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Seven talking points from AFL Round 3

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21st June, 2020
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It’s been a history-making weekend of AFL footy. Here are my talking points from Round 3.

Matthew Nicks has a mountain to climb
Round 3 in the Queensland hub was the Adelaide Crows’ first week of camping out on the Gold Coast, and it went about as well for them as the last time they did that.

After their respective results in Round 2 we entered this weekend thinking the Suns just might be able to get a win over Adelaide for the first time, but their total demolition of the Crows still left us stunned.

Gold Coast held Adelaide to 0.0 in the first term – the first time in their history that they’ve kept an opposition side to a scoreless quarter – but kicked an inaccurate 2.7 despite their dominance.

They put their kicking boots on after quarter time, though, and started nailing them from everywhere, kicking 10.3 for the rest of the match and running out victors by 53 points.

Matt Rowell backed up last week’s breakout game with another dominant performance, Ben King booted three goals, and Connor Budarick may well have earned the club back-to-back Rising Star nominations.

But while the narrative of the match will deservedly be focused around Gold Coast’s rapid improvement, it simultaneously served as a compelling illustration of just how far the Crows have fallen.

Matthew Nicks, Senior Coach of the Crows

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

Adelaide now have three losses for the season by a combined total of 131 points and sit very comfortably on the bottom of the ladder. It’s the first time in 20 years they’ve finished a round in that position.

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The 2020 season already looks like a complete write-off for the club and it’s hard to see where a circuit breaker is going to come from.

When a new senior coach arrives we usually expect a team to get the ‘new coach bounce’ and play a bit above themselves for a few weeks as the shackles are loosened up and the players look to impress the new boss.

Adelaide instead have gone in the opposite direction. While that may not in the long term prove to be a bad omen for Nicks’ time at the club, it certainly says something about the magnitude of the task he has been charged with.

Footy gets its first case of coronavirus
It’s the news we hoped never to read but should have known we someday would – an AFL player, Essendon’s Conor McKenna, has been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The news broke on Saturday afternoon and has thrown the season back into chaos, with Essendon’s Sunday fixture against Melbourne postponed indefinitely.

McKenna appears likely to face a lengthy suspension after reportedly breaching the AFL’s prevention protocols to attend an open house and visit family and friends.

Innocuous enough activities to be sure, but the Bombers had just recently been served the object lesson of Brandon Zerk-Thatcher’s one-game ban for breaking protocols only a week prior.

Zerk-Thatcher was one of four players suspended for Round 2 due to protocol breaches and I wonder if the activities of every player were to probed – as McKenna’s now have been – how many more we might find.

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Hopefully the news – and a lengthy spell on the sidelines for McKenna and anyone else caught out from now on – serves as a wake-up call to players who are bending the rules.

Conor McKenna of the Bombers

(AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy)

What comes next for Essendon isn’t immediately clear, but the AFL’s general counsel Andrew Dillon suggested on Sunday that so long as the club has enough players available to field a team, they’ll be expected to play.

That would be a massive blow if McKenna’s training group are all required to quarantine for the next two weeks as – contrary to AFL advice – the Dons had essentially their entire first-choice back line training together.

Adam Saad, Cale Hooker, Michael Hurley, Matt Guelfi, Jordan Ridley and Mason Redman would all then be on the sidelines, forcing Essendon to assemble a back six of chewing gum and prayer.

At some point down the line Essendon and Melbourne will need to make up the game. And that means…

It’s the flexible fixture’s time to shine
Finding a new time and place for the game between the Dons and the Dees will be the first big test of the AFL’s new flexible fixture, which after the next two rounds, does not yet have any games locked in.

A balanced solution will need to be found to keep the season on track while not putting either club too far out. One would expect they’ll wind up playing a game mid-week at some point, with their nearby fixtures spaced out to maximise breaks.

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Whatever the competition does, it – like every other aspect of the response to this event – must be thoroughly considered before being put into action.

Odds are this won’t be our last case of COVID-19 in the AFL and whatever decision the league makes now will have to stand as precedent for the rest of the season. That leaves little margin for error.

Gillon McLachlan

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

While the AFL are figuring that one out, they may also start taking the opportunity to tinker with just which sides they are putting into prime-time TV slots.

Richmond have already appeared in three Thursday night matches this season and have another to come in Round 5, but have played some unwatchable footy over the last fortnight in particular.

Meanwhile, the Gold Coast Suns – who have as yet never been scheduled into a Thursday or Friday game – look like they’ve earned a bit of prime-time TV love.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see some of the teams who are playing the most watchable footy right now get a look-in? And if that proves a winner, perhaps broadcasters will push for a flexible fixture to become the norm.

Giants and Bulldogs bring back the biff
I’ll admit that heading into Friday night’s grudge match between the Bulldogs and GWS, I felt that the media were pumping a bit too much air into the tires of the modern-day rivalry.

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But the events of the game showed that there was no lack of feeling in this fixture, with players from both sides bringing an extra dose of physicality right from the opening moments.

The Giants appeared to be the side that wanted to bring the psychological pressure, harassing their opponents on the field and targeting Bulldogs skipper Marcus Bontempelli.

In a very unconventional move, GWS sent Nick Haynes – who had his larynx fractured by the Bulldogs skipper late last year – to go opposite to Bontempelli at the coin toss.

Most fans understood this as a ploy to unsettle Bontempelli before the match began. The Giants went to some effort to quash that narrative after the match, but realistically it’s hard to read it any other way.

From there on out it seemed GWS would take any opportunity to exert their tough-guy status, but right from the opening minute of the match – wherein they conceded a free kick and 50-metre penalty to gift Josh Dunkley an easy goal – it seemed the preoccupation was hurting their performance.

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Of course, the fact they were missing the likes of Josh Kelly and Toby Greene, before losing Lachie Whitfield shortly into the match, didn’t help either.

Toby Greene celebrates a goal

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

And while Greene’s absence was probably good for his record with the AFL Tribunal, the mental picture we all imagine of him bouncing up and down at home filled with FOMO was certainly good for a chuckle.

How much did the result tell us about the quality of these two teams? To put it simply, for the Bulldogs especially, I don’t know that it’s wise to read any more out of this week’s result than you did last’s.

Of course, while we’re on that topic…

Hot and cold footy is hard to get a grip on
After watching Hawthorn demolish Richmond on Thursday night, I mentally pencilled in plans to talk about the vast gap between the last two weeks of performances from the Hawks, and what we might read into it.

In Round 2 you could’ve watched them and started composing their epitaph. They looked a complete shambles despite fielding the oldest and most experienced team in the league – a fine thing to do if you win, but an alarm bell if you don’t.

But if you instead viewed Round 3 in isolation you’d argue this side might just have a flag push left in them yet. That midfield has a nice variety of weapons and when they all fire, it’s something to behold.

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Jaeger O’Meara on his return from injury was influential, while Chad Wingard’s impressive form suggests he’s having the vastly improved season that his finish to 2019 suggested he was capable of.

Chad Wingard

(Michael Willson/AFL Photos)

However as the weekend went on, the odds of isolating a discussion around hot and cold form to a single team dropped away dramatically.

We’re only three weeks into the season but already down to just a single team that can boast a 3-0 record and only two yet to find a win.

With a few notable exceptions, just about every team in the first three weeks of the competition has managed to go from rags to riches or the reverse, and quite possibly back again.

I wrote last week that shortened game time made unusual results more likely, and Saturday threw up great examples in the matches of North Melbourne versus Sydney and Geelong versus Carlton.

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These are both games where a side that entered as underdogs managed to get up despite the favourites coming home strong in the final quarter. Had they been played to regulation time the results might have been different.

What does it all up to? Simply put, for all but a small handful of teams, it’s too soon to tell just how well 2020 will go. I’ve got an inkling that Collingwood are pretty good, Adelaide not so much, and beyond that it’s all guesswork.

Jack Martin and Eddie Betts prove worthy recruits
Last year’s trade period proved a contentious one for Carlton. They targeted three small forwards from rival clubs and when the deadline came, had got only one of them over the line.

That player was Eddie Betts, a former club hero returning to the navy blue. And while it was a lovely footy story to see him make an emotional homecoming, questions lingered over what impact the 33-year-old could really have on the club.

There are questions no more. Betts may not be the superstar he once was, but his influence on the result this weekend was unmistakable.

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Eddie Betts

(Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

In addition to kicking two goals of his own and handing off multiple assists, Betts wrote himself into legend yet again in the frenzied final minute with an outstanding tackle to strip Jack Henry of the ball before taking a mark in forward 50 to chew the last seconds off the clock.

While Betts’ brilliance was the heartwarming story of the night, it would be remiss of me not to send some praise the way of Carlton’s other big-name recruit via the Gold Coast, Jack Martin.

Martin may not have found his way to Carlton by the end of last year’s trade period but did get there finally in the pre-season draft, and has made every minute worth it since.

I’ll admit that I thought Martin might struggle to adapt at a new and bigger club this year – especially under the extra scrutiny the large contract used to get him through the PSD could bring – but he has been nothing short of remarkable in his brief Carlton career to date.

He played largely through the midfield on Saturday night and was one of Carlton’s most influential. His sublime skills mixed with manic pressure and a hard edge makes him a well rounded and dangerous player.

The Blues may not have landed the third of their targets in Tom Papley, but right now the club would be rapt with what they’re getting out of Betts and Martin. Here’s hoping for more highlights to come.

Everybody gets a turn
Adelaide Crows (0-3) – Brad Crouch, Matt Crouch, Rory Sloane, Rory Laird, Brodie Smith, Tom Lynch, Daniel Talia, Reilly O’Brien – these are all good AFL players, are they not? Maybe not elite, but certainly too good to only kick one goal in three quarters against last year’s wooden spooners.

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Brisbane Lions (2-1) – Brisbane have got some absolute stars out of the draft in recent years, but one who regularly flies under the radar is Jarrod Berry. Not so this week, thanks to a three-goal performance. Underrated, and could captain the club.

(AAP Image/Darren England)

Carlton Blues (1-2) – Kade Simpson might owe Eddie Betts a beverage after that final minute. If the Cats had been allowed to sneak over the line he’d be sitting equal with Fitzroy’s Kevin Murray for the most games lost by a VFL/AFL player right now.

Collingwood Magpies (2-0-1) – Josh Daicos cementing a spot in this Collingwood side has been a highlight of the season so far. And it only gets better for Collingwood fans – another Daicos brother, Nick, will likely join the club in next year’s draft.

Essendon Bombers (2-0) – The best way to keep an undefeated record alive in the AFL? Just don’t play.

Fremantle Dockers (0-3) – Would have pencilled in next week’s match against Gold Coast as a likely win come the start of the season. Now, well, not so sure. Still, unlike the other team sitting winless right now, they have some positives to take from the year.

Geelong Cats (1-2) – Esava Ratugolea double-fisting his own teammate’s shot on goal seems destined to be one of those bizarre moments we remember for a long time. That it happened in a loss by less than a goal only makes you cringe all the more.

Gold Coast Suns (2-1) – As if winning the match on the field wasn’t enough, Hugh Greenwood giving Mark Ricciuto a serve on Twitter regarding his comments earlier in the week was just icing on the cake.

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GWS Giants (1-2) – They’ve had two pretty rubbish weeks but don’t start closing the premiership window on them just yet. The Giants remain stacked with talent and are going to be very good for a long time.

Hawthorn Hawks (2-1) – Nearly fielded the oldest side in VFL/AFL history this week, but a late change to take Paul Puopolo out of the team saw them fall short.

Melbourne Demons (1-1) – Didn’t get to put a team on the field this week but if they did it would’ve been without Nathan Jones, who was dropped at selection. With 287 games under his belt, can he be the first in club history to make it to 300? Looks more unlikely than likely at this stage.

North Melbourne Kangaroos (2-1) – Points in first halves this year: 59. Points in second halves this year: 139. Maybe give the players a cup of coffee or two before the game. Something needs to get them going.

Port Adelaide Power (3-0) – Are we seeing an unlikely career revival from Trent McKenzie? You could be forgiven for having forgotten he existed, but that left foot on ‘The Cannon’ is still just as much of a weapon as his nickname suggests.

Richmond Tigers (1-1-1) – It’s been a stunningly poor fortnight since footy came back for Richmond, despite the fact that most felt they would be one of the clubs best equipped to navigate the COVID shutdown. Curious to see what happens next.

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Trent Cotchin reacts

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

St Kilda Saints (1-2) – It wasn’t a day to write home about for the Saints, but the contributions of former Tiger Dan Butler so far this year are worthy of celebration. There’s a few clubs who’d be kicking themselves over not having made a play for him right now.

Sydney Swans (2-1) – The Swans are yet to play in a game decided by more than two goals this year. Hard to know what to make of that, but they had many impressive performers this week. Liked seeing more of Isaac Heeney in the midfield, can we get Callum Mills there too?

West Coast Eagles (1-2) – We initially thought the hub might work out well for West Coast – especially with extra home games at the back end of the year – but so far it has been a disaster. Won’t take many more losses to lose their chance at a top-two spot on the ladder.

Western Bulldogs (1-2) – After being stuck as a third fiddle to Sam Walsh and Connor Rozee last year, Bailey Smith’s outstanding start to the season is getting him the plaudits he deserves. As exciting as any young player in the comp.