After a few weeks off I’m back in the saddle with this week’s AFL talking points. Much thanks to Sarah Wildly who did a brilliant job while I was away! Let’s get started.
Brett Ratten bounce enough to beat Bulldogs
Brad Scott, Brendon Bolton and Alan Richardson all showed memorable class this year when the time came for them to step away as senior coaches, but the fact remains their teams improved markedly when they did.
North Melbourne turned around from being a basket case to a team on the edge of finals, and while they likely won’t quite make it in, there’s no doubt Rhyce Shaw’s reign has been a significant success.
Bolton was sacked for not getting enough wins and, well, simply enough, they have gotten them in the time since. Not always by big margins, and not always over high quality opponents, but wins are wins.
And then on Sunday in the final match of the round, Brett Ratten stepped in as a senior coach for the first time in nearly seven years and his Saints started like a house on fire with six goals to one in the first quarter.
There were some hair moments particularly in the third quarter as the Bulldogs pushed hard to close the margin, and the Saints were given every opportunity to lose their nerve and blow a good lead if they’d wanted to.
That was arguably the most impressive aspect of the win: St Kilda wounded the westerners with their fast start, but they killed them with their tenacity.
It seems clear that Ratten’s six-game stint as caretaker coach to close out the Saints’ season is in fact a genuine audition for the full-time role in 2020 and beyond, and this was an impressive start.
Not only did they get the win, but they also put 100 points on the board for the first time this year, and in fact the first time in 12 months.
During the week St Kilda released a video of Ratten telling the playing group that Doulton Langlands would make his debut. Worth looking up for a watch if you haven’t seen it – what’s immediately apparent is the great rapport Ratten has with the playing group.
And, I suspect, the fact that just about his first act in the role was to promote a promising youngster will not have been lost on anyone.
Fingers crossed Ratten is able to keep up the good form, if so surely he’s in the box seat for the top job. That would complete a remarkable story of perseverance to earn a thoroughly deserved and all-too-rare second chance.
Even footy makes for exciting finals
With just five matches for each team left to go in season 2019, nothing is certain and just about anyone can beat just about anyone else – which makes September a sizzling hot prospect.
Our own Adrian Polkandrites wrote just a short while ago that season 2019 hasn’t been a great one in terms of the quality of football being played, and it’s an oft-mentioned fact that scoring is at historically low levels.
However, as Adrian himself acknowledged, while this footy season might not be the most dazzling, it’s been a close one – plenty of games going down to the wire, and the ladder as it stands after Round 18 reflects that well enough.
As we speak there’s at least six teams reasonably in calculations for a top four finish but you’d really find it hard to call any single one of them especially convincing of late.
Collingwood’s one-point-wonder against West Coast last week had pundits lauding them with praise but that will dry up quickly after they were this week dismantled by a GWS side missing Josh Kelly, Stephen Coniglio, and co-captains Callan Ward and Phil Davis.
Similarly beset by injury have been the Richmond Tigers this year but they – perhaps unlike GWS – seem likely to get most of their key pieces back in time for September.
Geelong are providing proof for the old truism that premierships can not be won in April, May, or really most of the other months for that matter – and top spot looks not nearly so sewn up as it did a short time ago.
Brisbane are belting along with the league’s best active winning streak, but have just one player in the 22 who has played a finals match for the club. Of course, some of their recruits can say otherwise.
West Coast may not have shook the earth with a 13-point win over Melbourne, but they did what was needed and are firmly in the mix to earn a top-two finish and home qualifying final.
Essendon seem to be finding form at the right time of the year, and then there’s nearly half a dozen teams in a log jam for one last spot in the eight – whoever makes it will be coming in hot.
Somehow out of this motley crew, one of them is going to need to rise to the occasion and belt out three or four consecutive wins against the rest to bring home a premiership.
Season 2019 might not have too many big sellers on the name-a-game – especially given it no longer exists – but the finals series could be one to remember.
Wonderful wins keep Worsfold in work
Winning is a tonic for many things and as it turns out, one of those things is speculation over the future of your job, should you happen to be John Worsfold.
At the mid point of the season, speculation was rife that the Bombers would be searching for a new coach in 2020 if – as seemed likely – the club fell short of finals for the second straight season.
This is a team after all that finished eighth in 2017 and has brought in a quarter of prominent, highly-rated recruits since then. They did not expect to tread water.
But in six games since the bye, Worsfold’s Bombers have done anything but. They were unable to get the point against his former home, the West Coast Eagles, but otherwise have beaten all placed before them.
Some qualifications could be placed on what looks like an impressive run of form if you only count the Ls and the Ws. For example, three of those wins have been by margins of less than two goals. But it’s hard not to be positive.
This week’s victory of Adelaide was an inspiring fightback – trailing by five goals at one point to romp home in the final term, and while missing some key personnel as well.
Coaches who make the finals don’t get sacked in the AFL. It just doesn’t really happen, not since the halcyon days of the semi-professional era.
And if Worsfold breaks what is nearly a fifteen-year drought without a finals win, well, fair to say he’ll have plenty of credit in the bank.
One of the genuinely good blokes in footy by all reports, it’s great to see Worsfold turn it around from what looked like a dire position not that long ago.
Hold on for five more weeks and he can enter September with a smile on his face.
Brisbane’s brilliance is no big mystery
As the Brisbane Lions have made their move from likely finalist to top-four contender over the last five weeks, it’s become common parlance to remark on their high station as an illustration of what a bizarre season 2019.
And, fair enough. This is a side who have hung around the bottom of the ladder for a long enough period of time that to see the poles suddenly reversed is a remarkable thing indeed.
That said, it’s not as if this incredible rise is, in fact, all that incredible – the Lions have made a lot of smart decisions off the field recent years, and had a few good roles of the dice as well.
They’ve hit the draft in a canny and systematic fashion over a stretch of years and then picked the perfect time at the end of 2018 to seek out a game-changing recruit in the form of Lachie Neale.
What must also be considered of course is that, as one of last year’s bottom six, they’ve been blessed with an easy run at the fixturing table.
Even more remarkable than that though is they good fortune they have – touch Mason Wood – enjoyed when it comes to injuries this year, with barely a complaint to be had.
It will be hard to back up this level of achievement next year when the fixture is harder and, as we can only assume, the injury gods are likely more cruel.
But 2020 is not what we’re concerned with right now, because 2019 is still very much alive for the Lions, who have no reason not to believe they’re capable of premiership glory.
I see no reason why this side couldn’t repeat the achievements of teams like the 2008 Hawks or the 2016 Bulldogs.
Sure, it’s not especially likely – but unlikely things do happen.
Suns add second spoon to cutlery collection
Given how poor they’ve been over a long period of time, it’s almost a bit remarkable that after nine years in the AFL this will only be their second wooden spoon.
A four-goal loss to Carlton on Saturday put it beyond doubt, if it wasn’t already. With five matches to go, the Suns are two goals and an insurmountable percentage gap adrift at the bottom of the table.
Those five remaining matches are against Essendon, Collingwood, Brisbane, Hawthorn and GWS – four of them teams in the eight, and one of them not that far off.
It now seems all but guaranteed that they will finish the season on an 18-game losing streak. Anything less would mean an upset of win of magnitude as great if not greater than their shocker over Sydney last year.
That means they’ll enter this year’s draft with the No.1 pick – the first time they’ll have held it since acquiring current captain David Swallow with that selection in 2010.
It seems a fait accompli that they’ll use that selection to add impressive midfielder Matt Rowell, who has shown a Sam Walsh-like level of consistency and production in his draft year, though he’s more of an inside-leaning type than Walsh.
Of course, if the Suns have their way then they would be bringing the first two picks of the draft to the table, as they’re reportedly planning to ask the AFL for a priority selection at the start of the draft.
If the AFL is going to give them one – and, like most, I don’t believe they should – this is the year to do it. Rowell and good friend Noah Anderson are the clear top two, and make a perfect pair to bring to the club.
Will it happen? I doubt it, but the league has made stranger decisions before.
Everbody gets a turn
Adelaide Crows (9-8) – The news before Friday’s match that Reilly O’Brien has signed a three-year deal was a big one for the Crows. Arguably the league’s most improved player this year, it also likely means they’ve opted not to pursue Brodie Grundy.
Brisbane Lions (12-5) – Oscar McInerney’s free kick has taken up most of the press, but Brisbane were by far the better side on Saturday night, with only their wayward kicking in front of goal – and North’s excellent accuracy – keeping the game tight.
Carlton Blues (5-12) – The Blues didn’t pound Gold Coast flat like they might have on Saturday, but to get the win on the board despite only a limited performance from Patrick Cripps earns them a big thumbs up.
Collingwood Magpies (11-6) – The amount of praise directed Collingwood’s way last week for winning a match where the result was basically a coinflip struck me as a bit excessive. Their first quarter this week suggested they might have been buying their own press a little.
Essendon Bombers (10-7) – There’s plenty left to play out in both careers, but gee the Dons wouldn’t mind swapping Andy McGrath out for Tim Taranto if they had their time again.
Fremantle Dockers (8-9) – Right call to put Jesse Hogan in cotton wool for the rest of the season. They aren’t doing anything in 2019, this week’s win aside. Hasn’t fired in his first year, but has plenty of time to play well in purple.
Geelong Cats (13-4) – Disappointing result but leaving that aside for a moment, how crazy is it that Mark Blicavs has played 150 AFL games? And won two best and fairests for the matter? Incredible value.
Gold Coast Suns (3-14) – Nowhere is the “they’d be a star if they played for a big Victorian club” truism more accurate than Gold Coast. Touk Miller, Brayden Fiorini the standouts this week but also Will Brodie is coming along nicely.
GWS Giants (10-7) – The Giants could’ve handed the captaincy to a more clean-cut option like Jeremy Cameron or Lachie Whitfield this week but instead back in Toby “Dennis the Menace” Greene, and look at the results.
Hawthorn Hawks (8-9) – Never spends too much time in the spotlight but Liam Shiels celebrated his 200th with 29 touches, two goals, and a win against his club’s biggest rivals. Could he be their third captain in three years come 2020?
Melbourne Demons (5-12) – Would hold a top-two pick in the draft if the season were to end right now. That would be a huge addition to a playing list that, for mine, is still one of the most promising and talented in the league.
North Melbourne Kangaroos (7-10) – I was worried the ‘Roos might be rushing Shaun Higgins back in a bit early this week, but his return from an AC joint injury was seamless. 27 touches and a goal.
Port Adelaide Power (8-9) – Personally, I hope Xavier Duursma does the bow and arrow after every goal he kicks in what is looking like it will be a long and successful career. Time spent criticising the lad is time you could spend better.
Richmond Tigers (11-6) – Has gone under the radar a bit, but Dion Prestia is putting together arguably a career-best season. Solid as a rock for Richmon when so few players have been fortunate enough to deliver consistent performance. Could win the best and fairest.
St Kilda Saints (7-10) – Rowan Marshall started season 2019 in the VFL, but he’s winning St Kilda’s best and fairest this year, and by a significant margin.
Sydney Swans (6-11) – John Longmire is not wrong to point out the remarkably young side he is fielding when questions are asked of Sydney’s performance this year. But how much does that change if they lose a young star like Tom Papley come October?
West Coast Eagles (12-5) – Did you know Jack Darling is third in the Coleman Medal race at this point? I’ll be honest, that one had really snuck up on me. Big win for the Eagles to lock him up for another four years this week.
Western Bulldogs (8-9) – Lost to North the week Brad Scott left the club, lost to Carlton two weeks after Bolton was sacked, now lost to the Saints in Ratten’s first game as caretaker. They must be rueing some rotten luck right now.