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Six Points: Giants would be mad to give Hird the top job, and time to throw the book at throwing elbows

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22nd May, 2022
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Best round of the year?

Just when you thought you had this 2022 season worked out, along came Round 10 – and specifically, Sunday afternoon – to tip it all on its head.

First, Hawthorn had its best win yet under Sam Mitchell with an inspirational fighting performance to hand Brisbane just its second loss of the year; then, in a double act for new coaches, Craig McRae’s Collingwood went to Fortress Optus and handed Fremantle its second straight wet-weather shellacking.

Elsewhere, Carlton did their trademark blitzkrieg-then-bust routine to stave off Sydney and move up to second spot (!), the Bombers came to fight but not a whole lot else for Dreamtime at the ‘G, and St Kilda and Max King surged past the Crows on the road.

Oh, and apparently there was an election on?

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1. Naming James Hird as coach would be a Giant mistake

From pretty much the moment Leon Cameron announced his resignation as GWS coach, the name most bandied around as his long-term replacement has been James Hird.

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Even before the season began, Mark Robinson was saying on Fox Footy Hird’s appointment as a leadership consultant at the Giants had put him in the frame to succeed Cameron when the pin was finally pulled. Now that he is officially employed in a part-time assistant coaching role, expect that speculation to keep building and building.

Say what you will about the Giants’ first decade in the AFL, but they’ve made a habit of making sound, sensible off-field decisions. Appointing Hird as coach for 2022 would be the absolute antithesis of that.

This has nothing to do with his role in the Essendon drugs scandal – Hird has clearly served his time for that. Nor is it his suitability to manage another group of young adults after what happened at Windy Hill – for one, it’s not up for me to judge his character in that regard, and for another, seven years since his last coaching stint is a long time to come to terms with what happened and improve as a person and a leader.

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The simple fact is that Hird hasn’t coached at AFL level – the Giants’ role is his first step back into the league since he was sacked by Essendon midway through 2015. And it’s not as if he’s spent his time away from the game coaching at lower levels, either.

Indeed, given he was headhunted straight into the senior coaching gig at the Bombers in 2011 without having done any sort of standard apprenticeship as an assistant at the highest level, right now is the first time Hird has ever taken the standard path into senior coaching.

Failed coaches – and Hird is by definition one of those – can often deserve second chances. Michael Voss drove Brisbane into the dust in his five years at the helm, but went to Port Adelaide as an assistant coach, won rave reviews, improved significantly, and well and truly earned a second chance at Carlton. The rest, as they say, is history.

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Hird has spent – *checks notes* – four months as a leadership consultant, and the Giants’ clash with the Eagles was his first time back in the coaches’ box. Voss, whose story is almost identical to Hird’s – a legendary player appointed to the same club virtually sight unseen, who proceeded to make many, many missteps – did eight years of penance before getting his go.

There may come a time when Hird has proved himself worthy of a top job somewhere in the AFL, as Voss has. But his status as a legend of the game as a player would be the only possible reason for the Giants to give him Cameron’s job so soon after returning to the code.

They’d be mad to do it.

Giants leadership advisor James Hird.

Giants leadership advisor James Hird. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

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2. Time to stamp elbow-throwing out of the game for good

The days of Leigh Matthews breaking Neville Bruns’ jaw off the play are, thankfully, behind us in the AFL. But I’ve begun to notice a worrying trend creeping its way back into the game.

It started on Friday night, when Josh Kennedy’s hamstring disintegrated in a nasty incident with Sam Docherty. The Swan’s obvious agony afterwards distracted from the truth that it was a pretty dirty act from a player who has been one of the fairest going around throughout his career. Kennedy led with the forearm, collected Docherty flush, and was exceedingly lucky the Blue has a hard head.

On Saturday afternoon, a young man at the opposite end of his career, Western Bulldog Buku Khamis, gave away a 50m penalty after driving an elbow into the back of unsuspecting Gold Coast defender Jy Farrar. It was late, it was completely unnecessary, and any attempt to suggest he was trying to spoil is kidding themselves.

Most concerning of all occurred during Dreamtime at the ‘G, when Mason Redman blatantly elbowed Dion Prestia in the throat during a stoppage. Given the Bombers’ obvious plan to assert their physicality on Richmond after a week of scrutiny, the aggressive intent behind the act is pretty clear.

This isn’t to say that any of Kennedy, Khamis or Redman are dirty players: just as I said about Trent Cotchin a few weeks ago, a lapse in judgement in the heat of battle isn’t a hanging offence. But all three incidents are blights on the game, and the AFL missed a trick in not throwing the book at any of them.

We’re still utterly beholden to consequence when it comes to suspensions, both in the media and Match Review Officer Michael Christian himself. This was nicely proved by Jonathan Brown, whose response to Redman’s hit was that he might be saved because Prestia ‘gets up’. That just shouldn’t matter: a cheap shot is a cheap shot.

For Kennedy and Redman to get the same one-week ban for his hit on Docherty that Marlion Pickett received for an in-play bump on Hawthorn’s Dylan Moore last week (Khamis was only fined $2000), an act totally in keeping with the laws and the spirit of the game, is ludicrous.

Some will say that proves Pickett was stiff to get a week: I’m of the view Pickett probably deserved his ban, and that Kennedy should have got two or three. The same goes for Khamis and Redman.

All three incidents, particularly the first two, fall squarely under the age-old adage of ‘making them earn it’; if your opponent is waiting for a mark and you can impact on them physically, you do it, and maybe make them hesitant to stand under the next high ball. Kennedy clearly wanted to make a physical statement on Docherty, as did Khamis on Farrar.

It’s not the 1980s anymore: acts like that to deliberately hurt an opponent just can’t be tolerated anymore.

This isn’t about whether the player hit was concussed, or even injured: while Farrar did get subbed out of the game against the Dogs, it was from a separate incident. This is about making it clear to everyone, from AFL players to those at lower levels, that leading with the elbow is about as dirty as it gets.

An elbow is just as dangerous as a punch. It’s time to get it out of the game for good.

3. Massive AFLW pay rise was the league’s only option

You probably know someone who has denounced the AFL’s 90 per cent pay increase for AFLW players for the upcoming season. Something along the lines of them needing to earn their pay, bring revenue to the game, improve the standard, yadda yadda yadda.

To answer the first point: sport is not a hierarchy in which the best and most impactful players earn the most money. You’re worth what your club or league is willing to pay you; if the notoriously stingy AFL thinks any pay rise, let alone of this magnitude, is worth it for their business, then it’s fair to say they think it’s worth the investment.

As to the second point: with AFL crowds dwindling and growing discontent from rusted-on fans about the state of the game, it’s a smart decision to try and increase the audience. It’s a fact that female participation in the game since the inaugural AFLW season has exploded: you have to see it to be it, as the expression goes. A legion of young female fans coming for the AFLW, and staying for the men, too, would go some way towards replacing all those blokes you see on Twitter claiming that the ump dissent rule has turned them away from the game.

Of course the third point is a sticking issue for many: every time there’s a low-scoring AFLW game, or a skill error, out come the critics. No doubt they’ll be the loudest about the players needing to improve the standard of the competition before being worthy of a pay rise.

Here’s the thing: unless the game can take further steps towards professionalisation, the quality isn’t going to improve much or at all. Hell, with four more teams joining the competition in the immediate future, the talent pool is going to be made even shallower. The only possible way forward is to allow the players to devote their attention full-time to improving their game, as the men do. Juggling one or even two jobs on the side of being a top-level footballer is all but impossible in this day and age.

Look at the Australian women’s cricket team: in an era of vastly disparate resources going to the women’s game from country to country, the Aussies dominate because they’re some of the few who are full-time cricketers. Alyssa Healy doesn’t have to worry about another career in between practising inside-out cover drives and leg-side stumpings: Meg Lanning can think permanently about her captaincy tactics.

The AFLW is always going to have its detractors; that’s part and parcel of all elite sporting codes. But the only way to answer all the issues its critics have about it is a pay rise like what the AFL have just ticked off.

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4. Stephen Coniglio is an inside mid. Who knew?

I wrote last week that Leon Cameron deserved more credit than he was due for his job as GWS coach. But it’s hard to deny that some of his tactics involving his biggest stars was quite baffling at times in later years.

Case in point was Stephen Coniglio. An All Australian-calibre midfielder for much of his career, he’s played across a half-forward flank this year, and did the same in 2021 after returning from a serious ankle injury. He duly struggled to have the sort of influence he had during his peak years of 2018 and the first half of 2019.

It’s clear where caretaker coach Mark McVeigh sees his best footy being played: Coniglio was best afield against West Coast playing pure midfield, racking up touches at will and using the ball far cleaner than he has at times in the last few years. It added an extra dimension of class to an otherwise workmanlike Giants midfield, with Tom Green providing the grunt work and Josh Kelly allowed to play more of an outside role.

To accommodate the move, tough nut Callan Ward was shifted to half-back; he was seldom tested by the Eagles, but his calm head and courage makes him nicely suited to the role.

We’re going to have to see how the Giants stack up against better teams than West Coast to get a sense of whether this will work moving forward, but it’s clear Coniglio the mid is front of mind for McVeigh. If whoever is appointed full-time coach for 2022 has any sense, they’ll be doing likewise.

Stephen Coniglio

Stephen Coniglio is GWS’ captain (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

5. The Bombers can’t afford to lose AMT

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti’s sudden retirement from the AFL is a loss to the game. Few players have been as exciting and captivating to watch for neutral fans, with his electric pressure, brilliant skills and unbridled enthusiasm making for plenty of highlights over the years.

In the now, at least, his permanent absence is a disaster for Essendon and Ben Rutten. The Bombers have many problems, and a fully fit and firing McDonald-Tipungwuti solves more than a few of them.

The Bombers have struggled with their defence all year, particularly locking the ball into their attacking 50. Against Richmond, the Tigers repeatedly waltzed the ball up the ground, with Daniel Rioli among the best afield. The number 43’s tackling pressure and energy might not have stopped all of it, but it would at least have left the Richmond half-backs nervous.

Don’t forget his goalkicking, too. McDonald-Tipungwuti is a safe and reliable set shot, and capable of magic when the team needs it most. Who could forget his ice-cool snap from the pocket to secure a thrilling five-point win over North Melbourne in 2019?

We’ve learned this year in his absence just how important McDonald-Tipungwuti has been to Essendon over the years. Without him, and with Jake Stringer injured more often than not, the Bombers have lacked their trademark spark and flair. The result is the stagnant, lifeless game plan we’ve seen throughout 2022.

Now with any chance of a return permanently scuppered, finding his replacement starts now for the Bombers. It’s not going to be easy.

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti of the Bombers

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti of the Bombers (AAP Image/Scott Barbour)

6. We’re down to ten in the finals race… and nobody is safe

Ten rounds into the AFL season, and I reckon it’s pretty safe to say we’re down to that number that have a realistic chance of making the finals.

Nothing is certain – Essendon were 11th this time last year and went on to feature in September – but it would be even more shocking to see anyone outside the current top ten play finals this time around. For the simple reason that all those teams are some level of good, and all the rest… mostly not.

With two sides in North Melbourne and West Coast mostly uncompetitive, and another bunch of teams a fair way off the pace, it wouldn’t surprise if 13 or even 14 wins was the requirement to feature in the last eight, as it was in 2012. The usual ’12 wins and a good percentage’ threshold, let alone the 11 wins the Bombers mustered last season, already looks seriously thin.

Gold Coast are the most likely outside the top eight at the moment, plus the Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide, to get on a run: but their loss to the Bulldogs suggests they’re still too inconsistent to win nine or ten of their last 12. The same goes for Collingwood and Hawthorn, who both had stirring wins over excellent opposition in Fremantle and Brisbane on Sunday: no doubt, though, that they can give the final eight a serious shake for the rest of the home-and-away season.

Even the Bulldogs and Port are mostly there on the back of their recent good form and success in 2021: realistically, who are they going to tip out?

Last year, West Coast and Richmond both capitulated after this point to miss out on the finals: that same fate isn’t off the agenda for anyone. If one reigning premier in the Tigers can fall from grace, could Melbourne do it too?

Making it even more interesting is that for any of the teams currently in that top ten – yes, even the Dees and Brisbane – a single misstep could be disastrous. With the Lions, Fremantle and Carlton nipping at their heels, the Demons know, despite their 10-0 start, even one or two unexpected losses from here could cost them top two and a home qualifying final, such is the plethora of challengers.

Of those, though, the Lions and Dockers were both stunned by sides outside that top ten – the evenness of the competition has seldom been more clear. The Blues are 8-2 and in dreamland, but probably still need to win more than they lose from here out to be completely safe. St Kilda are brilliant, but without Jack Steele for another two months, they too present as vulnerable.

Most concerned of all must be Sydney, who have fallen from flag contenders to just clinging on after a poor month. They’ve had a tough fixture, with matches against the Lions and Blues, and are certainly good enough to play in September: but if I was told right now that only one of the top eight would miss out on the finals, I’d have to think it’d be the Swans.

History says that at this point of the year, the top eight mostly stays constant. It might well prove the case again in 2022. But from now until August, we’re in for one hell of a ride.

Charlie Curnow of the Blues celebrates a goal.

Charlie Curnow of the Blues celebrates a goal. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Random thoughts

– Dreamtime at the ‘G is bloody awesome.

– I don’t think there’s a more underrated player in the game than Callum Wilkie. As good a lockdown key back as there is in the game.

– Can’t help wondering why we don’t see torps more often than after the siren – players are flushing stacks of them these days!

– It’s getting harder to understand how Jai Newcombe was overlooked for so long. Legitimate star.

– We have got substantial problems if the first response to a high-scoring thriller is ‘oh there were too many free kicks’.

– Hint at unpopular rumour, spark outrage and debate, then announce the opposite and look like heroes. The AFL’s media arm have done it again with the day grand final – and it’s worked a treat.

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