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Seven hot takes from AFL Round 12

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)
Editor
11th June, 2018
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A long weekend of footy has come to an end – time for hot takes, and I’ve got seven.

Melbourne are still mentally weak
The Melbourne Demons’ form in the past little while has seen them talked about as one of this season’s premiership contenders, but their Queen’s Birthday game on Monday was a reminder as to why that’s a bit premature.

Collingwood are a quality team this year – almost certainly playing finals from this position, and that’s huge given very few of us expected them to do it this year. So kudos to them.

But the Demons should win this game with the talent they have on their list and given the form they’re in. The Pies have some things they do well, but the Dees tend to do those things better, or at least should have.

At least that’s what I thought.

So what’s the explanation? It’s hard not to draw back to questions over the mentality with which Melbourne approaches games, especially big games with big crowds at the MCG.

They had a run of six straight wins coming into this match, several of them by massive margins, and had shown an ability to play consistent, focused footy across four quarters.

But… only one of those games was at the MCG (versus Carlton, with a crowd of 44142).

That was one of only two wins they’ve had at the MCG this year, while they’ve lost there four times now – and all against big, crowd-drawing Victorian opposition (Geelong, Richmond and Hawthorn).

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The other five have all been on the road and the only one that could potentially be called a real scalp was off-off-Broadway in Alice Springs.

Any chance that if that game had been played at Adelaide Oval instead, the Dees would’ve cracked under the pressure of facing a big opposition crowd? We’ll never know, but I have my suspicions.

On Monday Melbourne just weren’t there for the contest in the first twenty minutes and they allowed Collingwood to kick five of the first six goals.

Melbourne kept pace after that for the most part but just could never reel the margin all the way in, having shot themselves in the foot – and then Collingwood pulled away and buried them.

And again credit to the Pies here. You can tell they have that inbuilt confidence that they belong on the big stage even if their form hasn’t always reflected that in recent years.

No player better represented that today than the statuesque presence of Mason Cox, a player whose AFL career could hardly be more unlikely but played like kicking bags on the MCG is his birthrite.

Are the Dees just a bit overwhelmed by the big occasion? Maybe. It wouldn’t surprise. If it is a problem, it’s one they desperately need to fix before September.

Nathan Jones

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

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Weight of injuries has made 2018 nothing to Crow about
There’s no team in the AFL I love to see my side beat more than the Adelaide Crows, but even I felt a little sorry for them when they fell short of what would’ve been a remarkable premiership last year.

The thing I admire about the Crows is that they have come up against so much adversity in recent years and yet they just keep finding a way to be a good football team.

The amount of talent that they’ve lost to rival clubs over the years is not that dismillar to what sides like Brisbane and Gold Coast have, but they’ve still regularly made finals.

Tom Doedee’s role replacing Jake Lever is a perfect example – yes, they keep losing stars, but there always seems to be someone ready to step in.

No team is completely immune to personnel loss though regardless of how creative they are and in the past few weeks we’ve seen the Crows go off the cliff.

A straight-up shellacking from Melbourne made it clear they were a few steps behind but it’s a sign of what high regard we hold this team in that despite missing a host of their very best we still saw them as favourites against GWS and Fremantle.

Unfortunately they fell short in both games. They’re just not clicking for long enough at the moment – only managed one good quarter against the Dockers (though it was a damned good one). Injury can spark innovation, but continuity builds cohesion and confidence and the Crows have been hit too hard to have either right now.

Some players will come back soon or soonish, but some just aren’t going to make it back this year, and others we still don’t really have a good timeframe on.

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Adelaide have Hawthorn next week then after the bye it’s West Coast, Richmond (at the MCG) and Geelong – right now it’s hard to see them avoiding a slump to 6-10.

From that position they’d have to win every game left just to be even a chance of sneaking into the eight. So I’m sorry to say it… but it looks like season over.

What they do next – given where their list is at, the players who are out of contract, and the picks they already have to play with this offseason – is going to be fascinating. But that’s a topic for another time.

Don Pyke

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

Could Tom Lynch be Dew’s next big-name drop?
Stewart Dew’s early days at the Gold Coast Suns have made for some interesting watching.

The Suns were one of the most popular picks for the spoon this year – behind North Melbourne – but surprised us out of the blocks with two wins to open the season.

We were, for a time, marvelling at how quickly Dew had transformed the side. They played with system and unity, and a team that boasts those attributes is always a chance.

However we probably got a little carried away with ourselves – because here it is just a few months later and the Suns look like comfortably the worst team in the league again.

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The ‘new coach bounce’ seems to be over for Gold Coast. They’ve copped 193 points worth of defeat in the space of two weeks and just look thoroughly out of their depth.

On-field leadership has arguably been the biggest issue. Co-captains Steven May and Tom Lynch have both missed games.

However more surprising than that has been Dew’s willingness to drop his more experienced players if he doesn’t feel they’re up to it.

Michael Barlow presently is injured but even beforehand was being given virtually no chance to show his wares despite dominant form in the NEAFL.

More recently Dew made the call to drop Jarryd Lyons despite him being arguably the side’s best midfielder.

These decisions make me scratch my head a bit, but let me put this to you – if those guys weren’t good enough to be in the team right now, is Tom Lynch?

The Suns co-captain recently returned from injury but has kicked only one goal in his first two weeks back – perhaps most importantly he has only lain two tackles across the past fortnight also.

Compare this to the first two weeks of the season where Lynch set the example by laying 11 tackles across two games and it becomes hard to ignore.

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There’s been plenty of talk since Lynch came back that he looks mentally checked out and indeed the vast majority of the football world seems ready to concede he will be elsewhere next year – I certainly am.

Dew’s philosophy as a coach seems to be that if you don’t fit into the team’s philosophy then it doesn’t matter how talented you are, you won’t get a game.

He’s made some big calls at the selection table so far. Maybe it’s time to consider this one.

Tom J Lynch

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Richo, it’s time to give Jack top Billings
Speaking of dropping big names, Alan Richardson’s decision to send Jack Billings back to the VFL was both surprising but also entirely predictable this week.

Ten straight weeks without a win is enough to make even the most loyal of natives a bit restless, and while Saints fans have been disappointed with Billings’ form, most seem to believe the fault lies with how he has been played rather than Billings himself.

Billings gathered an enormous 53 possessions and kicked three goals at VFL level this weekend, and many pointed out that he had been allowed to play through the middle there, rather than spending long chunks of time in the forward line.

Kicking goals has of course been St Kilda’s big problem this year – the combination of Nick Riewoldt’s retirement, injuries, and a hard-to-explain dropoff in accuracy has them among the league’s least potent teams.

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At his disposal Richardson has a bevy of midfielders who can offer grunt and grind and effort and they do all seem dedicated to the task, but few of them are capable of having much impact when swung forward.

The Saints have a number of players in that area of the ground that remind me, as a North fan, of Ryan Bastinac – not versatile enough to play somewhere that isn’t inside midfield, but not creative enough as an inside midfielder to justify them spending the whole game there.

Given that state of affairs it’s no surprise that a coach would think of using a player like Billings, who does have some forward nous, to bolster his goalkicking stocks, but it clearly hasn’t worked.

Was the answer really to send him back to the VFL? Hard to say – only a coach who regularly interacts with his players and knows where they are at mentally is really qualified to make that decision.

I will say this though: Jack Billings is St Kilda’s most important player. And while it’s true that even the most important player in a team needs to fit into the team’s system, it’s also true that a team’s system should be built around the strengths of its players.

It has been a hallmark of Richardson’s coaching, I think, that it’s often the creative and damaging players who seem to struggle to fit into his side, rather than the meat-and-potatoes types who play their role but don’t change the game. And that’s worrying.

Don’t use Billings to cover for the deficiencies of other players – play him where he is going to do the most damage and then put the onus on his teammates to pick up the slack.

Fingers crossed that when Billings surely returns to AFL level this week (bringing plenty of confidence with him you’d imagine), this is what we see happen.

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Jack Billings

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

North Melbourne needs Josh Kelly, like, yesterday
When Josh Kelly made the decision to reject megabucks from North Melbourne at the end of last year and instead re-sign with GWS for two more seasons, none would’ve predicted that at the halfway mark of the year the ‘Roos would be in the eight and the Giants wouldn’t.

Kelly’s decision seemed to be motivated by the belief that he was close to winning a premiership with GWS, and would still then have the option of returning to Victoria in the latter half of his career instead.

This week Jay Clark said aloud what many North fans have dared to speculate – that Kelly will be a North Melbourne player at some point during his career, it’s just a matter of when.

Unfortunately for the ‘Roos it’s just a matter of bad timing that the season in which they pursue Kelly (and Dustin Martin) also happened to one where the on-field results were a terrible advertisement for the club.

North has reminded the AFL world this year that it is not a team who visits the bottom of the ladder too often or too long, and with a soft fixture to finish the year they appear a likely finals side.

However this week’s loss to Geelong was a reminder that, for all their virtues, the ‘Roos simply don’t have as much star power particularly in the middle of the ground as those sides who are aiming for top four and premiership contention.

At the same time, Kelly’s third game back from injury was a pointed reminder of just how good he is. 40 touches and two goals capped off a strong couple of weeks.

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It’s both torturous and a little fun as a North fan right now to imagine how the team might be going if Kelly (or Martin) had signed with the club. C’est la vie.

Kelly and North – if Clark is on the money – no doubt pictured the move likely taking place at the end of 2019 or later.

But if the AFL had a mid-season trade period then you could bet your bottom dollar the Roos would be offering two years worth of first rounders right now to get him here before the bye.

Josh Kelly

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Mercurial Wingard amazes and frustrates
Chad Wingard’s drop off in form in the first half of 2018 has no doubt been one of the more frustrating aspects of the season for Port Adelaide and its fans.

Wingard’s career has been a mercurial one – he has put together some very impressive seasons of football at times, but they’ve usually been interspersed between those where we feel like he’s not playing to his potential.

2017 saw him transition from someone who plays a mix of forward and midfield to virtually a fulltime midfielder, and though he kicked his least goals in any season since his debut year, it was arguably his best season yet.

However – up until this week – 2018 had seen a drop-off where Wingard’s numbers fell in all of the key midfield statistics, and weren’t balanced out by any kind of increase in scoreboard impact.

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His middling form actually went under the radar for a surprisingly long amount of time before becoming a talked about issue during the week, and the public commentary seemed to spur him on in Round 12.

31 disposals, eight tackles, seven clearances and six inside 50s was one of his most complete games as a midfielder, and crucial to Port snatching a win from the reigning premiers.

His eight tackles in a single match was just one less than the nine total he had recorded in his other nine games this year.

It’s a stat like that, and the fact this came after a lot of public scrutiny, that leaves us with the impression that this improved performance came on the back of a much better effort level.

That’s both heartening and maddening. Because on one hand it’s great to get a reminder of what Wingard can do, on the other it’s frustrating to ask why he hasn’t been playing like this all season long.

So far in 2018 Port Adelaide haven’t really managed to improve as a team despite the three big names they recruited over the offseason (and three smaller ones).

But if Wingard can bring the effort level he did on Thursday night more often, then the sky is still the limit for Port Adelaide’s 2018.

Chad Wingard

(Photo by James Elsby/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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Freo’s young guns fire in the absence of Fyfe
It’s very telling that even though Fremantle had a home ground advantage against a Crows side boasting the worst injury list in the league that the absence of Nat Fyfe still made us tip against them this week.

The Dockers have been a one-man band at times this year and while that’s no doubt frustrating for their supporters at times, at least the one man in particular is a pretty damned good one.

In his absence though it was not just some of the more mature players who stepped up but a few of the genuine rookies – players who are only beginning to learn their craft looked like accomplished trademsen on Saturday.

Adam Cerra and Brennan Cox will be hard to pick between for the Rising Star nomination this week – probably Cerra, based on his form throughout the season. Rest assured that it’ll be given to someone wearing purple.

Connor Blakey joined Cerra and Lachie Neale in the 30 disposals club, while Ed Langdon let the Victorian clubs reportedly chasing him know that he’s worth paying up for with yet another strong performance.

There’s definitely a risk of reading too much into this single result. While the Crows are a team we all respect, they are a shadow of themselves at the moment.

The win could very easily have gotten away from the Dockers if their opponents had been more accurate – they got the four points despite recording two less scores.

However Dockers fans should feel chuffed that their young players stepped up in the way they did. It’s a good sign for the future in a year where there haven’t been that many.

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The big question of course is why it took Nat Fyfe being out to do it. Can this group of players bring the same sort of mentality in next week when Fyfe is back, and the week after, and so on? Let’s hope so.

Adam Cerra

(Photo by Will Russell/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Quick and nasty
– Obviously it’s a limited sample size and there are many contributing factors, some of them entirely unavoidable, but right now Richmond have the worst record interstate of any side in the competition.

– Another nod must be given to Gary Ablett who has now put together two very impressive weeks (and the Cats have won twice as a result). Owe Collingwood a beer for getting them into the top four.

– Neither Shaun Higgins nor Harris Andrews quite squeezed into my mid-season All Australian side this week, and clearly they took offence. Both played excellent games, unfortunately in disappointing losses, on the weekend.

– Jake Stringer with 29 touches and nine clearances last week, then three goals and nine tackles this week. That is some kind of form – more, please.

– Bye has really come at the perfect time for North Melbourne – hopefully the likes of Jarrad Waite and Jed Anderson are fit to return after the break. If not they will find it hard to beat the best.

– People say the goal review saves us from howlers, but that’s really just not true is it.

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