Round 3 – GWS v Melbourne: Sunday Night Lights

 

 

 

 

Greater Western Sydney versus Melbourne

 

6.10pm, Sunday 4 April

Manuka Oval, Canberra

William Westerman

 

 

As the last traces of sunlight disappeared over the horizon, the residual glow of the setting sun gave what few clouds remained in the sky a nice orange hue. Following a warm and sunny Easter Sunday, conditions in the nation’s capital that evening were still and not particularly cold. Indeed, for autumn, it was positively pleasant. While many Canberrans celebrated the long weekend with the traditional flight to the coast, at Manuka Oval, a healthy crowd was in attendance to watch two AFL teams do battle: the undefeated Demons and the struggling Giants.

 

It used to be that Manuka, with its low stands, well-manicured surface and upper-middle class surrounds, was a fortress for the Giants. That began to slip in 2019 when GWS lost two of its three games at the venue, including the memorable winter fixture against Hawthorn that saw a sudden, if light, dusting of snow at the end of the first quarter. No games were played in Canberra in 2020 (much to my chagrin, as the Giants had been scheduled to play the Lions) and the first clash of 2021 set the winless Giants a difficult task against a revitalised and determined Melbourne.

 

I was not expecting much from GWS, a view informed as much by Amazon Prime’s Making Their Mark documentary as by their early season form. Melbourne, on the other hand, had looked sharp in the first two rounds, and had not opened themselves up to the probing illumination that a fly-on-the-wall documentary brought with it (at least, not since the in-house To Hell and Back, which had aspired to build fan anticipation towards a redemptive 2020 season). The Demons were, therefore, an imposing, if opaque, property.

 

The game began as night descended, roaring into life in blistering fashion. Alex Neal-Bullen kicked a well-executed roving goal barely one minute into the game (indeed, early goals were a feature of every quarter). To the relief of those hoping for a good contest, GWS hit back with the next four goals: Greene, Hopper, Greene again and Himmelberg. Most came from quick ball movement into the forward line, followed by a strong mark and clean finish. It was the type of speedy play I recalled seeing from GWS several years ago when they would routinely and imperiously trample over teams in Canberra. In this instance, it meant that we had a game on our hands.

 

It was, in truth, an absorbing first quarter. The ball remained largely in Melbourne’s half of the ground, a good defensive effort on their part, yet the congestion in their forward 50 left little time and space for clean marks or shots on goal. Giants led the possessions (Taranto had 10 in the quarter) but close-quarter pressure and Melbourne’s high defensive line restricted the lively Giants to 11 inside 50s for the quarter (compared to Melbourne’s 17). Yet when the Demons’ line was broken, GWS burst through with pace and skill: they managed six scoring shots for the quarter compared to Melbourne’s five, leading at the break 5.1 to 2.3.

 

The Giants had won the first quarter, yet the margin was not insurmountable by any means. Furthermore, watching in the stands, there was a sense that Melbourne trusted their system to win out over the full game. This faith was relayed early in the second quarter when the Dees had the first two goals (Jackson and Fritsch), both coming from marks inside 50. The second goal brought the margin back to four points, and there were more worrying signs for the Giants as Phil Davis was soon out of the game with an ankle injury, followed shortly thereafter by Stephen Coniglio who suffered the same fate. Making Their Mark portrayed the GWS captain as an almost tragic figure, a young man unsure of himself as a leader and agonisingly incapable of compelling his team to the performances demanded by coach Leon Cameron. In that context, this latest injury setback is heartbreaking.

 

Meanwhile, in general play Melbourne controlled the match. It was still a contest, to be sure, but a contest increasingly played on the Demons terms and in their preferred style. Melbourne felt surer in what they were doing, and while the Giants could be slick, their clever passages were always a brief reaction against Melbourne’s control, rather than a sustained reinterpretation of the way the game was being played. Some of their key players, Taranto and Ash in particular, were getting a lot of the ball, but as a collective they were struggling to break the lines.

 

For their part, Melbourne had settled into the game. While not producing a high-possession quarter, veteran Nathan Jones was influential, making things happen whenever he touched the ball and being in the centre of important linking passages. Petracca and Brayshaw were no-doubt seeing more of it, but, for me at least, Jones stood out. Perhaps it was because he was bald and a decade older than most of his teammates. Equally, it could be that I’d followed his progress and form for many years, quietly impressed with the determination and drive he had shown during the Demons fallow years. For that alone he deserves to be considered a club legend.

 

Towards the end of the second quarter, Melbourne’s endeavours were rewarded when Kysaiah Pickett’s first goal put his side in front. By the standards of what was to come, his simple drop-punt set shot was a quotidian effort. O’Halloran soon restored the Giants’ lead, the culmination of some clean ball movement down the ground. The passage of play showed what the Giants were capable of, although they were demonstrating it far too infrequently. With the score 7.1 to 6.5 at half-time, the two-point margin was flattering, and gave no comfort to a team that had already sustained two serious and game-ending injuries. The Giants’ one advantage, aside from accuracy in front of goal, was that, with the ball so often in Melbourne’s half, their forward line was crowded, and Demons struggled to find clean, free targets to hit. Still, eight scoring shots to eleven was a worry.

 

As with the two previous quarters, the third quarter began with a quick goal. On this occasion it was the quickest yet: it took Bayley Fritsch a mere 18 seconds to put through his second after a forceful punch from Gawn out of the ruck and a penetrating clearance from Viney. Melbourne’s next goal, however, was something special. After Matt Flynn took an intercept mark deep in the Giants’ defence, he (too) calmly went to kick a short pass along the boundary line to a teammate apparently in space. Neither player reckoned with the pace, guile and determination of Pickett, who appeared from nowhere to spoil the ball, scoop it up while on the ground himself, rise, and then snap over his shoulder while running away from goal to send the ball sailing clear through the goals. As Melbourne’s general structure and organisation strangled the life out of the Giants, the 19-year-old Pickett brought flair and excitement to the contest.

 

The Dees were thoroughly off to the races now, benefitting no doubt from the Giants mounting injury toll and diminished rotations. De Boer’s subsequent exit from the game not only freed up Clayton Oliver (whom De Boer had been effectively tagging) but reduced the Giants’ bench even further. The only thing in GWS’ favour was that Melbourne was not making them pay more heavily on the scoreboard. For instance, Oliver should have kicked a goal after receiving the ball from an effective series of disposals out of Melbourne’s half-back line, punctuated with some gut running from Nathan Jones. Yet the Demons were playing the long game, and it was soon paying dividends. Fritsch’s third goal for the game (from just his third kick) opened up a 17-point lead. The ball had arrived to him after the Demons had broken out of the Giants’ forward fifty was clean hands, good running and precise kicking. Not only were they beating the Giants at their own game, but they had finally achieved something that had proved difficult for much of the game: a clean, one-on-one marking contest, with the ball delivered in favour of the leading forward.

 

By the end of the third quarter it was 8.1 to 10.7, and the game was thoroughly on Melbourne’s terms. With the Giants’ injuries, it was difficult to see them fighting their way back. The Giants were still struggling to break the lines, handball chains weren’t as slick and accurate as they had been in the first quarter and they kicking around the boundary line was becoming wayward. When they did manage to go forward, entries were blind, hopeful and seemingly never to the advantage of their forwards.

 

Yet there was still a potential surprise in the game. As had become the pattern, the final quarter started with an early goal, although this time, unlike every other occasion, it was GWS who kicked it: Toby Greene equalled Fritsch’s third-quarter effort of a goal in 18 seconds. Within two minutes he had another (his fifth for the game) and an improbable comeback was on the cards. In the stands, you could sense that Demons supporters, conditioned to expect the worst from their team, were nervous.

 

They need not have been, however, as the electrifying Pickett soon reversed the trend, roving a simple ball that fell neatly for him to run into an open goal. It was the next Melbourne goal, kicked by captain Max Gawn, which seemingly closed out the game. Gawn had been his usual steadfast and effective self, working all around the ground not only to win ruck contests but to move from pack to pack, taking vital contested marks when needed. The cherry on top was Pickett’s fourth goal, where he again found himself swooping on the ball and then running away from goal to find space before quickly snapping accurately over his shoulder. Particularly impressive was the fact that he kicked this one on his left foot (presumably his non-preferred, since he kicked the other three on his right), something easily missed given the pace at which he operated.

 

After several final goals the game finished 11.2 (68) to 15.12 (102). Melbourne’s system had been thoroughly dominant, a fact demonstrates by the disparity in scoring shots, if not the actual margin. Indeed, when Toby Greene kicked the Giants’ second point for the match (he had also kicked their first point in the first quarter), it underscored how accurate GWS had been thus far. Indeed, this accuracy was the only thing that had kept the game tight on the scoreboard and saved the Giants from a blowout. Once the ball was in their forward fifty, the Giants had made best use of almost every opportunity they had, the problem was that Melbourne had not allowed them to enter their forward fifty all that often. The cavalier Giants who would sling the ball to and fro as they strode through the middle of Manuka Oval with impunity were a fading memory, Melbourne’s defensive structure saw to that.

 

For the Demons, they went 3-0. Early on, when the game was a contest and an arm-wrestle, Jones was central, his efforts necessary and valuable. Melbourne middle showed both its quality and its stopping power,  with Brayshaw and Viney efficient and powerful in close, while Langdon covered territory well; he was everywhere he was needed. Gawn was dominant, not merely in the ruck but around the ground. It’s a cliché, but when the Giants were running out of energy, he remained tall, taking clutch marks and ending the game with two goals. It was, however, a night to be remembered for the exhilarating performance of Kysaiah Pickett. If I were a Dees fan, I’d be getting excited. Belief and momentum are priceless assets in football; returning from an Easter weekend in Canberra, the Melbourne Football Club is well stocked with both.

 

William Westerman’s book Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996 will be launched at the North Fitzroy Arms on June 1 this year. All welcome. To pre-order the book contact us HERE.

 

 

Greater Western Sydney       5.1       7.1       8.1       11.2     (68)

Melbourne                              2.3       6.5       10.7     15.12   (102)

 

GOALS

Greater Western Sydney: Greene 5, Kelly 2, Himmelberg, Hopper, O’Halloran, Green

Melbourne: Pickett 4, Fritsch 3, Gawn 2, Jackson, Neal-Bullen, Petracca, Spargo, Brayshaw, Jordan

 

BEST

Greater Western Sydney: Taranto, Greene, Kelly, Ash, Haynes, Hopper

Melbourne: Gawn, Viney, Hunt, Brayshaw, Pickett, Langdon

 

 

 

The Tigers (Covid) Almanac 2020 will be published in 2021. It will have all the usual features – a game by game account of the Tigers season – and will also include some of the best Almanac writing from the Covid winter.  Pre-order HERE

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About William Westerman

Canberra based military historian and sporting enthusiast.

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