An AFL great made a common argument this weekend – one that doesn’t stack up when you look at the numbers.
Plus Port tumbles towards the cliff and the Eagle who deserves even more credit.
The big issues from Round 4 of the 2022 AFL season analysed in Talking Points!
Stream every match of every round of the 2022 Toyota AFL Premiership Season Live & Ad-Break Free In-Play on Kayo. New to Kayo? Try 14-Days Free Now >
AFL GREAT’S MISTAKE WITH 20-CLUB EXPANSION MYTH
Mick Malthouse has interesting timing, to say the least.
In his column for the Herald Sun, the AFL coaching great wrote on Saturday the league must fix a multitude of issues before expanding from 18 clubs, ahead of a decision on Tasmania getting the 19th license later this year – and presumably a 20th coming at some point, since an odd number of teams makes little sense.
He declared five clubs are “montys” to make the eight, including the Western Bulldogs and Carlton, while declaring Gold Coast, West Coast and North Melbourne are in “group forget about it”.
Within 36 hours of the column being published, the Bulldogs went on to lose to Richmond, the Suns upset the Blues, the Kangaroos nearly knocked off Sydney and West Coast beat Collingwood.
But those are one-off – well, four-off – results. Our concern is broader; an argument that Malthouse brings forward that is constantly brought up yet makes little sense when you look at the sheer numbers and facts.
“There are not enough elite-standard players available to service 18 teams, let alone 19 or 20,” he wrote.
“There’s no doubt that many lists lack depth. In some instances, there are only 15 or so players of genuine AFL quality even in their match day 22, after that it peters out significantly.”
It’s hard to argue that some clubs have players of a questionable skill level but current coaches have declared this talking point – the idea that skills haven’t improved, or have even declined – is incorrect.
“There’s a lot of coaches that I really respect and have been in the game longer than I have and have smarter football brains than mine at the moment — and some guys in the media as well — that run this argument pretty strongly that the skills are worse than ever. I’m prepared to take them on on this one,” Geelong’s Chris Scott said on Fox Footy in 2019.
“Go back and watch 15 years ago and with the way teams defended, there was nowhere near the pressure on the ball and the targets were so obvious.
“I’m prepared to say the skills are much better than when I played. Much better.
“It is just a completely different game defensively.”
Then-Essendon coach John Worsfold added: “The skills are done under a lot more pressure and the ball comes in and out of hand in half the amount of time.”
We won’t argue with Malthouse’s point that free agency has benefited the more-successful clubs.
That isn’t a shock though; it’s understandable that if given the option, players would opt to play in a good team than a bad one, particularly when salaries are not as high as in US sports, where playing for a bad team can earn you many millions of dollars more.
Though we do have an issue with the claim that the pool of young talent is shallower, based on there being fewer players drafted in 2021 than in 2000.
After all the class of 2021 had to deal with Covid lockdowns through their two major draft years, understandably making clubs reticent to trust the limit game-time they saw.
But our key point against Malthouse’s major contention, that the player pool isn’t deep enough for more teams, is a very simple one.
When the AFL grew to 16 teams, there were 18 million people in Australia. Some 27 years on, with two extra teams, there are an estimated 26 million people.
Very simply: the population has grown by around 42 per cent. The league has grown by 12.5 per cent.
Not all of those extra eight million people are interested in footy, talented enough to play it, in the age bracket or whatever your argument against may be.
But as written about in this 2020 article, based on research by Sean Lawson and Cody Atkinson, the growth in young male participation in footy roughly matches the growth in overall population. The player base is growing.
And AFL clubs have gotten better at finding talent in areas they used to ignore, whether that be in non-heartland states or internationally.
In 1996, there were 53 players on lists from outside of Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, compared to 120 from outside of that area in 2019.
None of this considers the financial aspect of setting up two new clubs, nor where they should be placed. But from a pure on-field perspective, the arguments against expansion just don’t stack up.
POWER’S LIST CONUNDRUM AS FREE AGENT ‘PUTS HIS PRICE UP’
Port Adelaide faces a conundrum – and it’s not necessarily whether Ken Hinkley is the right person to coach the club beyond this season.
Following two home preliminary finals, the Power entered the 2022 season with ample hope and the sixth-oldest – and fourth-most experienced – list in the competition
But at 0-4 – and possibly 0-5 after next week with a clash against Carlton looming – the Power’s chances of featuring in this year’s finals series have dipped dramatically.
While Hinkley’s tenure will be a hot talking point for the rest of the season, the Power’s list management team also face a crucial call.
Much is always made of the Power’s exciting group of young guns, but they also have six players aged 30 or over: Robbie Gray (34), Travis Boak (33), Charlie Dixon (31), Tom Jonas (31), Steven Motlop (31) and Trent McKenzie (30).
So if their 2022 campaign ultimately turns into a write-off, does the club squeeze the lemon with this list and push for a premiership in 2023? Or does a rebuild begin?
If Port believes it’s got another flag tilt in it, the club has the option of being aggressive at the trade table, according to Herald Sun reporter Jon Ralph.
“Could you play on with those blokes (six players aged over 30), use your ample salary cap space – and they’ve got heaps of it – to try and target a really smart free agent?” Herald Sun reporter Jon Ralph said on Fox Footy. “Like a Dan McStay that could help Dixon, potentially a Jordan De Goey if he would move across the border.
“Would there be enough in this list to think Hinkley could top-up again and win a premiership? Or do you think: ‘It’s time for someone else to restump and rewire and have a crack at it?’”
McStay, who’s put off contract talks with Brisbane until later in the season, could soon be one of the AFL’s most in-demand free agents if he can maintain his recent form.
The Lions forward, has kicked five goals from his past two matches, including a three-goal haul against Geelong on Friday night to go with 14 disposals and 11 marks. Triple premiership Lion Jonathan Brown cheekily suggested on Fox Footy McStay “put his price up” with his performance against the Cats.
Melbourne champion Garry Lyon said on Fox Footy McStay was a “hot prospect”, adding he wasn’t surprised every Victorian-based club had reportedly inquired about him. Triple
But the Power are already well stocked for key-position forwards with Jeremy Finlayson, Todd Marshall and Mitch Georgiades, plus it’s unlikely McStay would entertain a move to a non-Victorian club if he ultimately decided to leave Brisbane.
As for Hinkley’s future, Lyon said there were warning signs during the Power’s 32-point loss to Melbourne on Thursday.
“I don’t think you make a decision after Round 4, but the players will tell the people who make these decisions by their actions,” Lyon said.
“That (loss to Melbourne) is not a coach-killer, but it is a warning sign that make those decisions that: ‘OK, if the players are going to represent the side in that manner, is it something that the coach is coming to the end of their tenure?”
Brown added “the shadow of Alastair Clarkson” would loom large if the Power’s fortunes hadn’t flipped by the back-end of the season.
But St Kilda champion Nick Riewoldt said it was too early to declare Port’s season would be a write-off.
“It’s salvageable,” he told Fox Footy.
“We saw Sydney, off the back of a Grand Final, start a season 0-6 then surge and make finals. I was part of a group in 2011 where we (had one win after eight rounds) after two Grand Finals then rallied home to make the finals.
“The decisions that the club make, they’ll be making all those guesses now and doing all the inquiries. But what happens between now and the rest of the year – probably not from the senior players but that middle bracket and some of those young kids that we’ve lauded, they’ll dictate where they go.”
WHY LIONS SKIPPER ‘LOOKS HORRENDOUS’ VISUALLY
Western Bulldogs legend Brad Johnson has raised concerns with the health of Dayne Zorko, suggesting the Lions skipper may need to sit out games to ensure he’s right for the pointy end of the season.
Zorko has made the move to half back in 2022, yielding mixed results. While Zorko has found plenty of the ball, averaging 21.2 disposals and a career-best 7.2 marks, he’s been exposed at times defensively.
He’s also battled calf and Achilles issues, yet played all four games across the season.
Johnson questioned if the Lions were ‘protecting’ Zorko by playing him behind the ball.
“Last week he said he was feeling better, but visually he looks horrendous,” the 364 gamer said on Fox Footy Live.
“He’s hobbling around. He might be getting better, but visually watching him turn the ball over and start hobbling, we start to ask questions, where’s he really at as a player? And why is he being pushed to the back half?
“Maybe they wanted to put someone next to Daniel Rich to add better ball coming out of the back half.
“I still ask that question, because he’s a midfielder all day and maybe they are protecting him. And if they are, maybe they need to make some decisions on his future.”
The Bulldogs great recalled sitting out games in his final year in 2010 due to an Achilles setback after refusing to rest the injury.
“(Then Bulldogs coach) Rodney Eade came up to me and he goes, ‘we need you in the back end of the year.’ And I pushed it,” he said.
“It looks like Dayne Zorko is pushing it to play now, when it could be beneficial for him to just be 100 per cent cherry ripe come the last six weeks of the season to potentially help Brisbane win a flag.
“He’s saying he’s good and I believe that, but visually I’m just asking questions.”
Former Hawthorn sharpshooter Ben Dixon added that he thinks Zorko is being played out of position and is best served in the middle of the ground.
Johnson concurred, saying his forward half work is as good as any player in the competition.
“Boomer Harvey was unbelievable at it, this guy is just as good. When he gets the ball in the forward half he breaks 50, he kicks goals, he sets them up on the lead, he does so much good work there,” he said.
“And he’s still getting enough in defence and helping a little bit, but not as efficient as we’ve seen in the past.”
WHAT WE CAN’T ‘UNDERESTIMATE’ ABOUT EAGLE’S REMARKABLE COMEBACK
There was a 927-day gap between Willie Rioli’s 38th and 39th AFL games.
Yet, despite his absence from the game due to suspension, the Eagles forward has not only returned to senior level with aplomb, he’s starring for his team – and proving to the footy world he has many more exciting years ahead of him.
Rioli has been a standout for the Eagles so far this season, booting eight goals from his three games. He almost single-handedly inspired his team to victory against North Melbourne in Round 2 during his four-goal haul before playing a crucial role late in Saturday’s shock win over Collingwood, finishing with three goals from 13 disposals.
“I’m surprised how quickly Willie Rioli has come to hand because we underestimate how difficult it is for a player, no matter how young you are, to come back after two years away from the game,” triple premiership Lion Jonathan Brown told Fox Footy.
Rioli was beaming post-game during a feel-good interview with Fox Footy.
“It means a lot to the group. It’s been a tough few weeks of the season, but to get a win on the board, away from home too, is tremendous for the group we have,” he said.
“You can tell (there’s) a lot of young guys in the group so the energy is high, it’s good to come over and head back with the win.”
Collingwood legend Nathan Buckley was in raptures watching Rioli on Saturday night, both during and after the game.
“When he was interviewed after the game, it sounded like he was nearly going to break down,” Buckley told Fox Footy’s Best On Ground. “He clearly loves the game and I think we forget the human element sometimes.
“He’s missed a lot of footy and I don’t reckon we’ve heard all of that story from his side, but to see him back and playing is great.”
Rioli didn’t have a lot of the ball against the Pies, but he made the most of his opportunities, particularly late in the contest.
Of his 13 touches, 10 were contested and five turned into scores, while he also had three clearances and three inside 50s.
“He’s been through a journey. Everyone has ups and downs, but it just seems to me that when the game’s on the line, he’s the type of player that wants to take that responsibility and gets it done,” Buckley said.
“He didn’t have to have a lot of the footy, but when he did he just got it done.”
Rioli said he, indeed, liked having the footy in his hands.
“I know that I’m a lot older than a lot of these younger guys so I know if I get my hands on the ball, I can do something good with it,” he said.
“I was lucky it’s come off there and it‘s a credit to the young boys for working so hard.”
CATS’ NEW ‘FORMIDABLE’ STYLE CHARGING FLAG BID
Geelong has been spirited by a new fast-placed game plan in 2022 that has it sitting fifth at the end of Round 4.
The Cats have been one of the most successful teams of the modern era, but have failed to deliver anymore silverware since 2011.
It includes a grand final loss and four preliminary finals losses since 2016.
An overhaul of their coaching staff has been critical in changing the way Geelong plays in hopes of its new outlook delivering the ultimate success come September.
“They cleared the ranks and obviously had some good coaches leave, but they’ve had some great coaches come in, give it new thought,” Former Hawthorn sharpshooter Ben Dixon told Fox Footy Live.
“Chris Scott admitted Round 1, ‘we’ve tinkered with what we do and what we’re about.’
“I love the speed the Cats are playing with. The footy field only knows how old you are, we keep saying how old the Cats are. But when you play with that speed, and they’ve got the foundation in defence. They’ve got a formidable game plan.”
The Cats’ 10-point win over Brisbane on Friday night continued their strong record at GMHBA Stadium, where Geelong has lost just 10 games since 2012.
Bulldogs legend Brad Johnson noted how the Cats are taking on the corridor more in 2022, which suits the way star key forward pairing Tom Hawkins (13 goals) and Jeremy Cameron (nine goals) play.
“It’s straight down the middle. It’s helping Hawkins so much and keeping him at home with the age he is and not having to get right up the ground as much,” Johnson told Fox Footy Live.
“Jeremy Cameron capitalised last week on the back of paying that style of footy and some of the youngsters I think are enjoying the freedom to run and create more.”
Also praising the work of Geelong’s twin towers in attack, Dixon believed the Cats are currently Melbourne’s biggest threat for the flag.
“It’s no surprise that Jeremy Cameron gets so high up the ground, but he’s got the athletic ability to get back. That suits your game style, because he can squeeze and help saturate in defence and then get back and get that space, and Hawkins can be the anchor,” he said.
“I love their game style and the way they’re playing and clearly they’re the second best team in the competition.”