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Pull your heads in, Port fans, and the Power gun who’s becoming a ‘cheap shot merchant’


The bye rounds are over – Hallelujah!

Once again, every team has played the same amount of games, so the ladder is officially asterisk-free and accurately reflects where just about everyone stands.

We have both a clear frontrunner – Sydney three games clear and fresh off another Derby smackdown of GWS – and a challenger in chief, with Carlton’s demolition job on Geelong ratifying themselves as the second-best team in it.

Nipping at their heels, though, are an odd trio of rivals, with Essendon and Fremantle bouncing back in not-quite-emphatic fashion from losses, sitting on either side of a refreshed Collingwood outfit still seen by many as the Swans’ biggest threat.

After that, it’s a logjam; from the sixth-placed Giants to 13th-placed Hawthorn, everyone is scrabbling for precious spots inside the eight. And with Brisbane on the rise and the Cats, Port Adelaide and Melbourne all in a rut, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will be there come September.

With North Melbourne giving it a red-hot crack and West Coast about to welcome back Harley Reid, easy games will be hard to come by in the run home – but until we can work out who’s good and who’s faking it, let’s unpack the weekend that was.

1. Pull your heads in, Port fans

In 2023, Carlton and Western Bulldogs supporters embarrassed themselves by abusing their teams as they left the field following defeats – for the former, the same supporters who undoubtedly applauded their Blues off the field after their stunning win over Geelong on Friday night, 12 months later.

The contingent of Port Adelaide supporters who repeatedly booed Ken Hinkley during and after Saturday’s disastrous loss to Brisbane belong in a similar camp.

No doubt tensions are running high among Power faithful, who have watched their team under Hinkley repeatedly fall short in September and ensure periods, sometimes lasting a full season, of frustrating mediocrity.

But for three years plus now, the conduit of all that anger has been directed fairly and squarely, and highly unfairly, at one man.

Ken Hinkley is not the only reason for the Power’s current plight – one which, it’s worth remembering, still leaves them inside the top eight ahead of a very reasonable run home, particularly in its next four games against St Kilda (away), the Bulldogs, Gold Coast (away) and Richmond.

Sure, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of his coaching, game plan and recruiting strategies – the Power’s stoppage structure was diabolical against the Lions, their ball movement leaves them highly vulnerable to turnovers, and neither their ruck nor key defensive stocks have been shored up by the off-season arrivals of Ivan Soldo, Jordon Sweet, Esava Ratugolea and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher.

But is another coach, whether it be Josh Carr or someone from outside the four walls, going to be able to fix that quickly? The amount of times in modern footy a new man in charge has taken over a good team and turned them into a great one begins and ends, I think, with Ross Lyon at Fremantle (and that has a pretty sizeable premiership-shaped hole in that ‘great’ claim); it’s worth keeping in mind that that scenario is far more likely to end up as a Rodney Eade at Gold Coast or Lyon at St Kilda currently-type situation.

There’s little nuance to be found among the vocal minority, though one swiftly growing in volume, of Power fans who simply want to see Hinkley pay for 11 seasons, and probably soon 12, without a premiership. To the point where the cardinal sin of sporting fandom – booing your own team – is being committed.

Maybe Hinkley has run his race at the Power, and maybe everyone would benefit from a new voice in charge. Every coach, even the great ones, have an expiry date.

But this is still a team good enough to win a club record amount of consecutive games midway through last year; and with the season barely half over, it’s foolish to suggest that in an even year a similar run of form is beyond them, and would be far better timed this time around.

I’ve said it before about Port Adelaide and I’ll say it again – if your motto is ‘We exist to win premierships’, then you are setting yourselves up for being miserable nearly all the time.

All booing the coach does is highlight the fair-weather supporters who can’t stick fat when times get tough to the whole nation. And just like the Blues fans who’ve done an about-turn on their team since they’ve put it all together, it’ll make you look like idiots in the event, unlikely or not, that things do turn as dramatically as they did for Carlton.

(Getty Images/Kelly Barnes)

2. Zak Butters needs to cut the cheap crap or be banned

Zak Butters is a tremendous footballer, and a worthy winner of last year’s Robert Rose Award for the AFL Players Association’s Most Courageous Player.

But there’s nothing courageous about Butters’ repeat off-the-ball dirty acts that are souring his reputation and leading to ever-mounting fines, the latest a $10,000 sanction for a whack on Jarrod Berry behind the play just before half time at the Adelaide Oval.

No doubt Butters’ frustration at his team’s poor performance, and the dogged tagging work of Berry, were behind his cheap shot – I could almost understand and forgive based on that given the contact was far from severe.

But this isn’t his first rodeo – he got away with a strike on Tom Green via Tribunal overrule just a week ago, the verdict continuing the league’s precedent from a Jesse Hogan hit on Lewis Young earlier this year that players are all good to whack their opponents in the face provided they don’t properly king hit them.

It’s got to the point where Butters needs to be called out for being a serial offender; against Hawthorn a few weeks ago, he floored Lloyd Meek as well, also off the ball.

All up, this was his fourth offence just for striking this season – no wonder the fine was so massive – and I recall a similar incident on Dayne Zorko in last year’s qualifying final.

Put simply, Butters is becoming a bit of a cheap shot merchant – considering the breathtaking way he attacks the ball as well as his outstanding skill, such petty thuggery is clearly beneath him. Of all the accolades he’s earned and will continue to earn, being the game’s dirtiest player isn’t one that should rest comfortably with him.

But it seems like all the fines in the world aren’t deterring him from overstepping the mark time and again – and the AFL’s rules as they stand are letting him.

Ten years ago, accumulating penalties such as Butters’ would have eventually led to a ban under the much-maligned ‘points’ system; that was scrapped out of fear a relatively minor incident could result in a star player being ineligible for a Brownlow Medal.

The problem is that each individual act from Butters isn’t, under the league’s current rules, enough to ban him outright, and the way the system works means he’s fine to keep doing this and just keep paying fines he’ll always be able to afford, rather than being given the week on the sidelines he apparently needs as motivation to cut the crap.

It’s a blight on the game, and it needs to be stamped out – if that means the rules need to be tweaked to penalise repeat offenders like the Port star, then so be it.

Zak Butters celebrates a goal.

Zak Butters celebrates a goal. (Photo by Sarah Reed/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

3. Steven May staged… but Sam Walsh certainly didn’t

Two dangerous tackle free kicks have dominated debate across the weekend: Patrick Dangerfield’s on Sam Walsh on Friday night at the MCG, and North Melbourne’s Eddie Ford’s on Steven May at the same venue 24 hours later.

The reaction to the former paled in comparison to that of the latter, but I’m willing to be there’s a good portion of people out there who believes both Walsh and May staged, exacerbating or causing their heads to hit the ground and resulting in ‘earning’ a free kick.

Let’s clear this up straight away: May indisputably, uncontroversially staged, but Walsh did nothing of the sort.

May was tackled safely and legally to the ground by Ford, with his first point of contact with the ground his shoulder; he then throws his head back, in the opposite direction to which his momentum was taking the rest of his body, skimmed the ground with his cheek, and immediately grabbed for his head before mysteriously recovering rapidly in order to take his kick.

It’s exactly the sort of thing that everyone wants to see stamped from the game for a multitude of reasons, both in order to actually address the dangers of being concussed in properly dangerous tackles, and because no one likes to see players try to con the umps into winning undeserved and unearned frees. In the next point, I’ll look at the ways in which this could be done.

But to put Walsh in the same category is just silly, even if you believe, as I do, that Dangerfield shouldn’t have a case to answer. Yes, both can be true.

While Dangerfield does everything he can to slow Walsh’s momentum and hold him up, his tackling method – taking him from behind and pulling him to ground while still moving forward – knocks the Blue off balance and takes him off his feet.

It’s entirely legal to do that; the problem comes when Walsh, off his feet and at the mercy of gravity, topples forward under Dangerfield’s weight, and with both arms pinned he can’t stop his head from smacking into the ground, and hard – you can tell how hard from how much his head bounced up following the contact.

It’s a free kick by the letter of the law even though Dangerfield did little wrong – but if you’ve read my thoughts on the holding the ball crackdown in recent weeks you’ll be aware I’m certainly not against a far greater onus being placed on the tackler in situations like this.

Whatever you make of the incident, and whether Dangerfield will or should get off at his near-certain Tribunal date on Tuesday, to blame Walsh for it is ridiculous.

4. The simple solution to stop players milking high contact frees

Circling back to May; it seems to me the way to stamp anything out of the game is to make the risk proportionally greater than the reward. In other words, to not make it worth player’s while to do it. We see that with virtually every other rule, from deliberate behinds to insufficient intent to keep the ball in.

There are two ways to do this with staging: the first is to actually suspend players for it, rather than giving out sporadic $1800 fines which we know are simply no deterrent for players who make comfortably enough to ignore a blow to the hip pocket.

Would May have done what he did if he knew being caught for staging brought with it a week’s suspension? Probably not; while you’d still see players having brain fades, just like we still occasionally see them get done for striking or other brainless acts, they would be drastically reduced.

I’m against this, though; for one thing, it’s quite difficult to enforce, as evidenced by the fact only two players before May have been found guilty and fined for staging – Tom Papley in 2020 and Mark Blicavs in 2019.

Such a radical, hair-trigger solution is simply not warranted for such a rare action; and anyway, I don’t think that punishment fits the crime. You shouldn’t get a week for trying to con the umpires and help your team, no matter how bad the look.

My solution is simpler: any player who acts as May has, and clutches their head on the ground, is forced to come off for a mandatory 15-minute concussion test.

It’s not a perfect fix, but it would further improve the league’s limited protocols when it comes to concussion: as we’ve seen regularly this year, players have controversially remained on the field after suffering head knocks.

Being militant on any head-high contact would kill two birds with one stone, addressing this issue while also ensuring all the fakers out there are forced from the field for half a quarter as a consequence – a price far greater than the reward of a single free kick.

5. Injury crisis creates opportunity for Lions hidden gems

Imagine telling someone midway through Brisbane’s Round 8 clash with Gold Coast that just seven weeks later, the Lions would be two premiership points outside the eight.

At that point, the Lions were 2-5, 13th on the ladder, and were in the midst of a night of carnage that saw two key players, Darcy Gardiner and Lincoln McCarthy, suffer season-ending knee injuries, while Noah Answerth and Brandon Starcevich also ended the night in the casualty ward – the latter after suffering a calf strain in the pre-match warm-up.

Yet since a courageous victory that night, the Lions have won five and drawn one of their last seven matches, the one blemish an upset loss to the equally in-form Hawthorn; and after what they did to Port Adelaide on Saturday, loom as a major player for the rest of the season.

Much of the acclaim has gone the way of the usual suspects, and it’s true Lachie Neale and Josh Dunkley have been superb in midfield, Eric Hipwood is in career-best form in attack, Dayne Zorko as crucial as ever across half-back and Harris Andrews a defensive titan.

But that injury crisis has created an opportunity for a swathe of second-string Lions, and they’ve grabbed it with both hands.

Logan Morris was the late in for Starcevich against the Suns, famously after playing a full VFL match on the same weekend.

He hasn’t missed a game since, booting a goal in all seven of his AFL matches – something Jason Dunstall, Tony Lockett, Lance Franklin and Gary Ablett Senior couldn’t do, mind you – and multiples in five, with this stunning six-pointer during their rout of the Power showing just what a serious footballer the Lions have found in the mobile tall forward.

Kai Lohmann struggled for opportunity in the seniors in 2023, and before the Suns game had just five goals in six games for 2024, while twice starting as the sub.

But McCarthy’s injury created a vacancy for a smart goalsneak who’s deadly around the big sticks, and Lohmann has delivered in spades, bagging 12 goals in six games including a haul of five before a bad corkie against the Power saw him subbed out early and end his run at seven consecutive games with a goal.

Category B rookie and cult hero Bruce Reville is one of the stories of the year; the Papua New Guinean native is ferocious with his attack on ball and man alike, and his powerful physique and love of the tough stuff belies how smooth and skilled he is on the outside. With two goals against Port, he was a standout in a team full of them.

Add to that Ryan Lester continuing to serve as the Lions’ Mr Fix-it, with his spot as a quasi-tall defender all the more crucial since Gardiner’s injury; Jaspa Fletcher’s continued development as an outside runner; Darcy Wilmot’s game-breaking pace from half-back brilliantly compensating for the injured Keidean Coleman; and so many more, this Lions team is a classic example of players stepping up when it was most needed.

We’re about to find out just how far these unsung heroes can take them this season.

6. Hawkins’ injury spares Cats an uncomfortable question

No one likes to see any player limp off injured, and there was an even greater sense of sadness than usual on Friday night when Tom Hawkins went down with a serious-looking foot injury in Geelong’s loss to Carlton.

Whether it’s the last time the champion Cat graces an AFL field will be clearer in coming days, but it would be an unfittingly sour end for one of the greatest forwards ever, and a key figure in three premierships and one of football’s longest ever periods of sustained success.

But there’s a part of me that wonders whether, for Hawkins’ legacy at least, this injury might not be at least a few per cent beneficial for him and the Cats; because for now at least, it spares them both from the uncomfortable truth that he is a borderline best 22 player at the moment.

Before his foot injury, Hawkins was being handed an unqualified pantsing by Jacob Weitering; with just three kicks and a single mark, he was a good shout to be subbed out anyway. And most concerning of all, the injection of Gary Rohan into the play at his expense saw the Cats, briefly at least, look a lot more threatening moving forward, kicking three quick goals before the Blues retook control in the final quarter.

The Cats find themselves at a bit of a crossroads; while finals are still more likely than not given they have an excellent run home, it’s hard to see them as the flag contender they usually are, given their shallow midfield, the struggles of Tom Stewart amid weekly hard tags and Hawkins’ fall from grace.

It’s a situation Chris Scott is unaccustomed to facing, but it was probably time anyway to give Shannon Neale, dropped from the team for Friday night, an extended run in the seniors as the future of the Cats’ forward line. Given how top-heavy their attack looked against Sydney with the youngster alongside Hawkins, Cameron and Ollie Henry, it all lines up for a truly brutal decision.

Hawkins has 15 goals in 12 games this season, and six in his last nine, including five goalless outings. Neale, by comparison, has nine in five games, and has at least one in every match – at just 21 years old, that’s more than handy, and with the veteran to be sidelined for a while at least, he should get the chance to add to that as an instant, like-for-like replacement in attack.

Jimmy Bartel, at the end of 2016, chose to retire rather than risk needing to play in the VFL in 2017. As cruel as this injury blow is, it might spare the Tomahawk from an ignominious end to his glittering career.

Random thoughts

– I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a star player fall as quickly or as far as Clayton Oliver this season.

– A memo to all AFL teams’ social media accounts: GWS has the ‘cocky smartarse’ role covered – please stop trying to copy them, it’s just getting embarrassing.

– I could be persuaded into naming Josh Treacy as a top-50 player in the game with a few more performances like Sunday’s.

– Marlion Pickett won a flag and Jai Newcombe is a beast, but is Sam Durham the best mid-season pick-up now?

– Jackson Archer might never be his dad, but if he can shut down more players like he did Bayley Fritsch, he’ll be just as respected.

– Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon in the top four. Thank God for Sydney.

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