The JLT Community Series got underway this weekend with four games played across Saturday and Sunday, each giving us plenty to analyse, talk about, and probably think far too much of, given the nature of pre-season. But why be cautious? Here’s my quick takes from the weekend.
Can Bryce Gibbs go to the next level?
When Patrick Dangerfield left Adelaide to join Geelong, he was one of the best players in the competition – the Crows’ best-and-fairest winner in that season, and sixth in the Brownlow Medal that year with a very solid count of 22 votes.
However there’s no denying that his form at the Cats has been at a level beyond anything he ever did while playing for Adelaide – something that has, I suspect, been very hard for Crows fans to watch.
Perhaps karma is about to pay them back for that though in the form of Bryce Gibbs, who might also be inspired to find a new level of form in his football by his return home.
He was the Crows’ best in his first hitout for them on Sunday, putting together 27 disposals, seven clearances, five inside 50s and a goal as the Crows came away with a ten-point win at Strathalbyn.
Gibbs has put together some monster games before and is already a very accomplished midfielder – but for all the good things that can be said about him, he’s never gotten to the point of being an All-Australian, nor really been especially close.
If he could rise to that level of quality in season 2018, it’ll go a long way towards the Crows having another crack at the premiership.
The Eagles have options beyond Nic Nat
Depending on who you ask Nic Naitanui may or may not be on track to play Round 1 – I’m no doctor, so I won’t weigh in here, except to say that smoke does suggest fire.
If it’s worst case scenario and Naitanui is unavailable for a few weeks or longer, though, West Coast aren’t entirely devoid of options.
Scott Lycett and Nathan Vardy rucking in tandem on Saturday against the Power proved that pretty well. They went up agains 2017 All Australian ruckman Paddy Ryder, and managed to hold their own.
Lycett did the bulk of the ruckwork, while Vardy played a fair chunk of the game forward and booted two goals.
Vardy proved himself a handy and reliable player for the Eagles last year, an impressive turnaround given how much of his career at Geelong was spent injured.
Lycett has struggled with both form and injury in recent times, but has shown enough in the past to suggest he can be a serious player.
There’s no doubt that West Coast’s competitiveness is damaged if Nic Naitanui is unavailable – but these two have talent, and we could see them really flourish if asked to shoulder the load.
Fyfe on fire
If you wanted to pick a ‘player of the week’ from the four games this weekend, there’s no doubt that Nat Fyfe is the man you’d pick.
27 disposals (19 kicks), eight clearances, three contested marks, four marks inside 50, seven inside 50s, two goals and a goal assist – sure, it’s only a pre-season match, but that form is scary no matter when you see it.
After winning the Bronwlow in 2015 Fyfe’s last two seasons have both been impacted first by suffering and then recovering from a broken leg – that doesn’t look to be a problem anymore. Expect to see him at his best in 2018.
If he can play a full 22-game season in this kind of form, you’d have to think a second Brownlow Medal is very much on the cards.
Billy Hartung will play Round 1
North Melbourne’s decision to take a punt on former Hawthorn winger Billy Hartung with the second-last pick of the 2017 draft was met with surprised and mixed emotions by both fans and neutral observers.
Fair to say that the Kangaroos have recruited Hawthorn players only to be significantly disappointed by the results more than once in the past, and many North fans are in the category of ‘once bitten, twice shy’ on this topic.
Hartung’s performance in the club’s match against Melbourne in Hobart however will have changed the minds of many, as his 17 disposals (13 of them kicks) and two goals was one of few highlights on a generally unpleasant day for North fans.
It may not have been the most dominant performance of the week as far as the stats sheet goes, but Hartung showcased the speed that North drafted him for, and which the club lacks so much.
Odds are it’ll be a little harder for Hartung to find that kind of space on the field in the regular season, but now North fans can look at him as one of the early positives of 2018 – and you can expect to see him named for his club debut in Round 1, 2018.
Melbourne are a top-four threat
I’ve written flattering things about Melbourne already this season and here comes another – if I’m picking my predicted top four for season 2018 right now, they’re in it, alongside Sydney and Geelong with one spot open.
Saturday’s game against North Melbourne was, quite simply, a case of men against boys – a dynamic that the Demons have been on the receiving end of for far too long, but not anymore.
Christian Petracca looks ready to go to the next level in 2018 and Max Gawn has to be the early favourite for the All-Australian ruck slot. I was bullish about Todd Goldstein’s prospects this year but Gawn slaughtered him.
While the Demons have plenty of midfielders drafted in the single digits who get talked about a lot (and rightly so), it was two of the lesser lights who made me think Melbourne might really be something special this year.
Alex Neal-Bullen and James Harmes didn’t arrive at the club as high profile draftees, but between them picked up 37 disposals, four goals, nine clearances and two goal assists on Saturday. Expect to see them both lift their fair share of the load through the middle and across half forward this year.
Some positional changes were interesting. Jordan Lewis played in the backline and was good, between him, Bernie Vince and Michael Hibberd the Demons will have an experienced group there who can provide a touch of calm for younger players.
Tom McDonald played forward and he and Jesse Hogan kicked five goals in partnership, but this left Jake Lever as the key pillar in defence, and while he played a solid game, he was caught being a bit too far off his opponent more than once.
Lever really could use a David Astbury type to be the dependable defender who mans up the No.1 target giving him more license to play off a less dangerous opponent. If McDonald plays forward, the Dees might not have a player ready to fill that role in 2018.
It was hard not to like what you saw from Melbourne though. And here’s a stat for you – Melbourne lost three games by less than a goal last year, all to teams who didn’t make finals. If they’d won all three of them they would have finished fifth, equal on wins with Richmond and GWS in the top four.
This is a team that’s ready to come of age – no more dropping winnable games to teams in the bottom six. C’mon Dees, it’s time to give your fans – and Nathan Jones – the deep finals campaign they so richly deserve.
Smith and Saad shine, Stringer struggles
Essendon fans were getting ready to install a gold statue of Adrian Dodoro at their club headquarters early on in their game when first Adam Saad then Devon Smith kicked goals to start the match.
Things didn’t really go swimmingly from there for the Bombers, but it’s fair to say that both of those players impressed.
Saad finished with 15 disposals and five bounces (plus his excellent running goal), showcasing the speed and drive out of the backline that are the key components of his game. If Dons fans aren’t already in love with him, they will be soon.
Smith on the other hand was arguably Essendon’s best player, with 26 disposals and five clearances showing that he is more than just the half-forward GWS often played him as.
I said this in my 2017 trade period report card, and I stand by it:
Devon Smith and Adam Saad are both your classic underrated types who Victorian fans will now get a closer look at and come to love. Smith in particular will surprise many with just how high his ceiling is.
As for Jake Stringer it was a pretty forgettable day – he copped a heavy knock early and needed stitches, and while he played out the match he had no influence – not an uncommon result among the Dons’ forwards, to be fair.
One bad preseason performance, under the circumstances, is definitely something we can forgive him for. The bleached-blond man bun, not so much.
Richmond’s small forward line has a bright future
If you thought that the Tigers were going to rest on their laurels this year and echo the Bulldogs’ premiership hangover, Saturday’s thrashing of Essendon is the kind of result that will make you think again.
Richmond’s suffocating pressure was on show and Essendon simply had no answer for it. To be fair to them, there were reports of a gastro outbreak at the club during the week, so it’d probably be too early to read into the fortunes of either side in 2018 off this game alone.
However one thing I reckon can be said with confidence is that Richmond’s trademark smaller forward line – Daniel Rioli, Jason Castagna and Daniel Butler all playing in the premiership victory – is well stocked for the long term.
In particular I’m talking about Shai Bolton who has impressed me every time I’ve watched him and did so again in this match, kicking three goals.
Meanwhile, first-round draft pick Jack Higgins also wore yellow and black for the first time in this match, although he wasn’t prominent – recording five disposals and a behind, only playing half a game.
He’s a highly rated prospect though and if both he and Bolton can challenge for an AFL spot, Damien Hardwick will have small forward depth coming out his ears.
Gray area to give new MRP its first test
Radical changes were introduced to the match review panel at the end of the 2017 season including slimming it down to just one man.
I was definitely a fan of the changes made – and you can read a great piece here by Ryan Buckland looking at them in detail.
However it’s easy to be a fan of something in theory only to be disappointed by how it is put into practice, and that is often the case when the AFL tweaks the MRP or other rules.
Now we’ll get our first look at the process and how well it works as Robbie Gray’s high contact with Jeremy McGovern looks certain to be scrutinised.
Head-high contact is notoriously one of the most difficult offences to accurately predict the MRP’s reaction to, and this one is no different.
Hopefully a single-member MRP brings some level of consistency towards the decisions that are made – and if so, this incident could set the tone for the year.
Port Adelaide host Fremantle at home in Round 1 and then travel to face Sydney in Round 2. They’d rate themselves capable of containing the Dockers without Gray, but it would be a major blow to lose him for multiple weeks.
Majak Daw is (probably) not a defender
Majak Daw has been played in just about every area of the ground during his AFL career, with the result being inevitably the same – flashes of brilliance, but long periods where he is ineffective, bordering on being a liability.
With North’s cue for a ruck position already being logjammed by Todd Goldstein and Braydon Preuss, and the sub-par forward-ruck going out of style these days, Daw has been training with North’s defenders this preseason in the hopes of a Liam Jones-esque revival.
If his first go in the role against Melbourne on the weekend was any sort of indication, Daw really isn’t cut out to be a defender. He gave away a few free kicks in front of goal and was easily beaten by players he should be able to physically dominate on several occasions.
Perhaps some time spent in the VFL to begin the season will help him learn the craft to an acceptable level – but certainly don’t expect to see him playing a tall defender role at AFL level any time soon, if ever.
Personally, I’d suggest the major stumbling block for Daw is not that he’s yet to find the right position, but that he lacks intensity and game awareness, something you cannot get by without in any area of the ground these days.