The final games of the preseason are still underway but in true footy pundit fashion I’m going early with this week’s talking points.
Momentum matters – or does it?
The biggest temptation in the preseason is to see the forest rather than the trees and get caught up in whether teams win or lose as an indication of what’ll happen to them when the real stuff starts.
In the end though preseason form is neither a good indicator of future success nor a particularly bad one – there’s a pretty even balance between the times where preseason form has proved prophetic, and the times it hasn’t.
No one thinks that a team is likely to be significantly better or worse than expected just because of their preseason form, but most would agree that momentum plays a role in football, and one that is hard to quantify.
A quick run of the numbers from last year’s preseason competition versus how the teams actually performed over the length of the season suggests there is at least a little something to the notion that now is a good time to get the ball rolling.
Last year eight of the AFL’s 18 teams split their record in the preseason while five went 2-0, and of course the remaining five went 0-2.
The teams who couldn’t get a preseason win on average won less games in the first five rounds (2.1) and less games in the season overall (9.8) than those who got at least one win or more. Only two of those five sides played finals.
The results on whether two preseason wins is better than one are a bit less clear (probably owing to what is a very small sample size).
60 per cent of teams with undefeated records in last year’s preseason went on to play finals – the best of any category – but they actually averaged less wins overall than the eight sides who went 1-1.
Why? Well, it was an eclectic group – including the minor premiers Richmond and finalists Sydney and Melbourne, but also the two worst teams of the year in Carlton and Gold Coast.
Of the teams this year who’ve managed to go 2-0, I’d say Brisbane, Adelaide and Richmond all have good cause to believe those results are more than just good luck.
The Tigers have gone up against two of last year’s preliminary finalists and looked the part against both of them, while both the Lions and the Crows have now got form under their belts to back up the theoretical expectation that both are capable of making big strides up the ladder this year.
For a side like St Kilda on the other hand it feels more like a false positive. I’d love to be proven wrong.
In the end I guess the simplest and truest thing to say is that while preseason momentum is a long way from being crucial to (or a reliable indicator of) a team’s success in the season to come, well, it certainly doesn’t hurt.
And since we’re on that topic…
Bombers blow the chance to find early form
I’m not going to go through each team’s preseason form so I hope it doesn’t feel unfair for me to single out Essendon, but if there’s a side in the league whose fans would have liked – or perhaps expected – to see at least one win in the preseason it’s probably them.
Last year Essendon started the season with a disastrous six losses in their first eight games, a spell of bad form that ultimately cost them the chance to play finals.
Once they got going they won 10 from 14 in the latter half of the year, but they simply found form too late for it to be of any consequence.
The Bombers addressed one of their biggest deficiencies – a lack of elite midfield talent and depth – over the break by bringing in former Giant Dylan Shiel, and he put in a solid performance on Thursday night with 27 touches, seven tackles, six clearances and five inside 50s.
What I find interesting is that Shiel is probably in the mix with another half a dozen or so players who moved clubs last offseason when it comes to the size of his name, yet his signing more than any other has captured the attention of footy fans and led to great expectation being placed on his new club.
In January I wrote that “the capacity for self-transformation has become arguably the most important factor in the premiership race,” and something that has bothered me about the Bombers over the offseason is that I don’t see this transformation taking place.
The message Essendon have been putting into the media throughout the offseason has been pretty simple: “We got Dylan Shiel.” It might as well be their membership slogan. If there’s been any talk from them of more fundamental changes to fix the problems that made 2018 a failure, well, it’s flown under my radar.
It’d be silly to think the sky is falling simply due to a winless preseason campaign, but it’s done nothing to remove the doubts already in my mind either. For what it’s worth, I’ll still be tipping them to finish inside the top eight – albeit perhaps a little more cautiously.
Captain Cotchin and the Tiger time comeback
In late 2015 there was an excellent documentary put together by Peter Dickson and AFL Media which followed and interviewed the AFL captains of that season – ‘The Chosen Few 2’, a sequel to a doco that had done the same for the competition’s coaches the year beforehand.
I remember watching this live and the one conclusion that seemed to stand out to me was that Trent Cotchin really didn’t seem like the right man to be captain of the Richmond football club. I looked to social media and saw I wasn’t the only one thinking that way.
The 2016 season that followed seemed almost to confirm that point of view. Coming off a finals debacle where he totalled just nine disposals for the day, Cotchin’s Tigers sank near the bottom of the table and footy thinkers far and wide were lining up to have a crack at him.
Could we have been more wrong? Jump forward to the present day and Cotchin is one of the most unanimously respected players and captains in the league. Anyone questioning his leadership has long since bitten their tongue.
It may only have been a preseason game but his ability to rise to the occasion in the final five minutes against the Hawks was the mark of a great player and captain – and it was not a momentary flash of brilliance but instead the icing on top of a complete performance.
24 disposals, seven inside 50s, six clearances, five marks, two goals and an assist was exactly the kind of form you want to see such a crucial player displaying this close to the season. And the frightening thing is, we’re still yet to see the Tigers with Tom Lynch on top.
Gold Coast’s Lyons loss proves beggars can be choosy, apparently
Last year’s trade period was as busy and sprawling as any that has come before but one of the most head-scratching moments was and still is Gold Coast’s decision not just to move on Jarryd Lyons, but to do so after the deadline had passed and therefore receive no compensation of any kind for his loss.
Now I don’t mean to revise history here – it’s not as if Gold Coast woke up a week after trade period and decided to give Lyons the chop. The move was ultimately driven by Lyons and Brisbane – but the fact it came to that at all is still something of a headscratcher.
Lyons, after all, was arguably Gold Coast’s best and most consistent player in 2018, or very close to the mark in both respects. And yet he was still dropped twice, almost inexplicably.
Now he has played two preseason matches for Brisbane and starred in both. Last week we gave him a tip of the cap for an impressive display where he finished with 26 touches, eight score involvements and a goal.
This week he turned it up another notch recording 26 disposals again, complemented by nine score involvements, seven inside 50s, six clearances, five tackles and four goals – and this was done on the road against a competitive Melbourne side.
Evidently, Gold Coast felt that Lyons wasn’t going to be good enough to demand selection in their 2019 side. That’s their call, but it makes no sense when it comes from the same club that rolled out the red carpet to recruit the likes of Anthony Miles and George Horlin-Smith into their midfield.
It’s reminds one of six years ago when – despite a dazzling 2012 debut season – the Suns said they felt Dayne Zorko still wasn’t good enough to be a player they’d want to have on their list. The quote, made two sacked coaches ago now, has not aged well.
This is shaping up to be another baffler by the Suns, and once again it’s their biggest rivals who will benefit the most.
Cats forwards click
If you sent your son Jack to sell the cow during trade period and he came home with Luke Dahlhaus and Gary Rohan – the latter being football’s answer to magic beans if ever there was one – then you might not be especially impressed.
But on Thursday night it was hard to deny that the impact of newcomers Dahlhaus and Rohan combined with the decision to play Ablett as a permanent forward paid dividends for the Cats.
Ablett was the quietest of the trio with 12 disposals and a goal, but also recorded three goal assists.
Dahlhaus was a bit busier and delivered a more complete performance – 25 disposals and eight tackles some meaty work, but also had a goal of his own and a further three assists.
Rohan was the icing on the cake. He may only have picked up nine disposals but he showed his finishing ability with four goals for the night.
The question “Yeah, but will it happen in the real stuff?” could be levelled at any and all of the observations made this week, and on no other count am I more sceptical than I am here.
Still, this match was a solid indication that what made sense on paper might prove possible on grass, and if so it’ll be a big tick on the Cats’ checklist to be a contender in 2019.
A shoutout too to Joel Selwood whose 38 disposals, 11 marks, nine intercepts, seven tackles, six score involvements, five inside 50s and 541 metres gained was a dazzling performance. Him being at his best this year would be huge for Geelong also.
Look what happens when you play Tom Rockliff in the middle
When Port Adelaide signed Tom Rockliff at the end of season 2017 I’ll admit that as a longterm fan of Rockliff (and also his fantasy production), I was excited.
Rockliff wasn’t quite himself during his last year at the Lions – still a quality performer, but perhaps reigned in a bit from playing his natural game.
But you’d have to assume that a club going out of their way to sign him as a free agent understood what kind of player he was and were planning to play him to his strengths, right? Right?
No – instead Port Adelaide last year fell into the trap of trying to make the man into something he’s not, and the result was a season where he averaged the fewest disposals he has since 2009, the year he made his debut and only played a single game.
The news coming out of Port during the preseason was that Rockliff would return to the midfield in 2019, and I wasn’t quite willing to believe it until I saw it this weekend – but see it I did. It was kind of hard to miss!
On Saturday Rockliff racked up 41 disposals, 16 marks, nine clearances, nine score involvements, five inside 50s, two goals, two goal assists, and 505 metres gained.
Playing to your strengths is one of the smartest things you can do in footy and in life. Fingers crossed Port Adelaide stop trying to outsmart themselves and let Rocky do just that.
A few others who caught the eye
I’m making Stephen Coniglio my Brownlow Medal tip for 2019. He was easily the most glaring omission from last year’s All Australian squad of 40 and seems to have taken it personally.
37 disposals, nine inside 50s, nine score involvements, seven marks, six clearances and 545 metres gained this week – he’s a beast, and will be impossible to overlook this year.
Wayne Milera has gathered a bit of hype this preseason and you can see why based on a performance like the one he put together on Friday night.
29 touches, nine intercepts, eight marks, six score involvements and a goal – it’s a higher level of production than we’re used to seeing from him, and if he keeps it up he could be the breakout player of 2019.
Speaking of breakout candidates, Peter Wright’s game on Sunday also fit the bill very nicely – he took seven marks, three of them contested, and kicked two goals, but also had a nice impact in the ruck with 17 hitouts and two clearances.
I’d like to see the Suns find someone else to do that ruck chop-out as they’re going to want him available as a forward target as much as possible, but it’s impressive all the same.
It’s crazy to think Angus Brayshaw missed out on Round 1 selection last year. He’s backed up a masterful 2018 season with two very impressive JLT displays – this week recording 26 disposals, 11 tackles, six inside 50s and three goals. Probably my favourite non-North Melbourne player in the AFL.
35 touches and a goal for Jaeger O’Meara on Saturday suggests the absence of Tom Mitchell may be exactly what he needed to take that next step into stardom.
I suspect (sadly) that he has probably lost just a little too much in his time on the sidelines to ever be quite the player we thought he could, but fulfilling even say eighty per cent of his potential will be enough to make him one of the game’s best.
Supporting a team who isn’t Sydney while living in Sydney isn’t always a hoot, and if Ryan Clarke keeps going from strength to strength at the Swans I don’t see the quality of experience improving rapidly.
Who could have predicted that North’s madcap strategy of playing him out of position all year in 2018 would possibly backfire?
The 2018 draft is going to have plenty of players who we look back on and see as being great value for the pick they were taken at, I’m tipping Xavier Duursma to be one of them. Pick No.18 last November, his 24 disposals and 11 marks should be enough to earn a Round 1 debut.
How good was it to see Jamie Elliott back on the field on Monday night? He kicked two goals had two assists against Freo, in a Collingwood side that recorded 14 less inside 50s but still managed to win by nearly three goals – good signs for their forward line.