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No spoils, but pre-season still a time of winners and losers


Geelong superstar Patrick Dangerfield is tackled by Essendon’s Zach Merrett shortly before injury his hamstring at Colac last Sunday. Photo: AFL MEDIA

No spoils, but pre-season still a time of winners and losers

Rohan Connolly    

Who were the winners and losers out of the AFL’s pre-season JLT Community Series? It’s not necessarily that easy to tell.

Certainly not as easy as the days (until 2013) when we had an actual competition, a grand final, and a pre-season premiership team.

Though that title was in later years the subject of much cynicism, and while several winners went out of their way not to look overly-excited about wearing the “March champions” tag, the pre-season competition proved a more reliable form guide than many acknowledged.

Yes, Carlton won two night flags in 2005 and 2007 then proceeded to finish the regular season 16th and 15th. But in the 26 seasons between 1988 and 2013 the competition was conducted exclusively as a pre-season affair, 18 March premiers went on to play finals, and 15 of those 18 to finish top four.

Since the scrapping of the competitive aspect, there’s been absolutely no escaping the fact these are practice games, with wildly varying results. But with the number of hit-outs for each club this year reduced from three to two this year, and generally stronger line-ups fielded, the ante appears to have been upped.

The scoreboard might have counted for a little more. Perhaps still not as much, though, as emerging relatively unscathed on the injury scoreboard. And taking both those factors into account certainly separates at least a few clubs right now.

Winners? Well, if there were “moral” pre-season premiers, Richmond, Carlton and Gold Coast might have all been in a play-off for a “who got most out of it” decider.

The Tigers, in two thumping wins over Essendon and North Melbourne, looked like they hadn’t even had an off-season, both wins just continuations of that irresistible pressure they brought to the finals stage last year.

Two of the biggest stars, Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin, were excellent in both games, as was Josh Caddy. Coach Damien Hardwick tweaked a few things in positional terms with success. And Shai Bolton and Reece Conca both pushed their claims for inclusion in the opening round line-up hard indeed.

Carlton’s efforts, meanwhile, were a lot more colourful than that weird all-grey, white-socked outfit the Blues wore against Hawthorn in Launceston last Saturday night.

Scoreboard potency has been the fly in the ointment of coach Brendon Bolton’s rebuilding mission, but against the Hawks, the Blues managed to pass the 100-point barrier for the first time since mid-2016, and 13.11 (89) in their first win against St Kilda wasn’t too shabby, either.

Comparatively hobbled by the lack of a pre-season then injury last year, Patrick Cripps has looked red-hot in a season the Blues really need him to be following the departure of Bryce Gibbs. Cripps may get some quality help, too, given the signs shown thus far by draftee Paddy Dow, who has looked very comfortable at the level.

And new coach Stewart Dew’s Gold Coast might have delivered the starkest contrast in style to the versions of 18 clubs we last saw in 2017.

In both the Suns’ wins over Geelong and Brisbane, the levels of pressure applied by the Suns were notably up on what they’ve delivered previously, managing to lock the ball inside 50 rather than have it trampolining back out in an instant.

Jarryd Lyons looks set to continue the value he’s already given the club, while Brayden Fiorini has also impressed. The Cats were undermanned and Brisbane has had its own issues, but you can only play what’s put before you, and to that end, it’s been a good couple of weeks for the Suns.

Losers? Well, while five clubs went 0-2, even a few of them had their moments, St Kilda, for example, well-served by draft pair Nick Coffield and Hunter Clark, and getting some quality ball use out of Shane Savage.

West Coast, however, while managing to scrape home in its first outing against Port Adelaide, was taken apart by Fremantle in the second. The Eagles look thin midfield post the retirements of Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell, and not nearly as potent near goal without Josh Kennedy, likely to miss the first couple of rounds after ankle surgery.

Collingwood looked a different side altogether last Saturday against the Western Bulldogs than it had in a lack-lustre first outing against GWS. But in a pre-season in which the Pies have already copped their share of injuries, any gains have arguably been cancelled out by the loss of Tyson Goldsack for the season with a ruptured ACL.

Goldsack is exactly the sort of hard-working jack-of-all-trades Collingwood need. He’ll prove a far bigger loss than his profile or status outside the club would indicate.

And for all the talk of Geelong’s Ablett-Dangerfield-Selwood trifecta, the Cats could well be out the first two of that trio come round one against Melbourne, Ablett yet to get on the park after hamstring issues, and Dangerfield falling victim to a similar fate last Sunday.

It’s a long year, of course, and a couple of games missed early might not amount to too much damage across the course of a 23-round season.

But while the winners and losers of the dress rehearsals are more of an arbitrary judgement, you can rest assured that as the real wins and losses unfold in the season proper, what has happened over the past three weekends will play a more significant part of that narrative than those who dismiss the pre-season as meaningless would ever dare concede.

*This article first appeared at SPORTING NEWS.

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