After a disappointing fortnight, compounded by a three ring act off-field, the team hopped on one of the last planes out of Victoria as the state returned to lock down. We had previously been scheduled to enter the WA hub alongside Geelong, but with the AFL having to shuffle the fixture given the developing situation in Victoria, we found ourselves facing Hawthorn on Friday night at GIANTS Stadium before heading west.
We were without De Goey and Josh Daicos, who was carrying an ankle complaint. As the changes were named on Thursday night, the key word was youth as Will Kelly and Atu Bosenavulagi were pencilled in for their senior debuts, whilst Isaac Quaynor also returned for what would be only his fifth game.
Hawthorn have long been a bogey side, with the wily tactician Clarkson having our number for the better part of a decade. Hawthorn were also forced to swing the changes, but given that we were without Howe, Sidebottom and De Goey – alongside the fact that our inclusions were unknown quantities – I have to confess that I wasn’t all that confident regarding our chances.
Historically, this team has often found something when they’ve set out on the road. After a dismal performance against Essendon, Friday night provided this squad an opportunity for atonement. The injection of youth was either going to add something different, a spark for the tinder which had become damp through a fortnight of messy wet weather football; or alternatively, it might have left us further exposed if our sloppy form continued and senior players failed to set the standard.
Fortunately, the team responded in a manner that was most pleasing. Given that youth was the story heading into the contest, it stands to reason that I start with our youngsters.
You could not have imagined a better way to kick your first goal, than Will Kelly’s effort in the opening moments. Receiving a handball from the pack at centre half-forward, Ned’s boy turned and got his wheels into motion, kicking truly on the run from 50. If his night started on the best possible note, it ended on a terrible one after fracturing his elbow in the dying moments.
It was terribly bad luck and although Kelly’s most notable highlight occurred in those opening moments, he did contest meaningfully throughout the course of the game. He showed enough in my opinion to suggest that he’s going to be a more than solid prospect into the future, potentially at either end of the ground, as he seems to possess above average athleticism for a key position player.
The remainder of this year will be about recovering and then looking to add some more size ahead of the 2021 season. What sort of player he’ll become is obviously still yet to be determined, but you could see him working at either end of the field in a more traditional key position capacity, but his evident mobility could also make him a useful lead-up and linking player between the arcs.
Quaynor returned to the side after being blooded last year and was a breath of fresh air with his dash off half-back. The kid came ready built, but it was the confidence he demonstrated – particularly with several passages of give-and-go when rebounding – that was most pleasing. You wouldn’t begrudge a player of his inexperience for being conservative in his decision making, but Quaynor approaches the game with an instinctive elan reminiscent of a young Heath Shaw.
Added to this dash is his ability to compete solidly in the contested stakes, but IQ also looks to have excellent penetration in his kicking — although I would like to see a bit more of him by foot, particularly in terms of hitting up short and medium targets. We’ve lacked some dash and dare from the backline so the return of IQ could prove key in creating a deadlier form of transition, to the benefit of our forwards.
If both Kelly and Quaynor were bright lights, then we get to the other debutant.
Et tu, Atu?
I was really surprised with the selection of Bosenavulagi, as I expected him to be further off senior football based on the brief glimpse we had of him during the preseason. It has admittedly been difficult if not impossible to track our developing players this year, owing to the VFL being shut down and there being little to no coverage of the improvised scratch matches that have been thrown together.
Despite the expectations being modest, the kid was a real shining light starting up forward and hovering further up the ground. He showed good awareness in traffic, a solid set of wheels and was very clean in what were reasonably slippery conditions. I’ll temper expectations for a while yet, since we’re yet to really see what his finishing is like, which is a crucial component to a small forward.
Nonetheless, the game has changed to an extent that small forwards can still have a significant influence without hitting the scoreboard themselves — be that in defensive pressure, goal assists or linking up in a high half-forward capacity. What would be ideal however is for anyone playing this role to have the ability to convert half-chances, so we’ll see what other tricks Atu has over the coming weeks.
All the same, that was an extremely promising debut by the kid, one that he and his family should be proud of. If he can continue to build on that alongside Quaynor, then you would have to say that we’ve gotten good value from our Next Generation Academy thus far.
Of our senior players, Pendlebury was composed once more, remaining one of our best players at setting us up from stoppages, often from his ability to delay a handball long enough to let play open up. The hard work at the coal face by both Wills and Adams is instrumental in allowing the likes of Pendlebury to create, whilst Elliott was also given more of a run in the middle and didn’t look out of place — although I’d still prefer him to get back to his dangerous best up front.
Treloar had a much better game second up, gathering 35 touches but most importantly he was able to get out of second gear and carry the ball a lot more. His tendency to misfire by foot is well catalogued, but when he squares his shoulders and balances he’s generally not too bad at finding targets. His work rate was excellent and with the loss of Sidebottom, his ability to accumulate is critical to our engine room.
Darcy Moore was fantastic down back once again, as he continues to build a case for All-Australian honours. If he can avoid any injury setbacks – and he’s managed to put together a solid block of football over the last two years – then he could very quickly find himself as one of the best key defenders in the league. His approach to the game is a real credit to him, hitting every contest with intent and utilising his freakish athleticism to provide the sort of rebound that belies his key position stature.
There’s a lot to be said about attitude, so despite Stephenson not hitting the scoreboard I really enjoyed his game on Friday night. He was released to roam further up the ground, operating between the arcs and even assisting on the last line of defence at times. Whilst his stats are modest, the fact that Stephenson was prepared to get his hands dirty with the less glamorous stuff was a testament to the attitude across the entire team, as we enjoyed an even spread of contribution.
Maynard and Crisp were excellent down back and Varcoe turned the clock back once more, imposing himself physically but also providing some much needed overlap run. He is in the twilight of his career, but I may have been a little hasty last week in putting a line through him. If he can maintain this sort of influence, hitting the contest at high velocity and checking an opposition player or two in the process whilst finding enough of the ball himself, then he may have more to say about our prospects this year than I initially thought.
Mihocek had a good night out, benefitting from some improved ball movement but also from Buckley throwing the magnets around. I was fearful given the expected dewy conditions when we entered the game with three tall targets in Cox, Kelly and Mihocek, but it seems the gambit worked.
Mihocek is a third tall option and whilst not being your classic spearhead, he’s a workhorse who more often than not put himself in a position to have at least a handful of opportunities. He’s a reasonably reliable finisher, who never misses by much even when his crosshairs aren’t calibrated, but when he does have his kicking shoes on – as he did Friday night – he’s always a chance to snare a bag.
I’m a fan of players like Checkers, who get the absolute most out of themselves and always play their role. The likes of Mayne are in a similar vein and whilst I understand some of the criticisms of Mayne – notably his tendency to slow play down inopportunely at times – his commitment and ability to plug a variety of holes is of value. He’s not the most polished footballer, but he leaves nothing out on the field and puts every bit of himself – including his face as seen in the first quarter on Friday night – on the line for the cause.
Naturally, for players who may be lacking some weapons then we should always be aiming to perhaps upgrade them with other options. With that said, the nature of the talent pool and the salary cap means that all teams are going to have role players — and Mayne has been a solid one the last couple of years.
With that said, the trick is not to have too many role players, lest you find yourselves in that territory of always being competitive, but never threatening. Of those who fit this category all of Phillips, Callum Brown and Hoskin-Elliott have struggled this year.
Hoskin-Elliott has the potential to be more than a role player — he does have weapons. He’s a solid finisher more often than not, does have aerial ability and can cover the ground. He has battled to have the same impact up forward since 2018, but hopefully getting amongst the goal scorers with a couple on Friday night might break him out of his rut.
Callum Brown has regressed after making some promising strides last year and in my view, could probably do with a spell. He had an immense first quarter against Richmond, but has been unable to impact ever since. Last year he was given some stints at the centre bounce and whilst he’s still undersized in terms of being able to compete over four quarters in this role, he did show the ability to step through traffic and also some toe at escaping — we’ve not seen any of that so far this year.
I still think he has something to offer in the long run and it’s not unusual for a player to have a down year during their development period. It’s just not coming together for him at the moment and maybe if given some time to rack up midfield minutes in scratch matches, where he can find more of the ball and regain some touch, he’ll get some touch and confidence back.
Phillips appears to be suffering from shortened quarters. His tank enabled him to run out games better than most and under those circumstances, he’d rack up plenty of touches as a linking player who could push himself more than most to get into space. At the moment though, his lack of pace and physical presence is rendering him a peripheral player. If Quaynor builds on his first game back, you might consider bringing Noble back and having a combination of Stephenson, Quaynor and/or Noble rotating on a wing.
Speaking of which, reports are that Sier and Noble were best on ground in our latest scratch match against Geelong. I’d love to see Sier return to the team, as despite his reported questionable commitment, he is one player who has genuine scope to become an excellent midfielder if he brings all the components of his game together.
Wills seems the like-for-like replacement, but he’s been contributing meaningfully so that would be a difficult call. Nonetheless, you would want to reward Sier’s good form in the hopes that he’ll run with it once given the call-up and not fall back into disinterest. I feel that Sier becoming the player we hope he could be is key not only to us really pushing for a premiership, but also in terms of future proofing our midfield.
Finally, credit has to be given to Buckley and the coaching staff, as they swung some fairly risky changes in showing faith in our youth; not only managed to keep a structure in place to prevent our inexperience from being exposed, but enabled them to thrive; and perhaps above all, swung some positional changes amongst our established stock to reinvigorate our play.
The same pattern remained of a fast start and then the goals drying up somewhat, but our defence remained miserly and unlike other contests, we always looked in control of this one. It was great to get a win against a bogey side, but I’ll refrain from reading too much into this one given that Hawthorn really looked off the boil. They’re currently in the midst of a weird transition period, in which they’ve attempted an accelerated rebuild — at the moment, it looks like it could go either way for them.
As mentioned earlier, our club has had a tendency of finding something when they travel. We’ve had some terrible results on the road here and there, but they have mostly been aberrations as we more often than not give a good account of ourselves. As a barracker, over the last twenty years I’ve never really feared our forays interstate, they’ve often been a point of pride after the fact — there’s something extremely satisfying about a silenced crowd, or the minority faithful being the last to roar.
With this in mind, the hub situation might be the making of our season if we can rise to the challenge. It could, of course, be the unravelling — but I’ll settle on the side of optimism for the time being.
Stay safe, be smart, be kind.