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Opinion

Hawthorn and North Melbourne got it wrong, wrong, wrong

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Expert
23rd March, 2021
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No doubt about it, we are coming off a fantastic opening round of AFL football. Vibrant. Thrilling. Exhilarating. It was, indeed, like a warm hug.

Adelaide’s win over Geelong will stand as one of the top-ten matches of the year come season’s end. Sydney announced that the future is very much now, and we need proof that John Longmire actually coached that team. St Kilda were all heart and grit in the wet, to match the razzle-dazzle we know they have in the dry.

Other games were a mixture of good and bad, thrills and spills, comebacks and strong wins. None of it was anything less than compelling.

But there was one issue from the weekend that stuck in the craw. A few media types addressed it on the periphery, but really only Matthew Lloyd on Footy Classified tried to go a bit harder.

Alastair Clarkson and David Noble were responsible for two of the most disgraceful decisions we have seen in the AFL this century by starting debutants Connor Downie and Charlie Lazzaro as the medical subs for Hawthorn and North Melbourne respectively.

How many times have retired legends spoken about how they’ll never forget their first game? Kids growing up with the idea of one day playing AFL, and all of the hard work and sacrifice it has taken to get there.

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In recent years, we have seen countless videos from clubs where they capture the moment they tell a young player that they will be coming in for their first game. Even more emotional is when they capture those young men and women calling their close family members – they are often tear-jerking and never anything less than affecting.

And then the follow-up, with friends and family attending the debut game. Mums and dads, driving around half the state, if not flying around the country, to make sure their children can realise their dream. Friends who have ridden the highs and lows alongside them. Other family members.

Fancy, in light of all of the above, picking a debutant as a 23rd man. It’s beyond disgusting.

Assuming that all coaches don’t want their players getting injured, they are picking a debutant actively hoping he doesn’t get on the ground.

“Hey mum, thanks for everything you’ve done for me over the last 18 years. Do you want to come and watch me sit down for 120 minutes?”

Is there some sort of lesson is this? About how life is tough, and it’s a brutal industry? Bullshit. A handful of young players walk in an AFL club each year, and there is a golden opportunity to provide them with a once-in-a-lifetime experience if they have earned it.

A player debut can be the making of a club. Any success the Swans have with this generation of players will traced back to Saturday night at the Gabba and the appearances of Logan McDonald, Errol Gulden and Braeden Campbell.

Errol Gulden of the Swans celebrates after kicking a goal

Errol Gulden of the Swans (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

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Senior players always speak about the lift they get from playing with young players, striving to set a great example, how it helps them reconnect with their love of the game, and often results in them turning back the clock. Have a look at Travis Boak’s form since the young guns at the Power have appeared on the scene.

Better yet, it’s just good business, especially for stragglers like Hawthorn and North that need to sell hope for the future.

The difference between your 22nd and 23rd player make in any given game is almost none. The difference between your 23rd and 24th even less.

Damon Greaves was an emergency for Hawthorn on Saturday night, standing the same height and weight as Connor Downie, with a similar run-and-carry style. He’s already played three games for the club. It wouldn’t have been better to make him the medical sub if Downie wasn’t in the best 22?

Clarkson responded with an embarrassed joke when asked the question by a reporter in his post-game press conference. He knows he was in the wrong.

Interesting move by David Noble, trying to repair a broken club by making the Lazzaro call one of his first public actions too. Nice way to endear yourself to the fans.

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We see many incidents on a football field that draw the ire of the public. Patrick Dangerfield’s bump on Jake Kelly is the most recent. There have been sling tackles, callous hits, jumper punches, even Barry Hall on Brent Staker.

At least all of these moments are in the midst of a high-intensity game where emotions can sometimes get the best of players.

But to coldly and calculatedly deny a player a proper debut? Pathetic and potentially destructive.

In Round 1, 19 players made their AFL debut. 11 clubs got it right. And I’ll bet the two that didn’t remain in the minority this season and beyond.