It seems as if it becomes characteristic for a host of players to benefit, or suffer, from fluctuations in form at the pointy end of the season.
There’ll always be a player or two who’ll have an outstanding moment or game which can lift a team to victory and deeper into September in the process.
And, on the flipside, there’s always one or two that can’t tolerate the increased pressure, and end up harming their team with a lacklustre performance.
Take Dayne Beams from last year’s preliminary final. Coming into the game with a groin injury, Beams recorded a measly two disposals and two tackles for the night, and was substituted off in the last quarter.
Sharrod Wellingham wasn’t so bad. Comparatively, his 13 disposals only just bettered that of many of Collingwood’s key position players, players who rarely record high disposal numbers.
The two of them can thank their teammates for winning that game, because their disappointing performances would have been much more criticised if the Magpies had a loss. And luckily, Collingwood can take something out of their improvement in the top clashes.
That can be said as Beams now averages 35 disposals, 7 clearances and an amazing 3 goals per game against top four sides. It is an incredible jump in performance, to say the absolute least.
Wellingham is no star, nor a large accumulator of the footy, yet his output has also increased to 21 disposals, 7 tackles and a goal a game in the same calibre matches.
On the flipside, Heath Shaw’s performances drop. He played well in last year’s preliminary final, but under the bright lights and heated pressure applied come finals time as well as in big matches this year, the same can’t be said.
His statistics, in general, suffer a decrease – excluding a few categories, clangers and frees against included – and given the tag applied on him in Round 17, the Magpies will need him to stand up, as his poise and dash off half-back is pivotal.
The man who applied that tag was Jordan Lewis. The versatile hard man – he can influence any contest wherever he plays – contributes 3.4 goals and assists per game against the top four, and as a spiritual leader at Hawthorn, he knows how to perform on the big stage, especially given he also dominated last year’s preliminary final between the sides.
A teammate who doesn’t seem to follow that form is Grant Birchall. Well-known for his damaging and penetrating disposal off half-back and his defensive variety, his disposal count and efficiency by foot both take fairly noticeable drops in the tough matches. Hawthorn need to assure that he can find the footy and continue to use it well, as he sets up a lot of play from the back half.
Damning for the Crows and Swans this Saturday is that, against top four sides, the duos of Bernie Vince and Matt Wright, providing outside run, and Kieren Jack and Jarrad McVeigh, both capable of inside and outside play, suffer from similar drops in performance.
It’s arguable that the Swans need their two to perform more so. However, in saying that, it’s a good sign for Josh Kennedy in that he averages 32 disposals, 20 contested, and 9 clearances against top four sides.
It just bests Crow Patrick Dangerfield, who averages 25, 15 and 8 in those respective fields, but also manages tackles and goal assists to make him equally as important. The clash between Adelaide and Sydney may very well be determined by who wins that contest.
Further west, back in hometown Perth, North Melbourne captain Andrew Swallow also boasts impressive figures.
He’s proved to be super-reliable as skipper, and even more so against the teams around the Kangaroos’ mark; averaging 29 disposals, 8 clearances and 10 tackles per game against teams in the bottom half of the eight.
The majority of North Melbourne’s midfield can adequately be trusted to share the workload, but this year, Sam Gibson and Ryan Bastinac haven’t proven so much, with significantly disappointing performances against top eight sides. Given the space allowed at Patersons Stadium, their outside work is vital and they’ll need to step up to the task.
It’s also important for them to improve as their opponents, West Coast, have so many contributors through the middle that North Melbourne will need to match.
Whilst being clearance specialists, with Matt Priddis, Daniel Kerr and Scott Selwood all fantastic this year, one of the most important players to stop may just be Matt Rosa.
He was greater than his usual standards on both occasions when the teams met and his 30 disposals a game at a high efficiency will be a key to the Eagles’ game plan, and something North Melbourne need to stop.
It’s also something Nathan Fyfe will need to polish for his Dockers to overcome Geelong.
While he racks up plenty of disposals and many of them contested, and more so against better sides, his disposal efficiency and clangers reveal his inconsistencies by hand and foot, at 51% and 7 respectively.
With an even spread of contributors through the centre, with Michael Barlow a rock of consistency and reliability, Fyfe needs to play at his best, because that is Fremantle’s best.
Also having an issue with disposal is Cat Andrew Mackie. He’s a trustworthy kick in the back half, but not so much against teams his equal. In fact, his disposal efficiency, remarkably, is worse than that of Fyfe in that field. Hitting one of every two targets is hugely detrimental to your side, and he’ll need to comfortably better that.
Much more efficient by foot, surprisingly, is clearance machine Joel Selwood. He thrives in the contested environment – he rivals very few as a clearance player – yet saves his best for the better teams. He, much like James Kelly who is very similar, has proven himself when Geelong needed him to.
And, for all players, it’s the time of the year when every player needs to prove to their team that they can, and will, play in the environments when asked of them.
One team-lifting play, or moment, can change a match so quickly in their favour.
It’s as important that the opposite applies.