Not 'Gawn' Yet: How The Demons Have Come Back To Life

In the second quarter of a close loss to Brisbane that was both encouraging and dispiriting, Max Gawn did something that ruckmen can't do. He earned a 50 metre penalty in defence, sprinted forward to cover all his free metres, and in one motion, without ever breaking stride, delivered a perfect pass into attack to Bailey Fritsch for a goal. 

He looked like an oversized winger as he made his run and delivered a finesse half-back flanker's pinpoint kick to Fritsch. The joy of Gawn is that when he is not (perhaps) the best ruckman in the game, he looks nothing like a ruckman.

Gawn's tap work is brilliant and varied. He can reach the ball at its apex and hit midfielders in perfect stride, or just belt the ball for territory. Whatever angle he reaches the ball at, he adjusts his tap seamlessly in split seconds to direct it towards the advantage of teammates. He is prone to these exquisitely light, open palmed pushes as taps, as though he is literally handing the ball to a teammate on a plate.

Beyond the ruck contest, Gawn is everywhere. He gets back in defence to take intercept marks - always one of the most endearing ruckman habits - and is frequently the aerial outlet on the wing to exit defence. For three years in a row, Gawn has ranked in the top nine in the competition for contested marks per game.

He tackles, wins clearances, and is skilled and mobile enough to capably act as a link man in rapid midfield chains. 

Gawn's brilliance last year was overshadowed by the catastrophe of his team, but now his talent has a meaningful context again. 

The Melbourne midfield doesn't have the elegance and precision to be the best in the game, but at stoppages, in the initial contest, there is no group more frightening or vicious. 

Gawn's adroitness is a perfect entree for the athletic, chaotic violence that follows, with Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney dominant and brutal around the ball (these three each rank in the top 10 in the competition for contested possessions per game). 

The brutality unfortunately often doesn't stop in the contest, which holds the Dees back, but in the single art of winning the ball in close, when the Dees have their big four at the contest, they seem unstoppable.

The Melbourne midfielders don't attack the ball so much as they cannonball into it, so often aerial at stoppages, just raging into other bodies. Petracca in particular is a ridiculous bull, and his powerful spins and weaves in close are a logical successor to Dustin Martin's fend-off, Nat Fyfe's marking, and Dirk Nowitzki's one-legged fadeaway.

Melbourne are so good at getting the hardest and most seminal thing right - winning the ball - but almost everything else has long been a mess. The past few weeks, though, it's all been slightly less of a mess, and the Demons are dangerous again.

They still butcher the ball. None of Oliver, Viney, James Harmes, Ed Langdon and Angus Brayshaw are exceptional by foot, and these are the players frequently delivering - or rather anti-delivering - the ball into attack. 

But there’s more structure in the team now and a greater depth of healthy, competent players. Adam Tomlinson, who is coming off a Grand Final appearance for the Giants, being unable to get a game, speaks to how well-stocked the Demons are right now.

With Steven May and Jake Lever both fit, the defence has more presence, and Sam Weideman’s marking is giving the forward line a focal point, with classy opportunists at his feet.

Gawn, Oliver, Petracca and Viney with hard working competence around them is enough to be a serious threat on any given night. And so they were against Brisbane, in a game against the second premiership favourites where all night the Demons looked like they belonged, and were close to Brisbane’s equals. Ultimately, it was the gulf in class and foot skill that was the difference, with the Lions so much more ruthlessly precise in the most key moments.

In the third quarter, Harley Bennell missed a sitter at one end and soon after, in one of the best passages of the season, Charlie Cameron capped off an exquisite sequence that started with consecutive volleyball palms on the wing to escape congestion, with a mad dashing goal. Weideman slaughtered shots at goal, and Mitch Hannan effectively ended the game with a dreadfully conceived kick inside 50 at the death.

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The Demons will not suddenly discover polish this season. To win, they need their best and most natural strengths to be irrepressible, like they were at the end of 2018 until a rude awakening in Perth. They need the midfield to be such a force that nothing else matters.

Against the Lions, this wasn’t the case. Gawn was dominant, but the Demons were beaten soundly in clearances. Clearances always hinge on a knife’s edge, often gut-wrenchingly, narrowly slipping away. A split second hesitation or quarter-fumble and the opportunity to break free and cleanly into space is completely gone, and then the ball is tied up or you’ve lost it, like a prisoner climbing over the wall, cramping and falling down inches from the top.

The Demons fought, though, against Brisbane and with a resolve that was totally absent last year. 

They matter again, and the talents of their stars in the middle are counting for more than just numbers.

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Jay Croucher

Based in Denver, Colorado, Jay splits time between worshiping Nikola Jokic and waking up at 3am to hazily watch AFL games. He has been writing about AFL, NBA and other US sports since 2014, and has suckered himself into thinking Port Adelaide was the real deal each year since.

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