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Six Points: Hawks' horror wasn't all Sam Mitchell's fault, and why THAT Rankine decision was 100 per cent spot on

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19th May, 2024
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Round 10 is done and dusted – and what a corker it was!

We had two utter nail-biters – Port Adelaide’s great escape against Hawthorn, and Collingwood pipping Adelaide at the MCG – and highlights galore from the other matches on offer, especially out west, where Harley Reid, Jake Waterman and co. took down Melbourne for their best win since at least 2021.

It was a fitting bit of revenge on Victoria after that silly mid-week claim that the extensive travel they and Fremantle have to do is actually all good because they get a small amount of business class seats; I’m still not sure how whoever did say that did so with a straight face.

The Bulldogs couldn’t hit the side of a barn door but willed themselves to a statement win over GWS; Gold Coast forced their way into the eight; and Carlton, with a third loss in four games, have slumped to tenth.

That’s without even mentioning Sydney, who are six points clear on top (not sure exactly who’s second, can anyone help me?), are 28 per cent clear of the next-best percentage in the league, and are playing rather well.

Well, that’s five paragraphs done without taking a bounce – any more and I’ll likely get pinged, so let’s get stuck right in!

1. The Izak Rankine free was good umpiring

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There’s nothing sports fans the world over love more than to moan about officiating.

With the benefit of slow-motion, all-angles replays and rigorous analysis of every big moment, it’s worse now than ever before. From the Premier League to the AFL and everything in between, every close game is decided by the referees, every big call, even the totally right ones, have some element of controversy, and there’s always, ALWAYS, a way to blame the umps for your team’s loss.

Take the free kick against Izak Rankine for running too far in the dying seconds of Collingwood’s win over Adelaide, which – and this is important right off the bat – might have led to a Crows goal, but probably wouldn’t have, given the play continued when neither side had heard the whistle and the Pies had wrapped Ned McHenry up in a tackle, and the fact that they’re masters of that kind of finish.

The debate since then hasn’t been about whether the decision was right or wrong – it has been about semantics. Is it right or wrong to pay a free kick that is rarely paid at such a crucial stage in the game, where we fans, rightly or wrongly, would much prefer the whistle to stay away for anything but the most egregious of frees?

Let’s put this to bed now – the free against Rankine was indisputably, absolutely, the right decision. Even before Fox Footy went to the Lab and gave evidence that he had indeed run too far, the eye test told me at least exactly what the umpire saw – that he’d run a hell of a long way. Nine metres over the legal limit, as it happens.

Does it matter that we might see three or four of them paid a year, at most? Not in the least – no one would have been complaining about it had it not happened in the dying seconds of a thriller. It’s still an illegal act.

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It’s like being fined for speeding – you can’t argue that everybody does it and most of us get away with it when you get booked. And rarely paid free kicks happen all the time – GWS’ Finn Callaghan got done for running through the centre bounce against the Bulldogs, which no one cared about because it happened midway through the second quarter instead of deep into the last.

As for the people arguing that that free would never have been paid had it been a Collingwood player doing it, or if it had been at the Adelaide Oval in front of a stadium of screaming Crows fans, then congratulations on your mighty fine straw man, and I hope it keeps your crops safe.

The key reason Rankine got pinged and others don’t – including Brisbane’s Harry Sharp just a few hours later: is, in my book, because it was a clear and obvious one to pay. His sprint down the wing carried him directly across the 10m patches of grass (I know that’s not the right term), meaning that by the time he kicks, he has run through two whole sections, plus a smidge extra on either side.

Sharp, by comparison, runs inward, meaning the umpire has to go entirely by eye rather than having the grass as a measuring guide – he clears a full section and nearly all of a second, making it clear on replay he’s run too far, but certainly not as obviously as in Rankine’s case.

The truth of our game is that it is impossible to umpire, and this law in particular is the ultimate ‘vibes’ rule. There cannot possibly be any consistency to something that entirely rests on the umpires’ eyes and their eyes alone, and I’m not sure anyone wants to see a crackdown on it where things go the other way and players are pinged even when they haven’t run too far.

The rule should stay as it is, in my book, existing more as a warning to players that while it won’t always be seen, there is always the risk of being called if you go well beyond 15 metres without bouncing the footy, rather than something that simply cannot be fairly or safely enforced every single time.

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Izak Rankine disputes a free kick against him for running too far without bouncing the ball.

Izak Rankine disputes a free kick against him for running too far without bouncing the ball. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

2. Hawks’ horror wasn’t all Mitchell’s fault

The first reaction after Darcy Byrne-Jones soccered home the winning goal with two seconds left at the Adelaide Oval, to pinch Port Adelaide the unlikeliest of wins and break Hawthorn hearts, was utter shock at what had just taken place.

But close behind was anger from Hawks fans, and bewilderment from everyone else, about Sam Mitchell’s tactics in the final quarter, having led by 28 points heading in.

This was the ultimate park-the-bus job: Mitchell put five-goal hero Blake Hardwick into defence, hardly even bothered moving the ball forward, and in slippery conditions owing to a third-quarter deluge resolved to hang on for grim death.

It’s never a good look when such a strategy backfires, and for the Hawks to have let a game slip they utterly dominated for the first three quarters, and thereby throw away a famous win to reaffirm that the club’s rebuild is on the right track, will no doubt cause the detractors to come out in force. Even Kane Cornes might have a critical word or two to say.

But the result can’t be the be all and end all in deciding whether trying to shut the game down was the right call: it was good enough for the Hawks to lead by 11 points with 40 seconds left and the ball two kicks from Port’s attacking 50. There is no way known they should have let it slip from there – and that choke isn’t on Mitchell alone.

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It’s on whoever let Dan Houston, best afield all day, free on his own in the middle of the ground for Kane Farrell to pass to and set up their second-last goal.

It’s on Karl Amon for panicking under a high ball and giving away a clumsy free kick to Willie Rioli.

It’s on Will Day for not putting any sort of check, or even a touch, on the red-hot Zak Butters at the final centre bounce.

And it’s on the entire team for not having a Blake Acres-style goalkeeper right on the line for exactly the sort of toepoke as the one that eventuated.

Some of that is Mitchell’s fault, especially the structural breakdowns that occurred inside 50 at the death – but it’s also on his players capitulating so close to safety. Sometimes, a coach can only bear so much responsibility.

Darcy Byrne-Jones celebrates his winning goal against Hawthorn.

Darcy Byrne-Jones celebrates his winning goal against Hawthorn. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

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3. Luke Parker deserves five weeks

It will take until Monday night for Luke Parker to learn his fate for the brutal hit which left Frankston’s Josh Smith with a nasty set of facial injuries in their VFL clash on Friday night.

I hope when the verdict comes in, the same soft touch that Richmond’s Tyler Sonsie received last year when he only got three weeks for king-hitting a bloke isn’t applied to the Sydney champion.

I’ve already heard calls for the suspension coming Parker’s way to be four games plus, and I fully agree. This was a reckless, ugly bump which is everything the AFL are trying to get out of the game. Add to that that the ball was well and truly ahead of him, and that Smith was an unsuspecting target, and you’re firmly in the realms of dog act territory.

One of my pet hates is players trying to unnecessarily physically impose themselves on others with no regard for the damage they’ll cause: a few weeks ago, I had a crack at Kysaiah Pickett for elbowing Adelaide’s Jake Soligo in the face. But this from Parker was significantly worse – and had far more severe consequences, too.

Put it this way: if Peter Wright got four weeks for knocking out Harry Cunningham in a split-second act earlier this season, then what Parker did should be punished even more harshly.

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Five weeks would be my sanction – it was at least not an off-the-ball king hit, nor as hideously reckless as Jimmy Webster’s pre-season hit on Jy Simpkin, or something sufficiently dirty to warrant an even heftier sanction, but it’s something our game simply doesn’t need.

Just look at Webster’s collision with Michael Frederick on Saturday night to see how footy is still plenty brutal enough without it.

4. Let’s talk solutions for the WA travel unfairness debate

The lead-up to the week was dominated by talk about travel: specifically, Western Australian people getting rightfully miffed about the ridiculous suggestion from an anonymous club president or presidents about how Fremantle and West Coast’s extensive flight needs are mitigated by their access to business class seats, and then suggesting some quite silly alternatives.

A few weeks ago, I made the point about the fixture evening out across a season given non-Victorian teams’ access to the proper home games their Vic brethren lack, but will accept that something can probably be done to reduce their need to travel quite so much, particularly the Eagles and Freo.

I just don’t think having two Victorian teams play each other in Perth, one of them sacrificing a home game as a result, is the way to go about fixing it.

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My solution is this: instead of alternating between home and away games throughout the year, West Coast and Fremantle (and Adelaide and Port Adelaide too, if they’re keen) do their travel in blocks.

That would mean four straight games in, say, Victoria at some point during the season, rather than going back and forth repeatedly; then a month of consecutive games in Western Australia, with the Eagles and Freo alternating when one team is at home and the other on the road.

That would instantly slash their travel requirements, ostensibly the point of the exercise: but I’m not sure this is any better for the players given they’d need to spend months at a time on the road, away from friends and family. Remember how much the Eagles hated the COVID hub in Perth?

The reality is that the Eagles and Freo are the two most isolated outposts in a game that, let’s be honest, is still majority Victorian, and certainly majority east coast.

I’ve made and stood by the argument that a lot of, if not all, of the disadvantages are outweighed by the benefits – especially now that the Eagles are on their way to making Optus Stadium a house of pain again (more on that in a sec) – but if anyone’s got a better idea that doesn’t compromise the fixture entirely like Ryan Daniels’, let me hear it.

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5. The most improved player in the game

If you pulled out the notepad this week and jotted down a mid-season All-Australian team, like I did, and didn’t have Jake Waterman’s name pencilled in at full-forward, you were doing it wrong.

Right now, the Eagles’ spearhead is the best forward in the game – and it’s honestly not that close. His imposing presence inside forward 50, especially at home, has been too strong for just about every team that has headed to Optus Stadium this year, and Melbourne and the great Steven May are just the latest to feel his wrath.

Marking everything, kicking accurately – mostly – and smashing packs like nobody’s business, I struggle to believe he’s only 191 centimetres tall, as the AFL’s data claims. The strength he had to consistently bully May, then Tom McDonald when the switch was made, is simply breathtaking.

Waterman has 29 goals in nine games this year – already 11 better than his previous best FULL SEASON tally. Actually, going into 2024 he wasn’t even averaging a goal a game.

Now, he’s level atop the Coleman Medal despite having missed a game with concussion.

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His five-goal, 13-mark performance against the Demons was his most dominant yet, and in modern footy, you generally don’t get better games from your key forwards against that level of opposition.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a forward, or even a player, improve as much as Waterman has this year. He’s basically gone from bit-part third tall behind Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy to prime Wayne Carey in one off-season – and off the back of a serious, life-threatening illness midway through last year.

The headlines out west are dominated by Harley Reid these days – and fair enough – but after five goals against the premier defence in the competition, it might be time for the Eagles’ son of a gun to claim the back page on Monday morning.

6. The real problem with the fixture isn’t Thursday nights

When Rounds 16-23 of the AFL fixture were at last finalised during the week, the general consensus from the media was that the lack of Thursday nights was a terrible oversight.

But I can totally understand that call – any regular footy fan knows that Thursday nights are brilliant only when it’s not your team getting involved. Add to that legitimate concerns over five-day breaks and their impact on recovery, and the likelihood of dead-rubber games being even further compromised by clubs erring on the side of caution on such breaks, and getting rid of it entirely is a more than fair enough call.

What I’m actually pissed off about is the death of the Saturday 2:10pm (AEST) slot – we won’t see one for the rest of the year, despite their being a bunch of games set for simultaneous first bounces at 1:45pm.

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The old fixture was perfect: you’d settle on the couch, watch the first quarter of the 1:45 game, then switch over at quarter time and catch the second game nearly from the start. Now, it’s next to impossible to watch both at the same time without reverting to the split-screen – and it could be so easily avoided.

I don’t believe the AFL’s line, either, about that decision being made to give the 4:35pm game clear air – the 2:10pm game would have overlapped that by 15 minutes at most. What’s more likely to me is that Fox aren’t ultra-keen on people switching channels when the ads come on – this would also explain why an interminable amount of Saturday night games also start at the same time.

Forget Thursday nights – THAT’s what I’m up in arms about; and unless you’re Gerard Whateley, it’s what you should be mad about too.

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Random thoughts

– It should be illegal to be this good.

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– Sam Darcy has picked a bad year to breakout, because he’d be a Rising Star shoe-in in nine out of ten seasons. How’s his hands!

– Fair play to Aidan Corr – gave Kyle Langford an absolute bath in another thumping North loss. Might be his best game as a Roo.

– Was pleasantly surprised at the relative lack of cookers weighing in on Ollie Wines’ heart scare. Hope he’s okay.

– Can someone please explain what on earth has happened to Mattaes Phillipou?

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