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  1. The long hot summer of 2012-3 will not be forgotten by many of us associated with the Melbourne Football Club but, even as I begin to write, with the temperatures still hovering in the thirties, the questions about the club's future still linger. We are on the brink of a seventh season since the Demons tasted the finals or even won an opening match. The big hitters of the competition seem way ahead of where Melbourne is currently placed in terms of its perceived playing strength and nobody seriously thinks it can challenge for September action this year and perhaps even the next. Supporters can only hope that the coming of autumn finally marks the culmination of one of the worst periods in the club's history, a time in which it might not exactly have hit rock bottom in terms of ladder ranking but otherwise in so many other aspects, it failed to even remotely live up to expectations. The things that brought the club to the dark places it has occupied in recent times are well-documented and have been the subject of heated debate but, as we stand on the brink of a new season, I return to a time exactly two years ago when most Melbourne fans waited with anticipation and a measure of confidence for the opening of a new season. Back then, the club appeared to be on a steep upward curve. At the end of 2010 it had more than doubled its tally of wins to 8½ over the previous year and some pundits were predicting finals action in 2011. Coach Dean Bailey was even on record as suggesting that his then club was possibly on the brink of an era that would bring not just one but many premierships. Brisbane's Michael Voss thought the same way. The first two teams Melbourne faced in 2011 were, by coincidence, the teams that played off for last years premiership. The opening round's opponents were the Sydney Swans who had been given a spanking by Melbourne late the season inflicting some deep wounds on Paul Roos and giving him the biggest defeat of his coaching career just as it was ending. But despite our lofty expectations, the rematch some seven or eight months later was a close and hard fought encounter with the Demons coming back from well behind to take the lead late in the game only to see the Swans claw back in the final desperate moments to give their new coach two premiership points on his debut. From that point onward, the fortunes of two sides that had been so evenly matched that day diverged completely. One marched off with ticker tape and a flag by the end of 2012 while the other wallowed at the foot of the table ahead only of the newly hatched franchises. In the second round of 2011, Melbourne took on Hawthorn who wasted opportunities in the first quarter but were dominated in the second so that moments before the main break they trailed by 27 points. The Dees still enjoyed a three goal buffer when they went into the rooms at half time. It was the third quarter that defined not only this particular game but also the club's following two seasons. The loss of control was so complete that the team stood back helplessly as the relentless Hawks pounded away for the full thirty minutes of that term scoring an incredible 8 goals 11 behinds to one goal and one point. People talk of the 186 game later that season as the measuring stick of the depths to which the club had plumbed but, on reflection, this was the day upon which the writing was truly placed on the wall. I missed that game due to a prior engagement and put the result down to a case of a young developing team hitting a brick wall against a rampant opposition and because it won the next game (against the Suns) so convincingly, the significance of the Hawks' took a while to sink in. Well ... actually, it took another game because the same Melbourne was back on display in the first quarter against West Coast in Perth. It was truly a case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for most of the season until it all finally imploded. Perhaps others saw the team's disintegration in 2011 sooner than I did, but by mid-season it was clear that something was amiss and we now know that there were deep divisions that ended in carnage and turmoil both on and off the field in the year that followed. Controversy, the sacking of the coach after one of the most savage on field beatings in the history of the game, the death of a President, the dismissal of a major sponsor, criminal charges brought against a key player, fabrications and often unwarranted attacks in the media and elsewhere on key club personnel, injuries, leaked information and a 7 month long investigation that belonged to the Middle Ages. These were attended by a time in which we saw a total revamp of the football department so that we now have a bevy of new coaches, medical and fitness staff, almost half the playing group has moved on and there have been changes in body sizes and shapes, fitness, the introduction of a new training regimen and radical changes in playing style. Its fair to say that when we get back to the football on Sunday afternoon, the team that runs out onto the ground against Port Adelaide will be substantially different to that which carried our hopes into battle two years ago against the Swans and, for that matter, even twelve months ago against the Lions in last year's season opener. The question is whether the club is better off for all the changes that have been made? THE GAME Melbourne v Port Adelaide Sunday 31 March, 2013 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 1:10pm HEAD TO HEAD Overall Melbourne 11 wins Port Adelaide 14 wins At the MCG Melbourne 7 wins Port Adelaide 1 wins Since 2000 Melbourne 8 wins Port Adelaide 12 wins MEDIA TV FOX FOOTY CHANNEL - 1:00pm LIVE Radio ABC Triple M 3AW SEN THE BETTING Melbourne to win $1.82 Port Adelaide to win $2.00 THE LAST TIME THEY MET Port Adelaide 12.12.84 defeated Melbourne 8.8.56 at TIO Stadium, Darwin, Round 17, 2012. Melbourne made a solid start on a temperate Darwin evening booting five goals in the first quarter before it was torn apart by a dominant Port Adelaide midfield led by Travis Boak who was still weighing up his future with that club. Jack Grimes played a solid but not spectacular captain's game but otherwise, it was an all too familiar scenario for the Demons as they limped their way towards the season's end. THE TEAMS MELBOURNE Backs Lynden Dunn Tom Gillies Dan Nicholson Half backs Jack Watts James Frawley Colin Garland Centreline Jack Viney Jack Grimes Jimmy Toumpas Half forwards Jeremy Howe James Sellar Colin Sylvia Forwards Shannon Byrnes Mitch Clark David Rodan Followers Mark Jamar Jordie McKenzie Nathan Jones Interchange Sam Blease Matthew Jones Cameron Pedersen Luke Tapscott Emergencies Aaron Davey Jake Spencer Dean Terlich New Shannon Byrnes (Geelong) Tom Gillies (Geelong) Matt Jones (Box Hill VFL) Cameron Pedersen (North Melbourne) David Rodan (Port Adelaide) Jimmy Toumpas (Woodville-West Torrens SANFL) Jack Viney (Casey VFL) PORT ADELAIDE Backs Tom Jonas Jackson Trengove Campbell Heath Half backs Jasper Pittard Cameron O'Shea Lewis Stevenson Centreline Matthew Broadbent Brad Ebert Kane Cornes Half forwards Justin Westhoff Paul Stewart Angus Monfries Forwards Chad Wingard Jay Schulz Jake Neade Followers Jarrad Redden Hamish Hartlett Travis Boak Interchange Matthew Lobbe Kane Mitchell Andrew Moore Oliver Wines Emergencies Jack Hombsch Daniel Stewart Aaron Young New Campbell Heath (Sydney) Kane Mitchell (Claremont WAFL) Angus Monfries (Essendon) Jake Neade (North Ballarat U18) Lewis Stevenson (West Coast) Oliver Wines (Murray U18) PREDICTION by Whispering Jack When Mark Neeld's stint as coach began 12 months ago, most Demon fans had high expectations for the season ahead and certainly, very few were prepared for the season from hell that eventuated. Six months later, it was clear that the club's reaction to a 16th place finish that was only marginally ahead of the AFL's two new expansion franchises was swift, decisive and far ranging. Over the two months that followed, a third of the playing list was turned over but the changes were expected by those who had watched the team closely during 2012 and who had listened to the words of Mark Neeld and Neil Craig. The heads that rolled were mainly those of players who simply hadn't worked hard enough or bought in to the new style they were seeking to instill into the young team. The only departure who figured high in the club's best and fairest award was Jared Rivers, in his late twenties, and facing the prospect of being squeezed out of defence by young guns Jack Watts and Tom McDonald and a resurgent Lynden Dunn. So it came as no surprise when the Melbourne selection table installed seven new faces into the team to take on Port Adelaide, thereby retaining that magic ratio of new players at one third. The minute the number of new faces was announced, the so-called "experts" looked to the heavens, rolled their eyes and declared the Demons to be dead in the water. What they ignored was the fact that the visitors had also named a large contingent of newcomers including 150 game player Angus Monfries but, in terms of experience, he's well and truly shaded by Melbourne's two new 100 gamers in Shannon Byrnes and David Rodan. The mind games have also been well and truly in play with Ken Hinkley emphasising that he was only interested in playing fit players in his team - Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley puts fitness first in round one selection, the inference being that his opponents were going into the game with underdone players. The Demons will certainly have Mitch Clark lacking in match fitness but he's playing at one end of the ground and he's been working well to a programme throughout the summer. A few others hadn't played for a couple of weeks but they bring a much stronger fitness base into the game. The Demons did leave out Chris Dawes, Tom McDonald and co-captain Jack Trengove who must have all been close to selection. The new look Melbourne side gives the game a new dimension in that, whilst it's generally considered (going on past performances) that its all-important midfield is at the bottom end of accepted AFL standards and well below those of the leading teams in the competition, we simply don't know how the infusion of so many newcomers will affect the situation. It is for this reason that we simply cannot assess how much the team will advance in 2014. The pundits tell us that Brent Moloney, who polled 19 Brownlow votes in 2011, will be a big loss but they forget how poor he was last year and that he ended the season looking decidedly uninterested even down at Casey. I'll back the keenness and enthusiasm of untried trio Matt Jones, Jimmy Toumpas and Jack Viney and the wisdom and experience of Byrnes and Rodan over what last year's midfield served up last year. And the team has Nathan Jones and Jack Grimes to lead the way, Jordie McKenzie hungry to conquer the opposition's best and some expectations from Sam Blease and Colin Sylvia to add to the mix. Unpredictable - yes and more likely to be the least predictable midfield in the competition, but definitely not hopeless as some might paint things. To my mind, the most significant aspect of selection was the decision to leave out Aaron Davey - a demonstration perhaps that the club's depth is greater and that reputations and the past no longer matter when picking teams. And while Port Adelaide might hold a slight advantage in the middle, I put Melbourne ahead with Mark Jamar in the ruck, a much stronger defence and an edge in attack. That, together with a powerful home ground advantage should be enough to get Melbourne home. Melbourne to win by 27 points ... and one more prediction ... if the above is the outcome of the team's opening round match, then not a single club official will be looking grim faced as he leaves the ground.
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