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Month off for SPP, another Superdraft loading? Seven things we learned from AFL trial matches

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25th February, 2024
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The AFL season is officially up and running, with all 18 clubs dusting off the cobwebs in a week of trial matches action around the nation.

We saw a score of fresh faces front up for their first competitive matches since arriving in the AFL as eager-eyed draftees late last year; equally significant was a number of player role changes throughout the competition, interesting for not just SuperCoach tragics but for the rest of us wondering what radical flick of the magnets could cure what ails our beloved teams.

Oh, and there was also a brush turkey who instantly became the biggest arrival into Queensland footy since Lachie Neale.

Here are seven takeaways from the AFL trial matches.

Sam Powell-Pepper deserves a month off

Coming barely 24 hours after Angus Brayshaw’s shock medically-forced retirement, Powell-Pepper’s late, crunching hit on Crow Mark Keane – which left the defender with a concussion – had scrutiny on it dialled up to 11 from the moment it was laid.


I’m not quite prepared to give it the ‘dog act’ label – the Power No.2 is a player lauded for his ferocity and bull-at-a-gate approach to the footy at all times, and in fast motion it’s clear he would have had to be Nostradamus to predict exactly where Willie Rioli’s sling tackle was going to take Keane for him to be perfectly lined up for the hit.

All the same, it’s high time incidents like this got any leeway due to them being accidental: whether he was going for a bump, bracing for contact or just caught by surprise, Powell-Pepper led with the shoulder and inflicted a serious head knock. In essence, it’s exactly what the AFL has been trying – and more often than not, failing – to stamp out of the game for years.

I wrote when Patrick Cripps got off for his own bump on Brisbane’s Callum Ah Chee in late 2022 that any act of self-preservation should not excuse a player from exercising duty of care.

There are other ways of protecting yourself without presenting a shoulder ripe for Keane to be thrown into – and Powell-Pepper’s case is even more clear-cut, given the ball was not there to be won as it was for Cripps (or, for that matter, for Brayden Maynard in the milliseconds after Brayshaw had kicked it).

It’s about time the AFL took a hard line stance to enforce that point and affirm that it is genuinely serious about minimising concussions as much as possible: a trip to the Tribunal for Powell-Pepper, and a four-week sanction, would be a start.

Mark Keane sustained a concussion after a high hit from Sam Powell-Pepper.

Mark Keane sustained a concussion after a high hit from Sam Powell-Pepper. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

Harley Reid and the Eagles will take time

If there was a moment to sum up West Coast’s 52-point loss to Fremantle on Saturday night, it was Harley Reid being engulfed by Andrew Brayshaw after an ambitious, ill-fated attempt to fend off the Dockers superstar’s tackle.

Coming into his first season at the highest level as the most-hyped No.1 draft pick since at least Matt Rowell, and possibly earlier than that, it was a good reminder for the rest of us as well. This is an 18-year old kid, playing for a side at ground zero of what is going to be a painstaking and possibly long rebuild. He, and they, will take time.

Reid is a different breed of player to the Nick Daicos and Harry Sheezels who have burst onto the scene right from day one in recent years. With the Eagles in their current state he is hardly going to be eased into the AFL off half-back, and in any case his explosive speed, contested hardness and strength – his Brayshaw fend-off notwithstanding – would be wasted in a role where precision and running patterns are far more key.

Reid started in the centre circle on Saturday night, and spent most of the match either on or around the ball or resting forward.


If that’s to be his role long term, then his best-case debut season might be a Dustin Martin 2010-style campaign: a strong year with excellent numbers in a rebuilding side, but not nearly enough to turn things around for his team in and of itself.

An excellent footballer through his younger days, it took Dusty seven years to become an All-Australian. Cam Rayner, of a similar build and style, is still yet to fully explode as a star of the game.

Reid will likely need time to find his feet. And that’s fine: time is one thing West Coast can afford to give him.

(Photo by MEGA/GC Images)

Can the Cats afford to make Holmes’ home half-back?

Chris Scott has experimented this summer with speedster Max Holmes across half back – and while it’s early days, his encouraging display in Geelong’s trial match win over Carlton should certainly give enough confidence to make the switch permanent.

Excelling off a wing and roaming forward in recent years – before succumbing to injury and being withdrawn hours before the 2022 grand final, the Cat’s raw speed and youthful energy made him a key cog in their flag run – the elite ball use of the best half-backs has never appeared to be a strength of Holmes’, but it certainly was against the Blues.


As a tall, pacy line-breaker in the mould of Sydney’s Nick Blakey, Holmes’ move down back has a lot to like about it.

The problem, though, is whether a player who seems ideal for bursts at the least through the midfield would be wasted in defence, especially with first-choice mid Cameron Guthrie suffering a latest injury setback mere seconds into the trial match and Patrick Dangerfield entering the final chapter of his glittering career.

Wherever he plays, Holmes is the beacon of youth in an ageing side who will help usher in Geelong’s next era. And having enjoyed more success on a win-loss basis than any other coach since he started in 2011, I’ll back Scott in to know exactly where his speedster should be used to best benefit the team.

The Dogs haven’t fixed their biggest problem

If you’re an optimist, there was enough in the Western Bulldogs’ 25-point win over Hawthorn on Friday to suggest the talent at the club remains worthy of finals football.

I’m not an optimist: most glaring to me out of all that happened at the Whitten Oval was how the Dogs, 42 points to the good after a slashing first quarter, had momentum turned on them so quickly and utterly in the second as to have it almost look like a different contest.


The Dogs are famous for being all too susceptible to being blown apart by rapid-fire runs of goals, but aside from the third quarter of the 2021 grand final, that hasn’t been quite accurate: most often in 2023, it was a slow burn across two or even three quarters after a rampant start, with Luke Beveridge’s men simply incapable of turning the tide the second it went against them.

Just as he did late last year, Jai Newcombe was involved in everything – the Dogs have no answer to his brutal strength and explosive speed from stoppages, just as they never do for Christian Petracca or for West Coast’s Tim Kelly late last year.

The addition of James Harmes as a rugged, defence-first on-baller didn’t do jack to stop Newcombe and James Worpel putting on a clinic and tearing the Dogs to shreds to power a six goals to one second term for the Hawks, who had looked thoroughly outclassed in the first.

To their credit, the second half was significantly better – though it must be said that trial-match pressure and fatigue are hardly what they’ll be when the real stuff starts – but if an injury-ravaged Hawthorn can do that to them, other, slicker teams will certainly be able to.

Don’t sleep on the Saints

You’re playing a dangerous game reading much if anything into practice matches, but I can’t help feeling like too many people have St Kilda falling in 2024 after their slashing return to finals in 2023 in Ross Lyon’s first year at the helm.


So quickly and spectacularly did the Saints start under Lyon that quickly their remarkable rise was lost to memory, with much of the rest of the year’s scrutiny focussing on their weaknesses and how there were urgent areas to address, rather than celebrating their remarkable rise into legitimate top-four contention.

With another pre-season into the legs of Mattaes Phillipou, Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera and Mitch Owens, all of whom are clearly tracking above the rate for players their age, and Tim Membrey providing one of the week’s more wholesome moments with his seamless return to top-level footy, there was a lot to love about the Saints’ crushing win over Essendon, and in how they didn’t give their opponents an inch all day.

A Lyon-coached team has surely never been speedier on the turnover than this one, with the Bombers scythed apart time and again when they gave the footy back to the Saints. Fiendishly difficult to score on – unless you’re GWS and it’s an elimination final, apparently – there seems an added defensive steel to St Kilda this year that began to wane as 2023 rolled on.

After years of mediocrity, it has become second nature to assume the Saints won’t amount to much in any given year.

But while their opposition was nothing to write home about, every win over the Bombers is sweet if your heart beats red, white and black – and from their condition and almost rustless ball movement, it’s clear Lyon still drives hard and ruthless standards off the field throughout the off-season.

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Dimma has his work cut out for him

It may well be that Damien Hardwick was just what the doctor ordered for Gold Coast to make an instant run up the ladder and either threaten to or outright make finals for the first time in their history.

I doubt it, though. While against a near full-strength Brisbane for the first four quarters on Friday night, the Suns were comfortably outclassed by their cross-town rivals, and if anything a 30-point half time deficit flattened them.

The Suns have never lacked for talent, and under Stuart Dew they found a defensive steel that allowed them to pull off the occasional upset, beat up on sides worse than them, and ultimately never really threaten finals.

It looks as if the Suns will be more attacking under Hardwick than Dew, with regular forward Alex Sexton doing enough to suggest a new role at half-back could save his career.


With star power to spare across the lines, this Suns team needs to be making finals sooner rather than later – can Dimma spark their rise quickly enough to still squeeze a few more years out of Jarrod Witts and his fellow veterans?

Has another Superdraft just landed?

Touted as the best talent pool in years, the 2018 national draft has more than lived up to the ‘Superdraft’ moniker since, with Sam Walsh, Bailey Smith, Connor Rozee, Izak Rankine, Zak Butters, Isaac Quaynor, the King brothers and more already stars of the game. (The less said about who North Melbourne picked up, the better.)

Already, 2023 is showing signs of a similarly deep cohort; while Harley Reid was the consistent standout all season long, there were several eye-catching performances from the next generation throughout the week of trial matches.

Colby McKercher was, of course, the standout, the North Melbourne No.2 pick dazzling with his Harry Sheezel-esque ball use, calm head and zip across half-back. He’s certainly my Rising Star frontrunner as of this moment.

Almost as impressive was new Bulldog Ryley Sanders, who looks set to be injected into a powerful but ageing Dogs’ on-ball brigade, and who, running alongside Tom Liberatore against Hawthorn, was clearly the standout on-baller on the ground.


Elsewhere, young Suns ruckman Ethan Read’s first touch against Brisbane was a beautifully placed pass, especially for a man his size; Hawk Nick Watson, too, impressed with his tackling pressure, and looked dangerous whenever the ball went near him.

I doubt the class of 2023 will be able to match the 2018 pool’s instant explosion onto the AFL scene – by the end of 2019 Walsh, Rozee and Smith were practically stars of the game already – especially as a significant portion, including new Crow Daniel Curtin, are long-term prospects.

But in 10 years time, this could well be the draft crop we look back on as a sneaky stunner.