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Nine talking points from AFL Round 8

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12th May, 2019
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Round 8 has come to an end, providing us with plenty to talk about. Let’s dive right into it.

Clarko’s cook gets the Hawks humming
Alastair Clarkson didn’t mince words last week after his side lost a close one to Melbourne, declaring that his team was ‘middle of the road’ after what was then a 3-4 start to season 2019.

“Right at the minute, we’re looking at our group and saying ‘listen, we’re a middle of the road side,'” said Clarkson.

“We can keep going down that track and end up a middle of the road side for the next four or five years, but that’s not how we go about it.

“Some of it will be methodology – some of it will be personnel.”

Showing his typical Lannister-like insistence on following through with promises, good and bad, Clarkson made one of the biggest selection decisions of the year by dropping former captain Jarryd Roughead for this week’s match.

It wasn’t a decision that surprised on form – Roughead has been woefully out of it all season long and really hasn’t been a particularly dangerous option for the club in the past two years before now either.

But, it’s rare that a player so decorated and beloved – not just at his own club but by neutral fans as well – cops the axe. Of course, Clarkson is no stranger to killing his darlings.

Hawthorn’s final team for Round 8 had no less than five changes from last week’s defeat, also losing star players Chad Wingard and Isaac Smith ahead of a battle with one of 2019’s premiership contenders.

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But no one shuffles the magnets like Clarko and the Hawks put forward clearly their best performance of 2019 so far on Sunday, knocking off the Giants by 33 points.

A supreme defensive effort was key. James Sicily continued the form that has him tracking for All Australian selection, while Coleman medal leader Jeremy Cameron was held to zero goals (and four behinds) for the first time this year.

Meanwhile Roughead booted five in the VFL and, in an endearing moment, was spotted offering some mid-game coaching to his direct opponent. Pure class.

They say never to write off a champion. Clarko’s proven this week that’s true of himself. I reckon it won’t be long before Roughead can say the same.

Alastair Clarkson

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos)

Competitiveness, not tinkering, responsible for AFL’s ratings rise
Adelaide Crows coach Don Pyke said after his team took victory in Showdown 46 that the new rules brought in by the AFL to increase scoring had backfired in 2019.

It wasn’t so much a matter of opinion as it was an observation of fact: scoring is down, in fact season 2019 is so far the lowest scoring we’ve seen in more than five decades.

How much of that is the game’s natural progression towards being more defensive and how much is an impact of the new rules is hard to say. As Pyke said, “There’s always a ripple for every rule change. Sometimes you can predict it and sometimes you can’t.”

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While this would appear to be the reverse of what the AFL intended, they won’t be losing too much sleep, as it was reported earlier this week that TV ratings to this point in the season have shown a significant increase.

Ratings on the free-to-air broadcaster Channel Seven are up 16 per cent, and ratings on Fox Footy are up six per cent – and you’d have to be pretty naive not to think it was here, rather than on the scoreboard, that the AFL really wanted to see numbers go up.

There have been two primary explanations put forward. The first is an improved fixture. Who could have thought it, but steering clear of some of the remarkably awful Friday night matches that were scheduled last year has been a winner.

Secondly, equalisation. There are no genuinely bad teams in the league this year. Every week we’re seeing teams on or near the bottom of the ladder squeeze hard on those at the top, even if they don’t always get the nut to crack – the current bottom two, Carlton and North, did exactly this in Round 8.

This backs up something I’ve said time and time again to the AFL: invest in the passion of the fans and help every supporter believe they’ve got a chance to win in any given week, and that will ensure the competition has a sustainable and healthy following.

And to give head office some due credit, they do remarkably well at that. Sure, it’s easy to point out the competition’s many inequalities, but if you discount the league’s two expansion sides, 13/16 clubs have won a premiership in the last 25 years, and all of those 16 have played in at least one grand final in that time.

Compare that to the other major sporting leagues in Australia or around the world and you’ll not find many with such an impressive spread of champions.

Still, I can’t help but be reminded of Lisa Simpson’s ‘rock that keeps tigers away’, and wonder if behind closed doors the AFL are slapping their own backs thinking that surely the timing of their incessant fiddling with the rules and improved ratings can’t be a coincidence.

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It is.

Steven Hocking

(Photo by Scott Barbour/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Dons’ Daniher decision did them the most damage
Essendon’s dramatic loss to Sydney at the SCG – not an unfamiliar sensation for Bombers fans – ended in controversy, but for mine the decision that did them the most damage was made hours before the ball was even bounced, at the selection table.

Up against a side that entered the round last on the table, the Bombers decided to rest their most dangerous key forward Joe Daniher from the match as they ‘manage’ his return from an injury that saw him miss the vast majority of season 2018.

I’m no doctor, certainly, nor am I privy to the details of what goes on in the Bombers’ medical room, so perhaps they felt that Daniher was in dire need of a week off and would have given him a rest regardless of who was on the other side of the fixture.

Still, one can’t help but feel that the fact they were coming up against struggling Sydney, a side with only one win to their name at that point in the season, might have influenced the Dons’ decision this week.

And if so then hopefully they learned a valuable lesson, and one that I’ve already made mention of: there are no genuinely bad teams in the AFL this year. It’s been thirteen years since an AFL season finished without any sides having a percentage below 75, but we are on track to see it again in 2019.

Even the best teams in the league can’t afford to take any opposition side lightly – and Essendon aren’t one of the best teams in the league. They’re a team who had lost two matches in a row coming into this one and have a 3-5 record for the year, sitting well outside the top eight.

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This marks the second time in two years that the Dons have come into Round 8 off a slow start and then lost to the team in 18th, so Bombers fans are rightly entitled to ask why their side doesn’t seem to have made any real progress – of course, the majority are instead asking questions of umpires and the AFL.

But, well, seeing as we’re on that topic…

Joe Daniher

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos)

Yes, it should have been a free kick
The AFL’s own social media channels had no qualms about taking advantage of Friday night’s final minute controversy, posting this quote from the rulebook alongside footage of Dane Rampe climbing the goal post as David Myers lined up for a shot on goal that, had it made the distance, would have won or at worst tied the game:

“A free kick shall be awarded against a player or official who intentionally shakes a goal or behind post either before or after a player has disposed of the football.”

You could debate whether Rampe intended to shake the post – he certainly intended to climb it, and in the process of doing so he shook it, so for mine that’s a free kick. There’s no exception in the rule to suggest the player should get a warning first or that an umpire should judge whether or not it affected the shot on goal. It’s just a free kick.

To be fair to the umpires, I can understand how the wrong decision was made. This is a rule that basically never comes up and they probably spend zero time on it. They can’t just google obscure rules in the middle of the game, they’re forced to make a split-second decision.

And in a situation like that – especially with the result of the game likely to ride on the decision – doesn’t it make a lot of sense to take the cautious approach and warn the player to get down rather than immediately go straight for a free kick? Sure, they got it wrong, but I can see why they got it wrong.

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Gillon McLachlan afterwards gave the decision the thumbs up saying the umpire was practical and pragmatic in their approach to the situation, and the AFL also officially said the right call had been made, which to be honest calls into question whether or not they’ve read or understood their own rulebook.

C’est la vie in this competition and while Dons fans are deservedly a little pissed off, I’d also say that if you’re relying on an opposition player to climb the goal post and an umpire to pay a free kick for it in order to win you a game then you probably weren’t the better side on the night.

Personally, my fingers are crossed that Gillon giving this one the green light opens the door to all kinds of bizarre tactics from defenders to try to prevent their opponents from successfully kicking a goal.

Who knows what was going through Dane Rampe’s brain when he decided to climb the post, after all – not much I’d say, based on his behaviour throughout the night – but I like to imagine he was firmly intent on scaling it as far vertically as he could, then swatting at the incoming ball King Kong-style in the hopes of touching it across the line.

I’ve also always wanted to see defenders try to block an after-the-siren shot on goal by a) balancing on each other’s shoulders, b) forming a human pyramid or c) fusing together into a Power Rangers Megazord. I don’t have all the nuts and bolts of that last one figured out just yet but it’s a good concept in theory.

Dane Rampe

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

What’s in a post-game reaction?
What, another Essendon-related talking point? No, really, I promise it isn’t, but the response to Dyson Heppell sharing a smile and a laugh with teammate David Myers after the siren on Friday night got me thinking about post-game reactions from players and how much we read into them.

The answer is almost certainly too much. Yes, I can understand that fans are devastated by a result like that one and they want to see players looking similarly devastated, but players are only human – they can’t be expected to mope around endlessly just because they lost a football game.

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Heppell is Essendon’s captain and you’d expect he probably knows his teammates better than we do. He knows whether David Myers is the kind of guy who – after missing a shot like that – would just want to stew in misery for a little while before he moves on, or if he’s the type that could probably use a quick little pick-me-up. That’s good leadership.

What also caught my eye this week was the exuberance with which Melbourne celebrated their one-point win over Gold Coast.

I don’t know if you could come up with a more symbolically fitting way for this club to win a football game than for an out-of-form forward to soccer one into the post with seconds left, against a side whose best 22 – despite their laudable competitiveness – would be hard to distinguish from any 22 average joe citizens rounded up at your local bus station.

The Dees have had two close wins in as many weeks, and Alastair Clarkson’s comments after last week’s game that Melbourne would be ‘dancing from the rooftops’ in celebration wins was, aside from the lack of literal rooftops and or dancing, a pretty accurate description of their reaction to getting four points again this week.

It’s not my place to judge Melbourne players for enjoying victory, absolutely they should – but, yes, against my better nature, I am still judging them a little.

While they may have notched two wins in a row, nothing they’ve done on the field suggests they’ve turned a corner, and if they think they have, they may be in for a very rude awakening against West Coast this Friday night.

Melbourne Demons

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Carlton competitive, but the Stocker gap widens
First off the bat: as a North Melbourne fan, I must thank Carlton for playing their only uncompetitive game of the year against us last week, because otherwise so far in 2019 they’ve been up for the fight every round, and this week against Collingwood was no exception.

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Despite really having so much to be positive about from 2019 so far, last week’s poor performance saw the Blues widely criticised and questions asked – hopefully pointlessly – over Brendon Bolton’s future at the club. Eddie McGuire did what he could to stoke the fires of an ancient rivalry a bit during the week by suggesting Carlton should give Alastair Clarkson a call.

Bolton told us during the week that the mood inside the club was one of steely resolve, and his players delivered exactly that on match day, fighting their way to what was nearly a famous victory before just running out of strength to hold on towards the end.

And that’s fair enough – it’s disappointing, but it’s understandable. This is a Carlton team that has cut hard over the last few years and is still very young as a result, and when you consider in where their list is at, they’ve been really impressive.

Nobody likes a 1-7 start to the year but to rip too hard into them would be like calling a skyscraper ugly when it’s still covered in scaffolding – there’s still some building to do here, and I’ve seen enough to believe the finished product will be impressive to behold.

Unfortunately for Carlton, the discussion around their daring live trade with Adelaide in last year’s draft will only get louder the longer they keep losing and the Crows – who’ve now got four in a row – keep winning. If the season were to end right now, Adelaide would be taking pick 1 into the draft, with Carlton relegated to selection 16.

Stocker has played the last two weeks and while he’s not torn either game apart – as you’d expect of any draftee not named Sam Walsh – he’s been reasonably impressive, and looks like he could be a valuable player for the Blues as he matures.

Still, if this is what the deal winds up being for Carlton then it’ll be hard not to call it a disaster. Given the big step forward that 2019 has so far been, I hope if things do turn sour they won’t feel tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Liam Stocker

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

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Time for Josh Jenkins to look elsewhere
This week’s Showdown promised to have a bit of bite in it as after both having down years in 2018, the two South Australian sides are both this year in the finals mix – albeit not yet with any real level of security – making every match a crucial one.

Unfortunately the result was a little predictable. Port Adelaide had no Ollie Wines, no Brad Ebert, no Robbie Gray, and ultimately no way to beat the Crows. Given those outs, to put in a reasonably competitive performance was probably a pass mark, even if Port fans are probably a bit disappointed. I look forward to the rematch.

For mine, the biggest takeaway from the game was that it’s probably about time Josh Jenkins started thinking about his future. The 30-year-old key forward has been out of the side for four weeks now, and after going 1-3 in the opening month of the season, the Crows have now won four matches in a row without him.

Elliott Himmelberg seems like a good one, as people with ‘Elliott’ in their name somewhere typically are. He hasn’t torn any games apart, but he’s played his role, and most importantly seems to have a much higher defensive workrate in the forward 50 than Jenkins was typically known for.

The worrying thing for Adelaide is that Jenkins is contracted with the club for another two and a half years to come, not quite yet halfway through the five-year, $2.75 million contract he signed with the club during season 2016.

So the Crows are left with three choices: a) pay Jenkins half a million to play SANFL, which is unappealing, b) find someway to get him back in the team, which may be unlikely, or c) find a buyer, any buyer, any buyer at all. If there’s a club willing to take on that salary hit then he can probably be had for a token price.

The first destination that jumps to mind is the Brisbane Lions, who made such a hard push for him back in 2016. Jenkins’ poor form notwithstanding, the idea of having an experienced and big-bodied key forward who could take some attention away from Eric Hipwood and provide a chop-out in the ruck probably still appeals.

A lot of recent additions at the Lions have seen a noticeable uptick in their form after arriving at the club. Brisbane, also, are an infinitely more appealing destination for a player on the move than they were three years ago. Could a change of scenery be the best thing for everyone? One to watch as the season goes on.

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Josh Jenkins

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Should the AFL have a ‘magic round’?
For any of my readers living south of the Barassi line who remain blissfully unaware of anything to do with rugby league – ah, I was once like you! – I should let you know that the NRL this weekend held a ‘Magic Round’ where all eight games were played at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

Now, I know I risk throwing myself in with the same sort of logic as used by Damian Barrett this week to suggest that Adelaide and Port Adelaide should play a Showdown at the MCG sometime – insert rolling of the eyes here – but just think about it a second: is an AFL equivalent actually that bad of an idea?

There’s a certain tingly appeal to the idea of parking one’s rear in a seat the MCG – or Adelaide Oval, Optus Stadium, maybe even the SCG or the Gabba – for three days straight and watching every team in the league have a crack. Yeah, it’d be lengthy, but so are Test matches.

Sure, it’d be a bummer to be in a city like Melbourne and not have any footy on for the weekend – but honestly, we have a 23-round competition, and we’re talking about a single week with no games. You’ll live, trust me.

Some teams would need to give up home games to make it work, but if the AFL organised to have mostly the league’s more cash-strapped sides host the matches then it could be a handy way to funnel each of them a generous payment from the hands of HQ.

I wouldn’t say I’m fully on board with it – I only asked myself the question fifteen minutes ago, after all – but I reckon it’s worth considering. All the feedback from the NRL’s first crack at it this weekend has been positive, and I reckon even if only for the novelty it’s worth weighing up the pros and cons.

Taylor Walker

(Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

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Everybody gets a turn
Adelaide Crows (5-3) – Does beating Port qualify as taking a scalp in 2019? If so it’d be Adelaide’s first big one. Not sure, but if they beat at least one of West Coast or GWS in the next four weeks then I’ll be paying serious attention.

Brisbane Lions (5-3) – Too many missed opportunities this week, really can’t say anything more about it than that. Still have a good record but can’t afford to give up winnable games like this one too often.

Carlton Blues (1-7) – Charlie Curnow chimed in with two goals this week which was good, but is still not delivering a huge amount of defensive pressure for the Blues up forward. Something to work on.

Collingwood Magpies (6-2) – I had a few question my decision to put Tom Phillips in my top 50 this year – albeit at No.50 overall – but games like this with 34 disposals and two goals are hopefully making it seem like a smart call.

Essendon Bombers (3-5) – Probably talked about Essendon enough already this week. Say Orazio Fantasia’s name right, BT.

Fremantle Dockers (4-4) – Not saying it would’ve changed the result, but I’m baffled that Connor Blakely couldn’t get a game for the Dockers this weekend. If Ross Lyon really doesn’t see him in the 22 then I reckon the line of suitors would be about 17 clubs long.

Geelong Cats (7-1) – Some of Gary Ablett’s best stuff today was so good I enjoyed it even though it was happening against my team. Putting him back in the forward line really has revived his career, and I’m starting to wonder if he’s a chance to push 400 games.

Gold Coast Suns (3-5) – Didn’t think I’d be saying it at any point this year let alone only eight rounds in, but I’m starting to feel like Gold Coast are just too damn scrappy to wind up holding this year’s wooden spoon.

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GWS Giants (5-3) – This side is probably the best equipped in the league (along with Collingwood) to knock Geelong off their perch – after all, they’ve already done it once. But this is twice in four weeks they’ve been clear favourites and not just lost, but lost comfortably.

Hawthorn Hawks (4-4) – If Hawthorn’s so-so start to the season was having any kind of impact on Stephen Coniglio’s decision for what colours he’d like to wear in 2020, this week was an up-close-and-personal advertisement for brown and gold.

Melbourne Demons (3-5) – Lost in the discussion asking why the Dees aren’t performing at the level we expected has been a breakout season from Christian Salem. Averaging nearly five more disposals per game this year than last, and all of those are kicks.

North Melbourne Kangaroos (2-6) – A lot of my mental energy these days is dedicated to trying to keep a lid on my growing love for Tarryn Thomas. First, there’s the beard. Second, he’s a bloody good footballer. He’s got the class, he’s got the power, and he’s got a remarkably good defensive instinct for a six-game player.

Port Adelaide Power (4-4) – Dougal Howard is up there with the most improved players of season 2019. After being great in defence so far this year, he kicked two goals for the Power up forward this week. Is there anything Dougie can’t do?

Richmond Tigers (5-3) – Shai Bolton seemed to be on the market to WA clubs at the end of last year when he put his contract talks on hold – who knows what went on behind closed doors, but if Fremantle knocked him back they’re certainly regretting it now.

Sydney Swans (2-6) – I don’t think they will be, but if Sydney finish last and are taking pick 1 to the draft I don’t understand the perspective that they would have any less right to it than any other club? Let’s not forget this is side whose list management was deliberately interfered with by a trading ban not that long ago.

St Kilda Saints (4-4) – All things considered, to be within two goals of the reigning premiers at home with only minutes left is much better than where we thought this club would be at before the season started.

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Western Bulldogs (4-4) – Are they finding genuine form or have they been a bit lucky two weeks in a row? Honestly hard to say. I’m not quite ready to start considering them a finals threat again, but I’m getting closer.

West Coast Eagles (5-3) – Still clearly yet to hit their best form, but this game is about being at your peak in September, not May.

Andrew Gaff

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

If I could have your attention just briefly for a personal matter before you hit the comments section…

Over the last three months I have trained two days a week with the goal of completing the SMH Half Marathon, taking part in a program run by charity organisation Can Too.

On Saturday morning I set a new personal best of 5kms in my final preparation run before the half-marathon next Sunday.

It’s been a mountain of hard work but I’m incredibly excited for next Sunday, and thanks to Can Too I feel confident I’m going to achieve my goal.

As part of the program, I’m hoping to raise funds so the Can Too can continue to provide financial support for research into new cancer treatments.

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Can Too’s training programs also help people like me in the community lose weight and increase fitness, lowering the risk of cancer – and also having a lot of fun along the way.

If you’d like to support me in my run, or support cancer researchers, or support health and fitness in the community, I’d love it if you’d consider donating to my fundraiser.

Thanks for your time!