Monday, May 25, 2009

Expect the unexpected

We’ve never seen a season like it. Two sides undefeated after nine rounds is unheard of in the 113 year history of VFL/AFL football, but this is not necessarily the most surprising aspect of the current AFL ladder. Six sides have identical win/loss records of five and four, separated only by nine per cent, and four more sit outside the eight by just a game.

Despite Geelong and St Kilda being a long way clear, round nine provided hope for the chasing pack. Had Brad Johnson threaded thru his check-side after the siren the seemingly invincible Cats would be anything but. We expect this from the Dogs. They are a plucky side, full of run, skill, and heart - brilliantly mentored by one of the best in the business in Rodney Eade - and while most concede their list appears on paper to lack the talent and depth of some of the heavyweights, most agree like last year they will be there at the business end.

St Kilda’s start to the year has been phenomenal, but not that surprising. They’ve been threatening for some years but Ross Lyon has finally found the right formula to get his talented group to take the step up in class. What was surprising was the scare provided by a team exceeding all expectations in 2009, the Brisbane Lions.

The Lions, with an exceptionally young group and an even younger coaching staff, almost pulled off the upset of the season yesterday at Etihad Stadium. They needed everything to go right. They had to take every chance. Kicking 13 goals from 16 attempts is a close as you can get to perfection in modern football. They needed to somehow quell the influence of St Kilda’s extraordinarily potent and versatile forward line, without two mainstay defenders in Daniel Merrett and Joel Patfull, and for three quarters they did. Michael Voss moved Daniel Bradshaw, Brisbane’s all-time leading goal kicker, into defense in an inspired move but misfortune in the form of the blood-rule forced Bradshaw from the field and the period it took to clean him up and find a pristine pair of white shorts, the man he had marked so well Nick Riewoldt kicked a crucial goal and had a hand in two others to seal the win for the Saints.

Brisbane are sixth, in that large group with five wins, four of which have come at Gabba. Many could still be skeptical given the calibre of opposition they have beaten. Richmond provided their only victory in Melbourne, while Geelong handed them almighty hiding in round five. But if they can win this week against an indifferent and vulnerable North Melbourne, Voss’ men have set the perfect platform for finals football.

But they are not the only young side making plenty of noise. While Brisbane has question marks over the quality of their wins no one can deny Essendon’s capability of winning against the big club’s. It was supposed to be another development year for Matthew Knights’ young group but such is the nature of their fearless running brand they have cut a swathe through some of the competitions big guns. Hawthorn, Carlton, and Collingwood have all been toppled by the new generation of “Baby Bombers” this season and they provided a stern test for the Saints in round eight.

They are a dangerous side capable of anything, the pace and skill of their midfield will frighten many a match committee in the weeks to come.

But as quickly as Brisbane and Essendon are climbing to unexpected heights, a much-hyped Carlton side is heading in the wrong direction. The Blues’ season is hanging by the same thread that is holding Jarrad Waite’s Anterior Cruciate Ligament together.

They have only themselves to blame. Inaccurate kicking cost them against Essendon, Hawthorn, Fremantle and to a lesser extent Sydney. But with the much maligned Brendan Fevola miss-firing and versatile swing-man Waite unavailable indefinitely, few sides will fear the team they thought would be coming.

Two other sides standing on the precipice, unsure of which way their year will go, are Hawthorn and Collingwood. The reigning premiers, ravaged by injury, have done exceptionally well to get to this point with five wins. Their plight is reminiscent of the Leigh Matthews-led Lion kings of 2001-03. Given the attritional nature of their consecutive and successful September campaigns the first half of every season was spent just trying to stay in touch with the frontrunners, with a squad held together by sticky tape, before sharpening through August to ensure they were cherry ripe when it mattered. Whether Hawthorn can achieve what that Lions side did remains to be seen.

Collingwood continue to confound expectation. They have lost to Adelaide and Essendon at the MCG, games where they started favourite, yet they have beaten Brisbane at the Gabba and West Coast in Perth. The competition’s least travelled club has now won nine of their last 12 on the road. Four and five is hardly the record of a side that was expected to be a lock for the top four after an impressive showing in the NAB Cup.

Then there is Sydney and Port Adelaide whose form is akin to picking lottery numbers. Neither are as consistent as they have been in their Premiership years despite still possessing key components of their most successful sides.

All that can be gleaned from nine rounds of the 2009 season is expect the unexpected.

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