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Crows can’t hide from racism any longer, and no need to panic, Blues fans… yet

From thrilling finishes to statements of intent by the biggest contenders, Round 20 was another massive round of footy as the countdown to finals begins.

Melbourne and Geelong confirmed their status as the major heavyweights, confirming that regardless of where they finish on the ladder, they’ll be the teams to beat in September.

In contrast, Fremantle and Brisbane both had major setbacks, while the less said about Carlton the better.

Then, on the other side of the eight, St Kilda took the spot in the eighth lottery for this week at least… but even though they’re in ninth (cue the jokes), there’s a sleeping Tiger looming large ahead of the final three weeks.

Let’s dive in and unpack it all!

1. No need to panic just yet, Blues fans

If ever a team picked a bad time to have a shocker, it was Carlton on Saturday night at the Adelaide Oval.

This was as bad performance as any good team has put in this year. Obliterated in close, outrun on the spread and making basic, crucial skill errors all night, little wonder Blues fans have spent the weekend teeing off at everything from poor tactics to dropping Jack Silvagni.

Making matters worse, the Blues will now head into three crunch clashes against top-four hopefuls Brisbane (at the Gabba), Melbourne and Collingwood, still needing one more win to get safely through to September.

Making matters even worserer (I saw this in a Blues fan’s Tweet and it was too good to not use), they’ll be without Matt Kennedy (concussion) for the Lions, Nic Newman (knee) for maybe longer, and probably George Hewett too, who missed the trip to Adelaide with a concerning back problem.

It’s all cause for plenty of pessimism if you bleed navy blue. But to Carlton supporters, I’ll say this: it’s not time to panic just yet.

The effort against the Crows was so far off the Blues’ usual intensity, so completely distinct from their performances this year under Michael Voss, that it’s impossible to see it as anything other than a one-off aberration – a costly one, but one not reflective of this Carlton team.

Every team puts in a stinker every so often – Sydney were awful against Port Adelaide a month and a half back, Collingwood were seemingly done and dusted after getting clobbered by the Western Bulldogs ten wins ago, and the Blues themselves wilted against Gold Coast back in Round 4.

The only difference between this loss and the ones above are the state of the season and the stakes at play. They’re good reasons, to be fair – but it’s going to take more than that to convince me that the wheels have fallen off at Ikon Park.

While the Blues will start as outsiders in all three of their matches to come, they are good enough at their best to win any and all of them. Really, barring perhaps Geelong in Geelong, there is no team and no venue too tough a task for a quality outfit like Carlton to win at.

Even without Kennedy and Hewett, their midfield can’t do any worse than against a Crows outfit that, credit where credit is due, played sensational, tough-edged and silky footy.

And there’s nothing more dangerous in footy than coming up against an opponent fresh off a shocker: Sydney pumped the Bulldogs with a first term for the ages a week after losing to Essendon; St Kilda did in the Blues themselves six days after being humiliated by the Swans; the list goes on and on.

A loss like that could be just the kick in the pants the Blues need to realise that all the talent on their list can only take them so far. It can either be the tipping point of their season, or a Richmond getting clobbered by St Kilda in late 2017-esque lightbulb moment.

But if they can’t respond with everything in them next week against the Lions? Then, Blues fans, you have my blessing to start panicking.

Carlton players head off the ground.

Carlton players head off the ground after their loss to Adelaide. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

2. Crows must confront racism head-on

Whether the accusations that an Adelaide fan racially abused Adam Saad on Saturday night can be verified or not – at the time of writing a club investigation is ongoing – it’s hard not to feel depressed at yet another incident of this type staining our game.

No doubt the Crows will condemn the incident in the strongest possible terms, issue a life ban to the perpetrator, and issue an apology and message of support to the Islamic community. That’s the template for dealing with racism these days.

It’s just all going to ring a little bit hollow given the bloke who was running around kicking three goals for the Crows on-field sat out for six games after his own incident of racial abuse, and was welcomed back with open arms by the club thereafter.

The time has surely passed for clubs to be able to get away with mouthing platitudes and being reactive only to racism in the game.

There are enough of the lowest dregs of our society out there that ousting the perpetrators one by one is never going to work, either.

Given their recent history, though, it’s incumbent on the Crows more than any other team to tackle this head-on. Every club has been guilty of some form of racism in depressingly recent history – see Cyril Rioli’s experiences at Hawthorn or the Collingwood Do Better report, for instance – but with all the education they receive, Taylor Walker being so publicly and blatantly racist late last year has shifted the goalposts for Adelaide.

In the midst of all this, there is yet again a chance to actually do something meaningful about combatting racism in all corners of the game. And there’s no club with more of an obligation to lead the way on this than the Crows.

It doesn’t mean retroactively suspending Walker – while six weeks was a wet lettuce leaf that set a terrible example, that’s been and gone. No squeezing the toothpaste back into that tube, and to do that would be unfair on Walker, for whatever that’s worth.

It doesn’t mean more empty platitudes like ‘Say No to Racism’ days or #ItStopsWithMe social media campaigns – if we’ve learned nothing from the Manly Pride jersey fiasco in the NRL, it’s that public ally-ship means nothing without internal change to support it.

There’s a great read about that here – even if you’re not a rugby league fan, it’s well worth checking out.

What it means is making meaningful, substantial changes, both within the four walls of the club and without. It means bringing in pathways for non-white people to join coaching and administrative ranks, and enforcing them strictly, through quotas if necessary.

The Indigenous community has always been over-represented when it comes to AFL players, but as of 2021, only two were involved in coaching – Xavier Clarke for Richmond’s VFL team and Travis Varcoe at the Western Bulldogs.

Some steps have undoubtedly been made in recent times – Eddie Betts, Chris Johnson and Shaun Burgoyne have joined broadcast commentary teams, for instance – but still, administration and coaching ranks in the league are whiter than two per cent milk.

It’s basically why every response to racism these days goes through players – Saad and formerly Bachar Houli become spokespeople for their communities whenever an issue pops up, Adelaide’s Indigenous players often gave public comment over the Walker situation, and so on.

As it stands, the Crows have a choice to make. They can either be reactive once again – ban the fan, condemn the racism, and state they hope it never happens again when everyone knows too damn well that it’s just a matter of time.

Or they can move to make it clear to every arsehole who dons their colours that being racist against anyone, from an opposition player to a rival fan to anyone they bump into on the street, that they are an enemy of the club. That being racist to Adam Saad means being racist to your own assistant coach, or head of recruiting, or goddamn CEO.

And that can only come through substantial, painstaking, public change.

Frankly, after what happened last year as well as to Saad, they owe it to the game to take charge.

3. The Saints’ late change was disrespectful

This is certainly more of a personal bugbear than anything dramatically broken about the game – especially in light of the previous point.

But the growing trend among teams for ‘tactical’ late changes an hour before the first bounce is at best annoying, and at worst deeply disrespectful.

St Kilda are by no means the first team to do this in 2022, but theirs was particularly irksome: having named Tom Campbell as a secondary ruckman on Thursday night to face Hawthorn, they altered their final team 60 minutes before the first bounce, with Mitch Owens brought in.

To give the Saints the benefit of the doubt, there was a clear reason to do this: they obviously weren’t expecting Hawks big man Ned Reeves to miss with a foot injury, and were happy to send Rowan Marshall to battle solo against the only opposition ruck in Ben McEvoy.

The late change clearly paid off, too: Marshall was the obvious best man afield with 35 hit outs and a staggering 30 disposals, proving more than capable of handling the ruck responsibilities more or less alone.

But unless you’re telling me that Campbell was only told an hour before the game that he’d been cut, it makes no sense to deprive the fans of that information until the eleventh hour, beyond trying to con the Hawks into planning for a two-ruck opposition. As soon as the Saints knew that Reeves was out – so Thursday at 6:20pm – they’d surely have known Campbell wasn’t going to be required; so why not just say so immediately rather than keeping everyone guessing?

And that’s where my gripe lies.

There’s a Fantasy element to this, no doubt – scoff at it all you want, but there’s a large contingent of AFL fans who play and enjoy SuperCoach, AFL Fantasy or a myriad of other alternatives, and who engage with the league primarily because of it.

It’s basically because of that community that the AFL reneged on the 2021 move to only announce teams 24 hours prior to matches, which had widespread support from the clubs. A reneging that rings hollow if teams are still going to drop and add players from then on.

Already this year, teams have been guilty of originally naming players to their 22 for a game when under injury clouds, presumably forcing the opposition to have to plan for their involvement; then not only are they withdrawn from that game, but miss a number of weeks thereafter with the injury (hi, Darcy Parish).

Frankly I think it unlikely that the Giants only made the call on Saturday that Stephen Coniglio wasn’t going to be right to play an hour before the start – you don’t just develop soreness in a warm-up. But injuries do happen, so I’m fine with cutting teams slack in the event of an injury – just not to drop a player who could have been axed the day before.

It’s not like the Saints should be fined for this or anything – ultimately, this sort of stuff doesn’t matter. But a bit like just dumping 22 names onto a team sheet and not giving a hoot about the positions they’re in – the Bulldogs did this quite often last year, if I recall correctly – it’s a minor inconvenience that distinctly smells like a group of people invested in and passionate about the game getting unnecessarily played for chumps.

Rowan Marshall

Rowan Marshall (Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

4. The AFL needs to act now on the Giants

If you think things are bad for GWS at the moment, just wait until they head into 2023 without Tim Taranto, Jacob Hopper and Bobby Hill.

The situation facing the Giants as their 2022 season spirals into ugliness has shades of Gold Coast circa 2018. Good players want out, the ones staying are needing to be paid exorbitant sums to do so, and nobody knows what the hell to do about it.

A 73-point loss to Sydney was one of the club’s most lifeless since the inaugural days of the franchise when they hardly won; especially given they’d recalled Josh Kelly, Lachie Whitfield and Harry Perryman. A team that still looked more than handy on paper had no excuses being that flat from the opening bounce.

That’s why the AFL needs to act now, before the club follows the path of the Suns down the plughole and needs years if not decades to climb out of it. They have invested enough time and money in trying to get the Giants to work – much of it with success given their recent run of finals appearances – that to wait until the bath starts making that sucking whirlpool sound when it’s about to totally empty to do anything about it would be too late.

As we’ve seen with the Suns – and even with Brisbane half a decade ago – most players just don’t want to play for a crappy side far from home. When given the opportunity to play on big money for a successful side at a Victorian powerhouse, none of Jaeger O’Meara, Tom Lynch, Dion Prestia, Steven May, Jack Martin and countless others were ever going to stick the course.

It took the AFL far too long to take matters into their own hands on the Suns – they received priority picks for the first time in 2019, and were given AFL-appointed executives in 2017. It has taken them until this season to really climb out of that hole and put the pieces together.

It is exceptionally difficult to build a new AFL team, especially in a non-footy state, especially in a salary-cap league where a new team can’t splash around big cash and recruit stars willy-nilly off the bat to get going. The ‘go-home factor’ will always be a threat, as will be the lack of history and club culture to build a strong ethos on.

The Giants have done incredibly well to manufacture this in such a short time – even Taranto is reportedly devastated to be leaving, and is being shunted out simply because the club can’t afford to keep him on.

There will be those out there that say GWS was a pointless venture, that they got a swathe of early picks in their formative years, and that it’s up to them to dig themselves out of this hole.

My response would be that a), Sydney’s slow-burn in the 1990s and success today is proof that an AFL team in a rugby league heartland has wheels; b), that early picks mean nothing if the majority of them head elsewhere the moment their contracts; and c), if every team was required to pick up the pieces when they found themselves in the doldrums, we’d be left with a Premier League-style competition of haves and have not at odds with the very nature of the game.

Whether it’s priority picks, greater salary cap allowances or other solutions not readily obvious, the Giants are heading for disaster. The AFL needs to at least have a crack at stopping the slide before things get truly ugly.

Tom Green of the Giants

Tom Green. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)Giants looks dejected after a loss during the 2021 AFL Round 20 match between the GWS Giants and the Port Adelaide Power at Marvel Stadium on August 1, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

5. Liam Jones shouldn’t be allowed back next year

The AFL’s ruling that Liam Jones will be permitted to re-join the AFL next season, and that Carlton will be entitled to compensation for losing him, is a mistake on both counts.

The Blues shouldn’t have any rights for recompense for a player who chose to retire due to the AFL’s vaccination mandate; not should Jones be able to turn around and rejoin the league now that those mandates have been scrapped, having chosen to retire last year.

Granting Jones permission to return to the AFL has the capacity to open up a serious can of worms around retirement in the game, a can that the league brought in rules to close a decade and a half ago after Mal Michael retired from Brisbane, only to happily waltz to Essendon a few weeks later.

The rule that players must wait 18 months after retiring to be able to play again is there for a reason; I’m not sure anyone wants to see the ‘Liam Jones rule’ become a precedent.

I’m putting my tinfoil hat on here, but a player disgruntled with their club for any reason could feasibly choose to retire from the game, then put their name in the ring for the pre-season draft or rookie draft with a price tag on their heads, a la Jack Martin or Luke Ball, and then cite the Jones situation as making it legitimate.

If we’ve learned anything from the Tribunal this year, it’s that clubs and their lawyers can find a loophole in any rule if they’re desperate enough.

It’s not as if Jones didn’t have the option to remain on the Blues’ inactive list, which would have left him unable to play in the QAFL and make it less likely that a team like the Western Bulldogs would pick him up. But he made the decision along with the Blues to part ways, and he should have to abide by the consequences of that call.

If Jones wants to wait another 12 months to be picked up by a club, though, then no one will stand in his way.

Equally, the Blues benefitted by freeing up $500,000 worth of cap space and a list spot to sign Sam Durdin in the mid-season rookie draft; why should they then get a second payout now that he’s back? Yes, it’s an unprecedented circumstance, but it’s not as if Carlton haven’t been able to make the best of a bad situation already.

There’s a social element to all of this as well: the vaccine mandates that Jones opted out of were put in place for a reason. Many in broader society suffered heavy consequences from going against them (and rightly so in my view); in times of public health emergency, the importance of everyone doing their bit, especially high-profile athletes who serve as role models for many, can’t be overstated.

So for Jones to undermine a public health measure, yet spend just one season away from the game before recouping all his financial losses via a three-year contract at the Western Bulldogs leaves a bad taste in my mouth – and I’m surely not on my own in feeling this way.

6. The Tigers can still win the flag… IF they can make it

Richmond’s best footy this year is worthy of any highlights reels from their three premiership years.

Their worst footy… well, it’s bottom-six stuff.

The good and the bad were on full display in their incredible comeback win over Brisbane; down by as much as 42 points and 36 at half time, the Tigers unleashed an incredible second half to resurrect a season that looked dead and buried.

Shai Bolton was magnificent with 13 touches, some telling marks and only inaccuracy preventing him from going truly ballistic; Tom Lynch’s hands grew stronger as the day wore on; Trent Cotchin showed that there’s plenty of life in those old legs.

It was the same as they did to Geelong at the MCG a month back; that’s two very good sides the Tigers have simply overwhelmed. And it’s why, despite those disastrous losses to North Melbourne and Gold Coast and the draw with Fremantle, it’s impossible to rule out them going on a run for the ages in September.

Make no mistake – no team will want to finish fifth and play the Tigers in September; while games from here against Port Adelaide, Hawthorn and Essendon isn’t exactly an easy run, they should be full of belief from here; and as we know, this team is hard to stop when they get going.

Even if they slip up at one point, St Kilda would have to defeat two serious contenders in their last three, and/or the Bulldogs would need to win their last three games, including against Fremantle and Hawthorn in Tasmania. Or, y’know, they might just get in if Carlton lose the plot.

Fifth is now the most dangerous spot in the eight at any rate; whoever just misses the top four is going to have an almighty challenge on their hands.

The Tigers might not be done just yet.

Random thoughts

– When do we start talking about Jack Viney being better than Oliver or Petracca?

– Amid all the drama, Jack Ginnivan has 32 goals for the season, and will probably get to 40 after finals. That’s exceptional for any small forward, let alone a teenager.

– Jeremy Finlayson might have just ruined rucks forever. Full credit, he’s been exceptional.

– A team with as good a midfield as the Bulldogs’ shouldn’t be getting obliterated out of centre bounces like they do all the damn time.

– Lost in all the Carlton gloom is that Mitch McGovern actually played a ripper game against his old side.

– Poor Sam Butler is going to have to put up with a lot of stick from Dan at the family Christmas this year.

– Shai Bolton. That is all.

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