Easter miracles: the topsy-turvy world of AFL in round five

Craig Little

How should the occasion of Eddie Betts’ 300th game be celebrated? The most obvious way would be to leap joyfully from our seats and shout comic-book adjectives as he kicks a brilliant left-foot goal from the boundary.

Eddie Betts enjoys a profile as high as anyone in football. Teammate and opponent alike refer to him by his first name – a distinction that he shares with Buddy, Dusty, and … Eddie. And after another goal of the year contender, his brand recognition is secure.

When you look back at Betts’ 300-game career, it doesn’t feel like a long burn but instead seems to have been fireworks all the way. And yet again, on Sunday night – after a game that’s first 30-minutes seemed designed to thrash the football-loving part of our brain into submission – the three-time All-Australian again found the opportunity to remind us of how he became a star, kicking six-goals in a best-on-ground performance.

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Late in the last quarter, when Betts worked Jarrod Harbrow under the ball hard up against the boundary and threw the ball on his boot from an almost impossible angle, an unmistakable sense of certainty surged around the Adelaide Oval. He was never going to miss.

So it is that in the 2019 season, the unlikely tends to happen so often as to dull our capacity to be surprised.

There is perhaps no better example of this than St Kilda, of whom during the off-season large parts of the football media blew through a few thousand words on dysfunction, incompetence and the imminent sacking of Alan Richardson.

In the Saturday twilight game at the MCG, the Saints played the role of 2018 Melbourne, thumping the (predictably) limp present-day version by 40 points to sit atop of the AFL ladder for the first time since 2010 – albeit for only two days, after Geelong again demonstrated its depth of talent and astute recruiting (see Rohan, Gary and Dahlhaus, Luke) in a 23-point win against Hawthorn on Easter Monday.

The Saints – who through the agency of Jack Billings, Seb Ross and Jack Sinclair suddenly appear to be blessed with pace – broke the game open with eight unanswered goals, led by Tim Membrey, Josh Bruce and former Dee, Dean Kent, who kicked three against his old club.

Just as nobody tipped the rise of St Kilda, very few expected Port Adelaide to thump West Coast by seven goals in Perth on Good Friday. Just as they struggled in greasy conditions at the Gabba in round one, the Eagles took to the dumping rain like a cardboard box as the Power kicked nine goals in a dominant opening half, led by co-captain Ollie Wines who was brilliant in the wet (perhaps benefited by not wearing water-skis).

But in terms of upsets, Port’s effort was toppled by a Fremantle side that snapped the Giants’ nine game Canberra winning streak. The fast finishing Dockers stunned GWS by four goals in what was for the most part a disavowal of the game’s aesthetics. Freo’s forwards – fed by Michael Walters (who kicked three goals of his own), Nat Fyfe and David Mundy – ultimately proved to be the difference.

“When you play well, it’s not about one person, it was certainly a weight of numbers performance,” said Fremantle coach Ross Lyon.

This too has long been the message of Carlton coach Brendon Bolton, whose team has been viewed to ride largely on the shoulders of Patrick Cripps. On Easter Sunday, the Blues, who in the judgment of commentators and naturalists was the only AFL team bred directly from fumbling, skittish Labradors, breezed through Marvel Stadium with a gust of tenacious determination.

Another standout performance from Cripps and a career game from the Caroline-maligned Sam Petrevski-Seton helped the Blues set up their first win for the year. Both, however, were shaded by forward Harry McKay, whose development was also questioned by Caroline Wilson during the week.

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The 21-year-old, 6’7” key forward took 11 marks (granted a few were when he was left one-out on deep in defence on the 5’5” Caleb Daniel) and kicked four goals from 20 disposals.

“We worked on it and got the result today, that’s the cycle of AFL,” said Bolton.

And that’s what this season is shaping up to be – a cycle, where any one team can surprise (or disappoint) on any given day. Supporters of almost every team could be forgiven for having already more than once slumped into a state of bewilderment.

Each round can be relied upon to provide at least a couple of fresh crises and a story of redemption – all transfiguring whatever outlook was dominating talkback on sports radio just a week earlier.

About the only thing permanent we can take from this round is the tattoo of Eddie Betts’ face tattooed on his brother-in-law’s arse.