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Six Points: Meet your new flag favourites, the finals sleeping Giants, and why Sheezel still shouldn't win Rising Star

27th August, 2023
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27th August, 2023
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It’s finals time, baby!

The last round of the 2023 home-and-away season might not have been as thrilling as 2022’s finale, but there was still action, drama and surprise aplenty as the eyes of the footy world turn towards September.

GWS sealed up the finals spot that they deserved anyway in quite devastating fashion, running over the top of a Carlton outfit that seemed to remember it had bigger fish to fry, ensuring the Western Bulldogs, despite a drought-breaking win over Geelong at the Cattery, had pissed their season away a week ago.

The top four stayed true and all will head into September in winning form, while the Blues have a date with a dangerous Sydney outfit with no second chances for the loser. The Giants, meanwhile, jumped from ninth to sixth and then back to seventh with their win in a last quarter far more dramatic than the final margin would suggest.

It looked like being bad news for St Kilda, but as it turned out, their toughness all day against a classier Brisbane, despite the defeat, meant clinging to a home final after all that.

As for the also-rans, North proved any win is more important than a high draft pick in touching scenes in Tasmania, Nick Larkey secured an All-Australian gig, and Charlie Curnow ensured Taylor Walker’s butchering of West Coast wasn’t enough to pinch the Coleman off him.

After a crazy season, we might still be in for its wackiest month yet – because in all honesty, I have no clue who wins the premiership from here!

Let’s begin.

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1. Sleeping Giants

Every year, one team heads into September outside the top four, but with talk raging about how they might be the team to buck the trend and make a run towards a premiership anyway.

Sunday night’s result at Marvel Stadium doesn’t change the fact that that team is still Carlton, who will welcome back Patrick Cripps and remove the self-preservation mode that kicked in midway through the third quarter of their eight-sealing loss to GWS.

But the Giants themselves are a proper threat. Having seen off the Blues and all but booked their September spot by early in the last quarter, they had no designs on playing it safe: they continued to surge with irresistible football, in the process pinching sixth spot briefly off St Kilda, who would surely have been preparing for a home final after watching Sydney lose to Melbourne.

That they couldn’t get it done and let through a few late goals to give up that home final will sting, but it’s far from the end of the world: if two weeks ago, you’d offered the Giants a finals berth against the team widely regarded as the weakest in the eight they’d have shaken your hand off.

Structurally, I don’t think it’s been talked about enough just how superb the Giants’ list is. For all the talk of list culls and haemorrhaging talent in recent years, they actually don’t lack for anything.

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Down back, even without arguably the best defender in the league in Sam Taylor, they were miserly, with Jack Buckley putting the clamps on Charlie Curnow after a hot start and Connor Idun’s star growing by the week. From Lachie Ash’s rebound to Harry Perryman’s toughness and Lachie Whitfield’s electric running, there is a perfect mix of both attack and defence. Harry Himmelberg’s intercept marking has also been vital since a mid-season move back into defence.

There’s toughness in midfield – Tom Green is a contested beast and clearance machine and Callan Ward, at 33 years old, might actually be having a career-best season as a reborn inside mid – and class on the outside, with Josh Kelly as smooth-moving as ever and Stephen Coniglio back to his best after really fizzling during Leon Cameron’s final years as coach. The discovery of Kieren Briggs as a genuinely elite ruckman mid-season has been a huge bonus, and it’s not a coincidence that his inclusion in the team perfectly mirrors their surge.

Up forward, Jesse Hogan is a monstrous focal point, who while beaten by Jacob Weitering was always able to force a contest on Sunday, and Jake Riccardi an agile and athletic second tall who fills that void perfectly. Lachie Keeffe as a forward ruck is as honest as the day is long, even if he’s not exactly an A-Grader, but all he needs to do is bring the ball to ground.

That’s where the Giants’ greatest strength probably lies. Toby Greene’s magnificence is well known, and it was he who turned the game in the second quarter against the Blues with a run of goals to give the Giants an ascendancy they seldom relinquished from there. But in Brent Daniels and Toby Bedford, they also have two of the best pressure forwards in the league, whose tackling pressure and ever-present danger when the ball hits the ground make rebounding for opposition defences hazardous.

There’s a compelling case Bedford has been the recruit of the year; if Moneyball existed in the AFL, then getting a guy typecast as a sub out of a strong side in Melbourne that didn’t know how to use his speed and ferocity is about as good as it would get.

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Adam Kingsley has received plenty of deserved acclaim for lifting the Giants off the canvas after a poor 2022 – I had them in the bottom four pre-season – but I wonder if he actually had more to work with than we first thought. Personally, I definitely underrated their list, especially with Whitfield and Coniglio playing, if not career-best football, then close to it.

Where the Giants finish is immaterial – the Saints bring pressure by the bucketload, so you can bank on that match being the most ferocious of the first week of finals.

Win that, and it’ll have to be Brisbane at the Gabba or Port Adelaide in Adelaide; difficult tasks, to be sure, but certainly not beyond a side that has been masterful on the road for a number of weeks.

It’s appropriate that September’s sleeping giants are, well…

2. Score review changes will achieve nothing

I can’t be the only one who, after learning of the changes the AFL will make to the score review system for the finals, burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

The idea that a ‘senior ARC official’ will snap into action immediately to urge goal and field umpires to review close calls that were about to be missed, and with lightning reactions to do it before play continues, is such a niche and unnecessary role it’s actually farcical.

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Basically, it’s designed as a failsafe in case another Ben Keays hit the post moment happens again in the finals – an utter billion to one chance, as I wrote last week.

If the AFL seriously thinks this is the fix for the issues facing the score review system, then it’s honestly a joke. It would actually have been better and more honest of them to be upfront and admit the inevitable truth – that mistakes are always going to be an occupational hazard in a game with such fine lines between a goal and a behind and to just hope it doesn’t rob a team as badly as the Crows were for another 50 years – than to act like this is the surefire solution.

Realistically, only spending tons of money is going to fix this: high-res goal line cameras with hundreds of frames per second that can pick up the most minor deviations or deflections, a micro-chip in the ball rather than off the post to detect touches, the works.

Even then, it’s not going to catch every error, because that’s just the nature of our game.

It’s such a typical AFL move: react to something controversial that has the footy world up in arms against them by introducing a workaround that seems at face value to be a solution, but is actually just a hastily put together mess designed to stop one highly specific thing with no heed to the consequences.

It’s like that time in 2019 when they decided to crack down on fan violence by getting security to throw people out of stadiums for cheering a bit too loud: only this time, the new system is unlikely to generate the same level of outrage given I strongly doubt that senior ARC official will have any work at all on his plate in September unless they want to insert themselves unnecessarily.

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I just hope they’re getting paid well for it. God knows I’d want to be.

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3. Sheezel shouldn’t win the Rising Star (but probably will)

*ducks burning torch*

Okay, hear me out, North Melbourne supporters.

This isn’t meant to be a knock on Harry Sheezel’s utterly superb debut season – there can be no denying how good he has been.

He’ll probably win the Kangaroos’ best and fairest, he broke the record for most disposals by a first-year player with a game to spare (albeit an extra game on a normal season, but that’s by-the-by), and has added an element of class and composure to a team that needs both in droves.

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In a normal season, with a normal Rising Star crop, he’d win it in as big a landslide as Nick Daicos did last year, playing a virtually identical role.

But this isn’t a normal season, and with the biggest pool of candidates we’ve seen in years, I can honestly say there are two nominees who have had a superior impact on season 2023: Mitch Owens at St Kilda and Will Ashcroft at Brisbane.

I wrote a month ago after Ashcroft’s season-ending knee injury that he had still done enough to claim the Rising Star award, and nothing I’ve seen since has changed my mind on that. The father-son gun walked through the door at the Lions and instantly became a first-choice frontline midfielder with virtually no weaknesses, and the team’s performance against Gold Coast the week after his injury was proof of the crucial role he was providing.

And no, the fact he missed the last five home-and-away games shouldn’t matter, just as it shouldn’t for Sam Taylor’s All-Australian chances in defence or should have for Marcus Bontempelli’s Rising Star hopes in 2014 when he lost to a far inferior player in Lewis Taylor. No, I’m not still sore about that.

Ashcroft might have had fewer disposals than Sheezel – though 22 a match to 27 isn’t that big a distinction – but I’ll say this against the North Melbourne gun’s obscene numbers: at every opportunity in defence, and it’s down there a lot for them, the Roos look to get the ball in his hands.

It’s a mark in his favour that from his very first game he’s been the go-to distributor coming out of defence, but ultimately someone’s got to get the ball, and I think his record-breaking numbers have at least something to do with the fact the Roos are more worried with getting the ball to their one good backline kicker than actually moving the ball into dangerous positions, hence their 3-20 record this season.

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Sheezel averaging 5.5 marks per game, with just three all season contested, proves this point: you’ll never hear me call it cheap ball, but with the Kangaroos not a good enough team to bother tagging him, the ball spending plenty of time in defence given they’re a bottom-two side, the Roos are a team made for stat-padding.

Aaron Hall and Jack Ziebell in recent years have absolutely filled their boots with pointless junk disposals that don’t help North and that opposition teams are more than happy to allow; Sheezel’s future will undoubtedly rest in the midfield, with his two-goal performance against Sydney mid-season far and away his best and most impactful performance.

Averaging just 15 disposals, it’s my view that Owens has had a far more impactful season at the Saints; playing as the most unique ‘key forward’ in the competition, this teenager’s attack on the ball both on the ground and in the air has been phenomenal.

Playing in just about the hardest spot on the ground to win a lot of ball, especially for a youngster, Owens has done everything from providing grunt on ball as a midfielder and even backup ruckman, to clunking marks inside 50 as a bona fide tall forward. There’s no way the Saints are playing finals without him.

Ashcroft and Owens would, like Sheezel, be heavy favourites in most other seasons, and that we’ve got such a hot trio of candidates makes it easy for me to say things like ‘sure, Jye Amiss has kicked a lot of goals, but he’s done bugger all else so he can sit fourth ahead of Max Michalanney’. In another year, the Docker would have nearly as strong a case as Jesse Hogan in 2015 – though it must be said Hogan, that year’s winner, averaged nearly double the disposals and had significantly more contested marks.

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Sheezel may yet prove to be the best player of his draft crop, and I honestly think he’ll win the award anyway, regardless of my opinion: stats tell when it comes to these sort of awards, and I have a feeling Ashcroft missing the last month of the season is going to cost him.

Hopefully whoever wins it, though, we can all collectively tip our caps to what might just be the greatest Rising Star field ever, and not whinge about who was robbed. I certainly won’t be even if Ashcroft does miss out.

Jack Ziebell and Harry Sheezel of the Kangaroos celebrate.

Jack Ziebell and Harry Sheezel of the Kangaroos celebrate. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

4. Tanking is a myth

It seemed all anyone could talk about this week was tanking: from urging North Melbourne to do everything it could to lose to Gold Coast to obtain pick one, to suggestions Carlton should rest up a swathe of its stars with a home final all but secured against GWS, there were wide-ranging opinions about how Round 24 would be compromised.

What we saw effectively proves that tanking died along with the late Dean Bailey’s coaching career in Melbourne’s early 2010s annihilation: the Kangaroos decided trying to win and getting Nick Larkey an All-Australian gig was more important than Harley Reid, the Blues put the cue in the rack late but tried hard enough early for Blake Acres to hurt his shoulder and Jacob Weitering to land himself in MRO strife for fiddling suspiciously close to Toby Greene’s eyes.

I’ll say this for the record too: there is a distinct difference between sending players in for surgery to get a jump start on pre-season, as Geelong did, and actively trying to lose games. Only one is a threat to the integrity of the competition, and only one actually exists anymore.

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If the lure of pick 1 and Reid wasn’t enough to convince the Kangaroos to deliberately lose, or West Coast last week, then it never will be. Gone are the days where losing a sufficient number of games gets you two picks in the top five, and I think enough teams are concerned enough about the cultural implications of deliberately losing, the collapse of which sent the Dees into a death spiral a decade ago, to always be trying.

Alastair Clarkson summed it up best after North’s win to end a 20-game losing streak.

“I think there’s only three number one draft picks that have played in premiership teams. That’s not a real big incentive to pull in the number one pick,” he said.

“For me, dropping down a spot in terms of the draft board is nowhere near as important as the integrity of the way that you play and the great feeling you get of having a win and for your morale.

“That’s much more important than a draft position.”

Wise words. A big chunk of the AFL community could do well to remember them the next time they suggest, playfully or otherwise, that a team or two might be taking to the field late in the season with anything other than a full desire to win.

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5. Does anyone actually want nine games at the same time?

I simply can’t get my head around the earnest idea from some corners that in the final round of the season, all games should, Premier League-style, be played simultaneously.

There are so many issues with this concept that I’ll struggle to list them all, but shall do my best. For starters, the logistics of the AFL compared to the Premier League are poles apart: to manage it, the AFL would need to play games in every state, plus one each on the Gold Coast, at the Gabba, at the SCG and at Giants Stadium, or alternatively have one of Hawthorn or North Melbourne play in Tasmania.

But I could actually tolerate that if there was a reason, for the sake of integrity, to have all games start at the same time. In the Premier League, there’s a clear reason: not only do table positions matter significantly more than in the AFL, with Champions League, Europa League and relegation battles being fought, but the low-scoring nature of round-ball football makes manipulating a result far easier. It’s the same for the World Cup.

Any suggestion that a team is capable of fixing a result to their benefit was surely thrown out the window with North Melbourne’s win on Saturday while sacrificing Pick 1. I also remember in 2012, Fremantle were urged by some to try and beat Melbourne narrowly in the final round to finish eighth and thereby face West Coast in a ‘home’ elimination final rather than need to head interstate, only for them to flog the Demons and then knock over Geelong in that cutthroat final anyway.

Equally, AFL games have far more scope to run to different lengths than round-ball football games: Hawthorn v Fremantle and the Kangaroos-Suns game started at the same time on Saturday, yet with the latter game a shootout there were still eight minutes to go by the time the final siren sounded at the MCG. That’s more than enough time to throw a match anyway if a team was so inclined.

So not only would nine simultaneous games be a nightmare for the AFL to organise, horrifying for the broadcasters who funnel billions into the game, and might not work, there is just no need for it.

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Our competition has so many affronts to basic integrity that should be sorted but we all know won’t be; this just isn’t one of them.

6. The Dees have peaked at the perfect time

Melbourne won’t go into the finals as premiership favourites, or even in the top two – but honestly, they probably should be.

Fresh off one of, if not the outright, best win of their season over a Sydney outfit on their own deck with infinitely more to play for, the Demons withstood a ferocious surge from the in-form Swans at the start of the third quarter, steadied, and hit back with interest to never cede control for the remainder of the game.

Making things even sweeter, Bayley Fritsch’s return from a broken foot, despite hobbling off during the third term appearing to have re-injured hit, could otherwise have hardly gone better, booting five goals and giving the oft-maligned Demons forward line an extra spark.

Christian Petracca and Jack Viney were huge when it mattered after half time, Jacob van Rooyen threw himself into every contest with gusto and was more influential than his seven disposals and solitary goal would indicate, and after a sketchy few weeks, the Steven May and Jake Lever-led backline was at its suffocating best.

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It’s enough to leave a Nick Daicos-less Collingwood – who, remember, the Demons bested on King’s Birthday – very nervous heading into a blockbuster qualifying final at the MCG. With injury concerns of their own, and minus the home ground advantage they’d have got against Port Adelaide or Brisbane, this is a serious danger game for the side who have been flag frontrunners since Round 2.

There are still areas for the Demons to improve, and the looming loss of Jake Melksham to a suspected ACL is a blow on a structural and personal front, with the goalsneak having done superbly to force his way back into the best 22 this year.

But the Dees are on equal footing with the Magpies, and a step ahead of the Power and Lions, in that they don’t need to leave their home ground to win the premiership. And it somehow feels different to last year, where they finished second but appeared vulnerable in the second half of the season and duly crashed out of finals in straight sets.

Random thoughts

– Nick Larkey has to be All-Australian now, right?

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– Isaac Smith bowing out with 36 touches and a goal in just about the weakest side he’s ever played in is proof he’d have been an all-timer in a bottom six team.

– Christian Petracca’s second half against Sydney was just magnificent. Good God he’s good when he’s on.

– I didn’t have ‘Rory Lobb turns a game in the ruck’ on my Round 24 Bingo card, I’ll be honest.

– There’s not much that annoys me more than the theory that the certified biggest grub of the last decade gets a rough deal from the umpires.

– Having said that, Jacob Weitering will count himself lucky if he escapes with a fine for this.

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– I wish I loved something half as much as Dem loves ripping into Brisbane every chance he gets.

– Adelaide the first team to lead the league in points and not make finals in 55 years. Lol.

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