Hawthorn are not the only ones finding that things can get worse | Craig Little

Craig Little
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">In an AFL round rich with symbolism, the sight of club champion Luke Hodge lying prone on the MCG turf was telling for the Hawks.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images</span>
In an AFL round rich with symbolism, the sight of club champion Luke Hodge lying prone on the MCG turf was telling for the Hawks. Photograph: Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images

To quote a 1990s emperor in search of an empire, it’s been a big week in football. It began last Tuesday, when Port Adelaide handed an indefinite suspension to a supporter for racist abuse against Eddie Betts and revealed that another spectator had racially vilified its ruckman Paddy Ryder.

Two days later, as West Coast condemned Sydney to its worst start to a season since 1993, the once-mighty Footy Show played to a TV audience of 127,000 – its worst start to a season since its debut in 1994. For all intents and purposes The Footy Show is unloved and undead, but given it’s still on the air after a month of subterranean ratings, maybe it’s unkillable. Perhaps it’s fitting that a program whose reign is seen by some as a contributor to football’s culture of insensitivity should decline as the rest of the game progresses.

This time, thankfully, the AFL community overwhelmingly condemned the treatment of Betts. It reinforced that, for all its faults, football can be one of the most powerful drivers for progressive change in this country. Sport may be one of the few areas in Australian life where we actually stop to consider our prejudices.

The better angels of football’s nature were again revealed on Friday night, when a combined peak audience of 1.06 million people tuned in to Good Friday football. A game began as a topic of futile hand-wringing went a long way in establishing itself as a marquee match on the AFL calendar. That day may come sooner rather than later if we have more games like Friday night’s, with the Bulldogs coming back from the best part of five goals down in the third quarter to win by three points. Despite looking less than intimidating for the season’s first four games, the Bulldogs are 3-1 – a decent foundation on which to build a premiership defence.

Yet the potential for “Kick for the Kids” to become a fixture in Melbourne sport’s cultural backdrop arose from two events either side of the game. The first was when Jedd Arrowsmith, celebrating his sixth birthday after three open-heart surgeries, greeted the two captains for the coin toss. The second when fifth-generation North Melbourne supporter Zane Tomey was invited into Brad Scott’s post-match press conference to talk about his battle with a serious heart condition – one that has seen him spend much of his childhood in the Royal Children’s Hospital.

“Today’s bigger than just footy and we’re really privileged and honoured to give back to the unbelievable work that the Royal Children’s Hospital does for young men like Zane,” said Scott.

The following night’s game between Adelaide and Essendon also demonstrated that football is at its best when it’s “more than a game”; Anthony McDonald Tipungwuti joined Betts in the middle of the ground for the coin toss. When not the subject of thoughtless abuse, Betts is part of a forward line that is both aesthetically and statistically the game’s best. On Saturday night, Tex Walker’s first-half exploits would have put a dent in Superman and crushed any hope Essendon had of an upset. Two words of advice for fans of free-flowing, attractive football: “Watch Adelaide.”

Adelaide’s role as the early premiership pacesetter is just about he only certainty a month into a very open year, and yes, that takes into consideration Richmond’s best start to a season since 1995. Success does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything this team has done in the Hardwick era. We will get a better read on Richmond next Monday night when they face a Melbourne stinging from an upset loss to Fremantle. The Tigers will also face Jesse Hogan, still smarting from missing a couple of games but not life inside the AFL bubble, where you can’t even light up a dart at a music festival without someone filming it and sending it to the six o’clock news.

Melbourne is one of a host of 2-2 teams, including St Kilda and the Gold Coast Suns, who are difficult to get a read on. St Kilda’s 14-point win on Sunday consigned Collingwood to its equal worst start under Nathan Buckley in a season he can least afford it. With just one win from four attempts, the Magpies have a misfiring forward line that seems incapable of kicking a winning score.

“When you work hard to move the ball forward and you think you’re doing quite a bit right and you don’t get bang for buck it sets you back a little bit,” said Buckley. It might have been better to quote the late, great John Clarke: “The front fell off.”

The Magpies sit one place ahead of Carlton, who despite a lethargic third quarter against the Suns, have more cause to hope tomorrow will cure today, given the form of their seven teenagers, with the possible exception of the stagnating Charlie Curnow.

Hope is a little thinner on the ground at Hawthorn after a humiliating loss to Geelong – another 86-point loss – in what was far from a classic in the Easter Monday genre.

Conceding 11 last-quarter goals to close out a winless month is worse than a stumbling start to the season. The starter’s gun has been loaded with bullets instead of blanks and Hawthorn has taken one to the chest. What the Hawks do from here (the draft is not an option after trading their first-round pick to St Kilda) will be one of the more fascinating football subplots of the year. If The Footy Show has taught us anything, it’s that things can get worse.

To quote another 90s emperor who once famously suggested Clarkson step down for the good of the club: “It’s at times of defeat, loss, that character is best defined. It’s easy when you win, it’s harder when you are losing.”

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