The Roar
The Roar

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AFL Saturday Study: Crows' young bookends have them dreaming big, but how in God's name can the Dees be beaten?

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16th April, 2022
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It’s getting hard to remember a time when Melbourne wasn’t outrageously good.

But even this time last year, when they won their first nine games en route to a minor premiership and, eventually, the flag, they were seldom as good as they’re looking right now.

The Demons’ 67-point victory over GWS on Saturday night was about as close to footballing perfection as you’re likely to see. Virtually every single box on Simon Goodwin’s checklist was ticked off by the Melbourne juggernaut – the defence was immovable early when the Giants’ midfield got on top, then their forwards were ruthless in the third term when clearances began to come in a flood.

Whatever the challenge, whatever the opposition, this Demons side will strangle the life out of them, then go for the jugular.

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Melbourne piled on ten goals in a rampant third quarter – the ‘premiership quarter’ moniker so accurate given what they did in last year’s grand final – scoring so regularly it felt embarrassing for a GWS outfit that wasn’t playing all that badly. At one point they slammed through three in 90 seconds of playing time. I counted.

The Demons know they’re not going to always have the run of it in midfield. Not even Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Max Gawn are going to win every clearance. That’s where their defence comes in.

Faced with a bombardment of inside 50s from the Giants in the first quarter (a whopping 19 in total), the Demons repelled them every single time. You couldn’t put a stat on just how easy it felt for them, either.

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Steven May plucked intercept marks at will, Jayden Hunt rebounded like a man who missed last year’s grand final and is determined to not let it happen again, and the underappreciated Harry Petty blanketed Harry of the Himmelberg variety.

Then, up forward, the Dees were masters of efficiency. By the time Kysaiah Pickett kicked their third goal of the evening, they’d only managed six disposals inside forward 50 for the quarter. Yep, one in every two touches they had in their attacking arc was a goal.

After a frustrating second quarter where the Giants’ ball use improved greatly – three goals from six inside 50s coming as they split the Dees’ defensive structure – Melbourne then decided it was time to flip the switch. Carnage ensued.

Corralled and under siege, the Giants’ attempts to kick their way out of trouble led to turnovers aplenty, and Melbourne were in no mood to let them off the hook.

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Goals from turnovers, goals from leading forwards, goals from stoppages… you name it, the Demons did it.

The remarkable part of it is that the Dees’ midfield still had room for improvement. They lost the contested possession count narrowly, while were soundly beaten for clearances. The difference was that when the Dees won it from a stoppage, it was full steam ahead and good luck stopping them; while the Giants only found a brick wall named May, or Lever, or Petty.

So how do you beat the Demons? You might win a quarter, as the Giants did tonight, but their system will get you in the long run. If you dominate the midfield, their backline will hold firm and their forwards won’t let anything go to waste. If you don’t, well, you might as well hand them the four points already.

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Perhaps the only thing that can beat Melbourne, much like the Omnidroid in the first Incredibles movie, is themselves.

As for the other victors of Saturday, neither could hold a candle to Melbourne’s demolition job; but both St Kilda and Adelaide showed both the future and the present are far brighter than you might have thought heading into the season.

For all the doom and gloom about the Crows during the week, they’re a couple of kicks away from being 4-1 and sitting pretty right now. Had they clinched victories late against Fremantle and Essendon, we might be talking about their triumph over Richmond in even more impressed tones.

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This was a proper win, as outstanding as their wins over Melbourne and Geelong last year. Adelaide Oval is once again a fortress: beat the Crows here this year, and you know you’re a serious team.

Five goals, four in the first quarter and change to get the Crows rolling, meant many of the plaudits were directed at Taylor Walker. Just as impressive, and even more happily for Matthew Nicks, was partner in crime in attack, Elliott Himmelberg.

Now 23 and in his fifth year in the AFL system, the younger Himmelberg has officially arrived, with his safe hands, accurate set shot kicking, and follow-up at ground level all outstanding for a player his size.

The Tigers’ backline, which had looked so safe against the Bulldogs last week, couldn’t handle either of the twin towers in attack. They won’t be the only ones this season to struggle.

In Himmelberg and Jordon Butts, who played perhaps his best game yet to quell the ominous Tom Lynch, the Crows have their bookends sorted for the next decade. In this age of intercept marks and zonal defences, the sight of a good old-fashion spoil-first-and-ask-questions-later backman is beautiful.

Time and again in the last quarter the Tigers threw themselves at the Crows; but where the wave swamped a reigning grand finalist last week, the home side held firm. It was almost worthy of Melbourne’s defensive performance later that night, except with the desperation and manic intensity of a side that doesn’t quite know how good they are yet, but will be damned if they’re not going to find out.

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The Tigers had 14 inside 50s in the final term, but a young Crows back six – Butts and Billy Frampton immovable objects, who would have thought it? – was exceptional.

Equally, when Richmond looked to have broken the game open with a run of four goals to take the lead in the third term, the Crows rose to the challenge, matched it, and then dismantled the Tigers on the spread. With run and carry, a willingness to dare through the centre and a young lad by the name of Josh Rachele who is going places in a hurry, they kicked five in a row and never looked back.

A quick note on the Saints, too, who did exactly what they needed to against a sticky opponent in Gold Coast. Never quite able to shake the Suns, but never looking likely to lose once they broke away in the third quarter, the Saints showed flashes of brilliance, but always underlined it with manic intensity at the source.

For every flashy Bradley Hill run, or Jade Gresham snap from the pocket, there was a hard-nosed Brad Crouch clearance from a stoppage, or a ferocious contest from Jack Hayes against the bigger Jarrod Witts, or a gut run into space to provide an option from captain Jack Steele.

Steel is a good word in itself to describe the Saints’ start to 2022, now with four wins on the trot and looking as good as they have since their finals run in 2020.

There’s plenty of substance – but yeah, the style is pretty fun as well.

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