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Six Points: Defending Josh Rachele, the Blues' unsung hero, and why the Dogs would be mad to sack Bevo

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16th July, 2023
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It was a week dominated by Gerard Whateley failing to understand the Streisand effect, and a weekend where the race for the eight got even more… *don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it*… messy.

Geelong Bradburyed their way up to fifth, GWS are now up to the cusp of the eight, and Carlton are officially back with a capital B. The top three now doesn’t look quite as watertight as it did last week, either, with Port Adelaide getting poleaxed and Brisbane getting Jake Melkshamed to leave the door ajar for the Demons to snag a home final from nowhere.

Let’s also just forget Sunday happened, because between Hawthorn not being able to hit the side of a barn door, Richmond fumbling everything that came their way for a half, and North Melbourne and Hawthorn existing, safe to say it was a day to spend with friends and loved ones.

Come on trolls, let’s dive in. It really is that simple.

1. Sticking up for Josh Rachele

“He needs to pull his head in, as a person and as a footballer. There’s all the carry-on that he’s got when he’s going well, but gee he was undisciplined.

“At times, he thinks he’s going better than he is… you’re not Toby Greene, you’re not Charlie Cameron. He’s got ahead of himself.”

Speaking on the Sunday Footy Show, Matthew Lloyd couldn’t have gone harder at Josh Rachele for his role in a series of unsavoury incidents during Adelaide’s crucial loss to GWS on Saturday night.

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If you missed it, here’s the rap sheet: he scuffled with Harry Perryman throughout, got reported for a strike on Jack Buckley, and drove an elbow into Jacob Wehr’s head after winning a holding the ball free kick in what was the dictionary definition of a dog act.

The middle of those three was enough to earn him a two-match suspension, which seems at face value harsh, but is probably warranted if for nothing else than to do it with so many cameras trained on AFL games these days well and truly deserves an idiot tax.

The moment the Crows gave up a 17-point three quarter time lead to lose what might prove to be a July elimination final, Rachele’s actions were always going to come under the microscope in a way they probably wouldn’t had he been best afield in a resounding win – and Lloyd’s reaction is hardly likely to be controversial.

But I’d like to speak up in Rachele’s defence – to slam him for his actions on Saturday as if they were lone acts of madness fails to acknowledge that the Giants made it their mission from start to finish to make his night hell.

Perryman started it all during the second term, when he tackled Rachele and then driving his forearm into him – another classic dog act for which he was rightly penalised, but which got the desired effect – Rachele went ballistic.

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Moments before he took a swing at Buckley, Perryman again had given him a drive-by clip after he’d disposed of the ball, again getting under the Crows young gun’s skin by crossing the line – yet not a word has been said against the Giant for his role in events.

No doubt Rachele needs to control himself better – teams will now view him as someone who can be goaded, and he’s unlikely to have an easy run for the rest of the season in that regard. And in just his second season, he’s already a player who keeping to nine disposals and a goal by getting into his head is a massive win – as it was for the Giants at the Adelaide Oval.

It’s also on Rachele to not stoop to the same level – that cheap shot on Wehr, who’d done absolutely nothing to him, was pathetic, and really should have given up a free kick. The same goes for striking Buckley: the minute you start swinging arms you’re bound for trouble, even if you barely connect.

But he’s also a 20-year old 30 games into what should be a long and successful career, and is already one of the league’s most exciting young talents. It’s unfair to him for Lloyd and others to have a go at his exuberant goal celebrations, electric personality and spark as if you need to be an established superstar of the game to have them.

It’s probably also a timely message to his teammates that maybe next time an opposition player targets him, to step up and defend him rather than leaving him to fend for himself. Just a thought.

Rachele had a shocker on Saturday night, in more ways than one.

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But he’s got time on his side to make amends once he serves his time, and surely has enough credits in the bank from an excellent second season to cut him a bit of slack for allowing himself to be antagonised.

Josh Rachele celebrates a goal.

Josh Rachele celebrates a goal. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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2. The Dees can’t go back to Brodie this year

There are a lot of people coming out of the woodwork this week claiming they always knew Melbourne’s recruitment of Brodie Grundy to partner Max Gawn in the ruck was doomed to failure.

While I was skeptical, I admit I was excited to see how ‘Gawndy’ would fare, and wrote pre-season about how they could make it work.

But it’s pretty indubitable, after 18 rounds, that it’s not the missing link to get the Demons back into a grand final. And Gawn’s extraordinary return to his very best on Friday night against Brisbane has shown that, if anything, it has been a hindrance.

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Up until then, Gawn was having, by his standards, a down year; little wonder, given he’s attended just 48 per cent of centre bounces in game he’s played in 2023 compared to two-thirds in 2022. Never a natural forward, my pre-season thought that Gawn could attend centre ruck contests and then float behind the ball with Grundy taking over the around the ground work hasn’t eventuated either.

Gawn, with the occasional chop out from Jacob van Rooyen, showed he’s more than capable of still being a solo ruck, and that he’s still the premier big man in the game when at his best.

Grundy, too, played his best footy as the number one man when Gawn was injured early in the year, and has had minimal impact in attack either.

The latter is a good enough player to spend the rest of the season, and then the coming summer, honing his forward craft and becoming far more dangerous in 2024. But unless Gawn goes down again, it’s next to impossible for him to improve to the extent he’d need to justify getting picked alongside his captain.

Rather than enhancing the team, ‘Gawndy’ has, it turns out, detracted from what was already a major Melbourne strength.

For all the talk from Simon Goodwin about how much they love their twin rucks, their only chance of winning the flag in 2023 is for Gawn to carry them there, like he did against Brisbane.

Brodie Grundy of the Demons handballs.

Brodie Grundy of the Demons handballs. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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3. The unsung Blue driving their finals push

If you asked a random AFL fan which Carlton player is the biggest reason for their form turnaround in the last month, you’d probably get the usual names.

But while Patrick Cripps, Charlie Curnow, Jacob Weitering, Adam Cerra and Harry McKay – before his ankle injury – have all been superb, there’s a far more low-profile player doing just as much for the cause: Nic Newman.

I’ve got no way of definitively proving this, but up until he was injured mid-match against Sydney in Round 11, I’d had Newman pencilled into the back pocket of my All-Australian team, mostly because he did the impossible and held Toby Greene to just five touches in Round 3.

Since then, only Charlie Cameron has properly got hold of him – and I wrote regarding that game that the Blues basically left Newman on an island back there – and his smart kicking has made him a chief rebounding option with Adam Saad playing below his best for much of the year.

Newman doesn’t take swathes of intercept marks like Tom Stewart, or marshal the Blues’ backline like Luke Ryan, but every week he goes about his job with a minimum of fuss, gathers plenty of footy, shuts down a dangerous opponent and uses his raking left boot to good effect.

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His 555 metres gained against Port Adelaide, all while keeping tabs on Sam Powell-Pepper, was Carlton’s second-most, and with so much of what the Blues are doing right coming back to their ball movement, Newman is as big a part of that spike as anyone.

Aside from 2020, when he suffered a season-ending knee injury early on, Newman has been a walk-up best 22 member since he arrived at the Blues at the end of 2018. A mature-ager good enough to force his way into a very good Sydney team previously, he’s exactly the blend of polish and toughness every good backman needs. There’s a lot of Brayden Maynard in the way he goes about it.

Perhaps only the most diehard of Blues fans would rank him as an All-Australian candidate, but he’s doing a difficult job superbly well, and at the very least, would be well and truly worth of a spot in the squad of 40.

For now, though, he’s an integral component in a side surging towards a long-awaited finals berth, which would be more important to him and his team than any accolades that come his way.

4. The Lions’ MCG hoodoo is a myth

Brisbane didn’t lose on Friday night because the MCG holds some unspoken curse over them.

They lost because, for the umpteenth time in the past four years, they were shown up to be not quite good enough when it matters most against the best sides in the competition on the road.

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The Lions losing to another premiership contender away from home shouldn’t have come as a surprise (though I tipped them – what do I know?), though the manner of this latest defeat was certainly extraordinary, conceding the last four goals to throw away a game that was in their keeping.

But this year, they lost to Adelaide, another perfectly good team, on the road, while getting thrashed by Port Adelaide at the same venue, and went down to the Western Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium in Round 3.

Their only other loss was to Hawthorn, who basically beat Brisbane as a rule regardless of the venue – they knocked them over in similar style in Tasmania last year. That’s not a ‘G hoodoo – that’s just a weaker team that matches up well on the Lions, specifically one willing to challenge them on the rebound from half-back.

A team being substantially better at home than away is nothing new, but I have a feeling the Lions are getting somewhat flattered by their undeniable home ground advantage.

West Coast in the mid-2010s and Geelong a few years later had a similar problem: they’d often finish with a home final or even in the top four over better opponents because their home ground advantage gave them a leg-up on other, especially Melbourne-based, teams that don’t have the same luxury.

(And before you start: yes, I believe it’s a substantially better fixture to have 12 locked-in fully home games and 11 fully away than to have, as the Demons do this year for instance, four fully home games, six fully away and 12 neutral against other Melbourne-based teams. If you disagree with this, I won’t try and convince you otherwise, but please note that I think you’re wrong.)

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So it’s not a case of one venue posing all sorts of problems for Brisbane – it’s more a fact that the MCG has for a while been a host to the best teams in the league. Collingwood and Melbourne of late, and before them Richmond, plus a Hawks outfit that has troubled the Lions for years.

The Lions beat the Demons there in a semi-final last year, and remain capable, when the mood strikes them, to be world-beaters anywhere in the country. Hell, apart from the first 15 minutes and the last 15 on Friday night, that’s what they were.

They’ll start as favourites in five of their last six games, with Collingwood at Marvel Stadium the biggest challenge. But don’t expect that they’ll fare any better against the Magpies on the other side of Melbourne.

The AFL Draft will be shown on Fox Footy and Kayo. CLICK HERE for a seven-day free trial to watch the AFL on KAYO

5. The Cats aren’t back just yet

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Geelong are still pretty terrifying when they get going, aren’t they?

The Cats’ 77-point demolition job of a totally outclassed Essendon on Saturday night was quite clearly their biggest statement since the grand final.

Ripping an in-form upstart to shreds on their own turf is the sort of thing they’ve done repeatedly and mercilessly for the past *checks watch* 16 years, and the Bombers won’t be the last team to cop it at GMHBA Stadium. Already Fremantle, Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs will be nervously awaiting their own trips to the Cattery in the rounds to come.

But while they’re now fifth and looking all but locked in for finals, let’s hold off on anointing the Cats as properly back to their best just yet. Their next month will more accurately decide where they sit than a beatdown of a Bombers outfit that never for a second looked up to the challenge.

Next week, they face the toughest road trip in footy, up north to take on Brisbane at the Gabba. Such are the fine lines of season 2023 that a loss there would see them drop below at least the winner of the Bombers and Western Bulldogs, plus in all likelihood St Kilda (who face North Melbourne), and GWS (Gold Coast). If they get brutalised, they could even see their percentage dip below Carlton, who could run up the score against West Coast for a second time this season.

The Power a fortnight later is another major challenge, even if in the familiar surrounds of home; even more challenging, they’ve got Collingwood at the MCG a week later.

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The Saints and the Bulldogs in the final fortnight are about as easy as it gets for the Cats – and both those sides will be desperate to remain in the hunt for home finals or even September action altogether, and certainly aren’t easybeats.

2023 has already seen enough twists and turns, from the Cats as much as anyone, for us to accept that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. This is still a team that looked done when they lost to GWS in Geelong in Round 11, the end of their second three-match losing streak of the year.

I’m still adamant there is zero chance of the Cats missing finals, because they just don’t do that sort of thing. But don’t be surprised if their next month leaves them vulnerably placed heading into the last fortnight, and unable to safely do their usual trick of resting banged-up stars for an easy final-round kill at the Cattery.

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6. The Dogs would be mad to sack Bevo

Now that Port Adelaide and Ken Hinkley are having a great season, there’s probably no coach in the AFL that cops it more from their own supporter base than Luke Beveridge does from Western Bulldogs fans.

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It’s most noticeable after frustrating close losses in games they really should have won – Thursday night’s two-point loss to Sydney a prime example.

Naturally, Kane Cornes jumped on by urging the Dogs to part ways with their 2016 premiership coach, and he’s only echoing the sentiments of many in the AFL world, both those who bleed red, white and blue and otherwise.

So here’s my two cents, as a Bulldog born and raised and someone as annoyed as anyone with the current state of things at Whitten Oval: the Dogs would be mad to move on from Beveridge.

Forget the 2016 flag, which was a lifetime ago: the Dogs are just 18 months on from a grand final which, even though they entered the finals series fifth, was deserved as the season’s clear second-best team. Only Geelong and Brisbane can match their run of four consecutive finals series – a club record – since 2019.

For a team with no history of success, Beveridge has come to a team in disarray on and off-field when he arrived, and brought pretty much constant competitiveness.

In eight completed seasons, just one (2018) has featured more losses than wins. Indeed, just four teams – Geelong, Richmond, Sydney and Port Adelaide – have had more wins since he walked through the door at the start of 2015 than his 113 at the helm.

Luke Beveridge.

Luke Beveridge. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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Seven finals wins in that time – plus three more elimination finals in 2015, 2020 and 2022 which they could easily have won as well – is behind only the Cats and Tigers in that time; while two grand finals is bested by only the latter. At a club like the Bulldogs, that’s utterly extraordinary, and something we’ve probably taken for granted.

Even now, the Bulldogs are seventh on the ladder, and a loss to a fired-up Swans team on their own ground who brought a level of intensity you don’t often see from a team sitting 15th just isn’t the season-ruining loss some people seem to think it is. I still have the Dogs as more likely than not to reach finals, even if they’ve now got virtually no wriggle room in the run home.

I also dispute Cornes’ claim that every other club in the competition would ‘kill’ for the list the Dogs have – it’s far more lopsided than most people seem to acknowledge.

Yes, Marcus Bontempelli is close to if not outright the best player in the game, and the midfield is a murderer’s row of household names: but their key defensive stocks are among the league’s worst, they’ve got a battery of young, developing tall forwards – even Aaron Naughton is only 23 with his best footy still to come – and even that midfield has a touch of sameness about it.

Bontempelli is better than Christian Petracca at many things, but exploding at high velocity from stoppages isn’t one of them: with Jack Macrae, Tom Liberatore and Adam Treloar with his dodgy hamstrings also far from speed demons, it leaves the Dogs vulnerable to pace going the other way – Isaac Heeney bolting away from a gassed Bont to set up the winning goal for the Swans on Thursday night the perfect example.

Things clicked in 2021 as much because of Bontempelli’s brilliance as it was a superb season from Alex Keath in defence, the presence of Easton Wood as a backline marshal and Josh Bruce bagging 48 goals in a lethal partnership with Naughton. Of that foursome, only Bontempelli can still be called upon to provide what he did back then.

There’s no bad time to get gifted two long-term key position players on a platter, but with a team firmly in the premiership window, sacrificing a swathe of mid-range draft picks for Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and Sam Darcy, both of whom are still taking time to develop, has prevented the Dogs from finding the 16-22 players with picks in the 20s and 30s that would make this team better.

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Say what you will of Oskar Baker, or Anthony Scott, or Lachie McNeil getting regular games that they wouldn’t get at most other clubs in the league, but readymade if limited VFL-quality guys is about all you can work with when you have one pick between 15 and 50 between 2018 and 2022.

I wonder how much of the criticism directed at Beveridge comes due to his antagonistic relationship with the press, which makes him an easy target when some of his bold gambits don’t pay off. More has been made this year of the game and a half Rory Lobb spent on a wing than Caleb Daniel’s transition from half-back to damaging attacking midfielder, or Bailey Williams from out of form defender to solid wingman.

Beveridge also gets criticised for playing pure midfielders in unusual positions, but what other choice does he have? You can only have four players at centre bounces, and yes, that might mean a Macrae or a Bailey Smith starts at half-forward. But for all the furore over Smith’s poor recent run and accusations of being played out of position, I wouldn’t have him ahead of Bontempelli, Liberatore, Treloar or Macrae on the on-ball rotation right now.

So yes, it’s frustrating to see a team with so many strengths continue to be stymied by its weaknesses, and to see a champion in Bontempelli once again mired in elimination final territory: but I don’t think it should be taken for granted what Beveridge has achieved with a team like the Bulldogs.

Yes, he hasn’t made the top four, narrowly missing in 2016 and 2021 – but it’s harder to get there when you have to do things like sell off home games and, most of all, play Geelong in Geelong and Hawthorn in Tasmania on the regular.

The grass isn’t greener on the other side: for every Craig McRae there’s three Mark Neelds, Brendon Boltons and Brendan McCartneys. The Dogs should take that into account if they’re even considering moving on from the greatest coach the club has ever had.

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Random thoughts

– An excellent show of growth from James Sicily that he didn’t put one on Eddie Ford’s chin after this.

– I love how half the reaction to Brayden Maynard’s tackles is to say he should get weeks, and the other half is absolutely teeing off at anyone saying he should get weeks. Footy Twitter.

– Ivan Soldo looked properly good as a solo ruck. Interesting times at Tigerland.

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– There was an advantage call in the Bulldogs-Sydney game Thursday night that I genuinely believe was the worst in history..

– That was the best game Andrew Gaff has played in, what, two years? Permanent sub role incoming.

– I’m always confused when commentators say ‘it’s time to treat Toby Greene like one of the best players in the game’. Who on earth still thinks he’s not?

– Gryan Miers leaning into the Messi stuff is just perfection.

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