Round 4 hit us as the AFL does with highlights, drama, and controversy. Here’s my talking points from the round.
Three teams stand head and shoulders above the rest
Four rounds and in and just enough time has passed for us to be able to say with some confidence that there are three teams standing head and shoulders above the rest.
Geelong, GWS and West Coast have been the best-performed teams of 2019 so far – none of them perfect, but each has played like a premiership contender during the opening four rounds.
Five sides are 3-1 in the league at the moment. Brisbane have been mightily impressive but Round 4 was a reality check for them, while the Saints have proven adept at converting chances to win but certainly aren’t among the league’s top teams.
West Coast have picked up more or less right where they left off in 2018. If anything, winning the flag has made them a better team, as it so often does.
Andrew Gaff and Brad Sheppard have seamlessly reintegrated into the team after missing last year’s grand final and Jack Petrucelle has taken out a mortgage on the spot vacated by Mark LeCras.
Tom Hickey has proved a serviceable replacement for Scott Lycett, with Nic Naitanui still to return. Just what impact his eventual return has on this team could be one of the big 2019 storylines.
Geelong’s 2019 could be best summed up by the fact that, fresh off dismantling Dustin Martin just a week ago, GWS tagger Matt De Boer was sent not to Patrick Dangerfield or Joel Selwood, but to Tim Kelly.
That’s symbolic of how effective it has been for Geelong to shift the load in the middle of the ground this year – they’ve found improved performance both from the players taking more responsibility as well as those taking less.
However no praise of the Cats’ elite talents would be complete without pointing out just how masterfully GWS kept them contained on Saturday afternoon.
De Boer held Kelly to just nine disposals, and Dangerfield and Selwood were restricted to 17 and 19 touches each. It’s only the second time in 50 games for Geelong that Dangerfield has been held to less than 20 disposals, and the first time both he and Selwood have copped that in the same match.
Meanwhile the Giants dominated possession while also out-tackling their opponents. Although they led for the majority of the match, losing by only four points was if anything flattering to the Cats.
Each of these teams has a loss on their ledger and for the Cats and Giants that loss is to one of the other teams in this trio. In two weeks’ time the Cats will play the Eagles and have a chance to make it a perfect rock-paper-scissors situation.
Though there’s plenty of footy still to come, it’s fair to say these three sides are our early front-runners. Beyond that…
The competition is still very even
As the ladder stands after four rounds, 13 of the AFL’s 18 teams – more than two-thirds of the league – have won at least two of their four games so far this season.
Over the past few years I reckon it would be fair to say that two broad trends have made the competition more equal.
Firstly, as more and more time has passed since the introduction of Gold Coast and GWS into the competition, we’ve seen less uncompetitive sides linger near the bottom of the ladder.
Both of those teams were understandably poor in their early years but their domination of drafts had a knock-on effect of also slowing the rise of sides who were struggling at the time.
There are still poor sides in the league, sure, but not many.
At the same time, the era of ‘superteams’ – like those fielded by Hawthorn, Geelong and Sydney – seems to have passed us by, for now at least.
This, too, could arguably be considered an impact of expansion, which made it harder for lower teams to catch this trio by going to the draft, and made the super-sides more willing to spend first-round picks on big trades.
However you decide to explain it, there’s no doubting that the league is about as competitive as it’s ever been, a paradigm which continues to deliver results both delightful and unexpected.
In January I wrote (to a chorus of downward thumbs) that this should prompt the league to expand a ten-team finals series. Disagree with me if you will, but some good teams will miss out this year.
Even when it comes to the five teams not making that 2-2 benchmark, there are some pretty handy sides.
Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide are all teams that could easily turn it around from a 1-3 start to make finals – sure, they don’t look like it right now, but we know the talent is there.
Bowes brilliance denies Blues
The Gold Coast Suns have played four consecutive games of football decided by less than a goal, and won all but one of them.
Is it good luck or is it mental toughness? I’ve honestly got no clue, but either way it’s bloody remarkable.
Sunday’s finish might be one of the more dramatic we’ll see all year. After Peter Wright nearly blew it by dropping a mark in the goalsquare early in the fourth quarter, Patrick Cripps put the Blues ahead.
Cripps was as Cripps always is on Sunday, absolutely everything. He belted out 30 disposals and two goals for the Blues along with eight clearances, but it just wasn’t enough.
With just seconds left on the clock it was Jack Bowes who found just the barest amount of time to get boot to ball and roll one over the Carlton defenders to dribble through a match-winner.
Bowes, last-minute heroics aside, has had a remarkably impressive start to 2019. Turning into a real breakout season for him.
The 6-6-6 rule did Steven Hocking proud as the ball bounced with ten seconds left on the clock – the Blues won the clearance and drove forward, giving Marc Murphy the chance to have a shot on the run before a Gold Coast defender wrapped him up in a tackle that prevented him getting a shot off.
The end result? Gold Coast are somehow, miraculously, a 3-1 side. With an extra Round 1 goal they could be the only 4-0 side in the league – of course, it wouldn’t take much bad luck for them to be 0-4 instead.
As for Carlton, well, this is about as bad as bad gets. They are the only winless team left in the comp and Adelaide are measuring up prospective No.1 pick Noah Anderson’s guernsey size.
Tom Lynch’s bag of six says it’s a big five now
The conversation during the lead up to Richmond’s match against Port Adelaide was how the Tigers would fare without their ‘big four’ of Alex Rance, Jack Riewoldt, Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin in the side.
Tom Lynch clearly took offense to that, and in just his third game as a Tiger, booted six goals to remind us that the big four talk is outdated – it’s a big five now.
Lynch’s excellent form has until this week gone almost untalked about, drowned out by the Tigers’ turbulent start to the season, but he’ll get due credit now.
His bag of six – which included the final, victory-sealing goal of the game – has put him into clear second place in the Coleman Medal race, just one behind Jeremy Cameron on 17.
Arguably the most underrated aspect of Lynch’s form so far is his remarkable accuracy. He has kicked 16 goals for the season, but just five behinds.
Overall it was a win for the ages from Richmond who had every good reason to lose this match and yet simply refused to do so.
Aside from the ‘big four’ they were also missing Bachar Houli, Jayden Short and Shaun Grigg, a trio with quality enough that their absence alone would usually be difficult to cover.
Some pundits put it forward during the offseason that, having dealt a number of depth players to other clubs at the end of last year, the Tigers may be found wanting if injuries struck.
That logic took a body blow on Saturday – if anything, the absence of those go-to depth players allowed the Tigers to go straight to picking younger talents who provided the drive and positive energy necessary to snatch a win.
Jack Ross with 25 touches on debut is the obvious example here but Liam Baker along with Sydney Stack and Connor Menadue all did their part.
Don Pyke’s big Bryce Gibbs call doesn’t pay dividends
Don Pyke’s decision to drop Bryce Gibbs from his side this week was easily the boldest selection call we’ve seen in 2019 so far and might not be pushed off the podium before year’s end.
Gibbs had 27 disposals in Round 3 which might make Pyke look a little daft at first, but a deeper dig lends weight to the decision.
11 of Gibbs’ Round 3 disposals were turnovers and he had only one score involvement, suggesting that despite getting his hands on the ball he seriously struggled for impact.
Perhaps most concerningly, he recorded only nine pressure acts for the match – woefully below par for a midfielder, and seemingly not an outlier for Gibbs (who recorded 11 and 8 in the first two rounds).
If Pyke was hoping that his big call would inspire a lift in intensity from those who did make the cut for his 22, it didn’t – North brought the heat, and only their early inaccuracy delayed the Crows being conquered.
Cam Ellis-Yolmen delivered the pressure around the contest that Gibbs had been letting slip but the Crows were still -12 in the clearances, -21 in inside 50s and a bit lucky to only wind up -12 on the scoreboard.
After looking in the preseason like they could get back to their 2017 form this year, Adelaide’s opening four rounds haven’t been pretty to watch.
Leaving aside Gibbs for a moment, their forward line still looks like the greatest area of concern. Aside from Eddie Betts’ three this week, their goalkickers are all struggling to, well, kick goals.
Gibbs is far from being the only out-of-form Crow and if he wasn’t good enough over the first three weeks to keep his spot in the team I suspect Adelaide fans will be happy to venture a few more names that aren’t quite measuring up so far either.
Seventh heaven for Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti
It’s strange that taking the scalp of a side who won only five games last year has likely done more to convince us that the Bombers might be back on the right track than beating one of 2018’s preliminary finalists last week did.
Still, while last week’s encounter was one where we threw our hands up and asked which side could possibly out-awful the other, over a short three-week span of the time we’ve come to expect good footy from the Brisbane Lions and knew they would take some beating.
The MCG isn’t a ground the Lions get to play on too often and they really seemed to struggle with it particularly early. The teams kicked six goals apiece in the second half – it was the uncompetitive start to the game which cost them.
Lachie Neale had another 40 touches and not too many Brisbane players disgraced themselves but they just couldn’t keep to the tempo of the blitzkrieg Bombers who played with exactly the kind of intensity and velocity they so desperately lacked in the opening rounds.
Then of course there was Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, who booted seven goals in a remarkable best-on-ground performance.
After going goalless in the first two weeks he’s now kicked eleven in the past fortnight. Is it that start of big things for the Bombers? Watch this space.
Gaff back, and to great applause
Andrew Gaff’s return to the football field was always going to be a story to watch in 2019 after he was suspended for eight matches, including last year’s premiership win, for striking Andrew Brayshaw.
While Gaff made his AFL return last week against Collingwood, Round 4’s derby was the first match he has played in front of the Perth crowd since the corresponding fixture last season.
A clever bit of fixturing by the AFL? Perhaps so, and probably more clever still to make sure West Coast were the home crowd in this derby, allowing Gaff to return to thunderous applause rather than a chorus of boos.
In the past fortnight I’ve seen a number of people express concern on social media at the parade-like welcome Gaff has received as he returns to the game.
It is, after all, not as if he’s been absent because of injury or some other unfortunate circumstance – he was banned for breaking an opponent’s jaw.
How we react to this is affected by a wide number of factors and I suspect that delving deep into the complex forces at play would be a sociologist’s dream.
I won’t attempt to do so here and suffice to say that I certainly give a thumbs down to any incidences of acting like Gaff is the victim in this story, as I suspect the man himself would also do.
Certainly there appears to be no bad blood between Gaff and Brayshaw at this point, so here’s hoping (somewhat naively I suspect) that the respective fanbases can allow both players to move on.
It’s also worth remembering that this was also the first chance for West Coast fans to show their appreciation for Gaff knocking back a big-money offer at the end of last year to re-sign with the club.
That if nothing else is fair reason for some applause.
Everybody gets a turn
Adelaide Crows (1-3) – Sam Jacobs missing the past two matches has given Reilly O’Brien a chance to show his wares at AFL level and while hardly dominant, I’d say he’s been a solid performer, and looms as their go-to option when Jacobs hangs up the boots.
Brisbane Lions (3-1) – It was a close call, but Geelong’s loss early on Saturday gave Brisbane the title of last team left undefeated in 2019, something they were able to pride themselves on for a brief 25 minutes.
Carlton Blues (0-4) – Sam Walsh definitely getting that Rising Star nomination this week. 28 touches and a goal in just his fourth AFL game. But is that sill enough to console Carlton fans?
Collingwood Magpies (2-2) – No one will be buying the name-a-game of this one (not that you could if you wanted to), but to get the four points after losing Dayne Beams before the bounce and Chris Mayne shortly after it is not so bad a result. Take the four points and move on.
Essendon Bombers (2-2) – Essendon’s Tom Bellchambers-Zac Clarke ruck duo had just seven kicks and three tackles between them on Saturday. Didn’t cost the Dons the game, obviously, but you have to think a ruckman with better around-the-ground contribution would be valuable to this team.
Fremantle Dockers (2-2) – After last week finding a way to win despite losing Nat Fyfe mid-match, this week I was impressed by the competitive effort Fremantle put in despite their skipper being ruled out. Looked like it could be a ten-goal loss on paper.
Geelong Cats (3-1) – The consolation for the Cats is that despite being outplayed they still lead for the most of the match. Hawthorn and West Coast in the next two weeks both looking like promising contests.
Gold Coast Suns (3-1) – As impressive as the Suns have been, it’s worth noting that the AFL dealt them a nice hand playing four of 2018’s bottom six sides to start the year. Things are about to get a bit tougher – if they keep adding to the win tally, that’ll impress all the more.
GWS Giants (3-1) – Callan Ward’s ACL injury was devastating to watch and immediately prompted questions asking whether or not the Giants can win the flag this year without him. Surely the last the three years have taught us that the answer is yes. Get well Callan.
Hawthorn Hawks (2-2) – No Tom Mitchell (obviously), no Liam Shiels, and Jaeger O’Meara a late out… that’s basically half the Hawks’ midfield. Disappointing but I’m giving them a pass on this one.
Melbourne Demons (1-3) – Nathan Jones’ early form has drawn a few raised eyebrows after appearing to struggle at times in September last year, but his three goals this week was a welcome contribution, and getting in the face of brother Zak gave us all a chuckle too.
North Melbourne Kangaroos (1-3) – Great to get a win but… I miss Braydon Preuss. Hopefully those trying to pin North’s poor start to the season on Ben Brown for some reason collectively shut their traps.
Port Adelaide Power (2-2) – Port are lucky that the main narrative to come out of Saturday’s game will be that of celebration for the Tigers rather than asking how on earth they failed to capitalise on such a golden opportunity.
Richmond Tigers (2-2) – Amidst all the pats on the back that various Richmond players will rightfully receive this week, it’d be a mistake not to mention stand-in captain Shane Edwards whose leadership was surely crucial to the result.
St Kilda Saints (3-1) – What absolutely marvelous form Jack Billings has been in so far this year. Really making good on his potential and a key reason why the Saints are 3-1 instead of something much less nice looking. Priority re-signing.
Sydney Swans (1-3) – Although many will point out that Sydney found their way into the finals after an 0-6 start just two years ago, fair to say 2019’s poor form feels different. In ’17 they were clearly underperforming, this time around they may just be not that good.
West Coast Eagles (3-1) – Josh Rotham impressed last week and though someone had to come out for Liam Duggan it did feel like he was a little hard done by to be dropped. That being the case, great to see him get a last-minute reprieve (albeit at the expense of Lewis Jetta) and put in another strong showing.
Western Bulldogs (2-2) – After looking so promising just a fortnight ago, the Bulldogs’ tall trio was a real worry on Friday night. Josh Schache and Billy Gowers could have spent the whole game watching from the stands and their impact wouldn’t have been any less.