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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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    The Crowd Says (28)

    • May 15th 2017 @ 12:22pm
      Birdman said | May 15th 2017 @ 12:22pm | ! Report

      Does any club really want to win this thing?

      Quite refreshing to see an evenness to the comp this year.

      • Roar Guru

        May 15th 2017 @ 12:50pm
        Paul D said | May 15th 2017 @ 12:50pm | ! Report

        It’s even for most sides, haha.

        You’re right though. It is refreshing having teams surge and fall back, almost like a big pack in a cycling race. In previous years there’s been 2-3 breakaway teams and everyone else is just making up the numbers.

      • Roar Guru

        May 15th 2017 @ 2:05pm
        Cat said | May 15th 2017 @ 2:05pm | ! Report

        It may be even but we may end up with the least impressive premier is a while. Sure is a lot more ‘ugly’ games than good highly skilled matches this year … not sure that makes this a better season.

        • May 15th 2017 @ 4:46pm
          Daws said | May 15th 2017 @ 4:46pm | ! Report

          Don’t know where these allegations of ugliness are coming from.

          I watched:
          1st half Dogs v Eagles
          2nd half Pies v Giants
          Whole game Tigers v Dockers
          Highlights Bombers v Cats

          Everything there had at least as many moments of entertainment as moments of ugliness.

          • May 15th 2017 @ 5:06pm
            dontknowmuchaboutfootball said | May 15th 2017 @ 5:06pm | ! Report

            I can’t understand anyone who can watch a game like this weekend’s Freo-Richmond game and claim it was terrible or ugly football. That game was utterly thrilling in my book.

            • May 16th 2017 @ 1:32pm
              Gecko said | May 16th 2017 @ 1:32pm | ! Report

              Try watching the Port-Suns game in China or the Geelong-Essendon game. One-sided footy at its worst.

          • Roar Guru

            May 15th 2017 @ 5:46pm
            Cat said | May 15th 2017 @ 5:46pm | ! Report

            I dunno, any game that no one can break 70 (ish) points can’t be called highly skilled.

            • May 15th 2017 @ 8:53pm
              Daws said | May 15th 2017 @ 8:53pm | ! Report

              You’re mistakenly conflating ‘high-scoring’ with ‘skilled’.

            • May 15th 2017 @ 11:58pm
              Don Freo said | May 15th 2017 @ 11:58pm | ! Report

              So many high scoring games are high scoring as the result of opposition errors. Those that are not seeing the skills of AFL footy in games this season will find greater satisfaction with more exposure to the game.

              I love hearing older teens, who have played the game in their early teens, when they start to discuss weekend games of their own with a tactical bent. They are the same teens who then join amateur clubs or semi-pro clubs and in their early adult years around a post game drink live and breathe the game debrief in the club room social context.

              They and their passionate family and friends are the types that see skill, process and depth in footy that those driven by the scoreboard…and the stat sheet…are often unable to see.

              The skill of Freo’s defense (and that of Rance and Grimes) was great to watch. The skill of Aaron Sandilands intercepting Dusty Martin and blocking him from his path to Lachie Neale and Nat Fyfe also blocking a simultaneous challenge and clearing a passage for Neale was a delight to watch. Surely Cat, and other naysayers, you were impressed by the goalmouth vision of the timing of Mundy’s lead who wrong footed Rance and Grimes because he read what was unfolding a moment before they did. That is skill.

              • May 16th 2017 @ 12:05am
                Don Freo said | May 16th 2017 @ 12:05am | ! Report

                Oh…and for people like Anon, David Mundy will be 35 yo in 4 years time.

    • May 15th 2017 @ 1:56pm
      Tony Tea said | May 15th 2017 @ 1:56pm | ! Report

      Melbourne should be 8-0.

      • Roar Guru

        May 15th 2017 @ 2:03pm
        Cat said | May 15th 2017 @ 2:03pm | ! Report

        If they were good enough they would be, but they aren’t so they ain’t.

    • May 15th 2017 @ 2:01pm
      Bob said | May 15th 2017 @ 2:01pm | ! Report

      Richmond could just as easily be 2-6 and in second last based on three lucky wins against better sides. In all their losses they were the worst side on the field and also in three of their wins. So they are extremely lucky to sit where they are.

    • May 15th 2017 @ 2:37pm
      Kim Jong Un said | May 15th 2017 @ 2:37pm | ! Report

      Bob, your comment is pure muppetry.
      When Bulldogs play ordinarily and still get over the line, they’re praised as a brilliant
      team that can still get the points when they’re down.
      Your disliking for Richmond means that when they do the same thing, they’re just lucky.

      • May 16th 2017 @ 1:34pm
        Gecko said | May 16th 2017 @ 1:34pm | ! Report

        It’s actually refreshing that Richmond won a few tight ones earlier this year. The old Richmond came back to haunt them on the weekend.

    • May 15th 2017 @ 2:52pm
      dave said | May 15th 2017 @ 2:52pm | ! Report

      When the games are this close and every little one percent equates to a victory or loss we have to start thinking about the umpires.
      I’m no umpire basher and never blame umpires for a loss but the rule makers have made so many changes and with all the different interpretation of existing rules its incredibly hard for them to be perfect all the time.
      I don’t want to see games decided by umpiring decisions.

      • May 15th 2017 @ 3:28pm
        DH said | May 15th 2017 @ 3:28pm | ! Report

        Haven’t seen one game ‘decided’ by umpiring decisions this year.

        There used to be plenty out west or in Adelaide in the 90’s, but it’s been a while since anything like that happened.

        • May 16th 2017 @ 12:07am
          Don Freo said | May 16th 2017 @ 12:07am | ! Report

          It almost happened. If Richmond won by those 4 points, Brady Grey’s goal not even sent to review would have been one. That, by the way, was just umpires choosing to not apply a process. The process was there.

        • May 16th 2017 @ 11:10am
          Brendon the 1st said | May 16th 2017 @ 11:10am | ! Report

          Port v WC last week was most definitely decided by umpires.

    • May 15th 2017 @ 3:27pm
      Ben said | May 15th 2017 @ 3:27pm | ! Report

      Love the Sinatra homage “Regrets I’ve had a few”.

      The level of fitness & speed of the game means that it is going to be difficult to bring your “A” game every week. If that drop coincides with your opponents “on” week, then trouble awaits.

      The Freo / Tigers game, last quarter shouts out, “no resting on your laurels” big time.

      Both were guilty.

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