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Six Points: Clutch kings do it again, footy's dirtiest player, and debunking 'Vic-centric' fixture myth

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7th April, 2024
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Gather Round was back for the second year – and after a rough start, boy was it a doozy!

Four of the weekend’s last five games were thrillers that went right down to the wire, while the one that wasn’t was just as entertaining, with GWS edging Gold Coast in a high-scoring ‘Expansion Cup’.

We had a score of high mark attempts with hardly any sticking, a spectacular Shai Bolton performance, and of course, some nice juicy controversy to dominate discussion around the water cooler, especially if you’re from Western Australia.

Plus, of course, this play from Toby Greene and Brent Daniels.

I don’t know how else to describe it except that I nearly jumped off my couch when I saw it.

Anyway, let’s begin.

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1. The clutch kings do it again

Just like in last week’s win over a misfiring Brisbane, I’m not sure exactly what to make of Collingwood clinging with their fingernails to victory over Hawthorn to finish off Gather Round.

The good? Well, the Pies’ first half was back to something at least closely resembling their brilliant best, with damaging slingshot footy cutting the Hawks to ribbons on the rebound and feeding a spread forward 50 that made the Pies’ goalkickers look supremely dangerous, the much-maligned Lachie Schultz especially.

After a horror run of form, Jordan De Goey was quite clearly the best man afield; Tom Mitchell stepped up with Scott Pendlebury missing the second half injured with some superb grunt work, and Darcy Cameron was titanic, particularly late in the game with a clutch mark to stymy a Hawks forward foray.

The bad? Well, about 90 per cent of what happened after the break, with the Hawks dominant out of the centre and Blake Hardwick a revelation in attack: really, it seemed like the Pies went into preservation mode almost from half time onwards, and very nearly paid a terrible price.

Even in the final minutes, there was a genuine sense that the Pies could lose this game, something that wasn’t really apparent in most of their close games over the last two years; there were fumbles, missed tackles, botched kicks and concerning defensive lapses – at one point in the last minute, the Hawks had a loose man inside their own forward 50.

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Any win is precious for the Magpies at the moment, and there was a lot to like about half of what they dished up at the Adelaide Oval. Four points, at the end of the day, is four points.

But if a Hawks team without Mitch Lewis or Luke Breust can make the reigning premiers look so vulnerable, if Hardwick can switch forward and morph into Wayne Carey all of a sudden, then things are far from back on track for Fly’s Pies.

2. The ridiculous defence of footy’s dirtiest player

“That’s a difficult one, that one. I think there were extenuating circumstances, and in the end it looks like he goes to push off with the contact. The contact doesn’t look a lot to me – in slow motion it looks bad.

“There’s a lot worse going around.”

This was Jason Dunstall’s reaction on Fox Footy at half time of Melbourne’s clash with Adelaide, after Demon Kysaiah Pickett’s high elbow clipped Jake Soligo.

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Pickett has since been handed a one-game ban for the act, and rightly so – the contact was high but the impact not forceful enough to receive a greater ban under AFL laws which I’ve long argued are inadequate.

But let’s not beat around the bush – this was a seriously grubby act from a player who is fast building a reputation as the dirtiest in the game.

Any suggestion that the contact was as a result of his attempt to smother is silly – Pickett does begin looking to block Soligo’s handball, but quick as a flash he lowers his arms once the ball is past – just as Brayden Maynard did in that infamous incident with Angus Brayshaw that saw the AFL amend its rules.

What takes this from an accidental if avoidable collision into the realms of dog act is what Pickett does next. He braces for contact, sure, but he raises his elbow out with the deliberate aim of driving it into Soligo and making him earn the handball.

If anything, Pickett is lucky Soligo had moved close enough to him that his elbow can only extend part of the way, but it hits the Crow’s head hard enough to actually bounce off. This wasn’t incidental contact, or a simple brace – this was forceful.

In short, he sniped him. Plain and simple.

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No doubt he didn’t intend to hit him in the head specifically – but Pickett makes head-high contact an awful lot, no matter what Simon Goodwin claims. He was lucky to escape with a two-week ban for a horrendous high bump on Bailey Smith that somehow didn’t result in a Brayshaw-esque concussion, while his hit on Patrick Cripps in last year’s semi-final was from a similar storybook. He deserves no benefit of the doubt that there was no intent to hit at this point.

To be playing this way despite all the attempts made by the AFL to penalise head-high contact is indefensible. And if Pickett hasn’t learned in the last 12 months via two suspensions, and now a third, that he’s got to change the way he plays, then the fast developing conclusion is that he and the Demons are fine for him to keep going as he is.

Which, especially in light of Brayshaw’s retirement and the way Melbourne reacted to it and to Maynard personally, is problematic at best.

3. Tenacious Tigers lacked just one thing

They might be 1-4, but there is so much to like about how Richmond have started life under Adem Yze.

A team beset by injuries to key players, one with no key forward presence after losing Tom Lynch and Noah Balta during the week, gave a quality opposition in St Kilda one almighty fight at Norwood Oval, and forced them to find some of their best footy simply to escape with a win.

Shai Bolton had possibly the game of his career, marking everything in attack and kicking four brilliant goals; Dustin Martin wound back the clock; Toby Nankervis had a proper captain’s game.

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But it’s not just the stars shining – Ben Miller has been a revelation in defence over the last few weeks and was again rock solid on Sunday, while Tylar Young and Tom Brown were almost as impressive, the latter manfully holding Max King to a solitary goal despite the big Saint threatening regularly to bust the game open.

The only one of their many, many injuries the Tigers couldn’t replace was Lynch: especially in the final quarter, the lack of aerial presence inside their 50 proved crucial, with Callum Wilkie and Josh Battle ruling the skies.

Shai Bolton took five of the Tigers’ 10 marks inside 50, but not even he could drag Richmond over the line, nor compensate for what Lynch would have done to that attack.

His return might come too late to make the Tigers a viable finals contender this year, but make no mistake: this is a hungry young side full of belief, whose pressure can make even the sternest of opponents look vulnerable.

The road back to premiership contention has begun – and already there’s plenty of light at the end of the tunnel.

4. Can’t the AFL leave well enough alone with Gather Round?

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I’m sceptical whether the AFL’s purported plans for multiple Gather Rounds around the country once Tasmania enter the competition in 2028 will ever come to fruition – they have a long history of chucking wild ideas out through the media to see what the reaction is, and based on the response that plan has generated in recent days, they’ve certainly got their answer.

It is, however, very in character for the AFL to milk an idea for all it’s worth so that it loses the uniqueness that made it work in the first place. So on the off chance we see three Gather Rounds from 2028 onwards, it’s worth noting that it’s not as much a ridiculous idea as it is a cynical, money-hungry idea from a league that is more than happy to bastardise its own code for the almighty dollar.

If governments nationwide will fork out big dollars to have a full round in their state, as South Australia are currently doing, then it’s great for the AFL, but few other parties come out of it winners.

To begin with, the idea that Adelaide, who have done a terrific job with Gather Round over the last two years, would suddenly only get one every second year is laughable. As is the idea that a Sydney-based one, even over the Easter holidays, will be what wins the city over from NRL heartland to AFL outpost – what Sydneysider is going to pack out North Sydney Oval to see Gold Coast versus GWS like South Australians did at Mount Barker?

As for the opening Gather Round, to reportedly be spread across Victoria and Tasmania, then call me suspicious, but this smacks of ‘we’ll let the big Victorian clubs play at the MCG for the massive crowds, but send everyone else down to Tasmania’.

Given the criticism of Opening Round nullifying the excitement of the first round of the season by keeping all games away from footy heartlands, this would just be the same problem on a more targeted scale – and once again, only the powerhouses benefit.

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Then there’s the issue with Gather Round itself – yes, the festival atmosphere is great and it’s won rave reviews, but from my couch in Victoria, I couldn’t help lamenting that lack of proper investment in the closing stages of Carlton’s win over Fremantle and Geelong’s win over the Western Bulldogs. Imagine the buzz if Cottrell’s winning goal had sailed through in front of 60,000 at the MCG, or the howls of dismay from a 50,000-strong Freo contingent at Optus Stadium. There’s no way known a spontaneous Mexican Wave would have broken out at GMHBA Stadium in the final quarter of a tight match as it did for the Cats’ win.

I voiced my concerns with Gather Round in last year’s column, but it’s clear there are enough good things about it – and more than enough cash made by the AFL – to make it a permanent part of the fixture.

In South Australia, that is: I hope the AFL don’t think for a moment that trying to recreate it across the country will do anything more than kill the golden goose.

Gather Round Alex Neal Bullen Jordan Dawson

Alex Neal-Bullen and Jordan Dawson pose. (Photo by Mark Brake/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

5. The Dogs can’t play Macrae

There has been much gnashing of teeth over Jack Macrae this year among both Bulldogs and non-Bulldogs supporters; first for leaving him out in the first two rounds, and then again this weekend when he was named the sub against Geelong.

The Dogs and Luke Beveridge were crystal clear leading into the season that the reason the club great was going to start off in the VFL was a lack of match fitness owing to off-season injuries, but that didn’t stop everyone piling on the coach especially for disrespecting Macrae, as well as for not picking him over players deemed not up to the highest level.

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Here’s the thing, though: Macrae was, and still is, a gun playing a specific, on-ball role. A role that, as it happens, the Bulldogs no longer require him for, due to having an on-ball brigade as settled as any team in the league.

The Dogs’ three best players on Saturday night, by a stretch, were Tom Liberatore, Marcus Bontempelli and Adam Treloar, the entire starting centre bounce trio. These days, Ryley Sanders is also getting a regular run on-ball, while Cody Weightman was even occasionally used as an X-factor option to reasonable effect.

As good as Macrae has been for the club, he’s not at this moment more suited to being on-ball than Liberatore, Bontempelli or Treloar, and it benefits no one to have him take midfield minutes away from the developing Sanders. And as he showed last year, and arguably again last week against West Coast, he lacks the leg speed, kicking prowess or ferocious pressure required to succeed in the spot currently occupied by Bulldogs whipping boy Laitham Vandermeer.

That isn’t to say Vandermeer is a better player than Macrae – he’s not – but if the latter’s severely limited impact after coming on as the fresh-legs sub against the Cats is any indication, there’s simply no available spot in the team where he can show he remains the obviously AFL-standard player he is.

To be brutally honest, the Dogs can’t afford to play Macrae as it stands. To have just one kick and a solitary clearance in the last quarter is a poor term by his own standards, never mind as supposedly the freshest man on the ground.

If the only spot remaining in the team is as a sub, then Macrae’s days at the Bulldogs, or at least in the senior team, are almost certainly numbered. It’s not an indictment on him, the coach or the team; as the old saying goes, that’s just footy sometimes.

Jackson Macrae of the Bulldogs looks to handball

(Photo by Steve Bell/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

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6. ‘Vic-centric’ fixture is a myth, and here’s why

A disclaimer first: I am a Victorian, and the following point of course comes with that caveat. For some of you, especially those from outside Victoria, that will be the only thing needed to immediately discredit it.

But it annoys me when someone like Geelong coach Chris Scott – or, indeed, any other coach of a Victorian team – can make a very reasonable point around Gather Round giving Adelaide and Port Adelaide the distinct advantage of an extra home game, only to have it derided by even Fox Footy’s own reporting because all Victorian teams get to play far more matches in their home state than everyone else.

It’s such a superficial point that lumps all Victorian clubs together unfairly, and yet it gets repeated without questioning over and over – so allow me to explain why it’s not as simple as that.

For starters, while it’s indisputable Victorian-based teams play in their home state, and sleep in their own beds, far more than players from elsewhere, it’s quite another thing for that to translate to home ground advantage, the most crucial aspect when it comes to premiership points and fixture fairness.

Non-Victorian clubs have 10 fully home matches every year – plus two neutral matches against their state opponents, and one more for Gather Round – and 10 full away matches. Adelaide and Port Adelaide this year have an 11-10 split by virtue of Gather Round.

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If you award one point for a full home game, zero points for a full away game and half a point for the neutrals, a club like West Coast gets 11 fixture points under this metric, while the Crows get 12.

Let’s compare that to, say, St Kilda, to pick a Victorian club at random. The Saints have six of these full home matches against interstate opponents; that’s balanced by seven full away matches, though some of you may (in my view incorrectly) dispute fitting games against Hawthorn in Tasmania and Geelong in Geelong into this category.

They play five games at Marvel Stadium against fellow Marvel tenants, plus the Tigers in Gather Round – let’s call those 50/50 games.

Of the other four matches, they have two partial away matches against Collingwood and Melbourne at the MCG – let’s call that 0.33 points per game – and two partial home matches against fellow Victorian teams Richmond and Geelong, for 0.67 points each.

You know what that all adds up to? 11 points. The same as the Eagles, and the same as what it would be for the Power and Crows if a Gather Round Showdown was paid to equalise the fixture.

That isn’t to say some teams in Victoria don’t have an advantage – under this metric, Collingwood’s 2024 draw receives 11.5 points, right smack between the Eagles and Crows – while Scott’s Cats get 11.83 by virtue of nine full home games at GMHBA Stadium while still needing minimal travel to play seven more at Marvel Stadium or Docklands.

But not even the two most egregious examples are proof of some massively weighted fixture that advantages all the Victorian clubs and them alone – certainly not more than the enormous edge the Crows and Power receive in getting a full extra home match in front of 50,000 screaming fans.

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Now that’s off my chest, I can relax.

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Random thoughts

– Seven busted tackles for Harley Reid in game four. Rightio.

– I reckon I’ve heard The Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’ more times in the last four days than across the rest of my life combined. Is this an Adelaide thing?

– At time of writing, we don’t know enough about Jeremy Finlayson’s homophobic slur to pass judgement, so suffice to say that it’s time the AFL punished homophobia the same way they punish racial abuse.

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– Six intercept marks and 25 disposals for Charlie Comben. He might be North’s best player by the end of the year.

– Once again, I’m not sure what Matt Crouch racking up stats in midfield does to benefit the Crows – especially when they looked so damaging without him for most of last year.

– If only an umpire was standing in the Freo cheersquad 250 metres away from the action…

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