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After the siren: The flaws that could stop the contenders

Ashley Browne  July 2, 2017 8:10 PM

The 10: round 15's best moments Some brilliant highlights across the weekend of footy
AFL 2017 Round 15 - GWS Giants v Geelong

Phil Davis commiserates with Tom Hawkins after the Cat's missed shot after the siren

FIFTEEN weeks into the season and what remains abundantly clear is the premiership race is as wide open as it has ever been.

If you're the AFL, it is the culmination of years of carefully crafted and meticulously implemented equalisation plans. On any given Friday, Saturday, Sunday (and the occasional Monday and Thursday) any team can beat another team. 

But what is also becoming clear is that the 2017 premiership might not be won by a champion team, necessarily, but perhaps the team with the fewest flaws.

So, at the risk of being branded the resident curmudgeon on AFL.com.au, let's look at the flaw that might just hold back each of the premiership contenders in 2017.

The run home: How the race for the finals is shaping up

Greater Western Sydney: On paper, the best team in the competition, but the clock is ticking on whether the Giants will be able to field their best 22 ahead of the finals. Brett Deledio hasn't played, Stephen Coniglio will have missed half a season when he returns and Ryan Griffen likely won't play until the start of the finals. And then there is the discipline issue that lingers just beneath the surface. Had Steve Johnson – whose absence arguably cost the Giants in their preliminary final last year – not given away a dumb 50m penalty on Saturday night that gifted the Cats a goal, GWS may yet have won.

Adelaide: The heaviest scoring team in the competition and if the Crows can play the game on their terms, they are really hard to stop. But they're 4-4 in their past eight games and laboured to the line against the Blues on Saturday. Would they have made it past their fellow top-eight clubs on that effort? Debatable.

Geelong: There was a lot to like about the Cats on Saturday night – three debutants and almost getting the win away to the Giants. But they blew a chance to score a big win on the road and in such an even season, the ability to win on the road is critical. The Cats travel to the Gabba this week and then to Adelaide to face the Crows a fortnight after that. They need to take care of business on the road when they can.

Richmond: Seats aboard the Tiger train are filling fast after the slashing win over Port Adelaide on Saturday night. But can the 11th-best attack in the competition win a premiership? That's what the Tigers need to deal with. A 2017 flag to the Tigers will be built on the back of a brilliant backline and it won't be the first time that has happened.

Melbourne: A bit like the Giants, the Demons are struggling to get their best team on the park. And their next few weeks might see them without three midfield guns – Nathan Jones, Jack Viney and Dom Tyson. And then there's the discipline. Having Jesse Hogan and Jordan Lewis unavailable earlier in the season arguably cost the Demons a win or two, Tom Bugg won't be playing any time soon, while Dean Kent, Jay Kennedy-Harris, Ben Kennedy and Jake Spencer weren't considered for selection last week after breaking club rules during the week. Not ideal. Not this year.

Port Adelaide: With the second-best percentage in the competition and the second-most points for, the Power can get the scoreboard working. But the form line is the worry here. Saturday night's capitulation to Richmond – at home – continued a season-long trend of Port losing to teams in the eight. Even coach Ken Hinkley agrees there is no counterpoint unless his men knock over one of the big boys.

West Coast: Working out which West Coast will turn up week to week is the biggest issue for Adam Simpson. Are they the mob that meekly surrendered a comfortable late lead to Melbourne last week, or the group that travelled across the country the next, overcoming a couple of injuries to knock over the reigning premiers? It was huge for the Eagles to pick up a much-needed win at in Melbourne, but they've twice failed at the MCG this year.

Around the state leagues: Who starred in your club's twos?

Sydney: The Swans are the form team of the competition, having come back from a 0-6 start to the cusp of the top eight. Their best footy is the best in the competition. But how many petrol tickets have they spent to get back in contention? The Swans have no margin for error and cannot afford to flirt with their form. 

St Kilda: It's all coming together for the Saints, but a look at their season shows a pair of three-game winning streaks. They're riding another of those now, which adds to the intrigue of the Richmond game coming up. Win four straight at this time of the year and you start to have the makings of a really good side. The intensity that marked the win over GWS earlier this year was on display again for large parts of the Freo game. But is it the norm for St Kilda in 2017?

The Tribunal times, they should be a-changin'

Some of the inner workings of the AFL's judicial processes were laid bare on Saturday in a deep-dive interview with AFL football boss Simon Lethlean on ABC radio.

It came after a huge week on the Tribunal front with the Bachar Houli suspension and subsequent AFL-led appeal, and then the crude Tom Bugg strike on Callum Mills on Friday night, which surely will be referred straight to the Tribunal when the Match Review Panel meets on Monday.

What we learned was that while the MRP's standing as an independent body remains enshrined, Lethlean has a look at what incidents are likely to be reviewed and the recommended sanctions (and otherwise) before they are finalised. There may be times when the MRP seeks his counsel during its deliberations.

But it remains an antiquated system in some ways. It is almost the last vestige of a semi-professional competition once played exclusively in the suburbs of Melbourne, only on Saturday afternoons and run by administrators who could only deal with the affairs of the game at night once their days in the factory, classroom or office were done.

Nine things we learned from round 15

While it is a given that Bugg will be going straight to the Tribunal, the fact that it won't be officially confirmed until Monday afternoon is absurd. The medical report that Lethlean said the MRP will rely on in making its adjudication will be available well before Monday morning, given the Swans played on Friday night. There needs to be process, but there is also video technology (Telstra, being an official partner of the AFL, could surely help in this regard) that could allow the MRP to meet remotely, as early as Saturday to make its ruling following Friday night games and, increasingly, Thursday night games as well.

ANALYSIS: Bugg has only one move left

Until that happens, the Bugg episode will be replayed over and over and over again and the game won't have moved on from the days of black shorts at home, white shorts away and black and white TV. 

The entire AFL judicial process will be reviewed at the end of the season, as it is every year. It is a complicated and multi-layered system. But just as Lethlean courageously defied years of convention by appealing the Houli suspension, he could add some speed and contemporary thinking to the MRP system that sometimes takes too long.

Swans throw players' code out the window

Of course, what the MRP won't need to take into consideration are the views of some of Mills' teammates. Perhaps Bugg brought this all upon himself with his provocative pre-game Instagram message before the Bulldogs game a few weeks back, but the Swans were quite forthright in their condemnation of Bugg after Friday's game, in a clear departure from the old-fashioned players code that would suddenly appear after a contentious incident.

Defender Nick Smith gave one example on 3AW: "(I was) taught to play footy the right way. You want to hurt your opposition, but not in that fashion." It was the polite but direct sort of dig one would expect from the Scotch College-educated Smith. But there were no airs and graces from teammate Tom Papley, who told AAP simply that it was a "dog act"

We think that's what Smith wanted to say, only he's a bit too polite.

Nick Smith told Tom Bugg what he really thought on Friday night. Picture: AFL Photos
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Lions' den gets a lot more attractive 

That's one hell of a coaching job Chris Fagan is doing at the Gabba after the Brisbane Lions came from 27 points down early in the final quarter to beat Essendon at Etihad Stadium, sending a huge 41,000 crowd home in stunned silence.

More weeks than not there has been a bit to like about the Lions and on Sunday it was four goals from the rapidly emerging Eric Hipwood and 29 classy touches in just his second game from last year's No.23 draft pick Alex Witherden. When Lewis Taylor and Dayne Zorko play well, the Lions become that much harder to beat.

The Lions are on a journey and they're savouring every moment. Witness the unbridled excitement from coach Chris Fagan afterwards in the coach's box, on the ground and in the rooms.

The Lions can't make the finals and will likely win the wooden spoon. But if you're the No.1 rated junior in the country, you'd have few qualms about joining a club that has bottomed out and is starting its climb back to respectability.

Forecast the road to the flag with the AFL Ladder and Finals Predictor

Other observations

1. 30, 30, 25, 95, 103 and 19. That's the losing margins for St Kilda in their last six trips to Domain Stadium before Sunday. The Saints should have knocked over West Coast in round two, but ran out of steam, but they powered home with two late goals to Josh Bruce to beat Fremantle by nine points after trailing at every change. Before Sunday they had lost 11 out of 12 outside Victoria. Brilliant, brilliant win by the Saints as they put a major bogey to bed. 

2. All the Saints won't take home to Victoria are the three Brownlow votes. They will go to Michael Walters, who with 32 touches, six marks and six goals, played one of the best games by a small forward you will ever see. Plaudits to the Saints, but the Dockers would have been worthy winners on his efforts alone.

WATCH: Six of the best from Sonny

3. It was a nice weekend for those making their debut, with Tyson Stengle booting two for the Tigers on debut in Adelaide, as did Wylie Buzza for the Cats in the draw against the Giants. Buzza now has the best name in footy, although not for too long. The potential debut of Irving Mosquito in 2019, perhaps for the Hawks as part of their Next Generation academy, has footy's name watchers giddy with excitement.

4. Adelaide Oval has been the scene of a pair of nice redemption stories in the past two weeks. After being kept goalless in a half by Port Adelaide in round 11, the Hawks came back three weeks later to knock over the Crows. Richmond, meanwhile, lost by 76 points to the Crows in round six, before returning 10 weeks later to beat the Power by 13. The ghosts of the Tigers' 2014 finals humiliation might have been put to bed once and for all.

5. The nice story of the weekend was Nathan Vardy kicking the sealer for West Coast against the Bulldogs on Saturday. The star-crossed big man managed just 25 games in six years for Geelong and sought a fresh start with the Eagles this year. And while he might have initially been thought of as cover for the season while Nic Naitanui's reconstructed ACL slowly healed, Vardy has not skipped a beat all year. As he said in a candid post-game interview on Fox Footy afterwards, football is supposed to be fun, but it is anything but when you can't get on the park. Also good for the Eagles on Saturday was key defender Eric Mackenzie, who has struggled mightily since injuring his knee in 2014. But his confidence is returning and it allows the Eagles to play Jeremy McGovern forward, where he is at his most dangerous.

WATCH: Vardy brilliance gets Eagles home

6. Trent Cotchin the best captain in the league? We're not buying that just yet. But how good was the change-room vision of Cotchin calmly talking to a clearly rattled Alex Rance at half-time on Saturday night. The soothing talk must have had the desired effect because after a half of being run around by Jackson Trengove, Rance went back to being the best full-back in the competition in the second half and helped engineer a fabulous win. 

7. The Hawks have eschewed the hard tag in recent years and let's face it, they haven't really needed to. They've let the likes of Scott Pendlebury run amok in recent years but it hasn't mattered much because overall talent would win out. So the Hawks have turned to youngster Dan Howe and in the last fortnight he has kept Rory Sloane to 23 touches without having much of an influence while on Sunday it was 250-gamer Pendlebury who was kept to 21 touches without ever getting on the leash. The coaching at Hawthorn remains very, very good.