Round 18 Review
It was a long time coming, but we've reached the end of the regular season. It's important to take a step back and look at how things played out in this crazy year...
When Covid-19 hit Australia and the season was under threat, so many footy fans would've been incredibly anxious about what this would mean for their sport. Football without crowds really isn't football. The compromised Round 1 had an eerie feel about it, with fake crowd noise and a group of players who were understandably, and noticeably, just a little bit "off" compared to their usual intensity.
The long break after Round 1 was most definitely a blessing in disguise - for health reasons, of course, but also for the prospect of a season that still had a competitive spirit, stories of breakout stars and thrilling wins and losses. We couldn't have a season that just went through the motions. Thankfully we had a lot more than that.
The collateral damage from this compromised season will be felt for many years to come - so many loyal and valuable staff have lost their jobs already, more will follow, and the changes to list sizes, rules and regulations could be pretty drastic.
Not to mention the second-tier leagues around the country. Or the junior competitions with the AFL hopefuls who have missed an entire season. Things won't be the same for quite some time.
But still, if you had been told that only one single game would have to be rescheduled this year when the season resumed, and we would achieve a fixture that allowed each team to play each other once, then you could easily have been quite surprised. It's a big achievement from the league, clubs and Governments to complete the regular season. No doubt about it.
So we have a finals series that still feels largely normal. And some incredible matchups well worth waiting for (not a big fan of the pre-finals bye, but each to their own on that one).
Before then, let's quickly review the last round, where there weren't too many surprises...
North Melbourne v West Coast
A classic case of the clearly superior team just thinking they could go through the motions, grab the four points and move onto a finals series. North Melbourne decided to really show up this time at least. Did they highlight just how poorly West Coast are travelling?
Losing Josh Kennedy in the first half clearly didn't help, of course, but you'd think the Eagles offence would have posted more than 49 points if their offence was travelling OK. Big red flag for the finals series...
St Kilda v GWS
An absolutely wild expected score in this one - 65-53. Still in the Saints favour but a lot closer than the game looks on paper. One team took every opportunity and the other just couldn't buy a goal. It would have been fascinating to see how the game turned out if the Giants could put a little more scoreboard pressure on in the first half
The Giants still have big question marks over their midfield combinations - that group lost the clearances by 12 in this game, score 0.7 from stoppages, and allowed the Saints to kick 8.4 of their own. There's the game right there.
St Kilda got the much needed confidence booster ahead of the finals series. Is it a failed season if they don't overcome the Bulldogs in their elimination final? Unsure.
Essendon v Melbourne
The Bombers played like they couldn't wait for the season to finish. The Demons played like they couldn't wait to post a big enough score to get the job done, and then take the foot off the pedal from there
Once again, we saw what happens when a less-than-mature team tries to protect a lead rather than consolidate or build on it. The Demons are basically incapable of playing "safe" football with the types of players they have on the field - very few calm heads, lots of very good players who can't seem to drop down a gear even though they know what they should do.
One of Melbourne's weapons has been their ability to take the ball from D50 to F50 and score. Clearly it doesn't always work, but they have done a significant amount of training on ball movement and it shows. 3.2 against a pretty average team defence in this one - 38% of their D50 chains went inside 50 in the first half. In the second half - 15%. For context, the season average is only 18%.
With a pressure factor of only 160 to 151 in Essendon's favour, the Dees failure to get the ball from D50 to F50 can't really be attributed to the Bombers' pressure. The numbers confirm that if they try to hold on, it's not likely to work out well for them.
Judging by reports, that Bombers side could have a very different look next year. Maybe it's what they need to reboot under their new coach and start reasonably "fresh" for 2021
Adelaide v Richmond
Not a lot to say about this one, given Richmond took care of Adelaide as expected. All the numbers point to a dominant Tigers win - 14 marks inside 50, an inside 50 count of 57-34, and 9 of Richmond's 12 goals coming from D50 or Midfield turnovers
The Crows have a bit to work with on their young list, but you'd hope they aren't seduced by their late-season spike in form. A long road ahead for them, you'd think
Brisbane v Carlton
Likely an uncommon opinion, but the rain came at exactly the wrong time for Carlton. They had won the first quarter, grabbed six marks inside 50 and looked like an absolute handful for the Lions defence. And then it poured.
With very few big inside midfielders (aside from an injured Patrick Cripps) it became quickly obvious that the Lions were going to be more suited to the wet. They piled on 5.3 in the second term and made it too big a task for the Blues to peg back. Still, it was 6.0 to 3.7 in Carlton's favour after half time, so again they have been let down by a single quarter and a long run of goals against.
A huge question mark over the Lions offence still remains - big challenge for them up against Richmond in the first final. Can they get through the Tigers defence?
Hawthorn v Gold Coast
We predicted an uncontested, "circle-work" sort of game, and we got it. Probably a missed opportunity to pick Hawthorn to win by more - should've had the guts to see the farewell games for their retiring stars as a chance for Clarko to release the shackles a little and get them to just enjoy their footy against a young side with little to play for themselves
The Hawks actually did pile on some pressure to win the ball back for most of the day, even though the pressure figures weren't exactly at the high end. They brought enough hunger to the contest and found a way to turn it over pretty easily. From there, the Hawks posted their highest F50 mark total for the season (15) and hit 100 points for the first time as well
Where to for the Suns? Another pre-season of hard work, potentially some smart trading or the acquisition of some quality delisted free agents when the list sizes shrink, and they should be aiming for a finals spot next year. A big off-season for their recruiting team.
Sydney v Geelong
Strange that a team who has eventually finished 16th is regarded as a fair success. The Swans have absolutely squeezed the life out of their lemon and extracted the most out of a young list with plenty of injuries
With a more potent (or balanced) forward line, the Swans would've pinched this one. Geelong were mature enough to know they were always within striking distance and managed to find a way.
Ultimately it came down to Geelong's ability to capitalise from midfield turnovers - 4.2 to 1.3 proved the difference. The Swans actually caused more turnovers through the middle but failed to capitalise. They are desperate for some key forwards to return (or find their way to the club in the off-season)
Fremantle v Western Bulldogs
Demons fans would've been filthy - Fremantle loses their best forward (Taberner) before the game, the weather is dry to play into the Bulldogs' hands, and the Dockers drop their pressure entirely after a pretty competitive first quarter. Even though the margin was only 12 points at half time (and with Naughton off to hospital), the game was effectively over
In a really good sign for their upcoming final, the Dogs were lethal at converting their midfield turnovers to inside 50s (21 from 27), so their forwards got all the supply they needed to make it count.
Bevo swung Keath and Cordy forward when Naughton went down (and they didn't really have a matchup down the other end with only Hogan and Lobb to contend with) so it was an unlikely group competing, but as is usually the case with the Bulldogs, their medium to small players got the job done. Lachie Hunter with 35 and 1.3 was enormous
Get the feeling that the Dogs' had a better chance of knocking off the Eagles in Perth than most other sides. They will give the Saints a run for their money as well, but they would have matched up particularly well against West Coast if the cards fell their way. Not to be.
Collingwood v Port Adelaide
We gave the Pies a fair chance in this one, and it proved to be somewhat correct. They looked like taking the game right up to Port Adelaide yet just couldn't find enough ways to score, which has been their problem all year
The slippery Gabba conditions made it hard to transition from defence to attack (only 3 D50 turnover chains went inside 50 between the two sides combined), so we got a very dour midfield turnover and stoppage game. Theoretically that should have suited Collingwood a little more, so it's a good sign for Port Adelaide that they could win under those conditions
Grundy is playing hurt. It's blatantly obvious. Surprised this hasn't been spoken about.
Port Adelaide v Geelong will be absolutely fascinating. Both teams arguably underrated at this point in time given how hard everyone has fallen for Richmond
Collingwood have the weapons to trouble West Coast next week - can they find a way?
Who Won The Round?
Tough one, with basically all the favourites winning (how did the Hawks start underdogs?).
Let's go with the Bulldogs. High-pressure scenario, very honest opponent in Fremantle, lose their key forward at half time, one who has been pivotal to their form recently (without being totally dominant), and win by five goals.
If they can get over the Saints, they are the smoky to cause some damage to a few sides because of how differently they play.
Who Lost The Round?
The Giants. How that team has missed finals is beyond me. Maybe we've become seduced by the big names and don't delve deep enough into whether they've actually improved. Or if the side actually plays like a team, which we see so obviously with the likes of Richmond, Geelong, West Coast, St Kilda and the Bulldogs.
The Giants at the moment are a bunch of individuals running around pretending to be a cohesive team. Big off-season for them to get it right.
Round 18 Burning Question:
Why is it suddenly so important for ex players and coaches to be looking after Coterie Groups as a job?
Clearly it's a question without an answer, but get ready for some more questionable appointments in the next few months as clubs try to massage their staff into an already incredibly tight budget and soft cap.
Without anyone really advocating for the highly-skilled workers who don't have the luxury of an AFL playing record behind them, we will likely see more ex-players and coaches crammed into strange hybrid-roles in order to keep them around.
Watch this space.