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RoCo’s Wrap: Suddenly, scoreboards start ticking over again

Shout it out loud: Scoring is back in style, as Essendon’s Jake Stringer celebrates another goal with teammate Shaun McKernan. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

RoCo’s Wrap: Suddenly, scoreboards start ticking over again

Rohan Connolly    

It was a weekend which saw some significant results, and when it was all done, some significant movement on the AFL ladder.

Top team Richmond cleared out by a game from its pursuers. Collingwood, which only six weeks ago was outside the eight, now found itself second. Greater Western Sydney climbed from 10th to sixth with a fourth win in a row. And Melbourne, which was third after six victories on end, was now in the eight on percentage only after a third straight loss.

The biggest story, however, wasn’t so much about this team or that, but the fortunes of the game as a whole. Because after being seemingly trapped in the doldrums for much of the 2018 season, round 15 was the weekend football hit back. And it did so spectacularly.

More open, flowing play? Tick. Drama? Tick. Closer contests? Tick. And higher scores? A very big tick.

The stakes were high when the top two teams on the ladder faced off last Thursday night, but Richmond and Sydney were still prepared to risk in order to receive, and to attempt to win more than attempt not to lose.

Friday night provided an unexpected classic between the Western Bulldogs and Geelong. Two of Saturday’s four games were decided by less than two goals. There were major upsets in two of the three Sunday games. All up, five of nine games were decided by 17 points or less.

But most telling was this statistic. Before last Friday night, just twice in 118 home and away games this season had both teams scored more than 100 points. The Dogs and Cats made it three. St Kilda’s win over Melbourne at the MCG was a fourth occasion. And come Essendon’s victory over North Melbourne, it was five.

Indeed, the half-time score at Etihad Stadium on Sunday afternoon – 13.6 to 10.4 – was more than enough full-time scorelines we’ve seen of late, and the most scored in the first half of any AFL game since 2009.

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear the AFL coaches in their recent dinner meeting with league chief executive Gill McLachlan had struck some sort of gentleman’s agreement to release the handbrake on their teams.

They haven’t, of course. But why this sudden burst of adventurousness in the depths of winter, a time when teams are actually cut a little more slack for grinding out the wins in more difficult conditions and as players start to feel the pinch of a long season? And how will the evidence out of the weekend be adapted to suit various narratives?

In the increasingly feisty debate between the “leave the game alone” crowd and the would-be interventionists, I’ve already heard either side claim round 15 as overwhelming evidence in support of their arguments.

For the former group, it’s confirmation that the game throws up all sorts of different scenarios from week to week, often involving the same sides, and that the evolutionary process always keeps the game moving on.

The interventionists saw the fewer instances of coaches deploying spare men behind the ball over this round as some sort of dress rehearsal for “starting positions” under the laws of the game revamp apparently seen as increasingly inevitable as soon as next season.

To the first argument, I’d suggest one swallow does not a summer make. That the trends around congestion and particularly scoring have emerged over several years, the last four seasons the lowest-scoring since 1970 and this season currently the lowest-scoring since 1968.

To the second, I’d say we might need to see the trials of even limited zoning over not just one but a couple of pre-seasons. And that we will never know for how long such drastic measures can keep the “defensive creep” of the game at bay before canny coaches once again effectively pick the locks.

But what the weekend action did at least provide was a salient reminder of how good the game can be.

And in a more immediate sense, perhaps it also reminded us that however changeable is the balance of AFL power these days, in 2018 the reigning premier is still nonetheless going to take some toppling.

Richmond’s win over Sydney came in the end by 26 points, but it was the way the Tigers closed out the game and repressed the Swans’ challenge which spoke more than the margin.

The Tigers see off potential danger better than any of their rivals. When Lance Franklin goalled only 45 seconds into the final term, it was just four points the difference, the Swans having kicked their third goal in a row and with all the momentum.

It would be their last score for the game, Richmond re-asserting its authority in 10 minutes of arm-wrestle before settling the matter with the final three goals (3.4 in total) to win going away.

Defeat saw Sydney surrender second position, at least temporarily, to Collingwood, whom the Tigers take on in round 19.

Are the Pies really the second-best team in the competition? You couldn’t say definitively they’re not. But they will want to have improve a fair bit on what they served up to Richmond back in round six, when a 43-point defeat was curiously seen by some observers as some sort of moral Magpie victory.

That round 19 clash will be the start of a run of four MCG games in five for the Tigers leading into the finals, as good a preparation as you can get. Indeed, if Richmond does go back-to-back, it’s almost certainly going to be having played seven of their last eight games on their beloved home turf.

What the ever-diminishing band of naysayers continue to ignore when it comes to Richmond, however, is that its much-vaunted pressure game is only as effective as its ability to capitalise upon that labour in scoreboard terms. And the Tigers do that better than just about anyone, too.

That final finishing touch to the premiership product of 2017 was first applied in the lead-in to last September. Including finals, the Tigers topped 100 points in four of their last five games, after having done it only four times in their first 20.

They did it again eight times in the first 11 games this season, too. That’s a dozen times in 16 games. And given a current AFL scoring average of just over 83 points per team, they are tallies that are going to give you a win every time.

No surprise then that while sitting atop the ladder, the Tigers, in addition to their renowned pressure, tackling and stingy defence, are also second for scoring. And who’s to say they aren’t also a potential explanation for the game opening up?

No opponent has been able to best them defensively. Was this sudden rush of scoring an acknowledgement by the rest of the competition that it has to find another, more offensive way? One thing’s for sure. We’re in for an entertaining second half of the season if that proves the case.

1 Comment
  1. Only two team in this decade have won the flag after finishing first. Hawks 2013, Pies 2010. It would be easy to think the Tiges will join them but every year we get excited by the team on top, and pencil them in.

    The big difference between the Tiges this year and some of the other contenders who’ve crashed (e.g. Crows, Eagles and Giants), will be injuries. What if they were to lose Reiwoldt, Rance and Cotchin?

    And on the Giants… now they’re getting back on track, and getting back some players (Kelly seems to have been crucial), they might yet be the team to beat, esp if they can make the four.

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