Round 4 is complete and, hey, the AFL has made it a whole seven days without a positive COVID-19 test. Hoorah! Here are my talking points from the week.
A big year from big Charlie can make Port Adelaide a contender
It’s becoming harder and harder as the weeks go by to ignore the form of the Port Adelaide Football Club.
When they ran roughshod over the likes of Gold Coast, Adelaide and Fremantle in the first three weeks we found it easy enough to say that those were three teams expected to do poorly and that the wins were not necessarily all that impressive even if they came by comfortable margins.
Even after this week’s nine-goal victory against West Coast you could make the case that, despite their supposed contender status, the Eagles’ form has been so poor lately as to make it not really all that impressive a scalp.
A Port Adelaide fan might reply to that with the classic and undoubtedly true refrain that you can only beat the opposition in front of you. And, they might ask, if Port have not beaten any of the ‘good’ teams yet, could you please point out these good teams on the ladder for me?
Because every other team has a fault against their name so far in 2020, many of them in embarrassing fashion at least once over the first four rounds. And the team most closely trailing Port for their spot on the top of the table is one they’ve already beaten and last year’s wooden spooners.
Still not convinced? Neither am I. It wouldn’t be unlike Port Adelaide under Ken Hinkley to have a hot start to the season and then eventually fade out and settle for a position somewhere in that odious ninth-to-12th bracket.
But I would argue that perhaps Port’s greatest barometer and the best argument that they are indeed a different beast to recent years is the form of Charlie Dixon, who at the closing of the round leads the Coleman with 11 goals following a bag of six this week.
It’s not just the fact he leads the Coleman; it’s who he leads it from. The next key forward on the list is Levi Casboult with eight goals, last year’s Coleman winner Jeremy Cameron is in fifth with seven, and they’ve both played an extra game on him. If the season ended right now, Dixon is All Australian comfortably.
Dixon, who was injured in a preseason game, is one of the big beneficiaries of the COVID-19 shutdown period. And it’s injuries that have troubled him not just earlier this year but throughout his career.
The last time he played a full season of his best form? it was 2017, kicking 49 goals across 23 games. And not by coincidence Port Adelaide were finalists that year, finishing fifth on the ladder after the home-and-away season was completed.
Dixon is arguably Port Adelaide’s most important player. If he can stay fit and stay in form throughout the rest of 2020, then a top-four spot is very much within the Power’s grasp.
Sydney must find a way to keep Tom Papley
If we reach this year’s trade period – at whatever time of year that might ultimately occur – and Tom Papley turns to the Swans and repeats his trade request from 2019, it will be an absolute disaster for that footy club.
Having just moments ago mentioned the Coleman Medal race, we can’t ignore that fact that close behind Dixon and in second place with ten goals for the year is the 178-centimetre Papley, who himself kicked four goals this week in a losing effort against the Bulldogs.
Seeing Lance Franklin again this year appears to be a coin-flip proposition at this stage, and regardless of whether or not he gets back to add to his career games tally this year or next, we can agree that he’s no longer a key plank Sydney can design their team around.
Instead Papley is now Sydney’s most dangerous forward threat by a comfortable margin – perhaps in contest with Isaac Heeney, but the latter is just as needed in the midfield as he is the forward line and in an ideal world would probably play the majority of the game there.
If the Swans lose Papley, what noted goalkickers do they then possess? There is burgeoning potential in the likes of Nick Blakey and Tom McCartin and the possibility of adding Joe Daniher to the side, but Papley would undoubtedly be an enormous loss.
What should give the club and its fans some cause for optimism is that the decision to hold Papley to his contract has not damaged his on-field form in the slightest. If anything, he appears to have gone to another level this year.
That shows a real desire to make the best of his current circumstances and perhaps opens up the possibility of him falling in love with the club again.
Swans fans themselves would happily point out that their own 2012 Norm Smith medallist Ryan O’Keefe was once adamant in his desire to be traded to Hawthorn, but when the Swans denied him he recmomitted to the club and went on to be a legend of it.
Disappointment derby: Eagles vs Tigers a must-watch match for all the wrong reasons
When the season began Richmond and West Coast, the two most recent premiers and the latter having just landed the biggest coup of the trade period, entered it as the two most clear flag favourites and perhaps the likeliest and most anticipated possible grand final match-up.
In those circumstances you’d expect the home-and-away fixture between them – the only one for the year now, though they were originally scheduled to play two – to be one of the most anticipated of the year.
And that may well prove the case, but for entirely more sombre reasons.
When the two large and ordinarily mightly clubs meet next week – at Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast of all places – they will do so with just two wins between them. If you could have predicted any of those circumstances six months ago, I’d be interested in your thoughts on this week’s lotto numbers.
Both sides were solid in Round 1 this year but have looked shadows of themselves since coming back from the COVID-19 shutdown, which is perhaps especially surprising given many of us expected it would be these most professional and mature clubs who handled the hiatus better than any.
The Eagles can make a reasonable case that the difficult and unusual circumstances of playing on the Gold Coast is their biggest woe right now, and they may be right – only one side out of four currently relocated to south-east Queensland has got a win so far.
If so, then you’d expect them to come out breathing fire when they return to Optus Stadium, and the remarkably good news for the club is that they’re set to play seven consecutive matches at the venue when they do return. That should be enough to get their season back on track.
Still, one wonders if form is something that can be turned off and on so easily or if allowing the club and players to make excuses for themselves is conducive to another premiership push. Time will tell, and I look forward to finding out.
As for Richmond, the funk they find themselves in is harder to explain. For reasons we can’t yet fully explain the shutdown seems to have hit them as hard, if not harder, than anyone.
But here’s a thought: in 2017 it was the fab four of Dustin Martin, Alex Rance, Jack Riewoldt and Trent Cotchin who guided them to a drought-breaking flag. Flash forward to 2020 and Rance is gone, neither Cotchin nor Martin is playing at the level they did and 31-year-old Riewoldt has hit a dry patch that at least some feel may signal the decline of his career.
Three weeks of form is by a fair distance too few with which to begin forecasting doom, but there’s no doubting a lot is on the line for both of these clubs next week. And those high stakes, if not the good form of either side, will prove worth tuning in for.
Look out, Matt, there’s a rival for the Rising Star
With the likes of Josh Kelly and Toby Greene returning to the side this week, if GWS wanted a matchwinner to turn to in the final quarter, they certainly had plenty of top-brand names who might stand up in that moment.
Given that, it would be a pleasant and very welcome surprise that perhaps the most notable effort came not from one of their established A-graders but a second-game draftee in Tom Green.
Green, who looks set to enjoy a long career of being mistaken for his similarly surnamed teammate, had a match-high seven clearances and kicked a goal on Friday night to be one of the most influential figures in a tight victory that could prove a valuable circuit-breaker for the now 2-2 Giants.
The tall midfielder was ranked the second-best player in last year’s draft pool by Champion Data and has been compared to Patrick Cripps, a thought GWS will be licking their lips over. Were that not exciting enough, he also has a small army of younger brothers who’ll also be academy eligible.
This week’s Rising Star nomination looks like a formality on the back of a performance like that, and it could also mean Green cements his spot in the Giants’ best side for the next couple of weeks at least.
If he can hold onto that spot and keep producing this kind of form, does that make him a contender against Matt Rowell for this year’s Rising Star award?
Look, still probably not – Rowell is not just showing talent but performing consistently as a star of the competition right now and can’t yet even be comfortably ruled out of the race for the Brownlow. Just four games into his career and we’re already thinking of his 20 disposals and two goals, arguably best on ground for the third week in a row, as a typical Matt Rowell performance.
Still, Green’s form is another feather in the hat of this year’s draft class, which so far is also being well represented by the likes of Noah Anderson, Connor Budarick, Hayden Young and Trent Rivers, just to name a few. Caleb Serong, Jack Mahony and Louis Butler all got their AFL debuts this weekend too.
The race for the Rising Star – Rowellsing Star? – does already seem to be all but over, but we’ve got plenty to look forward to from this newest crop of AFL players.
St Kilda’s trade recruits are proving their worth
After being humbled by Collingwood in Round 3 it would’ve been all too easy for St Kilda to go into their shells and accept another year of mediocre footy, especially heading into a fixture against the reigning premiers.
Instead Brett Ratten kept encouraging his side to play daring, attacking footy, and it paid off in the form of a comfortable 26-point victory over a Richmond side that, while not having a great year, are still a notable scalp.
You could pick out any number of positives for the Saints, but the one that made headlines is one of their five offseason trade recruits in Dan Butler, himself a former premiership Tiger, who kicked three important goals to guide his new club to victory.
While I’m sure Butler has nothing but love for his former club, it would be immensely satisfying to deliver a matchwinning performance like that in any fixture, especially one that comes against a side which couldn’t find a spot for you the year prior.
But Butler was not St Kilda’s only notable new face. Brad Hill contributed well with 19 touches and a goal, Dougal Howard helped Jake Carlisle keep Lynch-Riewoldt combination to three goals and, while it wasn’t Zak Jones’s most prolific game for his new club, he’s had an impressive start to the year.
The only one of St Kilda’s five trade recruits who didn’t feature in the game was Paddy Ryder, who was a late withdrawal – officially being ‘managed’, but many would suspect for tactical reasons.
The Ryder and Rowan Marshall combination took Tim English to the cleaners in Round 2 but was well beaten by Todd Goldstein in Round 1 and Brodie Grundy in Round 3. Marshall looked good on his own this week – as he did all of last year, just quietly – and the Saints definitely have some work to do here.
Still, they’re making it hard for even their notoriously beaten-down and pessimistic supporter base not to feel happy after a win like that. There’s potential here, and what’s more, they’re playing an exciting brand of footy. A team to watch.
Everybody gets a turn
Adelaide Crows (0-4) – If dropping Matt Crouch for this week’s match was a tactic intended to fire up Adelaide’s mature brigade into a more competitive performance, it proved an underwhelming one. The Crows were okay in the third quarter but ultimately flattered by Brisbane’s inaccurate kicking.
Brisbane Lions (3-1) – Next week’s match against Port Adelaide shapes as one of the most anticipated of the season so far. Will be tough with Dayne Zorko set to miss, but both teams are in good form. Exciting prospect.
Carlton Blues (2-2) – Great to see the breakout performance from David Cuningham that Carlton believed was possible when they selected him in the 2015 draft. Cuningham, whose last name inexplicably does not contain a double N, looms as the AFL’s most typo-able player since Mathew ‘one-T’ Stokes.
Collingwood Magpies (2-1-1) – If Brodie Grundy is Collingwood’s most important player, Jeremy Howe is their second. After suffering both a PCL rupture and damage to his medial ligament, it’s not clear yet how long he’ll be absent, but it’s likely to be a while. Devastating news for a contender.
Essendon Bombers (2-1) – The Bombers have now played three matches for a combined margin of 13 points. I said after their win against Sydney it was hard to tell where they’re at. It’s feeling easier now – mired in mediocrity, as per usual.
Fremantle Dockers (0-4) – Another case of playing competitive footy without quite being able to get a win on the board. But there’s good news: they come up against the league’s only other 0-4 team next week and someone’s got to break their drought.
Geelong Cats (2-2) – There aren’t many players they’d be more aggrieved by losing to injury than Tom Stewart, unfortunate news for the Cats. And a little lucky just to have the 2-2 record right now. An interesting few weeks to follow.
Gold Coast Suns (3-1) – The last two weeks they’ve won matches that, on form, you’d expect they probably would. A trip to Geelong next week is a sterner test. I’m excited to see how they go with it. Only twice has Stuart Dew ever coached them to a win after Round 4.
GWS Giants (2-2) – Like the Saints, GWS clearly have a task on their hands in deciding how best to handle their ruck situation. While I appreciate it’s probably a close race between Mumford and Jacobs, the sooner they settle on a decision the more chemistry they’ll get to build between their ruckman and their midfielders.
Hawthorn Hawks (3-1) – Another excellent performance by Chad Wingard this week. On track for a third All Australian selection at this rate.
Melbourne Demons (1-2) – Pulled another five changes this week, including dropping the likes of Nathan Jones and Neville Jetta, yet I still doubt there’d be many writing home about the performance. What’s it going to take to get this team fired up?
North Melbourne Kangaroos (2-2) – There was a rumour over the weekend that North could offer GWS free agent Zac Williams as much as $4 million over five years. I would pay twice that if it means having someone in the backline who can actually kick to a teammate when coming out of defence.
Port Adelaide Power (4-0) – Their win plus Collingwood and Essendon slipping up, both by less than a goal, makes them the last team left undefeated in season 2020, not to mention a win and more than 100 percentage points clear on top of the ladder.
Richmond Tigers (1-3) – Despite the disappointing result, Richmond would’ve been buoyed by the good form of Toby Nankervis, who was back in the side after being dropped following Round 1. He seems to have rediscovered the hunger, with 17 touches and seven tackles.
St Kilda Saints (2-2) – I’ve been wondering all year why Josh Battle wasn’t in this team from Round 1, and after a quality performance in his first match of the year this weekend, I’m still wondering. Exciting young player.
Sydney Swans (2-2) – I’ve nothing but respect for Josh P Kennedy, who led his team into battle under very difficult circumstances on Thursday night. They may not have got the win, but he put in a performance to make his grandfather proud.
West Coast Eagles (1-3) – If you want to find a positive for this team, Josh J Kennedy’s burst of goals was really exciting. The old gun is in the last years of his career but clearly still has a few shots left to fire.
Western Bulldogs (2-2) – Sydney looked like they just might come back into it in the second quarter until Marcus Bontempelli pulled some tricks out of his bag. Shows just how few moments a genuine superstar needs to influence the course of a game.