Are this version of the Dees that good, or did they just expose a Lions outfit with a few holes that are difficult to fill? If it is the former, how did they turn it all around so quickly in 2021?
Melbourne moved into the Preliminary Final and implored their supporters to come along with them for the ride – wholeheartedly and without fear, with an impressive win over Brisbane. In a wonderful second-quarter surge, the Demons put distance between them and the Lions and from there, it was all about ensuring a week off and preparing for a genuine tilt at the flag.
Exciting stuff. The one Melbourne fan I know summed it up best. “I’m delightfully terrified!”
Whilst the Dees have ridden the wave of success this season, Brisbane have been on a rollercoaster of form.
Losing Daniel McStay early in the game left the Lions with a forward line of the inconsistent, and frankly, untrustworthy Joe Daniher, as well as the small forward dynamo, Charlie Cameron. Oh, there were others floating in and out, but when matched up against a defence boasting the likes of Jake Lever and Steven May, you may want a little more firepower than those two.
And the Lions were nowhere near it. They were stifled through the middle of the ground and strangled in their attacking fifty by a disciplined and determined Demon outfit.
Melbourne played a polished brand of football, knowing exactly what to expect from each other and playing to those strengths. Their pressure was on point, and their ball use far surpassed that of their opponents, often stringing together a chain of three or four precise kicks to move the footy from end-to-end in passages that the Lions had no answer for. In the end, it seemed as though the Lions were not too far away, but watching it… it felt as though they were miles off. 33 points is quite a flattering margin in a game where team was clearly better.
What did we learn from this game, and what does it mean for the Dees in two weeks, and Brisbane next week? Let’s find out.
IT TAKES ONE QUARTER OF POWER FOOTBALL TO WIN A FINAL
The Dees kicked four goals in the second quarter to open up a five-goal lead at the main break. They went onto add to that tally by a further three points for the remainder of the match, but it was apparent that the damage was all done in the second quarter.
It has become a trend in recent seasons with successful teams – win one quarter and then maintain the margin. Good teams manage to pull it off well. Poor teams found themselves run over as holes appear in their structures. At finals time, you would expect this to be a risky strategy, given the quality of the opposition and their ability to hit the scoreboard, but the Dees have such confidence in their back six that once a lead gets out to that four or five-goal margin, they have every right to feel as though the game is relatively safe. Their defence is good enough to cover for a slip-up.
The second quarter could have been much worse for the Lions, with the Dees spraying six further shots at goal and having ten more scoring shots than their opposition as they went into the sheds. The work of Clayton Oliver in that quarter was sensational. He was relentless with his inside 50 work and opened the game up with his hard run and delivery to his forwards.
With three goal assists for the quarter, Oliver ripped open the chest of the Lions and tore their hearts out. With ten score involvements for the game, he more than justified his standing as one of the most damaging players in the competition. Backed up by the un-tackle-able Christian Petracca. The Dees steamrolled the Lions in an imposing 30 minutes of footy.
Earlier today I wrote about Isaac Heeney for Sydney and how he never loses his footing. He remains in the contest and therefore, remains a threat. The same can be said of Petracca – he is just a constant threat whenever he is near the ball and is always seemingly ready to contest the footy again, immediately after the first contest is over. You try to tackle him and he is like a savage animal in his efforts to get away. You see some players resigned to the fact they are caught, and they go to ground with the footy, awaiting the stoppage. They have been domesticated by AFL footy. Petracca retains a wildness to him, refusing to be caught.
He is not prey – he is the predator! He thrashes around in an attempt to get away like any sane woman on a date with my mate, Joe Ganino.
Just kidding, Joe… I don’t actually consider you my mate.
As the Dees walked off the park at half time, you had the feeling this game was over. They have been so good at defending leads this year (be quiet, Adelaide supporters) and with their best players performing well and the defence holding firm, they did the damage they needed to do and from then on, went about ensuring things remained on track.
PLAYING A GOOD DEFENSIVE FORWARD IS A MUST AGAINST MELBOURNE
You simply cannot allow Jake Lever to get a clean run at the football, and it may take a sacrificial role to make it happen.
There is a genuine reluctance from opposition coaches to deploy a good player in a negating role. Maybe they believe they’ll lose too much in terms of offence? Maybe they think it is a concession to the opposition’s gameplan? Maybe it’s an ego thing?
Maybe it’s time to put all that aside and come to the understanding that leaving Jake Lever alone, or playing on someone who is clearly not equipped to compete with him, is an error that is both avoidable and unforgivable.
In this game, Tom Fullarton seemed to have the early running alongside Jake Lever. How’d that go? Fullarton is 22 years old and had 11 games to his name coming into this contest, and Chris Fagan wanted him to interrupt the game of the best intercept player in the game?
That was quickly dispensed, as Lever was permitted to dictate his own terms in defence, going over to match up on the dynamic Lincoln McCarthy. Make no mistake, McCarthy is dangerous, and has had a pretty good season, but he fell into the trap of trying to outmark Lever and looking for his own offence. How’d that work out?
Between Fullarton and McCarthy, the Lions has the return of 12 touches, one mark and one goal. Lever had 15 intercept possessions for the game.
Future opponents of the Lions have to bite the bullet. One player needs to be pulled aside and told point blank – if you don’t touch the footy, I don’t care… as long as Jake Lever does not touch it, either. And then you work out the rest of your defensive match ups from there.
So, who could have filled that role for the Lions in this game? It was pretty slim pickings in terms of available marking forwards, right? That’s the thing… it doesn’t have to be a marking forward. It can be an average sized player as long as they compete with the intent to spoil and prevent Lever coming across to chop off a ball in flight or on the deck. He had 15 intercepts – he only had five marks. He was doing two-thirds of his damage at ground level.
It’ll be interesting to see if the next Melbourne opponents realise the damage Lever is doing and make the effort to stop him. Failure to do so could very well see the Dees into the Grand Final.
PRESSURE CREATES DIAMONDS
Sometimes you just notice the little things that take a team to the next level. With this Melbourne outfit, you don’t have to look too far to find them.
At one point in this game, Clayton Oliver affected a smother whilst he was on his knees. Yep, he just reached out, threw himself across the boot of an opponent and made the smother. Pressure…
It comes in other forms as well. There was the pressure on the decision-making of Mitch Robinson. You could see him watching Angus Brayshaw retaining his space and spreading the field. Brayshaw was refusing to be sucked into the contest and held that space, and you could visibly notice Robinson torn between going to the contest and putting time into his man. Pressure…
Here was pressure put on mids as they attempted to restrict Christian Petracca. They get hands on him, wrap him in a tackle and the red and blue bull would just wade out of their efforts and dispose of the footy. It was as though Trac was staring them down and daring them to do better. “You think you can tackle me? Think again!”
And with that, he would waltz out of their grasp and set the Dees alight again. Pressure…
Finally, the players willing to dive at the boot of a kicker, even if they had but a small chance of making a smother – the Melbourne players were manic in their efforts to put the Lions off their kicking. They’d be five metres away, but there were players like Pickett, Neal-Bullen, Sparrow and Smith hurling themselves at the boot of their opponents. Some of them got close enough to make contact, whilst others were just throwing themselves at the opponent to make sure they knew what they were in for when they got the ball the next time. Pressure…
Pressure is more than just repeated attacks on the footy. It is the little things that add up to something big. It is a mindset that insists you give all you have and then find more to make your opponent work harder. You dare them to be better, and when they’re not, you make them pay.
This is what the 2021 Melbourne team does, and does so well. A thousand little things in a thousand different ways, all adding up to create something huge. And they’re now one win away from that huge thing.
HARRIS ANDREWS IS ON RAILS
If you allow him a run at the footy, he is still going to kill the contest, but if you are able to move, remain elusive and force him to defend at ground level, you’re a big chance to get away from him. He looks sore, in much the same way as I do when I roll out of bed, and I would not be at all surprised if he is in for off-season surgery pretty quickly after the Lions are done this year…
.. whenever that is.
That said, he had 17 one-percenters and nine intercepts in this one. For a bloke that looks like he is a little hobbled, that is not a bad night’s work at all. Most defenders would kill for a stat line like that.
BAYLEY FRITSCH IS MORE THAN AN OPPORTUNISTIC FORWARD
When our resident All-Australian team compiler, Matt Oman, added Bayley Fritsch to his team during the week, it was met by the standard response of criticism and disdain.
“All he does is kick goals,” remarked one reader.
Yes… he does that very well. Thanks for pointing that out.
With Charlie Cameron ducking and weaving his way to five goals at one end of the park, Fritsch answered at the other. With Ben Brown the number one target and Tom McDonald floating in as the second, Fritsch often finds himself in the unenviable position of playing as the third forward. That usually means you get the scraps that the other two discard.
However, Fritsch is a little more than your run of the mill third forward, and 51 goals for the season (with at least one more game to go) should be ample proof of that. He just flat out refuses to be beaten in the air. The mark he took in the last quarter, almost slipping in and out of traffic like a shapeshifter to clunk the grab was otherworldly.
He might just be a Jurassic Park fan, because Bayley Fritsch finds a way.
A lot of credit for his success has to go to work of Brown, McDonald, and to a lesser extend Max Gawn and Luke Jackson. They all draw a heap of heat, allowing Fritsch to get to the most dangerous spots inside 50, and he rarely lets his team down. This was his ninth bag of three or more goals in 2021, and as the Dees have a week off to rest up and get ready for the Prelim, whichever team they play would want to be factoring Fritsch in way before someone asks “and who is the third forward we need to cover?”
JOE DANIHER IS NOT THE ANSWER – HE IS JUST ANOTHER QUESTION
How does the saying go? Cometh the moment, cometh the man?
Well, I am not sure what Joe Daniher was up to in this game, but “cometh-ing” doesn’t seem to fit the bill. With Dan McStay down and out, and Eric Hipwood hoping to be back in time for the 2022 finals, Daniher simply had to stand up in this game. There were no two ways about it.
Of course, when relied upon, Joe failed to deliver, and that placed a huge weight on the shoulders of Charlie Cameron. The diminutive forward handled the pressure well, slotting five goals in a wonderful performance, but what he needed was a forward who could do more than take one mark inside fifty. And from that single mark, Daniher missed the goal that would have given the Lions some hope.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but when you have a marquee signing at your club, expectations would exceed 15 touches (with just seven of them effective) and no goals in a final, right?
The challenge was laid at the feet of Joe Daniher in this game. He had the opportunity to instil hope and belief in this Brisbane Lions team that had seen their tall forward stocks plummet, and he just didn’t deliver.
IT’S NOT HOW YOU START, IT’S HOW YOU FINISH
This one applied to the ruck contest.
As Max Gawn wandered off to have a rest halfway through the first quarter, he must have wondered what the hell was going on. Oscar McInerney was taking the game right up the the All-Australian captain, and was giving the Lions plenty of drive out of the middle.
The Big O gathered three clearances by the time Max hit the pine and was looking like he could swing the game in favour of Brisbane with his timing and repeat efforts. But an AFL game is not a sprint.
The world record time for a marathon is just over two hours… right about the same time as a game of AFL football, and though Gawn didn’t exactly burst out of the gates, by the time the first quarter ended, the big Demon had levelled things up, picking up three clearances of his own, and beating McInerney in the hitouts…
… even if all his disposals were pretty bloody terrible. You’ve got to be fair, guys.
Over the course of the next three quarters, Gawn got on top. The Big O would still monster the second string Melbourne rucks at stoppages – he is a mountain of a man – but around the ground, Oscar could not match Gawn in the air, with the Melbourne captain pulling down six grabs. McInerney would not register one for the entire game.
This is where Gawn sets himself apart in the ruck stakes, and despite people banging on about Naitanui, who is a fantastic big man (while out there), Gawn’s ability to drop back in the hole and pick off anything misdirected, makes him a weapon unlike any other ruck. His overhead and contested marking made a huge difference in this game and his work rate to be a presence across half back did not falter at all, even as the game wound down.
THE DANGEROUS TACKLE RULE IS A FARCE
There were two paid in this game, and you could hear the commentators lamenting the ambiguity of the rule.
“The players are confused,” said one of them.
They shouldn’t be. Anything that remotely resembles a hard tackle is now being deemed dangerous, and it may have dire consequences in a cut throat game over the next three or so weeks.
Let me make this clear – a genuinely dangerous tackle should be punished. If you drive a player’s head into the turf with excessive force, then by all means, call it dangerous and take the appropriate action. However, if you are wanting to stamp out aggressive tackling because you don’t like the look of it, I would suggest a rethink. Tackling is a part of the game and a part that makes out game fantastic. We don’t want to play touch footy, and we don’t need to see players protected when they are capable of doing it themselves. The two “dangerous” tackles in this game were simply not dangerous. One was awarded against James Harmes – it was a good tackle. The other against Daniel Rich – another good tackle.
If a tackle is good, it cannot be dangerous. If a tackle is dangerous, it cannot be good. Use that and work backwards, and for Christ’s sake, stop guessing at whether a tackle is dangerous or not because you’re afraid of an injury happening on your watch.
ALEX NEAL-BULLEN COULD BE THE KEY TO A FINALS GAME
Well, the Dees may have one left… but they may have two, and with ANB patrolling the half forward line and wing area, he offers a different look for the Dees.
Over the course of the year, he has really flown under the radar of many in terms of what he provides, but he is a hard-at-it, reliable worker in a team that has a brilliant top level of stars and a large collective of players at or around ANB’s level.
There have been periods over his career where I have read and heard Melbourne supporters lamenting his decision-making, but I have to admit, in watching him this season, I reckon they were either harsh on the fella, or he has improved out of sight. Unafraid to do the dirty work, he is the type of player every team needs…
… and with him playing this way and providing such a solid defensive effort as well, he could be one of the factors that drags this outfit over the line in a close contest in a couple of weeks.
FRONT ON CONTACT IS ENTIRELY UP TO THE UMPIRE’S DISCRETION
I don’t blame Mitch Robinson for pulling the mouthguard out and having a red hot crack at the umpire after being denied a free kick for front-on contact after Harris Andrews was pinged for it in front of goal.
Andrews made a string argument that he had his eyes on the footy the whole way, questioning whether he was permitted to go for the footy or not.
Later in the game on the wing, Robbo found himself in a situation where he was prepared to mark and an opponent ran into him – from the front – and there was no call.
This is a simple request. Consistency… that’s all people want. If one free kick was there, so was the other. If the first one wasn’t, neither was the second. It makes sense, right?
LACHIE NEALE COULD HAVE HAD 60 TOUCHES IN THIS ONE AND IT WOULDN’T HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE
He wasn’t actually that far off, collecting 46 touches in a very handy display, but I have to ask the same question of him that gets asked of Tom Mitchell way too often – did he hurt the Demons? His game was balanced, with 24 handballs and 22 kicks. He had 12 clearances and 25 contested touches, but would you rather his game, or that of Clayton Oliver?
Clarry had 13 fewer touches, but his impact was far more substantial. With five more score involvements and three more inside fifties, Oliver made those who question his ball-use seem pretty silly in this one. Neale was good – very good, and he did everything he could to get those around him involved in the game, but where Oliver had Viney, Petracca, Harmes and Neal-Bullen collecting the footy and using it well, Neale had Jarryd Lyons and… that is about it. And even then, under half of Lyons’ 27 touches were deemed effective.
It is pretty hard to combat a powerful midfield on your own. Neale tried in this one, but even Brownlow Medallists cannot carry an entire midfield on their own. He cracked in, won the footy, but the lack of support meant that many of his touches went nowhere and resulted in little. That’s not his fault.
In answer to the question of whether he hurt… well, hurt is probably the incorrect word. He stung the Dees on a few occasions but there is strength in numbers and the Dees just had too many countering whatever Lachie could conjure.
Oh, and welcome back to the 400-club, Clayton Oliver. It’s your second visit, and only yourself, Patrick Dangerfield and Josh P Kennedy are members. 400+ contested touches in a season… that is a huge accomplishment.
And that may just about do me. A very impressive win by the Dees – it might be time to start believing, people! Come on… open yourselves up again – what could go wrong???
As for the Lions, either of the Dogs and Bombers would be a very tough ask next week. Their fans have been on a bit of a rollercoaster in the last month, and they’d be hoping for a couple more highs before all is said and done.
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