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Centre half flawed

Points 0.1: Hawks v Pies, Freo v Port and Lions v Cats

This is the first of the new format of Talking Points, the weekly review article I used to write back in the early days of FanFooty. As detailed in this post, I am going to try to write a full-fledged column which covers every game of a weekend, but also intersperses that with some general interest stuff in the middle. Hopefully the mixture will start to make sense as I work on it.

After what has seemed like a very long AFLM off season filled with AFLW and cricket, we have finally come to the first official preseason matches, albeit preceded by a practice match which was televised by single-camera OB crews from 1957 and intra-club scratch matches with even less coverage. We seem to have largely passed by the word “scrimmage” to describe these events, with the new buzzphrase being “match simulation”. I guess that’s why they pay roomfuls of assistant coaches all those big bucks.

Yes, I am going to use the acronym AFLM to refer to men’s AFL, though not all the time. I will not apologise for using it in contexts where it is uncertain which gender league I am referencing, as in the above sentence which includes both. That’s just normal journalistic practice to keep things clear. I will tend to also use it when the AFLW is going on, though in the depths of winter I think everyone will know which comp I am talking about when I type “AFL”.


The opening game of the sponsorless, nameless week of cupless practice games featured everyone’s pick for this year’s wooden spoon in Hawthorn. Sam Mitchell has wandered through the gym at Waverley with a flamethrower laughing his head off maniacally, scaring off anyone over 25 who looks like he could play midfield. The nominal leader of the mid group is a lank-haired kid with one of those try-hard moustaches that 16-year-olds grow, with a nickname straight out of Nintendo game culture. Beyond that it gets real immature, like Rachel Danderfield’s notifications.

Collingwood is coming off a tipster’s nightmare of a season where they went stupid-and-0 in the close ones during the regular season, only to lose two finals by a kick. Statistically they are not a great team, and the additions of Tom Mitchell and Daniel McStay are incremental rather than monumental. Mitchell has not been the same player as before his horrible leg break, and McStay is almost exactly the same player as his new teammate Brody Mihocek, making one wonder who is going to play CHF and who becomes third tall.

A premiership centre half forward, apparently.

You may get a little bored of this so I am going to give you an early heads up: I am going to talk a lot about structure in this iteration of the Talking Points column. In the interim between posts which has stretched for the better part of a decade, I have grown increasingly strident about the primacy of structure as the way to analyse sides. There are many ways to win a game of Australian rules football, and having the best midfield is one of those, but even if you have the greatest mid fleet of all time you can still lose a game if your defensive and/or forward structures are not working. While it is true that Richmond won a flag in 2017 with titchy Jacob Townsend as their centre half forward, they quickly brought in Tom J. Lynch to fix that particular weakness for subsequent successful campaigns. That is not to say that structure is the only thing worth talking about, but it does make things much easier if you have the right players in the right positions at the pointy ends.

In that vein, Collingwood accumulating two centre half forwards with the same body shape and essentially the same game style seems less than optimal. I am a big wrap for that kind of player, even if statistically they don’t seem to do a whole lot like McStay, because they enable teammates to come into the game and prevent opposition defenders from playing their best game. Having multiple of that type seems a bit weird though, like a movie with two Hemsworth brothers.

It was hard to make out what the strategy was from the Launceston game with both players having much similar shares of time inside 50, though from the naked eye it seemed McStay stayed closer to goals. With Mason Cox and Darcy Cameron also switching out of the goalsquare, the tall forward group for the Magpies had a lot of height and bulk but not much mobility. Their optimal structure requires an Ash Johnson type, a genuine third tall who can work off the ball as well. Once James Sicily worked out that chase wasn’t a huge priority for the lumbering tall timber in the Pies forward six, he had a merry old time zoning off on the rebound. This is a problem that Craig McRae has been gifted by the recruiting team, and it may lead to surprise losses during the season.

Twenty-seven love, Mr Newcombe.

Hawthorn got beaten up by the big kids in the schoolyard last week in the interminable eight-quarter nightmare at Kardinia Park, and its Cubs brigade in the middle had a better time of it against the smaller Magpie mids. As has been mooted for a while now Will Day spent all his time in the guts, albeit his TOG was below 60% for the first half. The Hawk to suffer for CBAs was Conor Nash, who spent a bit of time on Jordan De Goey in the first half but released what little tagging role there was to allow Day to do his stuff. Day’s stuff is not house-firestarting by any means, but he’s got a foothold for now.

James Worpel has not noticeably improved his disposal by foot, which tends to limit his value to a team which could really use some quality delivery inside 50 to an undermanned forward line. He is who he still was when he won the club best & fairest a few years ago; the club’s standards have risen a little since then, and he is unlikely to repeat that feat. It is a skill that can be learned, but he has to put some more hard yards in on that score if he wants to be best 22 with all these kids coming through.

Speaking of which, Chad Wingard started brightly and then faded, which is his full story at Hawthorn. He is one of the least successful moves in the late Clarkson era, and one would think this would be his last contract.

Both clubs had a fairly even ruck combo timeshare, with Cox leading the hit outs but none of the four having any influence on the game. Darcy Cameron was arguably the best of them but he is not a patch on the departed Brodie Grundy.


Sydney Stack challenges Lachie Neale in the new AFL23 game.

It has already become fashionable on social media to pooh-pooh the forthcoming AFL 23 video game. Yes, it doesn’t look nearly as slick as a FIFA or NBA game from Electronic Arts. Yes, that is because Big Ant is a relatively small studio and this is their first AFL game for a long while, after Wicked Witch had the licence for a couple of iterations. Yes, there will likely be problems recognising faces of players as it is tough (and expensive) to recreate 800+ AFLM players, let alone a similar number of AFLW players. We know all these things. And yet, why is there such an eagerness to be the first to market with a negative hot take? Big Ant have built up a decent track record with their cricket and tennis games, and they deserve the benefit of the doubt as they regain the AFL licence. (Disclosure: I have met with Ross Symons a few times and think he’s a good bloke, despite being a one-eyed Carlton supporter.)


Over at Fremantle (a game I did not see, admittedly), Jordan Clark started brightly, as he has tended to do in preseason. He is the sort of player who revels in practice matches, which can tend to be bruise-free and lacking in physical intensity. His average of 10 metres gained for his 24 touches suggests that his work rate to get to the ball was not matched by run and carry.

Jordan Clark on a slowish sprint.

Sean Darcy is the unquestioned number one ruck at the Dockers, it seems. He has played one practice match with Luke Jackson and another with Josh Treacy as his backup, and delivered solid scores in both. He has always threatened to become a premium ruck and this is the year for him to deliver if he is ever going to. Everything is set up for him to succeed, his body is the only thing holding him back. An injury-free run should see him become as successful as anyone in the position, especially given the Gawn and Grundy tandem at Melbourne should see one or both of those two stars become dimmer.

Todd Marshall was comprehensively beaten by Brennan Cox, underlining their respective importance to their sides. Port Adelaide’s wagon has been hitched to Charlie Dixon for too long, and with Dixon being shifted into the ruck at times including in this game, more responsibility falls on the shoulders of young Marshall. He is a fine but still developing player, and one wonders if the strain will be too much on him over the course of this season. The loss of Jeremy Finlayson will be felt both in the middle and up forward, as it appears Scott Lycett is going to be a slow burn for a coach who has a history of getting frustrated with his ruckmen.

Isotopes win!

Harris Andrews, having as good a time as Dan Andrews.

Geelong were severely undermanned for their trip to Springfield, and it was a Shelbyville-sized shellacking of major proportions as it took a long time for them to figure out how to score without Jeremy Cameron and Tom Hawkins up front. The combination of double Olivers in Dempsey and Henry up the spine just did not work, and even though Brisbane’s key defensive stocks are also fairly bare Harris Andrews had a field day with poor to non-existent opposition, despite a mountain of inside 50s to defend early. Later it was Rhys Stanley and Sam De Koning who were rotated through full forward, to little effect. The Cats are in real trouble in round 1 against Collingwood if they don’t get their key forwards on the park and fit.

Patrick Dangerfield was unlucky not to win the Norm Smith Medal last year for a performance that did more to win the game than anyone else on the field, albeit Isaac Smith had a party being the finisher. His game was built on hard inside bullocking work to win the footy and feed it outside to runners mostly by hand, and this was also his mode on Thursday night. If this is his future role, the team needs to have its good receivers in the right positions and targets leading inside 50 with some separation, lest they fall victim to the problems they experienced against the Lions. Danger can’t do it all himself.

This game was far more about Geelong’s lack of senior soldiers exposing their flaws, as those of Brisbane were not really examined. Neither side’s premiership chances were changed by the result. The AFL is a league with a severe lack of depth at pretty much every club, and the scoreboard shows what happens when just the right one or two players are missing from even the best team. Injury luck, as always, will be a major determinant as to who wins this year’s flag.

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