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Opinion

Six talking points from AFL Round 1

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22nd March, 2020
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We’ve never seen a stranger round of football played than Round 1 of 2020, and it’s going to be a while before the AFL’s 18 clubs line up again. Here, despite the bizzarre and unusual circumstances, are my talking points from the weekend.

Crowd or no crowd, good footy is still a delight to watch
On Wednesday night Richmond and Carlton named their squads for the season opener not knowing if the game would go ahead, but late in the evening the AFL signalled its intent to play Round 1 as scheduled.

With no crowd at the MCG, footy fans everywhere were immediately struck by the radical change in tone of footy without an audience, and “eerie” became the word of choice on social media.

At halftime, I had grave doubts about the watchability of no-crowd footy, but as Carlton mounted a charge, particularly early in the fourth quarter, the match grew engrossing enough that we were able to find a bit of the footy thrill.

Three games were decided by a goal or less in the opening round, and while the roar of the crowd would’ve added some atmosphere, they were engaging and watchable contests nonetheless.

This was especially true also in the AFLW semi-finals, where North Melbourne defeated Collingwood in a see-sawing thriller first up, leading into Melbourne recording an incredible final-quarter comeback over GWS.

It’s not going to become anyone’s go-to preference, but this weekend proved that even without a live audience, good footy is still good footy.

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AFL goes American
As one of few professional sporting leagues continuing on in the world this weekend, the AFL suddenly found itself under probably the largest international spotlight it ever has.

Fox Sports put the AFL front and central on its American broadcasts – albeit still at awkward times for US-based sports lovers to tune in – and social media was awash with new fans of the game.

Watching American fans piece together exactly how our native sport works and find a passion for teams and places they’ve never before met brought a nice bit of levity and fun to a weekend where we badly needed it.

Obviously I’m biased but Australian rules has legitimate objective claims to being one of the world’s best sporting spectacles. It’s dynamic, physical, high-scoring, and above all unpredictable – not a mix of traits you can find in every sport.

Don’t expect this to suddenly put AFL on the map as a global phenomenon longterm – although it’s certainly good timing for the proposed GWS vs Essendon game in Los Angeles to be on the agenda.

It was a nice moment though – and to any Americans reading in this, you should all become North Melbourne fans. The stress will take years off your life, but it’s worth it to watch Ben Brown’s absurdly long run-ups.

Ben Cunnington celebrates a goal

(Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

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Tough losses for AFL’s new coaches
Five new senior AFL coaches took their clubs into Round 1 for the first time this week, and while each had reason to feel encouraged, only one of five got a win.

David Teague’s Blues went down to Richmond by 24 points on Friday night. They would’ve been disappointed by their efforts in the first quarter, but competed well during the rest of the match.

One always had the sense that Richmond could put their foot closer to the floor if they needed to though, and ultimately what I liked most for Carlton was David Teague’s refusal to be happy with an honourable loss.

“We’re coming here to win, and that’s our goal” – a big step forward from the Brendon Bolton era of not judging seasons on wins and losses, and one to leave Blues fans feeling excited.

Justin Longmuir, Matthew Nicks and Brett Ratten meanwhile suffered losses by a goal or less. For the first two they were still relatively solid peformances, but Ratten would be frustrated with his team’s inability to secure the four points form a winning position.

Inaccuracy still seems to be St Kilda’s issue – 29 points up at halftime, the Saints dominated the early part of the third quarter but their reward for effort was just three behinds.

Ratten’s loss was Rhyce Shaw’s gain. The Roos wouldn’t want to leave it so late very often, but for a side that spent nearly half the game down to one man on the bench, this was a famous win.

St Kilda coach Brett Ratten looks on

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Potential superstars show elite form early
Across the league, three performances from players who we’ve always known have the talent to be genuine top-tier footballers really stood out to me this weekend.

The first was Jack Martin on debut for Carlton, whose biggest highlight was kicking four set-shot goals in the third quarter to help the Blues get back into the contest.

He also had ten score involvments for the match, a remarkably good effort. I was sceptical he could go to the next level in 2020, but maybe he has it in him.

Then on Saturday, the likes of Dylan Shiel and Isaac Heeney tore it up in their respective games, both proving to be matchwinners in close finishes.

Heeney was Sydney’s most dangerous forward option, booting four goals, but also helping to keep the ball locked in their forward half with five intercepts.

Shiel, on the other hand, was the prolific midfield presence Essendon have been craving, racking up 35 touches and nine clearances – in shortened gametime! – as well as five score involvements.

Round 1 is always the most over-analysed of the season – and that’s going to be even more the case in 2020 than it is usually – but I like what I saw from this trio early.

Isaac Heeney celebrates a goal

(Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Giants rebound well from grand final loss
GWS’s grand final loss to Richmond was about a deep a nadir as you’ll find in footy, and there was much speculation over the offseason that it could take them a full 12 months to recover.

Again, history tells us that making big calls after Round 1 is more than a little premature, but it was impossible not to be impressed by the quality of the Giants’ performance on Saturday night.

They went up against last year’s preliminary finalists in Geelong and while the Cats put up a good show, the Giants were a class above.

Of course, a major factor in that was their remarkable accuracy in front of goal, kicking 17.3 for the night, winning by more than five goals despite only recording two more scoring shots than their opponents.

But Stephen Coniglio’s first game as captain was top notch with 19 touches and two goals, while those superstars Toby Greene, Josh Kelly and Jeremy Cameron all played excellent footy.

I also liked the impact of Sam Jacobs on his club debut. He didn’t necessarily dominate in the ruck but managed to break even, and laid an impressive five tackles for the night.

Toby Greene celebrates a goal

(Photo by Matt King/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Over and out
Well, I hope you enjoyed the weekend of footy, because it’s the last we’re going to see for some time.

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Gillon McLachlan announced earlier this afternoon that the season has been postponed indefinitely, with June the earliest we could possibly see footy return.

A shutdown was always going to be inevitable, and news that South Australia is closing its borders on Tuesday and Victoria and New South Wales are both looking to go into lockdown means continuing the season is simply untenable.

It is most heartbreaking for those AFLW players representing North Melbourne, Melbourne, Fremantle and Carlton who this weekend won their way into preliminary finals that have now been cancelled, with the 2020 premiership to go unawarded.

It is what it is and as much as we’ll missing having footy on the airwaves, the right call for the health and safety of the public has been made.

I don’t know what’s going to now, or when we’ll talk again. Take good care of yourselves and those around you, and feel free any time to reach out to me on social media. I’m always up for a chat.