Round 8: The fine margins of AFL football

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    Richmond could be sitting on top of the AFL ladder after eight rounds, the football world wondering whether it was Tiger time. As it stands, coach Damien Hardwick is shell-shocked and considering changes. Such are the fine margins of the AFL in 2017.

    Three games were decided by single digits, two of them with goals in the final minute of playing time. In Richmond’s case, a last-gasp major got them the win, then another took it away.

    The Tigers will be in the firing line this week – if your colours are yellow and black, you start the year ahead of the ledger, then reel off three straight losses, that’s just par for the course.

    Never mind that Richmond travelled to Adelaide when the Crows were unstoppable, were either robbed blind or in plain sight depending on your perspective against the Western Bulldogs, and came within 16 seconds of pulling off a 32-point comeback against MCG specialists Fremantle.

    Let’s play a game. Last weekend’s free kick against Jayden Short looks all the more egregious after this weekend’s football. Someone with influence at AFL House wound back the interpretation of deliberate out of bounds about 18 months, with plenty of examples of actions that would have been met with cries of “insufficient intent!” going unpunished.

    With a bit of creative license, let’s give the Tigers a win; Dustin Martin bowls four Dogs over at the ensuing stoppage and kicks a major. That would leave Richmond 6-1 coming into this weekend’s game, at home, against Fremantle.

    Richmond did Richmond things and were outplayed by a competent looking Fremantle (more on this on Wednesday). Yada yada yada, we enter the last minute with the Tigers somehow two points down and somehow set to pump the ball inside 50 from their left forward flank. Masses of players converge, and after a couple of stoppages and an impromptu game of hot potato, Brandon Ellis snaps truly.

    It’s Tiger time.

    Then this happens, with 16 seconds left on the clock.

    Richmond did everything wrong. No. I’m serious. Everything.

    Dustin Martin is ball watching. Daniel Rioli is standing on the right wing completely on his own. There is no one standing – let alone defending – the defensive side of the centre square for Richmond. Three Fremantle runners came off the back of the square, unchecked. Richmond sent at least three extra players back behind, but smart play by Fremantle meant that became one.

    What almost became a great escape descended into a catastrophe. If Hardwick’s Tigers had tightened up one of those half a dozen errors above, David Mundy probably doesn’t beat them with the last kick of the game for the for the second time in the last three match-ups. They probably would have snuck home in a game they didn’t deserve to win, and given the results over the rest of the weekend, certainly would have finished on top of the ladder.

    David Mundy Fremantle Dockers AFL 2017

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Instead, the Tigers are at the tail end of a group of 5-3 teams, a win to the Demons away from falling out of the top eight. That could be the situation after this weekend, the Tigers travelling to Sydney’s Showground to face the GWS Giants and the Dees hosting whatever is left of North Melbourne at the MCG.

    Now one-third of the way through the home-and-away season, what’s abundantly clear is the margin for error in this year’s AFL is skinny.

    Nathan Buckley knows all about that. His tenure is, yet again, likely to come into sharp focus after a final minute loss at the hands of the Giants. The Pies were hitting off a 36.4 handicap, with GWS losing Aidan Corr in the first 10 seconds, Sam Reid in the second quarter, and Stephen Coniglio for the entirety of time on in the last quarter.

    It was a strong contest all day, the teams trading goals from halftime onwards, and the margin within 12 points either way from about half way through the second quarter.

    After both teams overcame slow starts, the Pies made the first decisive move with a six goals to none run to end the first quarter. Their defence looked assured, their own blue chip midfield able to mix it with the pedigree stock of the Giants.

    Collingwood’s forward 50 worked well as a unit, with Jamie Elliott taking marks and generally looking dangerous once more. But once the Giants clicked in the second, the game was on level pegging, where it stayed thereafter.

    GWS controlled the pace of play, winning the time in possession by six minutes and out-tackling the Pies 79 to 51. The outside game from a volume of possessions perspective was more even – confirming the Giants turned to their ground game down a couple of tall players for most of the game.

    To Collingwood’s credit, they were able to exert control using kicks and marks when they did win the ball, which has generally been a marker of their success in recent years.

    Steve Johnson’s future had apparently been in the spotlight all week – understandably in some ways given his leanish start to the year and GWS’ star-studded injury list shortening by the week. His front and centre gather in the last minute of the game serves as a timely reminder that it takes longer for skilful players to lose their skills than it does athletic players to lose their athleticism. Johnson had 24 touches, took seven marks, was involved in nine GWS scores and kicked two goals himself.

    Steve Johnson GWS Giants Greater Western Sydney Giants AFL 2016

    (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

    He might have half a dozen games left in him, Johnson. Maybe a dozen; at most 18. Against the Pies, his last touch, a moment of Johnson brand magic, was clearly the difference between a win and a loss. When margins are tight, it pays to have someone of his ilk to bring it home.

    A close loss condemns Collingwood to a 2-6 record, Brisbane’s perennial rebuild saving the Pies from a week on the bottom of the ladder after Sydney and Hawthorn both won once again. We’ve had Collingwood Week twice already this season – will a third dose result in the crosshairs being trained on the larger target for a change?

    Eddie will be hoping West Coast’s Josh Kennedy is pulling the trigger. The usually dead-eye key forward booted 3.6 against the Dogs on Friday night, including a streak of three straight behinds between the four and eight-minute marks of the final quarter. At the start of the stink streak, the Eagles were up by 17 – all things being equal, the margin would have reached a game-high 35 and the match would have been over.

    It was only the second time in his career that Kennedy had kicked six behinds – the other coming last year against Collingwood in a ten goal blow-out. The margin for error was significantly smaller this time around; a nine-point buffer for the Eagles’ could have easily flipped the Dogs’ way on goal kicking accuracy alone.

    Both sides can take plenty out of it though. For West Coast, it was another endorsement of their newfound absorbing style, out-marking the small-ball Dogs 123 to 75 (including 13 to six in contested marks) and maintaining possession. They did leak five goals inside the invisible 30-metre square extending out from the goal posts, but otherwise were able to manage the Dogs into challenging shots.

    The Dogs, on the other hand, were able to keep West Coast to challenging shots on goal for the most part, their scrambling style once again putting West Coast under pressure between the arcs.

    In the final quarter, coach Luke Beveridge appeared to have instructed his team to get the ball into the centre square at all costs to reduce the influence of West Coast’s spare defender. They were happy to go straight at the Eagles too, running off half back and testing West Coast’s willingness to do the same.

    In the end, the Eagles’ scrambled on the final Dogs’ centre corridor fast break, won a two on one ground ball, and that was that.

    The Dogs managed to turn the game into a 2016 elimination final slog, but this time West Coast managed to stay in the scorching hot kitchen. Without a forward line, the Dogs were always going to struggle to kick a big score, and managed to impose a style that got them back in touch in the final quarter and almost over the top for the win.

    For all that though, if Kennedy kicked straight, this looms as a garden variety “West Coast beats top eight opponents at home” victory.

    Josh J Kennedy West Coast Eagles AFL 2016

    (AAP Image/Ben Macmahon)

    Those fine margins. What Geelong would give for one of those right now.

    The Cats have lost three on the bounce against an utterly unconvincing slate of opponents. They did this last year too, seemingly performing at their best when the situation demands it.

    Accusations of bruise-free footy abound – that’s not the issue. Geelong are simply being outworked on the outside; you cannot tackle what is not within arm’s reach.

    Their sky-high forward press – remember the Herald Sun spread with Geelong’s ten players over 194 centimetres in last year’s preseason – has been reduced to rubble. Essendon got off 28 shots on 47 entries, almost all of them coming in the easiest spot on the ground to score from. Combine that with Joe Daniher’s Lance Franklin impersonation – atrocious moustache optional, depending on the era of the homage – and the Cats were out of it from minute one.

    Problems, they have a few. This Friday night, opening night for stage 947 of the Kardinia Park redevelopment, against a hungry Dogs outfit is as good a time as any to calm the nerves of a fan-base cognisant that Geelong are all-in (and then some) on this group.

    With Footscray dragging every opponent down into the slop, the Cats have very little margin for error.

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    Ryan Buckland
    Ryan Buckland

    As an economist, Ryan seeks to fix the world's economic troubles one graph at a time. As a sports fan, he's always looking one or two layers beneath the surface to search for meaning, on and off the field. You can follow Ryan here.