by Tom Briglia
Round 13, 2017
North Melbourne 2.5, 2.6, 4.9, 10.12 (72)
St Kilda 5.3, 8.8, 9.15, 12.17 (89)
Crowd: 26,107, at Etihad Stadium, Friday, June 18th at 7.50pm
There are different types of wins. “A win is a win” is a phrase used to describe a type of win, rather than throw a blanket over wins. The result after a grinding two hours in a concrete dome and four weeks of disappointment generally is probably about right for this.
At quarter-time, Dad, Matt, Richie and I moved from our Aisle 44, Level 1 seats that were being flogged on the cheap to four of the many, many free seats in the several bays immediately next to us, and sat ourselves in Row F. I don’t know how the North fans felt they stacked up in terms of turnout, but even after recent weeks feel like Saints fans still didn’t have an excuse to not rock up to this one. It certainly felt in the lead up as if no-one was left on our bandwagon. Three heavy losses to quality opponents, and then a week that saw Paddy out with a surprise injury, Carlisle under a cloud and Hugh Goddard out for the year, just because. The official crowd number I’m sure was bullshit, and whatever it was by game’s end it was probably deserving of the spectacle, but that’s not really how it works. We have a record membership but things always feel a little volatile at the Saints.
Aggressive /əˈɡrɛsɪv/ adj.
Taggers might just be back. There were a few things to learn out of this one. Jack Steven’s mullet was probably overrated. Not for its size – you can’t argue with physics – but for its supposed cultural impact. The G-Train’s receding hairline plus mullet number was far more organic and conducive to his on-field personality and game style, in an era that Channel 9’s rights to the TV coverage was turbocharging the idea of footballers as glamorous and well-connected celebrities.
Jack Steven’s ability to handle a tag is still a little up in the air. North threw second-gamer Declan Mountford in to watch him and Stuv hadn’t reached double-figures by the time Richo put him forward late in the second quarter (am I giving too much credit to Richo there?). However, Mountford wasn’t with him and Stuv kicked two goals late in the quarter that busted the game apart – the first a classy snap working off Higgins deep in the pocket and the second a crumbing goal via some quick thinking in a tight space in the goalmouth. On a night when Lonie, Mav Gresham and to a point the newly-christened Latte Billings were all having trouble rewarding the hard work up the ground, Stuv had enough quality in him to make the most of his chances.
The improvement of Seb Ross this year has been more than timely. That kind of trajectory is what we’ll be hoping for from players across the ground regardless of whether we land someone like Kelly or Martin, but right now he’s a genuinely good midfielder that can be particularly damaging. “If Steven can’t shake a tag then Ross is still free to do what he does” is a sentence that finished very differently even at the end of last season. Ross doesn’t have the speed of Steven but he has developed an acceleration that probably wasn’t present even last year, and that he’s utilised to good effect this year. The extra second he’s able to hold on to the ball allows anyone ahead of the ground to sort out what they’re doing and provide an option. Until Acres becomes more consistent, and/or Freeman/Kelly etc. come into the team this type of thing will be hugely important to the team. I never thought I’d say this but Ross become a rather dynamic player – his inside game is also strong, he’s now actually a kick and his hair is not that bad.
The midfield set-up sans Jack Steele seemed to work, but again the question about the Saints of 2017 – almost certain to prove the transitional pathway to the Saints of 2018 by personnel and dynamic – is about intent. I don’t think it would have mattered too much if the choice Steele of Dunstan would of made a tangible difference. The hunting in numbers was ferocious in tight, the aggression at the ball
Listen to the fans(?)
Richo was genuinely under the SEN/Twitter/BigFooty “news” cycle pressure for the first time, reflected in a growing divergence between where he publicly appeared to apportion reasoning for the trio of shocker showings and the personnel played, and what the fans believed to be the best thing for the club (this obviously varies wildly). It felt like this had hit some sort of crescendo when Richo revealed in the late-week press conference that Steele would be dropped. The reaction prompted Twitter to have its own article about it trending.
Perhaps Richo was thinking it was time for some tough love. Dropping Bruce had prompted his best game on his return, on a night in which we’d only kicked three goals at the final change. Perhaps the coaches are it will have the same effect on Steele? And maybe put others on notice too.
Dunstan has been see perhaps too one-dimensional and I think right now we’re hoping for a Seb Ross-style stealth development from him, gradually adding layers to his game. He showed off the upside of his inside work early as well as his newfound decent disposal, running to receive the footy that was turned over by Lachie Hansen’s chest mark drop on the wing and kicking beautifully to Bruce. The kick at goal was a huge reward for the passage that signalled the team’s intentions. Shortly afterwards he bulldozed through traffic on the opposite wing for two hard balls with a dish out to Lonie who kicked the first of incredibly rare back-to-back bullet passes. Gilbert to Billings was the second, and you can throw in Billings’ finish for the third if you like.
It was the lowered kicks and a distinct lack of clang that made Dunstan’s game seem much more like the Luke Dunstan of early 2014; a bolter in the 2018-2022 Premiership Captain stakes and what appeared to be our first draft pick since the Roo, Kosi, Lenny, Dal, etc. generation to make an immediate impact. The fear has been the ceiling was reached far too early, but if Seb Ross is what Seb Ross is now then I’m willing to accept Dunstan could follow a similar trajectory. His numbers of 18 possessions, six tackles and the token skewed set shot at goal felt like they said a lot more than his 28 touches against Carlton.
Maybe Dunstan will be one of those that answer the wake-up call of being dropped back to the broken-down Sandy. Bruce has now played his best two games for the year since returning from his omission.
A couple of issues come out of this immediately. Firstly, Sandy has the bye, meaning Steele has to wait at least one more week just to get the chance to prove himself, and I doubt he’ll come straight back in if Dunstan and Koby Stevens are still fit – not to mention Armo looking at a return to Sandy in a couple of weeks. That leads us to the second issue, which is team balance. I doubt our midfield can get by with all of Steele, Stevens and Dunstan in the same side, let alone throwing Armo in there as well, as much as I think Armo is quite possible cooked.
With the ongoing My Favourite Hair in the AFL and Joey situations, team balance is going to be a talking point throughout the rest of the year, regardless of how our season is travelling. Richo rather candidly said in the post-match that Paddy wouldn’t play in the same team with Roo, Membrey and Bruce. . “It’s unlikely, I reckon. That would be a bit unbalanced for us.” Usually the coaches give something a little more open-ended but Richo really put the acid on the forwards to perform, even if it’s only injury that takes them out of the team rather than form
Roo collected 21 possessions and kicked 0.3 – if he’d kicked straight we’d be praising him but instead we’ve got Sam Edmund going straight for the proverbial on the issue before the players have had time to hand the footys out to whichever smaller, younger humans are near the fence after the game. He played his roaming game and it still looks a little undefined but there’s no one with the same versatility and presence as him at the club.
Bruce didn’t have the stats guys working too hard but seven marks and two goals belied the quality of his contributions. His opening goal reminds not just his teammates but the opposition that anywhere up to 55 metres out from goal can be a dangerous part of the ground, and it was his strong contested mark at the back of the centre square and excellent kick to Roo on the wing that allowed the play to turn from Sam Gilbert being tackled hard up against the boundary in the back pocket to a Membrey goal in short time.
For his part, Membrey was one who set the tone early with very simple, straightforward attack on the ball. Much of it was working up the field and at ground level, showing a more agile side. We know he has good body strength given his presence in one-on-one contests (in tandem with his positioning instincts) and it was refreshing to see him use it differently, forcing a contest from a spilled ball or just making sure it was a Saint that was first to it even with contact or the boundary coming. That’s the kind of thing that says something to rest of the team, and again, the opposition.
When it matters
An encouraging aspect of this one was that there was no particular stand-out player that had to carry things. Membrey certainly wasn’t the only one playing their part and showing the oft-mentioned aggression that had been lacking in previous weeks. Stevens, Weller, Dunstan, Ross, Geary (C), Gilbert and Newnes all showed it from the start and through the first half in particular. Like Ross, Newnes has slowly grown his game to the point where each of the key elements of his game have become better and better over time – his decision making with the ball, his kicking, and particularly his attack at the ball at the contest – we could hear the hit of his contest with Tarrant from our seats in the pocket at the other end of the ground. In that space, Geary was excellent in picking his moments to go and when to leave his man and hit a contest again, and is obviously leading the 2018-2022 Premiership Captain betting as the incumbent, but for mine Newnes would be leading the rest.
It’s been made clear by Richo that when he talks about “aggression” it’s in reference to how we are with the footy, not just defensively. A little strangely this might have been best epitomised by Billings’ solo effort in the first quarter that resulted in his first overturned goal. A long kick to square had him outpositioned for the mark so he force the ball down front and centre. As Mav came though with his bandaged head (probably feeling pretty excellent about himself for it, too), Billings had spun around in the area and landed without any inhibition, and immediately stepped into the dangerous space to get the handpass from Roo.
Hotline Latte finished with 2.4 and eight tackles, and looked distraught when he fluffed his shot late in the game that looked set to deliver his third goal (for the third time that night). I thought someone should have given him a hug – he’d made a huge impact across the ground when the game was alive – but I’m hoping he’s well past letting those non-goals get to him in future games. Richo said after the game about the reviews, “If that happens in a Grand Final, then it’s a good thing”. It was frustrating on Friday night but I think we’d all agree with that. We’ve been there before.
The small forward line-up remains in limbo. Mav is still trying to do far too much when he gets the ball and not impacting the scoreboard enough. Gresham kicked 1.3 and would have had a much more if he’d kicked straight and like any forward, your game becomes a lot different if those numbers are improved on paper. He probably made an impact high up the ground for the first time in his career – his soccer-style control of the ball off half-back was a good one for the highlights reel – and I’d be keeping him after this one. Lonie had been anointed by the customary posting of a VFL highlights package to the club site during the week, followed by “In the Mix” hero shot. He’s kind of like a Gresham but way too excited. A couple of handy possessions here and there were ok but he, too can try and do too much with the ball. He tried to outdo Jeremy Howe in the last quarter when he simply should have stayed down from the pack, having a few minutes earlier attempted a 40-metre dribbler close to the boundary without looking inboard. Fortunately the game was already done. You could say he just needs to calm himself down and his missed shot from close range in the second quarter would suggest that. Interestingly it was Acres, Mav, and Lonie that all contributed something commendable to the chain that ended with Gresham’s goal late, with Lonie thinking his way through a tackle expertly.
He was one of our better players throughout and it was Jack Sinclair that had enough composure to kick the goal on the run and effectively ice the game just before the final change, after eight straight behinds from late in the second quarter. Since coming into the team in Round 6 he’s shown class and quality across the ground, delivering on the promise he’d shown in 2015, and in a role he’d struggled a little with last season. He makes purposeful, creative decisions and delivers on them. It’s a simple equation but players who can do that regularly really do stand out.
The rear end
Aside from a few nervous moments early when Waite got off Carlisle to kick the first and it looked as though Jake might be carrying more than he’d let on through the week. Richo said in the post-match that that he didn’t mention many individuals to the group after the game, but that he did point out Carlisle (incidentally, he said Bruce was one other that he mentioned). This appeared to be more to do with how he approached the week and the preparation, which is an excellent sign in itself. But by three-quarter time he was part of a defence that had only given away 4.9. Nathan Brown didn’t get a kick and only had six handballs for the game – going head-to-head with ball repellent Billy Longer – but they both did what they had to collectively on Ben Brown and Waite, and allowed Webster, Gilbert and Roberton to ply their trade as rebounding defenders, with Roberton back to his better form and Webster establishing himself as one of our most important and best-skilled players. The Carlisle and Brown combination is good if the midfielders and any players around the stoppages are aggressive (St Kilda Word of 2017) and use the ball cleanly going forward; i.e. if they give Carlisle and Brown an even shot at things. With Hugh out for the season again we’re going to really be hoping they both stay fit this year.
It’s also given more impetus for those keen on Joey to maintain his place in the team. All the Dermie faff from the previous weekend aside I’d been thinking that after all these years his experience was still only good for his loopy kicks no matter what the situation. Friday night didn’t particularly change my mind. Despite a couple of really good contributions, including a brilliant long kick on the rebound to Roo on the lead (Roo missed the goal of course), he still made some weird errors (not as weird as the 50-metre penalty Billy Longer gave away in the first quarter though). Most of these were confined to the first quarter – a high kick loopy out of defence to a contest featuring tall timber Jack Lonie, which came back with interest to Higgins for a shot at goal; he got the ball kicked up his arse by Newnes on the forward 50-metre arc because he couldn’t pick between shepherding and providing a handball option over the top of the opponent; and with 37 seconds left and a string of Kangaroos behinds that tempered the frustration of Billings’ first overturned goal, Joey took the kick-out and just had to hit a target, and we’d go into the first change with a lead of 22-point lead that even then wasn’t where it should have been. He bemusingly hoisted it to a pack not actually that far from goal, and from the throw-in Ryan Clarke snapped a very nice goal. Richo talked about what he brings to the team in a directive and leadership sense on and off the field, and his output certainly improved throughout the game. At what point do you need to start bringing in guys like Rice, White and D-Mac though? For as long we have a sniff of finals Joey simply won’t be dropped this year.
How are we feeling about him this week? Do we give him the credit for putting Bruce back into the VFL and sparking him back into action? What about Steele? Who is responsible for the drop-off in the last quarter? Which apparently season-defining and different questions will we be asking today/tomorrow/this week/next week about Richo and the players and the club? All this and more on Footy.