Meet the AFL’s dumbest team, and the most ridiculous ban in MRO history

Meet the AFL's dumbest team, and the most ridiculous ban in MRO history

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Round 1 is run, won and done – and while it’s going to take the ladder a few more weeks to work out what exactly is going on, we’ve already seen plenty of eye-catching stuff this early in the season.

Last year’s grand finalists, Collingwood and Brisbane, are both 0-2 and with some proper thinkin’ to do – meanwhile, in between them geographically, it’s Sydney dominating the league, with both the Swans and GWS undefeated and looking the teams to beat.

Also on 2-0, though somewhat less impressive, are Carlton and Gold Coast, who very nearly let games they had under their control slip through their fingers in Round 1 – but who will nonetheless be thrilled with the four points.

And with James Sicily and Mason Redman both receiving suspensions from the MRO, we’ve already got some juicy off-field controversy to sink our teeth into!

For the first time in 2024… let’s dive in.

1. The Dogs are the AFL’s dumbest team – and they’re getting dumber

There were a lot of signs across the off-season that the Western Bulldogs were finally going to attempt to fix the issues that have consistently plagued them since about the 15-minute mark of the 2021 grand final’s third quarter.

Both their backline and stoppage coaches were moved on; a defensive-first midfielder in James Harmes and a mid-sized defender in Nick Coffield were added to fill holes; more decision-making than ever before was to be taken out of Luke Beveridge’s hands.

Sure, the coach didn’t seem to thrilled with it, and headlines throughout the summer mostly involved some implication of instability or infighting behind the scenes, but often the decisions that cause the most angst prove to be the right ones.

But any sense of optimism that things might be different in 2024 had well and truly dissipated by full time at the MCG on Sunday afternoon. The Bulldogs remain the dumbest side in the AFL by some distance – as much for how they continue to operate, and be beaten, as from what they do with the ball in hand.

This is a team chock full of talent across most lines, with the reigning All-Australian ruckman, the de facto best player in the game in Marcus Bontempelli to lead a star-studded midfield, and a three-pronged forward line that Rodney Eade would have sold a kidney for after three straight preliminary final exits from 2008-10 without a genuine key spearhead.

And yet they continue to lose in the same way. Teams waltz inside 50 and distribute the ball at will to leading forward with a scattergun defence breaking apart like a Kit-Kat.

They are incapable of stopping teams from turning clearance wins into dominant forays forward.

And when it’s their turn to attack, there is seemingly no plan to score beyond bash the ball forward, hope one of Aaron Naughton or Jamarra Ugle-Hagan clunks one, and then pray they kick straight.

The Dogs and Melbourne had the exact same amount of inside 50s – 53 – on Sunday afternoon. Given the Dees’ forward line has spent the best part of 18 months misfiring on the regular, and struggling to convert territory dominance into winning scores, it should embarrass everyone at Whitten Oval that they conceded 16 goals and 29 scoring shots.

It’s not all the defenders’ fault – the pressure upfield on running opponents is a long way below AFL standard – but Liam Jones aside, not a single one of them seems to know where the most dangerous spots are for every inside 50, because they’re left open on the regular.

The personnel gets the whack most of the time from the media, and I’d be shocked if Buku Khamis retains his spot in the team next week, but they’ve also been sold a pup too. Beveridge regularly gives young, developing players or VFL jobbers tasks way beyond what they’re capable of, in a side that is good enough to not require them, and fails to react when they repeatedly get embarrassed.

Not helping Khamis’ case is that for at least half his career the Dogs have tried to turn him into a key forward in the VFL; and yet he was picked as the second tall defender against a team which deliberately stacked its forward line with key targets, sensing vulnerability.

No team is going to sack their coach after Round 1, and the Dogs’ almost complete lack of success before Beveridge arrived makes them less likely than most.

But it’s now three years in a row they’ve dished out the same flaw-filled game plan to start a season, and three years in a row they have seen it cut to ribbons.

The Dogs are the dumbest team in footy – and they simply refuse to learn.

2. The biggest joke of a ban in MRO history

Watching the opening minutes of Hawthorn’s clash with Essendon on Saturday, I was flummoxed when James Sicily gave away a secondary free kick for clashing with Andrew McGrath after a Bombers goal, gifting them with another set shot.

So you can imagine my reaction to discovering on Sunday afternoon that Match Review Officer Michael Christian had seen fit to slap the Hawks’ skipper with a one-game suspension for ‘kicking’.

Having now had a second, more forensic look at the incident, as well as Christian’s verdict, my proclamation is thus: this is the most ridiculous suspension he has handed out while in the job.

For starters, it has to be noted that Sicily did not start this; the Bombers, as is their prerogative, made it their mission from the opening bounce to make his life hell. And it worked – with just 11 disposals and two marks, Hawthorn’s talisman had one of his worst games in memory, as Matt Guelfi in particular kept him under wraps throughout.

But there has to be some understanding, if not protection, for a player standing up for himself against that kind of treatment.

If the rules don’t afford any leeway not just in conceding free kicks, but from a suspension point as well, then all we do is encourage opposition teams to freely gang up on whatever star player they like.

I’m not sure that’s a good look for the game.

Mostly, though, I have an issue with Christian’s summation of the incident. For starters, he has graded it ‘intentional’ contact – sure, Sicily’s kicking out isn’t a great look, but it’s about the first time I can remember the MRO deeming a split-second incident deliberate.

Readers of this column last year will know full well of my frustration every time a bump is graded ‘careless’ rather than intentional – no doubt the Hawks will argue, as everyone who has got a player off a bump via the ‘bracing for contact’ defence, that it was an instinctive reaction with zero damage inflicted.

Put simply: a suspension should serve not just as punishment for bad behaviour, but as a deterrent for others. And there are far more egregious acts in our game that need to be stamped out far more urgently than this one.

I’m perfectly willing to admit, after a second look, that the free kick against Sicily was warranted, as well as a fine for being a massive idiot – kicking out is a dumb thing to do, and a gentle reminder to not do anything so brainless again was well warranted.

But to cost a player a week on the sidelines for it, when so repeatedly in the last three years we have seen far more dangerous, damaging and consequential incidents be deemed legal under the laws of the game?

That just rubs me wrong.

James Sicily was handed a one-match suspension for kicking Andrew McGrath.

James Sicily was handed a one-match suspension for kicking Andrew McGrath. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

And while I’m at it… if someone can explain the consistency behind Mason Redman copping a week for punching Jai Newcombe when George Hewett wasn’t last week, I’ll be all ears.

3. Mitchell’s Maginness mistake

Anyone who’s even taken a passing glance at my work over the last few years will know this about me: If Sam Mitchell has one fan, that’s me, and if Sam Mitchell has no fans, I am no longer on this earth.

All the same, he made a rare double mistake on Saturday afternoon at the MCG: not with his structures, but with his team selection.

Naming Finn Maginness as the Hawks’ sub is one of the more baffling calls I can remember from any team on that front – and keep in mind, Port Adelaide named Jeremy Finlayson sub in a final last year.

For starters, Maginness, while he has many admirable qualities, isn’t what you’d call a burst footballer. He’s not particularly quick, he’s not a damaging, line-breaking kick; offensively, he hasn’t really offered all that much in his young career.

What Maginness is, however, is a tagger – possibly the best tagger in the league. An important role to play in modern footy, as he proved last year by almost completely shutting down Nick Daicos in a famous Hawks win… just not one all that suited to coming on midway through the last quarter.

Making the sub call even more baffling was the damage Zach Merrett wrought; you’d have expected Maginness, had he been in the starting 22, to have been given the job on the Bombers’ best and most impactful on-baller.

Freed from the threat of a tag, Merrett racked up the footy at will, finishing with 31 disposals and eight marks at a slick 77 per cent efficiency. And efficiency, mind you, was a primary reason the Bombers bested the Hawks, who dominated large passages but were let down by woeful kicking for goal and errors by foot at crucial times.

A better choice for sub would have been first-gamer Nick Watson, who showed exciting signs on debut, particularly with his crumbing craft, but who otherwise faced a tough initiation to the big time with only five disposals, three of them behinds.

Swapping Maginness for Watson would have enabled the Hawks to clamp down on the Bombers’ best midfielder, damaging their system, while giving a young, electric kid a chance to impact the game as a pair of fresh legs with everyone else succumbing to fatigue, as Shaun Mannagh threatened to do in his first game as a Cat on Saturday night.

Mitchell has got far more right as Hawks coach than he has wrong – but this was definitely, in my view, a critical misstep.

4. The Suns can’t afford to let this slip

In 14 years as an AFL club, Gold Coast have started a season with two consecutive wins twice – in 2016 and 2018.

Both were met with tentative whispers that, after years of mediocrity, this was finally the Suns’ time. And they’d go on to win just six games for the rest of those seasons combined, resulting in yet more mediocrity for a side which has offered scarcely anything else since its inception.

It’s easy to say this year feels different, with a new, highly credentialled coach in Damien Hardwick at the helm and a pair of starkly different, yet both impressive, victories under their belt, the latter a workmanlike effort to outmuscle Adelaide in wet conditions that was nearly squandered by a capitulation in the final 15 minutes.

But it’s harder to say that this is now the most important month in Gold Coast’s history to date, which it officially is.

Forget winning over the glitter strip and becoming a Sydney-esque powerhouse – if the Suns have any ambition to end their finals drought anytime soon, this start must be capitalised upon.

They have a strong, in-form midfield, a star-studded forward line with a brilliant spearhead in Ben King, and defensive steel behind the ball. I’m being deadly serious when I say premiership sides in the very recent history have been built on less.

Up next for the Suns is a trip to Ballarat to face the Bulldogs, then Gather Round against GWS, a home date with Hawthorn and a clash with Sydney at the SCG, a venue that has been a happy hunting ground for them over the years (relatively speaking, of course).

5-1 is an entirely reasonable aim, if a very tough assignment, but at the least, 4-2 would set their season up beautifully for a serious crack at the finals. Teams, after all, by and large remain in the eight if they’re there at Round 6.

5. Trade talk officially jumps the shark

Have we really reached the point in AFL media coverage where, literally before the season has even started, there are big media reports on players potentially being hunted by rivals?

Already in 2024, we’ve heard Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is a Hawthorn target – before either team had so much as played a single match for premiership points – while AFL Media’s own Gettable is in full swing with reports, speculation and more.

It drives me mad. Who is even interested in that sort of thing at this time of the year to justify the story? I’ve never met a single person whose pre-season revolves around creating a hit list of players they want at their club, and I’m not sure they exist.

The focus should be, and for most of us, is, squarely on the fresh faces your team is putting out from Round 1, from debutants to those traded in LAST YEAR, and whether they’ll make a difference, be it short term or long.

So sure, Ugle-Hagan might be a Hawk next year; but what about discussing what the Hawks are doing NOW? About Nick Watson and what he can produce on debut, or whether Mabior Chol is the missing link up forward, or whether Jack Gunston has another year of elite footy left in him?

There’s a lot of things I don’t understand about modern footy and its coverage – this is right up at the top of the list.

6. Quit whingeing about score reviews

If you watched any footy over the weekend, you probably noticed that score reviews are back – and in greater numbers than ever.

Yes, whether it was a swathe of calls on the goal line on Sunday between Melbourne and the Bulldogs, to perhaps the weirdest one yet on Thursday night to check whether Charlie Curnow had kicked a goal or had been caught holding the ball, there were a whole lot of them – and the reaction was pretty much universal condemnation.

But I’m far from as annoyed about it. Yes, repeat score reviews hold up the play, kill momentum and are a frustrating part of the modern footy process – but it’s also worth remembering that they are there for a reason, and in my view, comfortably better than the alternative.

I would have thought we’d have learned from last year, when an overconfident goal umpire made an incorrect decision that quite literally cost a team finals, that erring on the side of caution solves more problems than it creates.

For every five frivolous score reviews where the umpire was obviously right all along, there’s a line-ball one that was well worth closer inspection; and for every ten, there’s one which gets overturned when the umpire’s initial call was wrong.

Given we know now how high the stakes can be, I’m well and truly in favour of that compromise, as annoying as it can be sometimes.

Random thoughts

– Freo fans, I promise a point next week will be about your team if I can swing it. Ridiculously good to mince the Lions after quarter time.

– If I had a nickel for every time there was injury carnage in an early-season game at Optus Stadium…

– There are three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Jack Billings saving his best footy for games against Marcus Bontempelli, no matter who he’s playing for.

– I’m not sure an all-time champion in our game has ever received the flak Patrick Dangerfield has. Legit top-10 ever in my book (and better than Dustin Martin – I will die on this hill).

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