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Six Points: Commonsense solution to score review influx, and why this star Tiger should get two weeks

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31st March, 2024
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RIP our tips, because Round 3 has already seen upsets galore – and it’s not over just yet!

Sure, Hawthorn are unlikely to knock off Geelong on Easter Monday: but having seen Collingwood take down Brisbane at their former Gabba fortress, Essendon come from the clouds to best St Kilda, a Steven-May less Melbourne dead-eyeing their way to a famous win over Port Adelaide, and most remarkably Richmond surging to a famous win over Sydney, can you really rule it out?

Once again, there are talking points galore, from undisciplined Roos to unsung Demons out of hand score reviews, and plenty in between.

Let’s focus on the footy, put secret drugs tests, parliamentary privilege and trips to Vegas aside for the moment, and dive in.

1. The commonsense solution to score review influx

“When the ball goes back to the middle, every goal gets reviewed. We just wasted 30 seconds.”

Luke Hodge’s response to one of the many frivolous score reviews in Thursday night’s Brisbane-Collingwood match perfectly sums up the thoughts of most of us fans at the moment, as the controversial system’s use continues to grow with every passing week.

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There’s no doubt that the Ben Keays controversy of late last year has resulted in an AFL mandate that such mistakes are not to be repeated, the result being goal umpires are either being directly coached to review anything with even the faintest sliver of doubt, or are doing so out of fear that a single mistake will cost them their job.

I wrote a few weeks ago that we couldn’t have it both ways and have issue with the number of score reviews while also reacting furiously to every mistake – and I stand by that, especially given there were several decisions across the weekend, most notably a missed hit the post late in Melbourne’s win over Port Adelaide, where the review saved the day.

But there’s an obvious middle ground to drastically reduce the number of time-wasting score reviews while also ensuring a safety barrier against mistakes – the ‘soft review’, which Hodge was advocating for in the first place.

The mechanism already exists for all goals to be reviewed within the time it takes for the ball to return to the centre square, and on regular occasions in recent years – though not this year given the explosion of normal reviews – provide enough evidence for the ball to be rushed back to the goalsquare and a decision overturned.

Often, umpires would be instructed to delay bouncing the ball on truly line-ball cases to ensure the correct decision was made before play would continue.

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It’s a no-brainer for me – have goal umpires only call for score reviews if they believe a goal HASN’T been scored, and let the soft review do its work all the other times. It would slash the amount of time wasted in half, remove a swathe of unnecessary ARC checks, and altogether make a goal umpire’s job that bit less stressful.

There are genuinely no losers, and it doesn’t require changing anything all that much – the AFL could, and should, bring it in as early as next week.

2. Tough, terrific Tigers are on their way…

As a neutral supporter, I can’t be the only one who found it impossible, in the dying stages on Sunday afternoon, to not be willing Richmond on from my lounge room.

Then, as the siren sounded and the MCG erupted, the sight of Adam Yze, grin from ear to ear, congratulating his fellow coaches after his first win in the hot seat could make the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes.

Since an Opening Round shellacking at the hands of Gold Coast, the Tigers had shown plenty of encouraging signs, despite a mounting injury list – but it’s one thing to be gutsy in defeat, and quite another to take down premiership favourites Sydney, the hottest team in the AFL at the moment. Especially in the manner they did.

In the first and third terms, the Tigers were electric – moving the ball rapidly and with intent, with Shai Bolton and Liam Baker in just about everything, they kicked five of the game’s first seven goals and then five in a row in the premiership quarter, doing to the Swans what they’ve spent the last three years doing to everyone else.

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Then, in the last, needing to dig deep against a surging opponent, they showed they’re tough as nails, too – the sight of Daniel Rioli, who I’ve criticised in these pages before for being flimsy defensively, running down a Swan at half-forward, then surging onto the loose ball and getting it away, sums up their performance at the MCG to a tee.

Nick Vlastuin was unstoppable across half-back with intercept marks galore, Tom Lynch – pending the result of another leg injury – looked back to near his best with three goals, six marks and plenty of presence – while young gun Seth Campbell finished with eight inside 50s in a coming of age performance.

Two whipping boys over the last few years, Thomson Dow and Maurice Rioli, also had arguably their best games in yellow and black – Rioli didn’t hit the scoreboard but was influential in a Cyril-like way with his tackling pressure, while Dow bustled into packs all day long and finished with six clearances to justify a place in the team that had started to look shaky.

But the most notable sign that this is a new, fresh Tigers outfit came in the dying minutes. With the Swans a goal behind and the match well and truly up for grabs, Richmond’s bench consisted of Marlion Pickett, Baker, Nathan Broad and the injured Lynch – all premiership players, all among the most experienced in a youthful team.

Campbell, sub Sam Banks, Rhyan Mansell, Tom Brown, Tyler Sonsie and Ben Miller were all trusted by Yze to get the job done when it mattered most. And they delivered.

The future’s bright at Tigerland. Just how bright, only time will tell.

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3. … but Liam Baker should get two weeks

Now that the good’s out of the way with Richmond, time for the bad.

Liam Baker’s mid-air collision with Lewis Melican in the second quarter was everything the AFL are trying to stamp out of the game: he left the ground, braced for contact, and took a player with only eyes for the ball in the head.

It was enough to provoke a furious response from the Swans, and should be enough on its own to ensure the star Tiger spends some time on the sidelines, regardless of the fact that Melican got up, experienced only minor discomfort, and played out the game.

Baker did more wrong in this incident than Peter Wright last week in knocking out Harry Cunningham, because his decision to brace for contact and abandon contesting the mark happened in a split-second, where Baker actively turns his shoulder in and braces once Melican has completed the mark.

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It was a reckless act that, had the Swan been concussed either from the contact itself or from his head hitting the ground afterwards, which he thankfully avoided, there would be no question Baker would receive a four-match ban just as Wright did.

I’ve long held the view – and expressed it often – that MRO decisions put too much weight into outcomes when determining suspensions, many of which are determined by nothing more than luck of the draw.

Baker could easily have concussed Melican in this incident – just imagine, if you will, if it had have been the now-retired Paddy McCartin in that situation – but unless the potential to cause injury is given greater weight than it has of late, I can’t see him getting the suspension it deserves.

Liam Baker should receive a two-week ban at minimum. I eagerly await Monday afternoon’s MRO report to see if that’s the case.

Liam Baker collides with Lewis Melican.

Liam Baker collides with Lewis Melican. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

4. Giving unsung Demon his due

In 2023, Geelong goalsneak Gryan Miers nearly became the first specialist half-forward in nearly three decades to make the All-Australian team, by virtue of his incredible new goal assists benchmark and his excellent form in the most difficult position to play.

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It’s early days in 2024, but Alex Neal-Bullen is having a similar impact – and it’s time one of Melbourne’s most unsung heroes is given his due.

Since making his debt in 2015, Neal-Bullen has made a career out of being the sort of player no club is crying out for but that good teams seem to have in abundance. He tackles fiercely, he creates pressure at every contest, he doesn’t win a lot of the ball but uses it well nearly every time, and he bobs up for a goal or two in nearly every game.

If it sounds like an easy job, it’s not – not only are the Neal-Bullens of the AFL world expected to provide a lion’s share of the forward pressure, while the big key forwards earn three times the money and ten times the adulation; but they’re also expected to hit the scoreboard too.

It’s what makes games like the Dee’s against Port Adelaide all the more significant. With ten tackles, Neal-Bullen did his bit defensively – but as a conduit between Melbourne’s mighty midfield and an oft-spluttering forward line, it’s hard to recall him having a better game.

Neal-Bullen’s 24 disposals for the match were his highest since 2022, while his two goals are also just the fourth time he’s bagged a pair of goals or more in a game across the last two and a bit seasons. Combine them, and you’ve got a serious match.

With seven score involvements and five inside 50s, Neal-Bullen made his disposals count, too, as the Dees punched holes in Port Adelaide’s defence enough for a stirring win.

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If Neal-Bullen can keep his outstanding form up, he may end up making the All-Australian team after all. But even if he doesn’t, he’s an integral part of a Melbourne machine that now looks to be firing on all cylinders again.

5. North need to settle down

North Melbourne fans reacted furiously to conceding 34 free kicks to 21 in their Good Friday loss to Carlton, as well as the staggering 6-0 50m penalties they were punished with.

While it was certainly true the Roos got the rough end of the stick from the umpires, it was far from as one-sided as some on social media would have you believe: the truth is nearly all the free kicks conceded were a result of some of the most undisciplined play seen from an AFL team in years.

Of the 50m penalties, too, only one was harsh – the decision to penalise an injured George Wardlaw for unsuspectingly limping through the mark on his way to the interchange gates, which was the right decision by the letter of the law if an act that clearly didn’t deserve the significant penalty of a gifted goal.

Particularly down back, the Roos have been lambs to the slaughter, exposed by their now-infamous ‘Northball’ attacking approach and giving away frees by the barrelful.

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I’m willing to give young Toby Pink, still finding his feet at AFL level, plenty of leeway for the frees he conceded to Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay, who on current form might be the league’s most damaging forward line combination – but Aidan Corr, who gave up three, is into his 12th season on quite a sizeable contract for a player of his level, and simply can’t let himself be embarrassed as regularly as he was against the Blues.

The truth is that Alastair Clarkson needs to find a way to make sure his team abides by the rules of the game far more closely than they are at the moment. Part of the reason they are so easy to score on is because teams are winning free kicks in a huge proportion of one-on-one contests they find themselves in against Roos defenders; while in midfield, they’re scarcely any better.

North fans can cry foul at the umpires all they like, but the club will only improve by attempting to fix the significant part of the problem that is their doing alone.

6. The two once-stars killing the Crows

A lot of column inches have gone up in recent times trying to pinpoint exactly what has happened to Adelaide in 2024; but for me, there are two key reasons behind their shocking start to the season.

And their names are Jordan Dawson and Taylor Walker.

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That pair were the Crows’ best two players by a distance in 2023 – Dawson was a revelation when shifted onto the ball, winning All-Australian honours and adding inside toughness to a list of traits that already included one of the game’s best kicks; while Walker booted a career-best 76 goals, likewise making the year’s best team for the first time.

Sometimes all it takes to go from contender to pretender is your two brightest stars losing form; it’s simplistic, sure, but at the Crows it’s also accurate.

Dawson’s left boot has deserted him thus far in 2024; on Friday night against Fremantle, his 27 disposals went at a putrid 48 per cent efficiency, with seven clangers. As the Crows’ primary distributor inside 50, his waywardness has contributed heavily to the disconnect between Adelaide’s midfielders and forwards that has nullified last year’s most potent scoring team.

Walker has suffered partly from that, but his own form can’t be ignored, either: it’s hard to imagine the back injury that delayed his start to the season isn’t still troubling him, because he hasn’t moved as stiffly as he is now since 2020, when everyone wrongly assumed he was finished.

The Texan has two goals in two games, with a goalless performance in being given a royal bath by Alex Pearce; while barely half of Dawson’s disposals are hitting the target.

The good news is that form is temporary and class is permanent, and it’s hard to see those two being so down all season long.

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The bad news? Well, they’re going to have to hurry up and find some form, because the clock is ticking on the Crows’ season – and Matthew Nicks’ future.

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Random thoughts

– Hard to remember a career fizzling out like Jaidyn Stephenson’s seems to be at the moment.

– I thought the holding the ball rule was back after Thursday night, but Sunday seems to confirm it’s gone the way of the dodo. Sad.

– Port should really consider keeping Esava Ratugolea away from the goal line at all costs.

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– Very noticeable how badly Sydney’s defensive structure fell apart when Dane Rampe went off with a hamstring injury.

– West Coast might be worse than I thought.

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