Let’s calm down about the Dons, defending the Kelly trade, and the AFL’s worst fixture choice in years

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There was plenty of optimism about the state of the game in the first few rounds, but it’s safe to say reality has set in now, and teams have locked down.

From the ugliest game of the season to date in Cairns, to a series of blowouts from Friday night through to the supposed ‘match of the round’ on Sunday twilight, this was definitely not a week for the purists.

Thank goodness, then, for Fremantle, the Dockers proving they’re well and truly the real deal with a famous win over Geelong at the Cattery. They’re going to take some serious beating this year.

Let’s get into the major talking points, from the woes of the Eagles and Bombers , through to the AFL’s growing problem with the floating fixture.

1. We all need to calm down about the Bombers

There’s no two ways around it – Essendon are awful.

It’s getting harder and harder to remember the side that hit last year’s finals series in red-hot form, with the Dons 1-6 and suffering ignominious loss after ignominious loss.

Sunday afternoon’s to the Western Bulldogs wasn’t the most dire on the scoreboard, but it might have been the worst of a bad bunch. The Bombers missed targets, moved the ball like frozen honey, and racked up meaningless stats all day. The Bulldogs didn’t need to be great to capitalise on their particularly ugly blunders, racking up yet another 100+ score on the Dons.

The Bombers’ struggles are always amplified by prominent heads in the media and their legion of fans who expect far better, so it’s no surprise that defeat has already sparked plenty of outrage directed at the club both on and off-field.

However, the very last thing the Bombers can afford to do right now is panic. A bad season isn’t ideal – and it’s increasingly looking like another long one for the success-starved club – but bad decisions here can set a team back years.

The Bombers are a young, developing side, and a drop-off this year was always a chance. Yes, the effort and execution have both at times been dire, the game style is bizarrely ill-suited to a team full of attacking, outside players, and injuries to key players haven’t helped – Jake Stringer looks a shadow of the player he was last year – but it’s not the time to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If Richmond had dumped the coach, the board and started from the ground up in late 2016 after a dire season following an elimination final exit, would they be three-time premiers right now? Similarly, if Carlton had stuck fat with Brett Ratten after missing the finals in 2012 following consecutive Septembers, would their finals drought now be almost a decade old?

Bombers fans have every right to be frustrated – but unless the powers that be can remain more patient than their fans, this ship ain’t turning around anytime soon.

Andrew McGrath and his Bombers teammates look dejected after losing to the Western Bulldogs.

Andrew McGrath and his Bombers teammates look dejected after losing to the Western Bulldogs. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

2. The Tim Kelly trade has backfired – but it was still the right move

The Eagles’ horrific 109-point loss to Richmond on Friday night was always going to put the club under the blowtorch.

Directly in the centre of that flame has been the infamous Tim Kelly deal heading into 2020, in which the Eagles gave up two first-rounders and a pair of seconds to lure the Western Australian from Geelong.

Does that trade look bad now, given the Eagles’ current predicament? Of course it does. With precious little top-end young talent coming through, the club’s immediate future looks bleak.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a reasonable call to make at the time.

Back in 2019, Kelly was hot property, having finished fifth in the Brownlow Medal in an outstanding second year at the Cats. With the Eagles having thrown their season down the toilet with a final-round loss to Hawthorn that sent probably the year’s second-best team behind Richmond outside the top four for finals, bringing in an out and out superstar made perfect sense.

Then, COVID hit. No team handled the initial hubs worse than the Eagles, with Kelly one of many down on their best during their time on the Gold Coast. While things improved from there, the slow start eventually cost them top four, and any chance of securing a second flag with a group definitely good enough to challenge Richmond in that era.

Since then, the Eagles have fallen away far more drastically than anyone could have predicted; many stars, Kelly included, just haven’t been the same in the last few years. Add to that this year’s COVID crisis – again, Kelly was one of the first affected – and a disrupted pre-season, there’s no wonder West Coast have started the year so abysmally.

But the Eagles’ brains trust would surely have known the risk they were taking when they signed Kelly. And having a genuine crack at a premiership isn’t something that should be ridiculed when it goes belly-up, with so many other teams apparently content to hide behind long, safe rebuilds with no desire to shoot up the ladder in the short-term.

Nobody thinks Brisbane paid too much when they gave picks 6 and 19 to Fremantle for Lachie Neale – and it’s no surprise they’ve rocketed from the bottom four to three consecutive top four finishes – and a fourth looks on the way – since he arrived.

The Eagles had a great team, tried to make it better, things went wrong both inside and outside their control, and now the time has come to pay the piper.

That’s how footy works; sometimes you’ve got to risk it to get the biscuit.

Tim Kelly of the Eagles gathers the ball.

Tim Kelly of the Eagles gathers the ball. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

3. Let’s get real about the floating fixture

Three straight Friday nights for Essendon? A prime time game for West Coast but not Fremantle? Port Adelaide on a Thursday?

The AFL’s latest fixture reveal, from Round 12-15, has been panned since it was unveiled, and for good reason.

But there’s a couple of points to consider before we run over to AFL HQ with our torches and pitchforks and demand Melbourne versus Sydney in Round 12 gets the prime time respect it deserves.

For starters, anyone who truly thought the floating fixture would serve to reward successful teams, and/or ones playing an eye-catching style of footy, were kidding themselves. Gold Coast could be the most exciting, watchable team going around, but they ain’t getting the Friday night lights against GWS over a Carlton-Richmond game regardless of where they sit on the ladder.

So it is with Freo, whose continued purpose in AFL fixturing seems to be for their Western Australian timeslot to earn them Sunday twilight honours in perpetuity.

It’s done for TV, the AFL’s biggest revenue distributor: while a high-scoring, thrilling match is great to keep people watching, a big Victorian team or a West Coast will at least make sure plenty of eyeballs tune in to begin with.

I’m also inclined to cut the AFL a bit of slack, given the increasing list of demands, requirements and locked-in fixtures on a weekly basis make sorting out the final schedule very difficult to do on the fly. Case in point: Brisbane versus Sydney this weekend, given the Sunday twilight slot while one of the worst Friday nights in recent memory played out.

Given the Swans played on ANZAC Day Monday, the only spot they could play in Round 7 without going in off a four- or five-day break was Sunday.

Then, because Essendon are playing that afternoon (against a Bulldogs outfit that was meant to be good this year), it was twilight time for the Lions and Swans.

Queen’s Birthday goes to Collingwood and Melbourne; ANZAC Day to the Pies and Essendon and whoever Hawthorn play in Tasmania; Brisbane want prime time home games against Collingwood, the Saints and Bulldogs are selling their home games. Then there’s the matter of having only one match per day at Marvel Stadium and the MCG, and you’ve got a complicated batch for the AFL to deal with.

And so we arrive back at the floating fixture. It’s still weighted towards the bigger teams regardless of form, the AFL have to lock in plenty of games already with many other hoops to jump through; and the disadvantages include fans being unable to plan for travelling to games.

If we’re still going to get Essendon versus West Coast on a Friday night even with a floating fixture, what is even the point of having it? Seven can still get their big clubs, and people can at least have one less thing to worry about.

4. Who on earth thought Cairns in April was a good idea?

St Kilda fans are in the process of finding out what Richmond learned a decade ago – selling fixtures up to Cairns seldom ends well.

But while the Tigers’ yearly defeats to Gold Coast in the far north had everything up to and including rugby league players kicking winning goals after the siren, one thing they never did was play a match there during April, with the wet season still lingering around.

Sure enough, a mid-afternoon downpour, combined with the trademark Cains humidity and just a touch of night-time dew for good measure, turned the Saints’ clash with Port Adelaide into utter slop.

The ball was a cake of soap all night, the players struggled to hit targets with any sort of frequency, and a combined total of 9 goals 31 for the evening would even make Levi Casboult blush.

This was disastrous for the Saints, a team that has surged into finals contention in 2022 through slick ball movement, sharp hands and marking targets up forward. Max King did well to manage two goals in the conditions, while Jack Higgins, not exactly a sharpshooter at the best of times, regularly fluffed shots even he would normally sink.

For Port, it was a windfall: the slippery conditions made King’s aerial presence easier to curb, while it suited the hard bodies of Sam Powell-Pepper, Ollie Wines and co. to a tee.

In proper footballing conditions – like, say, under the roof at Marvel Stadium – the Saints should have comfortably accounted for the Power, who had no key defenders to speak of to match King and had won just once for 2022 heading in. While St Kilda fans are understandably furious about selling the game – and they’ve got every right too – the blame should go as much towards the time of year the game was played in Cairns (and the time of day) as the venue itself.

When played in July, as the Tigers and Western Bulldogs did during their years of selling games up there, Cairns is fine to play on. Scores are hardly different from anywhere else – the Dogs averaged over 100 points a game there between 2014 and 2017, with a lowest of 94 – and the big-marking forwards aren’t taken out of the contest, with everyone from Jack Riewoldt to Jack Redpath managing bags.

Why Saturday night’s game wasn’t played in that time period is simply baffling.

It’s not as if the AFL (and the Saints, if they had something to do with it) didn’t have some inkling this could happen, either.

The only other time a match has been played in Cairns before mid-June was Round 1, 2018, when the Gold Coast Suns – forced away from Metricon Stadium by the Commonwealth Games – played North Melbourne in quite possibly the worst conditions seen at a game in 50 years (yet somehow ended as higher-scoring than Saturday night).

If you play games in the tropics, you’ve got to make sure they’re played at the right time. The AFL has grasped this with Darwin for years; how did Cairns slip through this time around?

Whoever, be it at the league or St Kilda or both, green-lit a match in April in Cairns made the dumbest fixturing move in years. The Saints certainly paid the price.

5. More clubs could use Dylan Shiel than you might think

Remember when Dylan Shiel used to be a star?

An All Australian in 2017, a crucial cog in the Giants’ awe-inspiring ‘Orange Tsunami’, and one of the hottest free agent prospects in many a year, Shiel was a boom recruit when he arrived at Essendon at the end of 2018.

Since then… it’s not gone great. Shiel’s omission from the Bombers’ 22 to take on the Western Bulldogs was just the latest humiliation for a player who has quickly become one of the AFL’s most maligned.

According to the Bombers, he was dropped due to his poor defensive workrate: ask any fan, or watch any Herbatron video, and you’ll see it’s his kicking that gets just as much bad press.

Neither of those things seemed to matter that much at the Giants, who prided themselves on frenetic attack. With a plethora of key forwards to make hopeful long bombs look good, Shiel’s kicking, while never a strength, was far from as dire as it has been at Essendon.

As a result, his actual strengths – his stoppage work, surprising speed and ball-winning nous – made him one of the league’s premier midfielders.

Coming on as the medical sub against the Bulldogs, Shiel had nine disposals in the third quarter, but you couldn’t say he had much of an impact. Indeed, there were several occasions when he streamed out of the centre, but looked to find a target rather than hit the 50 at full pace to either have a shot or drive it deep.

The simple truth is this: Essendon, a young team that plays a short-kicking game and seems intent to move the ball slowly towards sole tall target Peter Wright, has no use for a player like Dylan Shiel.

But that doesn’t mean another team wouldn’t. There are plenty of AFL clubs that need someone with Shiel’s accumulating ability and clearance work, regardless of his flaws. Take West Coast, or perhaps Adelaide; ironically, he’d probably have been a better player at Carlton had he chosen them instead of the Bombers, with Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow to kick to.

Even a club in the premiership window like Sydney could use a player like Shiel; in their only loss of the year, to the Bulldogs, the Swans were smashed for contested ball. With Josh Kennedy moved to half-back and in his twilight years, a Dylan Shiel feeding the ball out to the pacy Chad Warner or Errol Gulden, taking some pressure off Callum Mills and allowing Luke Parker to spend more time forward does sound like an asset – on paper at least.

For the Bombers, even getting rid of half of Shiel’s multi-million dollar deal – which, by the way, still has three years to run – would be a massive weight off their salary cap, and provide club and player with the opportunity to start afresh. At the very least, both parties should consider cutting ties.

Dylan Shiel
(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

6. This is the most even season in decades… and it’s awesome

In five months time, when Melbourne have cantered to back-to-back premierships (probably), we might all have forgotten just how even this year is.

But it’s rare in recent footy for there to be such a small gap between so many teams. The Demons have a top rung to themselves, Fremantle, Sydney and Brisbane are jostling for the Prince of Wales title, North Melbourne and West Coast are rubbish. As for the rest… there’s not much in it.

This is a competition where a 1-5 team sitting 15th can face a 3-3 side fresh off two famous wins, and beat them by 10 goals on their home patch. Or where a team that lost its first five games can pip one having just won five on the trot.

Even the contenders, save for Melbourne, can occasionally fall back into the pack: the Swans lost to the Bulldogs and squeaked by the Kangaroos, the Dockers lost at home to the Saints, and Brisbane were pushed all the way at their Gabba fortress by Collingwood. Hell, even Hawthorn, voted most likely to win the spoon heading into the year, can give the mighty Dees a serious run for their money.

As a result, this year’s finals series might just be the most random, and most fun, ever. Less important than home ground advantage or the rub of the green from the umpires might be whether your opponent is ‘on’ or not – as Adelaide found when dismantled by GWS on Saturday.

Bizarrely, in a year with the most obvious frontrunner since at least Geelong’s run of glory in the late 2000s, the competition looks as even as it’s ever been.

And it’s awesome.

Charlie Cameron of the Lions celebrates a goal.
(Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Random thoughts

– Sam Docherty hugging Ben Cunnington is the only NFT I’d ever be interested in.

– I’m not sure how Dwayne Russell restrained himself from cracking a ‘callow youth’ gag about Hawks first-gamer Jackson Callow.

– Just your weekly reminder that Tom Green is 21 freakin’ years old.

– Just give Brodie Smith mark of the year. He earned it.

– David Mundy is a million years old and still phenomenally good. The man is a wizard.

– We don’t deserve Lance Franklin.

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