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There’s a danger in overhyping Nick Daicos, and why Geelong’s brilliant Dees drubbing just doesn’t matter

I could do the usual spiel about what a great weekend of footy this was, and how several big statements were made by teams keen to push their finals bona fides… but in all honesty, it would be minutes wasted that would be better served watching replays of Noah Anderson’s goal after the siren.

So let’s do that instead.

1. Nothing Geelong do before September matters

As thoroughly clinical as Geelong were in taking down Melbourne on Thursday night and establishing themselves as THE premiership favourite, it was hard to escape the feeling that it’s an empty title.

Premierships aren’t won in July as a rule, but it applies even more so to the Cats, whose defining trait in the Chris Scott era has been to run riot in the home-and-away season, but then collapse come September.

Under Scott, the Cats have a 10-15 record at the most important time of all – it’s silly to exclude the 2011 run to the premiership as if that’s somehow irrelevant – despite having far and away the most wins of any AFL side.

Beating Melbourne in Round 17, in Geelong, is one thing: it will be a completely different kettle of fish to do it again, in a cutthroat final, at (barring another major COVID catastrophe) the MCG.

After all, the Cats had the Dees on the ropes in Round 23 last year at the Cattery, lost the minor premiership with a kick after the siren… then copped the most fearful hiding three weeks later.

That home ground advantage, in my view the biggest in the AFL, comes with a major handicap to balance it out: only in the rarest of circumstances do the Cats get to play home finals at the venue too. Suddenly, a four- or five-goal advantage on their closest rivals (how much did they beat the Demons by?) is lost.

It’s also important to point out that, despite the Cats’ awesome recent run, this team is far from infallible. They’ve lost to Fremantle at GMHBA Stadium, were overrun by St Kilda, picked apart by Sydney and came within a Tom Stewart bump of going down to Richmond. It’s not as if their seven-game winning streak has been blitz after blitz.

Geelong thoroughly deserve their spot at the top of the table, and with a great draw to come, they might have one hand on the minor premiership. But with so many scars from Septembers past, it’s foolish to see them as premiership favourites until they can prove they’re beyond those many finals failures.

Tom Atkins of the Cats in action.

Tom Atkins of the Cats in action. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

2. There’s no such thing as a dead game anymore

Usually, the run to finals is filled with fizzers aplenty, non-contests between sides with bigger fish to fry and ones already gearing up for Mad Monday.

That’s not around this year. The top eight is so tight, both for the actual spots and those precious, precious double chances, that no one can afford to take the foot off the pedal and treat a game too lightly. Equally, there are plenty of teams down the bottom of the ladder with a whole lot to prove in the final six rounds.

Collingwood seemed like they went into their clash with North Melbourne expecting a stroll in the park, and it took them three quarters to realise they were actually in the fight of their life. Raising their game, though, did wonders, as a flagging Roos didn’t have enough in the tank – but it was a hell of a close run.

Essendon are only two spots ahead of the Roos on the ladder, but sniffing an upset against an undermanned Brisbane, brought their A Game and battered the Lions into submission for a famous win. It won’t spark a finals run or anything, but try telling anyone associated with the red and black that it was a dead rubber.

The Tigers looked like they’d jumped on the plane and headed home with the four points safely secure at half time against Gold Coast. Cue a blistering second-half comeback, capped off in memorable fashion by Noah Anderson.

Carlton might have gone on to record a thumping 63-point win over West Coast, but for much of the contest, it was a real arm-wrestle.

After a dominant start by the Blues, the Eagles were probably the better side for the next two quarters, halving the margin from 34 to 17 by three quarter time.

Only once the game was over did the margin balloon; had the Eagles not allowed the Blues their fast start, who knows how things would have panned out.

The competition is so even at the moment that being five per cent ‘on’ or five per cent ‘off’, as the saying goes, can be the difference between stirring victory and thumping defeat. The Swans were the former, the Bulldogs the latter on Friday night: the result was a 50-point first quarter and humiliation for the reigning grand finalists. It doesn’t take much to get embarrassed these days.

With six rounds to go, three sides sit equal on points at the top of the ladder, while three more beneath them are just a win behind. A single loss, or even percentage, could easily end up being the difference between a home qualifying final and an away elimination final.

The Bombers, Kangaroos and Eagles have all raised their games considerably; they are now serious teams to be treated with caution and respect by everyone else.

It’s made the end to already the most unpredictable, gripping season in recent AFL memory even more tantalising.

Noah Anderson of the Suns celebrates.

Noah Anderson of the Suns celebrates after kicking the match winning goal. (Photo by Russell Freeman/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

3. Overhyping Nick Daicos is bad news – for him, and everyone else

*killjoy alert*

Nick Daicos is an exceptional talent… for a 19-year old with 16 games under his belt.

However, the hype around this teen phenom has officially gone too far. In the space of an excellent month, he’s gone from a jet on the rise, to the presumptive Rising Star winner, to an All Australian-calibre half-back, and now has some wondering whether he’s having the greatest debut season ever.

For starters, how quickly we forget that this time four weeks ago, Sam De Koning was all the rage: I’d argue that, while Daicos deserves favouritism for the Ron Evans Award, acting like he’s head and shoulders above the pack is frankly disrespectful to a bloke who’s become the number one key defender in the ladder-leading side, and proving every bit capable of matching those expectations.

As for the All Australian stuff, Daicos’ hot form is undeniable, but I would seriously have eight players ahead of him for the two half-back spots: Jack Sinclair, Adam Saad, Sam Docherty, Daniel Rioli, Bailey Dale, Jordan Dawson, Tom Stewart and Callum Mills (okay, this one’s a massive cheat). Heck, you could even make a case for Mason Redman, Luke Ryan, Daniel Rich, Jayden Short and Bradley Hill.

That’s not to disparage Daicos at all: more that there are a whole bunch of excellent half-backs strutting their stuff at the highest level at the moment. It has become a crucial position in the game, and just as importantly, one that just about anyone with a reasonable turn of pace and elite kicking skills can make their own. Rioli, Sinclair and Dale have gone from bit-part small forwards to among the best in the business.

As for the ‘best first season ever’ claim, yes, Daicos has been outstanding this season: but the same exact claim was being made about Sam Walsh just three years ago, and Jaeger O’Meara six before that. I’d argue the Blue’s debut year was better, or at least equal, to the Magpie’s: and then there’s the likes of Chris Judd, John Coleman and a smorgasbord of others going back through the years.

The poster boy of the Magpies’ brilliant recent form, the truth about the younger Daicos is this: he is making an already good side even better, and they’d be significantly weakened without him. That’s huge on its own for a player as young as he is.

He was very good again on Saturday against North Melbourne, kicking a clutch goal in the final term; but on several occasions his defending was below-par. That’s fine – he’s literally 16 games into his career – but it was the sort of stuff Dale has spent the last week getting torched for.

The problem with overhyping him to the extent that he has been is twofold: it creates unrealistic expectations going forward for him, and increases the scrutiny on other high draft picks that need time to find their feet at AFL level.

I can guarantee the same people pumping Daicos’ tyres up now will be the first to run with the ‘Has Daicos peaked too early?’ headlines the moment he hits a bad bit of form, or suffers a string of injuries.

There’s every chance Daicos goes on to play 300 games, becomes a club and AFL great and wins a string of accolades. But there’s also the chance he becomes a Daniel Rich: a really excellent half-back that could never quite make it in the midfield to become a true star of the game. It’s worth remembering that Rich, too, was a young superboot with the world at his feet when he was crowned the 2009 Rising Star.

And that’s fine: Rich is an All Australian and a crucial part of a very good side. His career has been a raging success despite a ride far bumpier than we’d all anticipated after year one.

As for the others, no doubt much of the media criticism of Jason Horne-Francis has been through the lens of what Daicos has been able to achieve. Connor Rozee is putting together an excellent season this year, and still his name is tied with Walsh because of ridiculous early-career comparisons destined to backfire.

It would deeply, deeply suck if Horne-Francis cops the same treatment – it’s frankly unfair right now.

No one can dispute Nick Daicos is having an elite season. But for his sake, and for everyone else’s, let’s cool it with the hype for now.

Nick Larkey of the Kangaroos is tackled by Nick Daicos of the Magpies.

Nick Larkey of the Kangaroos is tackled by Nick Daicos of the Magpies. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

4. Horne-Francis’ VFL stint was the right move by the Roos

Speaking of Jason Horne-Francis…

I can’t help feeling like the motives behind the criticism of North Melbourne for playing the number one draft pick in the VFL were quite impure.

On Fox Footy on Friday night, Nick Riewoldt summed it up quite nicely: play Horne-Francis and tell him to follow Nick Daicos around, to create a talking point, discussion and interest around what was assumed to be a boring, lacklustre match. (Hint: it wasn’t.)

That has basically been the go with any number one draft pick that doesn’t immediately play and excel at AFL level: last year, the Bulldogs were regularly criticised for not playing Jamarra Ugle-Hagan, only to see the target become his form now that he’s getting a game. It’s the ultimate no-win situation.

Getting away from the eyes of the football world was going to be impossible for Horne-Francis wherever he played: but he excelled at VFL level as expected, racking up 29 touches and kicking a classy goal.

No doubt he’ll be better for the run when and if he makes his AFL return in coming weeks; he’d noticeably looked frustrated, out of form and battling in a wretched North outfit before his two-week suspension.

Would North Melbourne have beaten Collingwood on Saturday with him? They might have. They also might have lost by more. But it was clearly their best performance of the season regardless; JHF not playing wasn’t the reason they went down.

I’ve spent far too much time talking about Jason Horne-Francis this year, though, so let’s just leave it at this: talented youngsters spending time in the reserves is the most normal thing in the world. Let’s stop treating it as something horrifying just because this one was picked first.

Jason Horne-Francis of the Kangaroos handballs whilst being tackled by James Sicily of the Hawks.

Jason Horne-Francis of the Kangaroos handballs whilst being tackled by James Sicily of the Hawks. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

5. The AFL isn’t done with COVID yet

A COVID outbreak didn’t lose Brisbane their game against Essendon – but it didn’t help.

With Harris Andrews, Keidean Coleman, Daniel McStay and Callum Ah Chee all ruled out after positive tests, Essendon sensed an opportunity for a stirring victory at the Gabba, slicing through a horribly leaky Lions backline to claim an upset 10-point win.

The loss could cost the Lions a top-two berth – or even top four – but they’d be fools to blame COVID alone.

For one thing, the losses of Dayne Zorko, Daniel Rich and Jarrod Berry to separate injuries was arguably more impactful, though Andrews’ presence was sorely missed as Peter Wright ran amok.

Some of the Lions’ poor performance, particularly in their wayward defence, was certainly to do with their absences, both virus and injury-caused; but it doesn’t explain Charlie Cameron going missing, a still-intact midfield getting pantsed or James Madden torching Zac Bailey in the dying minutes and then failing to make the distance.

Equally, it would be unfair to not give the Bombers their due – with Jye Caldwell performing an outstanding shutdown job on Lachie Neale, the Dons smacked the Lions around out of the centre and always looked dangerous forward of the ball. With in-form backman Mason Redman a late out after entering health and safety protocols, it’s not like they didn’t have COVID dramas of their own.

I still stand by my belief from earlier in the season, while the Eagles were battling to field a full side amid their massive outbreak, that the lingering presence of the coronavirus shouldn’t reduce this season to a farce. It’s still obviously necessary for players to go into isolation after testing positive – the rest of society has to do it too, and with new strains beginning to rear their heads, it’s still important to follow the guidelines.

But this should serve as a warning to every club to stay vigilant: the last thing any team needs is a Lions-like outbreak with the season reaching its crescendo. Imagine if the Lions’ crisis happened in a final?

Fremantle are a perfect example of handling it right: they’ve only sparingly had COVID cases rule players out all season, even while their crosstown rivals the Eagles were being ravaged. If the Dockers can stay on track in the face of Western Australia’s massive case spike, there’s no reason anyone else can’t do it.

Becuase while COVID won’t destroy the season, it certainly can destroy SOMEONE’S season. The Lions surely won’t be the last big contender to feel its bite.

6. Media – and AFL – cost-cutting is officially a farce

I talked about the disappointing cost-cutting of broadcast media at length in the Round 1 column – and the cheapness seems to be spreading.

Sydney Morning Herald reporter Vince Rugari’s revelation that no other journalists had attended the post-match press conferences at the SCG after Sydney’s win over the Western Bulldogs quickly sparked outrage – and for good reason.

That means no News Corp writers. No one from Fox Footy or Channel 7. And most damningly of all, no one from the AFL’s media arm.

It seems it wasn’t worth the effort from Seven to fly Mitch Cleary or Tom Browne up for a big game between two finals contenders, as ugly as the match ended up being. The fact that the league itself couldn’t drum up the cash for a two-way flight there and back only enhances the long-held notion of non-Victorian fans that the game is just the VFL with delusions of grandeur.

Then, on Saturday, things got even worse: some ‘airport chaos’ saw Alastair Lynch’s arrival at Metricon Stadium for Gold Coast versus Richmond was delayed until half time.

Fox have been content with doing the bare minimum this year, calling games from a Victorian studio rather than at the ground for games in other states – with the exception, I believe, of Adam Papalia calling from Western Australia – so when Lynch was delayed, it meant no one from the broadcaster was actually at the ground for a half of footy.

Not only is this terrible optics, it’s short-changing the public. Commentating, particularly the special comments people that Fox give truckloads of money to – is bloody hard off a screen. You don’t see the full game unfold, you’re limited to what you can see from a limited view, and just as importantly, there’s no sense of atmosphere, of the significance of the occasion. It becomes home brand commentary.

Have you noticed that Fox’s mid-quarter analysis of particular plays, noticing players running hard or positioning themselves effectively, doesn’t happen anymore? Of course it’s gone – they don’t have a chance to process the game fully until a quarter break.

The biggest frustration for me, though, is that it’s not like there isn’t still massively frivolous spending going around the AFL media. God knows how much Wayne Carey is paid to tell me that the losing team just needs to go in a bit harder, or for Patrick Dangerfield to join the Seven commentary team on Saturday night, or for the abomination that is Best on Ground.

The AFL is learning via crowd numbers and a growing apathy with the game from previously rusted-on fans the dangers of taking a supporter base for granted. Here’s hoping our soon-to-be streaming overlords are willing to put up the cash and give us the respect we deserve in their coverage.

Random thoughts

– Nick Vlastuin must be feeling like a bit of a dill now, mustn’t he?

– Stating it for the record: Melbourne clapped Isaac Smith off after game 250 and nobody cared because it wasn’t North.

– Honestly feel a bit sorry for Rex Hunt. When the rest of us post a dumb take on Facebook, it doesn’t become a nationwide news story.

– From getting dropped to completely shutting Charlie Cameron out of the game, this was quite a weekend for Jake Kelly.

– Patrick Dangerfield’s commentary debut was actually quite insightful. Can’t wait for Craig Hutchison to melt his brain and ruin it for everyone.

– Chad Warner went at pick 39 in his draft. Seven of the guys picked in front of him don’t even have Wikipedia pages.

– I’ve been watching this non-stop for four days. It’s mesmerising.

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