LETTERS FROM PRE-SEASON VOL.1: THE LOVE-HATE FEELINGS OF JACK WATTS, ELEPHANTS AND NEW ERA OF BABY BOMBERS

Pre-season football can become this endless stream of football thoughts and feelings. Darren Murphy and Justin Robertson decided to email each other about these football thoughts and feelings. Here’s Letters From Pre-Season Vol.1. 

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JR: Hey, Murph, thanks for taking part in this email exchange for The Fifty (or rather, being baited to do it! Sorry, not sorry). We probably should have opted for a more 2017 approach, like a podcast, but what the hell, let’s jot down 15,000 words instead. So, Pre-Season ’17: it feels like a lot has happened in a short period of time. What has caught your steely gaze?

DM: Hey, Robbo. Are podcasts the new white boots of modern media? Everyone seems to have one. Email exchanges are now the black, puma kings – you actually take notice when someone whips them out, when it used to be the other way around. Is there even such a thing as a pre-season anymore? It feels like it’s just one big never ending season, and that’s probably how the AFL like it. As soon as the season ends it’s into the free agency and trade talk. Then the draft. Now AFLW. Then you blink and we’re reading stories about a runaway elephant at Arden Street.

I think what we’re already learning is that Melbourne are looking like genuine finals contenders this year. Their midfield has as much young star talent as anyone and Jesse Hogan could be the best player in the league by the end of the year. St Kilda are another team that have caught my eye. They showed last year that they can play good, exciting football and I think they’re ready to put that together week after week. 

JR: Melbourne is a team that loves to tease, don’t they? If they were a movie they’d be Fast and Furious III, Tokyo Drift. You go in thinking it’s going to be a blockbuster like it should, but realize that Tokyo Drift fails to deliver on all levels. But even though they haven’t made the finals since 2006, I’m with you: I think this year they will play finals. My Dad who is a Demon through-and-through, reckons they’ll make the finals this year and he NEVER says that. He’s my barometer.But if they’re going to do it this year, they’d need to play a quick and efficient game to suit all the running drones they have on tap.

You mention their midfield. Melbourne has HUGE a love affair with prioritizing draft picks around grabbing midfielders, which is not a bad thing, but I think it has hurt them a bit in recent years as they may have overlooked some key position types. Their midfield love-in started in 1997 when they picked Travis Johnstone at no.1. Then they chased Scott Thompson in 2000, followed by Colin Sylvia and Brock McLean in 2003, then Jones in 2005, Morton in 2007. It goes on. The quartet of Watts-Blease-Strauss-McKenzie were acquired in 2008, then another quartet of Scully-Trengove-Gysberts-Tapscott in 2009. Some of these guys weren’t even midfielders to begin with and were more utilities who got cycled into a midfield rotation. Some of those guys don’t play anymore. 

Melbourne has never been a team that has lacked decent ball movers. Their major deficiency has been key position. This year they have Max Gawn in the ruck who is the competition leader. Jesse Hogan looks like he’s primed for a big year. But I feel the Demons are missing key influencers at centre half forward, full back and centre half back. They are big holes. When I think of Melbourne’s best for 2017 they’d be: Viney, Petracca (BREAKOUT CANDIDATE!), Salem, Hogan, Gawn, Vince, Lewis, Jones, Hibberd and Trengove. Most of those are running types. My question is: where’s the key position shut down guys and attackers? But maybe I’ve missed something and Goodwin has it figured out ; he should, he’s the coach. It’s time Melbourne plays finals.

 

DM: Vin Diesel could play Nathan Jones in The Fast and the Furious: Gosch’s Paddock. I think you’re right overall, but there’s just something different about them this year. I’m concerned about Jack Watts, though. He had his best season to date last year but hasn’t been picked for any JLT Series matches at all this year. At this stage of his career he needs to be setting the standards, not being left out because he can’t meet them. SIDE BAR: What do we make of the name of the pre-season this year? JLT Community Series. Where does it stack up among the other incarnations? We’ve had the Panasonic Cup, the Foster’s Cup (my favourite), the Ansett Cup, the Wizard Cup and the NAB Cup. I’d love to see Zooper Dooper come on board next year as naming rights sponsors. Or Sunny Boy. Something iconically Summer.

What do you make of Collingwood this year? They’ve gone all in and recruited some names (Wells and Mayne in particular). On paper they have the best midfield in the league. Pendlebury, Treloar, Sidebottom, Wells, Adams, Aish, Greenwood. They can all play. Big holes in the backline though. 

JR: Jack Watts is the most scrutinized player in the AFL. The media have this obsession where anytime Watts goes missing they go into this “dressing  down of Watts” mode. Here’s what we know. We know he went no.1 in the National Draft. We know he hasn’t lived up to the hype of being no.1 or rather, what people expect of him being a no.1 draft pick. But we also know he’s adapted his game. He’s more versatile now. We know he’s good enough to play at an AFL standard. We know he fits in at Melbourne and is one of their key role players. That’s good enough for me. Players slump, and maybe it’s his leadership that is found wanting at times. But, geez, give the guy a break. It’s been eight years since he was drafted. The media need to find a new whipping boy.

Whether they can accept it or not, Collingwood is in rebuild mode. Plugging in guys like Wells (who is always injured) and Mayne won’t solve their personnel needs. Maybe they’re not  in all-out rebuild mode yet, but they’re almost there. They’re in the Treading Water phase, which is a precursor to Full Blown Rebuild phase. In their past three seasons they’ve gone 9-13, 10-12 and 11-11. I expect another middle of the road season from the Pies. They’re a young team and they’re missing senior bodies across the ground. Nathan Buckley, the ultimate competitor, will be furious that the Pies are treading water. It must be killing him.

So, it turns out, Dustin Martin can walk away from Richmond at the end of 2017 under the free agency act if he wants to do that. If I were Dusty’s agent, I’d be telling him to run. Run as far away as possible. Run while he still has a window to win a Brownlow and a Flag. Richmond are cursed. Since 1997, the Tigers have played finals four times, faring only better than the Giants and Suns. So where would Dusty run to? Based on midfield needs, Martin would be a good fit at the Lions, Dockers or Bombers. The Blues probably need him the most. But, if we’re talking flag windows, the Giants and Crows might be his best bets. Not sure the Hawks, Cats, Swans or Dogs have room for him. And I do hope you campaign for a Sunny Boy pre-season Cup. There’s nothing that says Summer in Australia than Sunny Boys. Of the four original flavours, my favourite two were Lime and Cola. Please bring back Lime and Cola. You are the right man for the job.

DM: I think the conversation around Watts has shifted a little. It was always “I can’t believe this guy got taken at #1,” but now I think it’s moved to the point where everyone is frustrated that he’s letting himself slip just when he was getting going. He had a great year last year and finished 5th in the Demons best and fairest. Everyone assumed he was going to use that a springboard to finally launch his career, but now he’s going to come into the season with limited preparation, something that he only has himself to blame. For the sake of Melbourne and their long-suffering fans they need him up and about, because him on one half forward flank and Christian Petracca on the other could pose huge problems for the opposition.

Bucks is a dead man walking. He’ll fall on his sword if Collingwood don’t make finals this year. The natives are restless. In his first year they won 17 games. Second year 14. Third year 11. Fourth year 10. Fifth year 9. You don’t need to solve y=mx+b to figure out that it’s trending in the wrong direction. Dusty is an interesting one. He’s threatened to leave a few times. He toured GWS’ facilities in 2013 but that deal fell through, and he came back to Richmond with his tail between his legs. But what that tells me is that he’s not against moving interstate. Imagine if Luke Hodge and a few other Hawks retired at the end of the year and Hawthorn managed to squeeze him in the salary cap? I think he’s in for a another big year either way.

You know what narrative I’m loving this pre-season? The clash between David Koch and Tony Cochrane. The Power didn’t want to give up a home game so they paid Gold Coast $500,000 to play their home game in China. Now Kochie is blowing up because Gold Coast’s Chairman Cochrane wants to wear their home Guernsey? The kicker is that the Suns jumpers are VERY similar to the colours of the Chinese flag, so Kochie is afraid that all the locals will turn up and cheer on the Suns after all of Ports groundwork. Now he’s threatened to take his bat and ball and go home. My take on it: Suck it up, Kochie. Should’ve thought of that when you were making a deal with the devil.

I’m thinking the Sunny Boy Summer Series next year for the pre-season competition. Have a trophy in the shape of a pyramid, a la Sunny Boys. I liked the orange flavour the best. They were always hard work though, weren’t they? You could sit on them for about an hour, making your way through slowly as the ice started to melt.

JR: Well, I’m glad the Bombers saga is behind us – kind of. I lost a lot of interest in football since 2013 but feel like the clouds have lifted and I’m loving football again. It’s a weird old thing sport. The connection is real. I felt burned out by the Drugs Saga and I had nothing to do with it and I can only imagine how the players feel. But this season there is a lot to like, my friend. I watched the Gold Coast Suns match and was impressed by Darcy Parish, Josh Begley (SECOND EFFORT BEAST) and James Stewart. In the Collingwood match Orazio Fantasia, Josh Green and Anthony Tipungwuti looked exciting. Fantasia reminds me of modern day Mark Mercuri; quick, skillful and knows where the goals are. 

Jobe has picked up where he left off before his 12-month ban, Boy, oh, boy, the Bombers have missed his strong build around the contest. Heath Hocking is another hard body they’ve missed. Before the ban he would take the opposition’s best mid and shut him down. Extremely  underrated player. Andrew McGrath might take a bit of time to develop but early signs are good. And Dyson Heppell: what a great choice in skipper. I watched him play and wrote about him during his TAC Cup days with Gippsland Power and I remember how he influenced games of football with his efficient kicking and his read of the play.  I don’t know what is going to happen to Essendon in 2017.  I know they’ll win more than three games. It’s basically a new team. A lot of new parts mixed in with some old parts. The new parts are exciting and the old parts are experienced and hardened. How that stacks up against the rest? We’ll know inside the first six rounds.

DM: I don’t know if Essendon have enough goals in them to consistently win big games. A lot rides on Daniher’s shoulders. They’ll have to manufacture goals out of their small forwards. Green is a good pick up. I was shocked when Brisbane delisted him – they can’t afford someone like that to just walk out.

It looks like Worsfold is going to play McDonald-Tipungwuti up forward in an attempt to supercharge their forwardline defensive pressure. I’m not sure he has the goal sense to hit the scoreboard a lot, but he might bring others into it. Essendon will be one of the most intriguing stories of the year. So many question marks. But, let’s be serious here Robbo. It’s looking like it’s GWS’ flag to lose. There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge but I can’t see anyone touching them. They bat deeper than the Aussie cricket team did in the early 2000’s under Steve Waugh’s captaincy.


You can follow Darren Murphy (@MrDMurphy) and Justin Robertson (@justinjournoand The Fifty (@thefiftyfooty) all on Twitter.