A feel-good story

I remember a game I attended at Windy Hill in 1985 or 1986 when Essendon already had a hundred-point lead at halftime against North Melbourne. Such utter dominance is rare in any sport, but it happens (Essendon vs GCS, Geelong vs Richmond & Melbourne). Last night I reckon I witnessed the biggest capitulation of all time, in the AFL grand final of all games.

Halfway through the third quarter, the Bulldogs led Melbourne by 19 points and looked the more likely winner. About 45 minutes later, the final siren rang, signalling a thumping premiership win by the Demons to the tune of 74 points.

Once headed, the Bulldogs didn’t give a yelp. Melbourne scored 16 out of 17 goals from the midpoint of the third quarter, outscoring Footscray by 93 points. Melbourne was phenomenally good, but the Bulldogs seemed to give up. Pathetic.

Like much of Australia, I was hoping for a Dees win and expected it too. They’ve been the best team all year and play a brand of footy that’s tough and exciting. They blitzed the final series, and you’d have to think they’ll be a contender for years to come. They’re a young team.

Up until Melbourne took control, it had been a fierce and entertaining contest. The Dees jumped out, the Bulldogs reeled them in, then took the lead. Footscray was playing the more composed footy at that stage, and their champion, the Bont, was BOG.

At half time I commented to a friend that Melbourne had erred by not matching up on the Bont when he went forward and that Caleb Daniel had been allowed to do what he wanted. In the second half, Caleb went from 26 possessions and one of the best-on to an ineffective, occasionally poor player. And the Bont was swamped by his opponents, none more so than Petracca.

When I did my footy preview in the pre-season, I tipped the Bulldogs would play finals, and Melbourne was my dark horse. I’m happy for them to justify that belief. They’re well-coached and have a plethora of young, powerful, and very talented footballers. And, in Max Gawn, they have the best leader – as well as ruckman – in the comp.

I stayed up until 11.30 to watch the celebrations. That’s a recent world record for me. Not every grand final ends this way, but this time it was a feel-good story.

Next year, though, can’t wait to see it back at the G and on a Saturday afternoon. This season felt much less mickey mouse than last, but it’s not completely right until things are back to normal. Perth did a great job, but it’s not the same.

I have one, last parochial gripe. For the biggest match of the year, Channel 7 lockout other competitors, and we’re stuck with a telecast in SD, the same tired hacks as commentators, and, outside a few moments here and there, very little imagination or insight in the presentation.

What a great games!

Seems like I’m hearing a lot of people saying how good the Tokyo Olympics were. There are a few saying the best for many years. There’s a sense of wonder that comes with that. Going into the games you had to wonder if it was sensible to go ahead with Covid still ravaging Japan. Expectations beyond that were pretty dim.

Yet, here we are, glowing in the aftermath of an inspiring, friendly Olympics. For me, it’s the most I’ve enjoyed it since Sydney or Athens. It’s hard to credit given there were no crowds, but the competition was great and the vibe pulsed with something more human than more recent Olympics. This was the Olympics we needed, but we didn’t know it until it happened.

I’ll go away with some absolutely fantastic memories. The coverage is pretty partisan wherever you go, so most of my memories are related to my own country, Australia, though not all.

I’ve already written about Jess Fox and how inspiring she was. But then the 10,000-metre performance by Australian, Patrick Tiernan, roused the whole nation. He didn’t win. In fact, he finished down the rankings in the end after running a fine race. But that’s the thing. With only a few hundred metres to go, he collapsed on the track. He got up and went again, and collapsed again. Runners passed him as he got to his feet once more and slowly made his way to the finish line.

For me, that’s much more inspiring than any world record. The guts and determination he showed seemed to me what the Olympic spirit is all about: to strive to do your best.

On the women’s side, it was great to see Sifan Hassan, the Dutch runner, win a couple of gold medals and a bronze. In one heat she tripped and fell, then got up a long way behind to charge after the pack and beat them.

Then there was the staggering 400-metre hurdles race won by the Norwegian smashing his own world record.

Then there was the decathlon and a great moment. Ash Moloney was in the bronze medal position as long as he ran a good 1500 metres, one of his lesser events. To the rescue came his teammate, Cedric Dubler, who could be seen exhorting Moloney on. It worked. Moloney got his second win and won his bronze. A long way behind, the man who sacrificed himself for Moloney, could be seen with his arms raised in triumph knowing that Ash had made it. It was a beautiful, selfless act. Doing a Dubler, they’re calling it. As for Ash, we’re going to hearing a lot more about him.

Then there were the Boomers. This is just a lovely, epic tale a long time in the making. Finally, after many attempts and much sweat and toil by generations of Australian basketballers, we finally got the medal we’ve long deserved.

I don’t know if there’s a more admired Australian than Patty Mills. Nor a better Australian. He led the way, scoring 42 points in the game against Slovenia to take us to victory. The outpouring of emotion afterwards was unprecedented. To see so many great names in tears afterwards was enough to melt the hardest heart. I love these guys. They’re of great character and determination. They’ve created a culture I think, unparalleled, and very Australian.

I like us winning gold medals, but what I like more is being proud of the people who represent us. Skill, speed, endurance, and so on, are fine attributes, but finer still are good sportsmanship, spirit, teamwork, determination and selfless sacrifice. These are the gold medal values we should never forget.

Planning for Paris

Surprising how much I’m enjoying the Olympics this time around. They’re the most unusual and unlikely Olympics ever held, but I think that actually adds to the appeal.

Like so many, I was sceptical that they should even go ahead, but it feels now from my perspective that it’s exactly what the world needs.

There are no crowds of any note and most of the coverage is commentated by remote hosts in the studio. It’s very much in tune with the times. But what is different is that for once we have a global event that the whole world can engage with.

These last 18 months have been like no other. Everything has become smaller and local. Few of us are travelling anywhere – including interstate – and that means that the global events that periodically tie us together have either been absent, or much reduced. Even movies, the theatre, etc, have been heavily affected. We’re living through a strange time. Life redacted.

But then the Olympics come along, against all odds. And, against all odds, they somehow capture the imagination. The competition has been splendid, and that’s much of the reason, but I think as a collective this is what we have yearned for – a stage in which we are all represented, as once we took for granted.

One of my revised ambitions is to live in Paris for 6 months in a few years time. When I thought I might die all I wanted to do was live – and live in the true sense of the word. I love Paris. I love European culture. Go out on a limb, I told myself. Aim to live there, if only for a while.

The next Olympics are in Paris in three years. Now, isn’t that convenient? It seems to me the great opportunity – or excuse – to combine a visit to the Olympic games with a residence in Paris.

That’s my goal.

A worthy win

I’ve had the Olympics on non-stop this week as I’ve been unpacking my boxes.

I never got into the Rio Olympics. It was a time I was jaded with the Olympic movement – the corruption, the inflated egos, the ridiculous sports, and so on. I hardly recall watching any of it.

Given the state of the world and the continuing threat of Covid, it’s surprising that the Olympics are even going ahead – but then, that’s a testament to the pragmatism of the IOC. I didn’t imagine taking a great interest in it this time, but I’ve been enjoying it greatly.

It helps that Australia is doing well. And the first week is always my favourite – I love the swimming (then cycling and rowing).

There have been some iconic performances, most notably the victory of Titmus over Ledecky in the 400m freestyle. But what has moved me most is the victory of Jess Fox in the C1 final.

She’s acclaimed as the greatest of all time and won medals at London and Rio, though not a gold. She was favourite for the K1 and was the quickest down the course, but heartbreakingly lost it on penalties with her father commentating. Bronze.

Then the C1, the first time it’s been included in the Olympics for women. And she won it in a commanding performance.

So yes, it’s great that she won the gold and we were all thrilled for her. And to see her complete joy was a pleasure. She’s a great competitor.

What I want to commend her for is her beautiful nature. She seems one of those people that everyone is instinctively drawn to. She is luminous. Her eyes have a glow, and she’s forever smiling. She seems a genuinely lovely – good – person with an authentic spirit. And a great family behind her.

I find her inspiring. Such people move me – nit seems, this is what we should aspire to. It’s great to see someone like her triumph. I think we’ll see a lot more of her.

A day at the footy

For many years I would go to the footy almost every week, from when I was just a child with my dad, and later, by myself mostly, for a stretch of 25 years or so as an adult. I go less these days because I live further away and because other things have come into my life, but I still try to get to 4-5 games a year, and I rarely watching on the TV when I’m not there.

I went again yesterday. It was the first time I’d been to a game since 2019. Last year was a wash-out because of Covid, which is a pity because it broke the run of about 38 years in which I’d been to at least one game. But anyway, back again, and it was good to be there.

There’s a routine and ritual to these occasions. For about 10 years, I lived within walking distance of the MCG, which was our home ground at the time. If it was a Saturday arvo game, I’d often cook up a batch of soup in the morning and have a bowl with some crusty bread before heading out. I’d walk along the banks of the Yarra, listening to the footy preview through my earbuds to the radio. It was about a half-hour walk, and as I got close, I’d see the gathering crowd streaming toward the ground and cars with scarves hanging out the windowing that way.

I’d buy my footy Record and would think about stopping at one of the food caravans to pick up a bite to eat before entering the ground, though I’d that more often on the way out (there was a spicy chicken roll I was always partial too; otherwise there were always the jam donuts, piping hot). Inside the ground, I’d go to my reserved seat and say hello to the people I’d got to know from sitting in the same spot every fortnight.

It was different yesterday but recognisably related. I got on the local train with about another 20 footy supporters decked out in some recognisable club regalia – for some very odd reason, every one of them supported the same team as me, though they may not have known it. I wore my lucky jocks and a pair of red and black footy socks for anyone sufficiently keen-eyed to spot them,

The train filled as we drew neither until it was standing room only, and then disgorged 95% of the passengers at Richmond station. The exits were choked as hundreds of footy lovers got out at once. Once outside the station, the road was closed off, and the usual teenage kids were selling the footy Record. I always buy one and am one of those anal types who record every goal and mark down the score at every interval. I’ll reference the crowd number too and scribble the length of the quarters. I’ve been doing it since I was a boy, and you don’t unlearn that.

Remarkably, the Record is still $5, though you can’t buy it with cash anymore. I joined the crowd, fighting against it sometimes as I circled the ground to the members’ far side. Inside the ground, there was the accustomed hum of an expectant crowd. It’s the sort of thing you forget until you experience it again.

Because of Covid, we now have allocated seats, which is great in my view. I hate that the MCC is walk up and people save seats by draping scarves and clothing over, though they’re not supposed to. An allocated seat is fairer, and I hope it stays that way even when restrictions are eased.

I sat next to a Carlton family. Almost typically, they were of Italian stock. The mum sat next to me, an anxious type who would clutch at herself when things got tight or went wrong. The other side was a bunch of girls and a single guy, all about 20, half for each club. I was the killer in between, all by himself.

For most of the game, you probably wouldn’t have guessed which team I barracked for. I watch with grim concentration, rarely getting caught up in the emotion of it. At the start of most quarters, I might growl a guttural Carn the Bombers as the siren sounds, and occasionally I’ll abuse an umpire – Ray Chamberlain was on yesterday, so plenty of scope for that. Late in games, I might rise in my seat wielding a triumphant fist or add my voice to the condemnation ringing around the ground.

No one ever gives me any shit at the ground. I suspect I’m forbidding. I’m hard at it, but I’m reasonable, too. I got talking to the Carlton mother and helped her climb into her seat. Other times I’ll get into a routine of banter, which is one of the joys of attending games in person. I always stay to the end, regardless of the result, because I refuse to be cowed.

So I did yesterday, though we lost a close one. It was an entertaining match and, though we lost to a hated rival, I enjoyed the day immensely. It felt like old-fashioned footy, and we could easily have won it – and probably would have but for the mistakes we made, and Ray. But that’s footy. I’m very encouraged by the direction we’re heading in.

The mood is always different after the game. On the way in, everyone is expectant and focused on what might unfold. There’s a tension that keeps everyone to themselves. After the game, the tension releases. The game is done, the result known, and we’re either celebrating or licking our wounds. On the train, the mood is a lot looser. People laugh. Banter is exchanged, most of it good-natured. We settle back into life. There’s always next week.

Shorten the ground

I’m about to say something that would get me into trouble if I shouted it too loud: I find AFLW disappointing.

AFLW is the women’s AFL league, which has been going for a few years now. I’m all for the concept of it. I love footy generally and fair enough that women have their own league. And, I quite enjoy a lot of women’s sport – cricket is top-notch, as is soccer, and women’s basketball has been great for years.

The caveat with all that is that there isn’t the ballistic, powerful element that can make it so electrifying in comparison to male sport. That’s why skills-based sports like soccer and cricket translate better than, say, footy. There are some mighty skilled exponents in women’s sport. Rarely is it as explosive as men’s sport.

AFL footy is a game of skill, but there’s also a great physical component to it. Relative to other players, that still plays a part in women’s footy, but it suffers compared to the male equivalent (with the possible exception of someone like Erin Phillips). The reality is that women aren’t as fast or as powerful as men are, and it makes for a different game.

The AFLW grand final was over the weekend, and I watched the last quarter of it. As with most times I’ve watched women’s footy, I thought the skills were pretty ordinary and a lot of decision-making poor. There are some great moments and feats of individual skill, but they’re rare. I get infuriated watching men’s footy, but it’s compounded when I watch AFLW. The standard has definitely improved since the league began, but I also think you can see better park footy.

I know that sounds harsh, but I think the women are disadvantaged by how the game is played. At best, the women playing are semi-professional, and they’re never going to reach the heights until it becomes a full-time, professional sport. Proper training, diet and nutrition, specialised coaching, and so on would make for a much greater spectacle – properly fit competitors with decent skills would make for a much more fluent and high-scoring game.

Scoring is one of the big issues with AFLW. The winning team Saturday scored 6 goals over the course of the game. That’s a decent quarter score for a men’s team, though there was also an 8 goal quarter over the weekend. Better skills and fitness would make some difference, but the rest of it is physical.

The reality is that because women aren’t as strong as men, they can’t kick the ball as far but are playing on the same sized grounds. End to end, it would probably take a male team 3.5 kicks to cover the distance. For women, I reckon it’s about double that. The average bloke can kick it 45-50 metres, and some can hoof it much further. For women, it’s probably 25-35 metres.

These are physical constraints that aren’t going to change. It seems obvious to me that women should play on fields a good 30-40 metres shorter than the men, which probably means you reduce the onfield team to 16, down from 18.

I reckon you’d see scoring improve by about 40% if you did that, which would make for a much better spectacle, and it makes sense.

Women’s footy will improve on its own as it matures more, but I think it can be helped out. I’ll be happy to watch then.

The belated AFL preview

I got a message from a reader the other day asking why I hadn’t done my usual preview of the AFL season. Well, I forgot, that’s why. I don’t know if it still counts as a preview one round in, but here it is now.

For a start, let me just say that last season was the most disappointing season I’ve ever watched. I’m not pointing any fingers because there were plenty and obvious reasons for that. Let’s face it, it was a shit year all round.

The disruption to the season caused by Covid did a lot of things. Obviously, it broke the season into two parts. It impacted players fitness, and consequently, on the football quality, and the shortened quarters made it feel a bit Micky Mouse to this hardened follower’s eyes. On top of all that, coaches’ ongoing defensive mechanisms made it a drab and low-scoring spectacle.

I’ve been watching footy for a while, and I reckon that footy has dropped off quite a bit. Everyone raves about Richmond, but I think they’re winning in an era where there’s not a lot of quality competition. The game itself is less interesting to watch – dourer, less skilled. For my money, there was no more entertaining decade of footy than the 1990s, but no greater quality than the first decade of this century (Essendon, Brisbane, and Geelong much superior to any team coming since).

So, I’ve had my grizzle and rant; now I’m about to say something more positive. I know we’re only one round in, but I reckon I saw a few games on the weekend better than anything I saw last year.

The games are now back to regular minutes, making a big difference, but the real change has come to some heavily criticised rule changes that I’m all-in with.

After many years of talking about it, the rules committee has finally dropped interchange rotations from a maximum of 90 to 75. It may not sound a lot, but it means that players fatigue sooner, that structures break down, and the game becomes more open.

The other rule change had everyone complaining in the pre-season. I held off on my criticism to see how it played out in the season proper when players have adjusted to it. Judging by round one, it’s a real winner.

The big change is that once a defensive player has settled on the mark, he can’t shift from the spot until the umpire calls play on. This gives the player much greater freedom to play on, take ground, and generally generate speed in the game. It’s a change that encourages teams to be more daring and expansive in their play. It worked a treat.

Like last year, Richmond and Carlton played off in the first game of the season. The score deviated just one point from last year – but the game was a completely different spectacle. Last year it was boring and unadventurous – this year, it was a racy game of give and take. There was still plenty of pressure, but it was more individual than structural, and it seemed to me that the skills were better in their absence.

Even my team managed to kick 8 goals in a quarter.

So, to the actual preview. I have no hard or fast opinions this year. I’m not sure if last season is a great guide for several reasons. But I have to go on something.

If I was to tip a premier now, I’d go Port Adelaide. They went close last year, and they’ve improved their side since. I suppose I should put Richmond up there, but I still think they can be found out. I reckon St Kilda will surprise a few teams and challenge at some point but aren’t ready for top honours yet. I wonder if Geelong fired their last shot last year. They’ve loaded up on quality veterans in the off-season, but I reckon they’re too old. West Coast – I can’t get a bead on them, though I’m sure they’ll look mighty good at some point. Very dangerous on paper.

Brisbane is a team that looked good last season, and many pundits are tipping them this year. I’m not so sure. Certainly, they’ve lost their status as preferred finals team since they acquired JD, who I now despise. I’m not sure they have consistent quality across the field, though they’re well-coached, and Joe is dangerous. The Bulldogs are my smoky. They’re a funny side. Very strong in the midfield, much weaker in defence, and with a so-so attack. They rely on slick ball movement and their midfield cutting opposition to pieces. Not sure if it’s a combo that can sustain finals success, but it could be fun to watch.

I think Collingwood will slide after a horrific off-season. They’ve lost some quality and seem incapable of kicking goals. Personally, I think they might do better with a less dour coach. Speaking of coaching, can’t see GWS being anything until they get rid of Leon Cameron. He’s driven a team of stars into the ground.

Of the rest, I don’t think there’ll be any great surprises. Swans have recruited very well and had one of the best coaches in the caper. Won’t make finals, but expect a solid year. Hawthorn – no; North Melbourne – definitely no; Adelaide – no, but with some promise. If Freo gets a fit side on the park, then they’ll have some good wins. Hard to know which way the Suns will go, but they’re improving.

As for my team – Essendon – I’m not as pessimistic as I’ve been in recent times. I think the coaching changes are positive, and we’ve recruited very well. We lost some top-line players over the off-season, but I think we’ve got some up-and-coming young players too. We’ll have some good wins this season but finish down the ladder. We’re building for a challenge in a couple of years, and with more development and more high draft picks, I’m optimistic for 2023.

That leaves Melbourne (I’m not commenting on Carlton). Never really know what to make of them – I think most of their supporters feel the same. I picked them to go close to winning it a couple of years ago, and they tumbled down the ladder. This year? I think they might make a charge in the back half of the year and possibly sneak into the eight. They’ve got some quality players, but they’ve struggled on the outside and up forward. Think Brown will be a good get when he’s fit, and the outside is better.

So, my tips:

Port Adelaide (premier)




St Kilda













North Melbourne

Great sport

In the age of Covid, of quarantines and hubs, travel and border restrictions, it seems unlikely that we might experience one of the best test series of all time – but here we are, having witnessed one of the most exciting and close-fought series of all time between Australia and India.

It ended yesterday with India claiming an unlikely, great win in the final test with just a few overs left in the game. With that win, they claimed the series 2-1. Some are calling it the greatest test series of all time. Certainly, it had great drama throughout and, but for the first test (a thumping win by Australia), close results. In my mind, I have the 2005 Ashes series just ahead of it, but only by dint of the quality of cricket played.

As an ardent Australian, the loss tastes bitter no matter how great the entertainment was. We don’t like to lose, and this loss was totally unexpected, both before the series and then through it.

For Australia, this is a very disappointing loss and some soul searching is in order. I feel as if they never reached the heights of form they hit last summer. Even in the first test, which they won bowling India out for a record low score, the (sensational) result distracted from what – until that moment – had been a mediocre performance. In retrospect, I wonder if that victory gave the team a false perspective also?

With that said, this has been an extraordinarily resilient performance from India. Thrashed in the first test and their test captain and best player returning to India, the expectation is that it would be a whitewash. Instead, they stepped up in Melbourne to beat a lacklustre Australian team. Not only that, they suffered injuries throughout the series to key players – particularly bowlers – and still maintained a great level of competitiveness. In the end, you could argue that Australia was beaten by a second-string Indian side.

It comes as a shock and feels as if someone of the historical roles has been reversed. Growing up, India was capable of great performances and being competitive, but there was always the belief that when the heat was on they’d fold. As they did with many teams, Australia seemed to hold a mental edge. I think we lost it this series.

There’s no doubt that India has become a much tougher unit in recent times. They’re much more aggressive and have an attitude. It’s made for great cricket. In this test series, it feels like India have been the steadier team, and tougher in the clinches – though statistically, the margins are slim. As an Australian having watched Australian cricket for many years, I feel as if we lost our way, and that India played the more coherent team cricket.

I think a lot of that is due to their stand-in captain, Ajinkye Rahane, and their coach, the legend Ravi Shastri (probably my favourite Indian player of all time). Both are strong, calm characters. I wonder if this result would have happened had Virat Kohli – one of the great batsmen – hadn’t relinquished the captaincy going home.

Kohli is responsible for a lot of the Indian team’s attitude. He’s belligerent and combustible, always itching for a fight. Rahane is different – self-effacing, measured, quietly inspiring, and a better tactician. I wonder if Kohli can be a distraction sometimes leading from out front, whereas it appears that Rahane is in their ears encouraging them, urging them on.

They have played as a committed team through the series. Each player has stepped up to do their bit. They’ve been resilient and determined, and there’s no doubt that this is one of the bravest victories in test history.

As for Australia, outside of individuals – and it was all individuals – I don’t think we really got going. We were in positions to win in both Sydney and Brisbane, and in most years would have won both in a canter. That’s not to detract from India, but on both occasions, the Australian attack relied on too few, and other issues became evident.

I think I knew there was a problem when Tim Paine got in trouble in the Sydney test for calling Ashwin a dickhead. Paine has been a guiding light and great leader since the disgrace in South Africa. He’s an intelligent, well-spoken, decent and generally calm character. He’s indulged in banter from behind the stumps, but most of it inoffensive and some of it quite amusing.

I think the controversy that erupted after his comments was a huge overreaction, but it was telling that he resorted to such blunt language. It occurred in the middle of a rearguard action by the Indians to save the test, which they did. There’s no surprise that Paine might have been frustrated, but the absence of his customary wit was suggestive of a man under pressure – and, I would conjecture, a team under pressure.

Quite aside from the Indian resistance, there was good cause for frustration. Cummins was the outstanding bowler of the summer, and Hazlewood excellent, but by the third test, Starc had become a liability and Lyon practically useless. Paine had a misfiring bowling attack as a captain, but that was compounded by some questionable tactics and bowling plans. It felt as if the team had developed a wobble.

After the disappointment of the third test, I thought we needed to freshen up physically and psychologically. Starc was cooked, and Wade had been poor. I thought Jhye Richardson and Glenn Maxwell should have been brought in, but the only change was relating the injured Pucovski with Harris. Is it any great surprise that the fourth test followed a similar script to the third – except that India won.

I think Australia played flat for much of the series, and quite possibly that will pass as patches of indifferent form often do. It was only individual performances – by Cummins particularly, Labuschagne, and Hazlewood and Smith to a lesser degree, that kept us in the hunt.

But – I think some things are worthy of examination. The positives were Cummins, who is quite possibly the best cricketer in the world. Labuschagne was good, and both Green and Pucovski look like long term players. There are holes in the batting line-up though, and disappointments otherwise.

Starc and Lyon were poor. Starc is a match-winner, but temperamental. It felt as if he was out of sorts for most of the series and probably should have been rested. I’ve always thought Lyon overrated, but some of his flaws were on show in this series. He’s very stuck in his ways. He hardly ever bowls an attacking line but can be very dangerous when he does. He has a defensive mentality in his bowling and field placements, and he doesn’t threaten enough. Had either Starc or Lyon been on form then the result might have been 3-1 the other way.

Might have beens don’t count. It’s what you do and what happens that matters and the Indians were magnificent. They responded to every challenge and overcame it. Their leadership and coaching (in contrast to Australia) were top-shelf. Kudos to them. We’ll get you next time.

Who I don’t want to win

This time of year the AFL season is usually done and dusted. There are a few hangovers and annoying fans persisting, but for the rest of us we’re looking towards what comes next – and hoping for a better go next season.

It comes as no surprise to learn that this season has been like no other. At this point, the season has been running for 7 months, with a big gap between the first and second rounds and a few weeks still to go. Normally finals are the province of September – this year it’s October, and the first game played last night.

I can get fired up at finals time. It’s a great contest to start with, and the game itself goes to another level. Then there’s the hype and expectation, not to mention the vibe that infects the streets of Melbourne.

Sadly, there’s another infection now which means that Melbourne – the beating heart of AFL football – has been sidelined. No surprises, no complaints, we’ve known for a while that we’d be watching from afar, but it makes a material difference to the entire feel of the competition. I just hope the good folks in Queensland are experiencing it.

The bottom line is that I’m not as fired up as I would be normally. Some of it’s because it’s been removed from us. I guess another part of it is the abbreviated nature of the game with shorter quarters and much lower scoring. It’s not nearly the spectacle that it used to be, but not all of that can be blamed on the pandemic. And, I would argue, the standard is yet to match previous years, because of interrupted pre-seasons and modified training.

I’ll be watching, however, as I was last night. My team isn’t in it so my interest is to some degree academic but, as any Victorian will tell you, that doesn’t stop me from having distinct views on who I’d like to win it – or, more accurately, who I don’t want to win it.

There are naive and inexperienced followers of football who think that in a national competition we’ll always support the local team. You couldn’t be more wrong. In reality, you end up barracking for the least offensive option. If you can manage to find a local team that fits that criteria then well and good, but often tribal rivalries will nix that. We’d rather see an interstate team win it than the hated cross-town rival.

The best combo is a local team that’s had little or no success and is due for a win. Bonus points if they possess humility, or have ‘character’, regardless of past success.

For that reason, I’m hoping St Kilda will win it this year. Like a lot of Melbournians I’ve had a soft spot for them for ages. They’re a bit of a larrikin club with a semi-tragic history. Their one and only premiership is famous for the wobbly kick that scored a behind in the dying moments, winning them the flag in 1966. More recently, they’ve played in four grand finals for three losses and a draw. With a bit of luck, they should have beaten Geelong in 2009, and they would’ve won the draw in 2010 but for a dodgy bounce.

On top of that, they’ve had a mix of great players – more than many clubs – and great characters. And the stories about the culture are pretty legendary. Plus Saints fans tend to be a bit different.

I hope they win it, but they’re a longshot.

Who do I definitely don’t want to win it? Well, the favourites, definitely – Richmond, who are as annoying as hell, and Geelong. And Collingwood obviously, goes without saying, but reckon they’re a bit of a longshot too.

After St Kilda, I’ll be backing Brisbane, who are a roughy. Then maybe West Coast Eagles and the Bulldogs (who I find annoying).

I actually think Port Adelaide are a lock for the Grand Final and a good chance in this compromised season. If I were to tip it, I’d say they’ll play off against the Tigers – unless the Lions can sneak in.

We’ll know on October 24. No grand final barbie this year I think, but I’ll be watching.

Professor Deano

At about 8.50 last night a notification came through on my phone saying that Dean Jones had died from a cardiac arrest. I looked at it and thought it can’t be true. Fake news, I told myself, more from hope than expectation. Dean Jones – Deano – was not someone I could imagine being dead.

Of course, it transpired that it was true. Deano was in India to commentate on the IPL when he had a heart attack. One of his fellow commentators, and another ex-Australian cricketer, Brett Lee, attempted to revive him, but without success. Deano was dead.

People die all the time, even famous people. Some are shocking, many seem surprising at the time, but mostly we come to accept within a short space of time. That’s the deal, after all, it comes to an end for everyone one day. It’s the next day, and I’m a long way short of accepting – understanding – that Dean Jones has passed away.

I think that’s the same for many people. In the hour or so after the news was announced it was treated with disbelief and shock. Then the tributes started rolling in from around the world, from ex-teammates and opponents, from colleagues in the commentary box and players he’d coached, as well as from the likes of you and me. Tributes can be formulaic, but every one of these seemed heartfelt as if drawn up from deep inside. And some of the names – Sachin Tendulkar, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, and so on – huge names in world cricket. Then to read this morning the reaction from Allan Border, his great mate and former captain, how he loved Deano. This is a big moment.

Sitting on my couch last night, I read the news and reaction as it came through. I sent messages to friends I knew it would resonate with, Donna and VJ. VJ couldn’t believe it – Deano? The cricketer? – Yes. Deano was just 59, and that’s something else that gave pause to us.

I’m a few years younger than Deano was, but I grew up watching him play cricket for Australia through the eighties and into the nineties. The early to mid-eighties was a bleak time in Australian cricket. It marked the changing of the guard from the great names of the seventies – Lillee, Marsh, Chappell – to a bunch of relative unknowns who struggled to make an impression initially. I was there, I watched it, I went to the games, and though there were hard times there were also some great moments, and Deano was in the middle of a few of them. When I look back on Australian cricket in the eighties, there are few names that really stand-out. AB was one, and he was immense. Possibly Steve Waugh, but more into the nineties. But definitely Deano. He was impossible to miss.

There were great onfield moments. He was part of the 1987 World Cup-winning side, which came out of the blue. And there is the epic tale of how he made a double century in India when he was almost delirious. It’s an oft-told story, and none more often than by the man himself. He spent that night in hospital on a drip, and the match ended in only the second-ever tied test.

Deano was a talented cricketer whose international career ended prematurely for reasons never adequately explained – I suspect he probably rubbed up the wrong way with the administration. I think he always thought that too and was aggrieved by it. He was charismatic, but was always forthright and could be abrasive. He was one of those dashing characters popular with fans but less so with administrations. Thought it ended too soon, he had a fine test career and was a revolutionary ODI player, which is how most people remember him, I think.

I have such vivid memories of this myself. He was such a busy, aggressive cricketer, in every facet of the game. I can picture him in his canary yellow Australian outfit, a lean figure stepping down the pitch to loft over the on-side, then haring down the pitch and back again (and he was just as quick in the field). He took the game on at a time when most teams sought to build an innings. He exploded that and was remarkably successful – to the point that I would place him in the top 15 ODI players for Australia.

It was his style that made him vivid. He played the game with a swashbuckling, almost pugnacious intent. In a lot of ways, he epitomises how many people came to see Australian cricket, but when he started we were on the slide, and confidence was low. I think his style was important to the team and to the ethos of being an Australian cricketer. In time, we rose to the top again and he was big part of that. The 1989 Ashes probably marks the real turning point, the team captained by his great mate, AB, and he played a big part in its success.

He was a bit of a lair – flash, confident, insolent, he did things his way on-field and off. He ran into authority throughout his career and after, because of that, and I suspect he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder because he felt he hadn’t been given his due recognition. He could be think-skinned, but I think that’s a fair call, too. He was a better international player than people remember, and he’s the second-highest run-scorer ever for Victoria. He was also a coach and commentator, but while he made it big in the sub-continent he wasn’t given the same respe,ct here. He was not one of the boys.

I followed him on Twitter. He was there as he was in life, vibrant and larger than life, but also very generous. He gave time to everyone, and though he was proud of his achievements, his humour could be self-deprecating. Because I followed him there, he remained very real to me. I could hear his voice in my ears. Just a few days ago there was a tweet of his with a photo showing the commentating team he was part of. It feels strange knowing his days were marked, and that he would never make it back from there.

For cricket lovers of my generation, this is a big moment, and especially if they’re a Victorian like Deano, like me. Deano was a proud Australian and a very vocal Victorian also. He was part of the furniture right from the time he stepped onto the international stage nearly 40 years ago.

I’ve just spent half an hour talking to Donna about this. She knew him personally. They had a relationship of sorts years ago. In reality, he was a lair off the field as well as on it. She’s told me stories over the years that made me smile, and recounted some of them today. I wish I’d known him. It seems hardly conceivable that he’s gone, and I’m very sorry.