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Nine hot takes from AFL Round 20

Geelong coach Chris addresses his players during the 2018 AFL round 20 against the Richmond Tigers. (Photo by Adam Trafford/AFL Media/Getty Images)
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5th August, 2018
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After coming closer than any other side has all year to beating the Richmond Tigers at the MCG on Friday night, Geelong coach Chris Scott made it clear that while the Tigers are the best team going around at the moment, he doesn’t feel they are too far ahead of the pack to be caught.

“I thought we had the better of the game for big parts of the game, so I don’t think that anyone from our footy club should be walking away thinking that we need to change things drastically to beat them.

“They’re the best side in it at the moment, but they need a lot to go right for them to win it. No question.

“If we’re good enough… and we get another chance to play them, and hopefully we do, we’ll give ourselves a really good chance… they’re a good team but they’re beatable.

“When you talk about the juggernauts of the competition of years gone by you’re just never in the game against them. I don’t see that.

“I don’t want to overstate it. We went down by less than a kick tonight, we think we can play better… it’s a pretty tight comp.”

I thought that they were pretty reasonable words from Scott but it’s pretty hard to make a point like this after a loss and not come off sounding a little saline.

Richmond fans on Twitter certainly thought as much.

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In all fairness though for the top team on the ladder to escape by such a slender margin against a team that finished the round outside the eight does suggest that they’re not outside the grasp of the chasing pack.

And as a few astute observers have pointed out, this makes for two weeks in a row where Richmond have found themselves comfortably beaten at the coalface.

Against the Cats they were -7 for clearances and -30 for contested possessions, and that comes after last week’s win over Collingwood where they were -11 and -9 in those stats respectively.

However while they may not have been dominant ball-winners in either match, the Tigers finished +10 in inside 50s against the Pies, and +22 against the Cats.

Most importantly, they finished both matches ahead on the scoreboard, the one stat that really matters in the end.

Joel Selwood

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

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The thing about the Tigers’ ball-winning problem is that it’s not really a problem.

Modern footy has seen more and more of a trend towards it being the teams who capitalise on their opponent’s mistakes, rather than those who generate scores from their own ball-winning ability, that get the job done.

Richmond do this better than anyone else – their hard-headed team defence means their opponents make more mistakes than most, and they have the finesse and composure to punish them when they do.

The flaw in the design is that it relies on the opposition to make mistakes but luckily for the Tigers, teams usually do.

Scott is right to say the Tigers aren’t a juggernaut of the ilk we’ve seen in the last decade or so – off the field they’re bigger than Jesus, but on the field they’re simply a great team, still a few steps below godlike.

They certainly can be beaten in September, if we can find a team who possess three attributes: the power to win the majority of the ball, the skill not to turn the ball over, and the composure to execute these abilities on the big stage.

Unfortunately perhaps for the competition at large, most of Richmond’s closest competitors have at best two out of three.

Collingwood can sledgehammer a team like no other – they have the power. They probably have the composure too. But they lack the skill.

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West Coast are the best ball-movers in the competition. But do they have the composure to do it on grand final day? Even if so, they’re probably about even with Richmond in terms of muscle.

Melbourne have the muscle. They have nothing else.

GWS might be the best chance – they have the power, they have the skill. Do they have enough finals experience yet to have the composure? That might be the biggest question for September 2018.

Geelong perhaps best represent the biggest problem facing all of Richmond’s competitors which is that even the best teams this year lack a depth of talent.

The Cats could be argued to have all three essential attributes at times, but not collectively – their stars do, but their ‘bottom six’ does not.

Short version? Yes, the Tigers are beatable – of course they are, any team is. But we might not have a side good enough to do it.

Dustin Martin

(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

A top-notch round of footy makes HQ look silly
The VFL/AFL has been going around for more than a century but it took until Round 20 of the 2018 season for there to be a week where five games were decided by less than a goal.

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Yes, to be fair, having more teams than ever these days certainly helps. And two great days of footy on Friday and Saturday were balanced out by a yawn-worthy Sunday. But there is no doubting it – this was a brilliant week of football.

A slate full of close-fought encounters was only made better by the fact that the round also saw a number of players stricken by longterm injury make long-awaited appearances at the highest level.

Aaron Vandeberg at Melbourne, Brodie Smith at Adelaide, but most extensively Nathan Freeman debuting for St Kilda and Alex Johnson returning for Sydney – it was enough to put a smile on your face no matter who you support.

Johnson, in particular, showed that even after more than 2000 days out of the game he hasn’t lost his touch, taking 11 marks to play a vital role for Sydney’s defence in a win which kept their season alive.

If you happen to believe in omens and such things then you would no doubt have noticed all this happened in the same week that the AFL decided to trial controversial potential rule changes in the VFL.

One could easily interpret it as a message from the footy gods: keep your fiddling fingers to yourself, Gillon.

It’s simply baffling to me that at the same time the AFL is searching for a quick fix in the form of rule changes, it is looking at scaling back the AFLW.

If the AFL wants to grow the game then the obvious direction is to embrace and empower the diversity and youth of its fanbase; but it seems insistent on doing anything but.

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Instead, the league appears interested only in squeezing more and more dollars out of its most rusted-on fans, a solution which may have temporary results, but will only leave us wearied in the longterm. I suppose the current kingpins will be retiring to Aruba by then.

It’s almost an Australian sporting trope to express a lack of faith in the governance of a major sport these days – can you name one that is getting a thumbs up from the public right now? I can’t. Such is life I suppose.

All in all, it was a very nice thing to have a week where, even if the people in charge didn’t do much to fill us with confidence, the game itself reminded us that there is plenty of magic left in it yet.

Alex Johnson

(Photo by Matt King/AFL Media/Getty Images)

And then there were ten
Adelaide and Essendon, having each lost a match in the past fortnight, are effectively out of the finals race now, and with three weeks to go we are left with a race in ten for the final eight.

Richmond, West Coast and GWS I think we can take it as a given will all now feature in finals, and most likely top four.

However all of Melbourne, Hawthorn, Collingwood, Port Adelaide and Sydney should consider themselves in danger of being pushed out by North Melbourne and Geelong.

Here’s who each side faces over the next three weeks:

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Melbourne – Sydney, West Coast, GWS.
Hawthorn – Geelong, St Kilda, Sydney.
Collingwood – Brisbane, Port Adelaide, Fremantle.
Port Adelaide – West Coast, Collingwood, Essendon.
Sydney – Melbourne, GWS, Hawthorn.

As for the chasers…

Geelong – Hawthorn, Fremantle, Gold Coast.
North Melbourne – Bulldogs, Adelaide, St Kilda.

Sydney and (even though they’re in the top four right now) Melbourne look the most vulnerable of the current top eight sides and I suspect that one of them is going to miss out to Geelong.

For that reason alone next week’s match between the two is absolutely crucial, as there’s a strong chance it proves to be the difference between finals or not – perhaps for both sides.

For North, things are a bit more dicey. In theory they should beat the Bulldogs and the Saints, and if they do they will have at least some chance of making it into finals.

If say Sydney defeat Melbourne and then both teams lose the remainder of their matches for the season then the Roos can probably sneak in on 13 wins.

If not, more likely they need to beat Adelaide in Adelaide the week after next – not something they’ve done a lot in recent years, and a big ask.

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Jesse Hogan

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Regrettable review, but right result in another classic Showdown
Let me start by voicing what – judging by social media – is a bit of an unpopular opinion. I don’t think the score review got it too far wrong on Josh Jenkins goal.

Yes, Jenkins did say after the match that he thought it had grazed the post – and he’s a lot closer to the action than I was, so I’ll take his word for it.

But on the replay that was shown on the coverage, with the umpire having called it a goal, do you think it was clear enough to overturn that decision? I would say no.

Ken Hinkley was not hesitant afterwards to label the score review an embarrassment, and while I think they did the best they could with the tools they had on this occasion, I’d say where the real embarrassment lies is that they don’t have better ones.

To only see one angle replayed on the broadcast leaves open the question of whether or not we’re resourcing the score review well enough to justify including it as part of the game.

If all we’re going to do is replay the same inconclusive angle over a few times, personally, I’d rather just back in the umpire’s call and accept the reality that they’re going to get it wrong some times.

While you can debate in the end whether or not the review got it right, I don’t think one could argue too much that Adelaide were deserving winners of the Showdown.

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The Crows finished the match with +10 clearances, +17 contested possessions, +22 inside 50s, +63 disposals, and +18 tackles – as well as +8 scoring shots.

It was only questionable accuracy that nearly cost them a win for the second week in a row. In every other aspect of the game, they outplayed their opponents comfortably – a sentiment which, to his credit, Hinkley went to great lengths to agree with.

Port fans will be aggrieved that the loss could cost them a real chance at a top-four finish, but I’m yet to be convinced they deserve one on merit to begin with.

Ken Hinkley

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Let’s have a think before we lynch Lynch
Since Tom J Lynch announced during the week that he’ll be leaving the Gold Coast Suns there’s been a few who’ve asked questions about his character and leadership.

There’s no doubt that seeing the season’s most high-profile free agent go from a team at the bottom to one at the top is disappointing, but if you’re turning the blowtorch on Lynch then I’d say you’re going in the wrong direction.

Lynch has played 131 games for the Gold Coast Suns, second only to Jarrod Harbrow, and has kicked 254 goals for the club, second to none. It’ll be many years before someone beats that total.

Is there a single individual in the history of Gold Coast who has put in more hours or bled more blood in search of trying to make the Suns successful? There would be few if there are any.

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Lynch has more than earned the right to choose his own destiny after being sent to toil away for years in a part of the country that AFL executives themselves rarely bother to visit.

By all means have a crack at the system that allows the poor to get poorer while the Rich(mond) get richer, but it’s unfair to blame the player himself for doing what’s right by him.

Those who do – especially from within the Gold Coast organisation itself – will benefit themselves little by doing so.

The Coleman Medal race is wide open
With just three rounds left in the season, there’s an enormous slate of players who could still win the Coleman Medal.

Ben Brown is leading the count on 54. He’d be the favourite still, but has slowed down a bit lately – though the return of Jarrad Waite may help him fire up in the final rounds of the season.

Lance Franklin’s bag of six this week has but him just four behind, but all of Tom Hawkins, Jack Riewoldt and Luke Breust are within six goals, and Jesse Hogan’s on 46.

Watch this space.

Dons done, decision time looms
It’s a bit disappointing that Essendon’s season is virtually wrapped up after a narrow loss to Hawthorn on Saturday, as they’d shown over the last few weeks that they’re a side of quality enough to potentially do damage in finals.

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Instead their streak without a finals win – the longest such active streak in the AFL – will now extend out to fourteen years.

While fans would no doubt be happy with the form the Bombers have shown they are capable of to close out the year, they should be bitterly disappointed not to have made more of 2018.

The last three weeks will be used no doubt to make decisions on the future of a number of players, including Brendon Goddard.

Goddard arguably cost the Dons the match with a silly mistake, and it’s not the only time he’s done so in recent memory.

It wouldn’t be fair to judge Goddard’s worth entirely on one or two poor moments, however the value of a veteran presence in the team is that they should provide a touch of compsure in a tight spot – if they don’t, that’s something to factor in when making a decision on their future.

Brendon Goddard

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Buddy brilliance is Swans’ best chance of September success
Sydney are – as we’ve already talked about – no guarantee to play finals this year. In fact, the balance of probability suggests they likely won’t.

However if they get in, and they want to do more than just make up the numbers, then the one and only path to take must be to maximise the damage that can be done by Lance Franklin.

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Yes, I get the whole idea that it’s good to be unpredictable going forward and that a team which relies heavily on one dominant player is probably not a great team.

Those are real concerns and they are things Sydney should consider and look to address over the offseason, but they don’t have time to turn on a dime right now.

At the end of the day there’s very little value in making a mega-multi-million-dollar play for the game’s most dynamic player and then trying to wedge him into a hole as ‘just one of the 22’.

It may be a bit counterintuitive in a credit-to-the-boys culture but Horse, please weaponize the great man as best you can and pray he goes thermonuclear in September. What do you have to lose?

Rayner and Brisbane’s time will come
I remember feeling deeply conflicted in 2013 when Nic Naitanui took a late mark to have a shot on goal after the siren that would decide the result of the match between West Coast and North Melbourne.

The North fan in me desperately wanted to get the win, but the football lover in me always hates to see a player given the opportunity to have a moment like that only to fall short.

Nic Nat kicked it, the Eagles won, and I spent an inordinate amount of time whinging during the week about the free kick moments earlier that had led to Naitanui’s mark. So does the wheel turn.

We had a near repeat of the scenario this week when No.1 draft pick and budding superstar Cam Rayner had the chance to snatch a win in the final moments (and kill North Melbourne’s season in the process).

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Well, maybe I’ve become more cynical in my old age, but there was less conflict in me this time: miss it, miss it, miss it. And he did, and the ‘Roos still have the faintest of pulses in 2018.

However I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still feel a twinge for sadness for Rayner, who has now in his debut season missed two late chances to turn the result of a game. His reaction was visceral.

But… your time will come, Cam. And so will Brisbane’s.

Watching the Lions these days is an almost haunting experience – you get a deep feeling in the pit of your stomach that they are not too far from putting it all together, and when they do they’ll be able to flex more raw muscle than most, perhaps any.

Rayner sums this up as well as any but so too does Hugh McCluggage. His development in 2018 has been tremendous and his performance on the weekend boasting 26 disposals, three goals and two goal assists was mighty.

There’s not a side in the league I’m more excited to watch in 2019 than this one.