Round seven approaches and AFL teams are desperately juggling list management and selection choices in the hope it will give them an edge for the weekend’s games. For teams whose win/loss ledger sits at 50%, such as the Adelaide Crows, there’s considerable pressure to make the right choices, as too many more losses and their slim chance at finals will be in jeopardy.
Adelaide are under tremendous pressure to succeed. After a brilliant 2012 campaign, 2013 was littered with disappointment and a failure to even make the eight. Comparatively, the poorer, less successful crosstown rival in Port Adelaide are thriving, which makes Adelaide’s inconsistent form burn supporters and the club even more.
The culmination of such pressures can result in a club making hasty, and often incorrect decisions — in this case, Adelaide could have taken a major risk in playing Taylor Walker against Melbourne. Walker is barely 12 months recuperated from a knee injury that’s been described as being closer to a car crash than an atypical AFL player ACL injury.
While rehabilitation techniques have improved considerably since 2006, the last time a player’s knee injury was described as a ‘car crash’ in Adelaide was to promising young forward Trent Hentschel, who ultimately retired from AFL in 2008 after managing just 10 games post injury. Hentschel worked hard, and rehabilitated well, but suffered from persistent hamstring and back injuries as a result of the initial damage to his knee.
Less than a month ago there was concern that Walker’s return would be delayed due to hamstring soreness. While the dynamic power forward managed approximately 75% game with the Crows reserve team in the SANFL against struggling Glenelg, the local competition is well off the pace of an AFL game. Courtenay Dempsey was thrown into the frenetic pace of the Anzac Day clash and was clearly not equipped for the required pace after not playing football at any level this year.
To inject Walker, who isn’t fully match ready into a forward line that has only just begun to function in Adelaide’s past two games, risks unsettling the team. After losing the first three matches of the season, every win is essential if Adelaide are going to make it into the final eight.
While there is no denying that at peak fitness Walker is in Adelaide’s best 22, with a year out of the game he won’t be anywhere near peak fitness. Tom Lynch, Josh Jenkins, James Podsiadly, Eddie Betts, Jared Petrenko and the rotating Patrick Dangerfield have just started to show some chemistry and familiarity with each other’s movements in the forward 50, combining for match winning scores.
Leaving the forward line stable for the match against Melbourne, and again for the blockbuster against Collingwood in round nine, could make a huge difference to Adelaide’s chances of winning. While there are never any truly easy games of AFL, playing a team within the top eight is far more difficult than one outside of it – in the scheme of Adelaide’s season a return against the inconsistent Carlton would be the best game for Walker.
Beyond list consistency, there is also the risk that Walker will injure himself during his return match. Chris Judd returned to an under siege Carlton from an Achilles injury without any time in the VFL, and when pushed to full pace, injured his hamstring. While Walker has complete faith in his knee, commonly back and hamstring injuries are what cause problems after knee surgery.
When Tom Lynch returned to Adelaide’s list after suffering a shoulder injury, he played as the substitute. This can be a good stop-gap to ease a player into a game, but there are risks associated with such a maneuver. An early injury can result in the substitute playing much more game time than the substitute usually does, and in Walker’s case, this could result in extra loading on his body that he’s not ready for.
The temptation to play Walker is high after his excellent 2012 campaign and three goal performance in the reserves. He could have arguably been eased in against Melbourne, given a week off for the bye, and then return in round nine for the Collingwood match, but the probable risks for the young forward are tremendous.
At only 24 years of age, Walker has plenty of football left in front of him, and it would have been a mistake to risk the possible longevity of his career for a perceived short term gain. Adelaide, and Walker, are far better served to minimise risk and maximise fitness, by letting Walker play a few more games in the SANFL, in particular the first blockbuster clash between the Crows and Power reserves teams.