1. Sydney Swans' Youth
The Sydney Swans are 2-0. Buddy’s back and looks fitter than ever. Parker and Kennedy continue to contribute at a high level in the midfield and Rampe & Lloyd are controlling the backline. Heeney and Mills are starting to develop into established stars in the AFL – Heeney providing match up problems as a versatile forward and Mill’s developing as an inside midfielder.
Yet, the most exciting aspect of the Swans’ 2-0 start is the impressive play of their youth. Campbell, Gulden and McDonald alongside the likes of McInernery and Warner all showed impressive signs on the weekend.
Campbell’s dash off half back was exciting to watch – he amassed 25 disposals (21 kicks), 6 marks, went at 80% disposal efficiency with 708 metres gained. He looked like a 200 game player on the weekend that was settled and composed with each disposal. He has a silky left foot and can pinpoint teammates kicking across his body with accuracy. He actually has a deceptively long kick for someone of his size. Look at the penetration he gets on this defensive rebound kick.
He doesn’t hit his target but it’s a low dart that travels quickly. These are the kind of kicks that can help a team quickly transition from offense to defence because it doesn’t stay in the air too long. Sydney are currently ranked 2nd in the AFL for generating forward 50 entries from their defensive 50 and are 2nd in scores from the back half. They now have two attacking defenders in Lloyd and Campbell to generate these counter attacks – something the Swans have struggled with in previous years.
What about Gulden? Gulden was the first player EVER to have 20+ disposals, 10 marks and 3 goals on debut last week. He isn’t a one hit wonder either – he backed it up this week with 19 disposals, 7 marks, a goal and 11 score involvements. Playing as a forward, Gulden is more of an inside player than Campbell who will likely end up playing midfield. Yet, both possess incredible kicking skills.
Look at Gulden assess his options inside 50 before darting a ball to Franklin. It was so precise that even Mills knew that whilst he was in the position to mark the ball he should leave it for someone in a better position behind him (either that or Buddy told Mills to get out of the way young fella).
That’s a kick from a second gamer… the composure to hit that in a congested area with precision is a promising sign for Gulden. The Swans have now added two great kicks in their defensive and forward half.
Last but not least pick 4 from the 2020 draft, Logan McDonald. Key forwards usually take time, sometimes years, to have an impact at AFL level and show the attributes that made them high picks. It only took McDonald two games. McDonald was described as a bruising forward with an ability to crash packs and take contested marks along with his long, accurate kick. We’ve seen elements of that already (He has a tidy set shot routine and kicks through the football) but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by his smarts and versatility when the ball hits the ground. He is quite mobile for a key forward and isn’t afraid to use his opposite foot.
He also has clear footy smarts. As Lewis noted on the commentary, he is aware of his leading space. Most of the time you want your forwards leading up at the football. But in this instance, McDonald realises that there is space out the back. After the handball receive, McDonald recognises that Rampe has a long kick and that there is space behind him to lead into. He pushes back into the space and beats his man McPherson to the ball. Encouraging signs.
Swans fans would be delighted about their youth. Longmire has implemented a more attacking brand of football this year, in part because of the influx of quality ball users. I still see the Swans in the 9-14 range of the ladder this year as I think some teams will be able to expose their midfield depth and their lack of key position backmen (although McCartin has also made strides as a key back). A big factor will be the health of Heeney. If they can get a full season from him, that would improve their final chances drastically - he has the capability to win games off his own boot similar to a Petracca last season.
2. The contrasting styles of two premiership contenders
How good was the Bulldogs-Eagles game on Sunday afternoon? Two teams with stars on every line. Bontempelli, Macrae, Dunkley, Kelly, Natianui, Kennedy, Darling, Ryan, Daniel, McGovern, Duggan – the list goes on. We watch football for these kinds of matchups and Sunday did not disappoint. Outside of the obviously high standard of football and the close end to the game, the most noteworthy aspect of the spectacle was the completely different play styles of the two teams.
West Coast are a team that love to control the tempo of the game by playing a kick mark possession/retention brand of football. Bulldogs are the opposite – they love to get the ball moving forward with their run and carry with an emphasis on handballing. Both teams like to dominate the possession count and the scoreboard but achieve it in completely different ways. The Bulldogs had a kick to mark ratio of 1.11 compared to the Eagles at 2.35. This means that the Eagles kicked more than twice as much before handballing as the Bulldogs. The Bulldogs had 406 disposals on the weekend, including 275 uncontested possessions, almost a hundred more than the Eagles in both categories - which is a staggering number.
We talked about how the Bombers are trying to implement something similar in our column last week but the difference is the Bombers are apprentices - the Bulldogs are masters. It helps when you have the depth and versatility of the Bulldog’s midfield (something to discuss in a later column). Bontempelli, Treloar, Macrae, Dunkley and Smith can all play inside but are amazing spreading from contests and becoming dangerous on the outside with their foot skills and link up run. They were able to dominate the possession count because of this depth. Look at how they use hands to transition the ball out of defensive 50, before using the corridor to set up a scoring drive. Note how Macrae begins the chain with a handball to Treloar and then works to get involved again moments later for the kick inside 50.
West Coast will take plenty from this game. They were up 12 points going into the last quarter in an even game that had momentum swings. The key reason the Bulldogs were able to come back and win was the Eagles’ inability to win clearances in the last quarter. The Bulldogs smashed them in this area 16 to 7. Sometimes clearances can be an overrated metric (a discussion for another time) but not when you’re the Bulldogs.
The Bulldog’s are the most dangerous team in the league when they are winning clearances because they generate quality clearances – which is a byproduct of their talent and cohesion as a midfield group. In the dying stages of the game, the Bulldogs win a crucial centre clearance through Liberatore's second and third efforts and use the ball the only way they know how. They distribute it through handballs leading to Macrae using his trademark kick across his body to hit Naughton to take the lead.
The Bulldogs will trust their system to the death - as will the Eagles. That’s what makes AFL so great - two of the best teams in the competition with contrasting styles of play. The Eagles would be disappointed with the loss – but would rightfully note that on the wide ground of Perth Stadium, the Bulldogs-Eagles classic may have had a different story.
3. The excitement machine that is 'Kozzy' Pickett
Every once in a while, a player will have a game that signals to the rest of the competition and the AFL fanbase that they are going to be a seriously good player. Kysaiah Pickett had that game on the weekend. He was simply electric. He was dancing around St Kilda opponents with his elusiveness, crumbing the football at speed, chasing and hunting opponents but more importantly, finishing his work (something that Pickett struggled with last year).
Pickett does everything with intensity – his attack on the football, his step in traffic, his pressure to chase and even his (sometimes outlandish) attempts to take mark of the year are what make him such an exciting player to watch. He is a genuine headache for opposing defenders and the Saints had no answers for him on the weekend. He had 17 disposals and kicked 2 goals (an impressive return for a small forward).
A wrinkle to his game that the Demons have utilised is starting him as a midfielder at the beginning of quarters. For a team that has been so one dimensional in the midfield with similar inside players (Oliver, Viney, Brayshaw, Sparrow), it is exactly what the Demons should be doing to generate speed into their midfield (similar to Richmond playing Bolton sporadically as a midfielder before he became a full time midfielder). His ability to rove packs with speed is frightening.
He is still a work in progress. At times, the intensity he brings is to his detriment. He can try too hard to make things happen. Pickett can rush his disposal, turn it over or make unrealistic attempts to mark (Melbourne should encourage him to keep flying though!). At times, it looks like his body is moving too fast for his mind, which results in fumbles. This will come with experience and through him learning to play at different gears. We have already seen a lot less of it this year compared to last year.
The Demons are 2-0 in what can only be described as unconvincing wins. Yet, progression is evident. They responded when they needed to in the second term when St Kilda kicked 5 in a row – even wrestling back momentum to win the quarter. Melbourne in the past have struggled to wrestle back momentum in halves of football let alone in the middle of quarters. The performances of Pickett and McDonald are so important in Melbourne's next month of football without Weideman or Brown. Both will need to hit the scoreboard for the Demons to remain competitive. It’s a lot of responsibility for a 19 year old small forward yet Pickett seems to have the talent combined with the mental resolve, like his uncle Byron, to be up for the challenge.
4. Carlton defensive issues
Once again, Carlton is 0-2 to start the season for the 9th consecutive year. The statistic isn’t actually too damning when you note that for 4-5 of those seasons, they have had to play arguably the greatest modern era team in Round 1 every year. Still, the warning signs are there and the issues that plagued Carlton last year seem to remain.
On the weekend, Carlton allowed Collingwood to get the jump on them (a big issue under the new rule changes which we discussed in our first column) kicking 6 goals to 3. The margin was flattering for Carlton given two of their goals were from the brilliance of Gibbons (one of which shouldn’t have even counted). Defensively they were poor again – too many times Collingwood midfielders were able to waltz out the front of a stoppage.
That is really poor from Cripps. His matchup Pendlebury wins the ball initially. He then has zero intent to put pressure on Daicos. He doesn’t chase him at all allowing him to easily come through the front of the contest. Cripps’ man Pendlebury then gets used again. This sequence ends in a De Goey goal. Cripps has been notably poor - down on disposals, contested possessions, tackles, inside 50’s and goals compared to his career averages. Having watched his defensive spread at stoppages this year, it wouldn’t surprise me if teams view Cripps as a liability defensively – a player they can exploit by putting their best midfielder on him and daring Cripps not to work back defensively.
This isn’t just a Cripps issue (although you need your captain to lead by example), it’s a Carlton issue. Collingwood scored on 50% of their inside 50 entries last week – Carlton at 30.5%. That’s the game right there. Plowman struggled with one on ones and Weitering had issues defending the high ball against Cox. But the quality of Collingwood entries was a result of the poor defensive pressure from Carlton’s midfield. Collingwood had 17 more disposals than Carlton, yet laid 24 more tackles – a huge discrepancy given Carlton laid 41 for the game. Tackling isn’t always a perfect metric for defensive pressure but it does highlight Carlton’s lack of intent. Their absence of a defensive identity means they are susceptible to big momentum shifts. Letting teams score freely was an issue for Carlton last year and it’s something that Teague mentioned a number of times over the off-season to rectify.
Do you want to hear a truly damning statistic? Teague has coached 30 games for Carlton. In those 30 games, the Blue’s have conceded a 30-point swing in 20 of them (66% of games!). Carlton cannot defend for long enough. They fought so hard in this game to get back within a goal that they tired in the last quarter.
It’s not all doom and gloom for Carlton. They have been competitive in both games and we have seen genuine improvement from some of their younger players. The expectation to play finals this year may have been unrealistic given the balance of the competition but there is a lot of football left to be played. The game this week against a Fyfe-less Fremantle at Marvel Stadium is a MUST win. If they fail on the weekend, they can likely kiss finals goodbye and the pressure will well and truly be on David Teague.
5. Tex Walker's Resurgence
It would be remiss of me not to discuss the comeback form of Tex Walker. He is currently leading the Coleman at 5.5 goals a game (Yes, a small sample size but nonetheless impressive). It’s not just the goals Walker has kicked - he looks noticeably slimmer this year, moving freely up the ground and attacking the football with pace on the lead. He is the anchor for a Crows team that is inexperienced in the forward half. The most pleasing aspect on the weekend for Nicks would have been Tex’s defensive pressure. He had 3 Inside 50 holding the ball calls in the first half! He kicked 3 of his 6 goals from tackles!
If Tex Walker continues to provide this kind of effort to apply forward 50 pressure on a consistent basis, it adds another string to his bow. He is already an elite field kick, a strong mark and accurate with his set shots.
One area that Walker could have further impact on games is with forward 50 stoppages in the ruck. We saw on Friday night (and throughout his career) how much of an impact Hawkins can have in the ruck as a strong forward who is able to use his strength to push ruckmen off their line and kick goals or distribute to team mates. Tex has a similar frame and should look to utilise this tactic more around stoppages. The signs are there for how dangerous he can be if he focuses on making this an emphasis of his game…
Walker was understandably criticised for his season last year. Too many times he allowed opponents to out mark him and failed to bring the ball to ground. He looked unfit, which showed as he averaged his lowest marks, goals and disposals in his career (adjusted for shorter quarters).
Part of that was due to being a forward in a side that was winless for most of the year but he failed to play his role in the team consistently. It’s great to see him bounce back – we need players like Tex performing well in the AFL especially with a young team like the Crows. We want the quality of the competition to be at its highest. We want to go into every game not knowing what the result will be. For that to happen we need sides like Adelaide to have their best players perform - especially those that are able bounce back from all of the criticism (Kane Cornes is awfully quiet right now!) and start the year off in career best form.
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