Tom Bellchambers wants to stay at Essendon, and probably will. Stewart Crameri, Scott Gumbleton, Cale Hooker, Tayte Pears, Jason Winderlich and Jake Melksham want to be there next year too.
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Essendon’s list of uncontracted players includes some of its best and most improved players, and the odds are most of them will remain in red and black. Jobe Watson re-signed for four years earlier this season, with the investigation well in swing. Dyson Heppell, Jake Carlisle and others have shown faith too. Whatever happened at Windy Hill last year, the players have hardly rushed for the door. But for those who wish to leave, things may be complicated.

In an ordinary year, Essendon would be in an enviable position, approaching first the finals, then the off-season. A young, talented, improving list that has spent much of the season in the top four. Joe Daniher in the wings. A bunch of tall players that they can’t play all at once, meaning the sort of tradeable clout the club hasn’t had in a long while. Motivation to be proactive and make a few moves, given their salary cap has become a little clogged. For the players this would have meant good things too. Whether he stays or takes a big offer from Greater Western Sydney, Bellchambers, for instance, is due a decent pay rise.

This is not exactly an average year, though. Whatever happens to their club, and whether or not it is done before finals, the players’ wait isn’t over. The fact that the report handed to the AFL from ASADA had the word ”interim” stamped on it says that, and has made the Bombers’ off-season a talking point among list managers and player managers. It means it could be harder for players who want to move, given the penalties that may or may not ever come. It may be harder for those delisted to find a new home. It could become more difficult for the club to shake some change, to make room on their list, to perhaps nab an extra first-round pick or two. Pending, of course, any AFL penalties.

Feelings are split about how much the Bombers – players and club – could be held back. Some think they won’t be – that the offers will come, that their players will be able to move if they choose to, that the club will get its work done. ”It’s a good question,” said one player manager. ”I haven’t picked up that feeling, that clubs won’t go near Essendon. I think they’ll still have the chance to get things done. But I think everyone’s waiting to see what happens, to be honest. No one knows.”

Others have more trepidation. Players like Bellchambers or Crameri could cost clubs a first-round pick, not to mention a lot of money. They wonder what it might mean if ASADA’s work isn’t done. Could they trade for a player, only to lose him for a long time should evidence eventually be found and players rubbed out?

Having talked Kurt Tippett out of Adelaide last year, Sydney had no choice but to stick by him when he was suspended for six months after the AFL finished investigating his against-the-rules deals with the Crows. They coped. But the thought of bringing a player in, with no idea of what ASADA or even WADA might do down the track, makes some people nervous.

”I think it’s like anything. It’s the same as if you were recruiting a player with an injury history or with off-field problems. You’d just have to do your research and look into it as much as you possibly could,” said one list manager.

As another pointed out, not every club could afford to carry a player for six months like the Swans did Tippett.

”There’s some risks there to consider. Maybe it means your offer to the player gets bumped down a bit, considering everything,” he said. ”It’s a hard one, but I think a lot of clubs might steer right away from Essendon. I think a lot of them might look at them and say it’s too hard. My gut feel is they won’t be able to move many on at all, which makes it tough for the players.”

Others would lean towards taking the chance. ”It’s hard to know how much research you can do with this one. If it went bad and you lost a player for six months or whatever, you’d wouldn’t be feeling too great,” said another list manager. ”I think everyone’s hoping it works out well for the players. For the players, you’d hope it gets sorted out pretty quickly.”

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Club bosses now claim a cap is not needed to achieve a more open game because rules forcing quicker ball-ups and kick-ins have largely worked. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
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A spike in the average number of interchange rotations in the past month could intensify the need for the AFL to introduce a cap next season, leading to clubs having to dramatically alter their game-day philosophy.

While AFL chairman Mike Fitzpatrick, chief executive Andrew Demetriou and other commissioners are committed to a cap, league operations manager Mark Evans said on Monday he was still awaiting more data and would not comment before this month’s commission meeting.

The AFL Players Association and its coaches’ counterpart have submitted a report arguing for a limit of no less than 120 rotations per game, and preferably no cap at all. Fairfax Media reported last month that Evans had cautiously backed clubs, players and coaches in calling for the cap to be abandoned.

But the jump in recent numbers – should it continue – will add weight to the push for a cap, and could force clubs to make major changes on game day and in their recruiting.

The season average to round 16 had been 132.1 rotations per team per game, largely steady on last year’s overall average of 131.3. But this year’s average has since jumped to 133, after an average of 136.45 through rounds 17-20.

This includes Geelong posting a whopping league-wide season high of 171 against Port Adelaide at Simonds Stadium on Saturday.

This beat the 169 Adelaide had against Brisbane Lions in round two and against Port Adelaide in round three. Hawthorn had 166 against Essendon in round 18 and 158 versus Port Adelaide in round 16.

The AFL Commission had considered a cap of 80 at its October meeting last year, but opted to wait another year before settling on a figure. It was felt a cap was needed to help fatigue players more, which could lead to fewer stoppages, more longer kicking and one-on-one contests, and prompt matches to open up more.

Club bosses now claim a cap is not needed to achieve a more open game because rules forcing quicker ball-ups and kick-ins have largely worked, although the average number of stoppages this season (63.5) is almost identical to last year.

Players had argued on-field congestion wasn’t such a bad thing anyway as this could lead to close results, while arguing a cap could add to the gap between the league’s power and poorer clubs.

”The philosophy of the teams with young developing lists is that by rotating players heavily it allows them to stay in the contest for longer periods of time,” the AFLPA said in a submission to the league.

”Players and coaches are of the view that the compromised ability to compete with strong/established teams will be a significant consequence of any further rule change in this area that should be given substantial weight.”

But the theory a cap was needed to slow players to reduce high-speed collisions has become debatable.

Former AFL operations manager Adrian Anderson had said the link between growing interchange rates and game speed was ”undeniable”.

Demetriou insists a cap will be introduced next season but the maximum number of rotations has yet to be determined. That number is expected to be ratified at the August 26 commission meeting.

”We all know a decision was taken on the cap, and we have always said we are going to monitor and get some further data so we can actually determine what the number should be,” Demetriou said last month.

”Hopefully the commission will be in a position at the August meeting to make a determination.”

This decision is likely to be made after more interchange-specific data and injury analysis.

Coaches want a final call soon. Fremantle coach Ross Lyon last week said a cap could affect draft and trade decisions. Lyon has been on the AFL Coaches’ Association’s sub-committee investigating the issue, while Collingwood’s director of coaching Rodney Eade is now the coaches’ representative on the Laws of the Game body.

Adelaide coach Brenton Sanderson outlined earlier this year the impact he felt a cap would have on recruiting.

”We’d need more players between the heights of 188 and 192 centimetres with a really good aerobic capacity, guys like Jared Petrenko, who’s just flat out for five minutes and then off, would probably find it harder to get a game,” he said.

Collingwood ruckman Darren Jolly is annoyed at the push for a cap.

”There’s a reason why we need to rotate as much as we do. It’s because you have instructed the umpires to throw the ball up quicker; you’ve shortened the time allowed when kicking for goal; and kicking in after a minor score. You want the ball in constant motion, so, naturally, the play gets faster,” he wrote in his Fairfax Media column.

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Collingwood fans cheer their team on against Sydney on the weekend. Photo: Anthony JohnsonWe do it every year. Start talking up a team in the lower half of the final eight as a distinct premiership possibility, seduced by some timely good form and blind to the overwhelming weight of recent finals history.
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No one seems immune. I fell victim to the disease last year, as Geelong swept through the late part of the season with six wins in its final seven games, the last a convincing eclipse of the highly rated Sydney.

The Cats could create AFL history from sixth spot on the ladder, I swooned. And what happened? They were bundled out in week one of the finals, on the MCG no less, by Fremantle, fairytale finished before the first page had even been written.

I should have known better, for one very good reason. Under the finals system used since 2000, you simply cannot win a premiership from outside the top four.

Says who? The figures. Just two of 52 preliminary finalists – Hawthorn in 2001, and Collingwood in 2007 – have finished the home and away rounds lower than fourth, and they both bowed out in the penultimate game of the season.

And that is why, for Collingwood – this year’s version of the Cats of 2012 – the clash with Hawthorn on Friday night is effectively the start of its finals campaign, one in which it will also need to rely on Sydney’s failure.

Six points behind the Swans, the Pies need to win two more games of the three remaining than the reigning premier. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, with Sydney facing Geelong and Hawthorn in its last two matches.

But with the Swans having what appears a virtual gimme this week against St Kilda, it’s curtains for Collingwood as far as the top four goes unless it can knock over the Hawks. Indeed, it’s Richmond which appears to have a better chance of snatching a top four spot at Sydney’s expense, given the Tigers face the badly out-of-sorts Carlton and Essendon, along with Greater Western Sydney in its last three games.

But it will be difficult to dispute Collingwood’s flag credentials if the top-four cards fall in its favour. Because while the Pies coughed and spluttered through much of the first half of this season, their second, particularly their last fortnight, has been 2010-11 revisited.

Collingwood’s defensive pressure, absent earlier this season, is back. Between rounds one and nine, only GWS and Melbourne were allowing opponents more scores from inside-50 entries. Since then, the Pies have become the fifth-best at thwarting scores. In that early period, they allowed nearly 15 goals a game; a figure since down to below 10.

And that improvement has been mirrored offensively as well.

On differential rankings, the Magpies were ranked 14th for goals and 16th for goals from inside-50 entries to the end of round nine. For the second half of the season, those rankings are second and fifth.

Between rounds 10 and 20, the Magpies rank either first or second for disposals, uncontested possession, inside-50s, marks inside-50 and tackles, and are third for contested possession – another glaring weakness early, when they were ranked only 10th.

The return of Dayne Beams to the line-up and the improved form of Luke Ball have made an enormous difference to those numbers, and allowed the previously overworked Scott Pendlebury and Dane Swan to do far more damage offensively, ditto for Ben Reid’s use as a key forward alongside Travis Cloke.

It’s an increasingly ominous blend, one which enabled Collingwood to dispatch third-placed Sydney by 29points last Saturday night.

The Magpies have already beaten the second-placed Geelong this season. And the one side they’ve been consistently unable to get the better of, the top team on the ladder, they face on Friday night.

Beat Hawthorn, and Collingwood’s premiership capabilities will be beyond dispute. More importantly, beat the Hawks and the Pies, with a bit of luck, might actually end up in a position to prove it when it really matters.

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Jockeys betting, allegations of race-fixing and trainers outed: Racing Victoria knows it cannot afford another spring carnival like last year if it wants to maintain the confidence of the betting public and protect the iconic status the carnival enjoys on the sporting calendar.
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While Victorian Police may have decided not to pursue criminal proceedings over allegations a race at Cranbourne – won by jockey Danny Nikolic on Smoking Aces in 2011 – had been fixed, Racing Victoria confirmed on Monday it had not ruled out taking action.

Dayle Brown, the organisation’s head of integrity, said evidence from the Purana Taskforce was still with the Victorian government’s Solicitor-General’s office.

”The Director of Public Prosecutions decided there was not enough evidence to charge anyone over the various allegations,” he said on Monday. ”Victoria Police then called a meeting with myself and the integrity board [RV’s internal sub-committee on integrity matters] and said they would take all the evidence that they had uncovered to the Victorian [Solicitor-General] and work out what they are allowed to give us to continue our investigations under the rules of racing.

”We need clear evidence to be able to pursue any case. The expectation is that it will be another month [before any evidence is handed over].

”The Solicitor-General is reviewing the brief to determine what information can be legally shared with Racing Victoria.”

RV chief executive Bernard Saundry and the governing body’s chairman, Rob Roulston, acknowledge that they cannot have another public relations disaster like last spring, when revelations by The Age helped shine the spotlight on the murky underbelly of the racing industry.

The organisation has taken a number of integrity initiatives in the nine months since the last carnival ended and is confident that it has now made life much harder for those who cheat or who might be tempted to flout the rules.

Jockeys now have to sign a no-betting declaration as part of their licensing requirements and publicly declare which form analysts they use to help them plan tactics for a race.

There are also new minimum penalties ranging from six-month to five-year disqualifications for jockeys betting on racing, those guilty of other forms of corruption and trainers who illegally administer drugs to their horses.

Brown said the feedback from the industry was that trainers, jockeys and all concerned were getting the message.

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Only five days ago Shane Watson spoke about his renewed assurance in his historically suspect frame, which appeared to be holding up resolutely to the demands placed on it in this Ashes series.
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”I am feeling more confident in my body every time I go out there,” Watson said. ”I feel that I can let myself go more often. My body allows me to do that.”

On Sunday he was trudging off the Riverside ground gingerly, midway through an over he did not finish on the third day of the fourth Test The reason was pain in his right groin and hip, as it was described afterwards by a Cricket Australia spokesman.

Watson did not return to the field, and whether he does play any further part in the match, or simply bats rather than bowls, was to be determined by the team’s medical staff on Monday morning.

Whatever the case, it was another blow for a 32-year-old with a long and painful record of fitness issues, again casting doubt over how much his body can offer under the stress of regular bowling.

Michael Clarke’s inclination to turn to his pressure-building fast-medium pace has led to an increasing workload for Watson, who also spent considerable time in the middle on Saturday in scoring an important 68 with the bat.

Up until his withdrawal, he had sent down 80.3 overs in four Tests in England, more than he has bowled in a single series since Australia’s Indian tour of 2008.

It is an increasing trend under Clarke, however, after Watson delivered 50 overs in two Tests against Sri Lanka at home last summer (a whopping 47 of them in Hobart to cover for the breakdown of Ben Hilfenhaus). He picked up a calf injury in the following match at the MCG that ruled him out of the next game in Sydney.

Calf problems have been the hulking all-rounder’s main drama. Before that breakdown in the last Boxing Day Test, he sustained another calf strain that sidelined him for two of the three matches against South Africa last summer, and the year before missed the entire Test season at home with calf and hamstring injuries.

Watson’s frustration at the MCG last December was such that he said after the match that he was considering giving bowling away. He did not bowl again until April in the Indian Premier League, where he plays for Rajasthan Royals, and featured as a batsman only on Australia’s Test tour of India.

In England, however, he has been called on by Clarke to be a key part of the attack and while he has only claimed two wickets in the series, that does not show how well he has bowled, tying England down with 38 maidens, not conceding a run in 50 per cent of his overs.

Watson has also wound up his speed, turning back the clock to his days as an emerging star; the broadcaster’s speed camera recorded him repeatedly above 140km/h.

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