With the season approaching it’s halfway mark, and many teams now becoming identifiable as a hard-working unit (Hawthorn), not living up to their potential (Western Bulldogs) or simply not being interested in the game (not looking at anyone, Melbourne), it’s the time of year where football becomes very intriguing. Teams are starting to reach their peak fitness and are looking to solidify their position in the top eight (Geelong, Collingwood and Hawthorn), go on a winning streak that pushes them further into the top eight (Sydney, Essendon and Carlton) or use their youthful experience to enter the top eight (Richmond). While it’s safe to say Port Adelaide, Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs won’t be winning premierships any time soon, the Collingwood Magpies seem well poised to defend their title as AFL Premiers.
Hitting their stride
For the first time this season, the Magpies put forth a consistent, four quarter effort against the West Coast Eagles. Even at seven wins and one loss going into Round 10, the Magpies, apart from some scintillating individual quarters, hadn’t played their best football. Going against a resurgent Eagles outfit fresh of a 123-point demolition of the Dogs, Collingwood controlled the flow of the game from start to finish, eventually recording a 52-point victory.
One of many aspects that seemed to click for Collingwood on Sunday was their defense. Against a potent Eagles attack consisting of All-Australian Mark LeCras, blossoming star Josh Kennedy and established goalkicker Quinten Lynch, the Magpies stifled the Eagles, allowing only seven goals for the game. The defensive pressure put on the Eagles every time they had control of the football was immense. Led by skipper Nick Maxwell, players like Alan Toovey, Leon Davis, Heath Shaw and Ben Reid, in the form of his career, were swarming on any Eagle every time they touched the ball. Hunting in packs, the Magpies forced the Eagles into sloppy turnovers and hit them hard on the scoreboard.
On top of the AFL’s most consistent defensive set-up, the Magpies’ midfield and forward line can also create pressure. Veteran Luke Ball and young ace in his prime Dale Thomas were irrepressible yesterday, putting pressure on at every dead ball situation and eating the spaces that the Eagles midfielders love to utilise. Throw in the forward pressure of Chris Dawes, Alan Didak and the rejuvenated Andrew Krakouer, and the Magpies are the deepest defensive team in the AFL. Even with Geelong sitting undefeated and holding a win over the Magpies, the rich vein of form they’ve played themselves into doesn’t bode well for the rest of the competition. Throw in the defensive prowess of Mick Malthouse’s men, where they use their foot speed and zone press to constantly put intense pressure on the man with the ball, has them, in my eyes, favorites to defend their title as AFL Premiers.
What’s up, Dock?
On the other side of the country, a pre-season premiership contender seems to have fallen by the wayside. Entering 2011 with Matthew Pavlich, David Mundy and Aaron Sandilands in their prime, the development of youngsters Nat Fyfe, Stephen Hill, Hayden Ballantyne, and Greg Broughton was meant to push Fremantle over-the-top and finally see them make a legitimate push at their first premiership. Nine games in, the Dockers have lost nearly half their games, including surprising losses to Richmond at the MCG and, more recently, an out of form St. Kilda at home.
Let’s give them a break here, though, as they were playing without Aaron Sandilands, the biggest man in the competition and the ‘glue man’ of this Dockers outfit. But one man doesn’t make a team, and the Dockers failed to win a game (or even make a contest of it) they should have, and comfortably to boot.
Supporters may say that the loss of Sandilands and the expectation of playing an underwhelming Saints team may have hit them by surprise, but the reality is, the Dockers aren’t an overly powerful team, especially offensively. They’ve got all the parts to be a premiership contender, but lack true bookends for their spine or a tough ball winner that can supply the outside runners of Pavlich, Hill, Mundy and Fyfe.
Greg Broughton is an excellent defender, and Luke McPharlin is in great touch, but the Dockers seem to lack ball-carrying half-back flanker who can break the lines and rebound effectively from their defensive 50. Although mature-age recruit Tendai Mzungu had 24 disposals off the half-back line against the Saints, the Dockers still rank a lowly 15th for rebound 50s per game, which simply isn’t good enough to compete in September, where pressure-levels rise exponentially.
Offensively, the Dockers don’t fare much better. They rank 12th for contested possessions (another staple of finals footy) and are middle-of-the-pack for inside 50s and goals scored per contest. With superstar Matthew Pavlich spending more time in the midfield and using his athleticism to run the ground, Kepler Bradley has been the main target up forward, leading the Dockers’ goalkicking with 20. While he’s been a good addition to the side since switching from Essendon in 2008, it’s highly unlikely the Dockers will win a flag with Bradley being their spearhead.
For any Dockers supporters, don’t take this as Freo-bashing; I genuinely like the club and think they are on the right track, they just need to develop a few tough, in-and-under footballers and hope youngster Chris Mayne can develop into a focal point in the forward 50.
Five things I liked from Round 10
There were an absolute abundance of things that could have gone in this section for Round 10, with many being stiff to miss out. So, first things first;
Player of the Round, Steve Johnson: Geelong Cat Steve Johnson used his entire bag of tricks in his demolition of the Gold Coast Suns on Saturday evening. After a strong first half by the young Suns, Stevie J took over the second half, finishing with 29 disposals and a career-high 7 goals. Playing on at least four different opponents throughout the game, including Karmichael Hunt and veteran Campbell Brown, Johnson made the forward 50 his own and showed why he is, arguably, the most creative force in the AFL.
Zac Smith: There’s a lot to like about young Gold Coast ruckman, Zac Smith. Likened to West Coast star Dean Cox due to his excellent athleticism and ground-level play, the local Queensland boy had a very impressive game against Geelong in Round 10 and was the best ruckman on the field by a long way. An absolute load standing at a towering 206cm, with plenty more room to add bulk to his already 98kg frame, the boy from Zillmere is averaging 14 disposals a game to go along with a respectable 17 hitouts. The 21-year-old giant’s 9 goals in just 8 senior games this year is 4th in the AFL amongst ruckman and he should receive many votes for the NAB Rising Star award if he continues to impress in his debut season.
St. Kilda’s fight: After being all but buried in season 2011, the St. Kilda Football Club is in the midst of a mini-revival at the moment. Off the back of a drought-breaking win over Melbourne in Round 9, the Saints travelled to Perth to take on Fremantle and the wide-open spaces of Paterson’s Stadium. Rather than roll over like in previous rounds, the Saints belted Fremantle to the tune of 46 points to record their first back-to-back victories of the season. Even after losing superstar Brendon Goddard to a nasty neck injury in the first quarter, the Saints held tough, keeping the Dockers to a mere six scoring shots in the first half. With games against Collingwood and Geelong coming up in the next month, the Saints may have found their form at just the right time.
Matt Priddis, the Eagles’ Unsung Hero: After making his debut for the Eagles as a mature-age recruit in 2006, the 26-year-old Matt Priddis has become one of the Eagles’ driving forces in their revival this season. As a tough, in and under ball-winner, the curly-haired hard man is 9th in the AFL for disposals per game and is leading the entire AFL with a remarkable 18 contested possessions per game. Even though they suffered a heavy loss to Collingwood on Sunday, Priddis has been a driving force for the Eagles this year, and it is about time he got recognised.
Player of the Week Mk II, Dale Thomas: Collingwood’s Dale Thomas was in everything for the Pies in their impressive 52-point win over the Eagles on Sunday. Finishing with 30 disposals and two goals, Thomas showed his substance with 14 contested possessions and 7 rebound 50s, while also showing his flair with a hanger over Eagle Nic Naitanui. His best moment for the game was his Goal of the Year contending left-foot inside-out wonder goal from the boundary line. Finished up with a shrug that was reminiscent of Michael Jordan from Game 1 of the 1992 NBA Finals, Thomas’ goal may see him drive away in a brand new car at season’s end.
Karmichael Hunt’s booming 55m goal, Jonathan Brown’s presence and leadership, Gold Coast’s first half, Hawks’ good form, Andrew Krakouer’s revival
Five things I didn’t
Friday night’s game: All I’ll say is this game had the makings to be one of the worst ones I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching. The Demons played with a distinct lack of energy and desperation that is fitting of their year so far. Even Carlton, in a rich vein of form this month, didn’t do any more than they had to in this game to take the 4 points. Surely, if Melbourne’s lackluster form and disinterested body language continues, coach Dean Bailey will be looking for a new job come August.
Brendon Goddard’s injury: Hate seeing players injured, especially one’s as good as Goddard. Unfortunate collision with much-maligned teammate Zac Dawson saw Goddard stretchered off and taken to hospital. Would be very surprised to see no. 18 lining up against Collingwood on Saturday night, despite his eagerness to play in the Grand Final Replay rematch.
Playing in the dark: I’m all for showcasing AFL games in Darwin, but for the love of football, their facilities have to be better. With two light stands failing over the course of the night, the Top End better get their act into gear or risk no more games venturing to their neck of the woods.
Addam Maric: In what was already an ugly and lifeless display by Melbourne, Demon Addam Maric’s attempt to play the goal umpire for a fool was terrible. Even though Collingwood coach Mick Malthouse was vilified for saying Maric’s goal claim was cheating, I fully agree with him. When there is clearly no contact made on the ball by Maric, his unsportsmanlike conduct, I believe, has no part in our game.
Bulldogs supporters booing Barry Hall: One thing I hate is apparent ‘supporters’ booing their own players. Shame on any Western Bulldogs supporters who booed Barry Hall as he was substituted off the ground in Sunday’s loss to Hawthorn. Even though Hall had a disaster return, leaving no impact on the game, he kicked 80 goals for the team last year, becoming the bulky forward they desperately needed, and did everything in his power to help them win that elusive premiership. Seems very disrespectful that the supporters would boo a man who only tried to bring to Whitten Oval the success he has had during his career.