Bevo has a month to save himself, and the rule tweak needed to prevent another ‘Sirengate’

AFL, featured

In September 2015, Ross Lyon, Brad Scott and Alastair Clarkson coached their sides to preliminary final berths.

Nearly eight years on, all three have different clubs second, third and fifth respectively – and undefeated – after a remarkable start to the season, proving that if you’re a good coach once, you can be again.

Lyon’s St Kilda and Scott’s Essendon, remarkably, sit higher on the ladder than even Collingwood, whose extraordinary start to the season hit another gear on Saturday afternoon. If they’re not premiership favourites yet, they’re not far away.

Then at the other end of the spectrum, three of last year’s finalists – including reigning premier Geelong – find themselves winless, and ranging in orders of panic from the Cats (no dramas yet, she’ll be right) to the Western Bulldogs (time to sacrifice your firstborn to the sun gods to end this torment).

In between, there was siren controversy, more questionable MRO decisions, and some more quite exhilarating footy – particularly if your heart bleeds black and white. Let’s dive in.

1. Luke Beveridge has four weeks to save himself

The Western Bulldogs have problems. Big problems.

After two rounds they sit 17th on the ladder, 0-2 and with a percentage of just 51.2 per cent. Starts to a year seldom come ghastlier.

As someone who attended their 51-point loss to St Kilda live and in the flesh, I can say this with chest: there have been few if any more disgraceful performances from the Bulldogs since Luke Beveridge took over a little more than eight years ago.

Their ball movement was dire both in execution and planning, their ability to defend turnovers is nonexistent, their forward line is dysfunctional and – most alarming of all – their much-vaunted midfield was taken to the cleaners by a Saints outfit infinitely more disciplined, well-drilled and hungrier in every aspect.

The way the Saints scored their last goal, effortlessly handballing their way through nonexistent midfield pressure, waltzing inside 50, fumbling a few times but encountering minimal resistance, and ending with Jade Gresham’s painfully casual snap after winning a free kick, was as humiliating as it gets.

Poor Marcus Bontempelli, who gave away that free hurling himself back to try and stop Gresham marking, was genuinely the only one even trying.

We’ll get to the Saints in a minute – they’re fast becoming one of 2023’s great stories – but the Bulldogs are embarrassing themselves at the moment. And the buck has to stop with the coach.

Yes, there’s little Beveridge can do about costly skill errors (except maybe find a role for Bailey Smith where he’s not given the opportunity to butcher the footy time and time again). But he is accountable for the lack of any semblance of defensive cohesion, for the damning lack of effort many of his players have shown for 12 months without ball in hand, and for the fact that the same problems that saw the Dogs blown apart in fifteen minutes in the 2021 grand final haven’t been addressed a year and a half down the line.

He’s also responsible for his continued bizarre tinkering to a side which you’d think would be pretty straightforward to set up. Unless he’s once again injured, 2020 and 2021 All-Australian Jack Macrae attending just nine centre bounces on Saturday night, with the midfield getting slaughtered, is baffling; as is the move of Josh Bruce into defence in pre-season, which has so far proved catastrophic.

Teams are winning footy these days on manic defensive pressure without the ball, then swift counterattacking when the turnover comes. Not only are the Dogs seemingly incapable, but it has now been officially worked out that they are among the worst teams in the league at stopping other teams from doing it.

Beveridge is contracted until the end of 2025 after an off-season re-signing, a decision that already looks extremely shortsighted. But make no mistake, he is now on notice – and he’s picked a bad time for a poor start.

Up next for the Bulldogs is Brisbane (Marvel Stadium), then Richmond (MCG), Port Adelaide (Adelaide Oval) and Fremantle (Optus Stadium), who despite Saturday night’s shock loss to North Melbourne can at least be said to be travelling slightly better than Bevo’s boys.

Right now, the Dogs are odds on to be 0-6 in a month’s time. Beveridge will find it tough to survive, contract or no, with a start like that – especially now that the jungle drums are beating in earnest from media talking heads whom he has slighted over the year.

The success rivals are having with new men in charge of late – Craig McRae’s Magpies, Alastair Clarkson at North Melbourne and obviously Ross Lyon’s Saints – will only add to the temptation for Dogs powerbrokers to end the reign of the club’s greatest ever coach. However ugly things are getting now, it’s at least important to remember that last bit.

The funny thing is, the Bulldogs are by no means a write-off yet. They started 0-2 last year and scraped into the eight, while in the COVID-ravaged 2020 season, they began in almost identical style to 2023 with a 52-point loss to Collingwood and then a ghastly battering at the hands of the Saints, but recovered to finish seventh.

This is still a talented enough team to win any of their next four: but it’s now a must to break even in them. Claim two of the next four, and Beveridge will have at least proved the players still play for him, and earned the right to finish the season out and then reassess from there.

Bevo has four weeks to save his job. Is he – and his team – up to it?

Luke Beveridge

Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

2. Umps got ‘Sirengate 2’ spot on… but rule still needs changing

We’ll probably never know the exact, second-to-second breakdown of exactly what happened in the dying moments at Optus Stadium on Saturday night.

I’m not sure whether the Fox Footy feed is exactly in sync with its sound – often it seems a few milliseconds out – but the way it seemed to play out was that the siren sounded slightly before the desperate, clearing kick from North Melbourne’s Daniel Howe rolled out of bounds, and certainly before the boundary umpire had blown his whistle declaring it so.

It’s a matter of milliseconds that cost Fremantle a chance at a game-tying goal – and whatever the circumstances on Saturday night, and whether the umpires got the ultimate line-ball call spot on or not (from my point of view: they made the correct call), it exposed a problem in the game’s laws.

A goal is counted even if it needs to roll its way across the line after the siren sounds; interestingly, Howe himself had one of the craziest examples of that in recent history during his Hawthorn days.

It makes no sense to me that an obvious free kick – Howe’s was as deliberate out of bounds as they get – comes down to the split-seconds of time it takes for an umpire to get the whistle to their mouth in a situation like this.

Saturday night’s drama warrants a minor tweak to the rules: a ball disposed of by a player before the siren should still be deemed as alive and ‘free-kickable’ until it’s touched by another player, stops or goes out of bounds or through the sticks. At least then incidents like ‘Sirengate 2’ don’t come down to an umpire’s whistle-drawing speed, but rather simple, objective rules that are easy to follow and understand.

Alex Pearce of the Dockers questions a call with the umpires after the siren.

Alex Pearce of the Dockers questions a call with the umpires after the siren. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

As an aside, the great thing about the reaction to that moment was that it mostly avoided overshadowing a quite magnificent win by North Melbourne and Alastair Clarkson. Speaking of which…

3. Once a good coach, always a good coach

North’s resurgence under Alastair Clarkson has taken just two weeks to reap some truly remarkable rewards.

If you’re looking for an account of just what he’s changed about their game plan, Ricky Mangidis’ excellent deep dive is well worth a read. But there’s also a belief element to all this, a confidence instilled in everyone wearing blue and white that just hasn’t been visible since the halcyon years of Brad Scott’s tenure in the mid-2010s.

The players now back themselves to the hilt to succeed – think Harry Sheezel soccering away from the goal line in the dying seconds, where a lesser team might have seriously considered rushing it through and taking the draw.

It’s in every movement Luke Davies-Uniacke makes, now confident enough in his own abilities to lift himself officially into the game’s elite.

Previous North Melbourne teams wouldn’t have given themselves a prayer of taking down Fremantle and returning across the Nullarbor with four premiership points; or if they did, they’d have completed the collapse as the Dockers came home with a wet sail and reduced the margin to a solitary point.

Clarkson’s coaching record, of course, commands instant respect, and it seems the excitement which gripped North’s fan base in the wake of his appointment last year extends to the playing group. It’s easy to believe a message and back a style when the bloke in charge has won four premierships, after all.

Clarko hasn’t just copied his famous Hawthorn gameplan across, either; he’s perfectly adapted a style to a club not high on talent, Davies-Uniacke excepted, but filled with gutsy heart and soul players who give it their all at every single contest, from Ben Cunnington down to the still-developing Tom Powell.

The Roos will have harder times to come, and their 2-0 start – it could and should be 3-0 when they face Hawthorn next week – will likely sooner or later get hit by the reality bus.

But just as Paul Roos did in the early days of his coaching tenure of a rock-bottom Melbourne in 2014, there’s hope at North Melbourne now. And hope is a powerful thing.

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4. Once a good coach, always a good coach (reprise)

Ross Lyon and Brad Scott never got the respect they deserved as coaches the first time around.

Lyon took two clubs with no history of success in St Kilda and Fremantle and turned them into premiership contenders, falling heartbreakingly short in two grand finals and putting up a heck of a fight against the Hawthorn juggernaut at its mightiest in the third. Yet he has a legacy of not winning premierships when it counts, leaving teams a husk when he departs, and failing to put any time whatsoever into youth.

Scott’s effort to take a pretty mediocre North Melbourne outfit to consecutive preliminary finals in 2014 and 2015 was likewise an outstanding accomplishment; yet because the Roos were well beaten in both those prelims, history has likewise not been kind to him.

But since their returns at the end of last year, both these old maestros have rejuvenated their clubs – in Scott’s case, it’s now Essendon – to the same degree as Clarkson has at the Kangaroos. That all three are 2-0 is only going to further interest in proven former figures for future top jobs – it’s superb news for Mick Malthouse and Rodney Eade!

Lyon’s efforts in a Saints team without Max King and Tim Membrey have been exceptional; the Saints’ ability to defend tunovers is almost indistinguishable from what it was under Brett Ratten, while their foot skills have also improved markedly.

They suffocated the Bulldogs with pressure around the contest, then broke clear with leg speed – another of Lyon’s master moves has been Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera to half-back, with he and Bradley Hill providing run and carry the Dogs just couldn’t match.

Defensively, it’s the same old Lyon – the Dogs couldn’t move the ball with any fluency, as the Saints set up with perfect discipline behind the ball. This is a serious finals contender – especially once King and Membrey get back to add further might to a forward line punching above its weight at the moment through Mitch Owens and Zaine Cordy as its chief talls.

Scott, meanwhile, has returned the Bombers to the electric, free-flowing gameplan that proved so fruitful back in 2021, but with extra steel behind the ball. The Dons are no longer pushovers without the ball: they comprehensively out-tackled Gold Coast 66-48 despite dominating possession on Sunday, and when the going got tough in the final quarter they were comfortably the stronger team at the coalface.

Will Setterfield has been a revelation as the big-bodied midfielder the Dons have been crying out for since Brownlow-era Jobe Watson, and it’s freed Dylan Shiel and Zach Merrett to be more explosive away from contests.

Scott and Lyon meet again on Saturday night, with the victor to start the season 3-0. Few but the most optimistic fans of ether club could have predicted this a fortnight ago; now, a clash that loomed as a scrappy affair is now almost as exciting as the upcoming Richmond-Collingwood blockbuster.

5. Broad and Burton should have got the same whack

I said it last week regarding Kysaiah Pickett and I’ll say it again: the AFL’s match review system is badly broken.

Further proof came on Saturday, where two equally horrendous sling tackles from Nathan Broad and Ryan Burton were again punished based on the injury caused.

Broad well and truly deserves his trip to the tribunal; his sling that left Patrick Parnell concussed is exactly what the game has been trying to stamp out for a decade. It was dangerous, it was unnecessary, and it seems inevitable he’ll pay with four weeks on the sidelines.

But the single difference between his and Burton’s tackles is that in Burton’s case, Jamie Elliott hitting his head on the turf didn’t knock him out. That’s it.

We saw last week two hugely similar bumps – Pickett and Shane McAdam – receive different suspensions based on the fact the man McAdam hit, Jacob Wehr, was assessed and cleared for concussion while Pickett’s, Bailey Smith, wasn’t. It’s officially a farce.

The AFL are missing the point that the act of suspending a player can’t just be a punitive measure – it should serve as a strong deterrent to anyone doing it again. In giving two different bans to two players based on a factor almost purely down to luck achieves neither aim.

The solution is obvious: get rid of the ‘impact’ criteria, which is almost exclusively judged by the injury sustained (Pickett’s was a notable exception scuppered by the ridiculous call his conduct was ‘careless’). Judge incidents based solely on how likely a major injury is – in the case of Broad and Burton, the answer is ‘very’ – and go from there.

6. Time to ease up on Hawks’ tank talk

There has been plenty of chat this week as to whether Hawthorn, in trading out Jaeger O’Meara, Tom Mitchell and Jack Gunston in last year’s infamous trade period, could be considered to be tanking in 2023.

I’ve got a bit of a problem with this, not least because the same talking heads debating it are also the ones who usually question whether a player in a struggling side is ‘in their next premiership team’ the second they hit 30. You can’t simultaneously call for clubs to move on from senior players and start again, and then cry foul when they do just that.

So no, the Hawks aren’t tanking… they’re just crap. They’re at square one of what will likely be a long, painful rebuild, and one that was probably needed after they badly mismanaged things in the wake of their dominant era ending in late 2016, culled premiership heroes and brought in trade targets that ranged from the pretty good (Mitchell and O’Meara) to the tremendously disappointing (Chad Wingard).

I’m not a fan of rebuilds in general, but I am a fan of Mitchell, and with the state of the Hawks’ list when he took over I can forgive him wanting to radically shake things up. It’s doubtful whether he’ll survive as coach to see the fruits of his rebuild – this looks like being a five-year-plus job, and coaches don’t tend to get through six years of no finals – but Cam Mackenzie, Will Day, Josh Ward, Connor Macdonald and Harley Reid (yes, I’m pencilling the 2023 number one draft picks’ name in already) will be a very nice midfield core in about eight years’ time.

Sam Mitchell addresses his Hawthorn players.

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Having said all that, the Hawks were ghastly against Sydney. If anything, 81 points flattered them, with the Swans far from as precise in front of goal as they could have been. Other teams in recent times have been worse, but the Hawks are predictably bad in a way few teams are – everyone expected them to be on the bottom going into the year, and it looks like everyone is going to be right.

It’s going to be a long, hard journey forward, and who knows if they’ll see daylight before another rebuild is needed, like what’s happened at Carlton or Melbourne or North Melbourne in the last decade. But the Hawks have, at least, chosen the direction they’ll be taking.

Random thoughts

– The best part of the weekend was that brief period of time on Friday night when BT’s mic stopped working.

– Loved that Age op ed writer nicely proving Hawthorn fans have absolutely no frame of reference for their team being crap.

– Sean Darcy is clearly Freo’s best ruckman… which makes this an interesting time to be Luke Jackson.

– Really hope everyone can keep appreciating Mattaes Phillipou’s strut and not throw it back in his face if he has a down patch. Kid is great.

– I’ve never understood why Jake Waterman has struggled to get a game at West Coast. He can really play.

– That Best on Ground show died an unceremonious death, didn’t it?

– Still baffled that 12 months after the umpire dissent rules came in, players haven’t learned to just shut up around umpires yet.

– The racist abuse Jamarra Ugle-Hagan received on Saturday night is just so depressing. Seems to happen more in the AFL than in other codes, too.

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