Preseason truly is the best time of the year for football optimism.
Did your club or the indivudal players you’re following perform poorly? Well, don’t stress – it’s just the preseason, they’re no doubt saving their best for the real thing. Be optimistic.
Did they perform well? Huzzah! Pop the champagne – this is the year. They are going to the next level. No need to keep the lid on. Be optimistic.
Essentially every observation in this column (and next week’s) could and probably should be prefixed with the caveat “It’s only JLT, but…” – so please do feel free mentally insert that into any sentence you feel goes a bit too far.
So long as we’re adding those caveats – yes, I know week one is still ‘in progress’, but admit it, you, like me, are hungry for some talking points. And preseason is a fine time for getting a bit ahead of oneself.
It’s also a good time for experimenting and working out the kinks, and those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen during the week that I’ve got an open mind as to the format of this regular Sunday column in 2019.
For this week at least I’m taking the standard talking points approach – but let me know in the comments how you like that, or if you’d enjoy seeing something a bit different.
Speaking of things that are a bit different, let’s get started.
Jury goes out on new rule changes
This week was our earliest chance to get a look at how the AFL’s new rule changes will affect the men’s game and specifically whether or not they are likely to lead to the scoring increase that is ostensibly the reason for their existence.
There was plenty of optimism on Thursday night after a free-flowing and high-scoring encounter between Carlton and Essendon that the changes were having a big impact.
While those who ran away with the result of one game a bit too much may have found themselves brought back to earth over the course of the weekend, the point was also made by some that teams are likely to be less committed to defence during the preseason.
I decided to drag up last year’s scores in both the JLT series and the season proper, and interestingly the math suggests otherwise – teams scored 80.41 points on average in the preseason last year, then increased this to 83.49 points in the home-and-away.
So perhaps JLT scores are a reasonable enough indicator of how scoring might look when the real stuff begins – for those who are curious, the average JLT score this week (at time of writing) was 87.12.
Of course eight games isn’t nearly enough data from which to make a solid conclusion, but the early developments would suggest that if scoring is going up, it’s not doing so with any radical pace.
Instead we did on occasion see a longer amount of time needed to reset after a goal in order to get everyone back in the 6-6-6 formation, probably allowing for longer ad breaks and perhaps therefore likely to make the AFL equally as happy.
There’s much water left to travel under the bridge before we can properly assess the impact of the new rules, but so long as we’re talking about increased scoring…
Carlton hit triple figures! (in preseason)
The Carlton Blues haven’t scored 100 points or more in an AFL match since Round 11 2016, but they managed to hit that mark on Saturday night when they bested Essendon at Ikon Park.
Now, that result doesn’t break the streak – after all, if we were counting preseason games, then it would’ve been broken in last year’s JLT series when the Blues put up 102 against the Hawks.
Still, no one enjoys a good preseason win quite like a Carlton fan, and to be entirely fair to them, the optimism coming out of the match is very well deserved.
Sam Walsh’s impressive display is something we’ll talk about shortly, but one thing that really stood out to me is that not only did they put 15 goals on the board, but they did it with a minimal contribution from Charlie Curnow (who kicked 1 and had 8 touches).
Instead the Blues got three goals apiece from comparatively unheralded sources in former first-round draft pick David Cunningham and freshly-signed VFL gun Michael Gibbons, as well as two through former Crow Mitch McGovern.
Preseason footy inevitably gets analysed out of proportion to what it should, and in no case is that more true than after the opening match of the series when footy’s opinion-havers get their first meal in nearly five months.
This comment from Lee Gaskin on Twitter after the game, for example, could appear in a dictionary under the phrase “jumping the gun a little”.
Yes, it’s only a JLT game, but are any Crows fans nervous after Carlton’s impressive performance after beating Essendon tonight? The great trade pick swap will be an intriguing sub-plot to the season
— Lee Gaskin (@Lee_Gaskin1) February 28, 2019
The Blues looked ready to make the switch to playing watchable, offensive footy in last year’s preseason and then promptly fell flat on their faces when the real thing started.
That said… don’t feel like you have to reign it in, Carlton fans! Footy is all about passion, excitement and enthusiasm. Promise is no guarantee to become performance, but that’s no reason not to get into the swing of things and have some fun getting a little excited.
And while we’re mentioning the excitement of Carlton fans…
Walsh debut upstages Shiel reveal
Yes, yes, I know – two consecutive talking points about Carlton to kick off 2019! I’ll need a shower afterwards certainly. Don’t worry fans of the 17 other clubs – things will become distinctly less navy in the near future.
But really, regardless of all the “yes, but…” qualifications you’d want to put on it, no result this weekend would’ve meant as much to its respective fanbase as Thursday’s win did to Carlton.
In the red-and-black corner you had Essendon and new recruit Dylan Shiel, the man who knocked the Blues back, the golden boy who has transformed the Bombers into the hype team of the 2019 preseason.
In the blue corner you had, well, the Blues, boasting No.1 pick Sam Walsh. A heavyweight bout to be sure, and in a result that means nothing on paper but plenty for pride, Carlton came away winners.
Just so you know I haven’t run off with the fairies, here’s a few quick numbers that should assuage the concerns of Essendon fans: Shiel played only 51 per cent game time (for 15 touches), Devon Smith 48, Dyson Heppell 39 and Zach Merrett just 36.
Most of the heavy lifting was instead left to Essendon’s second-tier midfielders, and they still did enough to make it a close contest. There’s no need to dial triple-zero just yet.
Still, Carlton may not get any premiership points, but they do win a little PR boost on this one. Blues fans are feeling like they have license to be up and about, and I’d wager more than a few memberships will be sold off the back of that positive momentum.
And as for Walsh specifically? Well – 28 disposals, eight inside 50s, 510 metres gained and six score involvements says it all. It was a performance that went beyond even what the most optimistic among us could’ve expected.
The Rising Star race isn’t over
Feels like a weird point to have to make before Round 1 even starts, but despite a throng of fans ready to hand Walsh the Rising Star Award on Friday morning, it’s still very much up for grabs.
On Friday night Jordan Clark made his first appearance in Geelong colours, ironically enough in his home state of Western Australia, and put in a performance worthy of a Round 1 debut.
The classy halfback recorded 21 disposals, nine of which were rebound 50s, but also showed an ability to push further up the ground for four inside 50s. He’ll play a lot of AFL footy this year.
Then on Saturday Port Adelaide fielded all three of their first-round picks from last year’s draft. Connor Rozee and Xavier Duursma went alright, but it was Zak Butters who stole the show.
Butters gathered 25 possessions and recorded two goal assists, as well as picking up five marks and four tackles. It was a lively and exciting display – he’s just the right kind of player to slot in and replace some of what’s been lost in the departure of Chad Wingard and Jared Polec.
Oh, and Izak Rankine? Maybe he didn’t rack up the stats, but it only took minutes for him to give us a taste of what he can do.
Now don’t get me wrong – Walsh is the clear Rising Star favourite and if you asked me for my personal tip, he’s it. But I suspect some of his fellow draftees have a thing or two to say about it yet.
Three out of four ain’t bad for Brisbane
This subheading was set up for a perfect Meatloaf reference until I remembered that, in addition to their trio of trade period acquisitions, Jarryd Lyons also joined the team so suited to his surname this summer as a ‘delisted’ free agent.
In fact Lyons made himself pretty hard to forget: 26 disposals and a goal in Brisbane’s win over Hawthorn was more than enough to get my attention, and just a taste of the high-production, reliable footy fans can expect from him in 2019.
It was the newest Lions who stole the show in on Sunday afternoon in fact, as along with Lyons it’d be fair to say Lachie Neale and Lincoln McCarthy were probably in the three best players on the ground for Brisbane.
McCarthy showed that a change of scenery really can be quite the tonic with a performance of 17 disposals but more importantly two goals and a game-high eight tackles.
Small forwards who bring the pressure and hit the scoreboard are so rare and valuable. If McCarthy can stay fit then Brisbane have scored themselves an absolute bargain in this deal and a great partner to go alongside Charlie Cameron.
Of course we’re saving the best for last: Lachie Neale with an incredible 31 disposals and 10 clearances. He could not have done anything more to win the hearts of his new fanbase, who will be rushing to deliver him the key to the city.
The odd man out? Marcus Adams, who missed the match – and possibly may do the start of the season – with a knee injury.
That’s one to watch because a lot of the talk is about Adams’ presence in the backline allowing Harris Andrews to make a switch forward, potentially one of the most intriguing subplots of the season if it comes off.
But for now, three out of four ain’t bad. In fact it’s very very good, especially considering that number four remains a question mark which could still become a tick. Excitement builds.
North builds depth, but do they know how to use it?
North Melbourne have aggressively pursued midfielders to add to their playing list over the past 24 months and while they ultimately didn’t land any of the elite-tier names on their shopping list, there’s a thing or two to like about the players they did get their hands on.
Jasper Pittard’s 20 touches and a goal was an encouraging effort in his first North Melbourne game, but more impressive were Jared Polec with 27 disposals and nine marks, and Dom Tyson with 26 disposals, six clearances and seven tackles.
Aaron Hall also played but his day ended early with concerns over a potential knee injury – in a turn of good luck, it’s reportedly nothing serious, and his eight touches in 20 per cent gametime was a promising glimpse.
Stepping away from trade acquisitions, we also saw 2017’s No.4 draft pick Luke Davies-Uniacke pick up 27 disposals, while father-son draftee Bailey Scott was busy with 21.
A lot of good news right? And yet North were comprehensively beaten by St Kilda, who outpaced the Kangaroos by more than four goals.
What can be learned from this? If anything, perhaps the most valuable observation would be that if the likes of Jamie Macmillan and Marley Williams are combining for 69 disposals in a game, you probably shouldn’t read too much into the match as a whole.
North had 123 more disposals than St Kilda over the length of the match, however all but 14 of those were handballs. It suggests that whatever it is Brad Scott is trying to do, he hasn’t quite yet figured it out.
The addition of handy new recruits combined with the development of draftees is reason to be excited about North’s improving midfield depth – but can the club make the most of that growing warehouse of talent? We cross our fingers and hope.
Does Dom Sheed’s grand final moment have him destined for greatness?
How many players in the history of our game have gotten to experience a moment like that which Dom Sheed did last September?
To kick the iconic match-winning goal in a grand final decided by only a handful of points – really, the only way I can see topping that is if you did the very same, but after the siren.
Adding to the myth of it all is that Sheed was, arguably, a little lucky to be there at all. He was in and out of the side during the year and only in the last few weeks of the season did he find his stride.
Every now and then we see players rise to the occasion, touch the sun at just the right time and get that moment to put in the memory book forever – think Nick Davis 2005, or Tom Boyd 2016.
Sometimes the positive momentum takes them to the next level in their career – sometimes they fade into footy’s background just as quickly and inexplicably as they arrived.
Sheed’s performance on Friday night suggested that he intends on doing anything but – he totalled up 39 disposals (not a typo), eight marks, seven clearances, six inside 50s, one goal and two assists.
With all due sensitivity towards the trauma visited upon Andrew Brayshaw, his broken jaw (and the Andrew Gaff suspension that followed it) might be the best thing that ever happened to Sheed.
Having Gaff’s shoes to fill forced him to develop areas of his game that just weren’t there previously, and we may in time look back on it as the critical moment that turned him from something of a vanilla contested-ball type into an elite hybrid midfielder.
Sheed could retire tomorrow and still have one of footy’s greatest ever moments on his CV – but he won’t be doing that, of course. When the day does come many years from now, I suspect he’ll have added plenty more.
Crouch and Smith arrive for a Crow revival
Brad Crouch? Fit? At the start of the season? I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes (well, my own two eyes looking at the telly), but there it was – and he was good. Very good.
Crouch didn’t play at all last year. He hasn’t played in a Round 1 match since 2016, and that was only the second time he’s played Round 1 in six seasons at AFL level so far.
But, and I say this with all available digits crossed – he looks ready for it this season. 29 disposals and a goal was arguably a best-on-ground display in Adelaide’s mini-Showdown win.
Crouch wasn’t the only notable Crow though – Brodie Smith, who missed all but the final two games of 2018 due to an ACL injury suffered in the 2017 finals, also seriously impressed.
Playing his usual role as a smooth kick out of defence, Smith recorded 27 disposals (19 of them kicks) and six rebound 50s, but also pushed up the ground to put it inside 50 four times and also snag a goal.
Overall it was a quality performance from a relatively strong Crows team (but with the likes of Bryce Gibbs, Daniel Talia and Hugh Greenwood to come back in).
Adelaide had the season from hell in 2018, and I’ll admit to having wondered if perhaps they’d missed the bus – but with good news stories like this on the horizon, I’m warming up.
Rising youth can replace Giant losses
When we conducted our crowd-voted AFL trade period report card at the end of last year, the GWS Giants were the only team to cop an ‘F’ rating from the voters.
Look, I get it – a team loses talents like Dylan Shiel, Tom Scully, Rory Lobb and Will Setterfield and it’s hard not to feel like they’ve taken a step backwards.
And sure, if you gave GWS the option of having those players on their list this year then they’d take it with both hands. But does that mean they’re not going to be finals or even flag contenders? Not by a long shot.
Leave aside the dominant performance of Stephen Coniglio on Saturday night – we already know he’s good. And they have a rather handy bloke by the name of Josh Kelly who was left in cotton wool.
Instead let’s take a look at the players the Giants will be expecting to step up – and it makes for rosy reading.
Pick 11 Jye Caldwell and pick 14 Jackson Hately both got their chance, and both impressed. Caldwell had 14 disposals and also floated forward for two goals, while Hately had 16 touches – at 100 per cent efficiency – and put through a goal of his own, plus an assist.
Impressive stuff and both will be in the mix for Round 1 debuts, but the biggest attention grabber was Tim Taranto, 2016’s No.2 pick, who showed enough to suggest he’s ready to make the leap to elite in 2019.
33 disposals, ten marks, seven tackles, six clearances and five inside 50s from Taranto – it’s about as complete a performance as you’ll see on the stat sheet, and just a taste of what’s to come.
And a few more who caught the eye…
So many players have noteworthy performances in the preseason that I couldn’t possibly devote a talking point to each one, but here’s a quick rundown of just a few others who deserve a mention.
New Bomber Zac Clarke was impressive on Thursday night. He wasn’t up against much in the ruck, but it’s not so much his 37 hitouts I like as his 15 disposals, four clearances and four tackles. Always had a bit of a soft spot for this guy – curious to see how he fits in.
Is Nic Newman the next Tom Mitchell? No, he’s not going to win a Brownlow (come on Nic… do it just to prove me wrong) but like Titch he never seemed all that loved by John Longmire, and like Titch he’s going to make Sydney look silly. 20 touches, eight marks, six rebound 50s.
On the Swans – they do love a ‘Moneyball’ recruit and snapped up out-of-favour players Jackson Thurlow and Ryan Clarke over the offseason. Both were solid in the first hitout – 17 touches for Thurlow (six kicks), 20 for Clarke including five inside 50s. Both likely for Round 1.
Noah Balta was impossible to miss with two goals for the Tigers suggesting Richmond’s tall forwards have a future beyond Jack Riewoldt and Tom Lynch, and on the topic of big men let’s also give a tip of the cap to Oscar Allen who kicked three and Paddy McCartin with two (and looking as good as we’ve seen him).
Is there a player in the AFL more likely to abuse the new kick-in rule than Heath Shaw? No, no there’s not, and in fact I’ll tip that it’s going to give him something of a career rival – and I can’t wait to see it. 28 touches at a perfect 100 per cent efficiency and 12 marks on Saturday night.
Readers, on a personal note I do have one more thing I’d like to mention before you scroll down to the comments section if you’ll give me a few moments of your time.
Over the last 12 months or so I’ve taken up running (along with a much improved diet) for weight loss and had some success, losing 31kg since November 2017.
This year I’ve set myself a goal of running a half-marathon in May, and I’m completing a training course with a charity organisation called Can Too on my way to doing this.
Can Too aids cancer prevention by providing community fitness training like the program I’m taking part in, and also raises funds to research new cancer treatments.
As part of the program I’m aiming to raise $1350. If you’ve enjoyed my writing over the years – or even if you haven’t, I’m not picky! – I hope you’ll consider making a donation.
You can also track my running progress at the link above, and I’ll let you know how I’m going here every now and then too.