AFL: five things we learned from round seven

North take a step in the right direction, St Kilda carnage, poking the bear, the Eagles have a nose for blood, and anger and finger-pointing at Port Adelaide

Jack Ziebell of the Kangaroos celebrates a goal to seal the win over Essendon at Etihad Stadium.
Jack Ziebell of the Kangaroos celebrates a goal to seal the win over Essendon at Etihad Stadium. Photograph: Michael Dodge/AFL Media/Getty Images
Jack Ziebell of the Kangaroos celebrates a goal to seal the win over Essendon at Etihad Stadium. Photograph: Michael Dodge/AFL Media/Getty Images

Last modified on Mon 10 Oct 2016 21.53 EDT

North do the little things right

After a series of Friday night stinkers, round seven finally offered a decent contest, with the clash between North Melbourne and a spirited Essendon in the balance until the final minutes. When a game is on the line, every piece is play is amplified, analysed and dissected. Last time the Kangaroos found themselves in the same position, against Port Adelaide in round three, the Power made the winning plays. And, unfairly or not, North hasn’t entirely shaken the ‘flaky’ tag they picked up in 2013 when they found comical ways to blow what seemed like winning leads on the way to losing five games by less than a goal. But on Friday night, the Kangaroos called the shots late. Brad Scott made a match-winning move at three-quarter-time, sending Drew Petrie down back. Petrie took four intercept marks, the best a telling, towering pack mark to repel Essendon’s final thrust forward in the last 90 seconds.

There were other crucial plays in the dying minutes, like Scott Thompson outpointing Joe Daniher in a one-on-one contest in the Bombers’ forward 50m, and Sam Gibson outmarking two opponents on the back flank when a turnover would have led to an Essendon shot at goal. To win the close ones, you need poise when it counts. And as the Bombers blazed away under pressure, new Roo Shaun Higgins coolly nailed a 50m set shot with a few minutes on the clock and his team’s lead less than a goal. With Daniel Wells and Nick Dal Santo largely unsighted this season, Higgins’ class has become even more vital than Scott could have anticipated. The best teams play with synchronicity and a trust in each other to get the job done. We’ll learn more about North when they meet the unbeaten Dockers this week, but Friday night was a step in the right direction.

Nick Riewoldt’s annus horribilis continues

It’s been a rough old start to 2015 for Nick Riewoldt. The Saints skipper tragically lost his younger sister Madeleine to a rare blood disease in February, and missed the entire NAB Challenge to grieve with his family. In round one, the Saints were within striking distance of GWS with a quarter of an hour to play before an off-the-ball hit by Tomas Bugg saw Riewoldt taken to hospital with whiplash. He missed a further three weeks with a niggling calf complaint, before returning to contribute well in round six’s comeback victory over the Western Bulldogs. On Saturday afternoon, the Saints silenced the Adelaide Oval crowd with the game’s first three goals before Riewoldt clashed heads in a sickening incident with Crow Brodie Smith. He was out cold before he even hit the ground, and taken straight to hospital where he was fortunately cleared of major damage. He’ll be long odds to play this week, but in the aftermath of a heavy hit, the Saints’ next game would be the last thing on the mind of Riewoldt’s loved ones.

The Crows’ 37-point win was overshadowed by the carnage – not just Riewoldt, but Smith and Saint Jack Lonie were subbed out with concussion, and Matthew Jaensch suffered a suspected ACL injury innocuously trying to change direction. The Riewoldt incident hammered home how seriously the industry treats head knocks these days – the day when a player would stagger back onto the field minutes after being KO’d are long gone – and a salient reminder of the harm these young men expose themselves to every weekend.

Don’t poke the bear

We footy fans are highly attuned to the way footballers speak; the “yeah-nah-good-to-get-the-four-points” rhetoric spouted by young men media trained to within an inch of their lives. So when a footballer speaks honestly and free of cliché, it raises eyebrows. Case in point: Melbourne forward Chris Dawes, who ahead of the Dees’ Saturday afternoon date with the Hawks described the reigning premiers as “really gettable” and said his team was “expecting to win”. On one hand it was refreshing, on the other neutral supporters were glad it wasn’t one of their players poking the bear.

Coming off an unexpected loss, the Hawks had enough motivation. But you wondered what was going through Dawes’ mind by 5pm on Saturday when his team was trudging off the MCG after a 105-point hiding, the sort of beating that took Demons fans back to the type of dark days they thought they were over. Scarily, the Hawks rarely seemed to get out of second gear. By the third quarter they were trying Harlem Globetrotters-type stuff, Cyril Rioli toe-poking and then tunneling the ball between his legs to set up a Luke Breust goal.

And Dawes? The late withdrawal of Jesse Hogan didn’t help, but the forward managed just six possessions and was kept scoreless. The Demons have been so bereft of confidence for so long that you can’t begrudge Dawes for trying to pump his team-mates up. But the Buddy Franklins of the world can afford the odd moment of overconfidence because they expect their team to be in a winning position every week. Melbourne must first master the art of four quarters of competitive footy against top-shelf opponents, before they start dreaming of beating them.

West Coast goes for the kill

In an era where many teams are happy to build big leads and then rest on their laurels, West Coast is a breath of fresh air. Because when these Eagles smell blood, they go for the jugular. Having already belted the Blues by 69 and the Giants by 87 at home, it was the hapless Suns’ turn in the firing line this week. If the 92-point margin wasn’t enough, the wet and miserable conditions would have had Harley Bennell and his mates wishing they’d stayed on the booze for another week.

It’s exhilarating to watch the Eagles when they’re in this type of form. Their third quarter, in which they kicked a club-record 12 goals straight, was likened to “an air-raid shelter” by Suns coach Rodney Eade after the game. Usual suspects Josh Kennedy and Matthew Priddis were influential but the emergence of former Lion Elliott Yeo (29 touches and four goals) was a real bonus. Doubters will point out that the Eagles have only played one of last year’s top six, but the value of their comprehensive smashings is evident in their league-best percentage of 156.6, which could end up the difference between September action or an early holiday.

As for their crosstown rivals, Fremantle’s “anywhere, anytime” national tour rolled into Etihad Stadium where the Bulldogs made them work harder than they have all season to maintain their two-game buffer over the rest of the competition. The measure of a great team is one that lifts in the face of adversity, and the Dockers turned a level game with the crowd and momentum against them into a 13-point win in the blink of an eye. Their biggest concern in the aftermath was a report against Nat Fyfe for a clumsy trip. To lose one Brownlow through suspension is cruel, to lose two would be an injustice.

Port Adelaide’s 2015 is starting to look like Geelong’s 2006

There will be plenty of anger and finger pointing among the Port Adelaide faithful this week after the pre-season premiership fancies slumped to a 3-4 record, dropping their second successive game they were short-priced favourites to win. You can only hope the anger subsides enough for fans to remember Geelong’s 2006. Just like Port, the Cats started that season as flag favourites to many, having lost a semi-final and a heartbreaking preliminary final in the two seasons previous. For whatever reason – call it arrogance, complacency or simply being worked out by opposition coaches – Geelong missed the finals altogether but rebounded to win the flag the following year and thus a great team was born.

The way Port capitulated at the hands of the resurgent Lions on Sunday evening was nothing like the ruthless, skilful Power we all expected this year. In fact, save for that first quarter blast against the Hawks, they haven’t really looked like the Port we expected at all. The Power was sloppy, slow and beaten for endeavour. Their fabled “best fitness in the league” is simply non-existent this season, having been outscored in the final quarters of all four of their losses. And of Port’s big names – Travis Boak, Chad Wingard, Justin Westhoff – only Robbie Gray has delivered anywhere like his 2014 heroics this year.

Of course, there are still two-thirds of the season to go and Port is by no means out of the top four or premiership hunt. But they need to find something – and fast. At the end of the day, sometimes you need to take a small step backwards to take two big steps forward. The Cats learned this valuable lesson all those years ago, and maybe it’s Port’s turn.

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