AFL Round 19 – GWS Giants v Melbourne: Demons keep Misson their mental targets

AFL football is a highly structured and itemised product, replete with comprehensive statistical cataloguing.

The game’s hyper intense, control-freak professionalism has even led to coaches and football departments trying to measure players’ mental health. In 2004, Grant Thomas’ St Kilda was criticised for cancelling a training session in favour of an afternoon at the movies. The decision alone wasn’t unprecedented (Denis Pagan once tried to halt a losing streak by taking a tactical session at the pub), but it was badly timed and cringingly presented.

(The cancellation wouldn’t have been so lampooned had it not been pre-arranged as an open session, or if Thomas hadn’t so openly discussed the Saints’ reliance on a ‘wellbeing index’).

St Kilda’s dabbling aside, footy’s mental attributes remain notoriously difficult to measure. Professional sport’s obsession with micromanagement and control remain unable to conquer a final frontier – confidence. Melbourne’s performances have degenerated in recent weeks, betraying a side whose fragile self-belief had improved following Mark Neeld’s departure.

In American political lexicon, a disturbing ‘creeping normalcy’ has pervaded Neil Craig’s interim tenure. Early encouraging signs – including the nervy win over the Western Bulldogs and an attacking performance against the Sydney Swans – have waned. The Demons were competitive in Darwin against the Brisbane Lions, but that game has been bookended by thrashings from Geelong and North Melbourne.

It’s the manner of the defeats that disturb. Losing in the torrential rain to the highly polished Cats is one thing, but the side’s unimaginative use of the footy is another. An unwanted record was set, with our boys entering the attacking 50-metre arc just 19 times.

From my seat, the game against North Melbourne found its centre in the ten minutes before half time. Loss minimisation was dealt a savage blow shortly before the main break, when two scrappy goals gave the Kangaroos immense security.

Today’s game may well have been decided in the two hours that followed those goals – the second half at Docklands (in which North Melbourne kicked 16 goals to one) and the first half of the Collingwood v GWS Giants match at the MCG, in which the AFL’s newest side played with a briskness and charm that could be a harbinger of happier days ahead.

Leigh Matthews is fond of saying that an AFL team often starts a match in the manner it finished its last. That theory suggests that despite being winless, the Giants should be confident enough to outplay the despondent Demons.

It’s hard not to be bullish about the Giants. They have Jeremy Cameron, the wunderkind who has kicked more goals to this stage of his career than any forward since Matthew Lloyd. We have Jack Fitzpatrick, a fourth-year beanpole making awkward and belated strides just as the cold hand of delisting looked likely.

The match itself lives up to the fears of all Demon fans. We are slow and hesitant, whereas the Giants’ midfield looks brisk and assertive. Some brief resistance in the first and third quarters aside, the margin creeps up throughout.

It’s not the skills though that upset the most. Rather, it’s the difference in fitness and reaction. Nathan Jones is his usual busy self, gaining ten clearances despite the attentions of a close tag. Over the course of the afternoon, Dylan Shiel, Toby Greene and Mark Whiley all get the chance to shadow Melbourne’s tattooed on-baller.

The rest of our experienced players are less productive. The two young captains, Jack Trengove and Jack Grimes, are particularly disappointing. Trengove appears perpetually saddle-sore, his arrested development marked by persistent rumours of osteitis pubis. Grimes simply lacks the weapons to be an elite player and has become instead a handy half-back. His kicking is adequate without being particularly penetrating, while a quick brain and some tough tackling disguise his lack of pace.

The side’s best kick, Aaron Davey, is restricted to a cameo appearance. He dons the green substitute’s vest for the fourth time this season – quite possible his final year in the AFL. We miss his scything left foot, finding forwards and hard-running teammates with a precision to match the surest –handed surgeon. Davey’s repeat efforts and ability to find the ball however are severely lacking, resulting in increasingly minor roles.

The Giants run hard at the man with the footy and sprint off their opponents to find space through the corridor. It is hard not to contrast this with Melbourne, whose slowness and lethargy have been linked to a fitness plan since superseded by other clubs.

One of the sub-plots behind the Paul Roos coaching saga will be the role of Dave Misson, currently Melbourne’s elite performance manager. Misson masterminded the fitness regime of Roos’ premiership winning Swans and Ross Lyon’s hard-pressing Saints. Yet although Misson’s program has greatly increased our players’ endurance, it has come at the cost of speed.

The past two years have witnessed an increasing reliance on explosive speed on the counter-attack to beat the forward press. The Giants are mastering that approach today, with Lachie Whitfield, Adam Treloar and Devon Smith finding time and space to exploit their elite kicking skills.

If Melbourne snare Roos, we are likely to see him rekindle his relationship with Misson. Whether they devise a new fitness plan – one better equipped to deal with the sudden exploitation of time and space – could influence the rapidness of any ladder rise. We are currently playing outdated football.

The Giants have exciting days ahead. Fittingly, it is two of their biggest signings – Callan Ward and Tom Scully – who control the game.

Scully generates a Pavlovian reaction from Melbourne fans, his name linked with treachery. Today he is excellent, linking through the lines by hand and crumbing at the base of his tall forwards. With Ward commanding the flanks and repeatedly goaling on the run, they form the game’s dominant duo.

Melbourne’s loss is sadly predictable. Despite the Giants’ fledgling experience and strength, they have looked the fitter and more confident side throughout. Kevin Sheedy’s men have trusted their instincts and played with an attacking verve dripping with moral courage.

The Demons meantime grabbed a jackhammer and smashed their way through the floor.

GWS Giants 5.1 9.3 12.7 19.10 (124)
Melbourne 4.3 5.8 9.12 12.15 (87)

Our votes: 3. Ward (GWS) 2. Scully (GWS) 1. N. Jones (Melb)

Leave a Comment