Brilliance by the likes of Joel Selwood has got Geelong over the line in games the Cats should have lost this season. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
WIN the ball, win the game. It all starts and ends with contested possession, for if you can't get the ball you can't win the game.
It was the hairy-chested mantra of clubs for a summer. The premiership models for years demanded big backsided midfielders who bullied the ball and thus the vogue, like the need to learn the press, was for winning the contested ball at all costs.
The Hawks and Cyril Rioli are looking at keeping the ball for as long as possible. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
But it isn't enough - all clubs are hairy-chested now. Yes contested possession is important, but when teams are not alone in working maniacally to get the ball it is not enough. It's like the press - when everyone's doing it, it no longer gives you an edge.
''Contested ball everybody has as their No. 1 focus but it's not a point of difference any more,'' a club insider said.
''You can be beaten in it and win but not beaten in it by much. If you get smashed you will lose. So it is still a good measure of effort but it is not the be-all and end-all, it is like clearances - it is about the quality of the clearance not the raw number.''
Ask Chris Scott.
Geelong is yet to win contested possession, uncontested possession or the clearances in any of its four matches. And the Cats have won twice. How does a team win a game losing those stats? Simple answer: it probably shouldn't have.
''Really they should be 0-4 and would be but for some superb individuals like Bartel, Selwood and Enright, Hawkins taking a few marks. Players who just willed them to wins they shouldn't have got,'' another insider said.
After the Richmond game a frustrated Scott agreed his side has a baffling propensity to be beaten in a raft of supposedly critical measures yet win the game.
''It does matter [contested possession]. I think every coach would stand here and say they value those things above most others. The reality is we can't stick our head in the sand. The reality is if that happens to us we'll lose more often than we win. The numbers don't lie. We need to get to the bottom of what it really is,'' he said.
Where many focused on contested possession Hawthorn for instance is now understood to put greater credence in the time-in-possession statistic.
In most games the ball is in dispute 20 per cent of the time so a time-in-possession figure in the 43 per cent and above range is seen by the Hawks as a base indicator of having owned the ball.
That figure obviously presumes a high disposal-efficiency rate - you can't keep the ball in possession if you are sloppy in moving it about - but Hawthorn players are exceptional kicks.
The theory of measuring success by time in possession is that the the chip-and-move style allows not only for patiently setting up attack when the fast break is blocked but, more important, it allows time for defensive support structures to be pushed up and set up during the move into attack. When you control possession you control time and movement right across the ground.
It is one of the reasons the new young sides, Greater Western Sydney and Gold Coast, will continue to struggle. Young bodies tend to tire and so burn the ball when they get it, then spend time and energy trying to get it back.
The Mark Thompson school of big bum midfielders smashing in and earning possession has lost something of its lustre because all sides are trying to do it. Ross Lyon at the Dockers has moved slightly in the other direction by trying to foster a leaner, faster side. But it is still predicated on winning contested possession first.
''The game has changed and it has become a real balance between contested and uncontested possession. Before you were one or the other - an inside team of hard contested possession winners or an outside team of uncontested players but now you need a much better blend of both,'' a club assistant coach said.
That is where Melbourne is failing. OK, one area it's failing. The Demons have been OK in contested possession - winning it in the first round and losing the game - but are being slaughtered in total possessions, uncontested possessions and clearances.
Melbourne's problem, as Mark Neeld observed post-match, was an inability to run and spread away from packs once they won the ball. They play on from a mark more than any team and are third for handball receives - they are just not very good at it.