IF YOU were looking for a flicker, a spark that got Hawthorn's golden era underway, it might have come on Easter Saturday in 2006.
The unheralded Hawks, in the second season of Alastair Clarkson's coaching and coming off just five wins the year before, went down to Geelong and spanked the premiership favourites by 52 points.
Jordan Lewis and Jarryd Roughead played that day (Lance Franklin didn't) and rising stars Sam Mitchell and Luke Hodge were the best afield. The enduring memory of the day was Hodge, with his shorts somehow pulled around his knees, dancing around a bunch of Cats defenders to goal and put the final nail in the Geelong coffin.
After that day, Hawthorn supporters dared to dream, and so too might Melbourne supporters after Sunday's unbelievable win over Geelong, also at Simonds Stadium.
It is hard to think of a bigger home and away occasion for Geelong than Corey Enright becoming the just the third player in club history to play his 300th game, yet Melbourne – yes, Melbourne, came in and spoiled the party.
Just as Franklin was missing for the Hawks nine years ago, Jesse Hogan, the emerging forward upon whose shoulders Melbourne's future rests, was absent as well.
No matter. Nathan Jones, Bernie Vince and Jack Viney offered the grunt ...
... and Angus Brayshaw, Billy Stretch, Alex Neal-Bullen and Max Gawn provided the excitement.
Gawn's contested marking in the first half, in particular, was outstanding. Apologies to Mark Jamar, but this has to become Gawn's team now.
Making the win all the more special was the venue. It was four years ago that Geelong crushed Melbourne by 186 points, a defeat that sent the Demons into a deep funk for the next two and a half years. Indeed, since 2005, Kardinia Park has been where Melbourne's hopes have gone to die.
In that context, it's perhaps small wonder Channel Nine went ahead and chalked up Sunday's result as yet another hometown crowd-pleaser.
Ummmm, no. Melbourne win in Corey Enright's 300th by 24 pts pic.twitter.com/0uqzfX9HyW— Dee Dee Dunleavy (@DeeDeeDunleavy) June 21, 2015
But if the Melbourne Football Club is on the way up, then perhaps June 21, 2015 might be remembered not for a TV station's embarrassment but as the day the Demons' rebound truly started.
The Dockers remain the team to beat for the premiership
The past two games have thrown up some curve balls, but this column has been bullish on Fremantle all season and that remains the feeling as we enter the second half of the season.
It was clear early in the season that all the elements were in place for a mighty premiership push from Fremantle and nothing has changed. The Dockers are fitter and stronger than ever, have the best player and the best midfield in the competition and given the close calls of seasons past, they have all the motivation they need.
There were mitigating factors behind their past two matches. Nine wins on the trot is about as much as a team can expect in the AFL these days, so the Dockers were due for a downer when they ran into a red-hot Richmond in round 10. And in the slop the following week on the Gold Coast, they did enough to get the win heading into the bye.
What more could be asked of them?
Not everyone is convinced about Fremantle, which is the beauty of these four weeks of Thursday night football. There is only a four-day wait for the clash with the vastly-improved Collingwood. If we see the clinical, ruthless Dockers of the first two months of the season once again, then the odds of a purple-clad premiership cup will tumble once more.
What about the Sydney Swans, I hear you ask?
Truth is, they've done almost nothing wrong. They struggled against Fremantle in Perth and were surprised by the Bulldogs the next, but have been flawless since. Most impressive was the way they stood up to Hawthorn in a brutal clash at the MCG.
But the Swans have been remarkably blessed on the injury front. Eleven games into the season, they have used just 26 players and 13 of those have played every game. Should that luck continue, the Swans will be superbly-placed for the finals because they'll be able to manage their squad in the lead-up to the finals if need be.
Hawthorn remains the premiership fancy in the eyes of some. Two straight flags give a team that sort of currency but the 2015 Hawks play in fits and spurts. Two games off second, they face having to play and win at least one final interstate in order to make the Grand Final. But if there is one team that can most assuredly beat the Dockers and Swans on the MCG it is Alastair Clarkson's men.
West Coast has been in brilliant touch with nine wins from 12 and a percentage of 153.5 – the best in the competition. Should the Eagles finish fourth and the Dockers on top then it throws the opening week of the finals into a spin because Freo's hard-won home ground advantage would be neutralised.
The Eagles still have Collingwood, the Swans, Fremantle and Hawthorn to play, so they still remain a mystery. But they coped beautifully with the width of the MCG on Friday night against Richmond – and in their third game in 12 days. Adam Simpson is coaching them brilliantly.
Collingwood is up and about, but the spin from the club is get back to us in a month, which is after the Pies play Fremantle, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide and West Coast. That we will do, but as stated here last week, the Magpies have been really impressive this year.
Then comes the log-jam. Geelong, Greater Western Sydney, Adelaide, Richmond, the Western Bulldogs and North Melbourne are all thereabouts and in the race for the finals. Port Adelaide chairman David Koch would have his 5-7 club in the mix as well, but with the possible exception of Gold Coast, the Power have been the most disappointing team this year.
The draw opens up for the Bulldogs and the Kangaroos in the next few weeks and both should be entrenched in the eight at least until the run home to the finals starts in August. Richmond remains enigmatic – brilliant in beating Freo and Port on the road, but losing to Melbourne at home. The Crows are no more than a middle-of-the-road team as was demonstrated against the Hawks on Thursday night, while Geelong's best remains very good.
At the other end of the ladder, the Suns, the Brisbane Lions and Carlton appear to be fighting it out for the wooden spoon. The Blues have regained some spark under interim coach John Barker but it shouldn't gloss over the fact that their list is in as poor a shape as at any time in their history.
The smaller the better
What has becoming increasingly clear in the past few years is that small forwards are becoming a potent part of any football side.
The question of which player is the best small forward in the AFL is more complicated and throwing around the question to my AFL Media colleagues this year brought up a variety of responses.
If you value goals, then it's Eddie Betts, who has 33 for the year and is fourth in the race for the John Coleman Medal. If you like small forwards who play taller despite their size, then as the table below indicates, Jamie Elliott is your man.
The wee Magpie comes in at 178cm, among the shortest of all the notable small forwards, yet he takes 6.2 marks a game, the most of the lot.
It should come as no surprise that it is a Hawk who has laid the most tackles. Manic forward pressure is a key part of the Hawthorn game-plan but it is Paul Puopolo, not Cyril Rioli who leads the tackle count among the small forwards in the game. If there was a stat for mayhem-making, we'd be confident Rioli would lead that category.
Cyril Rioli's possessions against the Crows on Thursday night. Source: AFL Live Official App
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Even the question of who qualifies as a small forward in the modern game is worthy of discussion. Some would include Chad Wingard although at 181cm he is a fraction under the old six foot. Mark LeCras at 183cm also gets his name thrown up because he also plays like the classic small forward and compared to Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, he does play small. The same for Steven Motlop at 185cm.
Betts seems to have become the choice of many as the best in the game. He was very good at Carlton and has become great at Adelaide. Three goals a game make him enormously valuable. Elliott's marking makes him particularly important to the success of Collingwood and as noted in AFL.com.au's story on club barometers last week he earns his goals in a variety of ways.
Then there's Rioli, who remains the most destructive and whose highlight reel still contains as many gems as the other small forwards combined, although Betts is starting to catch up.
Truth be told, you'd be happy with any of these players in your side up and about and doing.
Although it is no coincidence that four of the top five sides – Fremantle, West Coast, Collingwood and Hawthorn - have players featured in the list below.
The one club that doesn't is the Sydney Swans, but they have the freakish Lance Franklin, whose game contains elements of Betts, Elliott, Rioli and others, despite being more than 20cm taller than them.
2015's small forwards by the numbers
|Player||Club||Height (cm)||Disposals (avg)||Marks (avg)||Tackles (avg)||Goals (avg)|
*Not including round 12
Ashley Browne: Selwood is no fool. He knows the incredible success he enjoyed early on (three flags in his first five years) was unsustainable. If he's narky it's because the Cats stunk it up on a day of real significance. And so he should be. Geelong would have been in the eight with a win, but now there are real doubts about whether the Cats will take part in September.