Just a cluster fuss: 2009 NAB Week 2 review

Rolling zones are here to stay in the copycat AFL, with all six sides trialing defensive clusters this week.

If this is the 2009 version of AFL, it’s going to be an interesting season, in the way of the Chinese curse. After an uncompetitive game last week, this week the scores were closer and the tactical trends were more apparent, with each team testing out the Hawthorn-authored “cluster” defensive structure and stacking their backlines with extra numbers. In the Saturday game it lasted until half time from both sides, and on Sunday night it was even more apparent. Both games featured a lot of broken play, long strings of turnovers and domination of the stat sheets by flankers at either end.

On Friday night, we saw the first signs of potential from the young key position forwards at basement prices who are going to be critical to fantasy success this year, particularly in Super Coach. Scott Gumbleton, possibly the best credentialed, managed one goal, as Jarrad Grant did with his supergoal, while Jay Neagle registered 2.2. None of the three managed to get into double figures for possessions, or reached 50 DT points. Gumby impressed me the most with his contesting, with Grant needing to work on a horrible kicking technique that netted him a total of 1.4 – a worse action than Buddy – while Neagle will not get that much ball during a regular season game. This game confirmed what I thought about each of them: Gumby and Grant are bench fodder in SC at best, with DT bench consideration only if you can’t find any other small forwards, while Neagle is only valuable if Matthew Lloyd or Scott Lucas get injured.

The biggest news out of Friday has to be the form of Hayden Skipworth, followed closely by Shaun Higgins. Skipworth didn’t touch the ball at all in the first quarter but ended up topping the DT scores for Essendon, providing a safety valve for the younger Bomber midfielders in a role behind the ball that is fantasy gold. Unfortunately his round 1 game is on the Monday so he may be stuck in an extended bench by the first lockout, but if not then he’s going to be very popular. Higgins, rotating through the midfield off a half forward flank, looked all class when he had the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his healthy SC score. The only question is how many of those midfield rotations he will keep once the Dogs add Adam Cooney and Ryan Griffen back into the 22. The two mid-priced fantasy forwards did their prospects no harm at all, and should be strongly considered for every side.

Elsewhere on Friday, there were solid hit outs for most of the premiums in the game, with Brad Johnson showing that his days of knocking up Dream Team 90s and 100s may not be over just yet. Bachar Houli underlined his credentials as a Super Coach specialist in the backline. Daniel Cross did his usual trick of looking ordinary for three quarters and then firing up for the last. Courtenay Dempsey teased us like he always does, though he has more twangs than a Lee Kernaghan album. Tom Bellchambers reminded us that he’s really not much of a backup to David Hille by allowing Will Minson, of all people, to nearly win the game in the last quarter while Hille was resting – proving to me that Hille justly deserves status as the #2 Dream Team ruck (although probably not Super Coach due to Drew Petrie). On the other hand, Adam McPhee called into question his fantasy relevance with a switch-hitting role that meant he never settled at either end. Not even kicking the winning point could rescue his Super Coach score.

On the Gold Coast on Saturday night, both half back lines reigned supreme in the first half with zones in full force. People keep on blaming the Hawks for modern football becoming ugly, but to my eyes it’s the Saints who have been involved in all of the ugliest games in the last couple of years, and this was another one. St Kilda went into the game without Nick Riewoldt and Justin Koschitzke and so had predictable problems finding a route to goal, with Steven Milne losing his mojo with no one to feed off. Sam Gilbert, of course, and he didn’t let us down with an eye-catching first quarter. Though his TOG was restricted after that, his in-and-under work was of enough quality to let us all know that he’s worth starting from Round 1 this year, particularly in Super Coach.

Plenty of coaches also would have been tuning in to see the leaner, fitter Brendon Goddard with a view to him contending for leading fantasy back this year as he is rotated through the midfield. His fans were delighted to see that he and Nick Dal Santo had essentially switched roles, with NDS loitering around defensive 50 and BJ trying to push forward from the centre line to deliver the ball inside 50. The good news for BJ buyers is that if this switch continues into the regular season you can expect more goals like the two Goddard kicked this week and a lot of pointscoring potential. The bad news is that he will probably get a lot more tagging attention than he did in 2008. The more likely scenario is that coach Ross Lyon is trying to get both players able to play each others’ roles so that they can switch mid-game when one or the other isn’t doing so well – specifically, when Dal Santo is struggling with a hard tag, as he so often does. Whether BJ will be any better at handling such pressure remains to be seen.

The Lions were leading comfortably at half time, which allowed coach Michael Voss to experiment with his own version of Buddy’s Box. Unfortunately for him he didn’t have anything like the cattle to make such an outlandish structure succeed, with Mitch Clark and Aaron Cornelius being his primary forwards, and Voss’ persistence with the four pillar strategy was one of the main reasons that the Saints got back into the game, with zero defensive pressure being applied out of their backline. Such a structure might work better with Jonathan Brown and Daniel Bradshaw as the other two pillars, though I doubt we’ll see much of it during the home & away season.

The other major talking point out of the game on the Gold Coast was Jared Brennan carrying the ruck almost on his own. With Jamie Charman struggling to get fit for the regular season and Matthew Leuenberger not ready to shoulder the load of a #1 ruck just yet, the Lions might have to face disastrous hit out numbers like the 61-12 ratio they suffered under on Saturday night against the experienced duo of Steven King (30 hit outs) and Michael Gardiner (23). Brennan shapes up as a serious contender for a premium forward spot in your team, and while it’s nice to see him involved in midfield play so much, at a height of 192cm he couldn’t keep this sort of physical load up indefinitely.

AFL Rd 21 - Richmond v Essendon

On Sunday night, in between enjoying myself in the FanFooty chat – those Sunday games always seem to have the best banter – we got to see with our own eyes why Fremantle chose Stephen Hill with pick #3 in the 2008 AFL draft. The kid doesn’t tip the scales at over 70kg yet, but that didn’t stop him throwing himself under packs late in the game, and breaking free for a supergoal late in the game that got everyone shouting their manlove at screens across Australia. The media hype tsunami is likely to carry Hill into the round 1 Docker line up, so I think you had better look at your structure to see if you can afford him as your #7 or #8 back if you hadn’t already penciled him in. The boy is the real deal, no question.

Freo also had some other kids on show, notably fantasy-relevant rookies Greg Broughton, Clancee Pearce and Matt DeBoer. Broughton came out of the game with the best prospects of an early call-up, even though it was his man Jack Riewoldt who was doing a lot of the damage during the middle stages of the game. Pearce did a good job on the Richmond rookie Robin Nahas, while DeBoer did some nice things in his limited TOG… and with a good South African name like that, he has to succeed in Perth!

As this year’s Nick Stevens, most eyes were on Paul Hasleby in this game. Like Higgins on Friday, he didn’t necessarily rack up the touches. The quality of his possessions was most evident, with a fair few inside 50s ending with the ball hitting the breast of an onrushing forward. Crucially, he was very industrious when moved off the half back flank at three quarter time to spend the last quarter in the guts, scoring 27 Dream Team points and a whopping 50 in Super Coach. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Hase will be a SC specialist this year, though his status as a potential “lock” in that competition is probably safer than in Dream Team.

As a right-thinking fantasy coach, I would have loved to have seen Brett Peake have a shocker and get dropped. Come on, we all think that, don’t we? By three quarter time he had spudded it up to the tune of 27 DT points. Huzzah, said I! Unfortunately, he got into the game in the last quarter for 28 more points, annoying me greatly and possibly saving his skin for round 1. My sincere hope is that he is replaced in the Fremantle 22 sooner rather than later, preferably by one of the aforementioned kids. We didn’t even see Hayden Ballantyne or Nick Suban yet!

Speaking of half back flankers, I have to admit Andrew Raines was very impressive. I had previously thought that he would suffer in a positional battle with Jordan McMahon, but on this evidence his pace and disposal can’t be ignored. Instead of McMahon, I think the player in the gun for the spot in the Richmond best 22 is Jay Schulz, who looked terrible and was subbed off during the game. Quite where this leaves Jake King I don’t know, because with Chris Newman as captain and Joel Bowden still spending a fair bit of time in the backline, the Tigers can’t play five small-to-medium defenders. Or can they? With the zones in full force it seem half the team turns into half back flankers, as coaches try to own the corridor by pumping in huge numbers. Throw in Shane Edwards and Richard Tambling and it’s a party on the Richmond half back line. The big question is whether Richmond can win games of football against good teams playing that way. They have shown that they can contend with Hawthorn, so if everyone starts copying Hawthorn, doesn’t that play into their hands? It’s going to be fun to watch.

And then there’s Matthew Richardson. How could we ever doubt you, Richo? Like Paul Chapman, most are shying away from Richo due to his history of soft tissue injuries and advancing age. Like Chappy, Richo is looking like a spring chicken in summer. Come the depths of a Melbourne winter, however, and the story may well be different. Hmm, or maybe global warming will deliver another mild winter and respite for weary muscles? Ah, the life of a fantasy coach, where the ozone layer over the Antarctic is a valid topic of discussion for the footy tragic.

I’m sure there are other players who you were watching over the weekend, so let me know your opinions on them in the comments. Geez it’s great to have footy back again! ;D

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