Round 9 could not have begun and ended with more differing story lines. Kicking off Friday night at the MCG, the Carlton Blues took on the Geelong Cats and proved why they are a legitimate top four threat in 2011. The Cats and Blues fought out a spirited battle, with the Blues being a wobbly Robbie Warnock kick away from third place on the ladder going into their round 10 clash with Melbourne.
On the other side of that is Sunday evening’s twilight game between the West Coast Eagles and the Western Bulldogs. After seemingly righting the ship in Round 8’s victory over the Richmond Tigers, the Bulldogs travelled to Perth full of fight, only to be sent on their flight home with their tails tucked firmly between their legs and crosshairs set firmly on their coach, Rodney Eade.
Showing great poise and a maturing list, the Eagles absolutely and completely dismantled a Western Bulldogs team that has been entrenched in the upper echelon of the AFL since 2008. After jumping to a 31-point halftime lead, the Eagles blew the Dogs out of the water in the second half, piling on 17.9 to 3.1, including the best last quarter of the season in which they embarrassed the Dogs with a 10-goal to zero quarter to run out 123-point victors.
The Eagles were brilliant this weekend, dominating the Bulldogs in every facet of the game. Their forward brought in 27 marks inside 50, their ball-winners dominated the contested football, winning nearly 50 more contested footballs than their opposition, while completely stifling the Bulldogs into a lowly 30 inside 50s for the match. Showing a Collingwood-like chase-and-tackle desperation, the Eagles forced the Dogs into poor disposals all game, making them pay with 11 goals from Bulldog turnovers.
For the Eagles, the win marks a return to contendership after three years in the AFL wilderness. With the losses of Ben Cousins and Chris Judd at the end of the 2007 season, the Eagles have been floundering near the bottom of the ladder, unable to replace two of the all-time greats, with last year’s wooden spoon putting the team a lifetime away from their 2006 premiership glory. But, with a remarkable return to form of premiership players Andrew Embley and Daniel Kerr to go along with a healthy Dean Cox, the Eagles have rebuilt themselves in three short years, showing a willingness to step up and provide leadership for improving youngsters Luke Shuey, Nic Naitanui and rookie sensation, Jack Darling. Throw in a 25-year-old Mark LeCras entering his prime, and Josh Kennedy fresh off a career-best 10-goal haul against the hapless Bulldogs (more on him later) and the Eagles are brewing up something very special over in the West.
For the Western Bulldogs, Rodney Eade’s seat will be getting hotter by the day. After leading the Dogs to three straight preliminary finals, the man known as ‘Rocket’ may not be getting through to his charges anymore, who seem to be suffering from a St. Kilda-like mental block with their performances. Even though they had Barry Hall, Brian Lake and Brownlow medalist Adam Cooney absent from their best 22, three players do not cause a 123-point turnaround. With no identity up forward without the aging Hall, the Bulldogs will be all bark this season.
The biggest issue for the Dogs at the moment, other than a royal hiding that will take them weeks to recover from, is their frightful inability to kick goals. Floundering at 10th in the competition for goals per contest, the Bulldogs have only kicked more than 13 goals in three of their 8 games so far this season. The three teams to witness this phenomenon? A Gold Coast team in it’s infancy, the cellar-dwelling Brisbane Lions and a young Rihmond Tigers outfit that is still trying to figure out it’s defensive identity.
Making it harder for the Dogs to score is their distinct lack of forward 50 entries, where they are ranked a lowly 13th in the competition. For a team that has created an identity of run-and-carry football that features a bevy of multiple goalkickers each week, the Dogs aren’t running in packs as they used to and not scoring seemingly at will. Unfortunately for the Bulldog faithful, their premiership window seems destined to slam shut, again, without any silverware.
Oh, we’re from Tigerland!
For the first time in a long time, what a wonderful place Tigerland is to be right now for the yellow & black faithful. Going into Saturday night’s Dreamtime at the ‘G as underdogs, the Tigers continued their revival with a powerful 16-point victory that was closer than it actually was. Harassing the Bombers ball-carriers all night, the youthfully exuberant Tigers laid 83 tackles for the game, and, even though I’m a keen statistician (as you know), proved that the game of football isn’t always about who wins the clearance count.
In that respect, the Tigers, other than superstardom-bound Trent Cotchin, got dominated in clearances and contested possessions. But, the fighting Tigers’ pressure that is a key ingredient of Damien Hardwick’s game plan (and reminiscent of the Hardwick-assisted 2008 Hawthorn Hawks), forced the Bombers into terrible turnovers. Turnovers that the Tigers turned into ten heartbreaking and game winning goals.
On the last line of defence, captain Chris Newman and youngster Alex Rance were sensational Saturday night, combining for 12 rebounds out of their defensive 50, with Rance displaying All-World courage and athleticism with some great tackling and marking displays that should see him anchor the Tigers’ defense for the next 5-6 years.
The Tigers still seem two or three seasons away from truly contending for a premiership but, like the Eagles in Perth, something special is brewing down at Punt Rd. Led by spiritual leader and reigning Coleman medalist Jack Riewoldt, the Tigers are building a formidable forward line, with 200cm Tyrone Vickery developing nicely into a second option, while Jake ‘Push-Up’ King and Robin Nahas are relishing their time up forward, combining for an efficient 26 goals and 5 behinds so far in season 2011.
With Trent Cotchin finally having a full pre-season under his belt, Dustin Martin averaging a damaging 25 disposals a game to go along with former No. 1 pick Brett Deledio doing his best Brendon Goddard circa-2010 impression, the Tigers are steadily making their ascension to the top of the AFL.
Five things I liked from Round 9
Josh J. Kennedy: As I wrote in my very first post this season, this kid will be special. Landing in Perth as a part of the blockbuster trade that sent Chris Judd to Carlton, Josh Kennedy has finally grown into his sizable frame and seems set to rip he competition apart like a young Nick Riewoldt. Fresh of a career-high 10 majors against the Western Bulldogs on Sunday, the former Blue is just 15 goals shy of his career-best 41 goals, set in 2010. Standing at 194cm but possessing unbelievable agility and endurance for such a large athlete, Kennedy has developed into one of the league’s best spearheads and is making Eagles fans mighty pleased that they were able to pry him away from the Blues, even if it did come at the expense of one of their all-time favourite sons.
Andrew Walker: A very gifted athlete with the leap of an elite high jumper, the former No. 2 overall pick has taken his time, but finally fits into Carlton’s best 22 very comfortably. Finding his niche as a lead-up forward, Walker’s blazing speed for a 190cm man has caused mismatches from round 1, creating opportunities for him to play the important link man role while also kicking 17 goals so far, already a career high. Against Geelong on Friday night, Walker’s speed and leaping ability was on full display as he kicked two big goals and provided a target all night inside 50.
Bryce Gibbs’ defensive work: Bryce Gibbs still has a long way to go to become an elite AFL star, but his defensive work over Carlton’s last three games has been very noticeable. Given roles on Geelong’s Steve Johnson, St. Kilda’s Brendon Goddard and Sydney’s Adam Goodes, Gibbs has successfully stymied their impacts on the game, holding both Goddard and Goodes to season-lows in disposals. Although Johnson was able to get loose and kick three important goals, Gibbs’ ability to create out of the backline nearly helped the Blues steal one against the Cats.
Centre circle tribute: With Round 8 being the historically significant Indigenous Round, the painting of the centre circle to resemble Australia’s aboriginal flag was magnificent touch and looked great. In a week where contributions made to the game by unforgettable indigenous stars like Michael Long, Andrew McLeod, Polly Farmer and countless more players were honoured, the AFL should be applauded for their class and creativity in creating these centre circle monuments.
Give him the keys now!: For anyone who missed Andrew Krakouer’s mark on Sunday, do yourself a favour and watch it using the link below. Watch it twenty times. I guarantee you won’t see a better mark this season. Everything about it was simply brilliant. From the leap to the mark to the landing, Krakouer’s mark was technically perfect and visually stunning. There is no way that mark gets topped this season.
Five things I didn’t (I won’t even waste my time or yours by picking apart Taylor Walker’s solitary beer at the football. Biggest non-story of the year.)
Everything about the Bulldogs: What a pathetic display from the Dogs. I won’t say too much here as they’ve been discussed above, but their performance was insipid and could potentially see them with a new coach by season’s end.
Melbourne’s heart: Or lack thereof. When star midfielder, (I may have used the term star very loosely here) is seen sulking on the bench during a horrible loss to St. Kilda, one has to wonder how long Dean Bailey has at the helm of this team. If his own players won’t put their body on the line and don’t seem to have enough respect for him to play to the standards he has set for them, his time at Melbourne may be drawing to a swift close.
Michael Hibberd’s costly turnovers: After singing the praises of the mature-aged recruit from Frankston, Hibberd had a shocker against the Tigers Saturday night. Known in the VFL for crisp deliveries from his left boot, Hibberd had two woeful turnovers in the Bombers’ defensive 50 that turned into easy goals for the Tigers. At AFL level, failing to hit a player on the chest when there is no pressure on the kicker or the target is inexcusable.
Sydney’s disposal around the ground: The Swans had a shocker on Sunday, butchering the ball all over the SCG, with Rhyce Shaw the main culprit amongst a group of main culprits. Twice, Shaw failed to hit standing targets, one went out of bounds on the full just outside Hawthorn’s forward 50, the other straight over the head of teammate Ted Richards and into the path of the rampaging Hawks. Both ended up resulting in goals that turned the tide of the game and allowed Hawthorn to run away with an emphatic win.
Robbie Warnock’s ‘shot’ for goal: Warnock embarrassed ruckmen all over Australia with his inexplicable behind on Friday night. Although he suffered from a delayed concussion, Warnock declared himself fit by getting to his feet and taking his kick. From barely 15 metres out, the 206cm giant that cost three draft picks and a ton of cash to bring to Visy Park whiffed away what would have been Carlton’s biggest win of the 2011 season. Unforgivable.