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RoCo’s Wrap: Field thins out as two more fall by the wayside

In his 200th game, Collingwood’s Steele Sidebottom celebrates one of his two goals, and another dagger to the Essendon heart. Photo: AFL MEDIA

RoCo’s Wrap: Field thins out as two more fall by the wayside

Rohan Connolly    

If the AFL home and away season were to be viewed as a marathon, we’ve now covered about 28 of the 42 kilometres, and with fatigue beginning to set in, the runners at the back are starting to drop off.

We lost a couple pretty early in the piece, and by just past the halfway mark, another two or three. Now, about two-thirds of the distance covered, there’s a couple more casualties, and both of them a couple of pre-race favourites.

Barring miracles, two finalists from last season, indeed one of them a grand finalist, are done and dusted.

Adelaide still had a faint glimmer of hope heading into Friday night’s grand final re-match against Richmond. That was ruthlessly extinguished by the Tigers in eerily similar scoreboard fashion to the Crows’ grand final disaster last year.

Essendon had rediscovered its mojo and regained some finals hope with five wins from six games after a shocking start. The Bombers gave their attempt to keep the fires burning a decent enough crack against Collingwood on Sunday, too, but ultimately came up short.

Yes, the Crows and Dons still have a mathematical finals chance. But realistically? Forget it. With seven games to play, both are now not just two games outside the eight, but sporting their top eight rivals enough percentage to make that gap effectively three games.

Adelaide never really got the chance to harness its pain from last September into much of a motivator. When it hasn’t been battling injuries, it’s been battling the considerable fall-out of that now infamous pre-season camp.

The Crows hung in there for a while, and were even third seven rounds in. But their luck on the injury front never really turned, and that last-minute loss in the epic “Showdown” against Port Adelaide in hindsight seems to have been the straw which broke the camel’s back.

Including that game, they’ve now lost six of the last eight, and the casualty list has grown longer, not shorter. Come Friday night’s critical game against Richmond, there was still no Eddie Betts, Brad Crouch, Mitch McGovern, Brodie Smith, David Mackay, Riley Knight or the improved Cam Ellis-Yolmen, with Rory Sloane in his second game in two months.

Their early burst of energy didn’t deliver enough on the scoreboard, and that was about that. Richmond might have slipped into a higher gear in the final term, but it’s debatable the Tigers even needed to. Adelaide didn’t look like a side which believed it could win, and seldom has a 16-point three-quarter time deficit appeared more like 10 goals.

Any Crows’ fans clinging on to finals hopes might reconsider once they also have a look at their team’s remaining draw, too, in which they will meet three top eight teams, five of their remaining seven games against sides above them on the ladder.

Where does Adelaide go from here? Well, coach Don Pyke might as well throw a couple of mothballs into the cotton wool those injured stars are wrapped in, because rushing any back seems a somewhat pointless exercise now.

I’m not as worried as some about the Crows’ capacity to bounce back. If ever there was a season in which the footy gods have failed to smile on a particular team, it’s this one.

Sorting out those lingering resentments from the much-discussed camp should probably be the highest priority. Yes, Adelaide has the second-oldest list in the competition, but with an average age of 24.5, it’s hardly ancient, and even the oldest couple of Crows, Eddie Betts and Richard Douglas, are still playing good football when fit and have another couple of seasons left in them.

Adelaide will feel cursed. Essendon, on the other hand, can really only curse itself.

But for one belting at the hands of Richmond (and who aren’t the Tigers belting these days), the Bombers have been pretty good ever since their round eight loss to Carlton, which left them 2-6 and preceded the sacking of assistant coach Mark Neeld.

That perilous state of affairs, however, simply left the Dons with too much ground to make up, which will only heighten the sense of frustration should they maintain this level over the final seven rounds.

Wins over Geelong, Greater Western Sydney, West Coast in Perth and North Melbourne have shown Essendon is capable enough against the better teams. That said, the last term against Collingwood on Sunday probably also confirmed there is still enough of a gap between them and the best.

There’s little doubt the Bombers copped the worse end of the umpiring on Sunday (in fact over the past three games they’ve conceded 81 free kicks and won just 45) but that wasn’t the difference between defeat and victory.

As big an improvement as the midfield group headed by Dyson Heppell, Devon Smith and Zach Merrett has made over the last couple of months, and as good as they were for three quarters against the Pies, it was Collingwood’s on-ballers who held sway in the final term with the game up for grabs.

Skipper Scott Pendlebury went to another level in that quarter, and he, 200-gamer Steele Sidebottom and Taylor Adams continually won the takeaways, the Pies as a result dominating territory and booting five of the last six goals of the game.

Essendon’s midfield doesn’t bat as deep as Collingwood’s, and neither is it as settled. It could be yet, though, given the addition of the injured David Zaharakis and Orazio Fantasia, whose late withdrawal on Sunday was a huge blow, and the continued development of Andrew McGrath, terrific against the Pies, and Kyle Langford, quiet after a string of good games.

Too late for this year, though, given the leeway which now exists, and games still to come against Sydney, the Hawks, Richmond and Port Adelaide away.

All the more reason to curse that wasted early part of 2018, when the Dons lost to Fremantle, the Western Bulldogs, Hawthorn and then infamously to Carlton, still the Blues’ only win for the season.

Just two teams outside the eight – North Melbourne and GWS – now have realistic chances of forcing their way in. And even the Giants, who pushed West Coast all the way in Perth but still fell short, could conceivably struggle, with a tougher draw than either the Roos or Hawthorn, the two sides immediately above them.

So with the finish line just coming into view on the horizon, 18 has effectively become 10. The problem, of course, for nine of those still in the running, is that the leader of this race after the weekend looks to be even further out in front.

1 Comment
  1. The season has a few twists left Rohan…..we have just seen the Crows beat Geelong to start rd 17 ( admittedly at home) and currently Brisbane are in the box seat to beat the once invincible Hawks at York Park……a flicker of hope still exists for Adel and Ess if these kind of upsets continue and they can keep winning.

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