A Battle Within The Battle

With all the awards being handed out to AFL players these days, if you look hard enough, you’re bound to find some things you like and dislike about them.

The Brownlow is voted on by the umpires, and as good a job as they do, they’re bound to miss performances along the way. I mean, they’ve got enough to do missing free kicks and paying 50 metres for “protected zone” infringements as it is.

The Leigh Matthews Trophy is voted on by the players, but many, by their own admission, don’t watch a lot of games. Hi to Nat Fyfe.

You have the Coaches Association’s Champion Player of the Year award, obviously voted on by the coaches. However, with the votes made public after each round, it’s not too difficult to find a winner from a fair way out.

The Norm Smith medal is voted on by former greats and also some have weaselled their way into a position of prominence (Jake Niall and Daisy Pearce in 2017, Emma Quayle and Jay Clark in 2016). Sadly, the votes are cast with over half the last quarter remaining because the AFL take a long time to compile them… or something (the usual number of votes the winner gets is around 10-12… tough stuff to count that high, I’m guessing).

And then there’s the Gary Ayres Medal. In only its third season, the idea is a good one. The best player of an entire finals series is awarded this honour - the player who performs consistently in big games, not just in the one “big one”.

The Gary Ayres Medal is not as prestigious as many of its peers. Not yet, anyway. The man the award is named after was described by legendary coach, Allan Jeans as a “good driver in heavy traffic.” 

And that's what great finals players are. They thrive in the chaos that is a contested final situation. They extract the ball and use it well. At the hard, and often brutal, stoppages littering an AFL final, they are the ones with the hands on the football first farming it out to the runners outside. It's no surprise that the two previous winners of the award are Josh Kennedy from Sydney and Dustin Martin from Richmond, both contested ball beasts.

But they’ve kind of cocked this award up as well. We’re heading into the Grand Final this weekend, we’re already aware there are only two players that can possibly win this award. Steele Sidebottom sits on 23 votes, and Jack Redden trails him on 17 despite playing a game less. With the maximum amount of votes a player can receive for a game being 10, third placed Taylor Adams on 12 votes finds himself out of the running before the ball is even bounced.

Not that I expect the players to care that much – they have a Grand Final to win, but I have to ask, if they wouldn’t particularly care, why would I? Why should you?

I’m all for transparency to an extent (or so I tell the tax department) but I also love me a bit of drama. What we now have is a two-horse race in a field that initially contained over a hundred. A little bit of mystery, a little bit of intrigue never really goes astray. When they instituted this award, the coaches association opted to make the votes public on a weekly basis. We had the situation where a player may have won the award despite going out in the preliminary final, but luckily, the cards didn’t fall that way this year.

As I said, if you look for something to dislike hard enough, you’ll find it.

So, it’s either Redden or Sidebottom that’ll claim this medal - that much is a certainty, but let’s add a little intrigue of our own. There are more than just those two players that can shape just who walks away with the Gary Ayres Medal. There are another two who may well dictate which of Redden and Sidebottom add to their personal trophy case.

If there is one thing that Nathan Buckley and his Magpies do well, it's learn their lessons. We saw this play out in their games against Richmond this year. There were three encounters between the two clubs, and on the first two occasions, the Magpies were decimated in the last quarter by rampaging Tiger outfit.

Things turned around in Preliminary Final, when Collingwood used a blistering start and relentless pressure to put the Tigers so far under the pump that there was no coming back. In that game there was no last quarter blast from Richmond. Their hearts and will were broken, and with it, their season over. There was no stopping by the Magpies.

Will they have learnt their lesson against the West Coast Eagles similarly? Two losses to the Eagles both at home and on the road have had lessons of their own to teach Collingwood, but have they learned how to combat the power of the Eagles?

More to the point, have Buckley and his surprise Brownlow challenger, Sidebottom learnt how to counter the attention of Mark Hutchings?

Mark Hutchings has been one of the best run-with players of the year. Right up there with a fit Ben Jacobs, he has played the villain against some of the competition’s best ball winners, and hurt them going the other way as well. In the last two months of the season, Hutchings was able to limit the effectiveness of Clayton Oliver, Dayne Zorko, and another fella by the name of Steele Sidebottom.

It was interesting that something that worked for West Coast so well in Round 17 wasn’t employed in their Qualifying Final match up.

In the Round 17 Clash, Sidebottom was held to a season low 18 Disposals as the Eagles defeated the Magpies at the MCG. It was a wet-blanket performance from Hutchings, rendering Sidebottom completely ineffective, yet when the two teams clashed again just a few short weeks ago, Hutchings played wide of Sidebottom. The result of that was 27 touches to Sidebottom, and plenty of effective touches. In this finals series, Sidebottom is ticking along nicely at 33 disposals per game. 15 less than that in the Grand Final would be an amazing result for both the Eagles and Hutchings.

There are many mind games played in the coaches box at all points of a game, but I get the feeling Adam Simpson didn’t really want to lay all his cards on the table unless he absolutely had to against Collingwood. Sidebottom got plenty of the ball, but the Eagles won. Sidebottom fired a few shots, but West Coast won the battle, and they didn’t even have to use all their weapons to do so.

In the third game of the Collingwood v West Coast 2018 trilogy, will Simpson pull out his big gun early, and take Collingwood’s main midfield weapon out of the picture? And will that allow Jack Redden to swoop in and pinch the medal from Sidebottom’s grasp?

Not if Levi Greenwood has anything to say about it.

Greenwood has just come off an impressive outing against Dustin Martin, himself, in the Pies’ systematic destruction of the Tigers. Yes, Martin may have been carrying an injury but that is no way discrediting the efforts of Greenwood in his run with roll.

What did we say about Buckley learning his lessons? In their previous encounter, Martin took Greenwood to the goal square when he wanted to gain an advantage, Once he got him there, he had his way with him. This time, however, the Magpie defensive unit adjusted, and when Martin tried to move forward, it was Jeremy Howe switching over to cover the potential match winner. In an additional, and possibly unforeseen benefit, Greenwood found himself matched up on Josh Caddy up forward, and he performed admirably against him. For mine, Caddy was in the worst five players on the ground.

Whilst it is more likely that Greenwood will attempt to make life a little more miserable for Luke Shuey or Elliot Yeo, I’m hopeful that Buckley will have him go to Jack Redden. Redden is, after all, their most effective player of this finals series, averaging 31.5 disposals in his two outings. He is also the most damaging according to the coaches themselves. He picked up the perfect 10 votes from Simon Goodwin and Adam Simpson as the Eagles pummelled the Demons.

Redden also was judged second best on the park by the coaches when the Eagles and Pies last met, behind only Elliot Yeo. It must be tempting for Nathan Buckley to try to put the brakes on the man proving to be West Coast’s most effective midfielder at the business end of the season?

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The AFL Coaches Association may have opted for transparency over intrigue, but the game itself could provide plenty. If we see the discussed quartet lock horns in the Grand Final, it adds a wonderful little subplot to an already enthralling contest.

It won’t just come down to which of Sidebottom and Redden can play best, but which of Hutchings and Greenwood can be most restrictive. We have a contest within the contest between four men that will go a long way to determining who will win the biggest game of the season, and who will get to take Ayresy home.

And yes, I shuddered at the thought of that last line as well.

Will Buckley have the answers to the questions posed him in the first two encounters between these two teams this season? Or does Adam Simpson have a few questions up his sleeve that he hasn’t even asked the Collingwood coach yet?

I can’t wait to get our answers on Saturday. 

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