We’re into the second half of the 2022 season, and things are starting to get seriously interesting. As Melbourne slip up again, the Freo hype is now impossible to ignore.
Welcome to the AFL Round-Up, where we digest the week that was.
Melbourne’s demons cause for concern?
Two weeks ago, we here at the Round-Up pitched forward to Melbourne’s next four fixtures and suggested the Demons’ greatest test of the season to date was about to arrive.
In fact, we said the coming month would offer “a final verdict on just how far ahead of the pack Melbourne are”.
The Dees are only halfway through that run, but already an early verdict has been reached. They’re probably not quite as far ahead as we thought.
And perhaps it’s not so much a matter of the Demons falling back to the pack, though they have certainly seemed a different beast without the cool hand of Steven May steering the ship at the back.
The big difference might be the steps up taken by teams like Fremantle and Sydney, who have both now recorded defining victories over Melbourne at the MCG.
Early in 2021, the Swans had an eye-catching win over reigning champs Richmond in which the full capacity of their young attacking arsenal was on display. This felt similar, only the performance needed to be even more complete and more mature.
It was hard to split the teams with a glance down the stats, but what did stick out was Sydney’s big win in the tackle count, which finished 75-53.
There was a commitment to match Melbourne in the contest — no easy feat, especially with Max Gawn playing the most dominant game of his season so far.
Sydney’s ability to attack and move the ball through open space hasn’t been debated. But it was this hardened edge that raises the Swans’ ceiling for the second half of the year.
As for Melbourne? No need for panic. But if they have now struggled for two straight weeks against teams who can match them at the contest and attack with pace and flair, they’ll need to find rapid improvement for games against Collingwood and Brisbane.
If you had to identify two hallmarks of this Fremantle team — the one that has fans daring to dream and loading up on pre-emptive Flagmantle tattoos in their thousands — it would be defensive structure and complete, unflinching relentlessness.
You get no time off against Fremantle. They’re not going to doze off for a quarter to let you get your breath back. They’re going to come with the same heat, the same miserly defence, for four full quarters.
They played rope-a-dope footy for the first half against Brisbane. The Dockers didn’t fire many shots by way of attacking play, and the Lions certainly held sway in terms of possession and field possession.
But they couldn’t find a way through. And when the Lions dropped off just a little, the Dockers suddenly came to life.
Just as they did against Melbourne, Fremantle torched Brisbane after half-time. Will Brodie, Bailey Banfield and Michael Frederick were all fantastic, and the Lions’ defence could not match the resilience of their opponents.
This is very real for Freo now. Most people have taken baby steps into realising what they are capable of. But as they continue to pick off the big guns around them, and as so much of the ladder remains in flux, their claim to the throne is currently as strong as anyone’s.
Around the grounds
The Pies have done it again. Another squeaker at the MCG, another critical victory for a team now legitimately chasing finals. Hawthorn’s reshuffle and fightback were impressive, but a sloppy first half proved costly.
There is now an absolute logjam of teams trying to crack the top four. They may not be the best of that pack, but Geelong might be the most likely to grab that third or fourth spot. Their fixture is fairly friendly and experience is starting to tell on a weekly basis for the Cats.
It was a tough watch on Saturday afternoon at Adelaide Oval. West Coast managed to lose by only five goals, which marks clear and depressing improvement. Adelaide played a good quarter, which is basically all they needed to do.
A few times this season, Gold Coast have lowered themselves to the level of lesser opponents, and there was early fear the same was happening against North — but not for long. The Suns are still learning how good they can be, and their hunt for a maiden finals berth could be the most enthralling story of the second half of the season.
In the clubhouse
Here we take stock of who is leading the race for the season’s individual awards.
The first of the bye weeks mean that some of our Rising Star contenders had their feet up, but plenty of others made serious moves.
Nick Daicos played the best game of his career thus far for 36 disposals in Collingwood’s win, while Jai Newcombe’s second half was almost enough to drag the Hawks to a win.
On Friday night, Sam De Koning was fantastic in defence for the Cats, filling in for the concussed Stewart and keeping the Bulldogs’ key forwards quiet enough.
So, who’s currently leading? Last week we still had Nic Martin on top, and it’s probably not fair to boot him without him playing a game. But those three named are seriously breathing down his neck now.
Pretty slow round for hangers, so we’ll give mark of the week to Taylor Walker and move swiftly on.
Goal of the week goes to Jason Horne-Francis. Most of the number one pick’s highlights this season have been defensive efforts, so it’s good to get a reminder of what a potent attacking force he can be and will be.
Ed Langdon remains the GOTY leader for us, and Cam Zurhaar is still leading the MOTY race.