After a long and angst riddled preseason, the NAB Challenge kicked off last night for our Magpies at Aurora Stadium. The initial team lists looked ominous, but that changed when the line-ups were finalised and the Hawks were whittled down to something resembling their VFL team led by a few stars in Mitchell and Gunston, rounded out by McEvoy, Breust, Langford and new free agent James Frawley. We already knew that none of Pendlebury, Swan, Cloke or Reid would be taking part and whilst we still enjoyed the services of a few more experienced players in comparison to the Hawks, the most interesting aspect of last night’s game for both sets of supporters was always going to be how our new recruits and fringe players performed.
We all know the result – a pleasant one at that – by now, so before getting into this somewhat quick fire review I’ll provide a quick disclaimer regarding the result. It was a NAB Challenge game and as such, we shouldn’t take too much from the overall result. Getting a win was undoubtedly more important to us than the reigning premiers in terms of renewing some confidence amongst the group who battled through the second half of last year, along with forging some victorious ties with those who have just arrived. And of course, preseason form – collectively and individually – is rarely if ever a reliable insight into what the home and away season will have in store.
This is all common knowledge that most take as a given. Nonetheless, we can still go over the individual performances of our players along with assessing how the team gelled — even if only in a preliminary fashion, knowing that this team is unlikely to reflect how we will line up come round one.
I’ll start with Greenwood and Varcoe, being two established players who polarised opinions when traded in. Greenwood was committed but quiet in the first half, before really working into the game in the second half and the third quarter in particular. He had a hand in several forward thrusts and managed to slot a goal himself after being rewarded in a contest close to goal. He was always going to be a no frills addition, a hard-nosed work horse, and last night was no exception.
Varcoe was a little underwhelming in my opinion, but I’m reserving judgement until the real stuff starts. New players, regardless of previous experience, take a bit of time to find their feet at a new club — something that we also saw with both Jolly and Ball during the early stages of 2010. Varcoe did have a few nice moments, getting into some space and using the ball well, but I wouldn’t have had him near our bests in what turned out to be a comfortable victory.
Sidebottom was his industrious self and stood up well as captain, whilst Tom Langdon impressed me greatly sweeping the half-back line, reading the play to perfection and providing cleanliness and composure when mopping up. I named Langdon as one of our youngsters who I’m banking on filling the leadership void heading forward and his performance last night certainly increased my confidence on this front.
Josh Thomas and Taylor Adams got busy, with both finding plenty of the ball and winning their share of contests. Adams’ kicking remains heart-in-mouth stuff, but his grit and ferocity will be important and he knows how to accumulate the ball. The Josh Thomas fan club lost a few supporters last year as some who were previously hyping his potential became understandably a little concerned about his future, but he was fairly impressive in his first run last night and may have won back a few supporters.
The question regarding the likes of Adams, Thomas and even Greenwood will be how we accommodate all three in the same team, particularly when considering the return of Swan and Pendlebury and the possibility of a Freeman, De Goey or even Kennedy pressing a claim.
On Freeman, he is clearly still finding his feet along with the tempo. He managed 13 possessions, struggling to get to the right spots and at times looked rushed with his disposal. There was a lot of hype given his performances on the track this preseason and of course, his impressive ready-made build after just a single year at the club, however we can easily forget that we should consider this year as his first and that he virtually missed all of last year. That’s a lot of football to catch-up on, so I’m not at all concerned that he is yet to really catch the eye. I would give him as much opportunity during the NAB Challenge as possible, not so much with a view to him winning a spot come round one, but just to accelerate his experience.
He obviously has some impressive athletic and physical attributes, but we need to fast track his football education so that he knows when and where to run to find it. I’m as guilty as anyone of catching visions of him becoming a home-grown Dangerfield type, but in the immediate future I would be happy for him to be using his pace to link-up and find more football on the outside and in general play, before expecting him to torch stoppages.
Kennedy was busy early before his involvement fluctuated thereafter, although he was never entirely out of the contest. He finished as our 6th highest possession winner with 17 touches, hustling well in contests and cutting down space on opponents. He’s still a bit of a mystery, as is what direction we intend on taking with his development, which is something we will hopeful find out more about in coming weeks.
Broomhead worked into the game, despite never really finding too much space and having to operate in congestion a lot of the time. He looks to have added a bit of size and stood up well, although it should be noted that he was competing quite often against opponents at a similar stage in their development. He tackled willingly and had a few moments where he demonstrated his quick thinking and nice touch when operating in a phone booth.
In his first game, carrying the natural expectations of a first round draft pick, De Goey did more than enough to put a smile on most Magpie faces. His hard tackling early was a feature, but it was the opening bounce of the final quarter that Magpie fans will be replaying on their laptops at home, and in their minds at work. Opposed to the clearance specialist in Mitchell, De Goey read the drop a fraction quicker to assume best position before breaking away from the three time premiership Hawk, moving smoothly before sending us forward on his left boot, finished off perfectly by a pack mark from Gault.
Shortly after, De Goey showed strong hands on the lead before executing a perfect set shot from 45 out virtually directly in front, the goal umpire not having to move as the ball sailed clear over his head. All most would have expected from De Goey were a few glimpses, and we certainly got our share. He will be followed closely given his draft position and who we lost in getting him, but without drawing direct comparisons as such, on the intangible vibe alone there were a few parallels between De Goey’s early showing and some of Dayne Beams’ own moments during our 2009 preseason campaign.
Those little yet immensely impressive moments where a youngster doesn’t look out of place, giving brief insights into the attributes that you can see developing over time. He’s already a good size and will only become more powerful with further preseasons, but above all he looks to be a well balanced player who doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff.
The goal sheet was perhaps the most pleasing thing to come out of the game, with Fasolo booting four and Karnezis chipping with three. White and Gault snagged a couple each and our spread was impressive enough given the reduced game time. The story really is the benefit of having players with genuine forward nous and some polish operating up front, as it was the positioning and finishing of both Fasolo and Karnezis that provided the sort of reward for effort that has been lacking in recent years.
Gault worked hard and was impressive in the process, getting good elevation when competing at centre bounces and covering the ground exceptionally well for a big man. He is of course on the rookie list and it will take some misfortune combined with sustained strong performances at VFL level for him to get a decent opportunity during the season proper, but since returning from injury during the second half of last year he has done just about everything right to keep his career alive.
As a side note, I should mention that he also won praise from a Richmond supporting colleague of mine at work today, who considered Gault one of the more eye catching of our youngsters.
In comparison, Grundy wasn’t reading the flight nearly as well at centre bounces, but he made up for this with some impressive work reminiscent of his debut season around the ground. He got involved with second and third efforts, was combative and fairly clean on and off the deck when battling around the ground, getting involved in some solid chains of handballs to release us from congestion. After a difficult second season – and remembering his ill disciplined and frustration filled efforts during last year’s NAB Challenge – it was reassuring to see a more level headed and composed performance from a player who we’ll need to play a big part in any future success.
Down back, Brown and Frost were both fairly reactive when competing one out, but should be better for the run. Frost was outpointed a few times, one instance in particular when he was caught in two minds between judging the flight or establishing body contact against Gunston, but he was up against an exceptional footballer. Frost also gave away an unfortunate 50 metre penalty after throwing around his weight in a less than punctual manner, but for the most part I don’t mind him throwing his weight around, although he’ll need to time it better.
Oxley was subbed into the game in the second half for Toovey and without being too conspicuous, made the most of his 8 touches. I felt Sinclair was fairly dynamic in mopping up, whilst also taking a few kickouts where his directive seemed to be set in stone: kick to self, buy as much ground as possible from the goal square with speed, before kicking long to the flank. He generally bought 70 or so metres and whilst he’s not the first ;player I would have handling kickouts, I didn’t mind this fairly conservative strategy as opposed to trying to pinpoint a pass within our defensive 50.
Williams was rusty early but also worked into the game with some better contested wins in the second half, although it would be a line ball between he and Sinclair if we had to choose just one in a back pocket. In fact, that formula has changed somewhat after Ramsay showed some pleasing signs in the second half. It was Ramsay’s overlap run that stood out as the game opened up, in particular his passage in the final quarter when Oxley set up our switch nicely with a perfect angled pass to Dwyer, who released a hard running Ramsay who in turn lowered his eyes and spotted up Fasolo for his third goal with a perfect pass at full tilt.
Jamie Elliott was solid, Goldsack his tenacious self and Jesse White was prominent early before becoming a little quieter in the second half, although he did work up the ground a bit. Jack Crisp tackled strongly and won his share of contests, particularly in the first half, before others began to stand up more and drive us as we ran away with the game. Like Fasolo, Dwyer was important in the second half with his one-touch ability, providing us with some cleanliness when setting up passages from the contest.
As a collective, the intensity was pleasing as the lads tackled hard and cut down the Hawks space with regularity. I don’t know whether it has just been the absence of football or a skewed perspective, but we did appear to be a little quicker across the ground with or without the ball. Our ball movement certainly wasn’t flawless, but there appeared to be a healthy amount of buy in as players worked for one another when attacking or defending.
In the end, it was a better result than what most would have expected, and as pleasing a first-up offering as we probably could have hoped for. Expectations will need to be tempered of course, given teams are just going about processes and knocking out the cobwebs at this stage, but on top of a few fringe players and youngsters showing some good signs, we can also be pleased that we didn’t sustain any injuries in the process.
No questions can be answered definitively at this stage, but it was just good to enjoy a win after the drought we endured last year.