Hoping to deliver: Improved Demons 'have run out of excuses'
By Jon Pierik9 March 2018 — 3:30pm
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Through Paul Roos' three years as coach of Melbourne, and he had made it clear from day one there were only going to be three, the end result was to have the Demons on the cusp of finals by the end of 2016. That he did, but year four, even though he wasn't going to be at the club, had remained somewhat of an unknown.
In a pre-season media briefing heading into Roos' final year, the hope, rather than expectation, had been to return to the finals last year, in the first year of Simon Goodwin's reign. That would have happened had it not been for an unexpected last-round loss to Collingwood, meaning they missed September action by a record 0.5 percentage gap.
That reinforced that the Demons were not ready to handle heightened expectations, something which Roos, now enjoying life in the commentary box, said could no longer be an excuse.
"I probably need to go back to my original press conference when we talked about getting the club up near the finals. As you go along the journey, you always get a bit impatient. It doesn't matter whether you are a player or coach," Roos told The Age.
"I reflected on that at my last press conference, with [chief executive] Peter [Jackson] and myself, we knew it was going to be a slowish process. When I left, it was pretty much on schedule, where we hoped it would be, knocking on the door of the finals.
"When I started I didn't really think what year four would look like other than we would be knocking on the door of the finals, and that was the thing I wanted to do. But I felt as an observer last year, and someone who had been inside the club, it was still a little bit of unknown.
"This year there are no excuses. This year is Melbourne's year. I say that knowing that injuries play a big part, we all know that, but if you look at the team now, and you see Jesse Hogan's body shape and [Christian] Petracca and those guys, this is definitely the year that they make the eight and start to make some real noise over the next half-a-dozen years."
That sentiment has been echoed by dashing half-back Michael Hibberd, who recently told The Sunday Age he could understood the frustration supporters had felt from missing finals since 2006 and it was time for players to "embrace" expectations.
The Demons are expected to make the jump for a number of reasons. They boast, as Roos said, "enormous" depth and talent, they have what seems to be a game plan that can stand up in big games, they had seven players contribute 20 goals or more last year (only Adelaide had more, with eight) and they appear to have genuine match-winners, with Petracca and Hogan among those.
The Demons have about 10 players jostling for a spot inside 50, including draftee Bayley Fritsch, who impressed through the JLT Community Series and onlookers say has been pencilled in for 20 goals. There is also great depth through defence and in the midfield, although they will want to improve on being ranked eighth for clearances and sixth for contested possessions last year. This despite best-and-fairest Clayton Oliver being ranked second in the league for contested possessions and third for clearances.
The half-back line, already featuring All-Australian Hibberd and the speedy Jayden Hunt, has added intercept king Jake Lever from the Crows, while veterans Bernie Vince and Jordan Lewis will spend considerable time there because of their good ball use.
It will be hoped Lever can help quell opposition key forwards, something the Demons had issues with last year. That they ranked second-last for contested-mark differentials is another area for improvement.
They will hope Max Gawn, who has shed nine kilograms, remains fit, considering the untried Lachie Filipovic and Mitch King are the only other specialist ruckmen on the list. However, top teams find a way to cover for injuries, if only during the home-and-away campaign.
Roos also points to a changing in the guard across the league as a reason the Demons could even vault into the top four.
"I think what we are seeing now is that the top teams have come back [to the pack]. That's really helped. Obviously, Hawthorn have come back, Sydney have come back a bit as well but they have been able to maintain [a high placing] – the top teams have come back. If you look at the Brisbane Lions '01, '02, '03, their team was just amazing. That [parity] gives hope to all those teams," he said.
"I have got as many as 12 teams making the eight. I think the first stage for Melbourne is winning enough games to make the eight, we can see anything happen after that. You want to get off to a good start."
That the competition is so tight is, in part, a result of the AFL's equalisation measures. Only 14 premiership points separated the top-of-the-table Crows from the eighth-placed Eagles last year; and 14 points separated the fifth-placed Power from the 12th-placed Hawks.
The Demons have an intriguing open two months of the season, beginning with a Sunday afternoon blockbuster against Geelong at the MCG. A trip to Brisbane to face the emerging Lions and Luke Hodge then awaits, while Hawthorn, Richmond and Essendon are also on the agenda in the opening seven rounds.
The opponents they face twice this year are Adelaide, Geelong, St Kilda, Western Bulldogs and Gold Coast. If last year is any guide, this should be beneficial for the Demons, for they defeated the Saints twice, split their results with the Crows, lost to the Cats but beat the Bulldogs and Suns. Of course, that was last year, and everyone – as we know at this stage of the build-up – has improved.
The Demons, though, have enjoyed a strong summer, claiming the AFLX title in the Melbourne-based matches, and powering through North Melbourne and St Kilda in the JLT Community Series. An intra-club clash next week will fine-tune preparations, but Goodwin said his men would begin the season proper from a good base.
"The boys have come with a really strong work ethic. They have created some great habits. We are in a good position as a club to have great belief heading into the season but we still understand it's a marathon, it's a long way, and we haven't even got to the start line yet," he said.
Roos remains intrigued by the Demons' game plan.
"I think it's all based on game plan – that's what I watch at the start of the season with teams," he said.
"That's why Richmond really impressed me [in 2017]. As they rolled on into the season, you could see they were really committed to their game plan and it was a really sustainable game plan. That's the big test for Melbourne ... if that stands up, they will be fine."
The Demons last year ran extra numbers off the back of the centre square at bounces in a bid to push the ball forward. Will that tactic still work?
During the clash against the Kangaroos, Lewis pointed to the Demons' versatility, and to that end Hogan and Petracca will spend time in the middle. Roos likes that move, for it could enhance their work inside attacking 50.
"I wouldn't think Hoges would play big minutes in the midfield but it is good to get them in, to get them involved, active, and it's amazing the number of times you throw a player like that into the midfield for five minutes, he gets his confidence back or hands on the ball, goes forward and takes a mark," he said.
"'Trac' is more of a natural midfielder and it's only his developing fitness that keeps him out of there because he played midfield as a junior. I expect 'Hoges' will play little minutes in there and 'Trac' will be worked in there a lot, probably more at centre bounces until he can get his engine up and running."
The Demons have a right to be optimistic but, for many jaded fans, the "one-week-at-a-time" mantra may be more palatable until they prove they can back up superb road wins over Adelaide and West Coast, as they did last year, with wins against teams they are expected to beat, for they twice lost to North Melbourne.
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Jon Pierik is a sports writer with The Age, focusing primarily on AFL football, cricket and basketball. He has won awards for his cricket and basketball writing.
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