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AFL Round 15: The more things stay the same, the more they change

Tomas Bugg of the Demons is seen after the Round 15 AFL match between and the Melbourne Demons and the Sydney Swans at MCG in Melbourne, Friday, June 30, 2017. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Expert
3rd July, 2017
29
2161 Reads

Sequels are almost never as good as the originals. So it was in Round 15, which had its share of ups, downs, twists and turns. Moreover, there were lessons learned that will shape this year’s premiership.

The run home is nearly upon us. We hit the two-thirds mark of the year next Saturday afternoon, with every team having just eight more outings to impress upon us their worthiness in season 2017. This even season is keeping the door open a little wider and longer than usual, but critical junctures still await for many teams.

So much to talk about, so little space.

Just 14 points on average separated the 18 teams this round, a remarkable figure indicative of the ebbs and flows of football played. Our first draw – another Giant-sized escape – came to pass, while four other games had two goals or less in them in the end. Indeed the weekend’s most anticipated matchup, Melbourne hosting Sydney, turned in the biggest margin of the lot.

Let’s rip off the band-aid because it’s all anyone is going to talk about from this game: Tom Bugg done bad. His off the ball strike on Callum Mills will almost certainly see him miss six weeks of football, with potential for more given the AFL’s newfound disdain for non-football actions like punching a guy in the face.

Bugg’s unique star had risen to new heights this season, his name seemingly an ironic pseudonym for his antagonistic stylings. Way to turn the dial up to 11. It was fitting that on an AFL Player Ratings point basis Bugg performed worse than Mills, whom Bugg KO’d five minutes into the game.

Tomas Bugg Melbourne Demons AFL 2017 tall

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

It was an apt metaphor for Melbourne’s night, only the Swans were the team that felled the Dees. The Demons’ tyres had been pumped to F250 proportions by the Melbourne media fraternity, whose “they can win the flag” takes were hotter than hell itself. Now inevitably comes the fall from this artificial high.

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Let’s not mix things up though: Melbourne were bad, and Sydney were really good. The Swans chopped their opponents up at stoppages (38-27), demolished them on the ground (+28 in the ground game, aka adjusted contested possessions), and put on as dominant an aerial display as we’ve seen this year (uncontested marks were 112-58 Sydney’s way). It was comprehensive.

Sydney’s only real blemish was another horrendous conversion rate, the Swans booting 11.19 and taking another three shots which missed altogether. They’re coming, and will almost certainly end Round 16 in the eight with a win against the Suns next weekend – if they can sustain their stellar form.

Gary Rohan Sydney Swans AFL 2017 tall

(AAP Image/David Moir)

Another Super Saturday came and went, with uplifting victories across the day. It began with West Coast’s triumph over the Western Bulldogs and ended with Richmond’s surging win over Port Adelaide. Both travelling teams earned four points and won respect through meritorious performances.

For the Eagles, it was more about the manner the team played in the absence of so many of its senior heads. Make no mistake, West Coast were still really bloody old, but had a team that looked in stark contrast to the stodgy units rolled out in season 2017 to date.

With two players – Sam Butler and Sharrod Wellingham – going down with various leg ailments, the Eagles were light on ground ball defence coming into the final quarter. The Dogs almost took full toll, putting up nine scoring shots to three and salvaging what looked like a potential blowout at the final change.

Nathan Vardy was a big part of the Eagles’ resistance, a strong ruck performance punctuated with some big contested marks and a critical stoppage goal in the last confirming he is one of the best trade-ins of the season.

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Adelaide were made to work against the Blues, who proved once more they are a tough beat regardless of the opposition. The Crows had no space, couldn’t generate any pace, and were made to look thin through the middle once again. The blueprint is there for the entire football world to see: be the bull in Adelaide’s fine china shop.

North Melbourne’s bizarre season took another turn, a pantsing against the Suns in which the most notable thing to happen on the field was the semi-regular match up of the Swallow brothers. Just three North Melbourne players made it into the 20s in terms of disposals.

Gary Ablett had 37 in his 300th game (think about that for a few seconds), while Tom Lynch bagged his second fiver of the season. The Suns are inconsistent, but when they play their best football are an exciting combination of dare and speed; North Melbourne made them look like the Jamaican 4x100m relay team.

Unlike Friday night’s collapsed soufflé, Saturday evening’s six-hour degustation delivered on every count. I did it in reverse order, savouring the battle for a top-four spot between the Power and Tigers before devouring the top two tussle between the Giants and Cats.

For most of the evening, it looked as though Richmond’s biggest flaw – their so-so offensive capabilities – would be their downfall against Port Adelaide. The Power’s transition defence had choked up Richmond’s transition offence, while the Tigers’ predictably stoic back six snuffed the Port’s pressing inside 50s. A late second quarter flurry to the home team was effectively what separated the two at the end of the half.

During the break, Damien Hardwick must have instructed his team to turn the tempo up, because they came out with a blistering attack on the ground and desire to move quickly by hand and foot. Port managed to hold the line for a while, and after Robbie Gray goaled at the 20-minute mark of the third quarter the Power had somehow built on their halftime lead.

From there, Richmond took over. They kicked seven of the next eight majors, turning a 16-point deficit into a match-winning 19-point lead. Hardwick’s call from a fortnight ago, that Richmond “will never have big margin games”, looked prescient once again.

Dustin Martin Richmond Tigers AFL 2017

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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Unbeknownst to me, Geelong and GWS had played out an enthralling draw in the meantime. It was an engrossing contest, in the same way that one may find enjoyment in the annual World’s Ugliest Dog Competition.

The Cats threw body after body at the Giants, cramping their style and forcing a gajillion stoppages (there were 98 effective hitouts in the game, where the AFL average this year is 80 – yikes).

It felt as though Patrick Dangerfield got his hands to the ball in at least half of them, the new Brownlow medal favourite putting up a season-high 45 disposals and 25 contested possessions. His influence was somewhat more middling though, given he recorded just four score involvements.

For most of the game, it looked as though it would work, the Cats keeping GWS to their second lowest three quarter time score of the year. But the Giants, as they have done all year, showed you can only keep a team of studs down for so long.

The Giants started to get their half back transition game going, Nick Haynes and Nathan Wilson playing higher up the field and powering the Giants into attack. Jonathon Patton was a towering colossus once again, providing strong contest after strong contest.

The game came down to a Tom Hawkins kick after the siren, after a “phew-I’m-glad-these-aren’t-contentious-anymore” deliberate out of bounds was paid against a Giants’ exit kick from defensive 50 with 30 seconds remaining. Some loose checking allowed Hawkins, who had Phil Davis living inside of him all night, to take an uncontested mark on the wrong side for his right foot. He shanked the kick, and the game was drawn.

That GWS and Geelong are now on 42 and 38 points respectively adds an interesting angle to the top of the table. Adelaide’s competition-leading percentage is now far less important than it otherwise would have been, for example.

The biggest takeaway from the two games as a collective? Defence is only going to get you so far in 2017. In strikingly different ways – the Cats losing their grip on the Giants, and the Tigers stomping on the power when they flipped into aggressive mode – Saturday night gave us the biggest hint yet as to what will separate the best from the rest this season.

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Sunday’s action was further evidence we don’t know anything about football this season. Hawthorn moved to an impressive-in-the-circumstances 6-4 since their 0-4 start to the year, holding off the Pies on the MCG.

Collingwood’s abject lack of a forward line – both structure and personnel – looks to have marked their cards for this season, and there are few palatable options on the table heading into 2018.

St Kilda needed nearly the full two hours to put away a fading Fremantle, poor kicking for goal once again hurting their chance to put together a statement game and throw off the shackles of doubt. The game swung wildly as a result, the Saints unable to make the most of a plethora of high quality forward half entries. A win’s a win, and the Saints enter their final eight games in a strong position.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Brisbane Lions won their third game of the year. Essendon did Essendon things, unable to take full toll as the Lions gummed up their forward 50. Harris Andrews and Daniel McStay had ten intercept possessions each, a harbinger of things to come should the pair develop along the lines of their early career.

Still, the Dons had a comfortable 19-point lead at three quarter time which then duly extended to 27 at the five-minute mark of the final quarter. The Lions extraordinarily came back, their high variance football paying off in the biggest way possible. Brisbane kicked five uninterrupted goals (on nine scoring shots) to take a six-point lead. Essendon struck back to level it.

The Lions were not overawed, scoring three more times (including a decisive goal at the 30-minute mark) to hold on for the win.

Eric Hipwood Brisbane Lions AFL 2017

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

It is the kind of victory that the club can point to as a marker of its development. Brisbane have plenty of work to do, their rebuild still on the ground level and an intriguing summer in the offing. That’s for later; for now, Brisbane are on the winner’s list after a meritorious performance against a team well in the reckoning for finals.

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The gloriously ambiguous AFL season continues to throw up all manner of sordid outcomes. Next week’s slate looks far more civil than the past two weeks – perhaps it represents an opportune time to take a breather before a hectic run home.

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