A load of nonsense (and a little bit of football)
Saturday morning. Round Ome of the 2023 Toyota Sportsbet McDonalds insert-corporate-entity-here AFL Premiership Season. 30+ degrees. In mid-March. Someone needs to have a word with the weather gods. These temperatures are not helping to settle the fraying nerves of the fanbases of two embattled clubs eagerly awaiting their upcoming clash. North Melbourne vs. West Coast. 1:45pm. Primetime viewing.
To the average fan, this would appear a throwaway game, a game befitting the 4:40pm Sunday timeslot rather than a prime Saturday arvo slot. But there is everything to play for. For North, Ben Cunnington is well and truly back from his heroic fight against cancer. Charlie Comben has overcome a pre-season broken nose, a pre-season gastro infection, a broken collarbone, a dodgy knee, and God only knows what other misfortune, to suit up. Alastair Clarkson, the master coach, will be overseeing his first game in charge, and much anticipation surrounds that storyline. For the Eagles, young gun Reuben Ginbey is chomping at the bit to show what he can do. Oscar Allen returns from a long layoff to resume his role as the player with the most misleading name in football. (Admit it, he sounds like an HR worker, not a prodigiously talented key forward). The Eagles list is also relatively cohesive in comparison to 2022 and keen to put the year’s horrors firmly behind them. This is an opportunity for both teams to show that they’ve progressed from last year, to produce eye-catching football and somewhat sate the appetites for competence of their respective fanbases.
The fans file into the stadium, settle into the sauna-like conditions, outrageously priced mid-strength beer at hand, and the ball is bounced.
The first quarter is a tale of momentum swings, the Eagles taking the initiative at first before relinquishing it to the Roos for the final ten minutes. At QT, the scoreboard reads that the Vics have a solitary point on their Sandgroper opponents. Each team already has a veritable showreel of gaffes. Which is, in all fairness, to be expected for two teams that won a combined four games from 44 last year. For the Eagles; Oscar Allen’s miss from three metres out takes the cake. It actually elicits a laugh from teammate Jack Darling rather than the traditional hands-on-head show of disappointment.
For the Roos; Nick Larkey’s decision to try and pick a loose ball up near the goalsquare ahead of a more sprightly teammate, and subsequent fumble, is already etched into the minds of North fans. The question hovers menacingly, like a slightly malevolent hang glider; which error will prove more costly come the final siren?
And so, to the second quarter. This is where North arguably do their most convincing impressions of Clarko’s Hawks for the whole game. Fast ball movement becomes the temporary standard, and the lift in the crowd atmosphere is impossible to miss. The possibility of a win becomes a reality. Debutant Harry Sheezel is imperious off half back, intercepting wayward Eagles (and North) disposals at will and delivering the ball to teammates with accuracy and flair not seen in the North backline since they won a stack of VFA titles in the 1910s. Despite some brilliant defensive efforts by Eagles debutant Ginbey, who to this point has more than held his own against North powerhouses Davies-Uniacke and Cunnington, the momentum is with North, though goalsneak Jamaine (I wonder how many different ways you can spell that name) Jones gets one back for the Eagles shortly before half-time to reduce the margin back to 21.
Half-time is a welcome reprieve from the suffocating conditions of the match for everyone, but especially North’s Kayne Turner, who has a cheeky on-field vomit. At least, I presume the temperature was the reason behind it. Maybe he was just appalled at some of the skill execution in the first half.
The third quarter is once again a wild ride characterised by momentum changes, with each team scoring goals in clusters. Nick Larkey’s causing all sorts of problems for the Eagles, notching his fifth goal for the game before the halfway mark of the term, but the lads from the west are far from finished. All of the Eagles’ players with two first names are getting involved; Kelly, Allen, Ryan. Is this a certified strategy from Adam Simpson? Should North also scour the land for so-named players for when they’re behind in third quarters? Who knows? Either way, the quarter ends with a few quick Eagles goals and at three-quarter time, the margin is 15 points. Fans of both teams know where this game is going, and are consequently scouting out the location of the nearest defibrillator.
Within 40 seconds of the final quarter, Liam Ryan has his second goal, and North fans are groaning inwardly as telltale signs of the old North begin to surface. Stagnancy and half-hearted efforts are creeping in. And that was just me tackling my packet of Chicken Crimpies (ba-dum-tish). Two unexpected goals to North (one of them the result of a very charitable holding free kick) provide a welcome buffer to the barrage that is doubtlessly about to come. Sure enough, at the 15 minute mark, Ryan and Eagles debutant Noah Long have narrowed the margin to single digits, and the atmosphere is tenser than when Mum asks why you need a terabyte of storage to store the contents of your homework folder. 26 minutes in, Shuey cons the umpire with a trademark duck and duly converts. Three points in it. As close as it’s been since the first break. This one’s going down to the wire.
Players are throwing themselves at the ball with abandon, and the spectacle resembles a rugby scrum more than an exhibition of the greatest sport in the world. 28 minutes in, North send their millionth long kick inside 50, but this time, Curtis Taylor (two first names!) is on the end of it instead of Eagles titans Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass. He launches himself athletically and takes a brilliant mark, sending the North fans into raptures. 15 metres out straight in front. He couldn’t miss this, could he? You bet he could. He shaves the inside of the post with the set shot. Five points in it, Shannon Hurn bringing the ball in. A nightmare scenario for North fans, a hope-against-hope scenario for Eagles fans. At this point, I’m watching through spaced fingers, willing the siren to malfunction, for the lights to go out. Anything to stop me from having to watch these torturous final few minutes. But no such luck. Looking back, I must’ve used up my one wish earlier in the day at the nearby metro Woolies when I found a ‘better-than-half-price’ block of Darrell Lea.
So, I and 20k others are forced to watch the final few minutes. And what a final few minutes it is. Riddled with controversy, some might say. Liam Ryan gets caught plumb with the pill, and shortly afterwards North youngster Josh Goater executes a blatantly deliberate kick out of bounds. Neither incident incurs a whistle, and both sets of fans are furious. A decent umpiring performance to this point is marred by these two non-calls. With thirty seconds left, and the ball being thrown in on the wing, Eagles ruckman Bailey Williams gets pinged for man-handling Charlie Comben, and those who are following the AFL app countdown clock know that that whistle signals the beginning of the fat lady’s vocal warmup.
Final siren: North Melbourne 12.15.87, West Coast 12.10.82. A colossal match. A battle worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as David and Goliath, except it’s David vs. David’s half-brother. A sling vs. a large stick sharpened at one end. For Alastair Clarkson, the new era begins with a win. For Adam Simpson, maybe it’s time to find more players with two first names.