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AFL pre-season notebook: Kane Cornes hits new low with response to Bomber blow, 'basic' Dockers have work to do

1st March, 2024
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1st March, 2024
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Four more teams got their chance to dust off the cobwebs on the first day of autumn, and less than a week out from the season proper, it’s far from an ideal time to have injuries to deal with.

Unfortunately, both Essendon and Port Adelaide left their matches with scares, Jordan Ridley’s quad iced up late in the Bombers’ loss to the Cats, while Zak Butters was taken out of Port’s win over Fremantle as a precaution after an early ankle roll.

Neither side are among the eight fronting up for Opening Round, and both will be grateful for the extra few days to try and get their stars right, Port and Butters especially – Ridley’s chances of returning for Round 1 appear remote.

Here’s what we learned out of Geelong’s win over Essendon and Port Adelaide’s win over Fremantle.

Kane Cornes’ new low

From the moment Ridley was seen icing his quad at three-quarter time of Essendon’s clash with Geelong, it was only a matter of time until Kane Cornes chimed in.

And sure enough, everyone’s favourite media pundit couldn’t resist jumping in to loudly proclaim that the Dons’ decision to re-sign Ridley until the end of 2029, having already had three years left to run on his contract, was a recipe for disaster.

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For starters, despite the ‘no one wants to see anyone injured’ faux sympathy, it’s pretty low to use an injury to try and validate a hot take. Literally anyone can get injured – the proof came a few hours later, when Zak Butters from Cornes’ beloved Port Adelaide rolled an ankle against Fremantle.

But it’s also baffling because there’s no logic at all to Cornes’ argument. Unless Ridley’s quad injury – which may or may not be a tear, but certainly looks likely to delay his start to 2024 at first glance – ends up requiring his leg to be amputated, he will still be playing plenty of footy this season and, one expects, the five seasons beyond until his current deal expires.

Intercepting defenders with good foot skills and calm heads don’t grow on trees – the Bombers locking him in now until well after he becomes a free agent is a perfectly reasonable bit of forward planning, if slightly overhyped by Dons media given he wasn’t actually going anywhere for at least another three years anyway.

Admittedly, the injury to the same quad Ridley suffered a season-ending injury on last year is an issue, and will require rehabilitation and caution which might keep him out for longer than if it had been a first-time knock.

But we will only know if the long-term contract was right or not far closer to its expiry than right now. Cornes might end up being vindicated – but he certainly isn’t right now, despite what he may claim.

Jordan Ridley suffered a quad injury in Essendon's pre-season loss to Geelong.

Jordan Ridley suffered a quad injury in Essendon’s pre-season loss to Geelong. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

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How do the Dons cover for Ridley?

Last year, Ridley’s injury was a catalyst for the Bombers’ late-season deathspin that turned them from finals contender into cellar dweller, if too late to impact a respectful ladder position.

And while the signs against Geelong weren’t great – the Cats piled on five goals to one in the last quarter for a come-from-behind win that started virtually the minute Ridley was ruled out of the game – the Bombers do have the talent, and the structure, to at least cover for their star interceptor until he returns.

In his first proper match in red and black, Ben McKay was excellent, keeping Tom Hawkins under wraps for large parts and claiming a pair of intercept marks to boot.

Brad Scott’s management of his defence around his new recruit was likewise top-notch; no player loves being left in a one-on-one situation, and McKay was never required to have a single mano e mano battle against the champion Cat. In fact, the Bombers had just eight defensive one-on-ones for the whole match, only losing three – and a horror early moment when Nic Martin was left to defend Hawkins one out in the forward pocket was far from the portent of things to come I was envisioning at the time.

Just as impressive was Zach Reid; after a long string of injuries, it’s looking like 2024 might be the year he breaks out. Claiming four intercept marks, it was he and not Ridley that did the lion’s share of the aerial work, with his more highly touted teammate mostly busy looking after Jeremy Cameron.

The extra responsibility thrust upon him in the last term once Ridley went down limited Reid somewhat, and was a catalyst to the Cats becoming much more dangerous inside 50. But between him and McKay, with the doughty Jayden Laverde (who appears surplus to requirements if Ridley were available) as the second tall, there’s enough to suggest the reliance on Ridley won’t be nearly as profound in 2024.

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Their main area of focus will be improving their foot skills coming out of defence – an issue for plenty of last season, the Cats were gifted a series of goals by errant Bomber passes, either intercepted like in the goal below…

… or just a terribly ill-thought out hack kick right to the most dangerous spot on the ground, like here.

Down back or in the guts, Holmes a game-changer for Cats

It’s taken just two pre-season games for the hype around new Cats half-back Max Holmes to grow.

With Cameron Guthrie’s injury against Carlton blowing a new hole in an already weak midfield, all eyes were on Chris Scott to see if he’d hold his nerve and keep his potential midfield ace in the hole in defence against the Bombers.

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He sort of did, starting most quarters at half-back with Mitch Duncan in particular given more of an on-ball role; but Holmes’ raw speed made it too tempting to resist giving him regular runs at centre bounces especially.

With seven inside 50s, 19 disposals and more than 500 metres gained, Holmes was utterly unstoppable up to half time, after which the Bombers took steps to clamp down on him.

His role is as close to the Nick Daicos one at Collingwood as I’ve seen: whether down back or on the ball, the 21-year old had little direct defensive responsibility, though 16 pressure acts made it clear he did his bit in that regard anyway, with his freedom to set up possession chains and speed the ball away from stoppages of utmost importance.

The Cats are unlikely to regularly challenge the league’s best midfields this year, though a 14-9 centre clearance advantage over the Bombers was an impressive start.

It will be their run off half-back and turnover game, as it was in 2022, that will decide whether they can bounce back in 2024, and Holmes will be the key.

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‘Basic’, boring Freo need a shot of adrenaline

I wrote early last season that Freo were ‘boring’, ‘brainless’ and needed a Plan B, after their defensive miserliness of 2022 had translated into only stodginess that other teams had rapidly worked out.

To his credit, Justin Longmuir rapidly changed the Dockers style from a high-mark, low-speed system to a more handball-friendly, down the corridor game plan – it didn’t work for long, but a 10-13 record and percentage of 96.7 let them salvage some pride, if not ladder position, from the wreckage.

The Dockers certainly handballed plenty against Port Adelaide, with the ball in near-constant motion when they were in control of it – but there’s a difference between moving the ball and ball movement, if that makes sense.

All too often, Freo allowed themselves to be pushed into corners, or backwards, or wide by the Power’s excellent ground-wide pressure system at Alberton, rarely allowed to access the central corridor and regularly turning it over when they did.

A horror Nat Fyfe kick midway through the third quarter to wreck a painstaking build-up and nearly gift the Power a turnover goal pretty much summed things up: the Dockers neither had the skill nor the ingenuity of a Connor Rozee or a Dan Houston to make something happen and spark a damaging forward foray.

37 inside 50s – still well short of Port’s 56 – for just five marks is a horror return, pre-season or not: sure, Jye Amiss was out with a corked quad, but Matt Taberner hardly got near it, and while Patrick Voss was impressive whenever the ball came his way, he was seldom given a chance to press his case.

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David King called them ‘basic’ on Fox Footy’s coverage, lamenting their inability to access the corridor nearly enough – and he was bang on.

Amazingly, by half time, the Dockers had more marks inside 50 (two) from POWER kicks than from their own. At the same point, they had one inside 50 from 25 possession chains starting in their defensive 50. You just can’t kick a winning score with a conversion rate like that.

The solution? Well, Freo have the bare bones of something to spark them: in a new midfield role, Hayden Young was clearly the Dockers’ best, and his beautiful foot skills and decision-making are just the tonic to make them more dangerous moving forward.

Two goals just makes the case even more compelling.

The problem is, unlike what we saw of Freo’s midfield in 2022, there don’t seem to be defined roles among the on-ballers anymore. Caleb Serong is a workhorse and brilliant in close, but for him to be having six inside 50s, equal with Young, is an issue – any opposition would much prefer the former be the one kicking it in there, and eight score involvements for Young to Serong’s three is proof of that.

Serong and Andrew Brayshaw can share the in-and-under work, and Brayshaw is good and quick enough to hold his own on the outside, potentially on defensive side of stoppages thanks to his elite tackling skills.

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Young can then be Freo’s Nick Daicos: he is good enough, and important enough to their system, to be allowed to be just an attacking force and have his duties without ball in hand covered for to at least some degree. You can’t say that didn’t work brilliantly for Collingwood in 2023.

Port’s defence can hold up

As much as many of the stats in the above point were an indictment on Freo, they will no doubt be thrilling for Ken Hinkley.

Port’s backline was their major Achilles heel in 2023: quality opposition forward lines, including in both finals, made mincemeat of a group without a monster key back and that put much of its focus into aggressive rebounding rather than desperate defending – which, to be fair, was their only choice with the cattle available.

Neither Esava Ratugolea nor Brandon Zerk-Thatcher will be a world-beater this year, but they’re solid citizens who will hold up fine as long as the pressure upfield remains excellent, and free up Aliir Aliir to do his usual thing.

For the most part, Zerk-Thatcher took the deepest forward, Ratugolea the number one tall, and Aliir whoever was left, with the latter waxing off when required to help out the other two.

They’ll have plenty bigger tests than Freo, both in terms of the quality of their tall forward opponents and in more dynamic ball movement; but the Power specifically identified that pair as worth bringing in to plug a hole, and they gave no indication they won’t live up to that.

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Random Observations

– The footage Fox Footy showed of Ken Hinkley telling Zak Butters to quick being so kamikaze at pre-season training was magnificent.

– There’s something about Patrick Voss. Think he offers something different in Freo’s forward line if he gets a Round 1 spot.

– Xavier Duursma’s a nice fit at the Bombers, but I’m not sure he’s ever going to be the player I thought he’d be after his first season.

– Yuck.

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