Contenders and Pretenders: the story of the Eagles and Melbourne

Part of the joy of football is playing out the what-if scenarios before a game.  That is why sports betting has become so popular – we all like to think we have some unique insight into how our teams will perform.

Melbourne against the West Coast at Subiaco on a Thursday evening after Easter (can there be any reason for this strange scheduling, other than valuable TV ratings points for networks – with more of us still on holiday than is usual for this time of year?)  Melbourne were my tip to be the big improver this season, after a promising 2010, and with a host of talented young players.  But their early form has been mediocre at best – an honorable draw with Sydney; blown away in the second half by Hawthorn and battling wins against strugglers in Brisbane and Gold Coast.

While a West Coast member and supporter by dint of marriage, I like to think of myself as a football follower first, and an Eagles supporter second.  South Australian by birth, I left there before the advent of the Crows and Power.  Football was the SANFL on a Saturday in the 1960’s and 70’s, and an adolescent support for St Kilda in the old VFL via ‘The Winners’ on ABC TV on a Sunday evening.  Inspired by the Saints’ halcyon days of Baldock, Ditterich et al before they descended into their Twilight Zone zombie era of the 70’s and 80’s.

My final straw as a Saints supporter came with the Alves/Watson/Blight/Thomas coaching merry-go-round farce.  A move to Perth in the late 90’s and an enlightened relationship with a woman of intelligence, balance and rationality in all but the vengeance with which she follows the Eagles, saw me become a West Coast member 10 years ago.  But the golden years of 2005/6/7 had given way to the horrors of 2008/9/10.

Still the first 4 rounds of 2011 had been promising.  Hard fought wins over North Melbourne and Port Adelaide, though neither of these are serious finals contenders.  Close losses to Hawthorn and Sydney, when our 21 had the better of their 21 – but Franklin and Goodes had shown that the class and finesse from a single star could outshine the Eagles’ team of honest battlers.

Arriving early at Subiaco Oval (or the Stockbrokers Stockade as it is now affectionately known) to avoid the traffic of a rare workday game, I settled down to compare teams and expectations – while the Avenging Eagle shared pleasantries with the coterie of surrounding members that have become our extended game day family.  The Italian ladies behind; the Croatian rellies alongside; and the man in front from Bunbury who makes the 3 hour trip up by train for each home game.

The Eagles had the T’s covered I thought – tireless tackling had been the hallmark of all their games so far.  They seemed to have mastered the ‘press’ – or whatever this latest variant of relentless pressure was.  Long periods of these games looked like an ugly version of the endless rucks and mauls that characterize South African rugby.  Whatever they were now doing, it seemed to guarantee that no opposition could find the time and space for easy possessions or clean disposal.  But their weakness was in another T – the tiresome regularity of turnovers through poor skill execution after gaining clean possession.

From the little I had seen and heard about Melbourne – they were the F’s – flashy and fancy, but fragile and frail.  Jurrah, Davey, Watts, Trengove, Frawley – in all, 14 of the players in tonight’s side were under 23– and all capable of playing the sort of fast, open, skilful football that I rejoice in.  But when Hawthorn put the pressure on in the second half of recent contests against both these teams, the Demons had folded while the Eagles hung tough to the end.

Good omens for the Eagles I thought. Most likely a hard fought 3 goal win.  We would pressure their ball carriers for certain, but I doubted we had the class of a Franklin or Rioli to really hurt them on the counter attack.

If dogs look like their owners (or is it the other way round) – I often think that football teams take on the characteristics of their coaches.  The current Eagles were playing tough, relentless football like Woosha in his heyday, but like him they were not skilful or pretty to watch.  Still Worsfold obviously commands considerable respect among the playing group (and judging on his playing days -not a little fear).  Even last year when they were regularly belted, you got the feeling that the players would die for him.  The trouble was that they seemed to lack the ability to live and thrive for him.

By contrast, Dean Bailey seemed like the kindly uncle trying to rally his talented but willful and wayward nephews.  More a thoughtful mentor than a ruthless coach it seemed to me.

For me the Eagles were white bread.  Honest, reliable, salt of the earth – but you couldn’t really get too excited about them.  The Demons – croissants – a refined taste with jam at the cafe on a sunny morning.  But they could easily disintegrate into a flaky mess when from the slightest pressure.  If the Eagles tackle like Kiwi rugby forwards (wouldn’t Lynch and Natanui be naturals), then the Demons seem to have the carefree extravagance of flashy rugby backs (with Jurrah, Davey, Wonaeamarri and Bennell doing Ella brothers style party tricks)

And so to the game – the simplest description is that the West Coast exceeded their fans wildest hopes, while Melbourne disappointed at every level.  By quarter time the Eagles had kicked 5 goals 3; to only 2 points from Melbourne.  The tough tackling and pressure from the Eagles was as expected, but less so was the precision with which their kicking hit intended targets all over the ground.  The rejuvenated Andrew Embley had 2 goals by quarter time (3 for the match).  As usual he made the difficult look easy – kicking an outrageous banana goal on the run from deep in the right hand pocket.  Equally he made the simple difficult – missing set shots from in front, and hand balling over the boundary line when the Eagles were clear on goal late in the match.  Embley seems the old breed of devil-may-care risk taker who excels in tight situations – remember his fearless, match saving marks in the 2006 Grand Final when he won the Norm Smith Medal.  Like a dashing WW2 flying ace inspired by the dogfight, but bored in the mediocrity of everyday battles

Having hoped for some exciting and skilful football from Melbourne I was as confused as his players by Dean Bailey’s initial team set-up.  From early in the first quarter Melbourne seemed to be playing a permanently deep, defensive zonal flood.  Attackers like Jurrah and Wonaeamirri were left to wander aimlessly across what used to be called the half back line, level with centre square line at their defensive end of the ground.  For Melbourne it was now their ‘all back line’ with the Eagles always having at least 3 players in Glass, McKenzie and Butler isolated goalside of them across the centre.  On the rare occasions when Melbourne managed to start working the ball out of defence it was simply cut off and rebounded by these unmanned Eagles defenders.  The result was an astonishing imbalance of 22 inside 50 forward entries for the Eagles, to only 3 by Melbourne at quarter time

I have always thought that a team and a coach should play to their own strengths, rather than focusing solely on stopping the opposition.  This is particularly true for a young team like Melbourne.  From the outset they stationed 18 players within 70 metres at their own defensive end, on a ground as long and wide as Subiaco.  This self defeating tactic denied them of the space and opportunity to run and carry the ball, when leg speed and fast ball movement are the natural gifts of the young.

The confidence sapping effect of their own tactics on the young Demons was startling.  Skilful players missed targets when not under noticeable pressure, and in particular – kicked out of bounds on the full repeatedly when they were well in the clear.

From observing visiting teams at Subiaco over many years, I have always found that the best strategy is to attack early – whether the Eagles are dominant or struggling as in recent years.  The visitors kicking 2 or 3 early goals gets the home fans murmuring, and the Eagles players starting to second guess themselves.  Melbourne did the reverse, and gifted both Eagles fans and supporters the vital confidence to dominate the match.

In the second quarter the Eagles reverted to type, dominating possession skill errors preventing them from putting the score on the board as they had in the first quarter.  Late goals to Sylvia and Davey kept Melbourne in sight at half time – 26 points down – though in truth they had rarely been in the contest.  Melbourne was double teaming Josh Kennedy to limit his effectiveness, while LeCras was finding the ball but struggling with his touch after a month out with injury.
It was sad to see talented young Melbourne players run the ball to half back, then look up and to see no-one ahead, kick sideways creating a contested turnover.  By half time the inside 50’s were 36 to 13 in favour of the Eagles, and by game’s end it had improved only slightly to 65/36.

Any thoughts of a Melbourne revival in the second half were quickly squashed as the Eagles dominated possession to grind out an ever widening margin.  Kennedy came more into the game with as his tireless running started to break his tags.  He is an agile endurance athlete for such a big man.

Quinten Lynch continues to provide both defensive pressure in the midfield and a strong marking target when forward.  Lynch has never been my favourite player with his high turnover ratio, but his growing value and confidence was shown with a memorable effort late in the third quarter.  Melbourne threatened late goals as they had in the first half.  Seeing them getting free runners on the outer wing, and with men clear up forward, Lynch charged from the centre square to intercept 2 Melbourne players as the kick arrived at their 50 metre arc.  Barging 2 Melbourne players and the ball out of bounds in the process, to nullify any scoring opportunity as the bell rang.  Big Quinten was winded in the collision, but his effort typified how the Eagles strangled any attacking movements from the Demons all evening.

The last quarter was party time for West Coast as they kicked 5 goals to Melbourne’s 2, running out justified 54 point winners.  The game was already well out of Melbourne’s reach at the final break, but it was heartening to see the Eagles continue their pressure for a dominant win, rather than easing off for a merely comfortable one.

The play of the match was a ‘Geelong style’ end to end Eagles goal at the 14 minute mark of the last quarter.  Melbourne had the ball clear in the corridor 30 metres out in front of their goal.  Twice Melbourne players balanced to shoot on goal only to be dragged down or blocked by Eagles tackling pressure.  The final bone-jarring Natanui tackle shook the ball loose, setting up a running chain of 3 or 4 Eagles hand balls taking the ball from back pocket to wing.  The last hand ball floated over the top of a Melbourne defender for Luke Shuey to just hold in his finger tips while running at full tilt.  He kicks impeccably to Kennedy who takes a strong contested mark at the 50 metres on the right boundary line.  Bouncing urgently to his feet from the contest, Kennedy passes perfectly to the 19 year old Jack Darling who has run to position – directly in front 40 metres out.  Darling calmly kicks the goal deep into the adoring rows of Eagles fans behind the Southern goal.

The Eagles just haven’t strung plays like that together in the last 3 years.  4 or 5 possessions yes – then a fumble or a miss.  But 9 or 10 riffing, dazzling, challenging possessions – all perfectly executed – that is Geelong or Collingwood – not honest toilers from the West struggling to find a cohesive playing style.  Too little to call a revival, but churlish not to find a genuine sense of renewal in tonight’s performance.

To sum up – Melbourne – the Lindsay Lohan’s of the competition.  Youthful promise and good looks, but not nearly enough effort and hard work to earn any lasting rewards.  I have a strong sense that Dean Bailey – honest and decent though he may be – is simply 2011’s Matthew Knights in waiting.  Melbourne have talent in their playing group, but they need a coach who inspires genuine ‘shock and awe’ when they look him in the eye.  Is Barassi still up for the gig?  Malthouse, Matthews, Roos – someone of that stature is needed – otherwise the ‘nice guys’ of the competition will continue to run nearer last than first.  At the playing level, their ‘hard nuts’ like Nathan Jones, Mark Jamar and Colin Sylvia really stand out, because the rest of the box are a selection of tasty ‘soft centres’.  They lack the strong on-field leadership group of 80 -150 game players that separates the contenders from the merely promising among the crowded field of teams vying to challenge Collingwood.

Watts and Natanui – first and second draft picks in 2008 – are both works very definitely in the early stages of their development.  Watts is the Jay Gatsby of football – all grace and elegance signifying very little at the moment.  Three easy marks early in the game and a dribbled gift goal at the end.  Very little in between.  Despite his size, he somehow seems more an outside player than a key position one.  His appearance is Robbie Flower on steroids, but his performance more Wayne Carey on milk.

Natanui reminds me of Tigger in the Winnie the Pooh books.  He bounces everywhere, because that’s what Tiggers do.  In the first 10 minutes of the game he twice threatened to break the game open with dazzling, barn storming runs for such a big man.  Twice he balanced up, having shed tackles and broken into the clear.  Twice he kicked mongrel, twisting punts that went nowhere as the goals beckoned.  Throughout the game he flew repeatedly for marks, but he seems to have hands of steel that the ball cannons away from, rather than the relaxed grab of a born footballer.  So his skills are poor, but his heart and motor are boundless.  Importantly he is a clever footballer who does think well even if his marking and kicking are often disappointing.  He generally handballs well to players in better position.  There was a clever moment in the second quarter when the ball came in long and high to Natanui outnumbered 3 to 1 in the marking contest in a forward pocket.  Sensing no aerial support, but Eagles crumbers flying toward the contest he deliberately punched the ball wide to the boundary side, rather than attempting to mark.  A chain of handballs from the crumbers resulted in an easy goal to the Eagles.  Natanui’s goal in effort if not in name.

In short, Natanui a large but still very rough diamond, that may gain brilliance with time and polishing.  Watts a brilliant but small and already polished diamond, that needs to grow if it is to justify its promise.

Summing up tonight’s Eagles is a pleasant task, for they far exceeded most expectations.  A couple of old stagers in Priddis and Cox were their stand outs as they have been all season.  Embley had lovely touches, but ageing legs seem to see him die out of games in the second half these days.  Kerr, Ebert and Butler all got leather poisoning with their possession numbers, but their disposal effectiveness is diabolical.  Ebert and Butler are serial offenders, and their technical defects make them players who never really hurt an opposition despite their formidable work rate.

Kerr is only 4 games back after long absences with injury, so the signs are promising, but I suspect there are 2 reasons that he will never be the player of a few years ago.  He has bulked up even more and lacks the yard in pace that once enabled him to easily break tackles.  The more important reason is the absence of Judd and Cousins from his Brownlow place-getter years.  Commentators have observed that this makes it easier to tag him.  True, but he lacks their on field ‘natural smarts’ and direction in how and when to dispose of the ball.  Without that direction Kerr’s tendency is to over-posses, hanging on to the ball and running in circles while waiting for a ‘clever’ disposal option.  Too often Kerr’s possessions result in turnovers – more from judgment errors than skill errors.

Nineteen year old Jack Darling is a revelation as a first year player.  Thank God for youthful indiscretions.  On ability and performance he is in the top 5 of first year draftees in a vintage year for young talent – not pick 26 where he was drafted – more for ‘off field’ than ‘on field’ reasons one suspects.  Early days, but his size, strength, speed, marking and kicking skills mark him as potentially the best power forward the Eagles have had since Peter Sumich.  A long bow perhaps, but Kennedy, Lynch, LeCras and Darling will test a lot of defences this year.

Disposal skills and leg speed in the mid field are a little short of top level.  Honest toilers, but I suspect that the elite midfields like Collingwood and Geelong will find them out.

A final positive – tackling pressure and intensity.  I recall the Malthouse teams of the early 90’s as great pressure and tackling sides – Wilson, Lewis, Worsfold, Langdon, Hart – weren’t their elite players, but my God they made oppositions jump in haste.  The fringe players in the current team are ferocious tacklers – Scott Selwood, Nicoski, Butler, Ebert – all had higher tackle numbers than Melbourne’s best.  The Eagle’ elite forwards in LeCras and Kennedy also led the tackle count, showing how hard they fight to keep it inside the attacking 50.

Essendon may be a bridge too far for the Eagles at Etihad on Sunday week, based on their strong showing against Collingwood on Anzac Day.  The Bomber’s slippery midfield will be a challenge for Priddis, Kerr and co.  However Cox, Natanui and Lynch will more than match Hille, Ryder and Bellchambers.  Kennedy, LeCras and Darling can kick a competitive score, and their tackling pressure will ensure that the Bombers don’t have an easy road in running the ball out of defence.  The Eagles will try to make it a dour, scrappy contest and either way there should not be more than a few goals in it.

A final thought on Melbourne.  When they ran out, their away strip had reduced the amount of navy blue on their jumper to a narrow vertical strip on the side.  Presumably so that the dominant blue in the Demon’s jumper didn’t clash with Eagle’s blue and gold.  With the red V and predominantly white body of their away strip, I thought we were playing the old South Melbourne VFL team of my youth.  The Melbourne team of tonight certainly looked like the Swans of old, and played like them.  Ron Barassi and Norm Smith would never have been seen dead in the red and white of the Lakeside Oval’s perennial cellar dwellers.


  1. My first chance to see Darling over here in the Easy. What an impressive sight. As long as LeCras, Kennedy and Lynch hang around the forward line, he will continue to get the 4th best defender. This will allow him to continue to grow in both experience and confidence. A very exciting prospect.

    Nicoski in the foward line is also a good fit. From there, it is a lot harder to turn the ball over like he used to off the half back line. He now reminds me of Daniel Chick with both his pressure and terrible dyed hair.

    Hopefully we can re-establish the House of Pain and start challenging for finals again soon.

  2. John Butler says

    Great début Peter.

    Young Mr Darling looks like an impressive find.

    And some of the veterans have found a second (third?) wind.

    The next month will tell the tale.


  3. johnharms says

    Thanks Peter. Comprehensive. And you have raised so much. May institute the simile and metaphor count for contributors. You would certaily be up there in the top in the Almanac universe. I particularly liked the Jay Gatsby reference for Jack Watts – spot on (at this time).

    I am also interested in the Croatian reference. I have heard before of the ‘Croatian market gardeners’ who were so important to the Fremantle clubs over many decades. perhaps you know a bit more about this and can elaborate. We have some fine Freo historians on board as well – Belford, Everett, Allbrook, Jarvis, Shuttleworth – who may be able to add something.

    Terrifc to get such an analysis of a Perth club.

    Can they make the eight?

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