Survival of the fittest
Not impressed: Jobe Watson is visibly upset after the crushing loss to Collingwood on Wednesday. Photo: Getty Images
CARLTON'S Irish import Zach Tuohy last week described AFL footy as ''the most aerobic, toughest ball sport in the world''. Over the past five years, the bar has shot up in AFL fitness levels. Footballers are pushing themselves to their limits, not once in the course of the match but again and again.
Even more so than in the past, the AFL season is now like a marathon - the question for each team is when does it surge and how often can it surge? Carlton surged against Collingwood and crashed to Essendon the following week. Geelong surged against Hawthorn and crashed to North. North surged against Geelong and crashed to Sydney …
I wish the game wasn't so hectic because I don't think it's improved footy as a spectacle, although someone who disagrees with me is singer Paul Kelly. We had this discussion while watching Freo play St Kilda. He says the more demanding game makes the good players even better. He said they have to be so much more skilful now to ''thread the needle''.
I thought Essendon would lose the Anzac Day game through a dip in energy levels. The Bombers, who had been up for a month, had beaten Carlton by swarming like bees around the ball. That's a very labour-intensive game plan. From the start of the Anzac Day match, Leigh Matthews was talking about energy and, like me, he was watching for Essendon to lack it.
I am constantly intrigued by Matthews as a commentator. He was, after all, judged the Player of the Century. Most ''of the century'' awards actually mean ''of the last decade or two'', but no one argued with Matthews' selection.
What intrigues me about Matthews is that, at a time when lots of people are making the game so complex, he keeps making it so simple. He also never suggests that his view is anything more than that - that is, just one person's view. And he expresses himself in a minimum of words.
I object to TV commentators who talk too much and get between the viewer and the action. They should be on radio. Interestingly, Mick Malthouse, another successful coach, is also precise and to the point. Is there a relationship between coaching success and succinctness? (The argument to the contrary here is David ''the Compulsive Communicator'' Parkin.)
With the wet weather, the Anzac Day game was pretty scrappy. Dane Swan shone. Mick Malthouse said Swan has an intuitive knowledge of where the ball is going. In the course of the match, while making the point that Essendon's young star Dyson Heppell has a similar gift, Matthews asked if they had a test at the AFL draft camp for being able to read the play. It was one of those scrunched-up little jokes Matthews makes that suggests a critical perspective on trends in the contemporary game he otherwise doesn't express.
Early on, Matthews said he thought Essendon was ''a bit down on energy. Defensive run is the first thing that goes.'' Then he chuckled in that way he has when reflecting on human nature and said, ''You'll always run for the footy.'' He certainly did. Like a gun dog. And when he arrived at the contest he was ruthless, capable and quick.
At half-time, Mick Malthouse said Essendon had to ''get more energy into their game''. Kevin Sheedy said Essendon's two key midfielders, Jobe Watson and Brent Stanton, looked tired. I was tempted to give the match away at that point, Collingwood being so obviously in control. Then, in both the third and fourth quarters, Essendon got into winning positions. Without ever looking like winners, the Bombers led with just over a minute to go.
It was a grippingly brave effort and the credit for it has to go to James Hird. There is a special belief in the Bombers, a special scale of endeavour being attempted that goes beyond what normally occurs when professional sportsmen engage in a common enterprise. It comes from that special blend of circumstances that occurs when one of the greatest players in the history of the club, who also happens to be one of the greatest players in the recent history of the game, comes back to revive his old club and brings his aura and expertise with him.
Nonetheless, what Hird needs if he is to take the Bombers to the top is at least one great player, if not a couple. At the moment, he doesn't have one but Collingwood does.
Swan is a maverick. He didn't want to be part of the Magpies' ''leadership group'' because it involved too many meetings. He waddles when he runs but is still as quick as a lizard across the ground.
His tattoos eloquently declare that the outside world's perception of him is not his first concern. You can imagine him playing with the Collingwood larrikins and toughs and great players of other days like ''Leeter'' Collier and Murray Weideman and Darren Millane. There's something about Swan that is about as Collingwood as you can get.
The Anzac Day game was one of those rare occasions when a sporting event actually lives up to the hype. Both teams now have 10-day breaks. They'll need them.