Making Sense of the Season So Far

 

What that actual hell, 2022!?!?

If you’d told me after Round Five of the 2021 season that at the end of Round Five 2022 the ladder would be topped by Melbourne (who at that stage, I and many others still weren’t quite sure of) with Fremantle, St. Kilda and Carlton nipping at their heels, I would probably have slapped you. If you’d had the Eagles at 16th, Port winless at 18th, and the Tigers looking very much a bottom-middle side, I definitely would’ve slapped you.

I’m a bit of a slapper. Don’t let it get around.

There are meteoric rises and falls in footy, least of all Melbourne last year who came out of the abyss to win the flag, and Fremantle who went from winning 12 on the trot in 2015 to losing 15 on the trot in 2016. But it seems rare to have so many in one season; so, we must put things into perspective before we jump onto new bandwagons, and look closely at the movers and not so movers to see whether the talk of the town has some weight or whether it’s all just hot air.

I’m going to look at a few risers and a few fallers and try to cut through jungle of hype and hyperbole and see if there is, indeed, a forest among the trees.

 

CARLTON

I’m starting with Carlton because they burst out of the blocks with an impressive showing against a Richmond side proving to be shadows of former glory. During the halftime break of that game, I and no doubt many others, were remembering earlier editions of this game, where the Blues looked like turning their fortunes around before Richmond decided to start their season and rampaged back. That didn’t happen in the second half, and Carlton went from strength to strength leaving commentators and punters wondering whether this might be their year?

The Blues then backed up the hype with a comfortable win over the Dogs. The media went into overdrive, and opponents began looking a little closer at what these Blues can do. Since then, fissures have started to appear, and despite considerable gains and visible improvement, I can’t quite say I am sold yet. Their Round Three match up against Hawks saw the Blue-Baggers enter the game as favourites for the first time in a long time, and walked away with the 4 points. But the cracks began emerging in that game – a five-goal halftime lead turned into a one-point ball game.

The week after, they lost Cripps, and then the game, comfortably, to Gold Coast. In fairness, the Suns do tend to start a season reasonably well, and have shown improvement this year. However, they shouldn’t be beating contenders by comfortable margins. It’s losses like this where questions get asked: Is too much being asked of Cripps? Are they handballing too much in his absence? Have they started to believe their hype and got ahead of themselves? And the answer is probably, at least in part, yes.

Concerningly for the Blues, this game also saw them give away a huge chunk of the game in the third quarter. A manageable 14 point half time deficit turned into a 37 point margin in the space of 20 minutes, and allowed the Suns to dictate terms in the last quarter to hold out for a victory. A dramatic loss for the Blues, but perhaps one they needed to have to get their feet back on the ground and their heads out of the clouds.

Then last week happened. The yet-to-win Power had a 50-point halftime deficit but, if it wasn’t for some bizarre slow movements and an overly ambitious shot at goal in the final 30 seconds, probably would have walked away with the 4 points. It wasn’t the Blues that won that famous game – it was Port who lost it. Although you take the bad wins when you can get them, often I feel those wins should be treated like losses; this game should definitely be treated like a loss for the Blues.

Carlton have definitely improved, and are deservedly in the top 8. But will they be there later in the season? Is their hype deserved? It seems as though teams have worked out how to beat them, even if it’s taking them until halftime to put that plan into action. Better teams won’t take that long. The fade-outs are the obvious concern: Carlton’s third quarter this season has seen a total of 7.11.53 against 24.13.157. If that’s a game, it’s a coach killing game. They have to work out what’s causing these fadeouts, and they need to also switch things up a bit structurally or tactically. Not that what they’re doing isn’t working, but once teams have worked out how to stop you scoring or how to score against you, you’ve gotta do the work to stay ahead of the game.

Is the hype around Carlton unfounded? No, I don’t think so. They’ve managed to find ways to be in front when the final siren has gone, and the ability to win close games is often what separates the top 4 from the next next bunch, and the top 8 from the rest, and they only need eight more lucky wins to make the 2022 finals. Pencil them in for finals, but don’t lose the eraser.

 

ST KILDA

The Saints have definitely come marching in this year. They’ve had some solid wins against Richmond, Fremantle, Gold Coast, and Hawthorn, but suffered a Round One loss to Collingwood whom I can’t out this year. Many have argued that the Saints have yet to beat anyone good. All of their wins have come against teams from the bottom half of 2021’s ladder, but that, I think, is a cheap argument. They’ve looked different this year. They put Hawthorn to the sword with a resounding 11-goal win, and have been winning their other games with a certain level of comfort. Even their ten-point win against Fremantle, which seems a bit too close for comfort, they’ve found another gear to kick eight goals to one in the third quarter and didn’t ever look like giving up the lead once they had it.

Brad Hill has recaptured some of the form he’d lost since his Best and Fairest season at Fremantle. Moving him to a high half-forward position has given him space previously lost, and allowed him to use his pace and become a damaging player. Already this year, he has hit the scoreboard four times, and looks like going well beyond his career-best of 16 goals in a season, which he did at Hawthorn back in 2015. It’s the first season in his career where he’s averaging a goal a game, and the first season since 2019 he’s getting the ball 20+ times. Hill is having the exact type of season that the Saints have expected of him since they picked him up.

Max King is moving up and around the ground and has added some strings to his bow. The young forward is looking more and more comfortable at the highest level, and is deservedly leading the Coleman medal. King (16 goals) and Membrey (11) are working well in tandem and there’s a connection among this group that we haven’t seen for quite some time.

Are we pencilling the Saints in for top 8? I think so. They’ve yet to show their best among the best, but it’s important to note, I think, that despite a poor finish in 2021, they started to show glimpses with good wins against equal or better sides, and some respectable losses against the best teams. This year, they’ve found a way to put it all together and have played with consistency. Pencil them into the top 8, and maybe even be bold and make that top 4.

 

 

FREMANTLE

Freo are the talk of social media today getting the easter eggs in yesterday’s clash against Essendon. Similar to St. Kilda, the Dockers have seemingly popped up out of nowhere this year, but have yet to show their wares against the best in the side. Freo’s wins against the Eagles, Bombers, and Giants have been juxtaposed against their Round Two loss against the Saints, and an opening-round performance against the Crows where they didn’t just get away with murder, they waltzed into the courthouse, shot the security guard, stabbed the judge and rode out on a horse named 4-point.

The Dockers are playing a very attractive brand of footy at the moment, which is not something that’s been said about the wharfies since maybe 1995 when they apparently played very attractively in the 17 or so losses of their inaugural season. They may have lost the clean Cerra, but have replaced him with a cleaner O’Driscoll; their clearance kings Neale (Brisbane) and Fyfe (to injury) have been replaced with Brayshaw who looks everything like a top tier player, and Will Brodie whom they grabbed off the Gold Coast scrap heap. Their recruiting has been top-notch, bringing in fringe players like Colyer, Aish, Acres, and Brodie and have deployed them into good roles.

But, as has been stated, their exciting, risk-taking play is really yet to be tested amongst the best. Against St. Kilda, they looked stagnant and let the Saints waltz all over them; against Adelaide they coughed up six goals in quick succession before Chapman’s heroic last-ditch spoil. Even against the Eagles, their third quarter was met with two goals in 30 seconds from Nic Natianui domination, and probably only evened out by the game stopping due to Tucker’s concussion. And this pattern was a hangover from last year, where goal-kicking yips, close losses, and giving up good leads by giving up goals to teams with momentum, kept them out of the top 8.

But something has changed since Round Two. Since then, they’ve got more aggressive when the game is on the line, they’ve not gone back into their shell, and they’ve not given up their leads – in fact, they’ve built on them. You can argue they’ve not played anyone decent (which is a bit harsh, particularly on the Giants), but you can’t argue against margins of 55, 34, and 48, especially when those games were fairly even at halftime.

The key may be Matt Taberner, who after missing the first two games, has averaged nearly three goals a game. The big man has been building for a while, and has had interruptions in momentum due to injury, but is looking very much the best CHF Freo has had since Pavlich. But the best sign of the times for the Dockers is their team selection and their back six. Cox, Pearce, and Ryan look unstoppable, and movement from Young and Walker is beginning to look promising. It’s always a good sign when a player like Logue comes in late, plays a game worthy of re-selection, and then is immediately dropped. A long rebuild and a half-decade of seasons ruined by injury has allowed the Dockers to build depth, and create a very good side.

Now, do we pencil them in for the 8? This week’s game against Carlton will be very telling – for both sides. Whoever loses it will be under a little pressure in terms of finals aspirations. A win won’t necessarily be an indicator of great things to come, but a loss might suggest the side isn’t as good as we’ve thought. Like the three teams spoken about in this piece, how the game is won or lost will be the story, rather than the margin itself.

Still, like Carlton, the hype around Freo is fair, but I wouldn’t be jumping on the bandwagon just yet. Better sides will stop their free pace and excitement, and challenge their defenders in ways they’ve yet been challenged. I’m not completely sold, but it’s a 4-1 start and plenty of home games left – and a rare ability to win away. So pencil them in, maybe with a bit more firmness than Carlton, but keep the eraser handy.

 

WEST COAST

West Coast have dropped to the bottom. And somewhat predicably so, given their pre-season interruptions, covid issues, and other injuries to key players. Their win against the Pies was inspired, but their losses have been insipid. And how much can you blame injuries and depth?

Many in the WA media in Round One looked at their 15 absentees as some kind of record, but match that up against Fremantle’s 2019-2021 average of 14 Rd 1 on the injury list, and it becomes difficult to use as an excuse to be completely lacklustre. Even Carlton, who had around 20 on their injury by the end of the season a couple of years ago, were able to show some fight. West Coast are a team in transition and need to make the call sooner rather than later. Their ageing stars in Shuey, Gaff, Kennedy, Darling, and everyone else aren’t getting any younger or better, McGovern’s as solid as ever down back, but his body is becoming unreliable. Outside Naish, they’ve not been getting huge amounts out of their newer players, though Hugh Dixon has shown bits and pieces as a forward/ruck.

Overall, at the moment, the team looks stagnant, uninspired, and tired. It’s as if they wrote this season off in March and are just playing out time. And that’s not good. I’m not campaigning for a complete re-build, we’ve seen teams like Fremantle, Carlton, Gold Coast, North, and the Saints make dramatic list changes, and those things are slow with no guarantee of success.

It’s also not the Eagles’ way.

Secondly, with the picks they gave up for Kelly, who’s playing well but not well enough, it’s difficult to see where the talent for the build is coming from. I am suggesting a fair amount of experimentation – try the new guys in new roles, back a more natural game style rather than the rigid structures and patterns, throw the magnets at the board and see what sticks. Best case scenario, they might just win a few games and find a few diamonds. At worst – there’s the number 1 pick on offer; either way, a lot of questions will have been answered.

So, is the hype about their downfall fair or unfair? Are we pencilling them in for a bottom stint? Absolutely – not just a pencil, put that s**t in stone. But will they be down and out for a long time? On one hand, it’s the Eagles, and they’re never down and out for a long time and they’re a difficult team to write off completely. They may find their mojo next week, now that most of their team is back, and start winning again. They may even sneak into a top 10 position; but, on the other hand, that’s very difficult to say, because they’re not there mentally. it’s hard to see where the Big Birds go from here, so grab that pencil and eraser: if they’re still playing their key 22, and Simmo is still coaching this time next year, and they’ve not found a way to win, then yes. We can write them into the abyss of mediocrity for a few years. If they’ve changed things up, and shown a bit of fight, a bit of newness, then go who knows where they’ll be in September 2023.

 

 

ESSENDON

Essendon met Round One this year the same way they’ve met many Round One encounters in recent years: being told this will be the season they turn things around, and not only make the 8, but make an impact too. Many pundits had them top 4, and  Mick Malthouse even had them winning the flag.

Now we’ve all been wrong before, but it looks like this is a new level of wrong – or at least a normal over-expecting of Essendon level of wrong.

There’s something about this team. They seem to be a team of stars who all want to win the game off their own boot, rather than a team of role-players just doing their thing as well as they can. They’re a team that seems to buy into their own hype. They’re a team that likes to win games by kicking big scores. And that has resulted in very attacking footy with a lot of seagulls who don’t like getting the hard ball, and don’t like defending. The opposition meander through their defensive zones like a hot knife through butter, and kick, on average, a score of 97 or more. Sure, they’ve lost Merrett and Stringer to injury, but I don’t think they’re enough to bridge the gap. They’re also missing Anothony McDonald-Tipungwuti but he famously goes missing in losses, and his absence was early enough into pre-season to surely give them time to prepare for his absence.

They say that forwards win members, but defenders make premiers. It seems the Dons haven’t been listening.

But is it all doom and Gloom for those donning the sash? It’s been however many days since a finals win, but is there one in the near future? Maybe. If we pretend the Dockers are a good side, this year the Bombers have had the season from hell. Games against Geelong, Melbourne, Brisbane and Fremantle are all games against potential top 6 sides. You’d be forgiven for losing those games throughout the season. A win against Adelaide, albeit a tight one, is what you’d expect of a middle road side.

The Bomber’s next month will be telling: are they buying into their system? Do any leaders stand up? Heppell had 34 touches in Roud Five but really no impact. Their young ruckman in Draper looks promising, but was soundly beaten by an equally young Darcy around the ground. Parish and McGrath have all the skills in the book but are they tough and uncompromising midfield bulls? Tw-Metre Peter has been kicking plenty of goals (12), but has had too few friends.

Where’s their grunt, where’s their toughness? Where’s the whatever it is they have that built them up pre-season? If they can find it, they could actually turn their season around and sneak in. If they don’t, if they’re in their own heads, if they’re starting to doubt, starting to worry, then it’s going to be another long season at Tullamarine.

 

PORT ADELAIDE

Despite certain guarantees, the Power have been absolutely torn apart this season. Last year’s second-placed side, infamously inconsistent in finals, have been terribly bad this season. And this isn’t anything new in general. As there are meteoric rises from year to year in footy, there’s always a team who inexplicitly drop off the face of the Earth. Melbourne did it after 2018, Fremantle 2015, the Dogs are still hungover from 2016. But what causes this?

Is it enough to say that teams have worked out how to beat them, and they’ve been too willing to stick with previously winning ways? Yes, I genuinely think it is. There’s been many a military general throughout history who win a battle with a particular strategy and then refuse to change their winning ways, turn pyrrhic and then into devastating losses; the first World War is almost an example in its entirety. Usually, when this happens to an AFL coach, it signals the beginning of the end. The players start talking positively about their plan, the board publicly puts their confidence in the coach and his system, and then there are a couple of big losses before an interim coach steadies the ship a little bit.

It’s a tried-and-true formula, and Ken Hinkley, who’s been the head coach, is about to slot right into it. The Power don’t have his newness to fall back on, they can’t claim they’re rebuilding, they can’t argue injury, and they can’t excuse the fixturing. They are, without doubt, the team who thought they already had what it takes to get to the top, and forgot that everyone else was developing something a little bit new, a little bit different, to counteract those top sides.

You can pen them in for a bottom 4 finish. Ink them in for the same next year, as they look to re-establish things with a few younger players and a brand-new coach. Recently departed assistant Jarryd Schofield won a few WAFL flags at Subiaco, and Jaymie Graham at Fremantle is 3-0 in fill-in stints at the Dockers and Eagles, but I’m sure the media will be digging up more names before this season finishes. Because Ken, and his Power, are cooked.

 

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