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Eight hot takes from AFL Round 4

Melbourne players look dejected after losing the round four AFL match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the Melbourne Demons at Melbourne Cricket Ground on April 15, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/AFL Media/Getty Images)
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15th April, 2018
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Hot takes, you know you want them. Here’s eight from Round 4.

The race for the eight is wide open
And so only four rounds into the AFL season, every team has lost at least one game, and twelve of eighteen clubs have lost at least two games.

Of the six that can boast a 3-1 record, you could make an argument for just about any one of them – bar probably Richmond and Hawthorn – that at least one of their wins they’ve been a bit lucky to get on the board.

Pointing out that the league is a very even competition nowadays is bordering on cliche but it continues to bring a smile to my face.

In the past I’ve had a bit of fun trying to narrow the premiership race down to a small handful of teams just a few weeks in but it’s just too hard to do right now.

Ryan Buckland said last Monday that there were three teams who could start planning for 2019 – Brisbane, Carlton, and St Kilda.

I reckon he was right not just about those three teams in particular, but more importantly the fact that all fifteen other teams can still consider themselves in with half a chance at playing in September.

It’s a really stark contrast to 2016 just two years ago when the top eight was practically locked in only a few weeks into the season.

Seven of those fifteen teams will miss out somewhere along the way. I know my side North Melbourne will almost certainly be one of them, but I’m proud of the way that the club has delivered a consistent level of effort each week in a start to the year where so few have.

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More importantly, I’m just excited to watch my team run out each week. It’s a feeling that every footy fan should get to enjoy, and right now most of us can.

Jarrad Waite

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Melbourne fans deserve better than this
There has been so much to like about the way the Melbourne Demons have behaved themselves over the last four of five years.

Progress has been slow but steady as they were coached by first Paul Roos and now Simon Goodwin, and the relatively quick turnaround of the playing list has been impressive to behold.

So much of what they do seems like it should trend towards to improving results on the field, and every now and then the Dees turn it on and give us a taste of what that would be like.

But just when you start to believe, they rip out the heart again and fans are left to wonder why they bother.

Eleven years in a row the Melbourne Demons have missed finals. Last year they came so close only to stumble at the last hurdle.

So much effort has been put into improving the culture of the team and recruiting players who are competitive and have the right mental attributes.

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But a side like Hawthorn must absolutely love playing Melbourne, because at any given moment they can turn soft as butter.

On Sunday they kicked four of the first five goals of the match and held a very handy lead at the first break.

Then they kicked just one goal in the last three quarters of the entire match – despite recording only one inside 50 less than Hawthorn.

Hawthorn went into the final quarter three men down on the bench, a position that should’ve given Dees fans hope they could work their way back into the game – instead Melbourne conceded seven goals to one.

They had less of the ball than Hawthorn, but also laid 39 less tackles. There’s no pretty way to put that – it’s an unacceptable lack of effort.

It’s the kind of plaintive performance that will invite people to ask the same questions of the club that we did in the preseason when the Dees players revolted and refused to go on their preseason camp.

Melbourne simply has to be better than this. Demons fans deserve it.

Nathan Jones

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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Finally, ‘The Package’ delivers
Jake Stringer kicked four goals or more eight times in 2015 and another three more times in his first eight games of 2016.

Then, coming into his match today against Port Adelaide, he had done it only twice more in his past 34 AFL games, and only once since becoming a premiership player.

I was thinking just the other week what a sad thing it would be if Stringer – who at his best looks like a generational talent – looked back on his career ten years from now and feels like his best football was already behind him by the age of 22.

But on Sunday, after battling with poor form for more than a year and struggling to have an impact at his new club, ‘The Package’ arrived.

Four goals including an absolute worldie in the last term was undoubtedly his best game as a Bomber and one of the best we’ve seen from him since his 2015 All Australian season.

More importantly it proved to be the difference in an upset win over Port Adelaide, making Essendon the first team to shut off the Power in 2018.

Subtract Stringer’s contribution from Essendon’s score, and they’d have lost by half a goal.

It would be fair to say that the Bombers’ decision to play Stringer in the midfield in his first few weeks in red and black probably didn’t help him perform.

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There has been lots of talk about Essendon’s need for more help through the midfield, and given that they have a wealth of forward options, it made some sense.

However the old statement about square pegs and round holes applies pretty well to the results we saw. Sometimes you’re being smart, sometimes you’re outsmarting yourself.

Simplicity is often the key to effective football and letting Jake Stringer loose in the forward line where he belongs has certainly proved a winner on this occasion.

At the same time Cale Hooker returned the back line, where he was an All Australian player in 2014, and the Dons kept Port Adelaide to their lowest score of the year.

I’ve been a fan of Hooker up forward but can’t argue with the results, and if Stringer can continue to perform as a goalkicker then keeping Hooker in defense is a luxury the Dons can afford.

Hooker and Michael Hurley in combination can rival Alex Rance and David Astbury as the best key defender pair in the league if that’s the way Essendon decide to go.

Give it time and the combination of Joe Daniher and Jake Stringer could be in the mix for the same honours at the other end.

Jake Stringer

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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Adelaide are a nut and they can be cracked
Something that was commonly said about the Adelaide Crows in the aftermath of the 2017 grand final was that they were the best team in the league, but failed to get it done when it mattered.

It’s an interesting semantic debate, because if winning the premiership is not what qualifies you to be the best team in the league, then what exactly does?

It would be reasonable perhaps to argue that in 2017 we saw truly dominant footy from Adelaide more than we did from any other team, or that their best footy was the best we saw all year. You could probably debate both points, but let’s say for sake of argument that they’re fair.

Even in that scenario it has to be pointed out that Adelaide also proved themselves capable of putting in a real shocker – against North Melbourne in Round 7, Melbourne the very next week, and then most unfortunately against the Tigers on grand final day.

Richmond had some bad days on the ledger in 2017 too, but the overall record was pretty impressive – of their seven losses last year, only two were by more than 14 points, three were by less than a goal.

Adelaide have looked impressive at times in the opening weeks of 2018. Their Round 2 win in the grand final rematch was one to hearten fans, and they flattened St Kilda in Round 3 without ever needing to leave first gear.

However a 56-point thrashing from Collingwood was up there with some of the worst football we’ve seen them play under Don Pyke – but the worrying thing is not that they had a shocker, but that they seem to be a regular thing.

They shot themselves in the foot at the selection table by brining back in Darcy Fogarty who, while he deserves to be playing AFL, meant they had no less than five players in their forward line who are 190cm or taller.

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That’s a worryingly top-heavy team in good weather, and in the wet conditions that emerged on Friday night it was just woefully short of the mark.

Between Lachlan Murphy missing through injury, Charlie Cameron being at Brisbane, and Eddie Betts having little impact before going down with injury himself, the Crows didn’t have the small forward dimension they needed to get scores on the board in this scenario – and that problem doesn’t seem to have an easy solution.

However it would be a discredit to Collingwood to suggest that the result came down to Adelaide’s forward line selections.

Instead it was the physical dominance of the Magpies – something we’ve often seen from them under Nathan Buckley – combined with the ability to capitalise on that dominance – something we’ve not – that resulted in what might be remembered as a watershed win.

The Pies finished the night +23 in the clearances, +33 in the contested possessions, and +10 in the tackles despite also having +60 disposals, a simply phenomenal set of numbers.

Collingwood aren’t the classiest team going around – especially not when they have Daniel Wells, Jamie Elliott and Alex Fasolo all missing from the side.

But what they are good at is that they can really squeeze teams. They’ve tried doing it to plenty over the past few years. Some, like GWS in Round 2, have shown an ability to work through it. Others, like Adelaide on Friday night, have been found out.

It’s knowledge that every team who finds them fixtured against the Crows this year should remember as they go in: Adelaide are a nut, and they can be cracked. You just have to squeeze hard enough.

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Rory Sloane

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Despite getting beaten, the Bulldogs are back
It feels strange to think that just two weeks ago I was saying that the Western Bulldogs could no longer be compared to the team that won the premiership at the end of 2016.

Why? Because that’s exactly what I’m going to have to do right now. Over the last two weeks the Dogs have returned to playing a similar style of football, and their results have radically improved as a result.

The Bulldogs recorded 105 insides 50s over the first two rounds, which was 22 less than their opponents. Over the past two weeks, they’ve put together 116 inside 50s, 30 more than the sides they’ve played against.

It harks back to their suffocating 2016 style where they starved their opposition of possession and created repeat forward 50 entries, eventually scoring simply by weight of numbers.

There are positive and negatives to this of course because, like often in 2016, the Dogs have failed to use these forward entries effectively and have been inaccurate in front of goal.

They’ve kicked 25 goals and 33 behinds in the last two weeks, and on Saturday had three more scoring shots than their opponents the Sydney Swans, but still lost.

It would be foolish to focus too much on the Dogs’ flaws though, instead – again much like in 2016 – it’s impressive just how competitive they are given the remarkably young team they are putting in the field.

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Tom Boyd kicked give goals in the VFL on the weekend too and if he can translate that form to AFL level then the flow-on effect to the rest of their forward line will be massive.

A fortnight ago they looked like the easybeats of the league, and now only a short turnaround later they are a side that everyone will fear to play. We’re definitely on the hunt for a new wooden spoon favourite, so speaking of which…

Luke Beveridge

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Bolton faces a big decision as the Blues return to spoon contention
North Melbourne fan that I am, I love to be as optimistic as I can about the club’s fortunes, and I’m pleasantly surprised with how the team is tracking four weeks into the season.

That said, I think it’s fair to say that if you’re losing to us this year, you’re probably not a particularly good football team.

And if you’re losing to us by 86 points, you’re in serious trouble no matter what the expectations on your club are.

Carlton are a rebuilding side and have been one for many years now. They were lacking two of their best players in Marc Murphy and Sam Docherty on Saturday night, and are clearly feeling the loss of Bryce Gibbs pretty bad too.

There’s not much point in me making a laundry list of their poor decisions in this column every week, so let’s take a more pragmatic look instead and what they’re going to do next.

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This year they’ve made a bold decision to start playing a more offensive brand of football rather than the hard-edged defence that was the hallmark of the team in Brendon Bolton’s first two years.

It was a decision that I liked, because it surprised me – plus, it was hard not to admire the quality of their performances in the preseason and in Round 1.

However the past three weeks have seen Carlton lose three games by a total margin of 144 points, all of them played against sides they would hope to be at least competitive with, if not beating.

So the big question they now face is this: do they take a step backwards and return to the defensive style that, while it might not be attractive, at least limits the damage? Or do they continue down this path with limited personnel and see where it leads?

The decision might well be the most important of Brendon Bolton’s career – and I’m glad it’s not one that I’m in the hot seat for. I’ll be fascinated to see what route he goes down, and how it turns out for them.

Either way though it’s hard to ignore them as being the leading ‘contender’ for the wooden spoon right now. If they pick it up it’ll be their fifth in seventeen years, a time period where no other side has won more than two.

Patrick Cripps

(Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Jaidyn Stephenson will be a superstar
This might seem like a big call to make off four AFL games so far but the truth is, it’s something I’ve been a believer in since before he played any of them.

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Jaidyn Stephenson was my personal favourite prospect in 2017 AFL draft. His combination of height, speed, and willingness to live dangerously made him probably the most unique prospect of the year, and one I believe has a ceiling as high as any.

The rippingly good blond mop he was rocking in the first half of the year didn’t hurt either.

He’s done a few impressive things during the JLT Community Series and the first three rounds, but on Friday night he took it to the next level and gave us a taste of what he can do.

A bag of five goals against the reigning minor premiers in a dominant upset win on the road is the kind of thing you’d love to believe a player in their prime is capable of.

But a draftee in his fourth game? That’s breathtaking.

He was one of the most hard to predict prospects in the draft order last year as late breaking news about a heart condition had many clubs doubting whether or not they should take the risk.

Just a night before the draft Cal Twomey predicted he could fall as low as the late teens – instead Collingwood backed him in at pick six. It’s already paying off.

If whoever runs the rising star nominations thinks about it for more than two seconds this week, they’re thinking about it too long.

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I suspect it’s just the start of a very special career.

Jaidyn Stephenson

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

How did no one sign Daniel Menzel?
When the free agency list came out at the start of the year in 2017, Daniel Menzel’s name was one we pretty much skipped over assuming that his re-signing with Geelong would be a simple thing.

It proved to be anything but – despite his good performances in the year prior, and continued ability to hit the scoreboard last season, Geelong offered him only a one-year deal, reportedly at a pay cut.

They seemed not at all concerned about him testing the free agency market and Chris Scott even made the bold decision to leave him out of their side for the first qualifying final.

Of course, the Cats lost badly and Menzel starred when he came back the next week.

Still when he put it out there that he was looking for a better contract offer, there just didn’t seem to be any fish willing to bite.

There’s plenty of clubs who should be feeling foolish about that right now because he has started the 2018 season in furiously good form.

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Fourteen goals in the first four weeks puts him level with Jeremy Cameron at third on the goalkickers list.

I get that he might not be the most multi-dimensional player out there, and there are some areas of his game that potential suitors may have felt were too lacking to justify signing him.

But honestly, given how many games this year have been lost by sides who played well but failed to capitalise, it continues to baffle me that no one snapped him up.

Daniel Menzel Geelong Cats AFL 2017

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Quick and nasty
– Brisbane played their worst game of the year (at least they’ll be hoping that’s the case) on Saturday and should feel a bit lucky that both Carlton and Gold Coast struggled that night to take away some of the attention. Burn the tape and try to get back to the competitive efforts we saw in the first three weeks.

– It raised a few eyes from North and neutral fans when the Kangaroos drafted Billy Hartung with the second-last pick of the 2017 draft, but four games into his Arden St career, he has been super impressive. It’s pretty rare that Hawthorn let a good one slip, but they have here.

– If GWS are to go all the way this year, Brett Deledio and Ryan Griffen surely must wind the clock back a bit. 28 touches from Deledio and two goals from Griffen in his first game back from a long injury was a good start this week.

– Geelong with three of Patrick Dangerfield, Gary Ablett and Joel Selwood: 0-2. Geelong with less than three of them: 2-0. Funny old world.

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– St Kilda really are quite bad, aren’t they? But more on that later this week.