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Six Points: Swans benefit from AFL's dumbest rule, Saints must be praised, and Dogs' problems aren't just bad kicking

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Editor
10th April, 2022
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Just when we thought we had this AFL 2022 thing figured out, along came Round 4 to very nicely blow all of our assumptions out of the water.

Collingwood, Hawthorn and Carlton the year’s big improvers? Think again. All three lost in varying degrees of shambles to give our tips the middle finger. Meanwhile, presumptive Brownlow Medal favourite Patrick Cripps pinged a hamstring to literally add injury to insult for the Blues.

Teams we thought dead and buried – hi, Richmond and West Coast – rose from the ashes like a phoenix for rejuvenating wins that keep their seasons very much alive in the face of adversity.

Meanwhile, as we all suspected, Fremantle and St Kilda have moved almost unnoticed into the top four… though the gap between last year’s premier Melbourne and the rest of the competition feels starker than ever.

Let’s figure out just what went down over the last few days together, hey?

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1. Ollie Wines conspiracy theories must be addressed

I can’t be the only one who, as soon as news broke that Ollie Wines’ substitution on Thursday night came as a result of a heart irregularity, thought ‘Here we go again…’.

Sure enough, just as happened with Bulldog Hayden Crozier in Round 2 after he fainted against Carlton, Twitter was soon awash with people claiming links with Wines’ illness and the COVID vaccine.

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That Crozier’s incident is still yet to be proven as a heart condition didn’t seem to matter.

I’m not going to dignify many of those takes, most of which are nothing more than conspiracy theories, with a response. But given it’s only natural to have concerns over the health of our highest-profile athletes, it’s probably time to speak further about a growing problem in the game.

(And for what it’s worth, I don’t think Tweets like this from media professionals, devoid of context, explanation or further analysis, help in the least. Sorry, Ralphy.)

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Heart issues are fast becoming an occupational hazard in modern sport, and AFL is no stranger to it. In recent years, Collingwood youngster Kayle Kirby was forced into premature retirement after collapsing during a VFL game due to an undiagnosed heart problem, while Saint Dylan Roberton was stricken during a game against Geelong in one of the scariest on-field incidents in recent years.

Blues Matthew Kreuzer and Caleb Marchbank have also had heart-related incidents in recent years. This has been a growing problem from well before COVID came around.

In the current climate, it has never been more important for the AFL and its clubs to investigate just what, if anything diagnosable, is causing this growing issue. Whether it’s the physical demands of professional sport, which increase year on year, putting too great a strain on players, especially early in the year, it’s time for the league to address the elephant in the room.

Four years ago, Kevin Bartlett addressed this very problem on SEN, as did Jack Riewoldt on AFL 360.

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“The sad thing is I think it’s more prevalent than what people actually know about,” Riewoldt said after Roberton’s collapse.

“At local football, there’s a really big push to have … defibrillators at every ground due to heart conditions and undiagnosed murmurs and other issues that can pop up like Dylan’s did on the weekend.”

“Each year we hear about preseason training; it goes up a notch, it goes up a notch, it goes up a notch,” Bartlett said.

“Are we putting players through so much stress that maybe it’s causing some of these problems? Preseason seems to be extremely long and they go on these camps and arduous camps.

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“Each year they say: ‘we thought we had a hard preseason last year, well add another 15 per cent this year then the next year add another 15 per cent.’”

Clearly there is a problem – and no, it’s not the jab. But if action is taken now, there may be something we can do – and as a bonus, it would prove those conspiracy theories to be as silly as most of us already know they are.

Ollie Wines of the Power kicks on goal

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

2. AFLW grand final crowd proves the comp needs its own space

Just 16,712 filled the Adelaide Oval to see the Crows claim their third AFLW premiership on Saturday afternoon.

At the venue, and on the stage, where the women’s competition appeared to have arrived with a 53,034 crowd in 2019, it was hard not to feel disappointed – and concerned.

More than anything, though, it reinforced the need for the competition to be granted its own space, untethered from the men’s competition. Yes, it was shown as a standalone game on Fox Footy and Channel 7, but its 12:40pm start time made attending or watching difficult for anyone with community sport commitments.

The next season is almost certain to start later this year, running alongside the men’s finals in the early rounds before filling the ‘twilight zone’ of October-November, which should be perfect for the competition to grow. As a bonus, the weather should be more agreeable than the baking heat that proved such a problem this summer.

There could be the early summer cricket Tests, and the A-Leagues, standing in their way – but it’s surely better than facing off against the AFL men’s and NRL monoliths.

Give the game a prime time slot – either Saturday afternoon or night – and watch the people come.

Erin Phillips of the Crows celebrates a goal during the 2022 AFLW Grand Final.

Erin Phillips of the Crows celebrates a goal during the 2022 AFLW Grand Final. (Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

3. Suns going places… if they can keep their talent

What a performance that was by Gold Coast in the final game of the round.

Yes, Carlton lost Patrick Cripps to injury halfway through; but how often have the Suns squandered similar advantages in their history? But the performance of everyone from young gun Noah Anderson – clear best afield – to co-captain Jarrod Witts, who monstered Tom De Koning in the ruck.

Taking control during the second quarter and looking more and more in control the longer the match went, this was a clinical performance from a side that should be going places. The Suns have had false dawns before, but this feels more substantial, especially given Matt Rowell had minimal impact. That won’t happen too many times moving forward.

On the other hand, it seems like every year, we’re talking about a former Gold Coast Sun being the recruit of the year at another team.

In 2019, Jarryd Lyons excelled at Brisbane; last year, it was Peter Wright clunking everything at Essendon; while in 2022, it’s Will Brodie making the Suns’ list management look silly.

Brodie, a ball magnet as a junior who hardly ever got a run at it at the Suns with just 25 games in five years, hasn’t missed a beat since arriving at Fremantle. With 37 touches and six clearances on Saturday night, his first Brownlow votes are coming his way.

Then, on Sunday, Wright was the difference for Essendon in a thrilling win over Adelaide, kicking three goals and pulling down nine marks, many of them contested.

Yes, Levi Casboult and Mabior Chol were titans in attack for the Suns on Sunday, while Anderson, Touk Miller and Rowell are a dynamite midfield combination down the track. But it’s still hard to believe there wouldn’t be a place for the Bomber and Docker in their line-up, given what they’ve produced so far this year.

A big reason for Brisbane’s resurgence in recent years has been their retention of key players, and recognition of important cogs. Imagine a Lions team if Hugh McCluggage, or Daniel Rich, or Zac Bailey, or Harris Andrews had decided to leave.

That Stuart Dew is the right man in charge is indisputable at the moment, and the players clearly would run through a wall for him. Can we dare to hope that a taste of success, like that of Sunday evening, will convince this group to last the distance like the Lions have?

The Suns simply cannot afford to let this talented young list break apart, as so many others have during their cursed decade in the AFL. The future is bright if they can.

4. Rampant Ronke reaps rewards from the AFL’s dumbest rule

It’s doubtful the Swans would have been able to shake North Melbourne on Saturday afternoon if not for the influence of Ben Ronke.

Named the medical sub for the second week in a row, the goalsneak is fast making a name for himself as a ‘super sub’, backing up a superb goal in Round 3 against the Bulldogs with 11 touches, four marks and another major after replacing Lance Franklin late in the third term.

It’s not the first time this has happened in 2022, either – Luke Dahlhaus was crucial in Geelong’s comeback victory over Collingwood last week.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the farce that was debutants being named as the medi-sub, but this is even more egregious. It’s one thing to ensure a team isn’t negatively affected by an injury, and quite another for it to be an advantage for someone, preferably a tall, to get hurt late in the game.

The medical sub rule was poorly thought out to begin with, rushed into being just days before the first bounce of 2021. Ever since, it has caused nothing but problems.

Nothing, of course, will change this year – we’re too far into the season. But for next year, the AFL has two options: either make things even more technical with the medi-sub, with solutions varying from allowing the opposition to activate their own sub at the same time, to removing the injury requirement to make a change, to tightening the rules around players missing the week after being subbed out; or just scrap it altogether.

It should be pretty clear by this point which path I’m recommending.

5. It’s time for the Saints to be praised

I’ve wanted to talk about the Saints for a while now, but they’ve always fallen far enough down the queue that their excellent wins over Fremantle and Richmond have fallen out of this column.

No more.

The Saints were magnificent on a sunny Sunday at the MCG against one of the year’s early surprise packets in Hawthorn, dominating every facet of the game more and more the longer the game went. The Hawks’ defence, so clinical in the first three rounds, leaked 22 goals to options tall and small, and was picked apart like wings off a fly by that one sadistic neighbour kid we all had.

Scoring from turnovers is the name of the game in modern footy, and the Saints were ruthless in exposing every little error from the Hawks. They scored a whopping 105 points from turnovers, compared to 45. Quick ball movement down the centre, giving their array of forwards plenty of space to work with, made mincemeat of a Hawks’ backline that has dismantled long bombs from North Melbourne and Port Adelaide this season. 22 marks inside 50 compared to 10 was the tale of the tape.

The Saints’ rise in 2022 now sees them in the top four and on a three-game winning streak, all against creditable opposition in Richmond, Fremantle and now the Hawks – and there are countless players who can claim a share of the credit.

First, Paddy Ryder, whose ruckwork actually played second fiddle to his influence inside attacking 50. Regularly a headache for the Hawks due to his height, Ryder bagged two goals, while he was responsible for four score launches in the final term alone.

In the guts, Jack Steele was back to his brilliant best with 33 disposals and 15 contested possessions, while Brad Crouch must be in All Australian conversations already after a game-high eight clearances following his best-afield effort against the Tigers.

Complementing that pair beautifully is Jade Gresham, whose smart ball use and zip around the contest was so missed last year. He has responded from that season-ending Achilles injury beautifully. Just as importantly, he’s a threat in attack, booting four goals when spending time as a dangerous small forward. He’s hard to stop in either role.

Put Jack Sinclair in the same category, too – with genuine pace, his move to the midfield this year had made the Saints lethal in transition.

Brett Ratten also deserves praise for having finally found Bradley Hill’s niche. Much maligned last season for low possession counts and lack of influence, a move to the half-back flank has worked wonders. Now being used far more often by a Saints outfit guilty of bypassing him since he arrived, his 23 touches were largely delivered with laserlike efficiency, while with four goals, he ran hard from end to end and reaped the rewards.

Then there’s the ball use, still the most important box to tick for an elite side. It’s what turned Melbourne from finals-missing battler into premiership monolith. Put simply, the Saints are hitting targets they were missing last year. Now with smart users like Gresham and Hill getting plenty of the ball, difficult kicks don’t have to be bitten off by players not capable of them.

The impact that’s had on Max King’s confidence to lead for the ball in attack has been profound.

I had the Saints 14th going into the year. Fair to say I’m expecting to have got that wrong by the time finals roll around.

Ben Long and Paddy Ryder of the Saints high five fans.

Ben Long and Paddy Ryder of the Saints high five fans. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

6. The Bulldogs’ biggest problem isn’t their kicking for goal

Port Adelaide’s disastrous start to 2022 has taken most of the headlines, but the Western Bulldogs haven’t been much better.

1-3 after four rounds and coming off a dismal defeat to Richmond, the Dogs are in a serious hole. Much of the analysis has focussed on their dismal kicking for goal, and with a haul of 16.36 in their last two games, it’s easy to see why. But the crux of the Bulldogs’ problems run deeper than that, and will be harder to fix.

The Dogs are the easiest ‘good’ side in the competition to beat (the air quotes around ‘good’ speak for themselves). Match their star-studded midfield out of the centre, break even in inside 50s, and they have neither the forwards nor the defence to hold up.

Josh Bruce’s absence is being felt more keenly with every passing week, with Jamarra Ugle-Hagan forced to fight well above his weight division as a foil to Aaron Naughton, and defences able to set up knowing the ball will be kicked to Naughton every time.

Down back, the Dogs are being denied easy transitions out of defence by suffocating pressure, with usually reliable ball users like Bailey Williams and Caleb Daniel regularly coughing it up as the Tigers tightened the screws on Saturday night.

The Dogs have, on paper, the deepest midfield in the competition, but that comes with the drawback of needing to rotate them through the forward line. Josh Dunkley, Lachie Hunter and Marcus Bontempelli all missed gettable shots in the second half, primarily because their role isn’t in taking them.

Compare that to West Coast against Collingwood, whose five main forwards – Josh Kennedy, Jack Darling, Willie Rioli, Liam Ryan and Jake Waterman – combined for a match-winning 11.1 between them. Fancy that – players who kick goals for a living kicking goals!

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At the moment, the Dogs are compromising their goalkicking with their swathe of midfielders, who in turn aren’t giving them the sort of clearance and territory domination they need to make it worth the trade-off.

The Dogs were uncompetitive in the final quarter against a Richmond side that outhunted, outworked and out-desired them at every turn. It was a similar story against Carlton in the first half of Round 2, and Melbourne for vast swathes of Round 1.

Get that hunger back, or it promises to be a long and frustrating year for last year’s runners-up.

Random thoughts

-Very glad Ed Langdon is starting to get the praise he deserves. Hardest worker in the game.

-Harder to believe with every passing week that Darcy Parish was a half-forward flanker 12 months ago.

-His team might have lost by 12 goals, but I loved everything about what Mitch Lewis did for Hawthorn on Sunday. Jet.

-I have a feeling Lachie Weller will become a very nice player indeed if (or when) the Suns get good.

-So Braydon Preuss has finally, after years of waiting, got his go as the number one ruckman, and then does this second game in? Dead set, mate.

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