Kangaroos welcome finals-like challenge

THE ladder permutations, should North Melbourne beat Essendon on Sunday, could be significant in helping the Kangaroos avoid a hat-trick of ninth-placed finishes.

The Kangaroos (seventh on the ladder), Essendon (eighth) and Fremantle (ninth) are separated only by percentage and, not only would a win give North a one-match break on a top-eight rival, but it would also draw level with either West Coast or Geelong, depending on the outcome of tonight’s match in Perth.

Fremantle faces a daunting away clash against the second-placed Adelaide tomorrow. Such a high-stakes scenario is, according to North Melbourne coach Brad Scott, exactly what the players and staff have been yearning for.

”We’ve been seeking this sort of pressure and this sort of exposure for a while,” he said.

”We’re going to look forward to testing ourselves against genuinely good opposition in what will be … probably a finals-type atmosphere. We’ve wanted to play in those sorts of games for a long time. We get our chance on Sunday.”

The Bombers have regained four players from injury – Dustin Fletcher, Angus Monfries, Stewart Crameri and Michael Hibberd – and have named David Hille and untried Brendan Lee on an extended bench. Hamstring-injury victims Jason Winderlich and Ben Howlett were followed out of the team by struggling defender Tayte Pears.

The Kangaroos have named Leigh Adams, a late withdrawal last weekend with a shoulder injury, and included Aaron Edwards and Levi Greenwood in their squad.

Crameri’s return gives the Bombers significant depth among their key forwards. In his absence, Scott Gumbleton has assumed greater responsibility, kicking 10 goals in the past month.

As well as being a duel between legitimate finals aspirants, the match also features teams which have had contrasting fortunes with injuries this year. While Essendon’s spate of soft-tissue injuries has been well documented, North’s exceptional continuity has been unheralded.

Under medical director Steve Saunders and sport-science strategist Peter Mulkearns the Kangaroos have not had a single soft-tissue injury among their first- or second-tier players, an achievement Scott was keen to highlight as a factor in his team winning all but one of its past eight matches.

”Continuity’s a great thing,” he said. ”I’ve been rapt with our football staff this year [and] not enough credit [is given to them].

”People talk about injuries and they associate a great injury run with luck. We don’t feel that’s the case. You get a certain element of luck when it comes to direct-contact injuries, but our soft-tissue rate has been just unbelievable this year. We think that’s in direct response to the staff we’ve got here who do an enormous amount of work in preventing those types of injuries.

”We haven’t changed an assistant coach in three years. We’ve kept the same development team. Continuity across the board, not only on-field but off-field, has been really important.”

Scott also praised the performances of Liam Anthony since his recall from the VFL seven weeks ago. That the midfielder has averaged almost 25 disposals a match in that period has not been out of character, but his increased effectiveness with those possessions has been a welcome change for the team.

”His improvement’s pretty much been in line with our improvement as a team,” Scott said of the 24-year-old.

”The way he’s used the ball has been really damaging over the past few months.”

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Demons in purgatory

MELBOURNE has taken the radical step of putting contract discussions with 11 players on hold until mid-October, as the club delays decisions on players’ futures until it has entered the free agency and trading market arenas.

The Demons have 14 players coming out of contract, not including departing veteran Brad Green, and have told 11 of them that they will not enter contract discussions until mid-October – free agency ends on October 19, the trading period a week later – as the club seeks to improve its list with players from other clubs.

The 11 out-of-contract players whose futures are unclear are Liam Jurrah, Brent Moloney, Jared Rivers, Ricky Petterd, Joel Macdonald, Lynden Dunn, Matthew Bate, Clint Bartram, James Sellar, Jamie Bennell and Troy Davis.

The Demons have been in contract discussions with youngsters James Strauss, Rohan Bail, Jake Spencer and Sam Blease, whose pace and kicking ability have led to him attracting strong interest from other clubs.

Midfielder Jordan Gysberts, meanwhile, is under contract, but is on the radar of Geelong and might be considered for trade – making it a dozen players whose futures are uncertain, though the Demons will clearly keep some and lose others, depending on their needs and their capacity to attract players.

Coach Mark Neeld has informed the relevant players the club will not hold contract discussions with them until mid-October.

The decision is a reflection of Melbourne’s desire to drastically re-shape its playing list under Neeld and to test the free-agency and trading waters before determining which players are retained in the wake of a poor season.

The Demons are likely to be in the market for three or four experienced players from other clubs, with their inability to run and spread an obvious weakness that requires redress.

Of the more experienced players, both Moloney, 28, and Rivers, 27, are free agents. Moloney, last year’s best-and-fairest winner (when he polled 19 Brownlow votes), has had a dismal season compared to last year. While he is seen as a potential defector – he can walk to the club of his choice if Melbourne chooses not to match the offer – the former vice-captain has stated his wish to remain at the club.

Rivers, who has been a mainstay of the back line, is an unrestricted free agent and can simply go to whichever club he wishes, regardless of what the Demons offer. Jurrah’s situation, obviously, is likely to be dictated by his legal position, as he faces serious charges in a Northern Territory court.

Bate sought a trade to the Bulldogs at the end of last year, but the Demons declined to accept the Dogs’ offer of a late draft pick. Bartram has been receiving unorthodox treatment for a career-threatening knee injury.

Gysberts, a first-round draft pick from 2009, showed some early promise but has played only one game this year, his season largely ruined by injury. A bad ankle injury kept him out for several weeks before he suffered a broken jaw in the same VFL game in which father-son recruit Jack Viney had his jaw broken.

Petterd, 24, a capable if injury-prone forward, has played only four games at senior level this year. Ex-Crow and key-position journeyman Sellar, drafted by the Demons with a late pick in the national draft last year, was contracted for just one season.

Earlier this season, Moloney said of his free-agency status: ”It’s the first year of it, so I’m not really too aware of what’s going to happen, but I want to stay at the footy club. I want to finish my career here, and that’s all I’m focusing on.”

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Wallabies’ Bledisloe mission: to show McCaw his powers have been bettered

There is one scoreline edgy Wallabies fans could use to transport themselves to their mental happy places as they contemplate the importance of the breakdown in the coming Bledisloe Cup double-header.

It is also one that the Wallabies coaching panel is well aware of, judging by the composition of their 30-man squad announced on Tuesday. That scoreline is 36-5, and it is the number of pilfers secured by the trio of David Pocock, Michael Hooper and Liam Gill compared to those of Richie McCaw in this year’s Super Rugby tournament.

Already against Scotland and Wales, head coach Robbie Deans has shown a determination to finish games with two openside breakaways on the field. The promotion of the youngsters is possibly premature but bold. Hooper has the pace of a centre and Gill the enthusiasm of a cattle dog. McCaw’s head has been targeted by knees and elbows of various nationalities for the past decade, but now plans might be in place to test out the 31-year-old’s legs.

As Rod Kafer alluded this week, looking for signs of the great openside’s decline has become something of an annual pastime among rugby nations, especially Australia, for two particular reasons.

There is a portion of Wallabies fans who hold a genuine dislike for McCaw and his methods – an ardent bunch who witnessed his tussle with Quade Cooper in Brisbane last year but saw only McCaw attacking Cooper’s unprotected knee with his head.

More balanced minds regard the No. 7 less harshly – he showed plenty of grace after the Hong Kong loss in 2010 – but still associate him so closely with a painful spell of All Blacks dominance that they deduce if his powers were to wane the Wallabies would be poised to get their paws back on that coveted silverware.

That theory is tantalising for Australia, but is far from straightforward. There is a certainty about McCaw’s eventual vulnerability, for the same inevitable reason that applied to each champion before him, but its timing and impact are trickier to pin down.

Contemporary evidence of lower standards is not easy to come by. Curiously, due to injuries and the Super Rugby schedule, a 36-minute tussle between Gill and McCaw in round 11 in Christchurch is the only time any of the Wallabies’ opensides have gone head-to-head with the All Blacks captain this year. With Deans watching from the Christchurch stands that day, Gill’s breakdown ubiquity forced the Crusaders to summon McCaw from the bench shortly after half-time, whereupon a lesson in subtle blocking was handed out to the youngster.

McCaw’s competition total of five turnovers – the outstanding Gill led the competition with 16 – also belong in context. McCaw had a delayed entry into this year’s tournament and spent significant minutes in the No. 8 jersey, both with the Crusaders and the All Blacks.

A modification of the No. 7 job description has also been under way in the past few years. Neither of the Super Rugby finalists had a specialist jackal. The number of steals alone does not define the role, which includes a broader set of responsibilities such as ball carrying, support play and lineout work. It is why Pocock is the best breakdown operator in the world but not yet the most complete openside, no matter how many times that claim is repeated.

The memory banks are full of Pocock squat over the ball and ripping away possession, yet they are too light on his running support lines off the No. 10’s shoulder or providing the final link to a try-scorer. It is a harsh criticism but he has been carrying a heavy burden at the Force and Wallabies for two years now. A greater contribution of those around him can help him in taking the final step.

A further complication faces the Wallabies. Over the past few years McCaw has had Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino by his side. Now, Sam Cane and a harder Liam Messam are jostling for places. The All Blacks have begun lessening their dependency on their captain, especially with the rise of Read.

Still, McCaw remains their totem. If the Wallabies are serious about not just winning the odd Test but grabbing back the Bledisloe and keeping it in the coming years, they will have to make McCaw second best. Every judge will have their opinion on McCaw in this period. Deans might show his thinking with his selections. But until the Wallabies test him, as the Chiefs did two weeks ago, only the great breakaway will know how much more there is left in the tank.

Twitter – @whiskeycully

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Two cool Cats show the Twain meets midfield

IT’S a safe bet Mark Twain didn’t feature too highly in the ”favourite author” category when the Geelong list sat down to fill out those player questionnaires at the beginning of this season.

But his famous quip that ”reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” seems lately to have struck more of a chord with the Cats than any sporting biography or a Stephen King thriller might have.

While we seem to have waited most of this season to find out whether the Geelong of 2012 was anything like the outfit to be feared 12 months ago or one slowly disappearing into the sunset, the past few weeks have had ”we’re not done just yet” written all over them.

There was an imperious smashing of Essendon, the tone set in the opening moments with the relentless physical pressure the Cats routinely apply so well. There was an efficient enough win over Adelaide, perhaps underrated given the loss of Steve Johnson in the opening seconds and key midfielder Joel Corey after half-time. And last week’s consolidation of the winning streak over a Hawthorn many had just about over the premiership line.

There have been some common denominators: Tom Hawkins upping the ante again as a powerhouse and goalkicking key forward, Harry Taylor and Tom Lonergan shoring up the Geelong defence, skipper Joel Selwood and James Kelly in top gear.

But for another couple of key contributors, it has been a different story. Paul Chapman and Johnson have been arguably even bigger parts of Geelong’s greatest era than those mentioned above, but in their case it hasn’t just been about more of the same.

Geelong’s rise from the canvas has coincided with ”Stevie J” and ”Chappy”, as they are almost universally known, playing almost mirror images of the roles to which we have become accustomed.

Johnson, the forward sharpshooter with the penchant for the freakish goal, has spent more time midfield as the Cats have upped not only the ante on hard ball gets and possession, but the quality of their disposal.

Chapman, along with Selwood so often the hard-nut presence in the centre square and around the contest, has slipped forward more often to offer everything in a goalscoring sense that his teammate regularly has been able to provide.

While Johnson was collected by Adelaide’s Scott Thompson at the opening bounce of the game at Simonds Stadium a fortnight ago and was not able to have any impact at all, their numbers over the past month are instructive.

The biggest point to the switch is simply their numbers of centre bounce involvements. To the end of round 15, Johnson’s average was four. Since then, it has been 18. Chapman up to round 15 had 10 per game, which has slipped back to three.

But the other numbers prove it has been a shift far more successful than merely redistributing the deckchairs on a sinking ship.

Chapman had a total of 16 goals in the Cats’ first dozen games. Over the past five, he has kicked 14, including two bags of four, one of those last week, alongside Hawkins’ half-dozen, accounting for more than half Geelong’s winning score.

He’s a hard-running forward, too, proven in his possession breakdowns in the games breakdown. Until the end of round 15, Chapman was accruing 68 per cent of his disposals, that number since having fallen only marginally to 61.

His rate in the forward 50 has soared from 17 to 33 per cent.

The value of Johnson’s silky ball use in midfield, meanwhile, was never more evident than in that closing play against Hawthorn last Friday night.

With exactly 30 seconds left on the clock, and Johnson taking possession on the half-back flank just 15 metres in from the boundary line, he swung on to his left foot and centred a ball that nine times out of 10 would have had potential turnover in the most dangerous part of the ground and opposition goal written all over it.

This, though, was Stevie J. The 40-metre pass found Selwood, whose opponent Brad Sewell rightly expected a boundary line play, and in desperately trying to make up ground overshot the mark, allowing Selwood to turn and hit Hawkins on the lead. You know the rest.

Johnson’s greater midfield involvement is reflected in his disposal count climbing from 22 to 28 over the past month, and the quality of his ball use headed into the forward 50 arc seeing his score assists climbing from an average 1.6 to 2.3.

Yet, as Chapman has still been able to retain an influence midfield while creating more scoreboard pressure, so does Johnson still hit the scoreboard from even further afield, averaging 1.3 goals in the latest period compared with one beforehand. Chapman and Johnson are two enormous talents with a big impact wherever they play. In this latest mini role reversal, Geelong has extracted even more from its biggest stars. The death notices for a great team and a great era might be on hold for a while yet.

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Port asks for help on coach

PORT Adelaide has asked the AFL and the AFL Coaches Association for help with the process of finding a replacement for sacked coach Matthew Primus – and hopes the appointment will be made in four weeks.

Club chief executive Keith Thomas will meet with both groups early next week and also hopes to engage an outside expert in the mould of AFL greats Leigh Matthews – who assisted Adelaide in its appointment of Brenton Sanderson – David Parkin and Gerard Healy.

Former Sydney and Western Bulldogs coach Rodney Eade is the leading contender for the coaching role. It is understood the AFL, which closely monitors but does not control Port’s finances, has expressed support for the club buying the best available coach.

“The AFL has a number of support mechanisms – consultants they can put us in touch with in regard to the process [of finding a new coach],” Thomas said.

“They may say, OK, here is how Essendon dealt with it, Geelong dealt with it and Melbourne went about it. They will give us various different approaches for us to decide which way to go.

“We will establish a panel that we want to make a recommendation to the board. It will consist of me, a couple of board directors and one external AFL expert. That will happen quite quickly. That panel will establish our needs and the criteria that we will use to appoint the coach. We will then put together a hit list of candidates – those who we want to target as well as those putting their hand up.

“We will establish an interview process … a time-frame, and I suspect that will be between four to six weeks. We certainly want to get it done before serious player trading in October.”

Coaches’ Association chief executive Danny Frawley said it would assist by showing Port Adelaide the methods that had worked for other clubs while suggesting people who could be added to the panel.

Thomas said fundamentally every coaching appointment was important, but this one quite clearly had greater significance because of the delicate situation in which Port had found itself.

“We are on a journey towards Adelaide Oval, which is an event we want to maximise,” he said. “We want to make sure that opportunity that presents us with is fully maximised, and this next period of restructure will be really important in that process. There is a different dimension to this coaching appointment.”

Thomas reiterated that Port was not in crisis, which he stressed at Monday’s announcement that the club had chosen not to reappoint Primus for a third year – a decision reached by the board on Sunday morning after Port’s crushing 34-point loss to Greater Western Sydney the previous day.

“There has been a lot of emotion this week, but it is subsiding and we are moving forward,” Thomas said.

“I guess there is always emotion. Matty Primus was always a legend of the club and a popular coach and person. There is a great deal of personal emotion associated with this, and we are dealing with that.

”The other complexity was Brett Duncanson’s decision [not to seek re-election as president].

“We were very clear in our decision-making [on Primus]. We knew why we made the decision and we are very quickly in the process of building a strong club. We are now focused on getting on with it.”

The immediate issue is how the players will respond to the loss to the Giants and the exit of Primus under caretaker coach Garry Hocking when Port meets Hawthorn at Aurora Stadium in Launceston on Sunday.

Thomas said Hocking had been “fantastic” in settling down the playing group. ”They are very well focused and I am very pleased with how they are dealing with it,” he said.

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