The Weekend Preview is a blog that aims to provide a different angle on the narrative of an upcoming sporting event.

AFL Round 7: Melbourne vs. Hawthorn

AFL Round 7: Melbourne vs. Hawthorn

Sunday Afternoon, 7th May 2017 at the MCG

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This year marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous 1987 preliminary final between Hawthorn and Melbourne, a drought-breaking year for the Demons as they played finals for the first time since 1964, their last premiership year. The decisive moment of the remarkable match was the 15-metre penalty that Jim Stynes conceded for running across the mark. This enabled Gary Buckenara to move into goal scoring range and kick the match-winning goal after the siren and break the hearts of the Melbourne players and fans.

In 2017, the Demons are targeting the end of another finals drought, having not played in finals since 2006. From that 2006 finals campaign, only one active player remains at the club, co-captain Nathan Jones, who was playing his 8th senior game in the semi-final loss to Fremantle.

Back in 1987, the 23-year hiatus from finals meant that several generations of Demons players missed out on playing in even a single final. Destined to be among these was Robert Flower, a favourite son of the Melbourne Football Club, who had started his long career with the Demons back in Round 10 1973. Committed to retiring at the end of the 1987 season there was one last chance for the fairytale finish. Three teams were fighting for the last finals spot entering the final round of the home and away season. Melbourne needed to beat fellow contender Footscray and hope Hawthorn defeated Geelong in order to progress. Melbourne accounted for Footscray by 15 points and a roar erupted at the Western Oval when news filtered through that Hawthorn had got the win over Geelong by a nail-biting 3 points. Melbourne were back in finals and after 269 games, Robert Flower had his first taste of finals action. And they started the finals with a bang, thumping both North Melbourne and then Sydney to setup a preliminary final against the reigning premier, Hawthorn.

The late, great Jim Stynes described in his autobiography [1] what happened on that fateful preliminary final day on September 19th 1987 at Waverley Park:

For most of the match, it looked like Melbourne might cause an upset and progress to the Grand Final against Carlton. We led by twenty-two points at half-time and three-quarter time, having played desperate, skilful and attacking football. In the fourth quarter, however, Melbourne tightened up.

We were generally an inexperienced group, and I believe our concentration drifted because of the prospect of reaching a Grand Final. We became defensive-minded at times and lost our composure, and we wasted several opportunities to kick crucial goals. The vastly experienced Hawks persisted, improvised and took risks. They also had a lucky break midway through the last quarter when a shot by John Kennedy was given a goal, although I saw the ball clearly deflect off the point post.

 It is fair to say, though, that Hawthorn created its own luck. The match ended with the Hawks sweeping the ball downfield after a kick-in. Chris Langford charged through the middle and drove a long pass to a leading Gary Buckenara with seconds to play. As Buckenara reached for the mark, he was pushed in the back by Rod Grinter, which earned him a free kick on the fifty-metre arc. What happened next was the most dramatic moment of my football career, and one that would have an enormous effect on my life.

The siren was blaring as Buckenara went back to take his shot, but nobody could hear it because of the roaring crowd. I was running back towards our goal-line, but then I saw Hawthorm winger Robert DiPierdomenico creating a loose man further afield, so I cut between Buckenara and Grinter to pick ‘Dipper’ up. Umpire David Howlett then correctly paid a fifteen-metre penalty, bringing Buckenara to a more comfortable kicking distance from goal. Buckenara duly converted to give the Hawks a two-point win.

So a heart-breaking end to the season for Melbourne and an end of a career for Robert Flower. But what did Flower make of the Stynes incident? He discusses the moment in a 2011 interview with Mike Sheahan on Open Mike [2]:

Mike: How did you blokes feel, looking back when you realized that Jimmy Stynes running through the Gary Buckenara mark had probably cost you a chance to play for the premiership?

Robert: Jimmy was the unfortunate end result of a day that probably looked as if we could have won it at any time. And in the first quarter I took a mark 15 metres out, if that, on a slight angle, had a shot for goal and hit the guy on the mark, so it goes through for a point. Put that back on the score line and where do we sit? So you never look at isolated moments within a game and, while it was frustrating, the siren had actually gone before the ball arrived with Buckenara. The umpire never heard it, the crowd all heard it and there was a tremendous roar, but the game should have been over before the mark.

Mike: Is that right? I wasn’t aware of this. So the ball was in the air when the siren sounded?

Robert: Yes, and the umpires hadn’t heard it, and it’s still over when Jimmy ran across the mark. So, really, there was no need for him to go and pick up an extra man. If the umpire had heard the siren, there wouldn’t have been a 15-metre penalty.

Was this true? Did the siren sound before the ball arrived at Buckenara? Reading this for the first time, I was shocked. I found myself watching and re-listening to the footage of the closing moments of the game over and over. You can clearly hear a siren go after the free kick had been paid. But if what Robert Flower says is true, was there an earlier siren that was less audible forcing them to press it again? The siren we can hear did appear over-zealous, holding down longer than was required, almost an over compensation. It all adds up to the AFL’s version of the grassy knoll – was there a second siren?

Melbourne did go one step further in 1988, albeit without Robert Flower, and made the Grand Final, once again facing Hawthorn. But the game was another painful experience for the Demons, although for entirely different reasons – they were thumped by 96 points. They came up against a formidable Hawthorn team that had only lost 3 games for the whole season (although one was against the Demons in Round 7). Since then, the Demons have made only one other Grand Final appearance, and that was in 2000 when they faced an Essendon juggernaut that lost only once for the whole year. Perhaps the current generation of talented players under the guidance of Simon Goodwin can finally end the premiership drought. Under Paul Roos the team established themselves as a strong contested football team. And by the benchmark of the Bulldogs and Sydney last year this is a trait that could lead to premiership success. So what is holding the Demons back?

In my Round 2 preview article earlier this year, I presented the contested possession rankings from 2016, both in terms of average number of contested possessions per game and average contested possession differential per game [3]. These rankings have been presented again in Table-1. For that article I was highlighting the prowess of both the Western Bulldogs and Sydney in contested football in 2016. However, there were two other teams that stood out in the rankings for different reasons:

  1. Hawthorn was ranked a comfortable last in both contested possession metrics but still finished in the top 4.
  2. Melbourne ranked in the top 6 of both metrics but languished in 11th place on the ladder at the end of the home and away season.
 Table-1: Contested Possession Rankings for 2016

Table-1: Contested Possession Rankings for 2016

Figure-1 presents the relationship between contested possession differential and match margin for both the Demons and Hawthorn in 2016. As is evident by the trendlines in the plot, there is a positive correlation between contested possession differential and match margin for both teams. The correlation is in fact greater than that of Sydney or the Bulldogs, i.e. the ability of Melbourne or Hawthorn to win/lose the contested possession count had more effect on the match result than for teams renowned for their contested football. The difference between Melbourne and Hawthorn however, is that Melbourne had to win significantly more contested football than Hawthorn to convert it into winning football matches. This is highlighted in Figure-1 by the gap between the Melbourne and Hawthorn trendlines.

 Figure-1: 2016 Season Statistics: Match Margin vs. Contested Possession Differential

Figure-1: 2016 Season Statistics: Match Margin vs. Contested Possession Differential

To understand how Hawthorn could finish top 4 despite being such a poor contested possession team, let me introduce another metric: Goals per Inside 50 (GPI50). This metric reflects the ability of a forward line to convert opportunities into goals. The metric does not reflect either the number of opportunities (i.e. number of inside 50s per game) or the quality of opportunity (i.e. delivery of ball inside 50). However, it is a general reflection of the overall efficiency of a team’s forward line. Table-2 presents the goals per inside 50 (average per game) for each team in the 2016 season. The metric highlights the efficiency of both the Adelaide and Hawthorn forward lines in 2016, a conclusion that would probably not surprise many people. Also 7 of the top 8 teams in this metric were finalists. The odd team out? Melbourne.

 Table-2: 2016 Goals per Inside 50 – Average Percentage per Game

Table-2: 2016 Goals per Inside 50 – Average Percentage per Game

So if Melbourne were a strong contested ball team and had a moderately efficient forward line, why weren’t they playing finals? One reason was their consistency. Figure-2 presents the relationship between goals per inside 50 and match margin for both Melbourne and Hawthorn in 2016. The trendline for both teams is quite similar, however the key difference between both teams was that on 6 occasions last year Melbourne had a goals per inside 50 efficiency of less that 18% as opposed to Hawthorn’s just one occasion. The two games between Melbourne and Hawthorn last year also highlight the importance of this metric. In both games Melbourne dominated the contested possession count, however in the Round 11 game Melbourne had a GPI50 of 20% and lost by 18 points, whilst in Round 20 Melbourne had a GPI50 of 37% and won by 29 points. Hence, if Melbourne had a more consistent forward line they could have got the few extra wins required to be fighting for a position near the bottom of the top 8.

 Figure-2: 2016 Season Statistics: Match Margin vs. Goals per Inside 50

Figure-2: 2016 Season Statistics: Match Margin vs. Goals per Inside 50

However, if Melbourne is to make a big improvement in 2017, they need to sort out their defence. Table-3 presents the goals per inside 50 conceded (average per game) for each team in the 2016 season. This metric is a general reflection of the overall efficiency of a team's defence. In this metric, Melbourne finished 2016 in 11th position, the same position they finished on the ladder.

 Table-3: 2016 Goals per Inside 50 Conceded – Average Percentage per Game

Table-3: 2016 Goals per Inside 50 Conceded – Average Percentage per Game

Melbourne has had an indifferent start to the 2017 season, and they currently have 3 wins and 3 losses after 6 games. The mid-game loss of Max Gawn and Jake Spencer against Geelong and Richmond respectively hurt their team structure in both those games, while the loss of Jesse Hogan and Jordan Lewis to suspension has hurt them as well. In particular it is argued they would have beaten Fremantle if one or both those players were available.

However, as a whole not much has changed about the Demons, they are still frequently winning the contested possession count (4 out of the 6 games) and the goals per inside 50 averages are similar to last season (27% for, 26% against). But they still have some significant work to do in improving their defence, with the Geelong game a case in point. The loss was blamed on losing Max Gawn to injury in the first half and inaccurate kicking, both of which had an impact. But what has been overlooked is that Geelong had a goals per inside 50 efficiency of 43%. To put this into context, this is the highest efficiency of any team in any game this year. Similarly, in the loss to Fremantle, Fremantle’s goals per inside 50 efficiency was 29%. Not a particularly high efficiency, but well above Fremantle’s average. The win against Essendon on the weekend was a more promising sign. They didn’t dominate the contested possession count as is their norm, but their forward line had a goals per inside 50 efficiency of 31% whilst conceding a goal per inside 50 only 19% of the time.

 Table-4: Match Statistics: Round 3 2017, Geelong vs. Melbourne

Table-4: Match Statistics: Round 3 2017, Geelong vs. Melbourne

 Table-5: Match Statistics: Round 6 2017, Essendon vs. Melbourne

Table-5: Match Statistics: Round 6 2017, Essendon vs. Melbourne

So what about Hawthorn? Hawthorn’s goals per inside 50 efficiency has dropped from 28% in 2016 to 22% in 2017. A not surprising drop considering their woes this year. But as Hawthorn is unlikely to win the midfield battle, their one chance of beating Melbourne is that their forward line starts firing again. They used to do it regularly against the Demons, winning 13 consecutive games between 2007 and 2016 before finally succumbing in Round 20 last year. And they are still capable of it, as the West Coast game two weeks ago proved (34% goals per inside 50 in that game).

A win this week for Melbourne will not make up for all the losses to Hawthorn. However, a win will get them back on track to achieving that elusive finals berth and end any hopes of Hawthorn joining them there. Although Melbourne will need to be wary, their biggest weakness (defence) collides with Hawthorn's biggest strength (attack). A win after the siren would be nice, but I think it will be a little bit more comfortable than that.

Melbourne to win by 18 points

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Post Match Comments: 

Final Score: Melbourne 14.7.91, Hawthorn 14.10.94

The half time score read: Melbourne 4.2.26, to Hawthorn 8.7.55. And unfortunately for Melbourne it was the same old story. With near identical Inside 50s, Melbourne were converting at 15% GPI50 versus Hawthorn’s 30% GPI50. But as they had done the week before, the Demons came alive in the 3rd Quarter kicking 7 goals to 3 to reduce the margin to 1 point at 3QT. From Hawthorn’s perspective these third quarter collapses have started to occur with worrisome regularity. But credit where credit is due, when everyone expected Melbourne to run over the top of Hawthorn in the last quarter, the Hawks responded, re-establishing a couple of goal buffer and holding on to win. For Melbourne, they dominated the midfield as expected (they won the contested possession count by 25 and collected 74 more disposals) but could not convert this dominance into enough scoring opportunities to outscore the opposition. Unfortunately for the Demons, the damage was done in the first half.

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[1] Stynes. J., Green, W. (2012). “My Journey”. Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, Victoria, Australia.

[2] Sheahan, M (2013), “Open Mike”, Excerpt of Interview with Robert Flower. The Slattery Media Group, Victoria, Australia.

[3] Based on data sourced from Match Centre stats on the AFL website http://www.afl.com.au/

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