AFL Round 17 – Adelaide v Hawthorn: A High Seas Backman



I’m on a boat, on the high seas, some time near midnight. There was footy on the telly. Most of the passengers watched, myself included, rolling on a comfy 4 metre swell, into darkness.


Hawthorn v Crows had a lot to offer. Gunston, in the first, was electric. So crisp. Some big donk ruckman for the Crows played the small forward beautifully, kicking two or three, and eventually five, by sneaking back towards goal. Pod was on fire. I know. The commentators told me.

Above all else they mentioned who had how many touches this early in the piece. That was important.

Watching with my fingers in my ears, I thought Dangerfield was getting a lot of short ball, but Mitchell was brilliant. Yes, I blow a lot of trumpet for him, but damn those handballs! The way he uses it in close is so freakish.

Dangerfield gave off handballs, too, but Mitchell would ignore the easy options, holding onto it, easy, using his torso, not leg speed, to get space. It looks less obvious, doesn’t get him the fans or votes of a raging bull or arm-pumper, but so what? They punched out like lasers, or looped into the path of its target, or bent through the air to someone pushing wide. The player receiving never has to adjust, just attack. Every time, he held onto it until they were running at top pace. It’s a subtle, huge difference.
The sea kept steady. It rolled and rolled, damn it. If I’m going to be on a boat I want to hear the THOOM of monster waves hitting its bow, to rise and fall and look out the window and see lightning hitting water. Imagine that as a backdrop to watching football!

Anyways, soon I went back to listening to the commentary.

The big donk was called Jenkins. Good on him. Sloane, I thought, was having a bottler, getting a lot of hard ball, running hard, playing with solid thighs. Eddy was barely getting a touch in his 200th. A quiet night, all the commentators agreed. And there’s the rub. None of them even considered he had an opponent. This thing called a backman? Maybe it wasn’t Eddy? Maybe his man was playing well?

Out on the wing the Crows’ Smith was tackled by the Hawks’ Smith, but simply refused to go down. He kept his feet through sheer will, breaking free, sending the pill forward for a goal. It was a part of a surge that had no right. Adelaide got within a point on a few occasions. Hawthorn replied each time. It all came down to centre clearances. A shootout, the commentators told us.

Goal for goal, hell yeah! Let them rain! Old School!

Gunston lead out from full forward, sliding sideways across a half-volley, handballing the pill, tucking in his shoulder, to a runner for an easy goal, all in the one motion.

Around about then I noticed I hadn’t noticed Roughie.

Hawthorn went in at half time one goal up with Adelaide pressing, but responded brilliantly in the third. Hodge stepped up. Not a lot. Just got tough clearing kicks when it mattered.

Breust was terrific entertainment. He avoided any hard shots so he could level Plugger’s record of 29 goals straight, then absolutely rushed his 45 meter kick at immortality. It was Hudson, it was Norman, Taylor equalling Bradman, something human. Good on him. But he wanted it too much. It was like watching Scotty West at the Brownlow.

Hawthorn played the entire quarter in their forward fifty. It came in long, it came on passes, it came in crisp, with some of the best delivery you’ll see.

Roughie still didn’t get a kick. His opponent wore him brilliantly, spoiled high, got in front when it came down low, stayed too close to let him get it short, wouldn’t let him run back on goal, either.

The bloke killed it on one of the best two or three forwards in the league, on a perfect deck, against a team constantly banging it in to him.

Not sure who he was. He didn’t rate a mention.

Finally, when Roughead went looking for kicks in the middle, the Parrot ventured out from simply repeating what the other commentators say.
“Roughie seems to be having a quite night. But he’s still doing the team things, maybe?” Bruce tentatively ventured. “The smothers, the handballs, the small, important team stuff that goes unnoticed.”

No he wasn’t.

If I was his opponent I’d go home and watch the replay just so I could throw my shoe through the telly.

When your playing, often it doesn’t seem like game is over, but heading into the last the game was over. Then, 30 minutes later the siren went.

Betts still hadn’t had a kick, other than a soccer goal. I like him, he’s a great, exciting player who both lays a lot of tackles and has his tackles brushed aside way too easily. Never dull, full of personality. But he was thrashed. Who played on him, anyway?

Roughie was thrashed more so. The big Hawk didn’t bother the scorers. Didn’t take an overhead. He was unseen in a team that, really, killed it. But for easy misses they Hawks could have won by zillions.

The passengers all left as if watching footy’s the only reason to stay awake. As they shuffled off into their sardine cabins to snore amongst strangers, the commentators talked, framed by empty grandstands. About on-ballers mostly. Comparing stats and effectiveness. About a few of the Adelaide forwards, too – the talls that did well. A few of the Hawthorn forwards – the mid-sized ones that shone. No mention of Roughie, Eddy, or their opponents.

I went out on deck. It was good and cold out there, the high seas meeting ocean rain in endless Arctic winds, as if that’s all there is and all that matters. I tuned my phone into the radio.

The wireless commentators were doing what they do every game these days, mentioning their top three players by announcing their surname and their stats as if the two are one. The blokes who got the most touches got the most votes.

When did this shift happen? What changed in our national psyche? Was it a Gridiron thing, from when the often boring game obsessed with stats had a spurt of popularity in the late 80s? Ever since statistics started mattering over blood and bone and instinct we’ve lost something, I reckon.

I’ve worn No.20 most of my career because Jimmy Jess was my hero. To this day I don’t know his kicking effectiveness ratio. Only that his torps were things from Heaven.

It would be easy to give backmen their due at the Brownlow. Let goal umpires give votes, too. They know what’s going on. They see more than the midfield. But I’m sick of commentators saying power forwards “just had a bad day” when they were spanked by a great backman, then get on with talking about kicks, inside 50s, goal assists and contested ball counts.

I’m sick of the way we all tow the line on it.

The first half of Crows v Hawks was brilliant. The heavyweight and the underdog, toe-to-toe. Then, in the second half, the ladder re-asserted itself. Maybe I should have watched the game backwards.

My best three were.

  1. Hodge (half the stats, but so much influence)
  2. Whoever stopped Roughie.
  3. Mitchell

Unlucky Dangerfield. You tried your guts out for four solid quarters. Got 40 touches. Just didn’t quite have the same influence.


The seas are still rolling. I’m the only one still up, the commentators seem to just keep on talking, even though, come game’s end, I think, they’ve become superfluous. Apart from Bruce. Stats are his forte.




  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Spot on re Dangerfield, not many of the handballs opened up space, and his kicks lacked penetration. He is clearly hampered by something in the leg department. Not having a go at him, more about the drooling over his stats.

    Quote of the night from Bruce, “he only had a small piece of area to work in”

  2. Love it Old Dog. Backmen are the fan faves. I used to have Beau Waters on the pin up board next to Kelly le Brock circa 1985, but his shoulder has gone the way of GAblett’s.
    Now its big Eric McKenzie. Watching him do over Buddy last weekend was a thing of beauty. Beat him for strength and contest in the first half. Buddy hates being outmuscled more than he hates getting beaten. Got inside his head, so he ran off chasing kicks downfield in the second half.
    Backmen get no respect. Harry Taylor is another fave of mine, the way he reads the incoming ball to intercept. Pert, Roos, Dench, Southby, Ragsy Goold – don’t get me started.
    As for last night’s game, we had the Avenging Eagle’s family assembled multitude over for dinner so I was too busy attending to the roast and the red to see much. I love how well drilled Hawthorn and Sydney are. Their forwards run predictable patterns just like a gridiron offence. They don’t wait for their midfield to win the clearance. They KNOW they will and they take off on their runs to space before possession is won. The midfielders hardly need to look up, they know that Breust etal will be 5 metres clear running to the flank just on 50, and they hit him up and keep running to create the next target inside.
    Its such a fluid game done well, unlike the static stop-start of attritional Rossball.
    Thanks Matt.

  3. Rick Kane says

    Hi MZ

    In Roughie’s defence, he did lay 10 tackles (yes, it’s another stat, but one of the stats that matters). It wasn’t his best game but I wouldn’t write it off as a dud. The Hawks forward line is built to accommodate numerous goal kickers (we have three in the Top 10 of the comp).


    I love the boat trip across the Bass Strait.

  4. Gregor Lewis says

    Finally, a Sam Mitchell appreciation!

    Even when I don’t agree with some of what you say MZ, love all things ’bout the way you ‘told it’.

    Hawks were lucky coz ‘Mo’ left town after the first quarter, but with momentum gone, we conned the Crows with that poor relation mojo …

    … And Ned Zelic’s favoirite ‘sex-toy’ – individual brilliance.


  5. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Matt, did you mean the reference to ‘Old School’ which I was trying to watch at the same time as this game?

  6. daniel flesch says

    Tallia on Roughead and (i think) Stratton on Betts , but the back six change dancing partners throughout the game. Lot to like in Litherland. Quick run and a long kick from half-back. And wild man Matt Spangher deserves a mention. Hard at it and happy to “play his role ” even though not always sure of selection.

  7. Matt Zurbo says

    Thanks for the comments, gang. Stoked. Gregor, you ripper.

    Swish, ha, sorry mate. know not.

    Dan, yeah, who doesn’t/wouldn’t like Spangher? A legend.

  8. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Good write up Old dog Mitchell is a gun his vision and awareness is second to none he is the modern day diesel , Williams . Tahlia did a brilliant job on Roughie and is the premier stopper in the game and should be right up there re all aust .and with you being a lover of coaching kids , I have been coaching with Daniel today he is fantastic with the kids . I am with you re stats so over rated , re Dangerfield his work rate and toughness at the contest was fantastic but to the hawks credit didn’t get any easy outside ball , thanks Matt

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