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The big Victorians throw their weight around, confirming we know little about this AFL season

Jake Stringer of the Bombers reacts after the final siren. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Expert
15th April, 2018
98
3679 Reads

As if emboldened by the news the AFL grand final was to stay at the MCG indefinitely, this weekend saw the big Victorian teams lay the smack down across the competition.

Setting Carlton to one side, the big dogs of football’s home state had impressive wins across the board in Round 4.

Collingwood, Richmond, Essendon, Hawthorn and Geelong won their five games by a combined 341 points, for an average margin of 68.2 points.

Let’s deal with them in turn, from least to most surprising, starting in the most obvious place.

Richmond’s obliteration of Brisbane was one of the most thorough beatdowns handed out in the complete history of organised top-level Australian rules football. I am not exaggerating.

Through just shy of three quarters, the Lions were on track to score the fewest points in a game at the MCG in the ground’s storied 121-year, 2803-game history. They ended up scoring 17 points, just the equal eighth lowest score and the lowest score since 1962.

If we take ‘modern’ times as the mark, it was easily a new low, the previous fewest of the AFL era the 30 points scored by St Kilda against Hawthorn in 2014, and North Melbourne against Collingwood in 2011.

That sums up the game succinctly. It was the worst general play defence against the team best at improvising on the fly – that turned out to be the play.

Dustin Martin booted six goals too, and he’s now equal fifth on the goal kicking chart, with a dozen majors (Lance Franklin is on top, with 17). Richmond roll on, with a significant percentage boost that’ll come in handy come September time.

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Dustin Martin of the Richmond Tigers

Dustin Martin of the Tigers (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Geelong was always going to handle the hapless St Kilda. The Cats’ first hit out at Kardinia Park went almost entirely to script: 18 inside 50s and seven extra scoring shots, few uncontested marks to the Saints, and plenty of pressure around the ball from Geelong. St Kilda now sits 1-3, and on my Simple Rating System calculations are only a hair better than both Brisbane and Carlton in the four rounds to date – their season only alive on account of a fairly tight tussle in the midtable.

The Bombers were the subject of Cam Rose’s Tuesday torch last week, and it was a pattern repeated across much of the media. Essendon had a similarly languid performance in the early part of last season, were chewed out, and responded with a stirring victory over Geelong at the MCG. History seemingly repeated itself yesterday.

The Dons’ activity across the ground, both with and without the ball, was more in keeping with their best football of 2017. The overlap run was too much for Port Adelaide’s press to take, and once the ball hit Essendon’s half forward line it was often a case of when, not if, points would follow. Michael Hurley was extraordinary, Port’s forward half rotation policy allowing him some extra space to go to work. He had 29 disposals and 15 marks in all, four of them intercepts, and launched three scores (heaps for a key position defender).

They remain confounding – the anti-Power of last season in some ways. The Bombers’ two wins have come against premiership fancies in Adelaide and Port Adelaide; their two losses came against Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs. We will get a solid indication on Anzac Day.

We will get to Collingwood in a moment. As for Hawthorn, well, I did tell you they were looking a likely finalist for this season last week, and they delivered on that against Melbourne. I also told you last week we’d spend some time on the Hawks in this week’s Thursday column, and I will, like Hawthorn, deliver.

I will say now, because it is a topic of conversation, that talk of premiership contention is premature. Hawthorn has looked mighty impressive, recapturing the football identity Alastair Clarkson seemed so intent on changing last year (another thing I told you to look out for), but challenges remain.

The Alastair Clarkson endgame

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Melbourne, meanwhile, will be smarting after this one. It was an 88-point turnaround from halfway through the first quarter to the end of the game, the Dees fumbling and puzzling their way to an inept display in their forward half. It was not in keeping with the Melbourne we thought we knew; a tough assignment against Richmond looms, albeit with an extra couple of days to recuperate and rehabilitate the gameplan.

And then there was Collingwood, whose away win against Adelaide has been lost in the noise of the rest of the weekend. Nathan Buckley must sometimes wonder if the media has it in for him with the way wins have been covered against losses in his tenure.

This was as quality a win for this group of Pies as I can remember. Adelaide has been lights out on their home deck in recent times, winning 19 of 24 with a point differential of 39.6 against interstate opponents since 2016. With a third of its first choice team unavailable, Collingwood rolled out a team with 500 games less experience than Adelaide. Half of the outfit was 23 or younger, compared to six at the Crows.

One of that cohort was Brodie Grundy, who put up a glorious ruckman’s stat line: 40 hit outs, 12 to advantage, and a 48 per cent hit out win percentage (compared to 42 per cent for Sam Jacobs). He also put up a glorious midfielder’s stat line: 29 disposals, 23 contested possessions, 12 clearances and six inside 50s. Grundy was two men in one, making good on a Dragon Ball Z GIF he tweeted earlier this month.

He was important, but not the critical factor. Collingwood swarmed across the Oval, cutting off Adelaide’s transition game and blunting their influence at the contest. The Pies beat the Crows in the ground game 174-133, a shellacking the home side hadn’t experienced since (sorry…) grand final day.

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Adelaide went into the game with a countercultural line up that was very tall up front, and it showed. Reports emerged during and after the game that Tom Lynch and Taylor Walker were playing with injuries hampering their mobility – the duo are so important to that transition game that it was an uphill battle all night.

That’s to take nothing away from Collingwood. It was, in many ways, the final form of Buckley’s Magpies, the game plan he has been working towards since taking the helm in 2012. Collingwood’s ferocity without the ball was only matched by its intent with it. A 23-clearance differential comes back in part to Grundy, but can only be delivered with a total team performance.

They looked like a natural small-ball team, Mason Cox pushed to the fringes of the line up with four or five smalls surrounding Ben Reid. Now switch out Cox for Jamie Elliott, and one of the youngsters (if you must) for Alex Fasolo. Suddenly, Collingwood look like finals contenders – the fate we have all intuitively projected at one point or another in the past four seasons, but have been scared to revisit.

Suddenly Anzac Day looks like a belter, while the five-day turnaround to face Richmond will be a tricky assignment indeed. Brisbane in Brisbane follows (Collingwood haven’t lost there since 2010), before a date with Geelong at the MCG to round out the first third of the season.

Perched 2-2 with a decent percentage, the Collingwood that killed the Crows on Friday night will win at least two, if not three, of those next four. From there who knows.

We could say that about 80 per cent of the league, such is the competition through four rounds. There are a couple of standouts at either end, but otherwise that gooey centre looks as delicious as ever.

With a bit of space to breath between games this round, it looms as an important opportunity to sort through some football matters as we try to get our collective head around this topsy-turvy season.