Sport AFL Amid the gloom, Dees and Dogs rise and shine
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Amid the gloom, Dees and Dogs rise and shine

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The AFL industry has taken a pounding over the Essendon drug saga, and continues to be battered as the investigation heads to the courts. But in an instant at the MCG, the goodness of the game peeked out from beneath the storm clouds.

An 18-year-old boy, ironically an Essendon supporter until Melbourne snared him with pick nine in the 2013 national draft, marked near goal inside the final minute. Seventh-gamer Christian Salem wanted the football, but was lucky that teammate Daniel Cross, a clinical professional if ever there was one, had seen him unmanned in the goal mouth and not panicked as the Demons, five points down, made their final surge forward.

Paul Roos and match-winner Christian Salem. Photo: Getty
Paul Roos and match-winner Christian Salem. Photo: Getty

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Salem kicked the match-winning goal for Melbourne with a few seconds on the clock. It brought to a close a see-sawing final 10 minutes in which Melbourne charged to an eight-point lead, then appeared to have squandered the win as Essendon’s David Zaharakis reprised his famous 2009 Anzac Day goal not once, but twice, to give Essendon the lead. (See the final two minutes in the video below.)

The underdog would triumph by a single point, which would prove to be a common theme in round 13. Paul Roos has transformed Melbourne, not necessarily into a finals team but into a competitive footballing unit in a short space of time. Players like Lynden Dunn have conjured career-best form under his watch, which was a characteristic of his Sydney teams in years past. It is one of the stories of 2014.

As for Essendon, its players have justifiably drawn sympathy this year having endured the drawn-out ASADA investigation and Stephen Dank’s “pharmacologically experimental environment” that has exposed them to potential two-year suspensions. Having been served with show-cause notices – at least many of them – they had to play a game without their inspirational captain, Jobe Watson, who has a long-term injury. Now they have to deal with a heartbreaking loss in which they controlled the game for most of the afternoon, a dagger in the heart at the end of their longest week.

The club has every right to pursue its grievance in the courts, but when it is plain that the players are not sure what they took, Essendon is attacking from a morally bankrupt position.

Zaharakis (32 disposals, four goals) was particularly influential and Brendon Goddard’s leadership was superb. But Essendon blew the game with poor conversion and inefficient ball-movement when they went forward, having the ball inside the 50-metre zone 69 times to Melbourne’s 36, an astonishing figure for a defeat.

Coach Mark Thompson had his players locked away for 45 minutes after the loss, but insisted it had nothing to do with the ASAD investigation.

David Zaharakis was in vintage 'Anzac Day' form. Photo: Getty
David Zaharakis was in vintage ‘Anzac Day’ form. Photo: Getty

“We talk about it (Essendon’s supplements crisis) and then people can use it as an excuse, but it’s not an excuse in our eyes, my eyes,” he said.

“We’ve lived with this. It’s a bit worse than other weeks we’ve had recently, but we’ve been smashed for two years. It’s not as if they come out today and couldn’t play because of the week they’ve had – come on. We can’t accept that.”

He said too many players were doing what they wanted and too many of their teammates were letting them get away with it.

Essendon continues to rail against ASADA; its chairman Paul Little called that organisation’s chief executive Ben McDevitt “a disgrace” for appearing in the media and offering a plea-bargaining discount on their suspensions on Saturday. It is a problematic situation.

In a country of Australia’s hue, the club has every right to pursue its grievance in the courts, but when it is plain that the players are not sure whether they took Thymosin Beta 4 or not, Essendon is attacking from a morally bankrupt position, no matter where the legal hammer falls. The point is, Essendon should have known and owed this much to its players.

Already punished for the ethical breaches, it remains to be seen whether ASADA can nail the broader case or not. In the meantime the game lurches on, with so much to enjoy about it that is being lost.

Triumph for Tutt and Tom (but not Travis)

It was a topsy-turvy round notable for upsets. Five of the competition’s top eight teams lost, with Collingwood’s dramatic eight-point defeat by Western Bulldogs at the Docklands falling only just behind Melbourne’s win in terms of significance.

The defeat, sealed by Jason Tutt’s calm set shot from 30 metres with just more than a minute remaining, sends Collingwood out of the top four and vindicates Brendan McCartney’s Bulldogs, who had lost three in a row to move into the media’s blowtorch in a rebuilding phase

Without doubt the Bulldogs showed strength of mind. Captain Ryan Griffen played his best football all season, unfulfilled forward Liam Jones contributed four goals and the human Hoover, Tom Liberatore, was best afield.

As for the Magpies, it was ironic that Travis Cloke’s best game (six goals) came in a defeat. For so long this season they have battled on without a strong contribution from their best tall forward. But it was surely an aberration from Collingwood, which confronts Hawthorn in next weekend’s most tantalising clash.

Buddy pulls off a miracle (or three)

Lance Franklin’s $10 million deal at Sydney was widely regarded as folly before the season, especially south of the Murray. But Franklin won a huge game for Sydney at the weekend with one of the great final quarters he has played, and it is far from the first game he has influenced in red and white colors.

Franklin had 2.4 to three-quarter time, ostensibly minded by Alipate Carlisle, but, in truth, with at least two opponents jumping over him. Port did its due diligence and gave Carlisle some protection. Then in 20 minutes as the game went on the line, Franklin:

•Charged down a Port player running out of defence, won the free kick and then kicked the goal from outside 50 metres;

•Trapped a loose ball and thunder-clapped another goal from 70 metres;

•Beat two tackles deep at half-forward, ran to the 50-metre mark and kicked his fifth goal for the day.

Sydney was in trouble against Port until Franklin’s intervention. He kicked his team’s last five goals of the day and, even then, Port went forward one last time with the chance to pinch it. (See the highlights of Franklin’s second half in the video below.) Sam Reid’s fist intervened in the last play, in the Port goal mouth, to finish it.

The Swans played before a 41,387 crowd, the biggest since 1997 when Tony Lockett and Paul Kelly were playing. Franklin is responsible for most of this, too, and the critics of the deal have gone quite silent. He is playing some of his best football.

The rest … including Tiger joy at getting to watch Ballantyne at his best

Port Adelaide is now just a game clear at the top of the ladder, but Ken Hinkley’s team lost no friends with its gusty loss on a slippery surface at the SCG. North Melbourne’s defeat in Adelaide was predictable in that the Roos are mercurial, while Gold Coast was in a slumber until three-quarter time against West Coast in Perth and left it too late. Had Gary Ablett’s banana-kick off a step from beside the behind post not grazed the goal post in the dying moments, the Suns would have won. The instructive point was that watching, you actually expected Ablett to do it.

Richmond lost again (to Fremantle at the MCG) and had to endure the pain of watching Hayden Ballantyne (six goals) on fire, at close range. (Warning Richmond supporters: do not watch the video below.) In this forgettable season for the Tigers this was more of the same.

St Kilda’s horrendous performance at Geelong, where the Cats won by 96 points, continued a dark phase for the Saints, who take over at the bottom of the ladder after Greater Western Sydney Giants won their first ever away game, at the Gabba against Brisbane. The Lions were awful, and Jonathan Brown’s umpteenth concussion, suffered after he fell into the hip of an opponent, was even worse. His career may well be in jeopardy.