It may be a bold opening statement, but we will use it anyway: this early AFL season is the most compelling one that HPN can remember in our footy watching days. No side is invincible, no side utterly hopeless (Brisbane aren’t utterly hopeless).
The early season favourites in Adelaide were just convincingly beaten two weeks in a row by sides with gameplans to counter them but who may not make the finals. The presumptive pre-season premiership favourites (or PPPFs), GWS, have an injury list that stretches for days and are being exposed by other strong midfields.
Geelong are extraordinarily top-heavy with Dangerfield, Selwood and Duncan leading the way; Melbourne without Gawn are perhaps lacking in star power, with Cam Pedersen (?!?) currently one of their most important players. Sydney forgot how to play Australian Football for the first six weeks of the year and have maybe remembered too late. And who knows if the Bulldogs are any good? We sure don’t.
On an individual basis, we are seeing the rare resurgence of an injured star over 30 (Ablett), and the emergence from the clouds of a young player as perhaps the best in the league through two months (Sloane). The spread and depth of talent across the league is impressive right now, and with much of that talent being young it will only keep moving this way.
This season has shown that any team can beat any other, and the race for the finals is truly up in the air.
The HPN Ratings for the week reflect this.
Port Adelaide have leapfrogged their local rival into first in the rankings, driven by their stellar midfield and inexplicably stingy defence. Port’s midfield is particularly well rounded, with the inside grunt provided by Wines, Ebert and Powell-Pepper tempered by the run and creativity of Wingard, Wines, Gray and Polec. Ryder and Trengove have proven to be a ruck combination that provides more value around the ground than any potential losses in raw hitouts, and they never fail to provide a solid contest under the ball.
Melbourne’s impressive win over Adelaide vaulted them up the standings, with the Demons looking remarkably well balanced through the eight weeks to date. The issue for the Dees remains consistency of effort from week to week, and the ability to cover for significant outs, such as Hogan and Gawn.
At the other end of the scale, North Melbourne looked very ordinary last week in backing up from their own win over the Crows. North is a relatively unknown quantity in 2017, with their best performances (such as in the GWS and Adelaide games) worlds away from their worst. They aren’t totally out of finals contention yet, but a loss this week to Melbourne will severely dent their hopes.
However, none of these things have been the major AFL media topics this week.
Distraction is a critical part of any PR armoury – using a thought provoking issue or proposal to distract away from any bad news. The NRL has State Of Origin for built into their schedule pretty much for this reason.
The AFL has been conditioned to handling near-permanent bad news stories since 2013, with the Essendon/ASADA scandal sucking up a massive amount of oxygen from the media and general footballing public. It’s easy to see how distraction, at least on a temporary basis, has formed a critical part of the AFL’s thinking.
The move to a 7-day-a-week, 50-ish-weeks-a-year media cycle hasn’t helped, with the easy distraction of “footy on the weekend” only covering a bit over half of that timeframe. As such, the AFL have become adept at tossing out hypothetical ideas for the public to discuss, helping to retain interest and to distract from negative off-field events. They’re also good at dropping bad news at the end of a given cycle, after newspaper and TV news deadlines. This isn’t uniquely mischievous – just smart media gatekeeping by a huge and powerful organisation.
And in an extremely critical reading of the week’s events, that’s what the AFL has attempted here. Last weekend former number 2 draft pick and injured but currently listed Fremantle player Harley Bennell wandered onto a field of his reserves team to talk to his cousin, and was promptly removed by club staff. This event came about a month after his refusal by airline staff to board a flight due to perceived drunkenness.
This, by most standards, is a “negative issue” and could therefore benefit from a reset of the media narrative, along with the racist “banter” on “The Bounce“. What the AFL appears to have done is to reset the narrative using their “off-season” playbook by floating thought bubbles, and not using their “mid-season” one which generally involves returning to focus on footy. These really should be two separate ways of handling PR issues.
The floating of stupid fixturing ideas – and to repeat, they are stupid ideas, and we will discuss in more depth in coming weeks why they are so very stupid – has almost completely removed any focus on Bennell or Danny Frawley, but also almost any other football issue including the week of footy ahead.
(Incidentally, you’re never going to make the fixture fair until there’s four more teams or a shorter season, but more on that another day.)
According to Matt Cowgill at ESPN (and The Arc) eleven sides have at least a one-in-four shot at finals footy, with only one sitting in a near-hopeless position. Even Carlton, should they upend Fremantle and North, will have about a 15% chance of September action. No team should feel secure right now, and no fan really has an excuse to not watch the weekend ahead.
The AFL should focus on getting that message out instead.