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Six Points: Defending Daicos' 'dive', the moment that summed up Saints' slide, and why Mitchell is the AFL's best coach

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6th August, 2023
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It seems like every week these days, the race for the eight gets turned completely on its head.

Yet again, the top two in Collingwood and Port Adelaide tasted defeat – this time, though, it was enough for the Power to relinquish their hold on a home qualifying final, and slide all the way down to fourth after Melbourne and Brisbane got the job done with varying degrees of nerves over North Melbourne and Fremantle.

Sydney, Adelaide and Essendon all kept their finals hopes alive – though in the Bombers’ case, they could hardly have done it in less impressive fashion – while Richmond and Gold Coast practically cooked theirs with horror starts; further up, Carlton are one step closer to a drought-breaking finals berth while GWS joined St Kilda in having their spot suddenly under threat.

I’d be lying if I said I had any inkling what will happen from here – but thankfully, this column is all about looking back. Let’s begin.

1. Nick Daicos didn’t dive

There have been times this year where it has felt like large seconds of the footy world have been gleefully waiting for Nick Daicos to fail.

So naturally, the reaction was swift and brutal when he was held to just five disposals by a masterful tagging job from Finn Maginness in Collingwood’s loss to Hawthorn on Saturday – some of it Hawks fans enjoying the spoils of victory with some well-earned cheeky banter, most of it from rival supporters joining the pile-on.

But for me, the most surprising attack had nothing to do with the miserable evening Daicos had at the office – it came from former Brisbane and Port Adelaide player Tom Rockliff echoing the sentiments of many by claiming the Brownlow favourite had dived to win a free kick and charity goal during a third-quarter scuffle.

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According to Rockliff, the free kick was so egregious that Daicos should face a rare ‘staging’ fine from the MRO for staging, citing the fact his head rocked backwards despite being shoved in the chest by Seamus Mitchell as the proof.

It’s honestly one of the silliest takes I’ve seen all year.

For starters, Daicos was far from an equal partner in the fracas – Mitchell, as well as James Blanck (but notably, not Maginness, who preferred to let his tagging do the talking) practically set upon him as brother Josh sparked things by coming to his sibling’s defence. That has little to do with what followed, but for me it’s important to start with that clarification – this was a targeted attack, which immediately gives me less sympathy for Mitchell for giving away a free.

Another factor to consider is that it has since come out that Daicos was already playing with a fracture in his knee, one severe enough to put him on ice for six weeks and also make anyone suggesting cowardice was the reason behind his last-quarter stint on the bench look a bit foolish. If you’re arguing that Daicos’ knees buckled a bit too easily under the contact from Mitchell, then maybe take that into account.

Thirdly, even if the shove from Mitchell was into the chest – and for me, it looks very throaty from the available angles – then the basic law of physics would suggest that if you grab someone by the jumper, pull them towards you and then thrust them back, as Mitchell clearly did, there is almost certainly going to be a bit of whiplash, especially if you’re not expecting it.

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And lastly of all, even if you disagree with all of the above and want to argue Daicos exacerbated the contact to try and win a free, deliberately went to ground and sucked the umpire in… then I’m still fine with a free being awarded against Mitchell for being a moron.

Your team is 13 points up, has just conceded a goal and the bloke you’re targeting hardly needs the extra attention – at that point, he was sitting on four disposals. There was absolutely no need for Mitchell to get up in Daicos’ grille at all, and with the AFL militant on off-the-ball contact it was a recipe for disaster.

I’m getting sick of people having more problems with supposed staging for free kicks during off-the-ball shoving matches than the players that start this phony macho crap that never works. And just quickly, no, I don’t subscribe to Rockliff’s take that it’s either a Daicos staging fine or a Mitchell suspension for striking – it clearly wasn’t a significant enough blow to be anything more than an idiotic free kick and a charity goal.

If that means a soft free kick every now and then, fine – Mitchell got what he deserved, and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t given a quiet word during the week to cool his jets in case it costs the Hawks dearly next time around.

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2. The moment that summed up the Saints’ slide

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Time for an unpopular opinion – I like Patrick Dangerfield on commentary. I get why he rubs people the wrong way sometimes, but a lot of his analysis so far has been quite insightful, certainly compared to his co-commentator on Seven on Sunday afternoon in Nathan Jones.

It was Dangerfield who pointed out that, 19 points down and with three minutes left in a must-win clash with Carlton, St Kilda were persisting in keeping a man behind the ball and in front of Charlie Curnow, when surely every hand possible needed to be around the ball to try and force the three goals they needed.

“They need to score – you think you’d need to bring them up into the game, to try and even up the numbers around the contest,” Dangerfield said.

“It’s fine if you’re ahead – St Kilda aren’t!”

Whether it was the Blues upping their pressure or the Saints going back into their shell – or, most likely, a bit of both – that choice to keep Jimmy Webster as the loose man 50 metres behind the ball in the dying minutes of an eight-point game perfectly summed up how St Kilda blew a 22-point half time lead and got swamped by a Carlton surge.

In the second half, just 13 per cent of their defensive 50 chains made it to the other end of the ground: far below the AFL average, and consistent with how stodgy the Saints have been since their electric first six rounds of the season.

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Add to that the Blues’ stoppage dominance, winning 14 more clearances after half time and kicking five goals to zero from them, and the Saints just couldn’t score. Just one goal in the second half was never going to cut the mustard, and what was stark was that in the last quarter, they hardly ever looked like scoring.

Credit has to be given to the Blues, who fought back from a scrappy start to assume full control after half time, and, like good teams do, they found a way to win despite not being quite at their best.

A decade-first September berth now seems all but theirs, even if Brisbane’s win over Fremantle probably locks up the top four. There’s a huge amount of water to go under this bridge, but seven wins in a row pretty much sums up how well they’re going, and they’ll take on Melbourne next week with every chance of making that eight.

For the Saints, while they still sit seventh and have distinctly winnable games in the next fortnight against Richmond and Geelong, both at Marvel Stadium, this was a golden chance to produce the sort of backs-to-the-wall, against-the-odds win they’ll likely need to hold onto their spot.

The eight is still theirs – but they need to want it. And if they’re as committed to defence and defence alone against the Tigers and Cats, chances are they’ll let it slip through their fingers.

3. There’s another Dog Finn Maginness should target

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Having just shut down Nick Daicos to add to his growing list of scalps, that Finn Maginness and Hawthorn have the Western Bulldogs up next gives him the chance to affect the Brownlow Medal race once again, and shut down Marcus Bontempelli.

With 32 disposals and three goals on Friday night to dismantle Richmond, the Bont might officially be the best player in the competition right now, amid plenty of competition from the likes of Daicos, Christian Petracca, Jeremy Cameron and Charlie Curnow.

But with all that said, there’s another Dog who is just as important for the Hawks to clamp down on, and one who might be an easier match-up for Maginness: Tom Liberatore.

The Dogs’ engine room, Bontempelli and all, would be significantly worse if not for the veteran’s tireless in-and-under work: with 10 clearances and 18 contested possessions against the Tigers to go with another 31 touches – plus 12 tackles to boot – Liberatore was just as crucial as his more highly decorated skipper.

But where Bontempelli has the strength and size to attempt to break a tag by moving forward – neither of which Daicos had to try and shrug Maginness off – Liberatore has proven in the past to be taggable. Willem Drew famously held him to just 17 disposals in a match in 2021 which proved key to an upset Port Adelaide win, while Gold Coast did likewise earlier this year in a narrow triumph in Darwin.

Liberatore’s fast hands and brilliant footy brain might not make as many highlight reels as Bontempelli’s turn of brilliance, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Maginness head straight to his side for the first bounce in Tasmania on Sunday. Indeed, Bulldogs fan that I am, I’d honestly prefer it if the Hawks’ master stopper headed the Bont’s way.

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4. Gryan Miers would be a worthy All-Australian

There has been plenty of debate over Gryan Miers’ chances of being an All-Australian this year – for the record, I had him in my mid-season team, though admitted it was unlikely he’d stay there come season’s end.

But far from tapering off, the Cats’ half-forward has, if anything, got better since then, and after a best-afield effort against Port Adelaide and another swathe of goal assists, it’s time to treat a serious footballer’s serious shot at making the year’s best team seriously.

Miers’ obvious claim to fame is his goal assists numbers – he has 37 for the season, a staggering 13 ahead of the next best player, a quite handy footballer by the name of Christian Petracca.

He’s also equal-sixth for total score involvements, and given he averages 19 disposals per game, only Toby Greene has a greater proportion of their touches lead to scores. Again, exceptional company for Miers to find himself in.

There is talk every year about rewarding wingers for their seasons with All-Australian nods, rather than just plugging in another inside midfielder who couldn’t be squeezed onto the ball.

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For the most part, I agree with that premise – in 2021, for example, it would have been ridiculous to pick Paul Seedsman if that meant leaving out a Jack Steele or a Darcy Parish – but given this year it’s looking likely at least one of Errol Gulden or Josh Daicos will give us the first pure wingman in the All-Australian team for an age, it makes sense to at least consider doing likewise for the game’s best half-forward flanker.

I hope at the very least Miers makes the squad, because what he is doing in just about footy’s most underappreciated role is exceptional. The Cats don’t have many players who have enhanced their reputations from the 2022 premiership year, but he is most assuredly one of them.

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5. 2023’s most crucial three-disposal game

The stat sheet tells you Joel Amartey had just two kicks, two marks and one handball in Sydney’s gutsy Battle of the Bridge win over GWS. Yes, those two kicks were both goals, but it still points to a very quiet evening at the office.

But in fact, the young Swan was playing a critical role, and one I hope to see other teams try against the Giants: keeping Sam Taylor accountable.

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It wasn’t quiet a decoy role, but with just one disposal after quarter time, it was about as close as you get in modern footy. Having kicked those two majors in the opening term to make Taylor pay for some loose checking, the star defender’s mind was well and truly occupied for the rest of the match.

Time after time Taylor found himself in the wrong position, or arriving seconds too late to effect a spoil or take a mark – given how flawless his timing has been for weeks, his lack of influence was telling. Having racked up 14 intercept marks in the fortnight heading in, Taylor took just one grab, intercept or otherwise, for the entire evening at Giants Stadium.

It was a critical job, and well worth effectively neutralising a key forward option – and the impact it had on Hayden McLean’s influence in attack was significant.

That makes two instances this weekend, along with Maginness, where a team has made a concerted effort to stop their opponent’s biggest weapon – and on both occasions, it has worked a treat.

And it’s time to pay Amartey a high compliment: I’m not sure Lance Franklin, for all his brilliance, had it in him to play as selfless a game as that. Or that the Swans would ever have wanted him to.

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6. Sam Mitchell is the AFL’s best coach

When it comes time to name the coach of the year, I expect it will be a toss-up between Craig McRae and Adam Kingsley, with Ken Hinkley falling out of the race with Port Adelaide’s horror last month.

Both would be deserving recipients, but while they might have been 2023’s best, I can’t go past what Sam Mitchell is doing at Hawthorn to have him right up at the top of my list.

Just six win and a ladder position of 16th won’t get Mitchell the acclaim he deserves for what he has done with the Hawks in the last two seasons – but this is a team that was a runaway wooden spoon favourite at the start of the year, and heavily tipped for it in 2022, too.

I wrote on Saturday about exactly how Mitchell has a group I’d still argue is, pound for pound, one of the least talented in the competition firing on all cylinders to the extent they can totally outplay the ladder-leading Collingwood, so if you want the nuts and bolts I’d suggest giving that a read.

I’d go so far as to say what Mitchell is doing with the talent at his disposal is every bit as impressive as McRae’s remarkable 18 months as coach of a Magpies team with oodles of talent that just needed the right gameplan to unlock their potential, and very close to what Kingsley has accomplished this year to reverse what seemed an inevitable GWS slide into mediocrity.

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Mitchell doesn’t have a Nick Daicos, but he does have a player capable of holding him almost statless. His Marcus Bontempelli-style big-bodied midfielder is a 25-year old Irishman who’s my tip as the season’s most improved player. Instead of Toby Greene in attack, he’s got a much-maligned Chad Wingard who a month ago seemed destined to have his career fizzle out.

How many Hawks would you classify as truly elite? James Sicily, for a certain; Luke Breust is still outrageously good as a small forward; Mitch Lewis is maybe one good pre-season away from that status; Jai Newcombe is a terrier but there are a lot of on-ballers you’d pick in front of him.

In the last 12 months, Mitchell has been accused of gutting the list, had his aggressive game style heavily criticised, and had to deal with accusations of tanking to get access to Harley Reid.

But while they’ve copped their fair share of hammerings this year and clearly still have a ways to go before being a finals contender, never mind in the premiership mix, this is a team everyone thought would be just as abject this year as North Melbourne or West Coast, playing well enough to beat two top-four teams this year and lose three games against decent opposition by three points or less.

And none of it would have been possible without Mitchell’s mastermind.

Random thoughts

– Any chance the footy gods could cut Wil Powell a break?

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– The social media ‘feud’ between GWS and Sydney this week is tacky and contrived as hell and you’d better believe I’m 100 per cent here for it.

– Don’t think we’ve spoken enough about how good a story Mitch Hinge is. Best game of his career on Saturday – one of the best left-foot kicks going around.

– What on earth was going on with the ball-up in the last minute between Essendon and West Coast?

– I don’t know what it is yet, but there’s something about Eddie Ford. Great job on Jake Lever down in Tassie.

– I stand by that Luke Jackson and Sean Darcy can play in the same team, but boy howdy is Jackson elite as a full-time ruck.

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– We didn’t deserve Lance Franklin.

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