It’s the halfway mark of the season, so we pause for a pie and sauce and oversized cup of Coke – all at the very competitive AFL price of $45 – and take stock of the 11 rounds so far.
The season hadn’t even started before West Coast players were in trouble and that theme dominated the early weeks of 2007. It culminated in a meeting with the AFL Commission where the club’s officials were asked what the hell was going on in that hick town of theirs. The Perth club was rightly told to pull up its collective socks, clean its collective nose and stop dragging the game’s good name through the mire.
The Eagles’ former captain Ben Cousins, having been suspended by the club then taken himself off to rehab in the States (for what is widely believed to be an ‘ice’ addiction) is yet to play this year although he is expected to step out in the blue and gold sometime in July. He can expect a less-than-rapturous welcome in Melbourne.
In between all this, Carlton beat Brisbane in the grand final of the pre-season competition. Then, after completely revamping their playing style – eschewing the dour sideways stuff in favour of a long kicking, high scoring game – the Blues have re-emerged in the past fortnight with two strong wins.
The highlights so far? Undoubtedly Geelong’s form which has seen them rocket to the top of the ladder and – yet again – got the town talking about a first flag since 1963.
After an indifferent 2-3 start to the year, the Cats presented their credentials with a 157-point thumping of Richmond, followed by a 39-point win over premiers West Coat the following week, and four more victories since. Few neutrals would not be in their corner if ever they made it to the last Saturday in September.
Hawthorn, Essendon and the Kangaroos provide the other good-news stories. The Hawks have defied most pre-season predictions to sit third on the table, having unleashed a bevy of exciting young talent and notching wins against both Geelong and West Coast.
Kangas coach Dean Laidley has withstood a battering from his former captain Wayne Carey, the distractions of board squabbling and speculation over the club’s future home to guide his team to a respectable sixth place – and that’s been without the input of Nathan Thompson or Daniel Wells for most of the 11 rounds.
Essendon had their low point with Kevin Sheedy’s uninspiring miked-up three-quarter time address against the Kangaroos in round 7, a match which they lost. Since then, they have won their last four and sit in fourth position. The season’s turning point clearly came against Richmond in round 9, when the Bombers somehow concocted a win despite being behind by three goals into time-on of the last quarter.
And the disappointments? Well, the standout here is that serial underperformer St Kilda, a team which continues to frustrate. The Saints under new coach Ross Lyon have forgotten how to score, playing this dire brand of short-kicking indirect football that gives their forwards no chance. They’ve kicked just 814 points for the season at an average of 74 a game, a figure which bears comparison with the really dreadful teams of the past decade, including Fitzroy of 1995 and 1996, and Melbourne of 1997.
The Saints’ round-eight match against Hawthorn – in which both teams had scored two goals each by half-time – embodied everything bad about the modern game and will take a power of beating for title of season’s worst match. Some thought it among the worst ever.
St Kilda’s efforts have taken the heat off equally woeful performances by Melbourne and Richmond, both winless until Round 10, and the ever-underachieving Fremantle. The Dees look primed to make a better fist of it over the second half of the season – they’d certainly want to – but the Tigers’ short-term future looks nothing but bleak.
And the big issues? The AFL’s three-strikes drug policy was given saturation coverage for weeks, in light of Ben Cousins’ suspension, the newspapers dragging out every two-bit expert and commentator to give their views, mostly critical. Eventually, the Federal Government entered the debate, albeit in the most ham-fisted and unhelpful way.
AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou then cleverly short-circuited the debate by announcing on radio the AFL would have to look at ways to make the Victorian clubs more competitive, and stop the non-Victorian dominating the code in the way they have for a decade.
Goalkickers and goalkicking also attracted the spotlight, commentators wondering whether a 100-goal full-forward would ever again be produced among the flooding backlines of the modern game.
It was also revealed conversion rates had actually gone down over the past 30 years – even with all the assistant coaches, the four or five training sessions a week, the full-time players, the hermetically sealed stadia that allow no wind in, let alone rain, which has meant no mud and no sodden footballs that end up weighing five kilograms either. Despite all that, modern footballers still cannot kick any straighter under pressure than Peter McKenna, Doug Wade and Peter Hudson in the 1970s.
And where would we be without an umpiring controversy? The ‘hands in the back’ rule was introduced by the AFL this season, apparently at the behest of a couple of more senior commissioners, despite it not having been tested during the pre-season competition. It has been a significant change and has fundamentally altered the way the game is played. It has also created confusion for players and fans.
Matthew Richardson’s ‘push’ on Essendon full-back Mal Michael which cost the Tigers victory in round 9 was a season highlight – or lowlight if you were a Richmond fan – Richo’s reaction to Brett Allen’s ruling absolutely priceless. It was a brutally tough call for the endearingly lovable Tiger, who chose to play despite having his eyesocket fractured the previous week and whose career has been so littered with heroic failure it is the stuff of Greek tragedy. His reaction was totally understandable, and many of us wept with him.
Add in twilight grand finals, Channel Seven’s slightly dysfunctional commentary team, Alastair Clarkson’s temper, Jason Akermanis’s homecoming, Terry Wallace’s spin doctoring – and there are enough issues there to keep everyone entertained for six months. As indeed they have.