… yep, just the two for him, and Adam Simpson and company would have been wondering how the hell they made such a mistake by playing a bloke whose best footy is behind him, and wasn’t all that great, anyway.
What other options did he have? Well, they just dropped Rotham. Though he is up and down, his presence could have released Allen to play the back up role in the ruck, and provide someone who could run with Jackson. Let’s face it – he couldn’t have provided less than Vardy.
SAME ACTIONS – DIFFERENT RESULTS
Dig if you will, the picture…
Moments before the half time siren, Kysaiah Pickett takes possession of the footy inside 50. Seeing Elliot Yeo coming, Pickett lowers his body and drops at the knees, promoting high contact. Of course, it comes – Yeo is always going to attempt to tackle him, and the arm slips up around the neck.
A goal results, and everyone rejoices… yay!
Fast forward to the third quarter, and Dom Sheed takes the ball on the wing. Seeing a tackler heading his way, Sheed drops at the knees and is taken high. He awaits the whistle…
… and waits…
… and when it comes, the call is for a stoppage.
Now, I am neither here nor there on either of these teams – my side is trudging around down near the bottom of the ladder, yet not bad enough that we’re going to be getting Jason Horne this off-season. What I’d like to see is some god damned consistency!
I am baffled as to how you can have similar (not exactly the same, I know) incidents and have two very different interpretations of the rule.
So, how do we fix this? Hear me out. If we’re going to screw around with rules every single year (and they will… you know they will), then at least screw around with a rule that players are exploiting.
If a player drops at the knees or ducks into a tackle – make it an automatic free kick against them. In effect, they are putting themselves in harm’s way and prompting contact to the head. The AFL wants to protect the head, right? Absolutely, unless Buddy Franklin is elbowing them, of course. So, when a player tries to draw contact to the head by dropping at the knees, they should be punished. No ifs, no buts, and it removes these weak actions of leaning into a tackle, or dropping at the knees, and worst of all – ducking!
Again, I don’t have a dog in this fight, but there are a couple of things I bloody hate about our game – one is umpires getting sucked in by players milking frees, and the other is inconsistency with decisions.
BLOODY CONFUSING RULES
If there is one thing I hate seeing in footy, it is fifty metre penalties. Let’s be honest – they’re a part of the game that is entirely up to the umpire’s discretion, and at times, things get a little out of hand.
During the Demons’ inspired third quarter run, West Coast had two 50m penalties paid against them, as well as downfield free kicks. So, what that meant was that when the initial infraction occurred, the ball went from half back to a shot at goal inside 50 because… well, the 50m penalty rule sucks ass!
Incredibly, late in the game we saw a wonderful contested mark from Jack Darling on the wing. His opponent, Harrison Petty, professionally took the ball out of his grasp on the deck, “accidentally” had it become entangled between his legs, and then allowed it to fall out to the ground before handing the footy back to him.
I say it was professional because everyone knows what he was doing – killing a few seconds to allow his mids to get back and support his defenders. It’s smart – we’d all do the same given the chance, but it is such a fine line between wasting time and giving away a fifty metre penalty. The umpire’s response? Telling off Elliot Yeo for having a go at him about his non-decision.
DOES ADAM SIMPSON OWN A KEY AND A KITE?
If not, I reckon there’ll be a few sold in Perth over the next couple of days. What happened after the break in play for lightning? The Eagles came out breathing fire, and the Demons looked cooked, waiting for the siren.
Perhaps next week, just in case, Simpson could allocate some of the keys and kites to supporters and sit them up on the roof of Optus Stadium. If Freo starts getting close, they could start flying their kites and drawing some lightning to get the Eagles to start playing some decent footy again?
WHY HAVE YOU BARELY MENTIONED CHRISTIAN PETRACCA?
It’s a good question and one I really cannot answer too convincingly other than to say, he was Christian Petracca. That’s a huge compliment, by the way.
You see, when people talk about the best players in the league, a certain standard of play is expected of them. We always heard about Dusty doing “Dusty things”, right? That is what is now expected of Trac. He rolled out, had 28 touches, six tackles, kicked a goal, collected seven clearances and is a strong contender for the three votes.
It sounds crazy, but this is now the expectation of him. Two seasons of brilliant footy have raised the bar for Petracca to the point that unless he does something ridiculous, it’s getting a little too easy to concentrate elsewhere and let his exploits slip under the radar as “just another excellent Petracca game”.
WHAT WILL IT TAKE TO RAM HOME THAT OSCAR ALLEN IS NOT A DEFENDER?
I reckon Max Gawn’s mark inside 50 in the third quarter should do it.
Allen attacked the contest with Gawn, but opted to avoid taking the body with his spoiling attempt. He flew at the footy, clubbed at it with his fist, but Gawn was able to complete the grab on the second attempt. Allen could have cannoned into Gawn, made the spoil and taken his body out in the process, but for whatever reason, he drifted to the side, half-spoiled it and allowed Gawn to complete the grab.
Barrass would have made Gawn pay.
Did anyone else notice Brad Sheppard completely neglecting to lay a shepherd in the first quarter, allowing Clayton Oliver to waltz past him on the wing and apply pressure to Sheppard’s teammate? I couldn’t believe me eyes…
Sheed had the footy, looking inside 50 after receiving the handball from Sheppard. Then he just stood there. Oliver darted past and Sheed was forced to kick under pressure. If you’re looking for a passage of play that summed up the first three quarters, that was it. West Coast didn’t do enough of the hard stuff, whilst the Dees were willing to commit their all to something that may or may not come off. It didn’t come off on this occasion, with Sheed able to get his kick away, but it was indicative of the effort from both sides at that early stage.
A ripping game for Jake Lever again. The guy just keeps delivering. He would be one of the players most would have as a lock in their AA teams this season. If he doesn’t get selected, it’ll be absolute robbery.
And that’s about it from me – The Dees are now half a game clear on the top of the ladder with the double chance secured. They play the Crows before a mouth-watering final round against the Cats that could shape the top four.
The Eagles get Freo in the Derby and then have to play the Lions. Next week is a must-win, but given their up and down season, if they were ever going to fall over to the Dockers, it’d be now. Surely they’re not going to do that? Surely, right?!?!
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