Just one week left in the 2019 home-and-away season, yet still so much remains uncertain. Here’s my talking points from Round 22.
Tigers triumph in the battle – will West Coast win the war?
Good luck to you picking a ‘match of the round’ this weekend. The war in the top four proved to be just as enthralling as we’d hoped.
Narrowly you’d probably give the nod to Sunday’s game at the MCG as the most compelling contest, and probably clubhouse leader as game of the year, though not by any great margin.
The Eagles kicked seven of the first nine goals and early on it looked like they just might skip out to a dominant victory much like the one they enjoyed against Richmond in the west last year.
However the Tigers steadily worked their way back into it over the second term and then when bad weather hit after the main break, they were in their element.
It was tight, but in the end the Tigers triumphed, and they deserved to, leading for most of the last quarter despite West Coast’s repeated attempts to drag themselves back in front.
Quite possibly a grand final preview, and if it is, I’m not sure this result tells us a whole lot about how that game might play out – other than that it’ll probably be bloody good.
I felt before the game that the Eagles would do away comfortably with the Tigers this week – they’ve got a gameplan almost perfectly calibrated to counter Richmond’s desperate team defense, and that showed in the first term.
Can you count on that to happen in September though? And can you guarantee that skies will remain clear, that Eagles will be blessed with good flight conditions? I wouldn’t bet on it.
Of course, what may well make this a moot point is that the results of this week mean neither side is likely to get a home qualifying final.
The Tigers will be closely watching Collingwood and Essendon on Friday night – if the Pies win, then Richmond must defeat Brisbane later that weekend to stay in the top four.
As for West Coast, their hope will be that the Tigers do finish the season with a win, and quite a big one at that – to get back into the top two, they need to either beat Brisbane on percentage, or hope Geelong drop one against Carlton.
Brisbane belong with the best
The other match in the top four was no less anticipated and no less satisfying – although things got off to a bit of a slow start in the first term, Brisbane and Geelong fired up thereafter and produced a thrilling contest.
All year long Brisbane have gradually built momentum and belief, and it’d be fair to say that as fans our belief in them has needed to build over time too.
They’ve been in the discussion as a potential flag contender for a little while now, but perhaps what we all really needed was to see them finally come up against another top-four team, for only the second time this season.
They didn’t even need to get the win – just compete, show that they belong in that contest. But they went one better, exactly one point better, and took a scalp that adds another layer of legitimacy to what’s been a remarkable rise.
For a one-point win, it could turn out to be hugely valuable. Thanks to how the cards fell over the rest of the weekend, that victory has them in the box seat now for a top-two spot and home qualifying final, not to mention the minor premiership.
All they need to do is beat Richmond next week and there will be simply no catching them at the top of the table. But even if they lose to the Tigers in that match, top two is still likely.
Geelong and West Coast are the only two clubs in the mix to overtake them. The Cats would need to get over Carlton, and the Eagles would need to bridge a percentage gap that, while not insurmountable, would take some doing.
So long as at least one of those things doesn’t happen, the Lions are hosting a home final at the Gabba in week one of finals.
From there? Anything’s possible.
What a difference a week makes
Last Saturday night’s fixtures were a debacle on two fronts. On one channel: Essendon putting in one of the most sorry, uncompetitive, unwatchable performances in the history of the club. On the other, North Melbourne doing the exact same.
Imagine then turning to the fixture for the week to come, hoping for a better Saturday night ahead, and finding… oh no. Yet again, North on one channel, and Essendon the other. Appealing only for lovers of schadenfreude – a club to which, admittedly, I belong.
What a difference a week in football makes, though. Pity those of us who try to cast judgement upon it from week to week, especially in a season as chaotic and volatile as this! The metaphorical knives came out for both clubs during the week and already many of the comments made will look silly.
On one channel, North Melbourne. They went up against a Port Adelaide side that, really, should be the better team just on paper, but is also one that has every reason to be playing their best football right now, while North had none.
You wouldn’t tell that from watching the game though. You could be forgiven for thinking that Port were a band of regularly abused battlers, simply going through the motions while mentally planning their offseason vacations – not a team for whom a win would have nearly made finals a certainty.
North’s performance, on the other hand, I could wax lyrical about at length; for your sake I’ll only do it for a paragraph or two. They were brilliant. It was one thing to have the game sewn up at half time, quite another to then wind the margin out by another five goals in the second half. Real killer instinct.
Ben Brown, what can you say? Ten goals means one hand on not only the Coleman Medal but also the All Australian selection he has deserved for a while now. He’s the only person to kick at least 60 goals the last three years in a row, in fact the only to even do it more than once (so far). An early frontrunner for Time Magazine’s Man of the Century.
Okay, enough of that: Essendon. They didn’t do the job in quite as sterling fashion, but they made a difficult roadtrip and won a game that they should win in comfortable fashion. That’s all their fans want and it’s all a team needs to do to make finals, which they now have.
They’re even now, for all the criticisms that have been lobbed their way this year, a serious chance of ending that near-fifteen-year no-finals-wins drought – win next week and it’ll be an eliminator against GWS, who look very gettable.
Will Teague train triumph make caretaker coaches the new normal?
At the start of the 2019 AFL season it was nearly a decade since the last time a caretaker coach performed well enough to win the permanent role – Matthew Primus in 2010 – but that fact has been turned on its head over the past month.
Rhyce Shaw and David Teague have come from the clouds to join the ranks of the AFL’s senior coaches on an ongoing basis – neither of them considered at all in the conversation for such a position just three months ago – and Brett Ratten appears every chance of making it three from three.
Ratten is something of a different case to Shaw and Teague. He’s been a senior coach before and often discussed for a potential return to the role – and when he moved to the Saints at the end of last year, it felt implicit that he might be an Alan Richardson replacement in waiting.
Shaw and Teague, on the other hand, have been genuine bolters. When they were appointed as caretakers, neither of their clubs seemed genuinely interested in them as a longterm solution. North set about courting John Longmire, the Blues pursued Alastair Clarkson.
This was most clearly expressed in Chris Judd’s now-infamous ‘training wheels’ comments, where he said the Blues wanted an “experienced coach” and the Teague’s current role was “not really the same as being an actual senior coach of a football team”.
But both Shaw and now Teague made it impossible for their clubs to overlook them through the language footy most loves to speak in: results. Shaw held a 4-4 record in charge of the Roos when he was given the job (now 6-5), Teague was at 5-4 when appointed midweek, now 6-4.
Much of the discussion so far has been on what impact these appointments will have on the clubs who made them. But even more curious for me is the question of how they might impact the AFL landscape as a whole, and possibly reshape the way clubs hire and fire senior coaches.
More than a few, for example, have drawn the link between John Worsfold’s sometimes volatile position at Essendon and the Bombers’ high-profile move to poach Blake Caracella for Richmond. Deliberately or not, the Bombers have set themselves up with a highly-rated go-to option should they be in need of a caretaker coach next year.
Still, if I were a rival club considering going down this route, I’d be a little more wary. Shaw and Teague look like great prospects right now, but their clubs’ decision-making process was co-opted in both cases by overwhelming fan sentiment. Neither North nor Carlton could have gone against their fans’ will without open revolt.
Shaw is, if you ask me, a good fit for North. And it would be remiss of me not to give recognise the remarkable positive momentum that has built up at the Blues since Teague took over. Fans are singing in the streets, as they deservedly should be.
All the same – Judd’s comments, as much as they’ve been chided, are not wrong. Being a caretaker coach is not the same as the real thing. And I’m curious and excited to see just how much things will change for Shaw and Teague next year, and how they’ll handle it.
Another bad loss for Goodwin, but don’t expect to see the axe
“Why isn’t there more pressure on Simon Goodwin?” is a question that’s been asked so much in recent weeks – and particularly after this Friday night – as to be a little self-defeating. If we weren’t having the conversation before, believe me, we certainly are now.
Melbourne’s misery this year perhaps should not be the mystery we’ve treated it like. As enjoyable as their September run last year was, it wasn’t representative of where the list was at – they got a bit lucky playing against a poor Hawthorn side in the semi-finals, and their prelim performance made it clear pretty quickly that they didn’t belong at that level.
Issues on every line have been exposed and magnified this year. Their big backline recruits have played 15 of a possible 42 games, their forwards have the goal sense of David Rodan circa 2009, and their midfield is as homogenous as Ben Stiller’s dodgeball team (Blaze… Lazer… Blazer).
Despite this, the footy world – and the club – seem to have been happy enough to write this one off as being a bit of an outlier, and turning their eyes towards 2020.
That’s not to say Melbourne haven’t made some changes. The club has successfully secured the signature of Darren Burgess for 2020 and beyond – a huge get, as the former Arsenal and Port Adelaide fitness boss should directly address what’s been arguably their most derailing dilemma in 2019.
The club also conducted a radical shake-up of its coaching approach over the midseason break, moving four members of the staff to different positions. While admirably proactive, I’d actually be a little concerned that this doesn’t appear to have improved the club’s form any.
Simon Goodwin said after Friday night’s loss he feels they’ve maybe tinkered too much during the year – a comment I found a little odd, to be honest. If anything I imagine Melbourne fans feel like they’ve seen the same groundhog day performance pretty much every week.
Maybe that says it’s more an issue with the list than anything else – something I’d expect the Dees to be proactive in addressing this October, if they can find the salary cap space to do so. You can expect to hear me talk more about that soon enough.
But for now, on Goodwin’s future? He’s safe. You don’t back the man in this far into the year only to change your mind now. But there’s not a doubt in my mind that if we get halfway into 2020 and the Dees look anything like they do right now, he’ll be boxing up his desk.
Everybody gets a turn
Adelaide Crows (10-11) – They kept Brodie Grundy a little quieter than usual, but I’m not a believer in playing Sam Jacobs and Reilly O’Brien in the same side. You’d think it was probably a farewell game for Sauce, and that’s OK. Let’s not have this headache next year.
Brisbane Lions (16-5) – That Lincoln McCarthy screamer and then ice cold kick to win the match is something I could just watch over and over again. Don’t think he’d have any ill will for the Cats, but all the more dramatic that it came against his old club.
Carlton Blues (7-14) – Dale Thomas was never the recruit Carlton wanted him to be, but his tenacity to rebuild his game and find a way to contribute to the club is not something you’d find in just any player. All the best in retirement.
Collingwood Magpies (14-7) – Is that Jamie Elliott I see getting back to his best form just a few weeks from September? Lovely. Definitely at least the second-best J Elliott going around. And he’s still on the free agent list too, I notice.
Essendon Bombers (12-9) – Must have felt nostalgic for Zac Clarke to get shown up by Aaron Sandilands one last time, albeit in an AFL game rather than at training. Really went well with Fremantle’s’ “retro round” theme.
Fremantle Dockers (9-12) – If Charlie Cameron has the All Australian small forward gig sewn up, and he clearly does, then surely Michael Walters has to be leading the race for a spot on the flank. Also, bring back the green and red guernsey, full time!
Geelong Cats (15-6) – They lost the game to a small not a tall, so it arguably doesn’t make that big of a difference in the end, but Geelong, let’s not do this thing of taking Blicavs out of your backline to play him in the ruck (and play four ruckmen in the VFL).
Gold Coast Suns (3-18) – Should seriously consider going into business as the AFL’s answer to the Washington Generals, only fixtured for games where opposition legends are about to retire and need a backdrop to put on a show against.
GWS Giants (12-9) – Going to be a complete non-factor in finals the way this season is finishing up. You wonder what kind of decisions it will prompt at the club over the offseason.
Hawthorn Hawks (10-11) – Just quietly, reckon the form of Chad Wingard has been really impressive over the last few weeks. Finding his groove. I’ll go early and tip a big 2020. Also, what a beautiful way for Jarryd Roughead’s career to wrap up. Even Clarko cracked a smile!
Melbourne Demons (5-16) – Credit to Jake Melksham for the player he’s become at Melbourne, I wouldn’t have believed it possible when he left Essendon. That said, the fact he’s this club’s most dangerous playmaker says a lot about where they’re at.
North Melbourne Kangaroos (9-12) – It’s not often you kick five goals for the second time in your first 18 AFL games but get barely a mention at all – the Nick Larkey story this week. Has had what will be a really significant breakout year in 2019.
Port Adelaide Power (10-11) – Fun weekend for Scott Lycett: first, you see the team that dropped you lose the9r game in the first quarter after being brutalised in the ruck. Then, you see your old side – where you’d certainly still get a game – play what might be match of the year at the MCG.
Richmond Tigers (15-6) – Maybe we should just add a corollary to the ‘Toby Greene rule’. “Please note, this rule applies to Toby Greene only.” Seems like it would make fans a lot happier!
St Kilda Saints (9-12) – Are those who spent the early part of the year panning the Dan Hannebery trade starting to look a bit silly yet? Yes, only played four games, but statistically, his numbers have been hugely impressive. Get a clean run at it next year and he’ll look like a bargain.
Sydney Swans (7-14) – Four goals in the last two weeks from Dan Menzel, I like what I’ve seen. Hopefully gets another year at the Swans to find his groove – why not?
West Coast Eagles (15-6) – If you were putting Kennedy/Darling up against Riewoldt/Lynch for best key forward combo in the league, today wasn’t a win for them. But that arguably says more about the quality of Richmond’s backline than anything else.
Western Bulldogs (11-10) – After a tight first half, that effort to just blow GWS away in the second was remarkable – and they are rightfully now firmly in the finals mix. All they need to do is get over an Adelaide side that is begging for the season to end at Ballarat next week. Should be easy enough.