MELBOURNE will be playing the Western Bulldogs in the AFL Grand Final next week, and for a large stretch of the VFL season it looked likely the Casey Demons and Footscray would join them in the big dance.
Casey flew out of the blocks with huge away wins over Box Hill Hawks (51 points), Richmond (59) and North Melbourne (107) before outlasting Geelong (one) and Sydney (40) on its return to Casey Fields after a bye.
At 5-0 with a percentage of 212.7, the Demons were in dominant touch and the round seven clash against a Bulldogs team with a similar record held all the anticipation of the AFL clash played the same weekend.
But then COVID threw the competition into turmoil.
While Casey returned from four weeks off with an easy win over Essendon bolstered by 20 AFL-listed players (only captain Mitch White and vice-captain Jimmy Munro played from the VFL list), the Demons seemed to have tapered a little, and gave up a handy lead to lose a thriller to GWS.
They bounced back to thrash Werribee on the road before that mouth-watering clash with Footscray finally arrived in round 16, and the world was at their feet when they kicked the first seven goals to lead by 46 points four minutes into the second term.
But in what turned out to be the last three quarters of the VFL season, the Demons conceded 16 of the next 17 goals to fall as much as 48 points behind before George Gray saved face with two late majors.
It was a result which didn’t dent coach Mark Corrigan’s belief he had a quality team at his disposal, but it showed they were not the finished article.
“Our maturity comes from being in positions in games to compete for four quarters – we showed our best footy was right up there with the best in the comp – at times we didn’t play it, and the Dogs game was an example of that,” Corrigan said.
“Sitting outside the top four was not reflective of the form we had shown – we played GWS when they were really strong and it was a great game of footy that could have gone either way, which was similar to us versus Geelong, which we won.
“We played a really good quarter against the Dogs and then they just blew us away in the last three, which was probably the most disappointing one because we showed our best was good enough, we just couldn’t play it for four quarters.
“We put together a really good body of work but, given the top of the ladder was so tight, that was all it took to not be sitting in the top four – it was disappointing we didn’t get the chance to resurrect that to some degree.”
Corrigan said the Demons’ strength was based around their experienced VFL stars bringing the playing groups together, although having top-level talent on every line didn’t hurt.
“Early on we were averaging 12-13 AFL players and eight or nine VFL, but we had an even spread of AFL experience across all three lines,” he said.
“The AFL boys have played a bit of footy together and they’ve played a lot of footy with ‘Whitey’, ‘Hutch’ (ex-skipper Jack Hutchins), Munro, these guys in the VFL, so it was a huge positive that they had these pre-existing relationships.
“Those guys have been doing it now for five, six or seven years – the brilliant part is they are really comfortable with who they are as people and they’re the real galvanising glue between the AFL and the VFL.
“They give our younger VFL boys the confidence to be themselves and play their best footy while also having a strong enough connection to the AFL group – they make my job as a coach a lot easier.”
That connection became even more important to Casey when the opportunities dried up for the VFL-listed players, with even Hutchins being forced into a stint at local level.
“It was a difficult situation because those guys weren’t out because of form, it was purely just the health of the list, but that’s what you sign up for – it’s a top down model and if you’ve got a healthy AFL list it’s going to provide less opportunities for the VFL boys,” he said.
“It’s great for the AFL knowing their list is healthy, but at the same time we want to be able to give opportunity to VFL guys. It’s a hard conversation to have but it goes a long way to helping the AFL guys play the footy they are when they have the personnel below them pushing for spots.
“The conversation with Hutch to tell him he’s not playing was made a lot easier from my end because he was so mature about it, he understood it, and he still had a positive influence around both groups.
“It’s a negative to not be able to play those blokes every week, but it’s a positive in who they are as people and how they handle that.”
When the younger players did get chances they often took them, none more so than key forward Corey Ellison, who played three games in defence while he waited for an opening in a forward line stacked with Sam Weideman, Ben Brown, Mitch Brown and Majak Daw.
That chance came in round 13 against Werribee and Ellison exploded with six goals in the second half – the first six of his career.
“Corey trained as a forward through pre-season and, through need for key defenders, he pushed his way in and showed some ability. He played on (Sydney’s) Logan McDonald and did a really good job,” Corrigan said.
“He is quite unique in that he plays as a key forward and has great hands but he is versatile as well and a competitor – I was rapt for him because it was a great reward for all the work he put in.
“The younger boys getting the opportunity to play VFL footy was a highlight – when you miss 12 months it can dent your confidence and you wonder whether or not you’re up to it, but guys who haven’t played a lot of footy showed they have the capacity to play VFL and hopefully for some of them AFL as well.
“Georgie Gray really showed some promise and ended up playing eight of the nine games coming off an interrupted pre-season … he played a couple of practice matches and forced his way in and got better as the year went on playing both forward and mid.
“Ryan Sparkes was a top talent in the NAB League and he showed his best footy was VFL standard. He’s an inside mid, he’s got a fantastic attitude and has a bright future ahead of him.
“Then the young AFL-listed boys – (Jake) Bowey played a lot of VFL footy this year but then pushed his way in and was able to translate that form to AFL and hold his spot, which was great to see.
“Bailey Laurie didn’t get much of a go but Fraser Rosman certainly made huge steps forward.
“There’s plenty to look forward to for both Casey and Melbourne supporters, which is a great sign.”
7-2 win-loss, 5th
What went right: The Demons started with crushing wins over Box Hill, Richmond and North Melbourne to be 5-0 with a percentage over 200. Majak Daw and Jack Hutchins enjoyed successful 100th games and at one stage Melbourne’s health meant they had 20 AFL-listed players at Casey Fields.
What went wrong: Two losses at Fortress Casey were a major surprise, losing to the Giants from 22 points in front before the Bulldogs’ thumping from 46 points up in the Demons’ last game cost a top-four spot and left a sour taste. Losing in-form key forward Mitch Brown to a heel injury was another blow.
Best and fairest prediction: Jay Lockhart and Jimmy Munro are proven votegetters and will be around the mark, while Sam Weideman could poll well given he kicked less than three goals only once in his six games. Jake Bowey’s VFL form was good enough to see him playing in an AFL Grand Final next week.
Best young players: On the AFL list, Bowey has had a remarkable first year that could bring he and fellow young talent Tom Sparrow the ultimate prize next week as players who earned their AFL spots after spending more than half the season at VFL level. Of the VFL boys, Corey Ellison bagged six goals against Werribee, George Gray impressed in eight games, ex-Swan Zac Foot has plenty of upside and Ryan Sparkes has promise.
Coach status: Mark Corrigan is out of contract after his first season, with discussions underway, but they won’t be finalised until after the Demons’ AFL premiership tilt. “I’ve loved the job and loved the role so, all being well, hopefully I’ll be here in a similar capacity, but that still has to be ticked off on,” he said.
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