AFL might not have taken centre stage this week with the World Cup and Wallabies drawing away some of the limelight, but there’s still plenty of interest to talk about. Here’s my five hot takes from the weekend.
Tenacious Tigers take back top spot
It was a close contest for the most part at the MCG on Sunday but it ended the way we have seen many Richmond games end this year – with the Tigers outlasting their opponents and running away with it in the end.
Geelong had the stronger start with four goals to one in the final term but Richmond were quick to respond in the second. There was just two points the difference in the game at half time, only one at the final break.
Goals from two returning players in Dustin Martin and Daniel Rioli as well as from Jack Riewoldt and Jason Castagna however gave Richmond and strong advantage in the final term and what looked like it could have gone down to the wire was in the end a fairly comfy win.
With West Coast having fallen short against Sydney on Friday night, this match gave Richmond the chance to reclaim top spot and they took it with gusto.
Of course, the Tigers have the bye next week while the Eagles have a game in hand – so they might not want to get too use to life at the top.
Still, I feel like this result cements once again the truth that most of us would prefer to just avoid: Richmond are flag favourites.
You can nitpick as much as you want and ask questions of their interstate record, but if they finish in the top two then it is not going to matter.
They haven’t lost a game at the MCG in nearly 12 months… who knows when they will again? Even if they don’t win interstate all year long, it might not hurt at all their chances of going back to back.
A lesson the AFL can learn from the World Cup
I hope it won’t come as a controversial shock to those reading this column that I am not exactly the world’s most dedicated (association) football devotee.
Nothing wrong with it. Loved playing it in school. My best position was, well, the bench, but I still remember the day I scored three goals and broke my nose. Never found it exciting to watch, though.
AFL on the other hand I could watch until my eyes fell out and after that I would just turn on the radio – so it was to my own surprise that I found myself choosing the World Cup on Saturday night.
Look, there’s been a lot of talk this year about the quality of football and what changes could be made to improve it.
It’s not really my type of conversation because honest, I don’t feel anything needs to be changed. The game has evolved year after year and it will continue to do so.
I won’t deny that things have been a bit less watchable this year than they were in the past two – but I reckon that’s more due to an absence of close games than it is the style of play necesarilly.
Because the funny thing about watching last night’s World Cup games is that they reminded me exactly why it is that we all like sport – and it’s got nothing to do with starting positions or bigger goalsquares.
Instead it was the chance to be a part of a rare and engaging narrative as a side like Iceland, coming from a nation of 330,000 people and coached by a part-time dentist, manage to frustrate and deny one of the greatest players in the world, playing for one of the greatest football nations in the world.
One in ten Icelandic citizens is in Russia right now supporting their team at the real cup. What passion that is.
That’s the thing about sport – it’s like a movie, except it’s real. It’s unpredictable, it’s gritty, and it’s meaningful to us.
I guess that even if there were thrilling contests going on the AFL might battle to displace the Socceroos at a world cup occasionally clash schedules.
But what I would say to the AFL if they are looking for ways to improve the game is something I’ve said many times before. It is the passion of the fans which makes the game great – take good care of that as your first priority, and the rest will work itself out.
Carlton needs their ‘culture’ back
The big achievement of Brendon Bolton’s first two years as coach of the Carlton Blues was the restoration of the club’s pride and a sense of indentity in the way they played.
It was defensive footy, essentially the training wheels of football identity, but it worked. Carlton snatched more wins than expected because they could surprise teams who took them lightly, and Blues fans turned up each week knowing that while they wouldn’t win most games, they would usually be competitive.
The AFL seemed to be fans of it – the gave them Rising Star nominations and they gave them Friday night fixtures. Perhaps most importantly, opposition fans (sometimes) gave them respect, because they could see the strength of effort and appreciate the promise of young players.
This is why I was confused at the start of the year when Bolton telegraphed a chance to a more offensive style of play in the 2018 season. Don’t get me wrong, I was a fan, as I usually am of things that surprise me, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Most teams who learn defence first do eventually graduate to a more balanced style of playing the game, but with the Blues having lost a senior leader in Bryce Gibbs and getting younger again, it just didn’t seem like the right time.
I would have loved to see it be successful and in the preseason and Round 1 it looked like it might well be, but unfortunately those are distant memories right now.
We’ve seen a shift away from defense in that the Blues are no longer restricting teams as much as they once were… but it hasn’t been balanced out by the kind of offensive improvement you need to justify that. Instead of making that step forward, they’ve just taken a step back.
That was readily apparent in this week’s game where they were considered a good chance to get their second win of the season but instead got smashed twelve goals to none in the first half.
Rhys Palmer, who spent a single year at the Blues in 2017 before retiring (at the age of 28) tweeted something a bit cryptic during the game.
Everyone talks about draft picks and developing youth but no one ever talks about culture….
— Rhys Palmer (@rhysCpalmer) June 16, 2018
If Rhys Palmer’s mid-game tweets are anything like my mid-game tweets then it’s fair to say there might not be a whole of depth of thought behind this one, but it did get me thinking a bit about culture and identity at football team and what shapes those.
Generally speaking they tend to rely heavily on the mature and veteran players in the side but so much of Carlton’s list build strategy has been to ship those players out while brining in mature talent from other clubs at the same time.
But that ‘mature talent’ tends to be more accurately described as ‘blokes who could not get games elsewhere’, and many of them – like Palmer – have only hung around at the Blues a short time before their careers wound up due to lack of talent.
In truth what the Blues need is for mature leaders to develop out of their young talent. And it will probably happen – word this week was that both Patrick Cripps and Charlie Curnow are ready to commit to the club for the long term.
But perhaps the Blues need to revisit how they’re playing the game and look at the best way to build a strong football indentity among the playing group they have now. It’s not as easy as just putting the training wheels right back on, but maybe an innovative solution can be found.
We can no longer be silent about the Sydney Swans
I reckon we’ve all been a little guilty at times of underrating the Sydney Swans this season.
Why? It’s hard to put a finger on it exactly. Maybe it comes down to margin sizes – where teams like Richmond, West Coast and Melbourne have shown they have an ability to blow poor sides away, Sydney have generally just gotten the job done.
And sometimes they haven’t. They’ve lost to Port Adelaide, Adelaide and North Melbourne – all at home. It’s the sort of thing that can make you question a team.
For some reason or another, they just don’t seem to be a popular pick when we start talking about teams who might feature in the grand final.
But they’re also the only side in the league to beat top-of-the-table West Coast. In fact as of this week they’re the only side to beat them twice – something we might not see any other side equal this year.
They’ve got themselves onto a six-game winning streak ahead of the bye. The fact that Lance Franklin is back in the side after missing a few games earlier in the year is no doubt a big part of them achieving that consistency.
Perhaps most impressive has been a demonstrated ability to win on the road. They’ve knocked off West Coast at Optus Stadium and Geelong at Kardinia – both feats that no other team can claim to match this year.
And yes, they’ve had one of those all-important wins at the MCG, beating a solidly good Hawthorn side there by eight points earlier this year.
Their first two matches back after that bye will tell us a lot about where this team is at – going up against Richmond and Geelong in consecutive weeks.
But on current form and where they are on the ladder right now, there’s no good reason not to consider them just about as deep in the flag race as any other side.
Fourth quarters are a problem, but not Gold Coast’s biggest
Gold Coast’s last four fourth quarters have resulted in a grand total of zero goals, four behinds being scored for the club.
It wasn’t that interesting a stat until this week. In the three weeks prior, it was just yet another disappointing part of overall comprehensive losses.
This week instead it was the reason they lost their game – a match that, up until the final break, they had looked like winning, if not winning comfortably.
On Saturday they had a fairly even first term against the St Kilda Saints before racing out with five goals to one in the second to set up what should have been a decisive advantage.
They lead by 31 points at the final break… but then went completely scoreless in the last term, and St Kilda snatched the win.
Clearly this is a pattern for Gold Coast, so what explains it? Perhaps it’s their all-over-the-place fixture to start the season. Perhaps the players are being worked too hard at training. All speculation of course – who knows.
But the truth is that poor fourth quarters is not Gold Coast’s biggest problem: their biggest problem is that fact that – and apologies if this is a bit harsh – no one really seems to care what their problems are.
Talk about the size of fanbases of clubs is something that I’ve never found particularly interesting (typical of a North fan, eh?) but I can’t help but wonder if the intangible benefits of having a passionate crowd is something the Suns are missing.
It’s often said that a team like West Coast can benefit a lot from the ‘noise of affirmation’ swaying an umpire decision, but instead what I’m talking about is the pressure that passionate fanbase puts on a team to take pride in itself and make effort to be better.
Perhaps you need a bit of that fire and burden of expectation to really reach the elite standard, and perhaps that’s why it’s only the teams who had existing Victorian fanbases that have managed to be successful playing outside traditional AFL territory – something to think about.