After our clash against Geelong, I came away from the game feeling rather encouraged by the endeavour from both young and old. The fact that we had gained ascendancy in the second half and won most of the important statistical categories by the end of the game was promising. Last night in Wangaratta however, we witnessed the polar opposite in attitude and work rate to our first up efforts in the NAB Challenge, which doesn’t make for doomsaying regarding the proximity of the sky to earth, but nonetheless brought to the fore a few concerns as we near the season proper.
Before getting into the thick of it however, I would just like to extend my gratitude once more to MagpieBat who covered the game day thread yesterday live from Wangaratta, along with all of those members of the blog who helped out and contributed throughout the game day thread to create quite a lively atmosphere. Hats off to you all.
Now back to the game…
Right out of the box we looked flat, as the intensity around the ball was lacking, resulting in Richmond smashing us out of the centre square. Our back line was under siege from the opening bounce, a situation they were not to be relieved from for the remainder of the game. Richmond managed to put a wall in place through the middle of the ground which we battled to penetrate, excluding the few times that we were able to open them up quickly through the middle of the ground.
Those moments were pleasing to watch, but they were scarce for the most part and if we’re relying on counter-punching occasionally whilst letting the opposition monopolise the ball, then we’re going to be in strife.
There were a few positives to be had, with both Jamie Elliott and Ben Kennedy building upon solid performances against Geelong. Elliott found himself up the ground more often than not and was able to find a reasonable amount of the ball, drifting forward at times to provide a solid alternative to our talls. Kennedy looks poised to cement himself within the senior line-up, combining with Elliott in the third term to drive us during our only period of dominance throughout the game.
Kennedy in particular seems to get to dangerous positions with regularity, and was one of our rare players who could extricate himself from traffic – with ball in hand – and buy some space for himself and others. He’s still lacking a little composure, but the medicine for that is continued game time at senior level.
Ben Reid was clearly another positive, kicking 5 goals and causing headaches opposed to Batchelor during the first three quarters. His reach and marking ability will trouble most defenders, but above all his conversion rate is the biggest asset. I remain a little torn as to where we should play him however. It is hard to argue against 5 goals from Reid and 3 more from Cloke, but down back we lacked an intercepting option along with some polish when escaping by foot.
I did like the move of Fasolo down back, even though he clearly has a lot to learn in this role as he found himself being bypassed by the play at times due to incorrect positioning. When he did gather or receive the ball in some space, he used it to advantage and is a player who can orchestrate the switch both quickly and accurately. Furthermore, if receiving at half-back he’s another who can carry the zone by foot and put us into attack with speed — which is necessary if we plan on getting value out of stretching the opposition with three tall forwards.
That said, we do need to have someone at the feet of our talls, which remains a problem.
I’m in agreement with those who have suggested recently that Cloke needs to be released to be a true centre half forward once more, since despite kicking three goals he found himself out of the play for extended periods of time. We often broke down along the wings during times when our ball movement was slowed down by Richmond and at these times, we need to target a hard leading Cloke – with teammates surrounding the drop zone – as a way of retaining possession or forcing a stoppage further afield.
Instead, we often kicked to contests we were either outnumbered at or were simply lacking genuine aerial targets, handing the ball back to a Richmond outfit who were already setup to send it back with interest.
Jesse White wasn’t the factor that he was against Geelong, only getting into the game when moved into the ruck after Grundy was subbed off. I did like his elevation at centre square bounces, which could prove handy heading forward and stood in stark contrast to Lynch’s stopping and propping in these situations, which was reminiscent of the broken down version of Jolly that we saw last year in the centre square.
All we need from our relief ruck is to break even at the centre square, giving our midfielders an even money chance of winning the ball.
Peter Yagmoor was subbed on for the second half and failed to impress. He had a handful of opportunities where he was afforded time and space with the ball, with options ahead of him, but missed the target. His kicking was his most touted attribute when drafted and he really need to make those touches count. I’m not in the habit of writing players off during the preseason, but his current standing on the list is precarious to say the least and this is the time of year for players in his position to turn some heads by going flat out.
Similarly, I wasn’t at all impressed by Armstrong and the doubts that I shared with many prior to his drafting looked somewhat justified yesterday afternoon. On several occasions he made poor defensive decisions, his direct opponent often shaking him to get involved in scoring chains, whilst his kicking game wasn’t conspicuous nor all that constructive.
Amongst a more settled and cohesive defensive line, his attributes may pay some dividends, but I remain sceptical. He isn’t a ball carrier and will not be replacing Shaw in that regard, whilst he looks to be conservative rather than damaging with his kicking.
When it comes to replacing Shaw’s rebound out of defence, Jackson Ramsay is probably our best bet down the line. He’s still a kid and needs to build size and experience, but he does have some good pace and doesn’t lack in the tenacity stakes. Fasolo could provide us with some solid rebound by foot, but has a lot to learn in terms of competing one-on-one as a defender.
I felt Jack Frost battled manfully early in the game despite a pretty bad brain fade in the opening minutes, racking up a ton of spoils deep in defence and when following his man up the wings. Keeffe still looks a little off the pace and Nate Brown could probably be excused for a shaky showing in his first hitout for 2014. I love the way Brown has gone about his football at the club, but I’m always a little worried about him defensively as he does have a tendency to panic and scrag.
He did have a solid year last year, despite being exposed a few times, and will hopefully build into this season. If we’re going to move Reid forward, even momentarily as a swing man, we really need Brown and Keeffe to be able to hold down key posts reliably.
That said, life for our defenders would have been a lot easier had we not been so comprehensively smashed out of the middle. Grundy had a poor game and let frustrations get the better of him, whilst Richmond’s midfield were hungrier and simply much better at stoppages and in contested situations. When a Tiger would gather the ball at a stoppage, he would draw two or three of our players who would fail to lock him up and prevent the ball from escaping, resulting in Richmond running it away with ease.
Our defenders were inundated with fast and unhindered forward entries, a situation that will find out most back lines in the league. Pendlebury and Swan appeared to be going through the motions in cruise control, appearing to operate on the periphery a lot of the time. Sidebottom was outright disappointing, as he failed to have any real impact.
It was a practice match, but with all of Beams, Adams, Blair and Thomas missing we really needed Sidebottom to step up as a leader. Rusty was very good against Geelong excluding a few wasted kicks, but he was pedestrian yesterday and needs to be much better than that when the real stuff starts.
Luke Ball was battled on in his typical uncompromising fashion, but the time has come where he needs more support on the inside. More than anything, yesterday demonstrated how important Beams, Adams and Josh Thomas are to our chances this year. Regardless of the push to play more attacking/attractive football, we are still not polished enough on the outside to make this the foundation of our fortunes and will need to gain superiority in the contested stakes – more so than some other teams – if we’re to drive deep into September.
At one stage I wondered whether we could play Adams and Thomas in the same side – figuring that they would find themselves in competition for a spot – but after yesterday it might almost be necessary. Richmond were stronger and more desperate at the contest, but beyond that they had more genuine ball winners in the clenches.
It looked a little concerning, but adding Beams and Adams back into the mix would have changed things significantly. If you threw Josh Thomas in there as well, we’d have even more natural ability in the clearance stakes, not to mention a stronger defensive aspect at the coal face.
At centre clearances and stoppages our players often started from behind their direct opponents, enabling Richmond to get first hands more often than not, exacerbated by our failure to stick effective tackles that prevented the ball from being released. Ball is huge in this area but he can’t do it all himself; Macaffer is also solid, but having a few more bulls in the ring will make all the difference.
Returning to Sidebottom, I think above all else yesterday demonstrated that he isn’t a pure midfielder and when cast into this role, he struggles. He needs to operate from half-forward and push up to the contest as the extra, playing a step or two away from the where the contest is at its hottest.
Jonathan Marsh managed to find a bit of the ball, which was encouraging. He demonstrated his pace as well with a commendable near miss on Jake King in the third quarter, followed almost instantly by a perfectly executed and rewarded tackle from the next centre bounce. He is very much a project player and will need at least a year or two of intensive development, but he does have some rare traits to work with.
Mooney was thankfully given a full game, managing to kick two goals despite our limited forward entries. His game was one of glimpses and I stand by my thoughts that he’ll benefit from a year at half-back, where he’ll get to see the game unfold and will be taken to the ball by more natural footballers. He’ll be provided with the opportunity to work on winning the ball and using it constructively in general play and if things go exceptionally well, he may also provide us with some real pace from the last line.
I was impressed by Tom Langdon down back, who in only his first year showed more composure than the likes of Clarke, Armstrong and Yagmoor in several defensive situations. He found a respectable amount of the ball and looks a likely type and at this stage, the injuries to Seedsman and Oxley could very well result in Langdon being blooded early.
Clinton Young provided us with some good run at times along the wings, proving important in getting the ball to the hot spot with speed, where the likes of Reid and Cloke benefitted. On the other hand, both Lumumba and Goldsack spent a lot of the game as spectators to what was unfolding. Goldsack can be excused as it was his first game back and he appeared to pick up – or be carrying – a niggle, whereas Heritier will need to be more involved in a few weeks time against Fremantle.
It was a difficult game to watch in some respects, as it appeared that we didn’t come to play. It is best not to read too much into preseason scratch matches, but I would have liked to have seen our structures hold up a little better, regardless of personnel. What stood out was how important the middle is going to be, which is pretty much a constant in football, but in our case carries a little more weight.
Our turnover of personnel through trading and retirement has meant that we need to once again find some cohesion amongst a new look defensive unit, with a similar story playing out at the other end of the ground. As such, in the middle we’re going to need our best in Pendlebury, Beams, Swan and Ball to get us on top. In order to gain and maintain this ascendancy, these established stars will need to be ably assisted by the likes of Adams, Thomas, Blair and others – including Kennedy, Elliott and Fasolo – who may run through there.
Above all and perhaps more than most we need to win out in the contested stakes, because as we look to improve our outside skill through drafting and development, we are not near enough the level yet to rely on counter-punching or “pretty” football as our primary modus operandi. Yesterday stood as evidence of how important contested ball and clearances are, an area that I feel we are still extremely strong in and which should form the core of any game plan.
Where some teams like Hawthorn and Geelong can afford to lose out in this area and still win through superior polish and “slingshot football” from half-back; and teams like Sydney and Fremantle can offset any imbalance in the first use category by being more solid and settled defensively; we will be well and truly up against it if we relinquish dominance out of the middle.
I’m not too worried about the result, since our team in round one will look different than that which took the field in Wangaratta and our performance against Geelong – who I still rate higher than the improving Tigers – demonstrated that we’re capable of much better football than we saw yesterday. There were some individual positives from all of Reid, Kennedy, Elliott, Ramsay and Langdon; the task now will be to find the right mix of the right types out of those pushing for selection, to complement our established senior players who will hopefully not be operating at half rat power come round one.