Without a fight

Round 22, 2015
St Kilda 1.5, 3.9, 4.12, 4.14 (38)
Sydney Swans 4.3, 10.6, 15.10, 20.15 (135)
Crowd: 27,856 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, August 30th at 3.20pm

In the character-based comedy stylings of the St Kilda Football Club Adam Schneider was farewelled today with the opposition supporters having infinitely more reason to be thankful for his services.

He was not just a part of the history-making Swans outfit that broke the longest VFL/AFL premiership drought in 2005, but he was also pivotal the week before in which the Swans won their first final at the MCG for 69 years. Of Course, who else would it be against? (Just as a further tease, the same number of years the Saints took to win out first and still only flag).

That 2005 season would go down as one of the most tumultuous in St Kilda history, and one that for a brief fortnight appeared could be the one that delivered its second flag. Instead the unfancied Swans – whilst they’d finished above us on the ladder in third spot, they were lucky to be there due to Nick Davis’ heroics – ran away with the Preliminary Final in the final quarter. Schneider finished with three straight as the Swans kicked 7.0 to 0.4 in the final term.

I’ve only ever seen one highlight from that game, one day being daring enough to bring myself to watch some footage from it (a YouTube that has since been taken down, but a couple of more in-depth highlights videos of that night have been posted). That on passage is Schneider’s third goal halfway through in the final term to seal the deal once and for all. Tim Lane’s commentary befits the mood and context of that moment wonderfully.

Obviously not the best way to ingratiate yourself to an opposing club’s fans but it was a very popular trade indeed that brought him and Dempster to the club. Curiously (as pointed out in Herald Sun yesterday), the only three players remaining from that match are Goodes and the St Kilda duo.

Schneider brought a slickness to the side that we really needed more of; a goalsneak foil to Milne but one that could play higher up the ground and use pinpoint disposal going into attack.

But so it will be that the 2009 Grand Final will be the defining point of his St Kilda career. Going into the day he’d already banked a premiership as a 21 year-old in just his third season, and for all intents and purposes he should have had a second. He wasn’t the only villain on the day the Saints kicked themselves out of a premiership – Milne, McQualter, Gram and Dempster all wasted multiple gettable chances – but he was the ringleader.

His return of 2.3 doesn’t tell you that his first chance at goal was a snap from directly in front to give us our first major but, as we saw close-up from the Punt Road end pocket he tried kicking the proverbial off the Sherrin and missed. Nor does it tell you about the moment that will be branded painfully, searingly into my memory will be his miss in the last quarter that would have set the tone and put breathing space between ourselves and the Cats. At the time it was another miss we feared might come back to hurt us in the worst possible way, and now it hurts immensely.

I’ve never seen footage from the game; I still turn away when a highlight appears on TV and I know it’s from the game (including when watching the 2009 Season Highlights DVD). And so I’ve seen Scarlett in the seconds before “the toepoke” but I still don’t exactly know what it looks like (likewise Chapman’s goal). But this Schneider moment is still clear in my mind, from the viewpoint of our seats at the other end of the ground. It’s as much the feeling I had at the time as well as the visual memory itself. When he broke clear into space, well inside range, the first instinct was that he would kick it. But in the wider context of what the kick meant this was a completely foreign position to be in. When he broke clear, I remember thinking…well, I don’t know if I want to say I felt “this is it”, because the goal in itself wasn’t going to win it at that point, rather, that if he kicked it we would be very difficult to shake from there. But for that brief moment before he physically kicked it we were going to be in that incredible position in the last quarter of a Grand Final. His getting the ball and heading for goal on his own seemed to represent the situation we were in: there were no obstacles; no thunderbolts from the footy gods, no personal hang-ups. It was only space; I guess “weightless” is the best way to describe how I felt. The only thing standing in our way from this point would be ourselves. And within seconds, so it proved to be. The kick curled to the right and missed.

Maybe it was the 21 year-old frame of mind I was in at the time, but in writing this even now I can feel myself getting worked up about how I felt. There are few singular moments in St Kilda’s history I personally feel so pained about; so simply sad about. For a few seconds I thought we were on our way. But we gave it up and ultimately lost it. That’s a long way down.

From that point on his key contribution was set in stone, officially so after the Grand Final Replay and the team was psychologically ruined. Time would run out for him well before he would make it anywhere near another Grand Final in which he could atone for that day. It raised its head again this year against the Bombers early in the season. A missed set shot from directly in front to put us up by over a goal with several minutes left; the resulting kick-out was taken straight up the other end for what proved to be Travis Colyer’s winning goal. It didn’t prove to be as much until after Schneider missed from 15 metres out directly in front.

Every player from the 2004-2010 era who retires feels like a victory for everyone that enjoyed seeing the Saints fail to win a premiership throughout it, and for those who thoroughly enjoyed the St Kilda schoolgirl saga to bookend it (as an entree to the dour awful 2011 season). We’re that far away from those Grand Finals now that we’re more prone to thanking Schneider for his work with Lonie (surely he takes #13?), Sinclair and Minchington in the immediate sense of what we’re losing. Unfortunately, as a St Kilda supporter, his career will be defined by that moment on that amazing, awful, defeating day. In a wider context, his career’s peak will have come with the Sydney Swans as part of their 2005 premiership, with him personally disposing of St Kilda en route.

Hard to review a (non-retiring) player’s game at this stage of the year without turning it into a faux-season review, or “Where are they at?” BigFooty-style irrationality convention. It’s hard to review anything with this one in that light because I went to the Savoy for lunch and drinks with RWB cohort Rich, Dad, Lewis and family friend Jim, but we already know the Savoy will have to echo it’s comeback act from the time that construction begins on the 68-floor tower on its site.

I keep coming back to this but I always will – Mum and Dad returning to the country gave a welcome expanded dynamic to gameday. The problem was that they so late in the season and only now I was getting used to the pre- and post- match drinks, burgers and chats, let alone the games themselves. And just like that, with next week a meaningless match over in Perth, the season is essentially over for the supporters.

The takeaway from last week was the performance of J Holmes; big leaps, good hit-out numbers and some tapwork that gave our midfield its best service for years. Holmes opened up early with a big leap and healthy tap, Armo winded from hit, Schneider caught immediately

Holmes looked quite lost for much of the game, with Mike Pyke the beneficiary. Pyke floating forward on his own was a dreaded but predictable outcome, and Tippett helped himself at the right time of year to plenty of the action as the ruck foil and up forward.

The signs weren’t that good whichever way you looked at it. Even our better passages were wasted. Holmes out of the ruck to Armo, to Ross, to Murdoch and then to dicking around should simply have been a straightforward entry to the advantage of a moving forward in 50. Instead, the Swans forced a stoppage and went straight to the other end and a chance to reset at a throw in next to their own goals.

Tom Hickey obviously either got comfortable or injured after signing a two-year deal last week, doing fark all and subbed out just after half-time with leaner numbers than J Holmes. Playing as a forward he kicked one behind and elsewhere he was disappointing, punctuated by weak efforts in a marking contest against Grundy in front of the members and then a weak tackle on Pyke, which ended with Riewoldt flying back into a marking contest and Tippett goaling immediately.

Novelty team line-ups mean novelty passages of play. Anything featuring Murdoch (like the above) probably qualifies, but he and the poorly-haired Seb Ross were busy across the ground early, linking up for Ross to hit the post. Other behinds registered at quarter-time were barely decent opportunities (e.g. Gilbert off the ground from 12 rows back behind the goals), but such was Sydney’s pressure and our ability to execute, pressured or not.

Armo didn’t kick a great chance for goal on the run after some good work from a Schneider and Sav double team, and the footy went straight up for Mike Pyke running into goal with Holmes nowhere near it. What could have been a three-point margin was now 15, and moments later 21, despite the Swans leading the scoring shots count 9 to 8 at that point.

Things were looking really droll when Dempster came out of defence and just vaguely kicked it out of play. No tact, no cunning, no plan from the wider team to give him something further down the ground. But we plummeted further with some more St Kilda comedy gold as Armo strolled in to goal and missed, Webster dropped an easy mark in defence and Tippett and Goodes goaled immediately afterwards. Murdoch’s nice kick after goal the half-time siren was barely sugar coating.

As far as those booing Goodes goes, several points to make. Firstly, a few are jumping to their own defence or that of others that they’re booing him because he’s a “thug”, “diver”, “cheat”, etc. They would then have to argue that people have begun booing him en masse in recent times for all of those things specifically, and just purely coincidentally after he called out someone making a racist comment directed at him and then after performing an indigenous culture-themed war dance on field. Because no crowd ever booed him in the past unless after he’d done something specific during a game, as all players are susceptible to (and you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many of those games). I can guarantee you no St Kilda crowd has ever booed him like that before any on-field incident involving Goodes and race (and I invite anyone to prove otherwise). Goodes was clearly booed the first time he went near the ball, with muted boos the following couple of instances. But it was back in the second half, particularly after a free kick decision in front of the members wing went against St Kilda, as if he made the decision himself. Rather, this was about a number of people feeling they had been justified booing because in their mind this was loosely linked to the “diver” theory, even though he actually hadn’t played for the free (and didn’t for the entirety of the game). This carried on clearly to the end of the game (see Goodes’s touch in the final seconds), and people were still trying to at least bat it away as something they could barely hear at the ground (again, refer to the video). This is something that happened, whether you did it or not. This is what a St Kilda crowd sounded like. And I hated every second of it. I don’t think the club will acknowledge it, quietly putting it down to a minority of supporters that caused a minor stir that will disappear if no one mentions it. That would be an awful shame and a rather hypocritical stance given the wonderful work the club has put into involvement in the annual Pride March and launching a “Pride Match”. If you’re accusing me of putting words in their mouth then please tell me what kind of take no comment would reflect on the club’s behalf.

By three-quarter time the game was ready for some more comedy and the club decided for whatever reason to play Tex Perkins’ version of the club song, which was met with exactly zero fanfare considering we were about to endure another quarter Sydney mopping the floor with us.

We just didn’t look like it all day, and specifically Josh Bruce didn’t look like it all day. Lest We Forget his 20-game streak of kicking at least one goal in each game. He wasted his own chances, whether they were dropped marks and his shot with time and space in the last quarter. There was also his mark a second after the three-quarter time siren within range, and also his give-off to the running Webster who didn’t even kick for goal.

So what the hell to say for a dirty day all round? This season deserved a better send-off for the members and fans, and a number of those let themselves down on the day. On the field this was more along the lines of 2014, and it’s easy to feel for a moment like we’re back amongst the bottom few wondering where the hell we’re going. Next Saturday looms as another forgettable match in an era which is purely for bridging purposes; to get us to the other side. That’s all well and good when you think of watching a team develop over a season and seeing the improvement of players week to week, but sometimes we just need to get to the end of a season and have a rest. One week to go.

We need to talk irrationally about Holmes, Savage, et al.

Round 21, 2015
St Kilda 5.4, 8.7, 11.9, 14.13 (97)
Geelong Cats 5.1, 9.2, 13.4, 15.7 (97)
Crowd: 25,245 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, August 22nd at 7.20pm

Any close game, and more so a draw, will inevitably have everyone taking out their science starter kit microscopes with the bacteria images already printed onto the slides and declaring how either side got dicked because of one or two easily digestible scapegoats.

So let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way, namely Shane Savage. In Lonie’s absence he did his best Schneider impression and frittered away a chance to put us up by 10 points well into time-on, and then put us in front by five points with 14 seconds left from close range – this depressingly St Kilda-like repeat offending, eerily similar to Schneider’s efforts late in Round 5 against the Bombers.

The difference was, it was Savage that was responsible for the already infamous Stevie J tackle as the latter was waltzing into an open goal, headchecked to the left but gave nothing to the right sideview. Was he changing to the left? He could afford himself a smile as he got up afterwards though, because he’s played in three premierships, and one of them was against us. And what did he do just a couple of minutes after that? He snapped a brilliant goal on his left from the pocket. (He also kicked a goal from the just on the goal line in the third quarter into the goal umpire’s face.)

The Cats I feel have flown under the radar as a difficult team for us historically (I’m talking beyond the last 10-15 years). Until perhaps the early 90s signalled the earliest of a changing club at Moorabbin, it was the VFL overall win-loss records we had against teams like Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon that demonstrated everyone liked to comprehensively beat up on us.

Even that 1991 tilt ended with a seven-point loss to the Cats, and in the 95th season marked just the second time we had ever played them in a final. Appropriately last night finished at 97-97. Thanks to Wayne Carey and Ken McIntyre’s final 8 system for clowns, it’s been lost to history that in 1997 it was only percentage that separated ourselves at the top of the ladder from Geelong, and they had beaten us comfortably at the Cattery during the year.

Not much needs to be said about the rivalry of the aughts between the two clubs, other than to say last night was the first St Kilda home match against the Cats at Etihad Stadium since Round 14, 2009, when the two teams ran out onto the ground each at 13-0. Scores were level until Michael Gardiner’s huge mark and goal with just over a minute left, but in the Grand Final it would be one goal the difference the other way when the siren sounded (and before Max Rooke added further icing). For a few minutes early in time-on in the second quarter last night the scoreboard showed 7.7 to 7.1, the half-time score of 2009 decider.

The Saints actually beat the Cats twice in 2010, and the Qualifying Final was the first time the Saints had beaten them in a final. Motlop’s disallowed goal was in a remarkably similar spot and at a crucial time compared with that of Ling’s in the final minute of that match, after Mooney had landed in Gwilt’s back. Which brings us into the umpiring decisions that both sides will feel cruelled them. Chris Scott was whinging about the Motlop decision but conveniently neglected to mention Gregson running a casual 100 metres over the mark when Mav had the ball just outside 50 in the last minute. Then you can say well, lucky the siren went with J Murdoch running towards goal to signal three-quarter time. But then, Sav should have kicked those goals late. But he did save that goal – one great moment in one his better games – as Stevie J was walking in. Although maybe Newnes and Ross didn’t kick their shots earlier whilst their defenders Taylor and Mackie did. And you could also talk about Jack Steven’s involvement in a couple of chains that led to Geelong kicking goals. Or Luke Dunstan just totally not kicking the ball on the goal line.

All of that in itself should show that this is the kind of game that rewards doing the rights things en masse throughout a match rather than an arsey moment or two. Whilst this game wasn’t the pick of the weekend there were so many remarkable moments to stew over, to rue, to – pun intended – draw on.

Undeniably the focus coming into the game was on Jason Holmes, or as too many people kept calling him last night, “Johnny” (yes, we get it). Jason has had plenty of media time over the past couple of years – let alone the huge attention on the college comps that he was a part of  – but you’ve come a long way when you’re the guy being interviewed by Cameron Ling post-match after two hours of BT yelling and Darc sort-of-but-not-really nailing the right tone of voice for a play-by-play commentator.

You’ve also come a long when you’re an ex-college basketballer with a brother playing in the NFL and you’re fronting a media conference in Seaford with whichever journos could be arsed making the trip. The fact that he said “I’d love to have a crack at that” suggests he’s embraced the experience, and the fact that he said he’s working on his “craft” suggests he’s coached by Alan Richardson.

At least it was beyond speculation this time. This time he knew it was real, that he’d be playing this weekend. That this wasn’t a windy oval next to the beach, this was the real deal, to be broadcast probably on ESPN17 along with competitions based entirely on the Dodgeball and Baseketball films, and perhaps some highlights this week on sports discussion shows with guys who have never heard of the sport.

It’s not quite the same level as Matthew Lappin playing for the Gold Coast reserves yesterday, but if you were told at the start of last year that he’d be playing AFL footy in 2015 then you’d surely have thought the season had turned to such shit any feel-good story was a non-negotiable.

Not long after Sanford Wheeler was toiling away in Sydney during the Swans’ darker years, the AFL produced this ad with international sporting identities talking up Aussie Rules (and the short, etc.). Holmes’ debut seems to have bridged that gap in a big way. The Irish influx has edged us towards the mentality that we’re after anyone and everyone now – although that standards for Australian athletes-before-footballers are now highly benchmarked by Mark Blicavs.

The support acts indeed were the return of opposing ruckman Nathan Vardy (and him working in tandem with Blicavs, with Stanley out for the season) and Geelong looking bolster their finals chances. In the end J Holmes and Stevie J, for obviously wildly different reasons, were amongst the bigger stories

Holmes looked like he’d aerobically blown up through the second quarter, after his second centre bounce leap particularly had everyone just about jumping out of their seats and rushing onto the ground to shake his hand. His lead on the wing and mark was greeted by something louder than if Savage had have kicked either of his shots in the last minutes, as was the resulting kick. His tackle on Guthrie was huge and it was his follow-up work in the centre bounce led to Hickey’s goal in the third quarter.

But he got caught out around the ground a number of times. Vardy ran him ragged off the ball and a couple of times got to a dangerous position near goal. At one point in the second quarter Holmes was left to pick up Stevie J at high half-forward – something which shouldn’t have happened and wasn’t his fault – and Stevie J was able to run forward by himself as the Cats went into attack but the ball didn’t fall his way. This was just after Holmes had gone the tap behind from a throw-in to Roo who didn’t break stride (but kicked it out on the full). But that short period alone would have been very instructive.

Richo said after the game that we’d kicked 9.2 to 2.1 from stoppages, alluding to Holmes’ presence being the reason why we were so dominant in the hit-outs and stoppages overall. Holmes finished with 34 hit-outs out of 54 for the Saints, with the Cats getting 32. Fair to say the quality of the some of the tap-outs was superior to those of Longer and Hickey. But whilst Longer has increased his presence across the ground through the year and Hickey has done some really good things up forward (including last night), Holmes for now has very little presence around the ground. Two things; neither did Billy most weeks until mid-season, and secondly Holmes was essentially learning the game itself from scratch at VFL level, with the step up essentially another short course in learning the game. Given he hadn’t played the sport two years ago it’s more than reasonable to back him to improve quite a lot from here.

We’re probably clearing out a whole bunch of S’s at year’s end – Spencer, Saad, Schneider, Siposs, Saunders, Smarkworth and Smurdoch – so it was good timing for Minchington who’s has been hovering around being condemned to a life of ex-AFL player playing VFL tease hell. I still don’t know how guys like TDL and Jones go playing VFL with guys their teammates still involved so closely with the club that turfed them so recently. But I’m also not a professional footballer. Minch kicked the first two goals and set the tone for a game of speed and space – two things we’ve certainly struggled with in the past several weeks in the forward half. He finished with a career-best three goals in just his ninth game, and a further drilling down into his career numbers would show he’s kicked a goal in every game he’s played. The knock on him is that he doesn’t have enough of an impact away from the scoreboard, and whilst he finished with “only” 10 touches he had five tackles too, which was a step towards having a heavier presence. Lonie and Sinclair are still ahead of him, but going on last night he might turn out to be very handy at least.

My 2nd Favourite Hair in the AFL was the other key forward on the night and by half-time had three goals. It looked like he’d finally come out of his sort-of-slump (goals on the board always mask that kind of thing for a bigger forward), although one of our better rebounds on the night saw him drop the easiest mark of all time. In front of the members he also had the dubious distinction of becoming The Man Who Spoiled Himself, in I assume anticipating an marking effort from his opponent over the top. As we came out of defence with a straightforward pass to him, he was well in the clear but he put a single hand up to ultimately stifle his own phantom marking attempt. His also missed a set shot in the third quarter that was replied to immediately sixfold (i.e. with a goal) by Gregson. Cheers.

It was up to Sam Gilbert of all Australian Rules footballers to pick up the slack in that passage and do what he couldn’t quite finish in the 2010 Grand Finals, and uh, I guess by that measurement didn’t quite finish last night either. But he was still good; probably his best game since that draw? His two goals were both monster set shot kicks that hit heights echoing Kosi’s long range efforts. He also found the ball 21 times and managed to shank only a couple, as well as laying a game-high nine tackles. A bit of time through the middle too and perhaps he’s en route to a changing, more dynamic role. First things first though, he’s got to stay on the park.

Gilbert’s move forward was made possible by Bruce kicking goals (at least in the first half) and My Favourite Hair in the AFL playing across the ground, essentially as a wingman, to good effect. In a young side 22 touches and 10 marks was key in having a solid presence throughout the play, and his contests hard on the boundary to force the ball out twice displayed both his fitness and his nous. He was up forward for periods of course, and he pulled a Spencer White in running himself into the ground and resting by himself 40 metres out waiting for a Joe the Goose. The kick was the kind of flat punt shocker we’ve come accustomed to from him, but this one did vaguely enough.

It also helps when you’ve got Hugh Goddard getting invaluable experience at worst playing mostly on Hawkins. The Cats would have acknowledged him as susceptible, particularly one out when they were on the rebound, but he Hugh did well to keep his head up and keep playing his own game despite being beaten a few times. He was mature and smart enough to run off his man and take the mark in front of the members at a tense point in the game, and won a huge one-one-one in defence late in the game. Sam Fisher played one of his better games this year, too, allowing guys like Gilbert to move around and for the team to be that much more dynamic.

Membrey’s inconsistency continued, as he did what’s become a trademark which is a good start followed by not much else. A really nice set shot was our fourth straight goal to open the game, but shortly after he botched a forward 50 entry by not going to what was effectively a free Tom Hickey near goal; and this after weeks of looking for that kind of option. The pressure was up afterwards to sugarcoat it a little, but Steven got carried away at the next entry and kicked about four metres to Membrey instead of long to a couple of tall options close to goal. Whilst that one wasn’t Membrey’s fault it was mostly downhill for him from there. Paddy was pretty good in the VFL and with Roo maybe or maybe not finding touch up the ground there’s room for a swap there. But when you’re a team full of this kind of inexperience at the end of a long year everything is a maybe or maybe not at best.

Unfortunately Jack Steven decided to step down to that bracket on a couple of telling occasions. In these eras when it comes to close games you’re relying on younger guys who you simply can’t trust in these situations (Shenton, Saunders), because they’re simply not experienced enough (Shenton, Saunders) to understand the pressure (Shenton, Saunders) as well as execute in the circumstances (Shenton, Saunders). All those brackets are harsh on Shenton and Saunders but I don’t know what they were doing at all. Curiously, Shenton ended up in the forward line, and far less curiously Saunders was subbed out of the game after literally not getting a kick. Anyway, Steven’s kick into a Geelong player on the rebound went straight to Hawkins for a goal, and it was his lack of awareness that got him caught late in the game and the ball spilled out for Cockatoo’s goal that put them in front.

So we were still prone as a team to royally turning over opportunities, Steven or not. The scoreboard alone would reflect that, with our 14.13 far more wasteful than their 15.7, not to mention to the fact that at one stage they were 13.3 with all the more scoreboard pressure on us throughout the game.

After several years of being dominated by Geelong, complete with two years of being on the receiving end of smackings at the Cattery – of 101 and 96 points respectively, with nearly identical scorelines – this felt like the first time we’d come out of the shadow created by the lost opportunity on Grand Final Day in 2009. This was a result engineered by a young team showing development and playing an effective style of footy. That the Cats were playing merely for a finals berth also heightened that, as opposed to the top two and top three finishes of the last two years.

But through all of that Stevie J was smiling after being run down in the goal mouth because he could; Geelong so completely and crushingly won what over a decade ago promised to be the next great rivalry. Again, last night the Cats proved just too hard to move. This game was all about the future, but it also held a few reminders.

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What I don’t want us to be

The Saints 2015 motto has been How I Want To Be. Our opponents on Saturday, North Melbourne, represent to me what I don’t want us to be.

And it’s a reality that I’ve contemplated for a while. One that I’m wary that we could potentially see materialize for the Saints. It’s not that far fetched either – in fact, it’s quite likely.

The Roos stockpiled draft picks through the mid to late noughties. The likes of of Hansen (Pick 3), Ziebell (9), Cunnington (5), Bastinac (21 – who actually isn’t an automatic selection), Tarrant (15), Goldstein et al were snatched en masse. It was a very deliberate and sensible approach from the Roos after they had well and truly exhausted the end of the 90s Shinboner generation.

Now in 2015 the training wheels are well and truly off of those draftees and yet the footy world still awaits when the Roos will actually (even just) threaten to be a contender. Those aforementioned players are all there – and for the most part, they’re good players – Ziebell in particular was influential in turning Saturday’s game – but none of them have become in any way transcendent; the label ‘elite’ is not appropriate for them either. They’re just good, solid AFL citizens. North currently occupy 7th on the ladder (after Saturday’s 37 point win) and that feels entirely appropriate.

And that’s the harsh reality of how list building is such an inexact science. List builders/managers are spoken of like they’re quasi mathematicians these days. They, no doubt, play a massive role in shaping the path a Club takes on field and so on, but the variables are still so prevalent and unpredictable when particularly when it comes to The Draft.

Fact of the matter is, I don’t want the Saints to be a collection of “good players” in a few years or a finals also-ran. Clubs ram hope down supporters throats, especially so in the dire years of a rebuild when there genuinely aren’t that many reasons to rock up and see your club play, unless you’re a completest (like me), a fantasty footy nut, or are just a sad sack. So that’s a lot of hype to consume and to at least sub-consciously acknowledge and nod along to in order to then end up with a mere also-ran team. Yet, that’s the most likely scenario.

As much as AFL has become more a “squad sport” than ever – structures over stars and all that – you still need those top end players that can elevate those around them. And hence, why it’s so important that Saints fans, and more importantly The Club, keep aiming to maximize their impact at the Draft in order to keep building. The job has barely begun – particularly when you gaze across at any Giants game.

With all that in mind, the Saints were heavy underdogs for this one – I suppose as much for the fact that we officially don’t have much to play for this year and that our head coach had admitted as much at his midweek press conference. Tanking happens, and is admitted, and no one cares. Welcome to the St Kilda Footy Club.

So it was a damn surprise when flicking on the radio that St Kilda had seized control of this one. By the time the second quarter had rolled around I had finally plonked myself in front of the telly and what unfurled in front of me was some of the best systematic, team defence from the side I’ve seen for some years. North seemed to be useless against our forward press; we closed in on them like Sharks on a…surfer? The likes of (Sam) Wright, Hansen and Atley were handball happy and this played right into the Saints hands, as we repeatedly were able to stifle their run through tackling. Geary, Gilbert and others were reaping the rewards in gulping down many hurried kicks from the Kangas backs.

All that work though was really being brought undone by the untidiness in front of goal. Three goals, eight behinds was all we came away with for a term where we had about 20 inside 50s, and the Roos barely had a handful. Cunnington’s goal off a standing start at around the five minute mark brought the margin back to 7 points in the Saints favour, but from then on it was all one-way traffic. As lively as Darren Minchington was – in his third game for the year – he was the worst offender in squandering opportunities with his missed toe poke from half a metre out. Soon after Montagna, Weller, Riewoldt, and Hickey missed set shots – just to name a few. Like Richo mentioned in the post-game, the concerning part is that this inefficiency with the ball has been a consistent theme through the year. We aren’t getting bang for our buck when we’ve got the game on our terms, and as much as we were profligate with our chances we again failed to get many effective entries deep into forward 50.

Part of the reason for that, I think, is that we really lack players at the moment that can break the lines. As good as Montagna has been this year his movement is crab-like for the most part; Roberton collects a lot of handball receives but actually isn’t very fast; Ross is slow even at VFL level. Jack Newnes had another good game on Saturday – he’s had a big month of games in fact – but he too is lacking in the speed department. The coaching staff would be hoping that Nathan Wright and Blake Acres can soon help out in that area, and indeed Wright did show a couple of flash of that, but they both have barely wet their feet in the AFL scene. Acres certainly did some nice things on the way to a very tame stat sheet – 11 disposals, 4 tackles, 1 hitout (?). He’s one that I really thought could be a bolt from the blue at the start of the year, but he hasn’t quite found that ignition button as yet. It would be great if he saw out the year in the seniors to keep nurturing his confidence along going into his third pre-season.

It wasn’t Blacres’ fault but North really took complete control out of the middle in the third term. Everyone’s Brownlow smokey Todd Goldstein started doing it all himself, and then Cunnington and Atley got in on the act. Centre clearances were being had at will, and when the ball is coming in so quickly well, you know that Fisher isn’t going to be spoiling anyone. Ziebell got shifted forward, and Petrie and Thomas started to get on top of Goddard and Webster respectively.

As much as David Armitage and Jack Steven have really been showered in praise from all and sundry this year, they haven’t been able to stand up when it’s really mattered against top opposition of late. There was rumours of Armo’ playing with a injury about 3 weeks back and that would help explain how he’s lost some of the zest he had in the early rounds of the year. He still worked his way to 28 disposals for the day, but the Roos underlined how it’s about quality and not quantity. The Saints racked up 4 more inside 50s for the day (via 26 more disposals), but the Roos were that much sharper with the ball in hand. There was one particular purple patch in the third term where they snagged four goals from 14 disposals. That’s ruthless efficiency and underlines how the Saints centre square team was a mere turnstile.

I tweeted it during the game, but Billy Longer has to at some point realize what a weapon his body could (and should) be. Granted, Goldstein is a tough cover for anyone, but Billy in general just doesn’t appear to have wrapped his head around what urgency and physicality is needed at all times. Oh, and, he gave away probably the most childishly stupid 50 metre penalty – at the purpleliest point of the Roos third term annihilation – he casually just piffed the ball over-arm style to the umpire and wandered off, after the whistle had be blown for a free kick to North. No doubt, the goal would have been kicked anyway seeing as it was from dead in front, but it was a downright comedic moment from the big fella.

Despite North’s 9 goal third term onslaught the margin at three-quarter time was only 19 points, but the wind had truly been taken out of the Saints sails by this point. Yes, there were some flashes of fisticuffs primarily on the back of Ziebell’s half-whack-half-attempted-spoil on Jack Newnes late in the second term, but North’s resurgence had completely poured cold water over any of that faff. Josh Saunders was buzzing around for the first time this year, but a most of the Saints were showing signs of fatigue.

One thing that came to mind earlier amid my Billy Longer rant was Tom Hickey. Hickey’s listless effort with his first opportunity to be the number one ruckman last week against the Dockers, was very frustrating to watch. I’m a big fan of his, and so it was cool to see him bounce back this week with 7 marks, the pick of which was a Carey-lite floating back with the flight of the ball clunk in the early third term. There was a decent return in terms of end product too, having four shots on goal, two of which were converted.

Unfortunately, Tom’s performance was one of the few shining lights. Minchington – like with his other two performances this year – definitely showed some good signs, and was active in his crumbing duties. Weller again provided a spark and an unlikely marking target early on up forward. Newnes continued his solid late season form – he’s averaged nearly 22 touches over his last 4 games. Hugh Goddard had a brilliant first half playing on Drew Petrie before being somewhat overwhelmed in the second half.

And don’t worry, Josh Bruce continued his amazing (one goal or more) scoring streak, by scoring the required initial goal early on. He finished with two goals two in a very up and down performance. In all honesty Josh has struggled to even sniff his gold early season form since the demolition of Essendon. Between Paddy McCartin getting a brief integration into the setup, and Hickey returning, and Riewoldt missing and then returning, perhaps Juice’s radar has been thrown out of whack. With Geelong, Sydney and the Eagles coming up there is going to be some quality players covering his every move so he will have his work cut out to continue the streak through Round 23.

Those three teams still upcoming for the Saints in the fixture are all considerably more sound than North. The Roos are far and away the flakiest side in the competition. After making the Preliminary Final last year, they’ve amassed 12 wins thus far yet only two of those have come against decent opposition (the Eagles and Tigers). Their claims of being ready to take scalps of the big dogs has well and truly earned Boy Who Cried Wolft status amongst the Footy community by now and so they’ve found themselves in the awkward bracket in the middle part of the ladder, with seemingly little obvious upside. Petrie is on his last legs, Waite has been at best handy, and the more junior big forwards have yet to really convince. This is certainly not what loyal North supporters would have been telling themselves would be the outcome of some lean years back in the late noughties.

******

Paul Roos was somewhat lambasted by some pundits in the media for his claim that his Dees are still lacking an A+ midfielder in their ranks. To him I’d say to hold his horses until Brayshaw and Petracca spend more than five minutes at the Club. I think the Saints are much more in need of that type of class in their midfield, for as much as Armitage has been brilliant and Jack Steven keeps running, the midfield is still a relative pushover against finals bound opposition. Two weeks in a row the opposition’s midfield has trampled on us and taken the game from us in a burst of twenty-minute domination. A fit Luke Dunstan and Jack Billings hopefully will help that situation to an extent, but otherwise there are question marks still hovering over most of the other engine room candidates. Seb Ross hasn’t made any strides this year, Saunders has fallen back in the pecking order, Maverick Weller has done well but mostly up forward. Jack Newnes has actually grown and has been quite good. Sometimes though “good” just isn’t going to cut it – North are a good example of that.

Like taking candy from a baby

Round 19, 2015
St Kilda 2.4, 2.8, 3.9, 8.11 (59)
Fremantle 7.1, 12.2, 14.5, 15.6 (96)
Crowd: 16,419 at Etihad Stadium

It had to be Ross’ mob.

There was a mildly poetic irony to Ross (or Ro$$ if you’re one of those) Lyon’s Fremantle dismantling St Kilda at Corporate Stadium on Sunday. This was Ross’ House of Pain before the real House of Pain was forged out West.

And his charges this time were back, not with their C team – like the one we blew to pieces in 2014 – but locked-and-loaded with a chip on their collective shoulder, albeit without their midfield maestro Nat Fyfe.

They did really have a point to prove in some respects: as Fyfe cooled after his white-hot start to the year, so to has Freo’s newfound commitment to offense started to splutter and stall. In turn, the experts have jumped off the bandwagon. By no means would they have been circling this one in the calendar as a D-day or anything; the Saints have been a sexy team to get behind, but more in an aw shucks way. But Lyon and Co. would’ve been keen to reboot the side’s confidence and to reassert themselves, and more importantly bank four points, prior to a big Western Derby in Round 20.

The ruthless efficiency with which the Dockers carried out the task was quite stunning even to us Saints fans who can remember the early rounds of 2009 so clearly. Fremantle marked and goaled with their first 6 inside 50s for the game. First it was Mayne, then Sandilands, Mzungu, Griffen, Crozier and Alex Pearce – yes, even the defenders of next to no AFL experience were getting in on the feast. Sandilands towering grab amongst a trio of Saints collapsing on him was the pick of them and the most symbolic. Freo were bigger and harder, and coupled with their greater intensity around the ball, there was no stopping them.

At lot of Footy radio talk and talkback does tend to inevitably circle around the evolution of the game. And in some respects Freo is as good an example as any in how the game has taken on so much of the philosophy and strategy of The World Game. Despite the Saints having stemmed the bleeding late in the first term, Freo had essentially taken the game away from them like taking candy from a baby. And from there they were prepared to soak up some pressure and generally just keep St Kilda at bay, via controlling possession and setting up their team defence deeper. Diligent ball use and structural defence had replaced the urgency and mesmeric ball movement of the first term.

Thanks to Roberton and Dempster, the Saints started to finally find some stability behind the ball in the second term. Yet, exit paths out of defence seemed rubix-cube hard. Sandilands was stationed up the line, and despite having 3 tall forwards in there was reluctance in trying to challenge the big fella aerially in any part of the ground. Switching out to the non-Sandilands wing wasn’t proving any easier either: Freo’s zone seemed iron clad unflinching, and the Saints lacked the precision and pace to unhinge it.

David Armitage started the game well – he actually earned the first clearance of the game, which in a roundabout way ended in the Saints claiming the game’s first major (to Jack Lonie); this was the only time we held the lead for the match. Armitage seemed to be completely outfoxed and outmuscled at most exchanges. In recent weeks I feel his grip on the B&F has slipped considerably given Dempster’s form and Jack Steven’s persistence.

Steven actually was the only midfielder for the day who I think would earn a birth in the Freo midfield. He amassed 27 disposals, including 5 inside 50s and 2 goals. Not a bad stat line, but what was more evident was his ability to both gut run and also break the lines compared to his cohorts. Steven doesn’t have the brute force of a Mundy, the cunning of Neale, or the nonchalant craft of a Hill, but all day he was able to continually puncture and slip through cracks that his colleagues didn’t. It was an exercise in sheer will power, with flashes of brilliance.

And that’s a feeling and a feature that really strikes you when you watch a team of Freo’s style or ilk: the value of being able to do good things very consistently well over four quarters. Run hard, hit the pack hard, get back into defence quickly, plug up the corridor, force the boundary throw in. These basic elements sometimes get taken for granted, but there was a quasi beauty in seeing them performed so obediently.

Freo’s hard running in particular hit you in the face. The second quarter actually saw the Saints have a lot more possession and a lot more forward 50 entries. Pity the entries amounted to several shots virtually from Row E near the 50 metre arc. Outside of that, Riewoldt had one set shot on virtually a 45 degree angle on the arc and failed to trouble the score sheet. It was indicative of the side’s lack of penetration.

Just to rub salt into the wounds though, the Dockers masterfully worked a couple of coast-to-coast attacks to score two majors and fully bolt the door shut on the contest altogether. St Kilda’s well documented pressure skills never looked so feeble. The transition is one thing, but once the Dockers were looking inside 50 there was a cluster of white guernseys queuing up to have a shot on goal. Should Adam Basil make an appearance on the Engine Room this week?

The Saints spirit did kick in more in the second half and registering 5 goals two for the final term brought an element of respectability to the final score line. Needless to say, Fremantle’s care factor at what kind of percentage they were to gain from the game was nudging negative digits by this point though. That said, novelty highlights from overhyped draftees in junk time are still novelty highlights. And so I marveled at Blake Acres breaking the lines and dishing off to setup a Joey goal from point blank. Paddy McCartin’s crash the pack and snap effort for a goal was also noteworthy. Josh Bruce also snagged a set shot from the pocket which keeps his record of recording one goal or more in each game this year in tact for another week.

 *****

The conventional temptation with such games is to effectively toss it out the window. Un-review-worthy; we were never going to win anyway; we are at a different point in the football life-cycle; no reason dwelling on a dull performance like that. Yada yada yada. Yet, if what all decisions are based on right now – and we’ve heard from Richo himself that this is the case – is working towards a Flag, then why would you not be picking apart your team versus the team in best position to win this years Flag?

The reality is that we hope that Blake Acres can run and drive a midfield like Steven Hill. That Paddy McCartin can be a colossus like Pav, that Maverick Weller and Seb Ross can hunt the packs like Neale and Suban. On Sunday they felt like they were oh so far away, both inidividually and collectively. That’s a feeling that has been totally kept at bay for most of this year, but it’s a necessary feeling when you’re a Club in our position. It’s just a shame it the purple haze and it’s master that had to bring it to the fore. But they’re so the right team to do so.

 

 

 

 

Jeeeeeeeeeeeez

Round 17, 2015
Port Adelaide 4.5, 8.5, 12.7, 17.10 (112)
St Kilda 1.4, 3.10, 4.12, 6.13 (49)
Crowd: 36,850 at Adelaide Oval, Sunday, August 2nd at 1.10pm (12.40pm CST)

There’s dog shit and there’s dog shit.

There’s the kind that we had to put up with during week in regards to Adam Goodes. People from Andrew Bolt, Rita Panahi and Shane Warne to Alan Jones and Grant Thomas and most people on Twitter and BigFooty not understanding the position of privilege they’re in, and the position they’re in of collectively totally not coming up with actual arguments that make genuine sense in regards to anything to do with the issue. Angry, helpless, mobilised, determined, confused, dismayed. There is no way to reason with these people and I can only assume Adam Goodes feels vaguely similar upon realising that attempts at education and reconciliation – and specifically his own, having dealt with racism his entire life – only infuriate and annoy these types of people. They apparently don’t want to deal with it in any way, lest something that so far remains undefined happens.

So we got to actual footy and there were some touching acts of solidarity, with Richmond and the Bulldogs wearing their indigenous jumpers and Melbourne wearing armbands in the colour of the indigenous flag. Zero points are awarded to the Collingwood clowns for booing Jeff Garlett’s celebration on Saturday afternoon.

That Sunday’s paper revealed St Kilda is planning on hosting the first Pride match next year should tell people some really, really good things are happening. The club has said it has received correspondence from people angry or dismayed at the idea. To those who had registered those complaints with the club: feel free to defend your free speech all you want, but free speech is designed to challenge ourselves and each other and weed out poison attitudes like that.

Then there’s what we witnessed on Sunday afternoon. This kind of dog shit is far more expected, tempered. The kind that isn’t as divisive as the very idea that some people live differently and look kinda different (which shouldn’t be divisive, but here we are). This is one that St Kilda supporters have taken ownership of over 142 years. It’s not race or culture politics in the widest sense, but still in a special way it forms a massive part of who we are.

On paper this was a match between two teams of inconsistency in 2015. Port has worn the tag in a higher class though, being the competition’s great disappointment. However, they still have a much higher ceiling than a number of opponents (especially us). This looks suspiciously like a Geelong 2006. Application aside, Polec probably robbed them of more movement that we gave him credit for and Paddy Ryder looks more like an asset that needs proper adjusting to rather than an instant booster. The way the game panned out, in isolation, would tell you what last year’s meeting said about both teams. One a youthful and exciting challenger, the other youthful and barely finding their feet.

The St Kilda social media team ripped up this marginally terrifying pop culture reference following last week’s Billy Longer star turn, although should Billy have a successful career in a – dare I say it – successful team that photo could by proxy become an iconic one for St Kilda supporters. Like most weeks, I’d have to say that after today I’m no closer to feeling confident one or way or the other.

Geary was the captain in Riewoldt’s absence, and this year hasn’t solved any questions about where he really sits in the side. Nathan Wright was listed on the extended bench, D-Mac came in and there’s still Acres, Saunders and Murdoch hanging around in be VFL. Now, obviously they’re not all the same type of player but you’d like to think anyone vaguely playing Geary’s role, or elements of them, would be a little more dynamic than he is. I know he’s incredibly respected by the everyone inside the club but it became quickly apparent that when it comes to who is naturally drawn to potential captains the contribution you make on the field can’t be ignored.

Whilst he got some “good” i.e. “relatively high” numbers (23 disposals was second behind only Joey for us) he offered the game some ripper clangers for someone supposedly meant to uphold the higher standards and set an example. His kick along the ground (unforced) at the back of the centre square as we were working to rebound turned into a cheap Port goal and highlighted just what kind of a clown he can be with the ball in hand.

Port’s good movement and our lack thereof mad us look incredibly confused at times. Whilst it’s the done thing obviously to rotate your direct opponent this was hamster wheel stuff and was obviously working in Port’s favour. Never should Jarryn Geary be having to take a one on one Schulz – Goddard was trailing by a metre to make the extra man completely useless – let alone Westhoff shortly following. Moments after those contests Schulz had found another undersized opponent in Sav and then Westhoff was magically with Roberton.

The pressure was thereabouts but needed to be wiser. Sav and Roberton left but both of their men on the wing when it looked like Port were about to be trapped, but they easily opened it up for them and Moore ended up with a shot on goal.

Josh Bruce comically kept his goal-in-every-game record for 2015 in tact after a lovely set shot after the siren. It was probably the most nervously he’d looked all season, particularly given his performance itself could be described as comical.

His work in contests was more Billy Longer than Josh Bruce this year, and whilst the ball use was absolute slop he often found himself nowhere near the drop of the ball, otherwise the ball would be hurtling through his hands when he did. A great contested mark in the third quarter was rewarded with a behind from what has been a forte of his this year – the left-foot banana set shot from the pocket. Suffice to say he didn’t really have any fortes coming into this season, let alone having that good a year that we’re getting that specific.

His worst game for the year peaked clearly with the mark and goal, but it was summed up best by Paddy’s first cracking of the shits. We were privileged enough to witness Hugh’s the other week, but his was more of “the first of many, awwww”. Paddy’s said as much about his own leadership and application (even at this early stage) as it did how badly Josh was playing. Paddy had set himself for the fall of another woeful forward-50 entry and Josh just casually walked into his path, which is something I still expect Josh Bruce to more likely of doing rather than playing quality Australian Rules football. Like, he just literally walked into his way.

Paddy registered some low numbers but he took a couple of really good, strong marks and was unlucky to not return better than 2.0. For a guy who looks like he’s had minus-one pre-seasons he moves very well, whether it’s to work off his man and get to the fall of the ball or work up the ground. Not sure still where Membrey fits into this forward line at this early stage in all their careers – let the record show that going into this game we Paddy (four games), Bruce, Membrey and Hickey as our tall forwards to go with Sinclair and Eli as the smalls – but with Riewoldt coming back in I just can’t take Paddy out. Membrey would be hard done by after coming in for a quarter of the worst team game for three months, and Hickey unfortunately might need to rely on Billy to have been hit hard enough that he takes a rest next week. He might be firming a little as trade bait but I hope not. More Quick 60 please.

Whilst you couldn’t fault the small forwards for the entry, they were absolutely nowhere near it when the ball hit the deck. Eli’s game, like his hair, is now devoid of flash and DARE® Iced Coffee. No speed, no presence; I’m not actually sure what he does. Surely Lonie comes straight back in. Sinclair had good moments and Mav was really good again (despite missing the sitter after the solo effort), but going on this performance the forward line is infinitely more lively with Lonie and Billings in their (the latter obviously won’t be until next year).

Joey chipped in with a couple of goals and what should have been a third from a relatively easy set shot. This year he seems to have a lot more nous in his positioning in the forward line, and in the process might extend his career by a year or two if he maintains it. The thing is, we’re going to need him in the middle a lot more over the next couple of years if we don’t recruit or draft a decent mid, which we’re going to have to do anyway whether it’s the road to 2018 or 2050.

Because it wasn’t necessarily that we got smashed out of the middle. The two teams split the inside-50’s 52-apiece, it was that the quality of the ball use was far better than the current ladder placing going in the match suggested, and we demonstrated an irresistible combination of being out-pressured and driven to hurried disposal by Port when we had the ball and shanking our kicks when we were on our own anyway.

It was looking dangerous from the start. Big names Ryder, Wingard and Westhoff all had shots early, and Sinclair and Dunstan were using their time and space in our forward 50 to miss.

The midfield “battle” looked like it might have been evened up a little when Wines went off with his shoulder out but the Power had us covered for intent and talent anyway. Apart from Paddy’s workrate there was little to get excited about in the first quarter asides from so good work by Hickey low and Billy working really hard to get his hand to a Schulz kick on the goal line.

In another year of not a massive amount of individual highlights (granted, there’s been far more this year than the last two combined) Mav staked his claim for point of the year both commendably and infuriatingly. I’m referring to the aforementioned effort in which his endeavour, as we’ve come to expect, couldn’t be questioned but he managed to kick from the 15 metres out across the entirety of the open goalmouth.

It was the start of an incredibly frustrating quarter which netted 2.6 whilst the Power kicked 4.0 from half as many scoring shots. Highlights included Armo’s weird attempt at drawing the opposition at the back of the centre square to handball of the top and Neade ran off with it for a goal, and then Roberton’s to ridiculous short kicks to the respective pockets out of the goalsquare with an already-trademark Hugh Goddard one-two as an interlude. The second kick simply went out of bounds to finish off the big contested intercept mark Hugh took at full-back in the first place.

Bruce by this point had been suspiciously quiet and when he finally pushed up into the middle and found space he took the mark, turned around and his kick – which we can only assume was meant for Paddy – ended up near zero humans and out of bounds. Paddy eventually got onto the end of one on the opposite side and took a great mark with his opponent right on him, but he missed.

It was apparent that for yet another week our strategy going into attack seemed to be to just drop the ball from on high onto a bunch of people vaguely near goal. One contest featured all of Bruce, McCartin and Hickey, which would tell there aren’t many big guys leading into any space – or any space any of them to lead into to begin with, take your pick – and of all people Hickey took the grab (he missed the goal). Later in the term Armo had the footy going forward and established that an Eli one-on-one short and 45 metres out was the best option. Whichever way you look at it there’s something wrong with that scenario, and so it was for the entire day.

The half – and probably the day – was summed up around this point when Roberton left his man one-on-one 20 metres out to knock forward the footy to Dunstan who was closing in on the contest. Roberton got to the ball OK but didn’t bother with the shepherd, and Dunstan only needed to be a little untidy before he was swamped by the Power and White snapped a goal. Fair to say it wasn’t Roberton’s best quarter, and we can only hope we can say it’s his worst from here because he’s done some good things year. But fark he looks casual doing anything.

This was quickly followed Weller literally handballing it straight to a Port player after getting the ball from Newnes, and Newnes should have kicked it forward as it was.

It’s probably fair to say the only guys that played a consistently good game was Sean Dempster. Easy to malign him over the last couple of years when our defence was constantly being deserted by the mids and he was forced to play one-on-one on key forwards who had decent delivery on tap, but he’s done so much right this year. Yesterday he had to do it all and held up his end; whether close to Port’s goal or pressing up to help out he effected spoils, took some strong marks and his made some invaluable contested efforts on the whole.

We know far too well that it’s inevitable we’re going to get days like this. The more remarkable days in these times are almost always punctuated by a kid or few playing a game that gives us optimism when going to footy is an exercise in nothing much beyond pessimism.

But some days those kids just aren’t going to fire a shot, and we’re left with a game that after time we will barely remember. You can’t pre-empt those but in hindsight you wonder if they were worth it at all. Even drilling down to mundane you try and think of something – a good hit-out against an exciting team, a chance for Paddy, Hugh et al to experience travel, and so on – that makes it feel like it was worth it. We won’t really know that either for a long time.