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Opinion

The competitive advantage making Melbourne an AFL premiership sleeper

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Expert
30th March, 2021
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Two rounds into the AFL season, we have seen some thrilling football played.

Key forwards are kicking goals, particularly the golden oldies – hands up if you had written off Taylor Walker, Jack Riewoldt and Josh Kennedy after they had all looked finished at stages last season? They currently occupy the top three spots in the Coleman medal race.

It’s also great to see the next generation getting among the goals – Ben King, Harry McKay, Oscar Allen and Aaron Naugton have all impressed, and gee willikers does Logan McDonald look every inch a future gun.

We are certainly seeing faster ball movement and whether it is the rules themselves or the coaching mindset they have inspired is probably up for debate. Either way, it can only be a good thing.

The above has all been discussed around the various media platforms covering the game, but there is one facet of the game that has perhaps snuck under the radar.

With such an increase in inside 50s, intercept marking has become more important than it ever has been. And it has been mightily important for years.

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Richmond has Dustin Martin, of course, but has won three of the last four premierships with players like Nick Vlastuin, Dylan Grimes, David Astbury, Nathan Broad, Noah Balta and Alex Rance all adept at cutting off attacking forays in the air and working harmoniously while doing so.

The only other flag won in that time was by West Coast, and Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass need no introduction given their marking exploits are well established. Shannon Hurn and Brad Sheppard are often underrated in this area too.

Shannon Hurn of the Eagles

Shannon Hurn (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Melbourne has started 2-0 against worthy rivals not because of slick ball movement, high skill, or a multi-faceted forward-line. In fact, they struggled in those areas at times against Fremantle and St Kilda.

What the Demons have done better than any other team in the early stages of the season is control the air in defence. Jake Lever and Steven May sit second and third in the league for intercept marks after two rounds, with 17 between them. Adam Tomlinson and Max Gawn have taken another six each to be just outside the top ten.

So while Melbourne have basically broken even in the inside-50 count in their two games, and have been just okay at converting their chances, they have denied the opposition easy scores with their phalanx of talls in the back half by either cutting them off or forcing them into poorer positions to take shots.

The Tigers lead the league in inside 50s, but haven’t been able to convert that to scores the same way Port and Sydney have. Changkuoth Jiath and Blake Hardwick had a field day cutting them off on Sunday. They’ll have to find a way around Tom McCartin this week, who has started the season well.

The Power have had Aliir Aliir dominating the airwaves so far, with support from Tom Clurey and Ryan Burton, all in the top 20 for intercept marks. We know how good Tom Jonas is in this area as well. So while they have only played what will likely be the bottom two sides, they are well placed against all-comers when the big potatoes come.

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Of course, pressure through the midfield and denying the opposition easy transition goes a long way. Carlton have Jacob Weitering and Liam Jones, who are both strong in the air, but there was only so much they could do against Richmond’s 75 inside 50s or the ease at which Collingwood cut a swathe through the middle of the ground.

Of the other supposed contenders, Brisbane and Greater Western Sydney have had defences well down on their expected output, particularly in the air. Harris Andrews, against high expectations, has been off his game and Jack Payne is limited at best, while we haven’t seen the best of Nick Haynes, Phil Davis and Sam Taylor at the Giants. Both teams are 0-2.

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Quicker ball movement, easier transition and more inside 50s is obviously going to lead to more scoring opportunities around the competition. It therefore stands to reason that countering them is where a competitive advantage will lie for those that can do it more successfully than others.

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Very early days, but Melbourne is the team leading the way in this area.

Mark them down as a sleeper for the premiership if opposition coaches can’t figure out a way to nullify their advantage.