Then there were four
It is taken as a given that the AFL premiership will be won by a team from the top four, since nobody has ever triumphed from outside that elite group since the current finals system was adopted in 2000.
Someday, of course, a team will break the mould, but unless this year proves the exception, the field for the flag might just have shortened considerably to four.
Defeats for Collingwood (by Hawthorn at the MCG) and Geelong (by Gold Coast at Carrara) on Saturday were hugely important to the losing clubs. The Cats dropped out of the top four, leaving the door ajar for Fremantle to jump in after the Dockers flogged Brisbane Lions in Perth.
The Magpies were gallant but ultimately outplayed by Hawthorn in a re-run of an old movie with five episodes dating to 2011, and now sit out of the running for the top four, momentarily at the very least.
It is hard to see the top four changing now.
Port Adelaide (11-2 after punishing the Bulldogs at home on the back of Jay Schulz’s eight goals) shows no sign of waning; the Power’s only two defeats were by a combined 11 points.
Hawthorn has kept the turbines rolling despite injuries and the absence of its coach, Sydney is on a streak of nine wins on the trot and Fremantle has been building menacingly, and has a generous run home.
It is not so much that Geelong and Collingwood are not worthy; more that the top four are going to be near-impossible to catch, with up to 16 wins required to get into that company.
The Cats lost the highly-important Mathew Stokes to an ankle injury, and then watched Gold Coast’s brilliant Harley Bennell put on a highlight reel with six goals and 27 disposals as a forward and sometime midfielder. See all of his six goals in the video below.
No longer is it so simple as trying to curtail Gary Ablett when an opposing team meets the Suns; Bennell, Jaeger O’Meara, Dion Prestia and company demand respect. Everywhere you look, there are first-round draft picks growing into men.
Geelong is slightly puzzling. It has suffered defeats on the road but been strong at home, and while the inclusion of Shane Kersten may provide an answer to the lack of support for Tom Hawkins up forward, the jury is still out on that.
Hot (under the collar) Pies
Collingwood could not extract the even-team performance it needed to tip over Hawthorn. While Scott Pendlebury and Travis Cloke were heroic, the Hawks beat them around the edges with 12 different goalkickers, and players like Luke Breust (four goals).
Nathan Buckley’s physical assault and haranguing of ruckman Jarrod Witts on the boundary line just before three-quarter time was out of character, and beyond the pale in this era.
An old-fashioned spray is acceptable in a heated environment like football, but the rip of the jumper was not. To his credit, Buckley quickly apologised for being “too overt” in his approach, and the matter will pass quietly.
But in a sense it reflected Collingwood’s frustration. The Magpies have more development work to do with some players; I sense they will be very good next year, presuming that Ben Reid can come back to provide the back-up for Cloke as well as pinch-hitting in defence.
Bombers back (Demons back to earth; familiar tale for Tigers & Blues)
Essendon had a cathartic victory over Adelaide at the Docklands that keeps the Bombers in some sort of contention for the finals, although North Melbourne’s dismissal of the Melbourne challenge keeps the top eight teams secure with the Dons the nearest candidate.
Quite possibly the top eight might be settled, too.
At the end of yet another long week of debate and speculation about ASADA’s show-cause notices, Brendon Goddard lifted Essendon over the line with an amazing last quarter.
Coach Mark Thompson said the players were feeling “lonely, isolated and it’s just us. We feel like everyone’s against us and we’ve just got to go out and have fun.”
West Coast is two games out of the top eight after a much-needed road victory over St Kilda at the Docklands, although the suspicion is that it is too late for Adam Simpson’s team, who are in the bottom half along with Carlton and Richmond, who suffered debilitating defeats.
Richmond’s ring-a-rosy ball movement in the snorefest against Sydney showed signs of a club devoid of the confidence to go forward, and the Swans merely did enough to win behind another match-winning Lance Franklin performance.
The Blues could not even get over Greater Western Sydney, although coach Mick Malthouse insists no major pruning is required of his playing list.
Meanwhile the air was exhumed from Melbourne’s tyres after the win over Essendon the week before, with North Melbourne schooling Paul Roos’ team in the third quarter at the MCG.
Goal review farce
The AFL’s goal-review system remains a puzzle for most observers, with two incidents on the weekend. An Essendon goal by Ben Howlett that appeared to have hit the post was reviewed and not overturned, while a Jack Ziebell goal for North Melbourne against Melbourne yesterday was reversed on review, and given as a behind after a drawn-out review that Brad Scott called “staggering”. See both in the video below.
The goal umpire in the North game thought it a goal, but was unsure if it had been touched on the line, hence the review. After the review, it was signalled to have hit the post, which Drew Petrie, the North forward who was right on the line, found farcical. It appeared that the review actually changed a correct decision to a mistake, and Ziebell summed it up nicely on twitter: “I think the AFL owes me a goal tonight.”
Which goes to show that, just as in other sports, the arrival of technology and a review system is a long way from necessarily solving the vagaries of umpiring.