The Roar
The Roar

AFL
Advertisement

Six Points: Port's concussion farce, an all time MCG classic, and a day of upsets flips the season on its head

Autoplay in... 6 (Cancel)
Up Next No more videos! Playlist is empty -
Replay
Cancel
Next
Editor
30th July, 2023
94
3431 Reads

Wow.

There’s a good chance we look back at this weekend, when the season is run and won, as the point where everything changed.

The top three were all defeated to suddenly leave home qualifying final spots wide open; no fewer than four teams in the last-chance saloon kept the faintest of September dreams alive, and there were comebacks galore in a round full of drama to spare.

GWS overturned a huge deficit to run down the Bulldogs, Essendon, North Melbourne and Hawthorn did their best to do the same to Sydney, West Coast and St Kilda respectively, and from the moment the Blues surged clear of Collingwood to start the round through to Optus Stadium erupting when the Eagles sealed their first win since Round 2, there was delight, despair and pandemonium everywhere you looked.

Footy, huh?

1. The season turned on its head in the space of 24 hours

At 7:50pm on Friday night, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the eight had just about taken its proper shape.

Advertisement

But in the space of 24 hours, the finals race – and the season itself – had been flipped on its head.

We went into Round 20 with a clear top two, an established top four, and with a growing idea of which teams would end up occupying the spots from 5-8 amid a logjam starting to separate.

But if you expected there to be five upsets from six games across Friday and Saturday, all of them with September ramifications, then you’re probably doing significantly better in your tipping competition than me. Hell, the top spots in this week’s Roar tipping comp are all, as far as I can tell, ghost ships getting by on the away team auto-pick.

The least costly loss was probably Collingwood’s: despite being taken apart by a red-hot Carlton, Port Adelaide and Brisbane both losing leaves them two games and percentage clear on top. They’d need to lose three of their last four to give it up, and even then they’d need one of the Power and Lions to win out. It ain’t happening.

Most costly? Probably Port’s ugly capitulation in the Showdown, whose top-two hopes now may hang on a successful trip to Geelong next week, but it might prove to be the Cats themselves by the end of the home-and-away season. Two consecutive losses have taken the reigning premiers from back in the flag mix to outside the eight entirely, and copping the grandaddy of all upsets on their own turf against the 15th-placed Fremantle was surely the biggest shock in a weekend full of them.

They, too, head back to GMHBA Stadium next weekend with their season on the line: lose, and they could be as much as a win and a half adrift of the eight depending on other results, and with a looming date with Collingwood to make their run home ultra-tough. The Cats might be good enough to recover, and once in the finals will be a menace wherever they land, but they’ve now got precisely zero wriggle room.

Advertisement

As for the biggest winner, it’s impossible to split the Blues and GWS – Carlton, from nowhere, are up to seventh, on a six-game tear, and face the fifth-placed St Kilda in a blockbuster next Sunday afternoon where victory would set them on course for a home final. Ditto the Giants, who produced their latest epic comeback to sink the Western Bulldogs in an eight-point game in Ballarat and now get the double incentive to just about seal finals action AND end crosstown rival Sydney’s building hopes in a vital Battle of the Bridge.

The Dogs have fallen from fifth to the precipice of the eight, and are only there thanks to the Cats’ shock loss and Richmond’s final-quarter fadeout against Melbourne: the breathing space they earned by defeating Essendon dissipated when they did after half time, and with a now-threadbare defence a Friday night date with the Tigers, with only two premiership points separating them, is likely an elimination final for both combatants.

It might come too late, but the Swans and Crows deserve kudos too for their triumphs on Saturday night; Sydney did what the Dogs should have and held their nerve against an Essendon fightback to claw their way up to tenth, while Adelaide can at least come out of this season, wherever it ends up, satisfied with two Showdown victories to savour.

In the end, the biggest winners were probably the teams that played on Sunday, when normal service resumed: I’ll have more to say about the Saints in a bit, but if you’d told me there would be one upset on the weekend, I’d have had a strong suspicion it would have been them against the Hawks. Against all the odds, they’re still fifth, and are now more than just a puncher’s chance of Bradburying their way into September and shocking the footy world.

Speaking of Bradbury, that might be Melbourne’s ticket into the top two, having dodged their own bullet with the last six goals of the game to break away from the Tigers and all but guarantee them top four at least. But with a handy draw and just a win off the Power in second, the Dees might just need one slip-up from them and Brisbane to earn an unexpected home final – all with Clayton Oliver closing in on a return.

The upshot is this: where last week I had four teams in proper premiership contention, I’m now compelled to add Carlton to the list, and am sorely tempted to give the Giants the same credit. Not only are those two teams in sensational veins of form, but the top four, even the mighty Magpies, haven’t looked as shaky as they do right now in months.

Advertisement

An unforgettable season is set for the most dramatic finale yet. Strap yourselves in.

Jesse Motlop celebrates a goal.

Jesse Motlop celebrates a goal. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

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

2. Port’s concussion farce can’t be overlooked by the AFL

“If anyone has got a challenge on that and they feel more qualified than Mark Fisher, who is a 25-year AFL doctor, feel free. But I think you want to be really sure that you’re not trying to make calls from outside the fence when you’ve got no knowledge.”

So said Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley regarding criticism directed at long-standing club doctor Mark Fisher, after a controversial decision to not put two Power players through a concussion test despite a nasty head clash.

The catch? Hinkley actually made those comments a little over 13 months ago, when Zak Butters and Tom Jonas were both split open with a head-on-head collision late in a tight game against Richmond, and allowed to return to the field after being patched up.

Advertisement

It’s in that context that we should discuss Fisher and the Power’s response to Aliir Aliir and Lachie Jones’ near-identical head clash in the first half of Saturday night’s Showdown, where again neither player was put through the AFL’s standard 15-minute concussion protocol test.

In case you missed it, Aliir returned to the field shortly after while Jones was soon subbed out – though not with concussion, according to Fisher, but with a ‘migraine’.

Of course, I’m not a doctor, and my medical experience is slim to none – as would be the case for most people who watched the concerning scenes at the Adelaide Oval as Aliir and Jones lay in distress on the turf.

But you don’t need a medical degree or nearly three decades worth of experience to find it deeply, deeply problematic that Fisher ticked off both Aliir and Jones,

The league released a statement on Sunday claiming that, contrary to Fox Sports’ David Zita’s report on the night, Aliir had passed an initial Head Impact Assessment (HIA) – but Fisher had felt there was no need to undergo the 15-minute SCAT5 test at the time.

If my understanding of this is correct, the HIA is effectively, in Zita’s words, a ‘consultation of the footage’ – so in essence, Fisher felt there was absolutely no chance Aliir could possibly be in danger of a concussion from the head clash.

Advertisement

I want to be careful to give Fisher as much benefit of the doubt as possible, as befits a medico beloved by his players and surely with their interests at heart.

But there is enough evidence now off two separate incidents, plus an earlier incident from 2016 where the Power were fined for letting Hamish Hartlett return to the field too early following his own head knock, to mount a convincing case that Fisher has form for not treating concussion as seriously as his job necessitates.

Anyone with eyes could see Aliir’s head make contact with the side of Jones’, and that it looked suspiciously like the Power star was out for the count for at least a few seconds after the contact, as his legs buckled and his body went limp. It was a truly horrible sight.

I’d have been uneasy but willing to back Fisher’s decision if he had cleared Aliir of concussion after he had undergone the 15-minute concussion test protocols, as Jones reportedly did; but to not even bother to put him through it is nothing less than dereliction of duty.

Part of a club doctor’s job is to make tough decisions for players in their best interests. No doubt Aliir and Jones both wanted to return to the field, as Butters and Jonas did at the MCG last year. But that doesn’t mean that it’s medically safe for them to do so – especially without ticking every possible box to ensure that they have not sustained a concussion, however minor.

It might be that Aliir was totally fine and not concussed, but in the current concussion climate it is unacceptable, for both medical AND legal reasons as the AFL battles a major lawsuit in this field, to not be giving him a HIA. And given Fisher’s form in this regard, it’s impossible to have any trust in his judgement on head knocks moving forward.

Advertisement

That’s why the AFL needs to, in my opinion, take a stand on both Fisher and Hinkley. It ticked off, somewhat inexplicably, the Butters-Jonas head knocks and Port’s inaction on them last year, but the optics on this one are even more terrible, and the climate around concussion even more severe.

They can’t sit idly on their hands – perhaps it’s time, now that at least one team’s doctor cannot be reliably trusted on concussion, that they follow the NRL’s lead and install an independent medical official to take matters out of the clubs’ hands.

I’m honestly not averse to things like this resulting in clubs getting docked premiership points – what better way to ensure all other teams and the Power themselves take no chances on concussion moving forward than to impose the heaviest penalty of all – but there’s absolutely no chance of such drastic action being taken this time around.

Still, the damage sitting on their hands in this will do to both the AFL’s defence against the oncoming concussion lawsuits – how can they possibly claim to be taking head knocks seriously if the Power can do as they did without consequence? – and its own self-appointed standing as a concussion leader within the sports industry, is profound.

The Power aren’t the only club to skirt the lines on concussion – the Bulldogs were slated in the court of public opinion earlier this year when Bailey Smith wasn’t tested after being poleaxed by Kysaiah Pickett – but this has happened too often at Alberton over the last few years for the public to have any faith in their handling of the game’s most sensitive medical issue.

Whether he was concussed or not, Port and Fisher failed in their duty to protect Aliir Aliir. And the AFL need to do something, anything, about it.

Advertisement
Aliir Aliir.

Aliir Aliir. (Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

3. Any danger of some dissent rule consistency?

The AFL and its umpiring department love a ‘rule of the week’.

On Friday night, it looked like Round 20’s edition would be a sudden and total dissent rule crackdown, with a string of 50m penalties given against Carlton and Collingwood players alike for the most minor of infractions.

Naturally, it received backlash from the media and from the footy public, and whether deliberately or otherwise, it took until Sunday to see another one, when Richmond were pinged just before half time against Melbourne.

For all the criticism it received last year – and I was well and truly on that bandwagon – I thought the AFL did well to acknowledge that the dissent crackdown wasn’t having the desired effect and was too stringent, and after a few incidents in the early rounds, most famously the Stephen Coniglio one that cost GWS against Carlton, had wound it back to the point of being almost back to normal ever since.

Advertisement

But what’s even more frustrating than if it was an iron-clad, if harsh, ruling is when it’s just a spectre hanging over every game, with players none the wiser whether pointing to the scoreboard or protesting a decision.

If the AFL is really committed to cracking down on umpire dissent – and by that I mean willing to wear the heated criticism of fans when it goes against their team – then it wouldn’t have softened it when the backlash became too intense.

The result is that right now, we effectively have a situation where a key, potentially game-changing rule is only being brought out in the occasional game. And you don’t need me to tell you just how amateurish that is.

4. Don’t discount the Saints just yet

For two quarters on Sunday afternoon – the first and last – St Kilda smashed Hawthorn to smithereens with electric, beautiful ball movement.

In the middle two quarters, they reverted to type, made repeated skill errors, went into game-preservation mode and let the Hawks roar back into the contest.

Where you sit on how things went at Marvel Stadium probably depends on whether you’re glass half full or half empty about the Saints in 2023; they’re either flat track bullies who did to the 16th-placed Hawks what they should have done to West Coast and North Melbourne, or Ross Lyon made the changes he needed after an ordinary month to get their season back on track.

Advertisement

We probably won’t know whether the Saints are properly back as a September frontrunner, or still just clinging to their finals position, when they play a rampant Carlton in a week’s time. It’s the first of four tremendously tough games that they’ll likely need to at least split to stay in the eight.

But it’s worth saying this: any Saints fan would have shaken your arm off to take them being fifth on the ladder with four rounds to go, however tenuous their hold on it is. And for half the game time against Hawthorn, Lyon’s men showed they still have a few shots to fire in 2023, and cannot be underestimated.

A finals berth would be a significant achievement for a club tipped to be near the bottom at the start of the season, regardless of the path they’d take to get there; and right now, it’s their spot to lose.

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. Toby Greene is the rightful All-Australian captain

Advertisement

For years, the title of All-Australian captain has mostly been a decorative one. We’ve seen Lance Franklin, Tom Hawkins, Patrick Dangerfield and Alex Rance all receive the accolade while not skippering their teams, with the onus on rewarding champions for their service to the game.

This year feels different: there will be at least four and possibly a good deal more captains appearing in the 2023 team. Marcus Bontempelli, Toby Greene, Jordan Dawson and Darcy Moore are all certainties; Lachie Neale, Harris Andrews, Zach Merrett and James Sicily are all strong chances to make the best 22 as well.

There’s an opportunity to properly select the best captain in the top job, rather than have the position be an entirely honourary one. And of the above list of stars, one stands head and shoulders above the rest.

No captain does more to lift his team week in, week out than Greene; it’s not an outlandish statement to say he’s the most important player in the competition.

While relatively diminutive in size for an AFL footballer, he is strong, smart, beautifully skilled and owns the big moments better than just about anyone else in the league. Kicking four goals in the third quarter and five for the game, Greene was again the hero to lead GWS to a remarkable come-from-behind victory over the Western Bulldogs and have them on course for a home elimination final.

The other candidates are all fantastic footballers, and Moore’s refreshing humility and openness when speaking publicly as well as his undisputed skills on the field would make him a completely worthy choice. Ditto Bontempelli, who has the added appeal of being just about the best player in the game right now.

Advertisement

But if the All-Australian team ran out next week against a team from Mars, whoever was chosen to lead them, there’s only one man who would be its spiritual leader. And that’s Toby Greene.

Toby Greene celebrates kicking a goal.

Toby Greene celebrates kicking a goal. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

Sports opinion delivered daily 

   

6. Giving an absolute classic the respect it deserves

When we look back at season’s end and create a list of 2023’s best games, I’m pretty sure the fact the margin blew out late will take Melbourne’s win over Richmond well down the pecking order.

But for me, this was the highest-quality and most thrilling game of the season – as well as one of the most awesome games I’ve ever watched. That might sound like hyperbole or recency bias, and maybe it is a bit, but up until the last 10 minutes, this was a stone cold Sunday afternoon classic at the MCG.

Advertisement

Not only was it high-scoring, with a whopping 35 goals despite some second half rain, but it was frenetic, played at a brutal pace, and with neither side giving an inch.

There were brutal tackles – Rhyan Mansell made it his mission to axe as many Demons as possible in the first half – but above all, this was a game of magnificent skill in all facets.

Taking it up another notch, in my opinion, were the storylines – Harrison Petty’s six-goal turn as a makeshift forward that might have just solved the Dees’ issues in attack, while Dustin Martin’s three and ominous presence over proceedings right up until the death showed he’s still got plenty up his sleeve should the Tigers end up making it to the finals.

Every 15 minutes seemed to bring with it a momentum swing: having trailed by 20 points at regular stages, the Demon appeared to have broken Richmond’s back with five consecutive goals in the third term to take a nine-point lead, only for the Tigers to bite back with there the bounce of their own on either side of three quarter time.

The goals, too, were spectacular: I don’t often get emotionally invested in other teams, but I got off my seat when Noah Balta made fools of the Dees’ goal line defence by snapping through an unlikely major that would prove the Tigers’ final score.

Future historians – and even people that didn’t watch it live – will have no idea what I’m going on about. Most games, rightly or wrongly, are judged as good by their closeness, and a 32-point final margin is the very antithesis of that.

Advertisement

So no, much as I’d like it to, this won’t go down as the game of the season. But in an era of concussion controversy, umpires in the spotlight and all manner of problems at every level of the AFL, Sunday afternoon at the MCG was a nice reminder that our game, at its best, is still the most exciting, captivating and dramatic sport on earth.

Sports opinion delivered daily 

   

Random thoughts

– Luke Breust is unreal. One of the smartest footballers to have ever played our game.

– Safe to say my prediction that Essendon had the capacity to win the flag this year hasn’t aged well.

– The Dayne Zorko-Touk Miller beef has actually made the QClash interesting for the first time in years. Lean into it this week, guys.

Advertisement

– Rory Sloane taking a hanger over Travis Boak after what Kane Cornes said about them both during the week is poetic justice at its finest.

– I’ll riot if Tom Liberatore doesn’t get an All-Australian gig. Best inside mid in the comp.

– I stand by that a lot of the criticism of Kelli Underwood’s commentary is pretty poor, but so was her commentary on the QClash.

– Harrison Petty should never play in defence again.

Advertisement
close