The Godfather: Peter Corris rounds up the 2016 AFL season
See the Bombers fly up, up … (Essendon Football Club song)
It may seem perverse to begin a comment on the past season with a reference to the team that finished on the bottom of the ladder but, when you have supported a team for 69 years as I have Essendon, it remains your top priority. Stripped of most of its players by the 2014 drug-supplements debacle, Essendon fielded a team that was not expected to win a match. In fact it won three and was competitive in many more. With the guaranteed return next year of players of the quality of Heppell, Hooker, Hurley and Watson and advantages at the draft stage, the Bombers can be expected to fly up in 2017.
That said, there were many interesting changes in the season. One thing that did not change was the difficulty of pulling off the fabled ‘four-peat’. Not since Collingwood between 1927–30 has a team won four consecutive premierships in the VFL/AFL competition. Melbourne won three between 1955 and 57 and Brisbane won three between 2001–03; Hawthorn, with three wins from 2013 to 2015, was in line for the honour but fell short. As has happened before, ageing players, changes in the strategies employed by other clubs and injuries all took their toll.
The ascension of GWS to top four ranking and the stealthy advance of the Western Bulldogs marked a partial changing of the guard – positive signs for the health of the competition. Less positive was the decline of clubs like Collingwood and Carlton, which seemed almost to sink under the weight of their traditions. The condition of football in Queensland is of major concern and, apparently, the AFL has plans to deal with the problem.
Turning to the game itself: certain changes designed to curtail congestion appeared to work early in the season, producing attractive football and high scores, but failed to do so as the season wore on. Coaches apparently found ways to neutralise flowing play and the swarm of players to the backline (which used to be castigated as ‘flooding’) is now standard. Forward-line ‘pressure’, now much praised, is, to my mind, code for crowding.
The prominence of small forwards is welcome, with Adelaide’s Eddie Betts emulating the feats of other small Indigenous forwards like Geoff ‘the Whiz’ Farmer and Phillip Matera.
Josh Kennedy and Patrick Dangerfield were worthy winners of their medals (the Coleman and the Brownlow, respectively) but the 100 goals a season mark seems difficult to reach and Brownlow- winning mid-fielders used to kick more goals than recent winners do.
Essentially a conservative organisation, the AFL innovated by scheduling a bye the week before the finals. The Bulldogs were clearly the beneficiaries but the jury is still out on its overall effect.
Overall an interesting season. To strike another personal note, I finished 17th in a tipping competition that includes 94 participants, and … the Bulldogs victory in the Grand Final was a disappointment to Jean and our grandson Heath, but both were generous enough to recognise it as an historic moment in Australian football.