The 2021 AFL season is well and truly underway, and our experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of Round 10.
Who is Melbourne's most important player?
Rohan Connolly: There's some pretty worthy candidates, but I still really can't got past the skipper. Max Gawn's value as a ruckman goes without saying, not just in his tap work but the presence and possessions he provides around the ground, good at either end with his marking ability. But in addition to that I think he's also a great on-field leader for them in a still relatively young line-up, and a real emotional barometer as well. When Gawn fires, so do the Demons.
Jake Michaels: I think Gawn is the obvious choice, given what he provides in the ruck and his ability to sit behind the ball and intercept, but I'm going to go a little left-field and say it's a tie between Tom McDonald and Jake Lever. McDonald gives the forward line real structure and frees up the likes of Ben Brown and Bayley Fritsch, while Lever is an absolute general in defence.
Matt Walsh: Gawn is a great shout but I love what Lever brings to that Melbourne backline. He's a true leader -- and a vocal one at that -- and provides on-field direction and willingly inserts himself into almost every contest. It's little wonder he leads the competition for intercept possessions and is second for intercept marks. You'd think just about every other player walks taller with a guy like him in your side.
Jarryd Barca: Nothing throws your team structure out of whack like losing your key backman, so I'd have to say Steven May. He's had a superb season to date, regularly keeps his direct opponent impactless, allows players like McDonald to flourish up forward and when it comes to the cut-throat nature of finals, he's the one that can hold the fort. May did miss a game in Round 5 and the Dees did win -- and are still undefeated -- but that match came against probably the one team you can afford to be without your premier defender... Hawthorn. He's absolutely their most important player, particularly now Melbourne is without Adam Tomlinson.
Should the AFL introduce an NRL-style Magic Round?
RC: No. Footy fans like certainty and they like routine. The normal rhythms of the season have been disrupted for two years now, 2020 obviously in lots of ways, but even this year to a degree with a "floating fixture", dates and times known only a few weeks in advance. This might work for the NRL, but it seems to me more like a TV-inspired initiative at a time (given crowds are down) when we should be cajoling live audiences rather than encouraging them to stay home and watch from the couch.
JM: Yes! I love this idea and would be keen to see the AFL implement it. Obviously AFL games run longer than NRL games, so cramming nine games into a weekend is tricky. I think you'd have to have one on Thursday night, a double-header on Friday and then three on both Saturday and Sunday. Oh, and let's do this outside Melbourne. Say Adelaide, with the Saturday night match being the Showdown!
MW: I'm going to be that guy and mention that it won't happen due to the contract arrangements in place around the league with stadiums such as Adelaide Oval requiring 22 Port and Adelaide home games there a year, or the MCG or Marvel requiring 'X' number of games there a year. As much as I'd love to see it -- and I would! -- another 'footy fest' won't be happening anytime soon.
JB: Nah. There's a few issues logistically, plus some clubs would have to agree to give up a home match and it creates more of an imbalance to what is already quite an unfair competition when it comes to fixturing. Queensland is an NRL-heavy state, so it worked, and I get the economical benefits an AFL Magic Round could bring to the host city, but I think the cons outweigh the pros on this one.
Who should coach Collingwood in 2022?
RC: Sam Mitchell. I wrote the other week it appears Nathan Buckley's time as Collingwood coach is over. Who knows what impact the on-going unrest at board level will have on a decision about his future. But the Pies need a rebuild, and to do that properly, I suspect a bit of a clean slate. Mitchell is one of the best football brains in the caper with a faultless pedigree. And if you like your history, remember when another former Hawthorn champion named Leigh Matthews came on board at Collingwood back in 1986? That worked out pretty well.
JM: I don't think it's going to be Buckley but I'm struggling to come up with another name. Ross Lyon has been spoken about a lot but I'm not sure he's the right man for the job. The Pies need to embrace the rebuild and have a coach who is going to want to do that. Not sure Roscoe is your man...
MW: I think Jake is correct in Ross Lyon not being best suited to that job, and there are a number of young coaches -- like perhaps a Justin Leppitsch, a Michael Voss, Adam Kingsley or a Mitchell -- who are waiting for a chance (and in Voss' case, a second chance) at a head coaching gig. Fresh ideas and a fresh culture is needed.
JB: The man already at the helm. The deeper we get into the season the more I think Buckley isn't the problem. Are they on-field system issues? How much of it is psychological following their tumultuous offseason? Will there even be a better candidate available? I don't know if you can force players out the door due to poor list management and then leave the coach hanging and not give him the chance to tackle a trade period with new salary space you've seemingly created. Bucks was 60 seconds from a flag, made a prelim in 2019 and won a final in a COVID-affected season so I reckon he has what it takes, but the last half of this season could be the proof in the pudding.
The Blues can keep only one of Patrick Cripps and Harry McKay. Who stays?
RC: Bit of a "Sophie's Choice" job this one. I don't think they could afford to lose either. But right now, given the wear and tear that has taken an obvious toll on Cripps, plus the fact McKay is three years younger, I'd probably be going with the key forward. Players of that role and of McKay's talent are harder to come by than ever now, and he's still got plenty of improvement and at least another 7-8 years of top performance left in him. I'm not sure Cripps can get any better than he has been, and at the moment you'd say it's more likely he will in fact decline from here.
JM: McKay is just 23 and leading the Coleman Medal. Cripps is 26 and I'm not sure he's even Carlton's best midfielder anymore. I think my answer is pretty clear. If push comes to shove, move Cripps on and try and add some midfield depth, something the Blues have been crying out for.
MW: Ask this even two seasons ago and it'd be a clean sweep for Cripps. It's amazing what a patch of poor form and some (now well-documented) injuries can do! Cripps is still one of the competition's premier midfielders, but finding a Coleman-leading key forward is an incredibly tough thing to do. Not that this exact scenario would ever play out, but if it did, it's bye-bye skipper!
JB: Cripps is a superstar, but you have to pick the key forward. McKay is young and rated elite for marks inside 50, contested marks and goals and is well on his way to his first of what could be many Coleman Medals. Midfielders grow on trees and the Blues co-captain isn't worth to Carlton what he is worth to other clubs in the open market. They need to do all they can to keep big Harry!