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Beware Saints' new tagger, outrageous Errol, and a September smoky: Talking points from AAMI Community Series Day 2

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3rd March, 2023
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The second of three days of wall-to-wall AAMI Community Series action is done, with six more teams working the rust off with their final proper matches before the real stuff starts in a fortnight’s time.

As with every pre-season, there were plenty of highlights, the odd talking point, and the occasional goal – and you’d be mad to give most of it any meaning whatsoever.

Here’s what we learned from Friday night.

What’s with this fixture?

Usually, whenever the AFL does something peculiar with its schedule, the answer can be rounded to the nearest dollar. But for the life of me, I can’t think what monetary benefit the league gets from this baffling pre-season fixture.

Not only are the bulk of games scheduled for Thursday or Friday evenings – St Kilda’s win over Essendon today even overlapped with working hours for most of us – but the games themselves start in some quite bizarre timeslots.

We had to wait a solid half an hour after the Saints and Bombers had wrapped up for Sydney’s clash with Carlton to begin; then, it went head to head for large parts with the West Coast-Adelaide game that began half an hour after that.

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Making things even stranger is that there is not a single game scheduled for Sunday afternoon, or even Saturday night – the matches scheduled for Saturday see 12:10, 1:10 and 4:10 first bounces. Baffling.

Say what you will about the NRL, but they always make sure their games have as little overlap as possible, with games in both the pre- and regular seasons nicely following one after the other. It means as much airtime as possible for their code, and ensures diehards and nuffies can feasibly waste spend a weekend watching every single match back to back.

Making it even weirder, this was exactly what the AFL did in the 2022 pre-season; not a single game went head-to-head, only one match was played on Thursday and Friday night (both in prime time), with three matches spaced three hours apart on both weekend days. There was even a Monday night outing to nicely wrap it up.

It’s not a hanging offence by any means, but it’s just plain weird, and means me and presumably many others who play sport on Saturday afternoons and work 9-5s miss out on a hefty chunk of the action live.

Beware the Saints’ new tagger king

There has been plenty of negativity about St Kilda this off-season – some from the usual suspects (laughs in Kane Cornes), and some from even their own fan base.

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I never really understood why, and while a 35-point win over Essendon shouldn’t shatter any assumptions about how their season will go, there were plenty of encouraging signs to suggest Phase 2 of Ross Lyon’s stint in charge can get going straight away.

A wrist injury to Marcus Windhager, who himself excelled with a number of run-with roles late last year, opened the door for Jack Bytel to perform a similar role on Darcy Parish. And he could hardly have staked his claim for a Round 1 berth any harder.

Bytel needed to wait until the eleventh hour to secure a one-year contract for 2022, having not played a single senior game last year and failing to attract any interest at the trade table. In short, he’s a guy who had absolutely everything to gain from this pre-season match.

Wearing Parish like a glove, the Bombers ball magnet could muster only ten disposals and three kicks, and just 70 metres gained, as Bytel clamped down ferociously. Just as impressively, the 22-year old (he’s 23 in two weeks) managed 16 touches and seven tackles as well.

It’s a well known fact Lyon loves him a good tagger – Clint Jones and then Ryan Crowley were crucial cogs in his Saints and Fremantle grand final-making teams – and Bytel can only have impressed his new coach with his performance in Moorabbin. There’s every chance he has just played himself into a Round 1 23.

Errol’s outrageous evening

Chad Warner got all the wraps last year among the Swans’ band of emerging superstars, but don’t sleep on Errol Gulden.

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At just 20 years of age, he’s probably Sydney’s best kick, he takes the game on in that classic new Swans’ way, and based on his performance against Carlton, he’s ready to move to a new level in 2023 in a new role.

Predominantly used on a wing by the Swans in his first two seasons, Gulden spent plenty of time on the ball in the Swans’ scratch match against Brisbane last week, and that continued against the Blues. With Luke Parker, James Rowbottom and Warner all playing, there’s probably only Callum Mills (and maybe Tom Papley) to add to the midfield rotation, so it’s not as if he filled his boots in a second-string midfield.

But fill his boots he most certainly did. By half time, Gulden had 26 disposals, two goals, six clearances and a staggering 584 metres gained, to single-handedly rip the Blues apart.

Even more amazingly, his second half was just as good: all up, he’d muster 45 disposals, nine clearances, three goals – all of them superb – and 847 metres gained. The only shame is he wasted a game for the ages on the pre-season!

A move to the engine room makes plenty of sense for a player like Gulden, who occasionally got shut out of the game if the Swans copped a pasting in the midfield last year, like what Geelong dished out in the grand final.

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He only had 14 touches that day – and he’s the type of player who can win a game by himself if he gets plenty of it.

Warner has already been thrown around as a Brownlow smokey after his rapid rise in 2022; Gulden showed on Friday night he has the capacity to be even more damaging.

Errol Gulden of the Swans is tackled.

Errol Gulden of the Swans is tackled. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Walla needs time

Turns out playing footy at the highest level isn’t like riding a bicycle. Who knew?

After a year away from the game following his shock retirement call midway through last year, it’s good to see Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti in the red and black again. But it’ll take more than just the next fortnight to shake off the substantial rust he has built up since his last senior match, all the way back in August 2021.

Managing just one behind, McDonald-Tipungwuti looked well and truly off the pace: late to contests, more lethargic the longer the game went on, and lacking his trademark pace off the mark and footy smarts to get in dangerous positions. He ended up with six touches and a behind, and honestly I was surprised it was that many.

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The Bombers’ abysmal kicking for goal – 3.14, seriously! – made this loss to the Saints more emphatic than it probably deserved to be. But ‘Walla’, together with sparky new recruit Alwyn Davey Jr, have a big role to play at ground level for the club this year.

In a season unlikely to hit any great heights, Brad Scott and his club can afford to give the veteran all the time he needs to find his feet.

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti of the Bombers celebrates a goal during the 2017 AFL round 20 match between the Essendon Bombers and the Carlton Blues at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on August 05, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The Crows’ time is now

In six of the last eight seasons, a team has risen into the finals having finished in the bottom five the year before. (And in one of the years that didn’t happen, 13th and 12th both made it.)

There’s always a team that comes from nowhere to challenge for September, and – spoiler alert for my AFL Oracle pieces starting next week – I reckon that team in 2023 might just be Adelaide.

All I was looking for was a sign this pre-season to slot them into my eight, and after an impressive scratch match win against Fremantle last week, a demolition job on an admittedly pretty ordinary West Coast on Friday night was just what I needed to see.

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While still a work in progress around the footy, getting pumped 38-32 in the clearances by a Nic Naitanui-less Eagles midfield, the Crows’ transition play was electric to behold.

Frenetic with their pressure to force turnovers – the Eagles had just 16 inside 50s by halfway through the third term – they looked to move the ball quickly once they’d won it back, get it into the hands of their best users in Jordan Dawson and Brodie Smith, and had options aplenty in attack to get the ball to.

Darcy Fogarty is almost the best set shot in the game, and I’ve never seen him look trimmer: with three goals and some serious presence, that Crows spearhead baton might be about to pass from Taylor Walker to him.

Ben Keays is also a fascinating prospect: he seems to be set for only occasional stints on the ball and spend most of his time in attack, which I like. The Crows got a bit samey out of the centre last season, and with none of Keays, Rory Laird, Sam Berry and Harry Schoenberg particularly damaging by foot they often burnt the ball moving forward; but Keays has a real nose for a goal, bagging three against the Eagles, and has a good shot at being a rare half-forward that can impact both the scoreboard and the stats sheet.

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A team-high five clearances from Jake Soligo would surely have delighted Matthew Nicks, and while Izak Rankine and Josh Rachele were quiet, they’ll be a dangerous duo if the Crows can get the ball inside 50 and to ground level with any regularity.

On paper, Adelaide don’t really lack for anything: with another pre-season in the legs of their youngsters, this is the year for them to make good on three years of steady development under Nicks and crack the finals for the first time since 2017.

Izak Rankine.

Izak Rankine. (Photo by Sarah Reed/Getty Images)

Saints’ bizarre forward line has a shot

With no Max King for the opening rounds, Tim Membrey no certainty for Round 1 either and Jack Hayes also on the sidelines, the Saints and Ross Lyon needed to improvise to find a functioning forward line for the start of the season.

It’s early days, to be sure, but they found a way against Essendon to kick 10 goals and set up plenty of opportunities. And it was as much to do with personnel as it was system.

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The Saints’ undersized forward line was dominated by Jack Higgins and Mitch Owens, who booted three goals each and looked dangerous whenever the ball went near them. Owens’ performance, used in a sort of makeshift key forward role, was particularly impressive: he has lovely hands, presents well and is dangerous when the ball hits the ground.

Makeshift spearhead Zaine Cordy barely got a look in, but he didn’t need to do anything more than bring the ball to ground for the Saints to be in with a shot.

Notably, their ball movement was a lot slicker than the usual, stodgy Ross Lyon affair many of us predicted would be commonplace at the Saints this year. They played to their strengths, winning the contested possession count by 30 thanks to the bullocking work of Brad Crouch and Rowan Marshall, but looked to spread away from the contest with speed and purpose.

Mason Wood was in everything upfield with 28 disposals and 15 marks, regularly driving the Saints deep into attack, and considering a heavy Moorabbin breeze they did well to kick as accurately as they did. 10.7 looks pretty good next to the 3.14 the Bombers mustered.

Whether it will work when the proper stuff starts, against more serious defensive structures, is another question: but for now at least, the Saints have a forward line that looks capable of holding the fort until the big dogs are ready to return.

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