While we may have only just passed the halfway mark of the AFL’s home-and-away season, West Coast and Geelong gave a glimpse of what finals will resemble in this truncated and turbulent year of football.
In one of the best matches this season, the clash between the Eagles and Cats in Perth on Saturday night was one that highlighted the skilful nature of the two teams, despite a helter-skelter pace and unrelenting pressure.
It was tight, tense and captivating watching these powerful teams slug it out, with the Eagles prevailing by nine points.
The 2018 grand final hero Dom Sheed was a shining light for the Eagles with his accurate left foot and two important goals, Josh Kennedy booted four in another display that belied his veteran status, and Nic Naitanui was the architect of multiple West Coast assaults in a commanding ruck performance.
There was also Tim Kelly, who offered a glaring reminder to his former club of why they were desperate to keep him.
For Geelong, Mitch Duncan underlined his importance as a calming influence and vital connector with his pin-point ball use, Tom Stewart was also at his damaging best in his second match back from injury, while Geelong 2011 premiership captain Cameron Ling must be impressed with the early signs shown by Brad Close, the second gamer who inherited his famous number 45.
While the Cats became only the second team this season to be overhauled when leading at three-quarter time, their performance — without Gary Ablett and captain Joel Selwood — was thoroughly impressive.
The Eagles have clearly shaken off their malaise in recent weeks to emerge as a premiership threat. But the Cats can’t be discounted either.
Lions are a flag threat
Brisbane’s rise up the table and return to September football was one of the stories of last season.
While the Lions ultimately bowed out with consecutive finals losses, this season they’re building a body of work that suggests a more productive flag tilt is imminent.
Brisbane’s 63-point win over Essendon was its biggest of 2020 and showed a huge gulf exists between the Bombers and the competition’s best sides.
Apart from an impressive round-five win over Collingwood, the Bombers have only beaten those on the bottom rungs of the ladder. Friday night was a chance to legitimise their place as a top-eight team, but they failed dismally.
A long injury list is unquestionably taking a toll and Essendon fans were rightly furious with some mind-boggling umpiring decisions, but the Lions were in a different league.
Speaking of mind boggling, the Bombers’ decision not to tag Brownlow Medal favourite Lachie Neale appeared foolish before the match and equally so in the aftermath.
Neale chalked up a match-high 33 disposals and kicked two goals to claim the three votes in the ABC Footballer of the Year. Dylan Clarke has proven his capabilities as a tagger but, oddly, is yet to be picked by the Bombers this season. On Friday night, it looked a costly omission.
Tigers regain their bite
Like Essendon, Richmond is missing key players through injury, but the Tigers have shown they not only have great depth, but a renewed hunger to defend their 2019 flag.
Wednesday night’s 41-point win over the Western Bulldogs kicked off the AFL’s “Festival of Footy” and the Tigers were in a festive mood as they produced their best performance of the year.
Emerging youngsters Jake Aarts and Noah Balta played key hands, with the latter earning the highest praise when he was likened to a young Alex Rance by his coach Damian Hardwick.
For the first time this season, Dustin Martin looked genuinely interested. Dusty went from coasting to carving in a dominant three-goal, 26-posession performance that should have opposition sides very nervous.
While Martin was back to his vintage best, it was awesome just to see Majak Daw back at all.
Almost two years after his last senior AFL match, Daw returned for the Kangaroos in their clash with Adelaide and it could scarcely have been a greater celebration.
Daw, who suffered serious hip and pelvic injuries in a fall from Melbourne’s Bolte Bridge in December 2018, was engulfed by congratulatory teammates as he kicked a goal in the final quarter of the Roos’ 63-point triumph.
It was a win for team and individual. North Melbourne ended a six-match losing streak and, in the process, kicked the highest score (119) of any side this season.
Conversely, it was ghastly for Adelaide and difficult to comprehend given the Crows had 10 players in their side on Saturday who lined up in the 2017 grand final.
Rookie coach Matthew Nicks felt compelled to used drink bottles to demonstrate basic team structures on the floor of the rooms at half-time. The coach has shown his bottle, it’s now for the players to find some too.