Delivering the Best News to you!

At Melbourne, they often speak of learnings. There aren’t many more weasel words than learnings. It’s a word that’s popular with chin strokers, with LinkedIn loiterers, and with football coaches. In the past, there haven’t been many learnings (sorry) to take from the second week of finals. Semi finals are often a reordering of the top four, a reminder not to be seduced by the previous week’s winner.

But this weekend was different. This weekend taught us a lot. We learnt, for instance, that Melbourne simply isn’t good enough. After Round 10, they were the shortest priced premiership favourites in the history of the game. “Be very afraid,” David King said. “Melbourne are going at about 70 per cent of last year, and they’re already proving they are 50 per cent better than the rest of the competition.”

But King’s calculator short-circuited, and Melbourne unravelled. Suddenly there were injuries, illnesses, leaked text messages, drunken sledges, haymakers, infected hands, community service penalties, and an integrity department investigation. Teams had figured them out. Their forward line wasn’t functioning. And there were question marks over their fitness.

In previous years, they’d put a lot of trust in Darren Burgess. He’d worked with some of the best soccer players in the world, and believed AFL footballers didn’t train hard enough. He pushed them to their limit. In 2021, they had an incredible run with injuries. These things are a mix of good management and luck. But nine Demons played every game – and four of those were All Australians. Their aerobic capacity was astonishing. They’d be running on top of the ground in final terms, while their opponents were stuck in quicksand.

But Burgess was snapped up by Adelaide, and things changed. In nearly all Melbourne’s losses this year, they looked the winner at some stage in the second half, only to peter out. Since Round 11, only North Melbourne and West Coast had a worse record in final quarters. Chris Fagan rammed that home to his players at half time – these guys don’t run out games.

There were other problems of course – principally their lack of goal-kickers, the absence of a ‘connector’ across half forward, and their discipline across the ground. As Goodwin later said: “In finals, your vulnerabilities find you.”

We learnt a lot about Brisbane too. With Charlie Cameron limping off and Joe Daniher in the maternity ward, they seemed bereft of scoring options. They’d been Melbourne’s pet team for years. Their recent record at the MCG was poor. The last time these two teams met at the ground, Melbourne brutalised them and bundled them into a Tullamarine-bound cab.

This game was headed down a similar path. Clearly the Lions needed to do something completely different. They had to change their mode, method and mood. They had to clamp down on Clayton Oliver. At a bare minimum, they had to stop hacking the ball down the line, where Gawn and May were gobbling it up with glee.

They addressed all those things. Berry went to Oliver, racked up 22 second half possessions, and helped turn the game. Eric Hipwood, who looks like the third banana in a New Wave band, and who sometimes competes in the air like one, got the better of May. Whenever there was a 50-50 ball to be won, the Lions went harder and lower. Their fans, with a lot of old Fitzroy supporters among then, drowned out what was a strangely passive Melbourne crowd.

It did, however, seem to energise Jordan De Goey, who earlier this year was labelled “unrecruitable” and “the dumbest footballer of his generation.” He was in menacing touch on Saturday. In The Age, we learnt more about Jack Ginnivan, who has trodden a very different track to those drafted through the private school system. He may be “the face of the new-age footballer” but young Jack has some old school footy smarts about him, as he demonstrated one minute into the Semi Final.

The game was on Collingwood’s boot. Last week, they played wider than usual, circumventing Geelong’s wall of headbands. This week, they tucked the ball under their arms, exploded off half back and attacked through the middle. From Crisp to Ginnivan, and from Pendlebury to Daicos, they have high football IQs. As a fan, there’s nothing more infuriating than dumb footballers – players who get chased down, players who don’t lower their eyes, players who don’t have the right balance of risk and reward. Look at the way St Kilda play – there’s a lot of headless chooks in there. But Collingwood has smart players on every line.

They also have what Daisy Pearce recently called “the emotional gears” to succeed in the modern game. She was referring to players who can be laughing and gambolling about before the game, play brutal, uncompromising football, and quickly ground themselves and look to next week, regardless of the result. Their Qualifying Final was a draining, and potentially demoralising affair. But they dusted themselves off, and taught Fremantle a finals lesson. It was, according to the AFL website “a harsh but fair learning ground for the youthful Dockers.”

As Max Gawn also reminded us, “there’s a lot of learnings to take.” We learnt that bold, attacking football trumps stodgy, sideways football. As six was whittled down to four, we learnt that this is still very much anyone’s Premiership.