2017 AFL season review: Collingwood Magpies

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  • 2017 RECORD: 9-12-1
  • COACH: Nathan Buckley, 6th year (70-65-1)
  • DELISTINGS: None
  • RETIREES: Jesse White
  • FREE AGENTS WHO HAVE YET TO SIGN: Tyson Goldsack, Lachlan Keeffe, Ben Sinclair, Josh Thomas

OFFSEASON INJURIES/SURGERIES: The Magpies had pretty bad luck on the injury front, but a number of those players should be ready to go for preseason, including captain Scott Pendlebury, Travis Varcoe, Jordan De Goey, Alex Fasolo, and Daniel Wells.

POSITIVES: The Pies were able to pull off some big upsets along the way, including Geelong, Sydney, and West Coast. While it sometimes seemed that Collingwood would never have the same healthy players on the field as they had the previous week, the Pies showed some flashes. Players like forward Daniel Wells, ruckman Brodie Grundy, and halfback Jeremy Howe all stepped up and answered the bell when they were needed. Former Giant Will Hoskin-Elliott was one of the Pies’ more promising young free agent additions, and Steele Sidebottom also continued his classy form.

NEGATIVES: Collingwood continues to drop winnable games, as they can’t seem to play four quarters of footy when it counts the most — they were eliminated from Finals contention as early as Round 16. Touted free agent addition Chris Mayne barely did anything in his Magpie debut, and plenty of other players battled injuries and inconsistency, including Jordan De Goey, Alex Fasolo, and Travis Varcoe. De Goey also came under scrutiny after a bizarre early season suspension that called his character into question (he hurt his hand in a bar fight and then lied about it to club trainers).

SEASON OVERVIEW: While the Pies have been able to be competitive on a weekly basis, there’s no getting around the lack of enthusiasm and consistency around the historic club. Four seasons with Finals action seems like an eternity for faithful fans, and there are bound to be plenty of changes in the offseason. With embattled coach Nathan Buckley sticking around for at least two more years, the Pies need to take big steps forward in 2018, and that starts with a sense of urgency around the ball and better defensive pressure.

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2017 AFL season review: Fremantle Dockers

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  • 2017 RECORD: 8-14
  • COACH: Ross Lyon, 6th year (79-55-1)
  • DELISTINGS: None
  • RETIREES: Zac Dawson, Garrick Ibbotson, Shane Yarran
  • FREE AGENTS WHO HAVE YET TO SIGN: Hayden Ballantyne, Zac Clarke, Michael Johnson, Nick Suban

OFFSEASON INJURIES/SURGERIES: Zac Clarke, Matthew Uebergang, and Alex Pearce all missed the 2017 season with various knee, leg, and hamstring issues and will be looking to make a preseason comeback. Michael Apeness and Lachie Neale will also be recovering from knee surgeries.

POSITIVES: It was an up-and-down season for Fremantle, but they began the rebuilding process around their known quantities, like superstar Nat Fyfe, as well as debuting several exciting players such as youngster Brennan Cox and free-agent addition Cam McCarthy. The Dockers shook off an ugly first month to notch a couple of notable wins, including big victories over Melbourne, Essendon, and the Western Bulldogs.

NEGATIVES: Injuries took their toll late in the year as the Dockers suffered three 100-point defeats and ultimately dropped 11 of their last 13 matches. Ruckman Aaron Sandilands was never 100 percent all year due to hamstring troubles, and while his replacement Sean Darcy did admirably, the Dockers are just a different team when Sandilands isn’t dominating the hit-outs in the middle. Hayden Ballantyne is one of the game’s most electric small forwards when healthy, but he frequently isn’t, leaving some to wonder if he’ll continue his career. (Coach Ross Lyon remains confident that the 30-year-old Ballantyne will elect to play on.)

SEASON OVERVIEW: It’s kind of a glass-half-empty, glass-half-full deal for the Dockers. While the fans have been grumbling about Lyon’s coaching methods and the general lack of consistency, there’s plenty to like about the young talent that was thrown into the fire this year. Docker supporters can also take solace in the fact that they still doubled their win total from 2016, locked in Fyfe for a long-term deal, and opened up a new state-of-the-art training facility.

We’ve seen that Freo can be a lethal side when they have the horses to pull it off, but a lack of depth and experience throughout the lineup hasn’t helped in some of their more humiliating losses. They were reasonably competitive most weekends, but they’ll need to show more grit, durability, and finesse if they’re to move up the ladder in 2018.

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2017 AFL season review: North Melbourne Kangaroos

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  • 2017 RECORD: 6-16
  • COACH: Brad Scott, 8th year (94-90)
  • DELISTINGS: Will Fordham, Lachlan Hansen, Matthew Taylor
  • RETIREES: None
  • FREE AGENTS WHO HAVE YET TO SIGN: Scott Thompson

OFFSEASON INJURIES/SURGERIES: The Kangaroos were exceptionally unlucky on the injury front in the latter half of 2017, which played a large part in their stumbling to the finish line. Getting Nathan Hrovat and Marley Williams back from season-ending ailments will be key, and Jy Simpkin, Braydon Preuss, Sam Wright, Ben Brown, and Jack Ziebell will also have minor surgeries in the coming month or so.

POSITIVES: Ben Brown established himself as one of the AFL’s most consistent kicks and the Roos’ big target up front, booting 63 goals in the 2017 season. Key players such as Braydon Preuss and Jy Simpkin were able to be influential when they were healthy, and the Roos also got encouraging seasons from defender Robbie Tarrant and aggressive midfielder Luke Macdonald. The Roos also extended their winning streak over their crosstown rivals, beating the Melbourne Demons twice.

NEGATIVES: The Roos struggled right out of the gate and never recovered, starting 0-5 to match their worst start since 1972. A young team, North Melbourne struggled late in games and dropped four contests by 10 points or fewer, and there’s no excuse for them losing 10 out of their last 12 games, either. Former All-Australian ruckman Todd Goldstein suffered through a disappointing season, and fellow big man Majak Daw struggled with injuries and inconsistency.

SEASON OVERVIEW: Coach Brad Scott got a two-year contract extension following the season finale, but there’s no denying that his Roos need to take a major step forward after missing out on postseason play for the first time since 2013. When North was good, they were really good, but when they were bad, they were awful. The club has been linked to several potential free agents, including Richmond’s Dustin Martin, GWS’s Josh Kelly, and Geelong’s Steven Motlop, although it’s yet to be seen if the Roos will get any of them.

There’s still talent left on the list, although much of it is young — 11 players made their debut for North this year, and they could stand to grab a couple of classy midfielders via free agency or the AFL Draft. Quite frankly, following the retirements of club legends Nick Dal Santo and Brent Harvey this time last year, it was always assumed that 2017 would be a year of growing pains for North. Getting back to the Finals in 2018 would be a big first step if the Roos are to cement their standing as a relevant squad again.

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2017 AFL season review: Carlton Blues

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  • 2017 RECORD: 6-16
  • COACH: Brendon Bolton, 2nd year (13-31)
  • DELISTINGS: Andrew Gallucci, Kristian Jaksch, Liam Sumner
  • RETIREES: Dennis Armfield, Daniel Gorringe, Matt Korchek
  • FREE AGENTS WHO HAVE YET TO SIGN: Kade Simpson, Simon White

OFFSEASON INJURIES/SURGERIES: Sam Rowe (torn ACL) and Andrew Phillips (recurring foot issues) are two long-term injury concerns for the Blues, while Ed Curnow and Patrick Cripps were two midseason injuries that cost Carlton down the stretch.

POSITIVES: The re-emergence of Liam Jones as a lockdown defender was a big bright spot for the Blues in 2017, while skipper Marc Murphy shook off old injury woes to record one of his best seasons in years. Levi Casboult enjoyed a notable uptick over his 2016 form and finished as the team’s leading goal-kicker once again.

Murphy, Sam Docherty, and Bryce Gibbs once again proved their worth in the midfield, and the Blues’ defense also looked much better overall. Matthew Kreuzer was outstanding as the Blues’ ruckman and was another player who put past injury issues behind him.

The Blues also pulled off a couple upsets in their 2017 campaign, including Round 3 over Essendon and a narrow Round 12 triumph over the GWS Giants.

NEGATIVES: Scoring, scoring, scoring. The Blues haven’t notched 100 or more points in a game since June 4, 2016. That’s a major problem heading forward, and Carlton can’t afford another season of sub-par kicking. The youngsters on the playing list have certainly developed, but too frequently they’ve elected to play it safe with the footy and have been overly cautious in big games. Carlton needs more explosive playmakers in order to take the next step as a club, and when Curnow and Cripps went down halfway through the season, it killed much of their momentum.

There’s also the added issue of other AFL teams taking a look at midfielder Bryce Gibbs; Adelaide made an unsuccessful play for him last offseason, but he elected to stick around. On the other hand, some of the Blues’ recent free agency additions haven’t panned out as well as anticipated.

SEASON OVERVIEW: Bolton hit a sophomore slump in 2017, with key injuries and a lack of offensive firepower keeping the Blues mostly stagnant. The rebuilding process continues, and Carlton must prioritize locking in Kreuzer, Gibbs, and Casboult long-term, but there’s still a much better foundation at the club than in years past. The Blues can make a run at the Finals in 2018, but they still aren’t likely to have the depth needed to do too much damage. Ultimately, it’ll be up to the well-established nucleus of young players to take another step forward as a unit and help reverse Carlton’s bad luck, especially in close games.

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2017 AFL season review: Gold Coast Suns

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  • 2017 RECORD: 6-16
  • COACH: Rodney Eade (dismissed midseason, 16-46-1), replaced by interim coach Dean Solomon (0-3)
  • DELISTINGS: Keegan Brooksby, Ryan Davis, Jarrad Grant, Mitch Hallahan, Cam Loersch
  • RETIREES: None
  • FREE AGENTS WHO HAVE YET TO SIGN: None

OFFSEASON INJURIES/SURGERIES: The Suns’ biggest injury concerns are Tom Lynch (knee), Michael Barlow (leg), and Sam Day (hip), all of whom should be available for when preseason training starts in mid-November.

POSITIVES: The Suns have shown flashes of brilliance within the past year, culminating in a few major upsets — including Round 7 vs. Geelong, Round 10 vs. West Coast — and they beat Hawthorn twice. When their major players are healthy and consistent, the Suns have been able to be a high-scoring, entertaining side to watch. Forward Peter Wright has the potential to be an outstanding target alongside All-Australian Tom Lynch, youngster Ben Ainsworth showed some flashes in 13 games, and the Suns still have speedy playmakers like Adam Saad and Touk Miller.

Despite a very disappointing stretch to end the 2017 season, the Suns’ crowd attendance rate was reasonably solid, although their actual membership rates dipped.

NEGATIVES: Where to begin? Recently-fired head coach Rodney Eade was already under the gun entering the season, and once the wheels came off in mid-July, there was no way he was escaping the axe. Gold Coast CEO Mark Evans is re-evaluating the whole football department from top-down and has already formed a subcommittee to select the Suns’ next coach.

Superstar Gary Ablett won the team’s best-and-fairest award once again, despite playing in only 14 games due to knee and calf problems. While Ablett (age 33) has insisted that he has more games left in the tank, there are still lingering questions about whether he will stay a Sun or go back home to the Geelong Cats. Midfield depth has been an ongoing issue at Gold Coast and they need to use at least a couple of their seven AFL draft picks to address this issue.

Other players who are under the microscope include the injury-prone Michael Rischitelli and Callum Ah Chee. Kade Kolodjashnij and Pearce Hanley were never really at 100 percent in 2017, either (concussion issues and calf problems, respectively).

SEASON OVERVIEW: We’ve learned in previous seasons that once negativity and/or off-field distractions get to the Suns, things can turn ugly fast. Eade walked into a trainwreck when he took over in 2015 and the blame can’t entirely be placed on him; regardless, there are still numerous issues to resolve heading forward. Dean Solomon attempted to right the ship over the last three rounds of the season and is likely the only assistant coach who will be retained by the new staff when they arrive.

Will Ablett commit to playing for Gold Coast once again? Can the squad avoid injuries as a whole? Can Eade’s replacement do better? Time will tell on all fronts, but the Suns do already have a nice nucleus of solid players for the new coaching staff to build around, and they could snag a few names in free agency if they play their cards right. Still, it’s difficult to see this team moving up the ladder significantly in 2018.

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2017 AFL season review: Brisbane Lions

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  • 2017 RECORD: 5-17
  • COACH: Chris Fagan, 1st year (5-17)
  • DELISTINGS: Josh Clayton, Jonathan Freeman, Blake Grewar, Ryan Harwood, Jarrad Jansen
  • RETIREES: None
  • FREE AGENTS WHO HAVE YET TO SIGN: Claye Beams, Tom Rockliff

OFFSEASON INJURIES/SURGERIES: Both captain Dayne Beams and vice-captain Tom Rockliff are planning to undergo shoulder procedures in the next few weeks, while Mitch Robinson and Allen Christiansen are progressing nicely after missing the entire 2017 season due to foot and shoulder injuries, respectively.

POSITIVES: Chris Fagan has instilled confidence and competitiveness to a team that desperately needed a shot in the arm. By mid-June, the Lions began to show life and were able to improve quite a bit in defense, as well as identify skilled young forwards in Eric Hipwood and Hugh McCluggage who — if healthy — can be some of the best goal-kickers Brisbane has seen in awhile. Harris Andrews, Nick Robertson, and Stefan Martin were able to regain needed confidence and all enjoyed excellent seasons. Former All-Australian midfielder Dayne Zorko also continued his polished, classy form, and the Lions beat their in-state rivals, the Gold Coast Suns, twice.

NEGATIVES: As of this writing, the Lions are still waiting on a decision from Rockliff, who could elect to leave the club in the offseason. While Brisbane made notable steps forward in Year One of the Fagan era, they still need to address depth concerns, especially in their fullback line. The Lions had a share of disappointing players in 2017, primarily Tom Bell (inconsistent form). The team’s wild card could be young forward Josh Schache, who has plenty of talent, but missed several games with personal issues before returning and signing a contract extension.

The Lions are also still very young and need more depth in order for them to pressure and attack better late in games. It’d be nice for them to snag a 20-something veteran from a rival club in free agency if they are able.

SEASON OVERVIEW: Fagan’s debut season has Lion fans feeling positive, and it’s highly unlikely that this team will finish last on the ladder again in 2018. It’s worth keeping an eye on list manager Dom Ambrogio, who took over the job in February and will be entering his first full offseason. If they continue developing some of their younger stars, the Lions could reach seven or eight wins in 2018, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.

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Marn Grook — footy’s predecessor?

Over the years, numerous observers have commented on the uniqueness of Australian rules football, and there have been several theories as to how the game was developed. I’ve already touched on Gaelic football being a major influence on footy, but one of the more intriguing — and controversial — theories is that the development of Aussie rules was influenced by Marn Grook, an indigenous game that was popular among Aboriginal communities in rural Victoria.

Very few concrete details have survived about Marn Grook, but based on a handful of eyewitness accounts, the game was very fast-paced and placed a large emphasis on kicking and catching a ball. Many players took spectacular leaps over each other to catch the ball and focused on never letting the ball touch the floor. Like modern footy, the game was played by numerous athletes over a very large area.

The 1878 book The Aborigines of Victoria quoted William Thomas, a local politician who represented Aboriginal groups at the time. He saw a game of Marn Grook and was very intrigued:

The men and boys joyfully assemble when this game is to be played…the players of this game do not throw the ball as a white man might do, but drop it and at the same time kicks it with his foot, using the instep for that purpose. …The tallest men have the best chances in this game….some of them will leap as high as five feet from the ground to catch the ball. The person who secures the ball kicks it….this continues for hours and the natives never seem to tire of the exercise.

The game was reportedly quite popular among Aboriginal tribes on the outskirts of what is now Melbourne. Robert Brough-Smith, a 19th-century author and geologist, saw a game of Marn Grook played at Coranderrk Mission Station, where Aboriginal elder William Barak encouraged the playing of indigenous sports over the country’s imported sports, such as cricket.

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In 2007, an image was accidentally discovered at a Melbourne museum that portrayed a group of Aborigines playing Marn Grook. The caption described the sketching as being taken in 1857 and stated that the purpose of the game was to never let the ball touch the ground.

“What I can say for certain is that it’s the first image of any kind of football that’s been discovered in Australia,” footy historian Greg de Moore said at the time. “It pre-dates the first European images of any kind of football, by almost ten years in Australia. Whether or not there is a link between the two games in some way, for me, is immaterial, because it really highlights that games such as Marn Grook — which is one of the names for Aboriginal football — were played by Aborigines and should be celebrated in their own right.”

Fellow historian Geoffrey Blainey has also commented that the feature of spectacular marking in footy was first started in the late 19th century after players observed Aborigines in South Australia performing the high leaps required to take a “spekkie.” However, this theory is mostly circumstantial.

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Another prominent theory revolves around Tom Wills, the acclaimed Melbourne cricketer who was one of the pioneers of Aussie rules in the 19th century. Wills grew up on a large colonial ranch near modern-day Moyston, Victoria, where he was the only white child for miles around and grew up playing sports with Aboriginal kids. Therefore, many historians have believed that Wills was influenced by sports such as Marn Grook when developing the laws of Aussie rules football. Footy historian Col Hutchison was a major proponent of this theory, and a quote from him is featured at a monument to Wills in Moyston:

While playing as a child with Aboriginal children in this area, [Wills] developed a game which he later utilised in the formation of Australian Football.

Many of Wills’s descendants still adhere to this belief, noting that Wills was frequently caught in the middle of cultural upheaval in the world of Australian sport — having to constantly reconcile his unique multicultural upbringing against what was then a largely segregated society, especially in sports.

They also have claimed that Wills used his childhood experiences as a basis for a similar, fast-paced game of football that is known and loved by Aussies of all backgrounds to this day. This has arguably been the biggest lightning rod in the debate over the roots of modern-day footy, with many arguing that the evidence surrounding Wills is purely circumstantial.

Here’s what we do know:

  • While Marn Grook appears to have been very popular with indigenous tribes in the rural fringes of modern-day Melbourne, there’s no immediate, conclusive evidence that specific ball game was played as far north as Moyston (although it’s likely that similar ball games were played by numerous Aboriginal tribes, including in New South Wales and Central Australia). This was backed up (somewhat controversially) by AFL historian Gillian Hibbins in 2008, stating that “understandably, the appealing idea that Australian Football is a truly Australian native game recognising the indigenous people, rather than deriving solely from a colonial dependence upon the British background, has been uncritically embraced and accepted. Sadly, this emotional belief lacks any intellectual credibility.”
  • The fact that the anthropological evidence is so thin regarding the actual details of Marn Grook gameplay have proven to be a roadblock for historians who want to make the case that footy was born out of a prior, uniquely Aboriginal sport.
  • The debate over the spectacular mark being a strictly indigenous creation is inconclusive, as the “spekkie” itself did not become a staple of Australian football until the 1880s.
  • Other historians, such as Barry Judd and Chris Hallinan, have stated that allowing or admitting the Mark Grook connection would certainly have been frowned upon, especially amid the ongoing racial tensions between Anglos and Aborigines in 19th-century Australia. In 2008, writer and commentator Jim Poulter even went as far as to say, “If Tom Wills had have said ‘Hey, we should have a game of our own more like the football the black fellas play,’ it would have been killed stone dead before it was even born.”

 

In my opinion, footy is an exciting blend of multiple sports, with early forms of rugby, Gaelic football, and various indigenous influences combining to create a truly unique and distinctly Australian sport.

Regardless of the possible Marn Grook connection, Aboriginal players have long played a huge role in the popularity of Aussie rules — only about three percent of Australians identify as Aboriginal, but roughly 10 percent of AFL players are of at least partial Aboriginal descent. Some of the game’s biggest names in the modern era are indigenous players, including Eddie Betts, Lance “Buddy” Franklin, Cyril Rioli, Travis Varcoe, Steven Motlop, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Chad Wingard, and Patrick Ryder.

So in conclusion, regardless of the sport’s origin, Aussie rules football has proven to — perhaps inadvertently — help give indigenous players a spotlight and bridge the gap among various races and backgrounds in Australia.