No doubt Melbourne provided one of footy’s bright sparks on the weekend. An enterprising game plan with much more attacking flair, a major increase in defensive pressure in the forward half and plenty of reasons to get excited for certain players means that Melbourne may be a team to watch in 2016.
There’s always that ‘it’s only NAB Challenge’ air though, and that is also true. Remember, it was only four short years ago that Mark Neeld steered Melbourne to a victory over then-reigning Grand Finalists Collingwood in his first full game in charge. Then the next two years happened. No need to explain that one.
The Demons take on the Western Bulldogs in Craigieburn on Sunday and then St Kilda the following week at Etihad in their final two hitouts before taking on the Giants in Round One at the MCG. With the weekend clash against Port in mind, here’s an initial look at how the Dees are shaping up.
Port Adelaide were close to full strength, only missing Alipate Carlile, Chad Wingard and Charlie Dixon from arguably their best 22. The Demons were also close to full strength, but were missing their two best midfielders, Nathan Jones and Bernie Vince. They also lost Angus Brayshaw five seconds into the game. With that in mind, it was still an exciting performance from the Demons.
The Demons showed a lot more attacking flair than in previous seasons in a sure sign that Simon Goodwin’s influence is beginning to be felt. The plan finally came together in the third quarter. The Demons dominated Port, kicking 6.2 to no score, while enjoying 70% of the play in their forward half. Such was their forward pressure, Port were forced into bad old habits, pressuring them into handball and as a result forcing mistakes. The likes of Jeff Garlett and Dean Kent were pivotal in that regard.
Much of the attribution towards winning the midfield battle goes to Max Gawn. Gawn blanketed Matthew Lobbe in the ruck, using his 8cm height advantage to supply the likes of Jack Viney and Aaron Vandenberg first use of the footy. Gawn was clearly the best man on the ground, accumulating 42 hitouts and 15 possessions.
Viney, for his game, also deserves credit. Viney’s finish to 2015 saw him come extremely close to toppling Vince for the best and fairest, collecting 23 disposals or more in six of his last eight games. On Saturday he showed that he might be able to go to another level in 2016, collecting 28 disposals. Frequently, it was Viney who was at the fall of the ball when Gawn won it out of the ruck.
Less experienced players also shone. Can you believe Vandenberg was plucked out of obscurity from Ainslie in the ACT a couple of years ago? He’s taken to AFL like a fish to water. Again, he’s shown how valuable he is to this Melbourne lineup with a big second half, finishing with 19 disposals and two goals in another excellent performance. For a workhorse, it may surprise when I say that he doesn’t need 25 disposals to impact a game, but that is exactly what Vandenberg provides.
Clayton Oliver, on debut, was also influential early. Oliver laid some crunching tackles and showed flashes of the brilliance which saw him force his way into the top five in last year’s draft. There’s no doubt there’s an exciting future ahead for the Demons.
Curb Your Enthusiasm…
For all the excitement one win gives supporters, it’s still a meaningless NAB Challenge game, and there’s still a lot of work to be done. For one, it’s that the Demons haven’t worked on their true game fitness yet, executing more than 130 interchanges (remember, the rule change now sees only 90 in a game – a rule that Port Adelaide followed). However, given the Demons were playing their first game of 2016 on a warm day, it’s no surprise the Demons went down this route. Expect more of an indication of their fitness in one of the final two NAB Challenge games.
While the second half was exciting, the first half was frustrating. Yes, the signs and the indications of what the Dees wanted to do was there, but the ball use was still rather poor. The inside 50 entries weren’t terrific in the first half, with players out of position as a result of poor kicks which didn’t favour forwards like Hogan and Kent. It, therefore, wasn’t a surprise that Port Adelaide’s superior first half ball use saw them five goals up at one stage.
The attacking game plan also meant that there were still some deficiencies which would have left Paul Roos fuming, with a number of Power goals in the opening half scored with little resistance from Demon defenders. There’s no doubt a little bit of work to do to ensure that equilibrium between attack and defence is truly reached but regardless of those disappointing patches.
Which brings me to one certain aspect of that. Around half way through the second quarter, the Demons were able to hold the ball inside their forward 50 for about a minute and a half – okay, they probably should have scored, and had about three chances to do so – but as soon as they conceded a free kick and allowed Port to repel, within 15 seconds, the ball had found its way to a one-on-one between Oscar McDonald and Jay Schulz which the latter would win. That’s still frustrating.
Lastly, Max Gawn’s fitness is crucial to Melbourne’s chances – more so than any other player. You only need look at his form in the back half of the season, and the issues that the Demons had in the ruck beforehand, to see how important he is. While Jake Spencer, who’s next in line, is a serviceable ruckman, he has also had plenty of injury issues and has spent most of the pre-season in rehab. After that, a couple of rookies – Mitch King and Max King – who are yet to play a game. If big Max goes down, there’s no doubt we’ll be missing Mark Jamar at one point.
There’s so much to get excited about at Demonland. But it’s the classic, quintessential case of “It’s just NAB Challenge”. Nevertheless, keep an eye out on the Demons this year. They loom as one of the most interesting case studies of the season right now, and another promising performance against the Dogs this weekend might strengthen their cause this season.