All aboard the hype train

by Richard Lee

Round 18, 2016
Western Bulldogs 4.2, 6.4, 9.6, 9.6 (60)
St Kilda 3.3, 7.4, 10.5, 11.9 (75)
Crowd: 26,532 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, July 23rd at 7.25pm

As anytime long Saints fan can attest to: it’s in the DNA of us to not believe in lucky breaks, or in the (supposed) even-handedness of the Football Gods. Divine intervention? Nope. It’s just in our nature to dread that moment when we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory; self-sabotage. But things right now are just starting to click.

Seven wins out of nine is good in anyone’s language. The fact that it now contains two scalps – the first of which being the Cats – after Saturday night’s weird win over the Bulldogs, gives it a lot more weight. It has even stirred the wider Football Community enough for us to have gained some proper media coverage in this lull point in the season.

After our premature bubble was burst with a pitiful effort against the Suns, or if you saw our listless efforts against the Dons, you would be forgiven for ignoring our win-loss pattern. I certainly did. It is true though, that good teams find a way and again on Saturday night, it wasn’t exactly a performance laden with highlight reel plays, but one of strength and poise. It was one for the purists.

Whilst never hitting top gear as such, the Dogs did threaten to blow this one open on two separate occasions. Firstly, they had the better of the opening exchanges. This fits with the Saints tendency to start the game like they just rolled out of bed. Except Jack Newnes’ hair hasn’t changed one bit.

The Saints weren’t lacking in intensity, it’s just that the Dogs were moving the ball with a little bit more precision and speed. Jackson Macrae was zipping up and around, Caleb Daniel was bobbing up here and there and Liberatore was the instigator from the engine room. Tom Hickey was on though. His tap work from the get go was on point and then some. However the Dogs enjoyed the better of the territory side of things and were doing a good job at spooking the Saints into enough sloppy errors. I don’t need to remind you who were the main culprits.

Thankfully, the scoreboard wasn’t getting away from the Saints and unlike some previous slow starts (see Gold Coast) the team’s psyche as well as its structure wasn’t wavering in the face of some stern pressure. By and large the Dogs enjoyed the better territory and were more dangerous in the first term, but by the first break their momentum had been arrested enough. Enter the second term and Roo kicked his first with an opportunistic snap on the left, followed by set shot conversions courtesy of assists from Armo and Joey.

The mark Roo took for his second goal was a perfect illustration of what Josh Bruce can’t do right now. He barely had split on Fletcher Roberts, but perfectly timed a shove in the Roberts’ chest at the last minute to setup an easy chest mark for himself. Baroose take note.

Indeed, it could be argued by that by the final siren Riewoldt was essentially the difference between the two sides. Granted, the Dogs forward structure was left with a sizable hole in the shape of Jack Redpath for essentially the entire second half but even to that point it didn’t feel like the Saints lack of height in defence was going to be a thorn in its side. Boyd was rarely sighted, and as the Footscray fans around me pointed out several times, the Dogs were extremely reluctant to get the ball deep to the “hot spots” anyway.

This could be excused in some respects given that none of their bigs were on song, but perhaps what was even more confounding was how little impact the Dogs got from their roaming or more creative smaller types. Dickson kicked a great goal, but didn’t do a lot else. Caleb Daniel’s night progressively got less exciting – his botched mark going back with the flight unattended into the forward 50 in the last term, was perhaps the most poignant illustration of the Dogs being off. They miss Dalhaus.

This isn’t to take anything anyway from the Saints pressure though. It definitely made life difficult for their more fancied opponents. Pressure, after all, has been their MO for a good 18 months now, and it seems like it is only gaining momentum. And though he gets most of his plaudits for his running and carrying, it was Jack Steven who was leading the way on that front with 7 tackles (Dunstan and Armo had 6 each). Gosh, it is still weird to have the word leading and Steven in the same sentence.

And just on the whole pressure MO: the term Saints Footy seems to be back in. I heard Jack Newnes (of The Leadership Group) mention it in one of the post-game videos online. It speaks to the group consolidating an identity, and having a confidence in it. To say that “Saints Footy is back” would be premature and wrong but this current brand doesn’t feel much like Saints Footy 1.0 of the Ross Lyon era. It’s been rebooted and re-tooled into something new and something that seems to have a place in the modern game. Sure, it’s defense-first, but it’s defense that leans more towards fuelling scores and is inherently more proactive.

More evidence of this proactiveness is the positioning and the involvement of the likes of Roberton, Gilbert, Savage, Geary and Dempster. That contingent could be found near enough to the forward 50 arc throughout the game. Roberton in particular, seemed to be the one with the biggest license to roam to wherever he read that he was needed. His exact opponent I couldn’t point out to you. All that considered, he had another great game. He seemed to be at the right position at the right time for the large majority of the time. Geary too, was again very good, following on from a golden game against the Dees.

*****

I’m sure all Saints fans can draw upon times over the last two years when they’ve really been stretching and searching to picture what this time will look like when it’s playing in meaningful games and how it will go about doing so. It now feels safe to say that we’re seeing the first signs of the reality of this. Saturday night wasn’t exactly finals like, but it had an intensity (despite the disappointing crowd number) and an edge that was significant and which asked more of the players. The Seb Ross’, the Dunstans, the Newnes’, the Wrights, et al didn’t look out of place. They took the challenges head on, without getting overzealous or overwhelmed.

For all the positivity of the way in which the younger brigade were handling a hotter and bigger stage, the night’s main drawcard Marcus Bontempelli threatened to take game into one of his oversized hands and crush it. His 5-10 minute purple patch in third term was immense, culminating in a raking 50m goal which almost lifted the Etihad roof off. This all started with Tim Membrey missing a relatively easy shot, which would have extended the Saints lead to 24 points early in the third. From the kick out the Bulldogs went the length of the field to score, and then it was Bontempelli time. He went onto the ball and together with Liberatore, he got the ball going forward from the middle. This kind of game-breaking ability is a sight for sore eyes for Saints fans who have sat by patiently over the last 3 seasons of rubbish, in the hope that a Bontempelli-esque figure would be fished out from one (or all) of the subsequent National Draft campaigns.

I’m not yet to crossover into the camp of those who foresee a decade of regretting drafting Jack Billings instead of Bontempelli, however. Of course, right now, The Bont has the runs on the board. It must also be said though that, he has had the advantage of developing in a side that is more advanced in its development. Hunter, Liberatore, Macrae, Dalhaus – these are all young stars at the Dogs who are sharing the load in driving the side forward. Also, I’d still argue that Billings’ best footy so far has shown he can be Elite in the AFL. With that in mind, getting his body right and getting some continuity into his footy, is the most pressing challenge for him right now. He came into 2016 off of a seemingly delicate preparation, and seemed to be building some good form before being struck down with an ankle injury that has kept him out of the side until last week. It must be said Saturday Night was far from his best game. Both he and Sinclair (who only chalked up 3 disposals) have yet to have gotten back to AFL speed having spent time in the VFL. Perhaps this was best highlighted when Billings, gliding into fifty in the last term, virtually dead in front pushed his shot left. This is a situation we’ve already become accustomed to a fit Billings eating for breakfast.

One smallish forward who is excelling, however, is Maverick Weller. He is suddenly looking more and more like the next captain of St Kilda Football Club. 80-something games into his relatively young career, the former Gold Coast Sun has gone from strength-to-strength is his new role as a defensive forward. Outwardly too, he presents as a guy who looks and embodies the fresh image the Club has tried to espouse since the Finnis/Richardson has been in motion.

Saturday Night’s game at the Dome is probably one that has been coming over several weeks. Against both the Bombers and (particularly) the Dees he was not only good, but made pivotal plays in crunch time. Namely, he was kicking goals when the game was on the line to go along with his much hyped physical pressure. An oft overlooked element to his game also is his skill overheard. Last night he was able to provide a quasi target up the ground, by design or not, and he took one or two particularly strong contested grabs on the wing. All this, after being involved in a heavy, head-on clash early in the first term.

One thing that clearly defines this win over the others we’ve had this season is that it’s the first in which I’ve experienced it in the context of the here and now. I’m so used to reflecting on a win and toying with what it will mean when we look back at it in future seasons. What are the takeaways to build on; what it will mean for our accumulated win total for the year; what that win total will mean for our Draft ranking and so on. I’ve been so accustomed to zooming out, taking the helicopter view that it’s almost a bit jarring to slip back into the typical AFL weekly cycle.

With this four points it has directly informed what I’m feeling towards facing the Roos next week and what effect that will have on our 2016 when it’s all over. The team seems to be embracing the now and I think I’m good to roll with that too.

 

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 18
Jack Steven – 2
Mav Weller – 2
Tom Hickey – 2
Nick Riewoldt – 2
Dylan Roberton – 1
Sean Dempster – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 32
Nick Riewoldt – 22
Seb Ross – 17
Tim Membrey – 15
Tom Hickey – 12
Leigh Montagna – 9
David Armitage – 8
Mav Weller – 7
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Newnes – 6
Blake Acres – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Josh Bruce – 4
Jarryn Geary – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Sean Dempster – 2
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Luke Dunstan – 1
Dylan Roberton – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1

But I know we’ll meet again, maybe a whole lot

by Tom Briglia

Round 17, 2016
St Kilda 3.3, 8.6, 10.12, 15.20 (110)
Melbourne 6.2, 6.5, 9.7, 11.8 (74)
Crowd: 25,322 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, July 17th at 3.20pm

This year I’ve found myself being a little (well, quite) fatalistic and cynical when it comes to how I think the rest of the season will pan out. I mentioned last week that I got it a little wrong, immediately anyway, with my dour summation of the Crows debacle, but it’s worth pointing out again that the win over the Cats being followed by Rubbish at Carrara – Election Day Special proved what we knew about the Saints as much as proved nothing at all; we already knew that we’re lower-to-middling, inconsistent developing team that will win some games it shouldn’t and lose some games it shouldn’t.

Whilst North’s collapse for now has opened up eighth spot a little, even after the win today we are still facing an uphill battle to overcome that gap and have to really be playing above ourselves for an extended period. Whilst some of our opponents, namely the Bulldogs, North and Sydney present the biggest roadblocks to a top-eight finish, we’ve proven to be our own worst enemy across periods of games, whole quarters, and whole matches.

The last time we lost to Melbourne I was in my final months of school and we suffered the ignominy of coming off blowing two Preliminary Finals and then losing as the sixth-placed home team in an Elimination Final, having narrowly missed out on a top-four finish. Luke Ball was our captain, Grant Thomas was our coach and Aaron Hamill was somehow still out there. The 10-year gap between losses to Melbourne doesn’t particularly represent anything – whilst the club experienced a wistful period of incredible, buoyant, ultimately sad moments in that time it’s really just a reflection of where these two sides specifically have been in a specific number of years.

It’s more relevant to look at recent and current form and make-up of the two lists, which Paul Roos almost blithely talked about during the week as perhaps being the foundation for the two sides playing off against each other in Grand Finals in the coming years. Should our development go as planned, as we had the Cats last time around looking to break a lengthy premiership drought we’ll probably have the Bulldogs and Demons this time to contend with (not to mention the GWS juggernaut, but no-one is a supporter of the AFL). A Melbourne vs. St Kilda Grand Final (for some reason when I picture the 2019 Grand Final it’s us in our clash jumper, hopefully what we have at the moment but probably not) will be a sad fucking day for the club and its supporters on the wrong end of the result. Maybe if our streak against the Dees was still going right up until a Grand Final date then St Kilda supporters would be puking at the prospect of playing off for a premiership with that as one of the key talking points of the week. You know we’re the kind of club to give it up when it counts the most.

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Matt on his way to catching ‘em all™

The 3.20pm Sunday timeslot necessitates that the AFL orders the roof to be closed at the Corporate Dome, which essentially means your weekend ends by 3pm (or whatever time you choose to walk into the ground), and earlier if the game begins in the early afternoon and the roof is closed anyway. Unfortunately it was a beautiful sunny winter’s afternoon but I guess in the 21st Century there’s no way at all we can embrace that . I described it the other week as being on the set of a TV show rather than at the footy, and I’ll stick by that. If the AFL is so keen to keep Etihad even though it won’t really actually revamp it or realign it so the sun isn’t awkwardly placed – which seems to be the reason of choice for people who don’t like the roof open – then we’re stuck with the TV studio rather than the footy ground.

For this week though it the augmented reality aspect was ramped up – even the club couldn’t resist embracing the Pokémon Go craze and starting its own hashtag for the game, encouraging the fans to “help us capture some Pokémon – both inside and outside the ground”, which had me worried that if things went south for one tam we’d have half the crowd trying to catch all the Oddishes, Venonats, Psyducks and Magikarp that were in and around the ground. Apparently the Snorlax hanging out around Crown didn’t make its way up Spencer Street.

There were two Melbourne supporters on the 55 tram into the ground, and as per usual just myself as the sole Saints representative (although there has been a Saints-supporting couple on my tram once or twice this season). I know I mentioned that the slight opening for eighth position before; right now I think it’s in a scuffle with that feeling we’ve had over the past couple of weeks that the season is in wind-down mode. The next few weeks will tell us more but the weight of probability is with the latter winning out. The tram ride in was appropriately subdued; more about looking out to the whatever was passing by bathed in very nice sunshine.

To the Savoy again for pre-match burgers and drinks, and for Evan and Matt a chance to go through their Pokemon strategy for the final time. We took in a bit of Carlton and West Coast (before it got interesting), which was taking pace under the eye of US VP Joe Biden and thousands of secret service agents, which I’m sure made up most of the 26,000-plus that were at the MCG. It looked like West Coast were going to sneak into fourth on percentage, even with the GWS barrage to come in Brisbane later in the day, but the Blues at least made things vaguely interesting for the VP, but not for anyone else as it shut out any chance of any other spots in the eight being available any time soon.

Matt caught an Oddish as we crossed Spencer Street, I got a free Dare Iced Coffee® and we were soon enough parked inside our Aisle 32 seats with relatively minimum fuss – neither of these teams’ fans like going to the opposing Melbourne grounds for away matches so the 25,000 crowd didn’t present any difficulties, apart from the club’s bottom line.

It was only seconds into the match when Hotline announced his return marking right near goal and then missing from the line. The Dees set the tone for the quarter by cutting through the middle in numbers and with space up forward Garlett marked and goaled. Billings looked set to at least partially atone for it with quick hands to Eminem in the next forward foray, but Marshall ran in and missed another easy shot. Membrey couldn’t complete a one-on-one mark when it came back in, and the Dees were again. Petracca, the man set to terrorise for the next 12-15 years, marked over Ross for their second. He’d have two goals himself by the end of the quarter and set up Jack Watts for another, and he could have had a third by half-time but hit the post from relatively close range. The 2014 draft decisions start to tick over in your head in these moments, just as the 2013 draft choices will on Saturday night as we pit a casual Billings against Brownlow winner-to-be Bont. For the time being, it was looking like just the perfect day to have a whole lot of Melbourne supporters around us in the St Kilda members.

Mav Weller had started strongly this week, involving himself up the ground and kicking our first. I say this because his game against the Cats and Essendon were punctuated more by periods in each that were small but had huge say in the outcome of the game. This week he looked as if he’d set himself to effect the play more consistently. Like last week, it was him and Membrey that were having a say in the front half despite the Demons’ mids having their way with our own. Skunk’s first goal came at the fall of the ball from Acres’, uh, soft hands, and swooped on it and bulleted a goal from 45 metres out.

Billings began pushing up and looking more purposeful across the back half, but still the ball movement was a little stagnant, just as the pressure placed on the Dees’ players across the ground was stilted; getting caught drawn to the player with the ball and allowing for their teammate in supporter too much space on the outside.

A short period saw Gilbert dribble a ball out of traffic on half-back to turn it over, then collect the ball from a sloppy Bruce handball amidst the resulting re-entry and send a slick pass to Hickey on the wing. In one of Hickey’s rare blunders for the night he waited too long the option presented further ahead by Roo had dried up. Shortly after that the ball landed in Hogan’s hands as he ominously outbodied Dempster and finished the polished work from further up. From the centre bounce Petracca took it out of the middle and found Hogan. Melbourne with a six-goal quarter and looking to be doing far too easily through the middle, and Hogan was set for a day with an undersized backline to follow the seven he kicked against it last time we played.

The possession count was clearly in Melbourne’s favour by game’s end and so that stat ultimately only said so much, but at quarter time a lot of individual players’ numbers were pertinent. Jack Viney had 14 touches, with Harmes and Jetta 12 apiece. Our engine room was looking incredibly lean meanwhile: Steven had four, Ross had four, Armo just three, and it showed. Hickey led our own count with seven then six each to Membrey and Billings, as well as Dunstan who in his 50th has looking like the most productive mid.

It looked like the Dees were just a goal or two away from breaking open the game for the first part of the last quarter. Gresham had been unsighted but made sure everyone saw him by slipping over in the middle with the ball before redeeming himself soon after, dancing around two opponents on the arc and slotting a deft left-foot pass to Hotline on the lead. Billings was continuing to push up the ground and a goal next to his name would have been well-deserved but he missed the set shot.

Not until later in the term, when Jack Steven was involved at two centre clearances did we look like the team that, well, should have run out much more comfortable winners than we did. The pressure began to lift throughout the quarter and a string of near-free kicks in two separate passages got us within touching distance; the first through the middle when Armo’s tackle on Brayshaw went unrewarded, but Steven was at the fall of the ball to get it off to Minchington who released the ball to Sinclair, and the nicely-haired inclusion sent a long ball perfectly weighted for Membrey to come over the top and take a mark in front of goal. The second came from the maniacal pressure we were hoping would appear in the front half that saw three tackles across the pockets that all could have been paid for holding the ball; in the end it was the third that was given to Joey in the pocket and his snap did the hard work in the minute prior justice.

Whilst the game had been wrested back in our favour it was still looking for someone to stamp it and make it official going into half-time. Seb had stepped up and Steven had had some moments but they alone weren’t going to do enough to put us in a position of dominance. Like last week at a critical point, sort-of-potential future captain Jarryn Geary again stepped up and again proved keyboard warriors like myself wrong about his worth to the team. They were his first goals of the year and they came in the last couple of minutes of the quarter, backing himself to recognise where an opportunity was to push up very high up from his usual position and make something of it. Billings would have to settle for a deft goal assist to the 0.3 he’d finish with, with incredibly quick hands to Geary for the second which he kicked in much the same fashion as his first – off a few steps from just beyond 40 metres out. The goals don’t cancel out all the shanks with the ball which we in the stands are more privy to noticing, and the praise he gets from Richo and the players are for acts that we probably wouldn’t immediately recognise without being privy to the game plan. For all the stick that Geary cops from the stands the reaction from the crowd (the players aside) I think said a lot more about what we really do think of him.

The back-to-back goals were out of Mav’s playbook from the Cats and Bombers games. Melbourne’s head start at the first change and comeback late in the third necessitated a big play though. Mav reprised those critical efforts of recent weeks with something similar in the last quarter and was part of two important goals after Melbourne got within a kick, more than atoning for the relatively easy miss that was one of many that let the Demons back in during the third quarter (although he did kick a great set shot goal in the same quarter). Following Big Max’s goal early in the last he charged at White, who had cut off a pass just forward of centre, to set the ball free and then came back to the contest and dived forward to thump the ball out to Acres on the way to Wright kicking a long ball to Gresham in the pocket. Gresham read the fall best off of his own marking contest, and smartly handballed it over his shoulder to My Favourite Hair in the goalsquare in the AFL for a steadier. Mav shortly after combined with Acres, with the latter playing a focal point role in attack in the last quarter and grabbed the ball out of a contest after he spilled a tough mark and and working it under pressure to Mav who, like his first goal last week, was coming past at the perfect time close to goal and slammed through this third goal for the day. (Mav also pushed up to be part of the slick hands work with Newnes out wide to set up Riewoldt for another set shot miss.)

Membrey was the one who was the lead-up forward that took the mark from Joey’s kick out of the middle and sent it long to Acres for that Mav goal. The players really did make a beeline to Acres in the celebration (Mav looked slightly confused when players were rushing past him to Blake but soon joined in). Acres’ game at the moment is perhaps along the lines of a Gary Rohan, and it means he offers some real versatility across the ground if needed when we have our full complement of tall forwards and some shuffling during the game is required.

All of this came after quite the scare. Richo said the third quarter was the best of the year, and he was just about right – the only thing that made it arguable was the 2.6 return and the final few minutes, which combined let Melbourne right back into the contest. Mav, Membrey and Riewoldt were all guilty of missing shots that should have blown the lead out well beyond five goals by the final change, and we missed a chance for a huge reprieve when Roo did his part for redemption with a herculean effort to touch Hogan’s kick on the goal line late in the third quarter as Melbourne charged, and Membrey hit the post on the siren to reward it and the efforts earlier in the quarter.

It was Membrey who for the second week in a row had been the anchor in the forward half when the rest of the team offered very few clear shining lights. Whilst he hasn’t really turned things on in the few games we’ve played against top opposition since he came into the side in Round 6 for the first Melbourne game – his three against the then-undefeated Kangaroos his best against real quality – his last couple of weeks have certainly been a step in that direction. It’s one thing to capitalise on the rest of your teammates’ good work, but it’s another to really dredge something out of what they do when by and large the team is up against it. Again, his input came from different avenues – his first swooping on a ball off Acres’ hands, the strong contested mark over the top of his opponent, his leading up outside of the arc to be link the back-half to the front for the Acres and Weller combination. He finished with 10 marks, a good reflection of that aspect of his game.

More than merely a special mention must go to our own Stephen Merchant, Tom Hickey for his performance around the ground. Big Max was quelled for much of the day and Hickey played his part in traffic when the ball was moving on his way to a career-best 21 possessions; Richo said that his game almost added another player out there for us in general play. For what it’s worth he ended up with the full compliment of 10 AFL Coaches’ Association Award votes, and this year he’s completely established himself as not just our number one ruckman, but one of our key players.

Like the key goals from half-backs in Geary and Joey in the second quarter, of all people it was Roberton who took it on themselves to hit the scoreboard in a key moment. It came from a simple enough mark just outside 60 metres, but everything around him (and including him) seemed to be going in slow motion and in his lackadaisical way he pounced on the opportunity, ran off and kicked a long goal to effectively seal the game. As my Dad (and Leigh Matthews) pointed out, that the pressure was that good across the entire team allowed those guys to push up, knowing that an opportunity would most likely be created. That’s a lot of trust to have in your teammates.

A quick look over the stats sheet would tell you Steven, Ross and Armo particularly ended up with relatively muted numbers; a reflection of how even the team performance was across the entire match. Of course there was Membrey, Mav and Geary who had moments or output that would be imprinted in our minds a little more than others, or that would be better fodder for the highlights reel. Luke Dunstan was probably our most consistently-involved midfielder for the first half when things were really tough, and his goal in the final seconds was a fitting finish to his 50th game. But just about every player made some contribution in some way; right down to D-Mac who threw in a few Geary shanks of his own but did well to temper our future nemesis Petracca in the second half.

The 14 wins in a row against Melbourne counts for nought, really. As Roos pointed to during the week, these are two teams that all going well will share a very strong and potentially historic rivalry in the coming years – and if so then most likely in a ménage à trois involving the Bulldogs; effectively a double-headed version of our Geelong rivalry of this decade (and perhaps into the next). Hogan only finished with the lone goal, Petracca went quiet, and Brayshaw will need to feel his way back at the top level, but these are the kinds of guys we’re probably going to have to get used to on the journey.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 16
Tom Hickey – 2
Tim Membrey – 2
Mav Weller – 2
Luke Dunstan – 1
Jarryn Geary – 1
Leigh Montagna – 1
Jack Steven – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 30
Nick Riewoldt – 20
Seb Ross – 17
Tim Membrey – 15
Tom Hickey – 10
Leigh Montagna – 9
David Armitage – 8
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Newnes – 6
Blake Acres – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Mav Weller – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Josh Bruce – 4
Jarryn Geary – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Luke Dunstan – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1

Shit, I thought we were gonna lose that

by Tom Briglia

Round 16, 2016
St Kilda 4.3, 8.5, 12.7, 17.7 (109)
Essendon 2.3, 6.7, 10.10, 14.14 (98) 
Crowd: 25,204 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, July 10th at 4.40pm

After the Adelaide debacle I melodramatically declared in my rambling match review, “Winter is here, and there are some cold months ahead.”

No sooner had I finished whinging did we come back from the bye and produce arguably our two most enjoyable matches (certainly by the time the final siren sounded), in the form of wins against Carlton and then Geelong.

All of a sudden – for a week anyway – finals were a slim possibility, and there was also the possibility that maybe we’d taken a step up. Instead we trotted out in perfect weather and kicked 8.20, in the process showing the same conviction of that day’s election result. The rubbish dished up in Carrara last week ensured our two weeks up-one week down pattern seen throughout the year continued (if you follow the trail from our season starting with the second week up, albeit with the fade-out).

The lot of a middling and developing team is that you’re going to win games you shouldn’t and drop games you shouldn’t. It’s a self-revealing state to be in – beating Geelong and then losing to the Gold Coast the following week proved it, but at the same time proved nothing above what we already knew.

So going into a game against a club that I am perennially terrified of facing due to their usual taunting of us, specifically Essendon, it was a perfect opportunity to upset our two up-one down pattern on the day we were due to be back up, and of course it would be in the negative way rather than the third win in a row last week expected us to deliver.

It felt like something had gone away after that Gold Coast match. It might be back soon enough, but the genuine nerves and anticipation we held before that game won’t be returning until at least next year unless someone in the top 8 completely loses their shit. By 2pm on Sunday I was preparing for a cold Sunday in the standing room by myself with unwieldy Essendon supporters. Matt and Dad were content on the couch and Richie was flaunting convention and making the scene in the Medallion Club. Evan was flying a Cessna somewhere despite the rubbish weather.

Instead, I got the late call-up to the Medallion Club from joy boy Richie so I could watch the game in luxury from the extra-padded seats in Medallion Club with Rich, his dad and brother, surrounded by, unwieldy Essendon fans.

A quick pre-match non-alcoholic beverage at the Savoy with Rich and then it was the 21st Century equivalent of the footy weather gauntlet – a faux-dash across the bridge in a howling (probably) cold wind and bitter (maybe) sleet. At Waverley that was often just the walk from the car into the ground, let alone sitting in the gaping frost receptacle for the match itself, but on Sunday it was back into the TV set in a game probably rightfully hidden away in the 4.40pm timeslot.

I don’t say “rightfully” in the sense that I support or enjoy the timeslot in any way whatsoever, but this was probably the first game this year for us that was essentially a dead rubber (unless you’re an avid follower of the Hugh McCluggage/whoever the hell is going to the Number Whatever Pick Cup). Yes, we’ve reached that point of the year where the end really isn’t that far away, and you can feel the gears of the wind-down begin to creak. It’s in the faltering of the anticipation for your own team’s matches during the week, which for most perched in the bottom 10 is often slowly replaced by matters of the wider competition and what will happen come September (and some of October), and perhaps a sense of impending relief that we can take a rest for a while.

The comedown from the win over the Cats a fortnight ago looked like it had entered a second week, with Essendon registering the first 10 inside 50s, and even then our maiden official foray forward barely reached an arm’s length beyond the orange arc.

Without looking convincing we’d somehow etched out a two-goal lead by quarter-time. In lieu of Paddy (sigh) My Favourite Hair in the AFL looked like he was set for some more time up forward, finally kicking one straight after he nearly kicked one entirely from behinds at Carrara. It probably did rob us of something up the ground, but perhaps required as Josh Bruce was reprising his role of getting both hands to the footy at contests but never quite taking anything – at the moment he’s rarely actually beaten in a contest and he brings the ball to ground, but two things come from all that. Firstly, if our delivery forward was actually half-decent he might have had a better shot at a few contests; rather he was never quite in the right spot and on other occasions he didn’t help himself with his positioning under (or not under) the drop of the ball. Secondly, anything under his control from the above was working last year, and for much of the first part of this year too. He’s clearly down on something – form, obviously – but we can’t know unless we’re him if it’s confidence, or his role has changed a little (and then changed back) and unbalanced him as Paddy comes in and and out of the team and as Membrey emerges as an additional, effective focal point on a consistent basis.

I’m on the record via Facebook chat as saying during the game Bruce should be dropped, but thinking about it now that would be very harsh considering he’s still clearly busting a gut getting his hands to the ball, and the fact that when he did no-one was there when it hit the ground. In the last two weeks it’s more of a reflection of the poor disposal going forward not giving everyone else around him much of a chance for to set up, let alone the ball actually going to his advantage to give him a better shot at marking it in the first place. I don’t think dropping him would really do anything; he needs as much time playing with Paddy and Membrey as possible whilst My Favourite Hair is still around to coach them, and it allows the team to have Hair influencing things further up the ground.

Fortunately we did have Membrey up forward on Sunday because he was able to work himself into a good position and make the best of things when one-out several times. He’s kicked five goals three times this year now, as well as few threes, and whilst most of those have come in comfortable wins when the whole team was up this was a much-needed stellar individual performance on a day when most guys were off their game. Four goals in the second half were vital, and his snap goal from a tight spot in the third quarter after pouncing on a poor Bombers kick showed his versatility again, and what he can offer away from presenting as a marking forward.

What was painfully apparent again on Sunday is that we need players who can pull off some half-slick disposal, and Hotline and Jack Sinclair both conveniently dominated the VFL on Saturday (although not in conditions made specifically for slick footy). For all the good pressure work of Jack Steven, Ross and Dunstan we just didn’t look sharp going into attack. Steven and Ross are more than capable of some quality entries but otherwise I don’t know how good the disposal of guys like Dunstan, Armo, Newnes and so on will get over time (we know Armo’s ceiling has well and truly been reached). Looping long kick after looping long kick in helped no-one; Hickey and Bruce’s smart handballs together that set-up Steven for the sealer were sharper than most entries into attack. Hotline had 45 touches and two goals and Sinclair 36 and one for the Zebras and Richo could barely contain himself when asked about them coming in next week in. I’m assuming D-Mac and Wright come out – maybe Acres given the tough love the selectors have given him this year – but to have guys who can find the ball a lot more, in more parts of the ground and be more damaging with it (around the ground and on the scoreboard) surely makes us a better team straight off. It’s strange to think they’re not in the side as it is but when you’re dealing with guys as young as that you do need to teach them some discipline and about what it takes to deliver what is expected of them when they play for the seniors.

It wasn’t particularly a surprise that the Bomber started to get on top of us in the final quarter – we’d barely looked likely all night. Joe Daniher jumped onto Gilbert’s shoulders, and although he missed the shot only a few moments later we were seven points down more than halfway through the last quarter with the Essendon players and crowd up and about. Surely no season would be complete without an arsey Essendon win over us (not to mention the Bombers being the team to upset our two up-one down pattern to the negative).

I hesitate to say that to this point Mav Weller had done “fark all”; at the least it would only be convenient for the narrative. It was a game in which the ball bounced out of our forward line far too easily far too often, so the trap that decent disposal going forward might have set for the opposition once the ball hit the deck was never really there (Bruce’s game probably looked worse than what it was for a similar reason). Either way, it was one of those games where you kind of forget a player like that exists. They’re not “the guy” you’re anticipating to be there at the end of each entry, like a Bruce or increasingly Membrey (or “Membs”, as I indescribably blurted out at some point during the game), and he actually hadn’t touched it all by the first break. But just like the Geelong game, he powered his way into the game by kicking back-to-back goals. Whilst those against the Cats came as timely steadiers late in the third term, these came when the nearly the entire team was down and needed someone to stand up in the last few minutes of the game itself. He (almost) literally came out of nowhere for the first goal, barely a minute of play after Skunk/Membs kicked his fifth to bring us back to within a point, and put us in front by timing a sprint to perfection and cannoned through just as the ball spilled from the contest (Skunk/Membs) in the goal square.

Membrey and he combined a bit more purposefully for the next one, it must be said in large part thanks to potential future captain (but probably not now that Richo and Roo keep talking about Jack Steven) Jarryn Geary, who came up with St Kilda defensive play of the year, or as Rich described a few seconds later once the ball was safely in Roberton’s hands, “play of the year”. The dive across Mitch Brown saved an easy shot at goal to put the Bombers back in front and soon after Membrey had positioned himself smartly to take a mark on the 50 with Mav and Acres running towards goal with Gwilt between them. Membrey wheeled around onto his left and Mav has athletic enough to jump up in his stride, take the ball which had bounced awkwardly high, land, and snap on his own left boot around the corner under pressure from Gwilt to give us some breathing space.

Jack Steven was the one who played a nearly complete game – 41 touches, 13 in the last quarter, 12 tackles and the sealing goal which came when he was one of the few players left running close to maximum speed in the final few minutes, pushing forward into space and finished off the good work of Hickey and Bruce (the aforementioned two smart handballs from two big guys) further afield. It seems like the Jack Steven For Captain campaign is gaining momentum. He can still barely talk coherently but if anyone is leading this team by their actions right now, aside from the current captain, it’s him. He gets more involved in the play when the game is tight, he follows up every effort and he can hit the scoreboard too and do justice for the work up the ground, not to mention creating his own goals. I can’t imagine him holding up a premiership cup with Alan Richardson in the way I could imagine Riewoldt holding one up with GT, and then Ross, but then again that’s only ever applied to one of our captains in 143 years so let’s just wait and see if there’s even going to be a change for next year.

By the time of the final siren the game was safe but there was little celebration. For the supporters – for the most part – games like this are simply there as part of a mass collective. They’re not set up to be a memorable step forward that we look back on like the Brisbane Lions win in 2003 (by one second as much as by five points), and what we hope the Geelong win a fortnight ago will prove to be in time. However, like the heir apparent said afterwards, usually we would lose those. There was something to add to the ever-growing heap of lessons learned.

As we squeezed past the two people at the end of the row on our way out, the second person – visibly affected by alcohol – said to us, “Enjoy it, because that’s as good as it’s going to get”. I assumed she was an Essendon supporter, although at that moment it didn’t really matter who she barracked for. There were some things to take away from that game, both for individuals and the team, but by the end it was just about getting away from the scene unscathed.

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 16
Tim Membrey – 3
Jack Steven – 3
Seb Ross – 2
Mav Weller – 1
Jarryn Geary – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 29
Nick Riewoldt – 20
Seb Ross – 17
Tim Membrey – 13
David Armitage – 8
Tom Hickey – 8
Leigh Montagna – 8
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Newnes – 6
Blake Acres – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Josh Bruce – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Jarryn Geary – 3
Mav Weller – 3
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1

Bombers 98 Saints 109

by Richard Lee

Well, if you made it through the entire four quarters of that then congratulations. To say it was a slog would be an understatement and a half.

The Bombers will be kicking themselves for not kicking straighter in the final term – the Saints five goals zip at the other end proving telling.

Speaking of the number five: Tim Membrey scored five majors. Jack Steven was the real star though, with 41 disposals.

Take a deep breath Saints fans. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

*THE MATCH REPORT WILL BE UP TUESDAY/SOON*

This one should have gone straight to DVD

by Richard Lee

Round 15, 2016
Gold Coast 5.5, 9.12, 13.15, 15.18 (108)
St Kilda 3.1, 4.5, 5.13, 8.20 (68)
Crowd: 14,071 at Metricon Stadium, Saturday at 1.40pm

We are not better than flag contenders Geelong (after having beaten them) and we are not 40 points worse than the Gold Coast Suns. The truth lies somewhere in between, like it often does.

Yet it was the manner in which this loss unfolded: such a meek, flat and fumbly first quarter display which allowed the Suns to take the game by the throat. And this after so much of the build up had centered around St Kilda wanting to disprove the notion that they were rubbish away from the comfy surrounds of Etihad. This was their final chance to snuff that out this year, with all their upcoming games at Corporate Stadium bar one (versus Carlton @ the ‘G).

When Leigh Montagna gift-wrapped a point blank goal in the first term by hesitating from a kick-out, doing a u-turn and then hand balling through a point (resulting in a free from the goal-line) you knew that a ‘flat start’ wasn’t going to cover it – full meltdown was in effect. When it’s senior players who are committing such dear-in-the-headlights mistakes like this, the aftershocks seems to reverberate that much deeper and stronger among the rest of the group.

For all that though, the Saints clawed it back to a respectable margin by the first change. Goals from Gresham – GOAL OF THE DAY for the Saints again here, backing up from last week’s clutch snap – and then Maverick Weller, finally gave St Kilda a touch of momentum and would’ve ramped up Rocket Eade’s blood pressure gauge, after having seen the multitude of scoring shots the Suns squandered (looking at you Tom Lynch).

So, only 16 points down at the first change and the opportunity to draw a line under that wretched opening stanza (to “park it” a-la Richo’s lingo) was on offer. This wasn’t totally lost on them, with the side taking control of the game early in the second term – despite Prestia kicking the first of the term. At the other end, St Kilda could barely hit the side of a barn in front of goal, with four misses from easy shots within the first ten minutes (only broken up by a Newnes running goal). The first of those from Saint Nick, a regulation set shot that should be a soda for regular AFL players, but one we’ve become too accustomed to seeing him butcher. Duly, he missed here. In retrospect this was to turn out to be pivotal, with Riewoldt missing another set shot soon after – closely followed by another miss by Maverick. On all the key stats the Saints had stepped up and were finally asserting themselves, but with the Suns having been able to navigate the space between the arcs so easily in the first term you felt these misses were certainly going to be punished soon. And right on cue: Ryan Davis. His goal was virtually a dagger, in hindsight. It nudged the margin back out to three goals, and this was just about all she wrote.

The premiership quarter played out in relatively similar fashion: St Kilda flinging the ball forward with regularity, yet managing to deflate itself with unspeakable misses in front of goal. Riewoldt was the main culprit again (he finished the game with 0.5) along with Maverick and Membrey. And on the other side of the coin the Suns were quicker, sharper and more confident in everything they were doing. Gary Ablett was relatively subdued, despite his two first term goals, but the likes of Prestia, Hall, Malceski, Sexton et al were able to carry the load and then some.

It must be highlighted that both sides were down a man from relatively early on in the first half: Paddy McCartin went off with concussion and Matt Rosa with a suspected hamstring. The loss of neither had a definitive effect on the game. The Saints still managed to find enough targets up forward through the day (ending up with 28 shots on goal) and the Suns midfield had more than enough run to completely dominate, particularly when it came to uncontested possessions.

*****

In hindsight we really should have seen this one coming. St Kilda has been up-and-down all year with it’s form, and coming into this game had delivered probably it’s most consistent “block” of games, winning four from five, albeit against some also-rans. So we were due to lay an egg. But saying such a thing is really underlines the reality for this team: we are a ways off yet. I found myself thinking, and mentioning out aloud on one or two occasions during the game, that it’s almost a no-Steven-no-midfield situation when it comes to the Saints midfield this year. That’s not to take anything away from Seb Ross, who in my Power Rankings, has skyrocketed way past the ever popular David Armitage. There just simply isn’t enough consistency; not enough to be relied upon at this stage. And the fact is, players are going to have off days. Seb Ross had one on Saturday, so too Jack Steven. Where the problem lies is that good teams are able to handle this through weight of numbers. Some of the other midfielders just haven’t had enough time there yet to have been able to sink their teeth into it (think: Gresham, Acres); some just simply don’t do enough (think: Dunstan, Weller). Jack Newnes probably had the most anonymous 20 possession game you will see. Minchington was one of the few that got a pass for the day, having put in a tireless shift. Even so, he still feels nothing more than a fringe player.

And this is where, I recall the main conundrum that I kept airing whilst watching this wretched performance: unless the Saints feel that the win column is a game-changer in terms of attracting Free Agents at the end of this year, then selection-wise and so on, the Club should be a lot more aggressive for the rest of the year. Granted, the age skew of this team means that you should be able to forgive days off like this (albeit against better sides than the Suns) at this stage in their (lack of) development. However, the idea of continually playing the raft of stop-gap players (like Gilbert, Roberton) seems really stupid. Whether the side finishes the year with 7 wins as opposed to 9 is neither here nor there. It’s more about finding players, and more importantly, speeding up the discovery process of how good they actually can be. Richo has made his point in not “gifting” young players game (bar Dunstan, Billings, Paddy), but I think there’s a tipping point where you have to loosen that. You can’t tell me that Blake Acres wouldn’t be better, more confident, more hardened, at playing in the midfield if he wasn’t given an extended string of games where he’s played there. You can’t tell me that it’s not more beneficial to play Daniel Mackenzie, and possibly Murdoch too, for the rest of the year on the half-backline in the place of Gilbert and Roberton (or Geary). I don’t even know that Montagna’s shift to the backline can be deemed a triumph. He is incapable of putting on a spoil, or an effective tackle and though he still attracts the ball like always, when he gets it his disposal often puts his teammates in trouble.

If the recruiting team down at the Club’s overriding feeling is that wins and ladder position and competitiveness is a key factor in getting a Prestia, a Marchbank, a Hurley (though, do we need him?) to sign on at the end of the year, then fine. For me, it’s time to start opening up our eyes to what lies beyond this year. Gilbert, Roberton, Geary won’t be in the 22 of next good Saints side. Let’s make some strides to find out who is in the remaining rounds.

 

RedWhiteandBlack.com.au 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 15
Jack Steven – 3
Blake Acres – 2
Jade Gresham – 2
Nick Riewoldt – 2
Luke Delaney – 1

Totals
Jack Steven – 26
Nick Riewoldt – 20
Seb Ross – 15
Tim Membrey – 10
David Armitage – 8
Tom Hickey – 8
Leigh Montagna – 8
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Newnes – 6
Blake Acres – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Jack Billings – 4
Josh Bruce – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Jarryn Geary – 2
Paddy McCartin – 2
Mav Weller – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Sean Dempster – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1