In Pre Season, Speculation Springs Eternal

Conventional football wisdom appears to have undergone a major reversal in recent times. Not so long ago, it was a given that winning back-to-back flags was a task achievable by only the greatest teams. History still supports this view. Yet recently, every reigning premier begins the season lauded as a dynasty in waiting. Numerous are those who’ve proclaimed the likely dominance of Geelong, then Hawthorn, and now the Pies. The addition of the usual Collingwood hype factor has only accentuated the trend this season.

This is a curious development. In essence, it seems akin to the reasoning of many wealthy folk, who choose to see their economic good fortune as evidence of superior personal virtue and judgement. Circumstance is transformed into inherent worth. Whilst these are seductive thoughts for some, they don’t seem very well supported by the available evidence.

Leaving the rich for another time, the football argument ignores the basic fact that every Grand Final post 2007 could easily have produced a different result- a shaky basis from which to be asserting unassailable superiority you might think. This is without considering the platoons of rival coaches, all picking game plans apart to ensure any window of tactical advantage proves increasingly fleeting.

So feel free to ignore the hype, fellow Collingwood sceptics. Even though the Pies looked pretty good in the NAB, as a Carlton supporter, I can vouch that doesn’t mean much. There’s no reason to expect Collingwood  will find it a cakewalk this year. I hope.

However, this begs the question, what will it take to beat them?

I suspect even less than usual was to be learned from this year’s NAB Cup. Between the resurrected lightning premiership format, and the even-more-egregious-than-usual “experimental” rules, half the clubs were bundled out of the competition without ever having played a real game. Which meant any insights into the new season had to be sought out amongst the practice matches (sorry, NAB Challenge)

Which is no bad thing. For starters, it provided the incentive to revisit the Blues at their spiritual home, in action against the Crows , something that always does my Navy Blue soul some good. It’s hard to ignore that Princes Park has a Sunset Boulevard feel of faded glory to it nowadays. You half expect to see Jack Elliot wandering the passages in drag, telling anyone who’ll listen that he’s still big, it’s just the games that got smaller. Sadly, after the last decade, the club would know what he means.

Part of the fun of practice matches is that you can get as close to the play as you want, from which position the ever increasing speed and intensity is very apparent.  Players now have to perform at hectic pace amidst the heavy traffic that presses, zones and other products of the modern coaching imagination produce . That relief from this intensity is increasingly sought via the interchange bench seems inevitable. Which brings us straight to one of the big early season talking points: the new sub rule.

I know others disagree, but I retain my reservations that this rule will achieve what it intends. In a context where almost every new rule or interpretation for the last decade has been intended to keep the play moving, thus speeding it up, the decision to limit the interchange numbers would appear to be swimming against the tide. To me, it’s like nailing the accelerator to the floor, and then suddenly deciding to apply the handbrake- you can’t precisely predict the results, but you would expect they will veer off on unexpected tangents. What is predictable is that some coaches feel their omnipotent control threatened.

Ah yes, the coaches. Given that hard-nosed ex back pocket types seem to be the preferred modern coaching template, it’s little surprise that the game increasingly comes to resemble its designers. The modern player can run, jump and kick like never before, but only to the specifications allowed. In the age of the on-field salary cap, footy’s arms race has moved into the coach’s box and game plans show no signs of getting any simpler.

But grit and discipline alone won’t win you a flag, otherwise North would win more. This is where hope remains for the footy romantic. To cut through the contested maul, clubs will be accentuating quick and nimble movers with precise disposal skills, those with clean hands and clear heads. All of which makes it likely that many clubs will be giving their indigenous players more prominent ball-carrying roles. Carlton are certainly trying Chris Yarran in an Andrew McLeod type role off half back, which would have been instantly recognisable to the Crows. So far, it seems to be paying dividends.

Up forward, Betts and Garlett will also be important. Garlett still looks like a strong breeze would blow him over, but he’s getting better every season. I like the look of the Blues’ recruits as well. Duigan seems ready made to slot into defence, and Watson and Laidler are thumping kicks. Given the revamp of our assistant coaching personnel, you would also hope for some new tactical refinements. Brett Ratten knows precisely what he has to do to keep his job, and I reckon he has a good chance to succeed.

Adelaide have so far avoided the injury plague that decimated them last season. important players like Vince, Thompson, Porplyzia and Knights look fitter, Otten is returned, and Rory Sloane stood out with Patrick Dangerfield for fiercest attack on the ball. Both are players to watch. Taylor Walker impressed in kicking goals against us, and dined out on the Tiges the next weekend. After the blip of last season, it would surprise if the Crows weren’t thereabouts come finals.

The following weekend provided very a different setting. Ballarat’s Eureka Stadium is situated in a less than salubrious part of town, the background of rusting sheds and railway tracks complemented on this particular afternoon by two prominently parked lime green monster trucks. You don’t see many of them around Royal Parade. Apart from a small concrete terrace area, it’s pretty much BYO seating at the home of the Roosters, and many had brought the folding chairs, as a good crowd of around 7000 watched the Bulldogs and the Roos in their final dress rehearsal.

North have fostered a close relationship with Ballarat in recent years, so this was a virtual home game for them despite the healthy turnout of Doggie merchandising. Fittingly, they stormed home with nine goals in the final term after the Dogs seemed to have their measure at ¾ time. Lindsay Thomas revived nightmares from last year for this Bluebagger as he had another purple patch, kicking six and being involved in others. Local lad Drew Petrie enjoyed the absence of Brian Lake to kick four, reminding all what his absence cost last year. Boomer Harvey showed he stills knows how to get a kick, and his pace seems intact. Robbie Tarrant showed a bit in defence, and Leigh Adams looks to be blossoming.

Even though the Roos won the day, you harboured concerns for their season. Some key structural personnel have had interrupted preparations; notably McIntosh, Grima, Bastinac and Greenwood. North left the impression this day that they were playing nearer to their maximum output than their opponents, who were spasmodic. The mood in the Bulldogs’ extensive support staff was revealed by one I asked in passing: “it’s only a practice game”, he shrugged. The Roos have been chronically underestimated in recent seasons, and I wish them no disservice, but unless Thomas can have some more days out, you wonder if they have the extra gears to worry the stronger teams.

The Bulldogs certainly do. Their ball movement was clearly the best of the teams I saw, when they were rolling. Higgins, Cooney and Griffin have the ability to burst any midfield open. Boyd, Cross and Ward will be a reliable engine room. However, some they might hope to step up didn’t convince. Jarrad Grant still looks too lightly framed to perform as a key forward. So does Liam Jones. Jordan Roughhead was left out, with Minson given preference. Bazza was either cruising or sluggish. Sadly, the Almanac’s own Zephi Skinner was given little opportunity to display his leaping abilities.

The Dogs look classy, but if there was an overall reservation, they need time and space to play their best footy. Whether the best sides will oblige remains to be seen. Sherman, Veszpremi and Djerkurra will add depth, but will they improve the team? You can see them being a factor, but can they get past a Prelim?. For their long suffering supporters, you hope they don’t stall there once again.

Overall impressions? All four sides witnessed would have finals expectations. I suspect North may have those expectations disappointed. But then, my crystal ball is usually no better than yours.

Will the sub rule have a significant impact on the pace of the game? You would doubt it. What it will do is complicate team selection. The type of player to pick as substitute will be an ongoing debate. You suspect backup ruckmen who can’t play another position will become an endangered species.

Will there be fewer players around the ball? Again, you’d doubt it. Collingwood’s success with the Swarm seems to be encouraging imitators. What might change, however, is the willingness of teams to kick longer to a contest as a means of beating it.

But the safest prediction of all is that the game will evolve in ways not anticipated, as coaches respond to new tactics with innovations of their own. Whoever gets ahead of the curve in this respect may steal the crown.

And I couldn’t finish without a word about the umpires. Both games were constantly interrupted by the whistle, as the now standard early season crackdown on all manner of trivial infringements was enforced with zeal. Woe betide the defender who puts a fingernail in the back of a forward, or the player with a toenail over the mark. At least until about round 5 anyway, when the Giesch’s attentions will have moved on to other matters.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. JB – very comprehensive. Your last comment is one of the things that worries me. I turned off a few NAB Cup games because the umpiring baffled me then annoyed me. What game are these blokes watching? I want to keep loving the footy but its getting harder.

  2. John Butler says

    Dips, at Eureka Stadium the umpiring figured large in discussion. People were struggling to even guess why the whistle kept blowing. The “infringements” were invisible to most eyes.

    But it seems to start this way every season now, then taper off.

  3. david butler says

    I really enjoyed your article John, specifically your description of worth attached to those lucky enough to find a quid. I am all over your sentiment but have yet to express it as well as you did.

    What price the lay Collingwood on Betfair? I remember a few years ago when Adelaide were panels in front at the furlong and people were wondering if they would ever be beatable . Things change very quickly in sport and you are generally either on the way up or on the way down. Time will tell.

  4. John Butler says

    Thanks David (no relation I presume?)

  5. david butler says

    I don’t think so mate. My father’s mob grew up in Auburn in Sydney.

  6. John Butler says

    Probably not then. I think my family tree is more like a stump.

  7. Excellent stuff, John!
    The stark image of a John Elliott in drag, rattling around the corridors of Princes Park, is very confronting.
    Maybe even in a pair of old boxing trunks mumbling “I coulda been a contender”….?
    An enjoyable and intelligent read.

  8. John Butler says

    Thanks Smokie

    I note you ignore my pessimism about the Roos. Very merciful of you. :)

  9. It hasn’t missed my eye though JB.

    You do raise an interesting point, RE North Melbourne. While last weekend was gripping, even for a practice match, I too got the impression that the Roos were going at least 95%. It is pleasing to know that they can up the ante when needed, which was shown in that final quarter, but these injuries are killing us. Petrie looks finished, he always had a unique style of running, as if he was barging through a million invisible packs, but now he’s just too proppy when running, as if he’s being cautious of breaking another foot.

    Much of our 2011 season will be determined by Robbie Tarrant. With Grima in doubt for Round One, Tarrant needs to show why he’s so highly touted, and he needs to do it immediately. If this works, it gives us a gorilla full-back we’ve craved since Mick Martyn left, it lets Grima take the second best forward, and it releases Scott Thompson off the chain, which is why he was recruited, to play the Harry O’Brien/James Gilbert role. If this does happen, put your house on Thompson making the All-Australian team/squad. But, it does rely on Tarrant, and I don’t like every North supporter putting their hopes on Tarrant’s shoulders, because we’ve seen in the past how they’ve failed him.

  10. John Butler says

    Interesting analysis Josh

    Tarrant did some good things, so you’re not without hope there.

    But I think you share my main concern- too much required from a bunch of kids not quite ready.

    I think Petrie may warm into things, but he was mostly matched up by Dale Morris. As good a player as Morris is, the size mismatch looked ridiculous.

    Lindsay Thomas bemuses me. He killed us single-handedly last year, and no one from the Doggies defence could deal with him last Saturday. But in other games he’s invisible.

  11. Steve Healy says

    Josh, I see no relevance in your cross-species comparisin. Especially for Mick Martyn, a man who didn’t even have hair on his head let alone the rest of his body! And come on, who’s James Gilbert? lol

  12. Good question Steve, who IS James Gilbert???

    Sam I mean.

  13. John Butler says

    I must say the silence from our Collingwood brethren is interesting.

    Casual dismissal of my heresy, safely confident of their manifest destiny?

  14. Phil Dimitriadis says

    #13 Never completely confident JB. Far too much hope has turned to dust in my barracking experiences. I just pray that Jolly stays fit because without his ruck work our midfield looks hesitant. The Pies can be beaten from quick breaks out of the centre to key forwards like Buddy and Riewoldt.

    I haven’t forgotten that we were one bounce away from another losing Grand Final. As I said to James Gilchrist recently, the pain of the 70s and 80s will never be erased because it happened during childhood when it all meant so much more. Maybe 4 in a row might take the edge off a tad…

    BTW,I did used to hate how Carlton never won a practice match between 79-82 yet turned it on when it counted. BASTARDS !!!

  15. John Butler says

    Phil, all the level-headed Magpies on this site spoil the fun. :)

    About those practice matches, NOW YOU’RE TALKING!

    Those were the days (long expressive sigh).

Leave a Comment