The Tackle: AFL finals system all about money
Western Bulldogs continued their inspired run to finals with a resounding win over Adelaide, Jeremy Cameron got the Coleman Medal he deserved and star trio Patrick Dangerfield, Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy showed their star traits in Round 23.
But with Geelong finishing on top, Chris Scott has every right to question why the Cats are playing Collingwood at the Magpies' home ground in a qualifying final. But where to for Melbourne and the Gold Coast Suns after their disastrous campaigns?
Finished 8-3 from the bye to claim a finals spot and suggestions last week they would be the most dangerous team outside the top four is now a reality. They are dangerous for a number reasons, but mainly because their midfield racks up possessions and loose balls and the forwards kicks goals. Since the bye the Dogs have topped 100 points five times. Their past three matches have seen returns of 137, 126 and 121 points. They are tough, the back six is tight, and Giants Stadium will hold no fear in the elminaton final. Can they win it from seventh? We've asked that question before and we know the answer.
2. We are blessed
Richmond's season has been phenomenal to date. Beset by injuries early, the Tigers fought back to finish third and gain the double chance. They will play Brisbane at the Gabba in a fortnight and will do it with their most damaging players in scintillating form. Dustin Martin's performance yesterday was stunning for its impact. He had half as many possessions as Brisbane's Lachie Neale, but Martin's impact was more pronounced. It was vintage Richmond yesterday: Dylan Grimes was huge, so were backmen Bachar Houli and Nick Vlastuin. Jack Riewoldt took the responsibility early, Dion Prestia continued to excel in the midfield and Martin was the battering ram. If Richmond beats the Lions at the Gabba it will get a home preliminary final and will deserve to be the premiership favourite.
"Most games are won by effort and energy,'' Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson said after the match and the game against West Coast was exactly that. The Eagles lacked the same the energy. The Hawks scored a season high 57 points from their defensive half, which shows the overall defensive energy from the Eagles was poor. The Hawks won the post-clearance contested possession count by 37 (West Coast's worst result and Hawthorn's best result this year). There's effort, energy and numbers, but there is also planning and execution. One of the most outstanding tactical moves this season was putting ruckman Ben McEvoy on West Coast's gun forward Jack Darling. McEvoy kept Darling to nine disposals. A ruckman as a key defender? Amazing versatility from Big Boy.
4. Jezza, you beauty
His teammates fed Jeremy Cameron at times. When they game was close in the third quarter Cameron kicked three goals in three minutes and five for the quarter. He was the target 18 times in the forward 50m - as was Buddy Franklin for Sydney - and took a career-high seven marks on the lead. The Giants looked for Cameron just as the Kangas looked for Ben Brown when he kicked 10 goals two weeks ago. The Coleman Medal is a welcome reward for Cameron who has led the Giants for goals in each of their eight seasons in the AFL.
5. Brodie was good
Brodie Grundy made a mess of his opposition. He's done it often this season and it remains to be seen if umpires will recognise ruckmen in this year's Brownlow Medal. The Brownlow is really the midfielder medal, which is what Grundy has developed in to. He had an equal career-high 33 disposals against Essendon on Friday night. He also had 21 contested possessions (two off career high), 35 hit outs and 10 hit outs to advantage. Umpires don't check the stats after the game, but if they did it would be impossible to go past him for the three votes.
6. But Max was better
Gawn had 26 disposals, 20 contested possessions, 41 hit outs, 15 hit outs to advantage, and kicked three goals against one of the most in form ruckman in the league. That was a belting for Todd Goldstein who had 12 disposals, eight contested possessions, 24 hit outs and seven hit outs to advantage. Gawn earned 212 ranking points, the most by a player in a match this season and the second-highest rated game by a ruckman. The record was set by Goldstein against Gawn in 2016 in Tasmania. Goldstein had 19 disposals, 38 hit outs and kicked 5 goals in that match. The All-Australian selectors have the same issue they had last year - who to make the No. 1 ruckman and who to put on the bench. For what it's worth, I have Grundy No. 1 and Gawn on the interchange.
7. Patty Dangerfield
For a month from about Round 16 Dangerfield played with a knee injury and his form was solid without being spectacular. That has drastically changed. Over the past three weeks he has averaged 34 disposals, 19 contested possessions, nine clearances, 10 score involvements and two goals. Those same three weeks probably earned him nine Brownlow Medal votes, although the Brisbane game had several players contending for BOG. Champion Data has Dangerfield as the medal favourite on their predictor with 27 votes from Nathan Fyfe on 26 votes.
8. Good things happen to good people
Stirring scenes at the SCG on Saturday as Jarrad McVeigh, Kieren Jack, Nick Smith, Heath Grundy and Lance Franklin were chaired from the ground. McVeigh and Jack played football in the right manner - fair, smart and tough - and helped build and solidify the Bloods culture. These kinds of retirement days can go either way, they can flop or they can be remembered for some time. On Saturday McVeigh and Jack were rewarded for a decade and half of professionalism and application. They and the Swans have been good for footy.
It's been a season of tribulation starting with a Round 1 capitulation against GWS Giants and near enough ending with a total humiliation against the Bulldogs in Round 20. In between the Bombers mustered enough fight and momentum to win 12 games and, importantly for confidence, pushed Collingwood to the brink with a patched-up team on Friday night. That will give the players confidence as will the previous performance at Perth Stadium against Fremantle in Round 22. The Eagles were opened up by the Hawks from the back half at the weekend and that's how the Bombers like to play. The Bombers will be underdogs in the elimination final, but they have been the underdog for most of the season.
10. The retirements
Sydney did it perfectly, and other teams did it honourably. Two of the more combative players, Melbourne's Jordan Lewis and North Melbourne's Scott Thompson, were chaired off the ground in Tasmania. Lewis leaves with four flags and total respect. Thompson departs with total respect. Dale Thomas departs after a whirlwind career and a flag and a quote from Ross Lyon that he was, at that time, the best player in the league. In Ballarat on Sunday Adelaide farewelled Richard Douglas and Andrew Ottens, two 10-year plus players who were heart and soul players.
1. Home-ground farce
Chris Scott is right. The finals system is bizarre. The AFL must be the only sport in the world where the team which qualified higher has to play a home final at the other team's home ground. It's ridiculous. And it all comes down to money. The AFL says it's about maximising crowd numbers, which really means it's maximising money. The AFL takes all the money from the final series so, of course, they want the final at the MCG. Nothing can done about it because money overtook fairness and integrity-of-competition a long time ago. What makes it more curious is AFL executives receive cash bonuses for KPIs. To be fair the finals income is huge and benefits all of the sport. But would have thought integrity of competition was more important.
2. West Coast
The biggest loser of the weekend by far. Didn't have the hunger or competitive effort of Hawthorn and was beaten despite taking 114 marks, when results tell us 90 marks has typically been the magic number for them to win. Jamie Cripps and Jack Petruccelle didn't hit the scoreboard, Tom Barrass looks like he's bereft of confidence, Jeremy McGovern didn't have an impact and was moved forward and Josh Kennedy is lumbering. The good news is Nic Naitanui looks set to play in the first final. They need him desperately.
3. Marcus Adams
Dominated as a sit-back-and-mark defender against Geelong last week which we understand saw him get the maximum votes from Geelong coach Chris Scott. Yesterday, he was put to the sword by Jack Riewoldt on the lead in the first quarter. Riewoldt kicked four goals in the first term, three of them coming from virtually unstoppable marks on the lead. Yes, Adams wasn't up to it, but it wasn't entirely his fault. His midfield teammates weren't able to put pressure on the Tigers midfield. When that area of the Lions' game improved, so did the Lions. As for the Lions overall, it will be a learning experience. They were jittery early, then matched Tigers for two quarters, and stayed in the fight in the last quarter. Now, what to do about Houli, do you try to tag Prestia, who to go with Riewoldt? We'll find out in a fortnight.
As colleague David King asked yesterday: How deep do you cut? He was talking about Adelaide's list, but he also highlighted the team mechanics. The Crows' scoring has dropped alarmingly in recent years and savagely in the past month. Adelaide has issues with personnel and game style. The run and gun from the back half, which was so potent in 2017, has disappeared. As a result the scoring has slowly declined. Coach Don Pyke has to reinvent the team via players and game styles. That's if he is coaching next year. It would be a bold decision from the Crows board to sack him with two years to run on a contract, but from what we've seen this years when it involves coaches, bold decisions are in vogue.
5. Tom Hawkins
Great signs for the Cats. They kicked 19.15 on Saturday and the Tommy gun didn't register a goal. That's one way of looking at it. The other is that Hawkins probably needs to kick goals over the next month for the Cats to win the flag. Hawkins has had super season - 52 goals in the home and away rounds - but has been held goalless in his past two matches. It's the first time he has been held goalless in consecutive matches since the first two rounds of 2011. Pre-bye he was averaging 2.9 goals per match, post-bye he is averaging 1.7 goals.
6. Josh Kennedy
If Hawkins is a minor concern, then Kennedy is a major worry. Kennedy is a champ, but if West Coast is to win it from fifth, Kennedy has to emerge from his slump. He turned 32 yesterday and the worry is he's falling off the cliff. He has had more than 10 disposals just twice in his past 17 matches. He has kicked more than two goals in just one of his past eight matches. He is averaging his fewest disposals, marks and score involvements since 2007 and his fewest goals since 2012. He also has the worst kicking efficiency of his career. That's not a concern, that's a player confronting his football mortality.
7. What could have been
North Melbourne started the season 2-7, lost coach Brad Scott and won Scott's last game against the Bulldogs. Including that game, the Kangas came home with an 8-5 record. They finished with 40 points and in 12th position, two games out of the eight. They weren't good enough to play finals, but if they hadn't been so meek in the first nine matches September action certainly beckoned. Find a goalkicking small forward, develop another key defender, add class to midfield and a finals finish is not beyond them.
8. Sweet relief
Goodbye 2019, it's hardly been a blast. The Gold Coast Suns needed the season to end. They need to restock, re-set, recalibrate and emerge in 2020 a better team. They have to for the good of the club and the competition. The Suns lost 18 consecutive matches this season, the equal-most ever with Melbourne in 1981 - that year the Dees won just one match for the season by one point. Legend has it the Demons celebrated hard that night - and the next day. The Suns need a stiff drink. Coach Stewie Dew was gutted on Saturday night. His team got within 10 points in the third quarter and then someone "pulled the plug''. The eventual margin was 72 points. This year they had an average losing margin of 49.4 points in those 18 losses.
9. And then there's Melbourne
What can be said which hasn't already? Gold Coast lost 18 matches in a row and Melbourne lost 17 matches for the season. Melbourne was a lot more disappointing than the Suns. There's been Max Gawn and Clayton Oliver, the emergence late of Bayley Fritsch, the improved contribution from Christian Petracca and that's about it. There's a big summer ahead and a big season ahead. If they are both failures again, key officials from the president down will be under fierce scrutiny.