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Opinion

Seven talking points from AFL Round 2

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14th June, 2020
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The long wait is over and footy, blessed footy, is back on our TV screens. Here are my talking points from Round 2 of the 2020 AFL season.

The Suns also rise
Given the introduction of shortened quarters, and where they’re at as a football club, you could have written your own odds for the Gold Coast Suns to beat any team in the AFL by 40+ points this year.

That in itself was remarkably impressive and would have been so even against a fellow straggler of the competition. That a win of that magnitude instead came against one of this year’s premiership contenders, well, it defies belief.

Every man and his dog knows the young Suns boast potential – but they were lacklustre first up against Port Adelaide, and entered this match on a 19-game losing streak.

I’ll admit that I had my doubts over when, if at all, a win this year would come. For a club still trying to put the pieces together, COVID-19 seemed an even more untimely disaster from them than it is for the rest. But they have proven me wrong in emphatic fashion.

And the story of the night – beyond the win itself of course – was Matt Rowell, the no.1 draft pick who in just his second game was clearly best on ground with 26 touches and two goals.

Deliberations over this week’s Rising Star nomination will last all of two seconds after a performance like that. Rowell went head to head with some premiership midfielders and came out on top.

Was it the best win in Gold Coast’s history? Recency bias is hard to overcome in a situation like this. Right now, it feels like the answer is yes.

That said, it’s not as if the Suns haven’t had some impressive wins before – but those have faded in our memory because they only led to false starts. And, in Stuart Dew’s tenure at the club, they have been known for firing early in the season and fading out shortly thereafter.

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If the Suns are still putting in performances like this five, ten, or fifteen weeks down the track, then we’ll know a new era has indeed dawned on the Gold Coast.

If that means more of the exciting and watchable footy we saw on Saturday night, then my fingers are crossed it proves to be so.

Matthew Rowell of Gold Coast Suns celebrates

(Photo by Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

One-point winners should still be in panic mode
Melbourne may have escaped Marvel Stadium with a one-point victory on Saturday afternoon, but the panic alarm blaring inside the club should not be allowed to grow even one decibel more silent.

Let’s track back over a few major events for Melbourne in the past year.

In June 2019, after a horrible start to the season, they undergo a radical mid-season revamp of their coaching staff, moving just about everyone on the books to a new assignment. The result: no improvement.

At the end of the season, they hire a new fitness boss, change captains, trade their future first-round pick, and bring in four players from opposition clubs. So far, no improvement.

After an underwhelming effort in Round 1, they drop no fewer than seven players from the side in an attempt to but some fire in the players’ bellies. It works… for a grand total of 25 minutes, then normal service resumes.

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I am baffled by the Demons. They’re not perfect but they have a lot of good things in place, and the question vexes me as to why they cannot add up to at least the sum of their parts, if not ideally more than.

And I’m beginning to suspect that those making decisions at the club are no less baffled by their performances than those of us watching from the outer.

They’ve left no stone unturned and no wheel not reinvented in the past 12 months, they’ve thrown enough darts at the board to blot out the sun. Yet so far, they seem no better than they were in the early rounds of 2019.

The club has fuel enough that it could catch alight quickly at any moment – but also enough that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t happened by now, if it’s going to.

Is a change of pace coming? For their sake, I hope so. Though speaking as a fan of the club currently holding their first-round pick this next year, I could live with it taking another 12 months.

Max Gawn in a Melbourne Demons huddle

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

North’s Giant victory gives cause for optimism
Like a lot of footy fans, I’m eternally torn between the twin emotions of optimism that my side can win any match regardless of the odds, and dread that they could find a way to lose no matter how far ahead they find themselves.

For this reason, I spent the lead up to Round 2 trying to keep a lid on what felt like a foolish hope that North Melbourne could upset a powerful GWS Giants side – and then spent the last sixty seconds of the match with my fingers dug into my seat, still certain we could find a way to concede four goals in a minute and blow a golden opportunity.

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North made a bold decision at the end of last year to offer two veterans in Shaun Higgins and Todd Goldstein lengthy contract extensions when the opportunity was there, if they wanted it, to move them on to other clubs and acquire draft assets for a rebuild.

They chose to roll the dice on a belief that this list could be a successful AFL side – and so far in season 2020, that faith is being rewarded.

The Roos actually have at present a nice blend between mature veteran talent – such as Higgins, Goldstein, Ben Cunnington and Robbie Tarrant – and rising youngsters – like Cam Zurhaar, Curtis Taylor and Tarryn Thomas. That can be a recipe for success.

The most heartening aspect of 2020 has been the improvement in defensive efforts. Players like Luke McDonald and Jamie Macmillan have been whipping boys for years, but both have been outstanding so far in 2020 – not as stars of the game, but as reliable stoppers who bring the pressure when it is needed.

Of course it’s always foolish to forecast big gains in a club’s fortunes after only a round or two of football, and that is even more true than usual in 2020 when so much is uncertain.

But, here I am, quietly optimistic. And it won’t take much to make me louder.

Dockers, Blues must learn to start well
I don’t envy Carlton and Fremantle fans who must be finding it difficult to get their heads around their respective starts to the season.

Combined they make up two of only four AFL teams to start the year 0-2, but it would be fair to say that neither has yet put in a truly disgraceful performance.

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Carlton found themselves five goals behind at quarter-time in Round 1 and in the same position come Round 2. But both times they fought their way back in the game, and this week they very nearly came away with a win.

The Blues had so many good chances to take the lead in the final quarter and it’s bizarre they didn’t somehow get across the line. Last year’s Rising Star winner Sam Walsh, in particular, had a few moments he’d like back.

But as tempting as it is to think of the game as being lost in this final moments, the reality is it was lost in an uncompetitive start. The Blues will find it much easier to get a win on the board when they don’t have to come from 30 points down to do it.

Likewise, Fremantle have twice in a row conceded big leads to their opponents only to rush home but ultimately fall just short of a stunning comeback.

The right goal at the right time could’ve gotten them a win in either Round 1 against Essendon or this week against the Brisbane Lions, but it was not to be.

Both of these sides are trying to figure out life under a new coach and integrating new names into their team. Fremantle are quite inexperienced, Carlton too if you ignore the significant outliers of Kade Simpson and Eddie Betts.

Perhaps now that weekly football games are back on the menu we will get the chance to see what these sides can do if they put together a four-quarter performance.

I don’t expect either to make finals this year, but they aren’t without reason to be optimistic.

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Sam Walsh runs with the ball

Sam Walsh. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Powerful Port put Ken Hinkley’s sack watch on hiatus
If Ken Hinkley entered the 2020 AFL season under some serious pressure to keep his job – and he did – he could hardly have done more to put some credit in the bank over the first two rounds.

Port sit very comfortably on top of the ladder after two rounds, one of only a handful of sides to win both of their opening games, and with a stunning percentage of nearly 300.

Short of finals and premierships, there’s surely no better way for a coach in the state of South Australia to ingratiate himself with the club and its fans than to smack around the opposition in a Showdown.

Port coughed up the first two goals of Showdown 48, the kicked 17 of the next 20 to run out winners by 75 points. That would be a devastating win in a full-length game, let alone the shortened format.

The pessimist approach would, of course, point out that Port Adelaide’s victories so far have both come against sides we probably think could or should be in the bottom four this year.

But you can only beat who you’re playing, and the Power have done so with the kind of confidence and authority that you would expect to see from a finals-bound team.

Will it translate to consistent and competitive performances against the AFL’s more powerful opponents? Only time will tell, but you could not have asked for more so far.

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Ken Hinkley Port Adelaide Power AFL

Power coach Ken Hinkley. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Do shortened quarters have a long future?
If there was ever a match to prove the folly of reading too much into too little, Thursday night’s season re-opener between Collingwood and Richmond was it.

The Pies and the Tigers played what I hope will go down as the worst game of 2020, and after months without footy, we all asked if perhaps the shortening of quarters has ruined the game we love.

Then the rest of the week happened, and while there were good games and bad, footy mostly returned to normal. Thursday night’s snoozefest proved to be an outlier.

And thank goodness for that. It was the lowest-scoring match the AFL has seen since 1999, the lowest-scoring draw since 1991 and only the fifth draw in the history of the game (and the first in 100 years) where no goals were kicked in the final quarter.

Ever since shorter quarters were introduced there’s been ongoing debate about just how long they should stay in the game.

I’ve been curious for years about what a shortened version of the game would look like. So far, I don’t love it, and I suspect I’m on the same page as the majority of footy fans in that regard.

That said, there’s an argument to be made that shortened quarters make for more unpredictable footy, which I think is something we all love.

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The longer a game goes on, the more likely it is that a quality team will eventually assert themselves. If an underdog manages to shock a superior side early, then a shorter gametime makes it easier for them to hold on for victory.

Like many, I was ready to close the book on shortened quarters after Thursday night – but the remaining events have left the door open an inch. Any setup that has North 2-0 must be a good one!

Trent Cotchin reacts

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Everybody gets a turn
Adelaide Crows (0-2) – In 30 years of AFL football, the Crows have never recorded fewer than seven wins in a season. The shortened season doesn’t help, but even if we were playing a full 22-gamer I’d doubt they could get to that mark in 2020.

Brisbane Lions (1-1) – It was good for Brisbane to get a win on the board after disappointing in Round 1, but I’d say they’re yet to convince us they can maintain their 2019 performances into the new year. Hoping they do, exciting side to watch.

Carlton Blues (0-2) – Two rounds in and Jacob Weitering looks like one of the breakout players of 2020. Has shut down Tom Lynch and Tom McDonald in the first two rounds and just looked elite while doing it.

Collingwood Magpies (1-0-1) – I know Collingwood have depth, but you can’t tell me someone with the goal-scoring abilities of Jaidyn Stephenson isn’t best 22 in this team. What’s going on there?

Essendon Bombers (2-0) – They are one of only three sides to boast a perfect record after two rounds, but those wins are against two of last year’s bottom six by a combined total of two goals. If you know what to make of that, you know more than I do.

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Fremantle Dockers (0-2) – Fremantle fans would’ve enjoyed an impressive performance from James Aish. Relegated to the backline at Collingwood, he’s proving more than capable of a midfield role at the Dockers now that he has been given the opportunity.

Geelong Cats (1-1) – Between Brandan Parfitt’s cornrows, Quinton Narkle’s bleach blond, and Cam Guthrie looking like he should be off screaming at a volleyball somewhere, Geelong are definitely the best haircut side of the AFL. And dreadlocked Gryan Miers (20 disposals, three goals) is a star.

Gold Coast Suns (1-1) – The Suns have beaten every opposition team in the competition at least once… except for Adelaide, their opponents in Round 3. And on this week’s form, you’d expect them to win comfortably.

GWS Giants (1-1) – The Giants have just about the cleanest bill of health we’ve seen from them in many years, with Tim Taranto the only name of note on the sidelines right now. That just makes this week’s result all the more underwhelming.

Hawthorn Hawks (1-1) – Is Tim O’Brien and Jonathon Patton the key forward combination to take Hawthorn to the next level? Colour me thoroughly unconvinced.

Melbourne Demons (1-1) – Amidst an unconvincing performance from Melbourne, it was a great day for Christian Petracca, who had 24 touches and two goals. And in a good news story, Harley Bennell made it through his return game without incident – he didn’t star, but looked promising.

North Melbourne Kangaroos (2-0) – Already gushed about North enough this week so I’ll spare your more of it here. Except this: I love Tarryn Thomas.

Port Adelaide Power (2-0) – No second-year blues from Connor Rozee, Zak Butters and Xavier Duursma if Saturday night is anything to go by. All three were outstanding, Butters probably should’ve won the Showdown Medal.

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Richmond Tigers (1-0-1) – Jack Higgins loves kicking controversial goals against Collingwood, and I love watching Jack Higgins kick controversial goals against Collingwood. So, so, so happy to see him fit, well, and celebrating snags.

St Kilda Saints (1-1) – They had a lot of time to stew on the Round 1 fadeout, and the response coming back this week could not have been better. New recruits seem to be fitting in well – a team to watch.

Sydney Swans (1-1) – Don’t understand why there wasn’t more interest in Lewis Taylor come last year’s trade period. Three goals this week, the Swans may have found themselves a genuine bargain.

West Coast Eagles (1-1) – It’s hard to pick the most worrying aspect of this week’s result for the Eagles. It’s probably the fact their star midfield quartet all performed well on the stat sheet, yet it didn’t translate to a competitive performance. Kicking 6.10 in front of goal didn’t help.

Western Bulldogs (0-2) – I’ve loved watching the young, exciting Bulldogs for a few years now, but at some point they have to become the mature, reliable Bulldogs. It starts at the selection table.