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Just one component of the game

Touch of the Fumbles

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While the recent heavyweight bout between Sydney and the ominous Fremantle (those two words still look silly together in a sentence) may well have been a portent of this year’s grand final, back in 2001 the same two sides met in a tussle that was conspicuous for very different reasons.

It was Round 9. After starting the season brightly, including a 52-point Round One flogging of the Crows of which the less said the better, the Swans had dropped five games straight and were looking shaky.

The Dockers had won … nothing. Zip. Zilch. They were anchored (sorry) on the bottom of the ladder, and this game showed why.

The skills were deplorable, risible. The contest didn’t even have the distinction of being nail-bitingly close, as the Swans fumbled their way to a 19-point victory. Relief and mild embarrassment would have been the prevailing emotions after what was described by some commentators as the worst AFL match ever played.

On its own, it was almost enough to end Damian Drum’s ill-fated coaching career. But the Freo coach hammered the nail in his own coffin with a bizarrely-effervescent appraisal of the contest in the post-match press conference.

“Skill’s only one component of the game,” he enthused.

“I thought it was a fantastic effort from two really desperate teams.”

He was gone by mid-week.

I thought of Drum’s fateful words on Saturday night, when Phil “Groundball” Walsh reflected on a routine, largely-uninspiring Crows win against wounded prey, marred once again by what can politely be described as … well, a touch of the fumbles.

“Skills were a little bit disappointing from both teams but there was a bit of pressure out there,” said Groundball.

A little bit of pressure, yep. And after all, skill is only one component of the game, isn’t it?

From whence this pressure emanated is worth considering, given Gold Coast had more outs than a Ross Lyon-coached side on the eve of the finals. (Parenthetically, pencil in Round 19 for this year’s “Lyon’s Recuperation Round” – he always seems to rest his players en masse when the Dockers play St Kilda. It’s as if he feels he owes them or something).

On paper, then, it was the perfect weekend: Crows win comfortably, Port lose a nail-biter at home, non-Victorian teams dominate the eight. But, as Adelaide so often prove, things can look very different on paper.

Sometimes the universe just cuts you a break. Early last week, a friend and wise observer of the current dire state of Queensland football warned me that if the Suns decided to show up, we could be in trouble. Luckily, they’d already decided not to show up. So the already Ablett-less Suns lost Harley Bennell, Brandon Matera and Trent McKenzie to club suspensions, Jack Martin, Jarrod Garlett and Seb Tape to injury and Steven May was ruled out at the tribunal for one of those weekly bumps that re-opens the weekly hand-wringing about the death of the bump.

Even with four significant outs for the visitors, this should have been a fait accompli, and yet while the Crows mostly held a comfortable lead, they always looked a bit too comfortable. It’s as if, like everyone else, they just assumed the four points were already theirs and the four quarters were just a formality to emphasise the fact.

They never really put the foot down, so while the wayward Suns didn’t exactly threaten to steal the match, a potential percentage-booster ended up as a regulation win.

Though in the event, the 41-point margin was the equal biggest of the weekend (equal with that of the Moggs Creek Seniors’ win over Collingwood) and I’m not sure Adelaide supporters are yet at the stage of legitimately complaining about winning games of football.

But I will admit that as I watched us cruise to victory, frequently gifting the ball to the Suns only for their Adelaide-esque goal-kicking to cruel their endeavour, I could see the GWS score against Hawthorn ticking over in the bottom right-hand corner of the TV screen … and found myself feeling genuinely annoyed that I wasn’t watching that game instead.

In contrast, this was really one of those “meh” matches that you’d probably just switch off if you had no vested interest in either team. And that is very much the tale of our year thus far. With the exception of that round one crushing of North Melbourne, a riveting display of team football, we’ve more or less turned up (or not, as in the Bulldogs game), gone about the business with varying degrees of competence and gone home again.

There was an odd moment in that first quarter against Gold Coast.

The home side had, rather annoyingly, scored the opening goal, and Paddy Dangerfield had just taken a mark 50 metres out on a sharp angle. “Fast Eddie” Betts was knocked down off the ball, which prompted two things: a 50-metre penalty and goal to Danger, and Tex Walker to remonstrate with silky-skilled Sun Adam Saad. It was just the requisite pushing and shoving, but a trio of Suns quickly came to back up their man. Not one Crow.

There was no-one mouthing off, no-one leaping in to wrest Tex’s No.13 guernsey free from Saad’s fist while shouting: “Unhand my beloved captain, scoundrel!” No-one even suggesting cooler heads prevail.

Tex ended with four goals and a team-lifting screamer, but he is not the hulking, irresistible forward presence he has sometimes been, and at times had the air of a man playing with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Like the team he captains, he wasn’t bad but he could have been so much better.

Though as a mate pointed out to me late on Saturday, of the entire competition it seems only the no-longer-lamentable Dockers are consistently playing to their full potential. Well, them and Carlton, perhaps.

And the thing was, when the Suns rallied and refused to be blown away, I knew that was the match’s Feelgood Football Story. If an impartial observer had been watching at that point (which they wouldn’t have, as they’d have turned over to watch GWS instead), they would’ve been applauding the Suns, not us.

It’s always an awkward moment of clarity when you realize that in Football’s Grand Narrative you are actually barracking for the villain of the piece, although I guess that’s something any enlightened Power supporter grapples with every day. Or rather, they would, if they weren’t an oxymoron. Or part thereof.

Ah Port. I should have known one of the two Adelaide teams would make an immediate mockery of my bold assertion that both would be 6-2 by the end of round eight, but I’d never have guessed it would be they that did so.

With apologies to The Simpsons, both teams worked hard at Adelaide Oval last night, and in a way they were both winners; but in another, more accurate, way West Coast were the winners.

They go alright for a team with a casualty ward for a backline.

After the Fumbles, along with the rest of the English-speaking universe, went out of our way to talk up the emergence of Jasper Pittard, he returned to his comically capricious ways, roosting the ball out on the full in the dying minutes, leaving the Power hoist by their own Pittard.

Nic Naitanui (left) had the better of Port's Paddy Ryder (pictured) and fellow ruckman Matthew Lobbe. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Nic Naitanui (left) had the better of Port’s Paddy Ryder (pictured) and fellow ruckman Matthew Lobbe. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Port always seemed to struggle when teams managed to take Jared Polec out of the game last year, so the fact he has been literally taken out of the game for the foreseeable future doesn’t bode well.

His poise and run is integral to their style of play and, while they still have the confounding ability to score quickly and economically, their inability to get the ball inside fifty is undoubtedly concerning (or amusing, depending on your point of view).

Their season average of 48.7 inside 50s is ranked twelfth in the league (Adelaide, by the way, is second with 59.5, but often doesn’t seem to know what to do with it once it gets there).

On paper, then, it was the perfect weekend: Crows win comfortably, Port lose a nail-biter at home, non-Victorian teams dominate the eight.

But, as Adelaide so often prove, things can look very different on paper.

There’s something as yet not quite convincing about this Crows side, and it’s not just their shocking kicking efficiency.

Skill may be only one component of the game, but ours will need to be better if we’re to beat teams that haven’t just lost a third of their starting side to suspension and injury.

Our game against the Suns might not have been, like that Freo/Sydney travesty of 2001, the worst game of football ever played. But it was arguably the worst one of the round.

On Saturday, St Kilda came back from a 55-point third quarter deficit to beat the Bulldogs, the darlings of the football world after a 4-1 start, by seven points. That same day, the Giants stunned reigning and widely-expected premiers Hawthorn – albeit without Hodge and Lewis and Lake and Frawley – by 10 points. These are the moments for which we watch football, even with no vested interest.

Both sides consequently look rather more daunting prospects than they did a week ago. You’d hate to play either of them in the next fortnight. Oh wait …

Touch of the Fumbles is InDaily’s weekly AFL column, published on a Monday during the AFL season. For new readers – yes, it’s shamelessly biased. Even up the score in the comments section below.

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