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Six Points: The move to save the Swans' season, the worst thing a fan can do, and why the Blues are closer than you think

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14th May, 2023
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Nine rounds in, and four teams have established themselves as head and shoulders above the chasing pack.

Collingwood sit on top with only one loss; nipping at their heels are Melbourne and Brisbane, while Port Adelaide have surged into flag contention with a sixth win in a row. All dealt with lesser opposition in clinical fashion this weekend, boosting their percentage and ensuring they now occupy all positions in the top four.

Some other contenders are announcing themselves – Adelaide burst back with a vengeance to demolish St Kilda, the Western Bulldogs continued their surge back into relevancy, and even Richmond and Fremantle proved their seasons are far from dead with stirring upset wins over each of last year’s grand finalists.

In between, we saw the league’s three basketcases all get walloped, the push in the back rule cease to exist, and had the rare privilege of a second Friday night game that might have been worth staying up to watch if the AFL hadn’t picked the worst possible game for it to be.

There’s lots to discuss, so let’s do what Clayton Oliver did to Jai Newcombe on Saturday afternoon and dive in.

1. The Blues are closer than you think

Between this and my ‘don’t write off Carlton just yet’ segment from last week, I’m worried I might be coming off as a bit of a Blues apologist.

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So let me temper this just a little right off the bat: for three quarters of the Blues’ loss to the Western Bulldogs on Saturday night, they were horrendous. There was intent to move the ball quicker, especially from defence, but the ball use was poor and the set-up ill equipped to capitalise on it. And the less said about their work without the ball, the better.

Up until halfway through the third quarter, and in the final 15 minutes of the last, the Blues were every bit as bad as even the most pessimistic supporter accuses them of being. Dominating the inside 50s yet with just one goal to their name in two and a half quarters, and having butchered three golden goal opportunities with snaps that barely made contact with the boot, it was grim, grim stuff indeed.

But when it finally clicked, the Blues looked simply sensational. Having dominated at the coalface all night, they began to explode through the front of stoppages rather than being corralled by Bulldogs, leaving open space aplenty in attacking positions for their forwards. Their pressure ramped up a gear, with the Dogs frequently caught holding the ball or forced into simple skill errors, at which point the Blues surged it forward with frenetic pace.

Up forward, Matthew Owies was incredible with three goals – all from drop punts – and with Charlie Curnow looming large, the Blues kicked six goals on the trot, and seven of eight, to be within touching distance of a famous win.

It all went horribly, horribly wrong from there. In the last five minutes, the Blues could barely get a hand on the ball, leaking consecutive goals from centre bounces to give the Dogs back all the momentum, and then unable to take the few chances that came their way to respond. Only the Blues could have the script flipped on them so completely.

For three total quarters on Saturday night, the Blues kicked one goal. But in a 40-minute burst, they banged on seven, and conceded only one. I simply can’t write off a side that can do that.

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Perhaps the best comparison I have for the Blues is Richmond in 2014. Fresh off a breakthrough season the year prior – and both seeing their seasons come to a crashing halt in the funniest way possible – the Tigers looked well and truly off the boil to start the new season, slumping to a 3-10 record and the bottom four.

Nine wins later, amid a surge of belief, exhilarating football and a collective gelling of their midfield and forward lines, the Tigers were September bound.

The analogy extends further: the Blues, like the Tigers, are playing a brand of footy that isn’t working for them well enough to trouble good or even decent teams. It took a radical switch and some major off-field upheaval for the Tigers to turn disappointment into three premierships in four years.

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If this season does indeed go down the gurgler – and it certainly isn’t shot yet – the discontent will be strong enough to put Michael Voss well and truly under the pump, as well as all his assistants. Maybe he’s not the man to take the Blues to the promised land. Maybe he is. It’s impossible to say.

All I’ll say is this: all the pieces are there for Carlton, for some brave soul, Voss or otherwise, to harness. They have high-quality key position players, a midfield that combines both the stoppage power of Patrick Cripps and the explosive spread of Sam Walsh, with a host of other quality contributors filling it out. They have one of the best tap ruckmen in the game in Marc Pittonet, the dash and kicking skills of Adam Saad across half-back, and a litany of small forwards I didn’t rate heading into Saturday night but certainly do now, Owies especially.

Blues fans don’t want to be told once again to be patient – so I won’t. What I will say is this: enjoy every second of Carlton’s mediocrity, opposition supporters, because I’d be surprised if, sometime in the near future, it doesn’t all come together.

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Sam Walsh of the Blues looks dejected after a loss.

Sam Walsh of the Blues looks dejected after a loss. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

2. It’s time for Horse to unleash the Heen

I wrote on Saturday that Sydney’s biggest issue in 2023 has been their inability to adapt to a cursed injury run.

Sitting 3-5 and with their co-captain and premier midfielder Callum Mills going down with a calf injury, it’s surely time for John Longmire to make the move he has resisted for years: throw Isaac Heeney on the ball.

Heeney is something of a frustrating player, mostly because he’s a star, but not the world-conquering superstar a lot of good judges thought he’d be when he burst onto the scene in 2015. An outstanding junior playing everywhere on the field, he’s so far been restricted to bursts on the ball thus far in his career, playing the majority of his time as a mid-sized forward target.

So good is Heeney that, in an age where midfielders win all the plaudits, he’s still regarded as one of the game’s elite. But with only nine goals from nine games this year after a career-best 49 in 2022, he typifies the Swans’ struggle to move the ball forward with their previous menace.

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The Swans’ midfield have never been strong at the contest, instead killing teams with pace on the turnover; that was exposed clinically by Fremantle in dominating the clearance count and winning the centre bounces 20-9. That simply can’t be repeated, especially with Sydney’s defence still shredded by injury.

It’s time, Horse. Call it a Hail Mary if you must, but the footy world has waited long enough to see Isaac Heeney the midfielder. Pull the trigger now, with Mills out, and it might just save their season.

Isaac Heeney

(Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

3. The Crows are terrifying

If it wasn’t already official, it is now: Adelaide are the game’s most exhilarating team to watch.

Forget Collingwood: the Crows move the ball with dare and breakneck pace, slingshotting the footy from end to end. When it works, it’s glorious, and there was glory to spare in a 52-point triumph over St Kilda that must surely rank as the Crows’ most emphatic of the Matthew Nicks era.

Nicks deserves credit to spare for this: his move of captain Jordan Dawson into the midfield has at once solved the problem of the Crows’ ordinary ball use moving forward, while also giving them an extra strong, composed body at stoppages. With another 33 disposals against the Saints, the skipper was close to best afield.

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Among Nicks’ other strokes of genius have been the added responsibility granted to youngsters Jake Soligo, Josh Racehel and Lachie Sholl in the midfield mix, who get better by the week; the reinvention of Chayce Jones as a hard-running wingman with skill to burn; and the commitment to Taylor Walker and Rory Sloane when other rebuilding coaches would have passed them by in favour of youth. It’s hard to imagine Walker ever playing better footy than he is right now.

The Crows cut the Saints to ribbons in just about every facet – they dominated stoppages, and were clinically efficient when going inside 50, while denying their opponents the same. From 53 inside 50s they mustered 26 shots and 19 goals: good against most teams, scarcely believable against a Saints outfit who gave up more than double their average conceded score this year.

They sat outside the eight before this round, but in consecutive losses to Collingwood and Geelong the Crows more than pulled their own weight. But for crucial cases of the yips in front of goal in early-season losses to Richmond and GWS, they could very easily be 6-3 or even 7-2 at this point, and being spoken of as a flag contender.

The next month, on either side of their bye, will define the Crows’ season. They travel to face the Western Bulldogs (in Ballarat), Gold Coast (in Darwin) and Collingwood, while also hosting Brisbane, with an easy kill against West Coast nestled in between.

The one thing the Crows are yet to prove is whether they’re good enough just yet to beat quality opposition on the road. They’re about to get their chance: pass the test, and everyone at West Lakes will start to dream big.

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4. Eagles’ injury crisis requires AFL intervention

With Jack Darling breaking his arm in West Coast’s latest horrific loss to Gold Coast, the Eagles’ injury crisis is officially at farcical levels.

As it stands, the embattled former powerhouse may not be able to fill a complete 26 for next week’s ‘Harley Reid Cup’ against Hawthorn. That’s how bad it has got.

With that in mind, it is time for the AFL to act. Current rules prevent the Eagles from doing as they did at the peak of last year’s Western Australian COVID outbreak, and bringing in WAFL ‘top-ups’ to make ends meet. Frankly, they should – and going a step further, they should also be permitted the opportunity to use their upcoming mid-season draft picks early to recruit from around the country if they so choose.

The Eagles are in the midst of surely the worst injury run any team in AFL history has had – and it just seems to keep growing worse by the week. If COVID was a good enough reason for the league to permit signing extras to make ends meet, then surely this current crisis merits it too.

WAFL-level players are unlikely to move the needle much for the Eagles, but it would at least leave them capable of fielding a full 26, and offer some form of protection should this dire injury run get any worse.

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The Eagles have already been through enough hell this season. It’s time to throw them a bone.

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5. Once more with feeling: Australia is not America

One of my ongoing frustrations with every aspect of the AFL is its ongoing ‘Americanisation’.

Loud music permeates every break in play around the country; dancing troupes regale us before the game; every team has its own form of half-time entertainment, be it Kiss Cams, quizzes, races or far too many more.

Inspired by the Super Bowl, the AFL tries every year to convince the public that a night grand final would be a great idea, and have been persistent enough in the face of widespread disapproval that the move is only a matter of time.

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It even now extends to the players, with Scott Pendlebury citing the NBA wages distribution in arguing AFL players deserve a greater share of the revenue pie than what they currently have.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the AFL’s most famous basketball background is citing the NBA, but here lies the problem: Australia is not America, and the AFL is not the NBA. The cultures are different, the player movement model is different, and the population size is most definitely different.

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As has been popularly exclaimed in response to Pendlebury, the NBA allows teams to trade players’ contracts wherever they want, regardless of that player’s willingness. You can’t do that in the AFL, and nor should you.

Here’s the thing: AFL players are worth whatever they are their players association can negotiate them to be worth. If in the next collective bargaining agreement, the AFL acquiesces to a major spike in the revenue share from somewhere, and the game’s best players start earning $2 million plus, then well done to them.

But undoubtedly this would result in the AFL wanting to limit certain other freedoms, ones that would clash with oh so many of the game’s best aspects; among them the traditional lure of being a one-club-player, as well as the sense of players as contributors rather than commodities.

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I’m not sure how many players would make that trade if they could; but I wish anyone making that argument, Pendlebury included, could stop referring to the example of the United States. Australia isn’t America, however much our game is trying to be these days.

Scott Pendlebury of the Magpies celebrates a win

Scott Pendlebury (Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

6. Calling out Carlton fans

I whinge a lot in this column, mostly about players, coaches, the AFL and the big stakeholders in the game. This time, though, it’s the supporters’ turn.

Specifically, Carlton supporters. Attending Marvel Stadium on Saturday night for the Blues’ loss to the Western Bulldogs, I wasn’t surprised by the chorus of boos, frustrated cries and self-deprecating drop punt jokes from long-suffering fans. But what did surprise me was how quickly a significant portion of them gave up the goose.

We’ve all seen the vision shown on Fox Footy’s coverage of Blues fans leaving the stadium in droves in the final minutes; what it doesn’t pick up is that the mass exodus started with 5 minutes and 53 seconds left on the clock, when a Bailey Smith goal put the Dogs… eight points up.

It was bewildering to see, not least because a literal minute earlier, the Blues had been in front and looked destined for a superb comeback win. The same supporters who had been out of their seats waving scarves and punching the air took very little convincing to head for the exits when the momentum changed.

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Given how chaotic the last quarter under the roof was, the Blues could easily have banged on two goals of their own in a minute and a half to retake the lead; heck, if you’d told me after Smith’s goal that just two more would be kicked for the night, I’d have been certain at least one would have been from Carlton.

Really, the match was only over as a contest – and not before a pair of Blues misses that could have made things really interesting – with one and a half minutes to go, by which point the crowd had thinned out considerably.

This was annoying on two fronts on a personal level: one, the steady stream of departures in my area basically made watching the game an exercise in tilting one’s head back and forth to peer past the people squeezing past along the aisle; and two, the fact that it started so far out from the finish line that Dogs fans couldn’t even engage in the time-old tradition of mocking them lest it backfire spectacularly.

I’ve always taken a dark view on early leavers: yes, beating the traffic is nice, or getting a good seat on the train, tram or bus; but is it really worth the price of abandoning your team early? I still remember the Sunday Footy Show absolutely rinsing a Melbourne fan and his son the day after a famous win over the Bulldogs back in 2005, when a camera captured them bailing with seven minutes to go and the Dees trailing by 22 points.

But giving up on your team, regardless of how frustrating they are, so far from the finish line is just inviting trouble. It was embarrassing for Port Adelaide fans who did it against St Kilda in 2017; I would urge anyone reading this to not make the same mistake, and stick it out through thick and thin.

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Random thoughts

– Loved seeing Marcus Bontempelli plonk himself next to Patrick Cripps at every stoppage he could in the last quarter.

– It was only against West Coast, but boy howdy did Matt Rowell have a corker of a game in every aspect.

– 16 tackles from Reuben Ginbey in a side that got pummelled is a hell of an effort. He’s a special kid.

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– I don’t think I’ve seen a better game from a small defender this year than Andrew McGrath on Charlie Cameron. Blanketed him totally.

– Nice to see Mason Cox have his annual ‘this bloke is the greatest player in history’ game to spice up a very drab Sunday twilight offering.

– Harry McKay snapping from 35 out directly in front and nearly missing the lot is extremely funny if your team is the one benefitting from it.

– Luke Jackson will be fine.

– Todd Goldstein is 35 and still just about the best pure ruckman in the game. Unreal.

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– As someone who has never had Dustin Martin tear my team up in a big final: God, he’s fun to watch when he’s on.

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