The Adelaide Crows are a team on the brink of failure in 2018.
It’s a situation that was almost incomprehensible as the 2017 season wound down – the Crows were a united, solid group. They stood uniformly before each game in the finals, staring down their opponents – their prey. They executed with a clinical precision that propelled them into the last Saturday of September and had many of the game’s experts labelling them as favourites to win it all. They were a professional unit; one driven in their quest to be recognised as the best team of the year.
They possessed a powerhouse midfield, boasting the likes of the Crouch brothers and Rory Sloane. Their forward line was one that other teams dreamed of – a powerhouse leader in Tex Walker, chest out and leading with actions as much as words. He was complemented by the prototype high half forward in Tom Lynch, a gun small forward in Eddie Betts, and potential match-winners like Mitch McGovern and Josh Jenkins around him.
Their back line had pillars of strength in Daniel Talia and a young star in the making, Jake Lever cutting off the attack of their opponents time and time again. They were a powerhouse.
That was then – this is now.
Lever more than lived up to his name, and was gone before their Best and Fairest award was handed out. He was followed out the door by Charlie Cameron. Brad Crouch, Sloane, Brodie Smith, Lynch and Walker have all missed extended time due to a litany of injuries, and the losses have started piling up.
They fell to the Bombers in the opening round and added an unlikely loss to Collingwood at home before correcting their trajectory. The last gasp loss to Port Adelaide in the ‘Showdown’ was rectified with a thumping win over the Bulldogs the following week, but since then, three straight losses have seen Adelaide tumble down the ladder. A mauling at the hands of Melbourne indicated the Crows were a team in need of a break to recuperate. None was forthcoming.
Two more tight losses followed; the first to GWS at home was a heartbreaker, and the second to Fremantle on the road saw them waste several to take control of the contest in the last quarter.
With an injury list as long as any in the league and a record that could see them miss the finals all together, the Crows enter a game against Hawthorn faced with the demons of their last visit to the MCG.
Adelaide were forced to sit on the grass at that venue and watch as Richmond held the cup aloft, premiership medals dangling around their necks. They are images that will be burned into their psyche, forever ingrained in their memory as a moment of failure, despite what sports psychologists tell them. Those moments just do not leave you. Some players, and some teams as a whole find resolve in those moments. Some hold onto those feelings of pain, anger and sorrow, and they compels them to go one step better the next year.
Others fade into obscurity.
This week marks the first time Adelaide return to the scene of their emphatic defeat to the Tigers. In a different context, victims of crime will often return to the scene where they were attacked. It is a chance for closure, an opportunity to confront that which haunts them, and overcome it. It can be cleansing, and create a sense of strength in some. They feel a determination to right a wrong, and it can catapult them onto success. Others fall in a heap and weep like babies – the memories of what occurred are too great to overcome, the pain still too real, the loss… insurmountable.
Saturday night may go a long way to revealing just which side of the fence the Crows sit this season. Faced with the genuine possibility of missing the finals, and their plans of top four in huge jeopardy, Adelaide have their backs to the wall. They’ll walk into the MCG knowing that they may be on their last chance, and nagging voices speaking of their previous capitulation at the venue may start to yap a little louder.
This season is as close a race for the finals as we’ve seen in years. A loss to the Hawks would see them sitting two games outside the eight, contending with the likes of Essendon and Fremantle for “also-ran” spots. The Adelaide Cows are better than that, and they need to prove it now.
In footy, there is a saying that there’s always next week. For the Crows, there may be no “next week” for much longer.
The ghosts of the MCG echo through the corridors of “the temple down the road”. Whilst there will be no full house to watch them take on the Hawks, as there was when they fell to the Tigers, the Crows could be haunted by their last outing at the ‘G.
Their three outings to the ‘Home of football’ prior to the Grand Final loss were of high quality. A draw against the Magpies, and wins against the Demons and the Hawks in 2017 proved that they were not afraid of the road trips at all, but a loss the likes of which they sustained on Grand Final day can leave scars that never heal.
There are several players who have points to prove emanating from their Grand Final embarrassment. Chief amongst them in is Taylor Walker. The captain had a chance to make an impact in the biggest game of the year. With his team trailing by just 15 points early in the third quarter; the game still well and truly in the balance, Walker made a strong lead toward half forward. Nick Vlastuin backpedalled into his path. Walker could’ve made a statement there and then – a captain’s statement louder than any words could have. He could’ve made Vlastuin pay. Vlastuin had hands raised above his head. He was wide open – a pig to the Walker-slaughter if the captain chose to impose himself.
The Tiger defender marked uncontested.
If Taylor Walker experiences nightmares, they would be about that moment in the Grand Final. He had the opportunity to impose his will on the contest, and he chose not to. Yes, he may have goven away a free kick. Yes, he may have even given away a 50 metre penalty, but he would’ve done something.
He did nothing.
Richmond rushed the ball forward where Shaun Grigg goaled minutes later. The momentum, and the game were lost. They may have been lost anyway, regardless of what Walker did, or didn’t do. We’ll never know.
It is a mistake Walker should never make again.
He had plenty of friends that day, with wrongs of their own to right on the hallowed MCG turf. Eddie Betts, who is still reportedly experiencing trauma due to the infamous pre-season camp that rattled the cages of many Crows, had a very quiet outing, and he was joined by notorious invisible man, Josh Jenkins. Tom Lynch was quiet, Paul Seedsman was subdued, and Hugh Greenwood had a day he’d prefer to forget.
The Crows have already had one opportunity to redeem themselves, and they saluted, besting Richmond at Adelaide Oval in Round 2. Now they get the chance to exorcize the ghosts of the MCG as well.
The Hawks have had an up and down season. They have looked like finalists and a bottom eight team in consecutive weeks. If the “finalist” side shows up, the Crows may find themselves in trouble. The Hawks have the firepower to trouble the Crows, particularly undermanned as they are. Adelaide will need those who didn’t stand up in the Grand Final to redeem themselves. They will need Taylor Walker to crash packs. They will need Eddie Betts to be better than he has been so far this season (he is a full 0.5 goals per game down on average) and they will need emerging Seedsman and Greenwood to be on-song.
They will need Bryce Gibbs to continue performing at a level none thought he’d need to. They'll need Tom Doedee to continue his spectacular season in defence, and they’ll need Matt Crouch to continue his excellent recovery from injury.
What they don’t need is the memories of September 2017 coming back to haunt them in June 2018.
The Adelaide Crows need to make a stand this week. They need to do it in the biggest stadium in the land - the place where they experienced their greatest failure, and they need to do it emphatically.
If they are any chance to walk out on the last Saturday in September, stand across from their opponent and correct the mistakes they made last year, it all has to turn around against Hawthorn. The Crows are under the pump. They’re a side that has overpromised and under delivered. They are not the same side they were last year, but they a much better team than their 6-6 record indicates.
The Adelaide of 2017 would’ve relished this chance to perform at the MCG in a standalone Saturday night fixture. The eyes of the football world are upon them. Will they be able to turn things around?
All the preseason camps, all the mental strengthening programs... this is where they have to pay off.
Or are the ghosts of the MCG too much for Adelaide to overcome?