Real blood

by Tom Briglia

Round 4, 2019
St Kilda 3.2, 5.5. 8.9, 10.14 (74)
Hawthorn 3.2, 6.5, 10.8, 10.9 (69)
Crowd: 35,883 at Docklands, Sunday, April 14th at 3.20pm

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What a beautiful Sunday it was to go to the footy. But wait a minute, a large number of people built this giant stadium incorrectly, despite having hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal, so the roof is shut. Instead of the wondrous elements of the world that literally determine the light we see the moments of our footy lives in, it was time to go inside to the Concrete Disney Store at three o’clock in the afternoon. Congratulations to all of those involved for the work in designing and creating this incredible mistake, and for their resulting wealth.

Sunday afternoon in the 3.20pm timeslot is something we’ve been told is lucrative, but that’s only if you enjoy the actual moment you hope to spend your week waiting for being cut out altogether by Channel 7 and co-conspirators Fox Footy because they’re desperate to get to the news (or Bounce). Don’t ever forget that Channel 7 boss Tim Worner said last year, “We want back-to-back shootouts…I want more goals … That’s the most valuable 30 seconds of screen real estate in Australian television, aside from the 30 seconds after an over”. They didn’t even ruin the moment for anyone watching on TV on Sunday, they jettisoned it entirely.

***

For 2019, it’s still becoming harder to tell what the hell is going as more footy is played. Partially because of last year’s close finish (which was only five games ago heading into Sunday) I was genuinely expecting a close game either way, and probably played in the same way as last year’s. The week had been dulled by a win pissed away, interstate or not. We’ve seen it before in the past on bigger and the biggest days. We know what it looks like. And we had a chance to see how the players responded to it.

***

Strange to see Koschitzke, Dunstan, Rowe, Armitage, Sziller all playing under the Concrete Disney Store roof at 11.50am on a Sunday in 2019. Robbie Young ran into goal and missed in the first quarter, and Rice was moving and marking like a competent forward and skewing shots on goal, so it’s nice to know we have guys who can come straight into the team. Hind arguably could have been chosen as Geary’s replacement at quarter time (12 touches and a goal before finishing with 41). Paton was in line and had to sit on the bench wearing the Sandy-but-actually-St Kilda-but-actually-Sandy jumper (Nigel Carmody called the Zebras “the Saints” early in the broadcast), while Box Hill ran around in their early-to-mid-2010s unnecessary cartoon-on-unnecessary-white clash jumper.

Hawthorn playing an away match away from the MCG meant they were wearing their almost-excellent clash jumper (sabotaged by designers constantly forcing unnecessary side panels onto clash jumpers, and ironically in this case bringing back brown stripes on gold that they tried moving away from in the first place). Like the stadium itself, never forget that people and organisations get paid exorbitant amounts of money and have fantastical resources to make these fuck-ups a reality, but at least they were running out to The Fable Singers’ version of their song. Our pre-match this week included a live marching band playing the song as the players ran out – which was infinitely better than any off-the-shelf RAWK song they’ve tried – before cutting to the actual club song as the players broke through the banner. The only problem was that the club is running with the shitty cover version of the song that no-one-asked for. This was followed by the player-by-player introduction on the screen which was tired and ignored as soon as the cheers for Jade Gresham gave way to blanket silence for Shane Savage. It didn’t really work for the Bombers the other week when it was their home game with more than 44,000, and it didn’t work here. Saintly Hymns made another bizarre in-match appearance over the PA, and was met by bemusement and scattered laughter. But the club has the money I paid for a level two Ultimate membership, so it’s got what it wanted.

***

A tight first quarter featured the bulk of the game’s slicker moments, outside of gif-worthy Acres cruising. Lonie’s first for us came from a svelte Rowan Marshall handball over the top of this head and a neat snap around the corner. John actually wound up from 45 from a set shot a few minutes later going for our second, but didn’t make the distance (the ball came off a surprised Bruce’s hands uncontested). Long had spotted him by himself and drilled a tidy pass in a sign that showed the composure and wherewithal going forward that disappeared on the flight to Perth had returned – the change in angle (current buzz term) rather than a kick long kick down the line. From the short kick-in pass, Newnes charged in from behind to spoil and Long moved so quickly at the fall to grab the ball, turn and kick it almost looked rushed, before it occurred to me once he’d kicked it that this is what it looks like when a player is deft and accurate, and that’s what a good team can do.

Matthew Parker’s first of a couple of huge tackles was a little more of a surprise. Breust had taken an excellent mark between Billings and Paton, and had barely stepped off his line but Parker was alert enough to the umpire’s call and hit him hard with what is already a trademark of his. Paton ran off with it and found the GOAT in the square. Perceived pressure has been non-existent coming from us, but now a heavy tackle or a turnover that makes you look silly looms at any point, and with swift consequences.

Moments like that have quickly rubbed off on the crowd. The members’ section was confident enough to have a crack at Sicily when he fell over himself trying to get low to a ball in front of the members, and then stumbled through a few bumps with Membrey and Acres heading back to his position. The crowd was shitty with the umpiring too, but our players are a bit mouthier and hitting harder, and there was something a bit more organic in the tension on the field. Something was at stake again.

But as we’d seen through so much of 2017 and 2018, the opposition just didn’t have to work so hard – or at least it appeared as much – and only needed a small lapse in concentration for a turnover and they had exorbitant amounts of space going forward. The bare bones of their structure still allows for that, even if their list is in a period of transition (keeping in mind they finished top four last, while our rebuild hasn’t gone anywhere and is into its sixth year). A 50-metre penalty on the half-time siren gave Ricky Henderson a goal and the Hawks the lead. Star injured-but-not-anymore recruit Scully was busy, Wingard was providing trademark Wingard moments, and the forward space and movement allowed instant decent results after Roughead two dropped easy marks in the 50.

At half-time, Membrey, Kent, Bruce and Parker between them had 11 touches, 0.0 and not much more impact outside of Parker’s tackle. Lonie had gone from 1.0 to 1.3 in a game that didn’t afford many decent opportunities. “He who is not afraid of death by a thousand cuts dares to unhorse the emperor”, but we’ve been unhorsing ourselves since September 2009.

Billings had a couple of misses to his own name from similar spots but had racked up 34 touches, while Captain Seb Ross had already picked up 24 touches and kicked one of his one-every-couple-of-months bullets from outside 50 on the run – itself engineered by Billings being prepared to sit under a high ball and take the hit if it came. It wasn’t the last time he’d do that.
When Roughed kicked his third quarter goal the margin had walked out to 26 points. We simply couldn’t get the ball past a very compressed zone coming out of defence and aside from Seb Ross our midfield was getting stepped on. An unexpected breakthrough came when a Bruce attempt to reclaim mark of the year from Hayden Crozier hit the deck and Lonie was there for an important tackle, Acres swept past and gave off to Newnes in the square on his own. But straight away the Hawks clearance went wide to the 50 metre arc and a wild show of athleticism from Connor Nash was followed by a long handball and smart volley by Puopolo that found Scully, and the curling goal from the pocket put the margin back out to 24 points and demonstrated the gulf in class. There were 10 minutes and 33 seconds left in the third quarter, and it was going to be the Hawks’ last goal.

***

There was no way to know that, and if you say you saw it coming you’re a filthy liar. The Hawks had made their move, and it didn’t feel like St Kilda could make one in response. What would change? The long, high panicked kicks of 2018 and last week had been replaced, granted, but only with not overly sharp, shorter kicks around the ground (usually too high), and occasionally some players running in numbers a little too closely together. The margin for error felt too small. A monopoly on the play in last chunk of the third quarter yielded just two goals and lot of frustration. Lonie snuck a set shot in but it wasn’t getting anyone overly excited, but some things started to shift. Acres obviously completed his pre-season training load towards the end of the second quarter, because he was now taking marks and gliding through traffic all across the ground. A beautiful long handball to Gresham on the rebound released Gresh goalside and he put on the jets but scuffed the kick to Membrey. Moments later though, the GOAT was responsible for a rare moment of clarity as part of the next rebound out of defence. He took the absolute piss on the 50-metre arc with a ridiculously relaxed mark (two bites), turn and neat kick off one step to the leading Bruce who converted. Aside from the first two goals, it might have been the cleanest thing that happened all day. Lonie missed another set shot, Parker went for mark of the year at the top of the goal square and it went through his hands. That would have blown the roof off; this had come after some saucy #freekickhawthorn action, and maybe a little bit secretly it felt good to experience tension like that again.

***

The final quarter very nearly became a mirror image of last year’s – an early goal (Gresham last year) before a dour wrestle with no royal opportunities, and Hawthorn slowly crushing out a small win.
A look at the stats (or just the game generally) at the main change would have hinted that the key to a turnaround from halfway through the third quarter would have Bruce and Membrey getting involved, and the ball in the hands of Parker, Kent and Long more often. But it was Marshall floating up forward that offered two marks and shots on goal early, with the second absolutely flushed to bring the game back onto our terms. The dour contest in the mould of last year did eventuate, and ultimately was decided by another disconcerting set shot at goal from Lonie with around five minutes to go from – after everything – an arguable free kick. Lonie kicked 1.5 since opening our account, and his kicks had been awkwardly low always peeled away to one side. But the goal that never materialised last year had come.

For the talk of being the fittest team in the competition coming from the club, this might be how it is expressed. It’s not a run and gun style with high scoring (although accurate kicking at goal might change that), but rather by gradually pressuring teams into submission as the game wears on, using the ability to get numbers around the opposition more often and more effectively. Richo and the players talked about priding themselves on their team pressure as early as 2015, but earlier this year Richo moved to talking about a shift in reliance to attack as well as defence. The opposition has been kept to 84, 65, 71 and 69 points, but our scoring accuracy is still a horrible problem though, and we’ve kicked 10.16, 9.12 and 10.14 in the last three weeks for a total of 29.42. Until we do start kicking straight this is more of a Sydney’s 2005-style “we’ll score slightly more than your low score” than what we might have been expecting. Our aggregate game margin is 22 points, the fourth lowest in VFL/AFL history, and Gold Coast’s opening month has it in first place. The players might have sensed this, and Seb hinted at it post-match – “I hope the Saints fans look forward to it because most of our games this year are gonna be tight ones”. There is a purpose and willpower across the team; they’re playing like they believe in something.

***

Ten years ago, it was a win over Hawthorn in Round 19 with a heavily undermanned team that appeared to all but pass on the title of premiers. On that day in Launceston, the 1966 team had come together for a reunion, and that afternoon the Saints of 2009 kicked the premiership score of 10.14 (74). On Sunday, with no premiership, but with wooden spoon sitting in the middle of the decade that had passed, against the Hawks we kicked 10.14 (74). It came from the same three-quarter time score as the 1966 Grand Final, and just a few points either side of the quarter- and half-time scores. We’re pattern-seeking mammals and when St Kilda is going to throw up any coincidences, usually it’s just going to make you mournful. Ten years is a long time. There’s a gravity to being a St Kilda supporter. These weeks are for at least trying to feel free of some of that weight.

***

The score review for Lonie’s non-goal with a bit more than three minutes left was cruel, but only for the way it unfolded. Ultimately the right call is made, so that’s good (the Saints were part of a key moment that brought the technology in, but by then Geelong had won not one, but two premierships). The goal umpire should have just called for a replay straight off rather than coaxing the crowd into raptures, and disrupting the flow of the game and potentially shunting around the momentum of the match. It felt like a typical St Kilda moment. But this game was won with character and commitment that shows a real difference. Standing up to the challenge of that moment, when the game appeared to have been close to won, may well have been less difficult than generating it in the third term. So, like the draw against GWS last year, like Round 5 against the Swans in 2002, we look to young guys to get us through a dour grind. No Carlisle, Steven, Roberton, Paddy, Hannebery and no Geary. Instead it was Billings, Lonie, Wilkie, Acres, Gresham, and Marshall that stepped up. These are the games that get us attached to these players.

They’re not just in our best, but they’re influencing the way the game is played and the result. Holding on to the ball with more composure allows Billings and Gresham and now Lonie and Marshall to show off what they do – often it’s because they’re the ones with the ball and have been given to the order to do something creative with it. Marshall was effectively another midfielder for much of the game, and his move forward in the final quarter was a promising order from the coaches’ box in the moment that genuinely worked in our favour, Marshall had done it in defence last week, and this time he did it in the middle and up forward. His seven clearances weren’t the scooping long leg of a lumbering ruckman forcing its way through traffic and gravity to tumble a ball forward; he’s able to balance himself and kick a very considered ball.

Lonie was one of the revolving small forwards cast prior to the end of 2018 that at various times featured Minchington, Wright, Sinclair, Long, Murdoch and Weller. Despite the wayward 3.5, he now has a performance to his name that can rightfully be described as matchwinning.

On the replay I see Billings sitting under the ball with a newfound physicality several times, setting up Seb, holding onto a tight contested mark late in the game at the risk of being knocked off balance and the spillage meaning an instant Hawthorn rebound turnover. Robbo’s Monday Hero Callum Wilkie plays with composure in the air and at the fall of the ball, regardless of how hot the situation is, and I see him deciding to leave his man in the goal square late in the game to end up horizontal in spoiling the ball and denying Gunston a shot at goal; I see a rejuvenated Newnes making an impact at every stoppage in the final two minutes and playing like the leader he’d promised to be. It might be fleeting, but right now it feels good to feel good about the Saints.

Message me when you’re sober

by Tom Briglia

Round 3, 2019
Fremantle 3.2, 6.2, 9.2, 11.5 (71)
St Kilda 1.1, 5.3, 7.8, 9.12 (66)
Crowd: 38,227 at Optus Stadium, Sunday, April 9th at 5.20pm AEDT

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After spending all my optimism in the fallout of last week, any fanciful dreams of a 2004 or 2009-style extended run to keep hopes for the season high were pissed away as we decided to channel 2018 instead. It would have been an incredible thing for the club and its supporters just to feel what comes with a 3-0 start (although keep in mind we went 19-0 once and got nothing for it). Sunday’s loss puts a timely spotlight onto mistakes that were supposedly confined to an awful season, but were probably appearing more than we’d liked in the first couple of weeks. Sure, we very could easily have won – should have won – but this is what we’re dealing with.

All the favourites were there, opening with a slow start interstate. Never mind the Road to 2018, we need to sort out the flight to any other capital city first because we’re apparently still stepping off the plane when the ball is bounced. Ultimately, it cost us the match. Acres kicked the first, running into goal and continuing last week’s big celebrations in front of the Saints’ cheer squad, but that eventually gave way to a scoreline of 6.2 to 1.1 and an inside 50 count that at one point read 25 to six. We still ended up with more shots on goal, we still ended up losing.

Like 2018, something was a little bit wrong with everything, and Corporate Name Stadium became a festering puddle of purple goop consisting of high kicks down the line to no obvious target, haphazard long kicks into the forward 50 to no one in particular, no players at the fall of the ball, and shanked shots at goal on tap.

***

This week’s conspiracy theory held that Paul Roos was doing his good mate Ross the ex-Boss a favour by publicly criticising Fyfe and suggesting he’s not a two-way runner. Steele kept a close eye on him but that didn’t seem to really matter. He was going to be that good anyway, and Freo were still able to win being one down for a quarter and a half and without their best player.

Defensive pressure across the ground was up from the start but it was an odd opening between two teams who seemed hellbent on not wanting to score goals. Freo has now gone from 21.15 to 8.10 and 11.5, while we’ve only managed 13.7, 10.16 and 9.12. It was apparent something was off once we got the ball, Freo decided to literally kick themselves out of it and fluffed a few simple passes along the wing unforced. Sav decided to join in off half back, running off the mark and into the tenth row to give up a throw-in. Bruce, who ended up being responsible for some of our better moments, got caught between letting a goal go through and taking the mark running back with the ball on the line, but both his radar and decision making were off.

Following a flood of free kicks over the weekend, peaking with the wild below-the-knee free kick at MCG the night before to Can You Believe He Played for St Kilda Once? Jamie Cripps, I decided to say out loud in the Elsternwick RWB Satellite lounge room “I think the umpires are just gonna let everything go after last night”. Their approach had actually allowed us to get away with a couple of frees near goal already, but then Billings dropped what should have been an easy mark at the back of the centre square from a high Dockers kick forward, and in his attempt to recover the ball already on his hands and knees he gave away a free kick for you know exactly what. Complain as much as you want (rightfully, I should add – what the hell was he supposed to do when he was on the ground?), but taking the mark would have been nice.

Billings was our best player and it’s difficult to fault Bruce too, but these moments of indecision were an early warning sign that this team was prepared to worry itself out of the game.

The traditional wobbly St Kilda interstate free kicks were back, too. Well into the second quarter, Sinclair blatantly threw the ball through his legs trying to get the ball loose on the wing, and as the umpire ran in after paying the free, Newnes started pushing forward into empty space thinking it was Sinclair’s free. D-Mac had picked up the spilled (thrown) ball, and decided to go with Jill’s rules instead of those stipulated by the AFL commission, and he hit Jill directly with a perfectly weighted handpass to give away the 50-metre penalty and gift Freo a shot at goal.

***

What was apparent was everyone was pushing up far too high into defence. Where was Membrey or Bruce? This is where Battle playing up forward would have been great, given he’s arguably our most promising forward, but that thought just serves as a band-aid to what was a flawed set-up across the ground.

A rare chance to go inside 50 with a considered entry fell to Dean Kent on the forward flank, who tried getting around his opponent and fell over (yes, that simply). Freo took it away and exposed the the defensive set-up, too, as a chain of Freo players – it wouldn’t be the only time it happened – continually sucked in the next St Kilda player and left their next teammate on their own.

For the question, “Where did the effective and considered ball movement across the ground we showed in the pre-season and for enough moments to jag two questionable wins in the opening two weeks go?” the answer is annoyingly broad, as it was last year. None of this is entirely applicable without nothing Freo’s pressure across the ground, and ability to keep the the ball locked in their forward half for sustained periods while being able to absorb our own repeated entries in attack. But it was apparent early that everyone was pushing far too high into defence, and there was just no one offering anything decent ahead of the ball. No options were readily available wider for a quick switch or a change in angle. The word “composure” was used a few times over February and March, but we were back simply being more or less manic in ebbs and flows that dictated how effective both our defence and attack were. Roberton had joined Richo in the coaches’ box and “copped a spray” from Richardson after Round 1 because the defenders’ kick-ins were “boring”, but I don’t know who cops it this week for being boring everywhere.

***

Stuv missing obviously had an effect, but Freo seemed to do ok when arguably the best player in the league was taken off the ground. The centre clearance count read 17 to five at game’s end, and while the total count was a little more even – 43 to 35 – they kicked 6.2 from clearances. Hannebery might not be the recruit we hoped he would be – not for some time, at least – but something’s wrong if we’re relying that much on Stuv being there or not. The upside within this season falls on Gresham, Billings and Acres getting more time around stoppages, (even Matthew Parker was thrown in late in the game, which I didn’t mind).

At some point late in the second quarter there was a shift in aggression. Geary – one of the very few that presented well across the back half when we had the ball – almost took a hanger and managed to follow it up on the deck, and more pronounced physical efforts from Ross and Billings, to go with Bruce also going a hanger attempt, changed the tone.

We kept doing our best to mess it up when we did get a look. Gatorade Gamechanger® Membrey managed to scoot away goalside on the wing from a Freo spillage, but he spent most of the time juggling the pick up and scanning all parts of the field for options that simply won’t there. He eventually steadied and it was Bruce that presented and took a good mark on the lead, and went back and kicked the goal. Gresham started to make an too up the ground, setting up a big mark from Membrey on the goal line (and then Can You Believe He Played for St Kilda Once? Leigh Fisher tried dicking him by putting him on the angle rather than from directly in front).

Billings had been going about his business as Our New Best Player and chimed in with some clever positioning near goal took a good mark from a shanked Membrey kick at goal from 50 that was so bad it would have made more sense if it was deliberate. Brown was looking the best he has for years, and despite getting a head knock in an innocuous collision with Hogan on the wing, recovered immediately (well, quickly enough before the dizziness set in) and won the ball, and in a rare instance of a functioning forward line Gresham was front and centre when the ball landed deep in attack and kicked the goal.

But these seemed to be moments snatched rather that by-products of something larger that was well-thought-out and cleverly engineered. Too much was left to Gresham, and I think FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER I’M GOING TO SAY IT – too much was left to Billings. I think we did. We made it. We finally get to say that about super-boxer and ironic podcast punching bag Jack Billings. Another team-leading disposal count, this time 32 to go with two goals. His second, while it was a moot point ultimately, came in the kind of moment we drafted him with pick three for. Something needed to be made out of not much, and at the last possible moment in which it could still play a part in the result. And it was the one guy who’d been collecting the ball across the ground and looking the closest to comfortable all day, who again ventured deep into the forward line and made it count. We had similar moments for Richo’s mate Dave – another Round 3 match, in 2013, specifically – but six years and a Marcus Bontempelli best and fairest win in a Bulldogs premiership season later, we’ve done it. Whatever that is. But he’s good now. For now.

Gresham did get a lot of the ball again himself and he kicked a couple of goals, but when we needed class in big moments in the third quarter, none of his three shots at goal came off. That’s not a slight on him specifically, rather the ability of the team cover that. If it wasn’t going to be him, who would it be? We’re supposed to have been going to the draft for at five least five years now. Bruce loomed as the only other guy in the front half who would play the “Come with me” captain’s role, and Kent, Lonie and Parker just didn’t have the same physical presence nor presented the same opportunities seen in the first two weeks. Walters’ excellent snap goal showed what a genuinely classy player can do, and he was doing it at both ends, and they had Brandon Matera step up and kick three goals either side of three-quarter time.

Hunter Clark came incredibly close to a career highlight with a solo effort through traffic but just missed, and therefore will fit in just fine at the Saints. Bruce, Lonie, Membrey and Billings all blew shots at goal as the crazed bang-it-in-at-all-costs infected the team. Billings twice had chances at the top of the 50 metre arc to set something up but gave off to Battle and then the other disappeared into the footy aether. D-Mac worked his way up the ground and found space just outside 50 himself, but the composure had disappeared and instead of going short to the runners nearby he kicked further to to a one on three in the pocket. Bruce put in a momentarily herculean effort to trap the ball and get it out to Membrey, who probably dished out the the best handball of his life to Lonie who skipped it through from close range.

But that was it for the quarter. Gresham shat out one of his occasional belly-of-the-ball snap shots, Parker missed too, albeit as he started to a bring a little more physical presence, but the difference he brings to the team when he’s making an impact compared to when he is not is already apparent. The most royal moments, however, came with a great harassing pressure in the middle that turned the ball over and had Hunter and two runners charging into the 50, and Hunter hunter kicked it straight to Luke Ryan on our way to making him look like a hero. Thirteen marks, none contested, and Jack Steele made sure Ryan’s day would get a whole lot more special in the final moments.

Gresham topped it off with a set shot at goal on a tight but not-hideously-tight angle. In a moment made for him, the ball went directly out on the full. Never mind having all the play and beating down the door, it felt like we were crawling to three quarter time amid our own faecal matter. Freo still had a six-point lead with four less scoring shots. Billings had 27 touches, nine more than anyone else, but who really looked like lifting us out of this? Fyfe was off, but I had in my mind yet another round 3 – 2010, and how a Ross-led team was able to cover the loss of their spearhead.

***

The slow start trope appeared across the game: Freo kicked the first three goals after quarter time, and despite the momentum shifts late in the second and third quarters, kicked the opening goal in the third, and then Matera kicked two goals in the first 10 minutes of the final term, and infuriatingly after Rory Lobb swung around from a long handball receive just outside 50, lowered the eyes and pierced a neat kick to a capable player presenting, and ultimately finishing. As if it could be so fucking simple.

The momentum inevitably swung back our way but we never seemed likely to score goals until it was far too teasingly fucking late. After their captain was concussed in what was a pretty hideous few moments on the field, who else do you call when you want to make The Novelty Club look like a bunch of heroes and get Luke Ryan trending on Twitter?

Freo did their best to hand it to back to with three consecutive kicks out of defence that went on the full, but we did the exact same thing each time on the return and kept kicking it long to no-one in particular, and still no one was waiting at the fall. We just never looked like kicking a goal. I thought of Richo’s words about spurning opportunities, suggesting that while it’s frustrating, the players should consider how frustrating it must be for the opposition. Nah. This was worse.

Gresham finally found another one out the back with a few minutes left it was another goal that seemed more like a freak occurrence among Membrey and Bruce being outnumbered in the air, Jimmy Webster turning over a clear chance at finding a target in time and space, and more generally no one looking interested at crumbing a pack.

A big finish briefly loomed with three minutes left, but Kent couldn’t keep his balance in a one-on-one footrace chasing the ball trickling towards goal. Rather than attempting to get low and use his genuinely decent agility to manufacture something a bit more stable, he threw a boot at the ball as it bobbled up and it was more Brent Guerra in the 2004 Preliminary Final than anything else.

The proverbial handy point secured, sure, and we still had a couple of minutes to stuff it up. At long last, with 70 seconds left, Jack Steele found the ball in space in the forward pocket. A chance to size up the goals, and a chance to size up the options in front of goal. He went the safe option – a 25-metre pass to either one of Jack Newnes or Blacres 15 metres out, directly in front. All Steele had to do was drop it in the space immediately in fucking front of them. Instead, he somehow engineered a high ball that opened up the door to crown Luke Ryan as the latest player made to look like a king by the St Kilda Football Club. Appropriately, Ryan ferociously charged into that contest and the ball was thumped away, and he took Newnes with him. It was what the moment deserved.

From a broader perspective, Billings’ goal with eight seconds left was nothing more than a rude St Kilda-style tease, and the players decided to draw it out by accidentally putting a seventh player in the forward 50 for the final bounce. Freo won the clearance.

***

Great effort? Brave? Wasteful? Spirited? It can be all of those things. Have we reset our expectations since last year? Are we on a refreshed timeline in which Richo’s previous years in charge don’t quite count in the way they did through 2018? That’s fine when you’re 2-0, and would have been a lot more fine (for a week, anyway) if we were 3-0. But this loss hurts, especially when you’re pissing a win away by making the same mistakes that defined one of the darkest years in this club’s modern era.

Yes it’s Round 3, yes there’s a long way to go, and we’re in another week of the perennial struggle in a supporter’s mind of balancing the unknown of the future with the consistent wasting of opportunities and time over 146 years. It’s a waste of four points (we’re still early enough in the season for that to actually matter), and it’s a wasted opportunity for the players to go interstate and show they’ve learned something not just from last year generally, but from previous trips interstate, and to come back with four points, and to experience what that would do for the group on an intangible level.

We fell over the line against the lowest-profile and possibly the lowest-regarded team in history, and then outlasted a team that until Friday night looked a whole lot more like us last year than one of the biggest clubs in the competition looking to win Premiership #17. I don’t know how good or not good Freo is, but they lost to Gold Coast by three points last week after themselves looking like the best team in Round 1, and now Gold Coast are 2-1, and the Bombers beat Melbourne, and I think I can safely say that the more footy I’ve seen this year the less of an idea I have of what is going on. Maybe we just couldn’t keep getting away with a lot of what happened over the last couple of weeks. A Sunday night is bleaker after a loss like that, and a goal was the only difference between another week of “anything can happen”, and a heavier week of “a lot less things will probably happen”. As supporters, it’s time to get our hands dirty again.

Open sea

by Tom Briglia

Round 2, 2018
Essendon 0.2, 4.5, 7.8, 9.11 (65)
St Kilda 2.7, 7.9. 8.12, 10.16 (76)
Crowd: 44,252 at Marvel Stadium, Saturday, March 30th at 4.35pm

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Essendon is the anti-St Kilda, and St Kilda is the anti-Essendon. The clubs occupy opposite ends of the premiership tally, have forged different histories, grew from different sides of the city, harbour different attitudes across their supporter bases, and they wear similar colours, but Essendon appropriately have a nastier jumper. Going to any Essendon home game is a strange experience for Saints fans. There’s an attitude and an atmosphere that we just don’t understand. A detestable arrogance that we can’t fathom (maybe it’s just confidence?), an expectation of success we wouldn’t know.

This one required hazardous material protective suits for any Saints wanting to go near this. After their first round pantsing to GW$, Essendon’s integrity was being questioned. The weekly podcast from The Age was entitled “The misery of Essendon”, Barrett said Essendon is facing a leadership crisis. So who better to come up against following a shocking opener than their alter-ego, the St Kilda Football Club?

Essendon always find a way to dick us. Even when we’re up and they’re down, or in trying circumstances, whatever the hell, it will happen. In 1998 (twice), 2005, 2007, of course in 2009, in 2010 (twice); a shocker in 2011 that heralded the post-Grand Final fallout, and two bleak nights in the past two years.

Rarely acknowledged is Essendon’s dismantling of us on the Friday night following what was supposed to be a landmark win against Richmond, but is now a night that has earned a level of infamy. At half-time of that Richmond game we were inside the top four. Six nights later, with the football world watching, the Bombers did what they do best and made us look slow and feeble, knocking us off by 61 points – a margin bigger than our own over the Tigers. It began a rot that would firstly claim our 2017 season, and bring just six wins in 29 games. Late last year came a dark fucking victory lap for “Intimidating Confidence and a History of Success” over “Incompetence”, just to reinforce to everyone what’s what.

If the weight of history wasn’t enough, the immediate surrounds of the footy landscape would have provided some handy guides. Jon Ralph’s tweet set the course for a trepidatious week; I may be an atheist but I identify as a believer in the perhaps not-so-mysterious forces of Essendon vs St Kilda, never mind the prospect of the AFL (well, maybe aside from Gil) “barracking” for the Bombers. Cue conspiracy theorists bracing themselves for another 40-14 free kick count; dare I say Richo might have been among those given his non-suspicious lovely gift for umpire Brett Rosebury before his 400th game.

Marvel at winter

Last week’s game was quite possibly The Lowest Profile Game Ever. You could have scheduled that for 2.30pm on Grand Final Day at the MCG and no-one would have touched it. This week, it was a return to the Saturday twilight black hole timeslot, but for a good reason – this was the day the AFL had given a clear window for the AFLW Grand Final, on the proviso that the Adelaide Crows didn’t finish on top of conference A and then make it through to the big one. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”, should the enemy be fans or respect or common sense, as the AFL has discovered with Tayla Harris, conferences, fixture, timing, the whole thing etc. etc. etc.

On a day that we had to reacquaint ourselves with our winter wardrobes and the prospect if spending much of our time at the footy indoors, we got our first look at the depths of the colder months and the roof closed, and what that would mean for a stadium named after a Disney subsidiary for a reason. Clues were all around us instantly. The announcer and the Essendon match-day presenter guy used phrases like “Pan around the audience” and “Big night of entertainment” and dropped too many references to Thor, and the big screen showed too many Marvel film previews, as if we were in a cinema. Closer to game time, we got NBA-style player introductions from the “MAKE SOME NOISE IN HERE” ground announcer that were “MAKE SOME NOISE FOR YOUR TEAM” mostly ignored by the fans, expect for McDonald-Tipungwuti, and I don’t know what “THE MAGNIFICENT ROOF OF MARVEL STADIUM” is the absolute end goal but apparently a lot of shit that’s being thrown isn’t sticking unless the marketers that threw it say it is.

The Pressure

If there’s anything worse than the moments leading up to an away match against Essendon, it’s St Kilda leading Essendon at any time throughout the match, priming the afternoon/evening/night/White Night 2030 marquee slot for a heroic comeback by the Dons. Our pressure was up from the start, and from the third level seats amongst millions of Essendon fans it was a first decent look at a set up across the ground that made for much more purposeful aggression at the player and the ball, rather than manic and haphazard scrambling of the past two years. Bob Murphy pointed out in the pre-match discussion on the big screen (as he and Gerard were forced to stand in front of the Disney store’s new McCafé) that if the Bombers were on the back foot early the pressure on them would rise very quickly.

So 2018 struck back for a second week. Whereas against the Suns it was in the form of giving up on any of the decent ball movement that worked in the pre-season and just kicking long down the line, this week it was good old-fashioned missing lots of goals. As well as three long-kick-to-the-guy-out-the-back moments that were all scuffed in the first quarter, the reward for effort just wasn’t coming at the right times. It took Greatest Cult Hero Ever Matthew Parker with a Membrey-style mark and then Josh Bruce with the Josh Bruce 2015-style finish – a gather and turn through traffic and snap around the corner – to get the first goal on the board. If anything, he actually moved with more agility in those few seconds than he has before. But around all of that we kicked six behinds; Membrey missed a set shot and then did his best impression of Adam Schneider in the final quarter of the 2009 Grand Final; and Sinclair, Steele and Newnes all shanked gettable shots. Membrey squeezed one in to get things to 2.6, but Newnes completed the trio of Joe the Goose burns and Stuv hit the post from close range. During this period Aaron Francis had kicked the ball directly into Michael Hurley, and Guelfie and Langford both decided it was time for a not entirely convenient rotation as soon as Jack Lonie was paid a free kick in front of the St Kilda bench. When you’re St Kilda and they’re Essendon, 2.7 just doesn’t seem like enough, no matter what.

It can’t be overlooked that Essendon – comedic capers aside – were helping the cause with tepid movement. Defensive pressure and attack at the ball itself made an impact, of course, but let’s keep in mind where the Bombers were coming from the week before. That said, the inclusion of Nathan Brown was an instant success purely through his presence (despite him clocking McKernan for what should have been the first goal), after things looked a little bit wanting on paper and on the field last week when we had to rely on Battle and Joyce.

If the game should have been put away in the first quarter, then the 17 Saints supporters at the ground should have been tucking into novelty-sized Mark Thompson sandwiches by late in the second. The shoddy 2.7 quickly became a 6.7 to 1.4 lead in less than six minutes, with a highlights reel that comes in at longer than entirety of 2018’s. Josh Bruce continued his Josh Bruce 2015 redux with a Michael Moncrieff-style hanger over Michael Hurley and kicked the goal; Luke Dunstan shed whipping boy status with a goal from 50 out of the middle; Matthew Parker went the Milne-esque cheeky play-on and told the Essendon cheer squad about it, and then Dean Kent’s nifty footwork off his man helped to finish off a passage than included a massive tackle by Jack Lonie on Hurley and Jack Steven handballing along the ground to Sinclair.

That burst was effectively what won the match, although it didn’t quite feel like it at the main change (nor until very, very late into the final quarter). A classy Stringer solo effort in their forward pocket spliced that run, and the Bombers twice appeared to have snatched a goal just before the main break. Gresham’s banana goal off a couple of steps came between those, and the quarter was ultimately a neat window into what makes this team different to last year’s.

Humans #1

For the first time since the second-half run of 2016, players (aside from Matthew Parker last week) look like they’re enjoying themselves and enjoying playing for something. They look like they want to fight for it and they look like they want to tell you about it.

Billy Slater’s comments about working on goal celebrations during the off-season seemed at the time to have been the result of a leading question from a member of the club’s marketing team, but this week it was unashamedly on display. Bruce got a huge reception from the players after his post-hanger goal, Dunstan and co looked like they running to the corner after a screamer into the back of the net, the players loved Kent’s goal, and Gresham’s banana naturally attracted a lot of attention. But then throw in a few other moments that you might have missed until a second or third or fourth (like me) viewing. Bruce, mid rub-down on the bench just after his own big moment, smacking the ground as Dunstan’s shot sailed through; Sinclair turning to Bruce as Gresham’s sealer went through to acknowledge Bruce’s effort to keep the low ball alive and get it out to Gresh running past.

On their own level are the Parker and Gresham celebrations in the face of the Essendon cheer squad. Parker was the beneficiary of one of Gresham’s better moments in an excellent day – barging through a traffic on the flank and checking his own momentum to poke the ball up, and Parker had put himself in the right spot. Lonie cleverly rushed in to bump McGrath off balance and that allowed Parker to run in to goal and give the Bombers crowd a serve. It was only the second quarter, but for the second week in a row he’s bringing something that lifts the entire team at any point in the game. Gresham did likewise with his sealer. He certainly didn’t have to keep running through the goal square after he’d kicked it, beyond the goal line into the most hostile several square metres on a footy field, but he did.

Sometimes those celebrations took in aggression that we haven’t seen or experienced for some time, or maybe felt like that we didn’t have any right to dish out. Parker went over to tell Dylan Shiel about getting caught holding the ball when Membrey mopped up the spillage in the third quarter (notable, this happened in a period of the match in which we weren’t clearly on top); Gresham waited for Heppell to come past after his banana goal and made sure to step back and give him a bump; Membrey went after Ambrose when Kent got onto the end of Lonie, Stuv and Sinclair’s work and started one of a bunch of tangles across the afternoon.

There were two particular moments that stood out, one because of how pre-meditated it was, the other one because it reflected instinctive competitiveness. During that second quarter period in which the game should have been shut down once and for all, a string of passes between Ross, Dunstan, Lonie and Membrey across the 50 metre arc looking for a safer option found Webster just outside. Stringer charged in and ragdolled him – Webster was horizontal when he hit the ground (the side-on camera angle certainly didn’t to do power of the tackle justice) – and was awarded the free for holding the ball. Apparent on the broadcast is Jack Steele coming into frame from several metres away with every intention to make decent contact with Stringer, with no reaction when the umpire pays a 50-metre penalty. He knew exactly what he was doing. We reeled at the consequences of Ben Long’s feistier moments in Round 1, but for the first time in a long time, if a St Kilda player gets hit, no matter how, someone’s going to get hit back.

It was only early in the final quarter but Parker’s hit on McGrath was an exclamation mark on the nasty streak. Through the rebound that started with two tough efforts by Geary that put the ball to advantage, and with still only nine points separating the teams, Parker was part of the handball chain off half-back, before accelerating to the wing, finding another gear as he got the ball back and sent it long inside 50 to Stuv in a one-on-one. Stuv was just beaten by Saad’s fist and the ball tumbled out to Merrett, who looked to counter through McGrath. In that few seconds, Parker had reached the edge of the centre square and cannoned into McGrath as the ball reached him. As a fan. there’s not many rolling back to give you a chop out in the stands at an Essendon home game, but maybe the players aren’t taking shit anymore. Matthew Parker at least doesn’t.

Humans #2

For all of the gushing, let’s keep ourselves in check. Was it really that far away from all coming unstuck? Iffy signs were there throughout the second quarter. Bruce could have had three by half-time but for a shanked set shot. Kent missed one too. Lonie’s silly free on the goal line came followed a bad turnover after McGrath and Zaharakis jumped at the same ball. Meyers goaled on the siren, the Bombers were within 22, with momentum, after the margin teetered on 33. At three-quarter time their usual ploy of making us look turgid was paying off, and we were half an hour away from being crowned Royal Losers of the World yet again. People from across the football world had spent the previous hour coming together to laugh at a club they were terrified of being successful again, canning their players for running off the grounf when the ball was next to them, for literally kicking the ball into each other, for competing against each other in a marking contest. But we were doing everything we could to restore natural order.

The afternoon, apparently, was all about the Bombers. A rich and successful club on its knees about to heroically restore its rightful position in the higher, comfier echelons of this game after being tipped by everyone, and doing it all in front an adoring crowd of more than 44,000 while earning hundreds of thousands of dollars each. The St Kilda Football Club could only be so happy to oblige. A quick flick through the history books suggests it’s a service we provide.

A surly Essendon fan had walked quite deliberately through my coffee drinking hand as I stood on the bridge taking a sip before the game, and some kid stepped on my Saints scarf which was draped over the seats next to me they jumped over to the row behind us. For all the optimism we might have felt after the pre-season, and maybe after Round 1, and then for much of the second quarter, maybe our home ground was going to be a Disney store and faux-theatre after all. And maybe we weren’t such a new and improved version of the 2018 Saints.

But it just didn’t happen. Not on Saturday, anyway. The ambition of being the hardest running team for now is apparent in how the players cover the ground to shut down the opposition, and Essendon weren’t able to kick a goal until Gresham had sealed the match. A winning score of 10.16 in an 11-point game would suggest this was dour, but it shouldn’t have been close to that, and certainly wouldn’t have looked like it – on paper or at the ground – if a string of easy shots in the first half actually went through.

What we did get were deeper looks into character across the team, and a look at what individual players can bring to it when they’re given a game plan and a broader licence to express themselves. Billings and Gresham playing higher up the ground can’t be overestimated. The weight is off Billings to kick goals, and players around the ground are moving for him. Gresham still gets a chance to show off his goal kicking nous while we still have the luxury of arguably our best player being around the ball more often. Bruce is back and is playing with the presence of a leader. Parker has played with more personality in two weeks than the entire team did last year.

After the experience of 2014 – Richo’s first season – you would be right to be wary of our latest 2-0 start. That season started with wins against Melbourne and GWS that were always possibilities, and went to 3-2 after a similarly ground-out win against the Bombers in front of an Essendon home crowd on a Saturday night. The afterglow of that match felt similar in a lot of ways. For one night at least, it looked like we might not have to bottom out as the club tried to regather itself after the Grand Finals. We were set to go 4-2, coming up against the winless Lions in New Zealand the following week. We lost by three points, and we didn’t win a game for three months after that. Five years later, the Road to 2018 is a joke with a fine print that covered the marketing team and board members until 2020. The potential and unknown right now isn’t for this season on its own, but for something more sustainable and viable beyond that. And as another winter sets in, five years later, the potential and unknown of these moments simply needs to be embraced.

Watching myself go

by Tom Briglia

Round 1, 2019
St Kilda 4.1, 9.4, 12.4, 13.7 (85)
Gold Coast 5.3, 7.3, 10.4, 13.6 (84)
Crowd: 20,291 at Marvel Stadium, Sunday, March 24th at 1.10pm

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“This is your last chance.”

We’d done the pre-season. We’d practiced going to a St Kilda match and then watching one on TV. I’d spent the last week or two watching AFL 360, watching Richo on Uncovered, watching Open Mike and watching Jonathon Brown and Garry Lyon talk arrogantly about a twilight Grand Final as if it should happen, whilst they are making hundreds of thousands of dollars for sitting On the Couch. Our first pre-match gathering for the year (i.e. me talking about Hawthorn’s new clash jumper) was over, and as we walked out of Platform 28 Rich let us know this was the last opportunity we had until the evening of September 28 to get out. It was obviously a joke, but it doesn’t feel like one right now.

Does footy give your life meaning, or does it take up time and effort from the things that actually do? As per every year, I was prepared to outlay another small fortune on a membership to find out, because if my life’s going down I want to watch it from decent seats. Add to that the time and effort we as supporters outlay on actually preparing, getting to the ground, spending money on food and drink and transport, walking out of the ground, getting home, whilst cursing the club throughout the entire process.

A string of upsets across Friday and Saturday might have had been people applying pie in the sky hopes to us in turn. The new-look Cats snuck past Collingwood, a restumped Port beat Melbourne at the MCG, the evergreen Hawks ground down the Crows at the Adelaide Oval, the Dogs wore the worst and least dignified jumper ever and beat Sydney, and then the young Lions ran all over the top of the reigning premiers with 14 goals to two after quarter time. Why not us?

Because in that instance, the “Why not us?” applies to the Gold Coast and their lowest-profile-ever group of players. On Sunday morning you might have been greeted by the headline, “Horror & hope: the two faces of St Kilda” and you would have remembered that this was the St Kilda Football Club we’re talking about. By Sunday night we might have been feeling a little better about things, given how ridiculous so many of the results turned out to be.

All of the projected Round 1, 2019 teams that started as early as August last year (and perhaps August of 2014 in some forum threads) take shape as injury lists become far more relevant, and Stuv was back (his mullet is too), but what was looking like a decent run with injury early in February quickly turned to shit, and one, two, skip-a-few Sam Rowe plays for St Kilda now.

As you watch the games over the weekend and remember what it’s like to be bored halfway through the second quarter of a neutral match, and then wait around on the morning of a game, and then make your way to the ground, and then meet up and walk around the ground and through the crowd and to your seats, bit-by-bit it becomes more real. What are we really going to look like? What are we really going to do?

Maybe we underestimated the Gold Coast, and maybe we overestimated ourselves, and almost certainly we did both. At three-quarter time it was appropriate to ask if we were in a lose-lose situation. Before the game, would you take a one-point win? Would you have taken a one-point win at three-quarter time? The AFL site predicted a four-point win complete with Gresham kicking the winner, and that looked far more likely at that point than it did at three-quarter time in last year’s meeting.

The beginning

This might have been the lowest-profile game of all time (made more so by the fact we didn’t even get to see Max King’s twin, although conspiracy theorists would have enjoyed his Instagram post during week). The most attention this one got was Fev talking up Richo being sacked if we lost, and Front Bar joking about where Tom Lynch would rather be this round. After a week of sponsored Instagram posts from the players that found themselves without a choice but to turn up at Docklands on Sunday, it was time to step tentatively out of the dark shadows of 2017 and 2018, but those shadows might also be next to the edge of a cliff.

Following last year’s shit-fest of replacing the club song with a bad cover version for no reason and without telling anyone, and then deciding to play atmosphere-ruining music after goals (creating one of the saddest football moments in history late in the heavy Round 3 loss to Adelaide), it was time to see what the club had learned, and what it had come up with over the seven months since our last home game.

First up was hastily slapped together pre-match playlist that was slightly too loud and slightly too shit. Then it was time to blast a throwaway vague-rock track as the team came onto the field, with the idea that it would transition into the bad cover version of the club song as the team ran through the banner, but they botched that too. And I couldn’t work out exactly where to put it, so I’ve given playing recorded chants after goals over the PA its own section further down.

On top of all of that, and being theoretically gifted a win at home against a nondescript Queensland team in the opening round, 2018 struck three more times in the opening minutes when Geary, Parker and Bruce all missed decent looks at goal. It took a Ben Long set shot after Matthew Parker sprinted off along the wing and delivered a near pass to appear to settle things down, but not long after the Suns had four goals to one halfway through the quarter.

Once the ball was in our forward half, the pressure was up and the purposeful passing we saw throughout the pre-season was there, with the much-welcomed composure where appropriate taken. Watching players be able to change gear in a passage of play was a hell of a novelty. But the centre bounce presented repeated problems and made having The Josh Battle Project and Darragh Joyce as our key defenders look as awkward on the field as it did on paper.

Either way, the whole thing fell apart and it was as if Brett Ratten had never come to St Kilda. Outside of a stretch in the second quarter, and gave way to those high nothing kicks down the line. For the all the talking up of aspirations to be the fittest club, we visibly weren’t able to keep working both ways and offer decent options across the ground as we did in the pre-season. Battle needed to be where Paddy was and offer an extra outlet going forward, Kent was much quieter, and Hind and Roberton weren’t there, and those looks inboard we saw in the pre-season, or the effortless quick changes of direction to a readied option just couldn’t happen. Very slowly, something was up.

Perhaps because our first experiences of Docklands were literally coming from the bottom of the ladder over a couple of years, but it’s a lonely fucking Concrete Dome when you’re watching a team of young guys struggle and you feel like the umpires are enjoying being out there a little too much. That quickly reached comic proportions when Lonie was called deliberate for effectively falling over and spilling the ball over the boundary, but it probably summed up a bit where we still are, at least for another week. Not only does it feel too familiar, but it feels normal again.

We’ll be passing the feedback onto our game day team.

Our home ground is now Marvel Stadium, by AFL’s orders, too. Some people said the Thor jumper was just some fun for the kids, but don’t forget it also gave the guy who runs the league and did the deal with Marvel his chance to hang out and be seen with Hollywood people. How would the natural light impact on Disney’s attempts to take over the stadium? Give it some time (the Spiderman climbing wall that will be opening this week between Gates 3 and 5 loomed ominously).

The point being, there was no need to even ask. For the second year running we have the convenience of the club taking it up themselves to spring something on us during the games that no one asked for but was terribly intrusive. After Membrey and Matt Parker goals the chants from Saintly Hymns (the group around Aisle 29 on level one if you’re not familiar – their stuff is on SoundCloud here) were blasted over the PA. I blushed a bit and looked down. The post-goal buzz or whatever the fuck was immediately replaced with bemusement and some smattered polite applause after Membrey’s goal and as the club tried to ride the Parker bandwagon. It wasn’t used after half-time.

So I should point out I have zero things against Saintly Hymns. What makes their chants what they are that were created organically by some people sitting in the crowd. Sure, you can’t avoid it if you’re near it, but that’s different. Would you actually want it being played over the PA after every goal? If not – say it was just played sometimes – then it just smacks of erratic planning. And when do you play it, then? When the atmosphere is lacking? Well, then it’s probably not the time to be playing it. When the stadium is going off because we’re having a huge last quarter? Then there’s no point, because we have what we’re after – an exciting moment that we’re generating and sharing as a crowd, feeding off a team on its way up that we’ve followed through some fucking lean times.

Those chants works as a spur of the moment, not because someone is pushing a button and making you listen to it and giving you no option. In fact, it’s one of the few things that make our Concrete Dome asymmetrical and gives a specific part of it some character that no other part has. That the club has failed to read that or understand the notion of organic atmosphere one year on is really disappointing.

The club twitter said they would pass the feedback of disappointment and bemusement, but I wouldn’t trust them as far as I can throw Lewis Pierce. Keep in mind this is the same club that after Round 5 last year went out of its way to post an article on its site talking up the crowd noise, while it was still pumping out songs that don’t mean anything to anyone post-goal.

PaaAAaaAarker

Matthew Parker almost saved the first quarter on his own, and then went on to save the entire first half. His shot at the opening goal on the run was a rogue introduction to one of the most enjoyable first games from a Saint since…I don’t know who. Arryn Siposs trying to rescue the post-Grand Final fall-out on a Monday night in 2011? Parker’s turn of speed on the wing and sharp pass to Long for what actually was the first goal was incredibly un-St Kilda like; it was a quality he showed when he marked and went back to kick a big set shot goal late in the quarter and capped off with a celebration from someone who was just fucking loving being out there. When was the last time we saw that from someone in a St Kilda jumper?

After joining Daniel Archer on the list of Saints to royally shank their first-ever kicks, Parker would then become one of the few Saints to lift a stadium on their own since that shitty night at the MCG eight years ago. The solo defensive pressure effort against three Suns on the goal line – complete with bouncing back up after throttling himself into the goal post – ended with a massive tackle on Ballard in front of the cheer squad, and then some push and shove that brought in Long, Stuv, Gresham and Billings. That might have been the loudest the members section has been since the GWS draw, and that he plucked the ball out of the air after Membrey got tunnelled and paid the free kick, and decided to roll through the goal himself was thrilling.

Never mind the songs after the goal, changing the club song, or butchering the run-out theatrics. Parker’s hop and skip in the pocket and then cannon right across goal and into the crowd was the best fan engagement the club has come up with.

The Barry Hall Project v2019

Battle looked confused, and just like the pre-season, then looked a whole lot more comfortable moving higher (or is that lower if you’re coming up from defence?) up the ground and getting the ball in his hands. The Barry Hall Project was always going to end one way, or at one end. Have we already forgotten that of all the young tall forwards we’ve tried in the past several years, Battle has looked by far the most naturally skilful.

Paddy’s out for a while and with Brown available and, eventually, Marsh and Rowe, and Darragh holds his form, then this still-strange experiment doesn’t necessarily need to continue. Remember that it was only started out of necessity – the club would have known Carlisle’s situation was possible in the depths of summer. As mentioned, given the reversion to 2018-style trash ball and human movement across the ground, his presence in the front half would have helped. You’re not supposed to plan for doing the wrong thing, but surely he’d only help.

Special mention to New Jason Blake Callum Wilkie. None of the Matthew Parker flair, but a lot of the Dylan Roberton composure and reliability. Several strong marks across the back half and measured use of the ball made for a very handy debut.

3/5-Star Leadership Group

Who do we look to for leadership? Officially it’s not Hannebery anymore, and we now have two out of the original five out of the group, replaced with Billings and Brown. Ben Long denied the club a great moment and turned over the ball when Stuv had marked right in front of goal late in the second quarter. The kick would have put us up by 19 points with little time left before the main change, and the Gold Coast took it right up the other end for a goal. Seconds later a Seb Ross skip and and bounce and bullet pass to Bruce on the lead brought together a chance for two emerging leaders to walk the walk. Bruce saluted. His three goals for the game and huge mark in the final moments – to go with 18 possessions across the ground – was one of the closest things to a captain’s game we’ve seen in the post-Riewoldt era. I still think Paddy plays like a captain when he’s actually out there, and yes it’s Round 1, but Bruce took a small step towards that type on Sunday.

Six Jacks were in the top eight possession winners, led by Billings in his enhanced role that apparently now includes Designated Topless Post-Match Interviewee. He displayed a much more physical edge to his game in the pre-season, and his leadership group status has evidently made him more obliged to get into any push-and-shove that occurs.

If we’re going to be keen on Matthew Parker and Jack Steven and Jade Gresham and Jack Billings and even Josh Bruce’s own personal stylings, then Ben Long’s physical and hardarse edges are what makes him such a welcome presence in the side as much as his work with the ball. It was great to see him right up in Ballard’s face, but as well as the Stuv turnover, he gave away a needless 50-metre penalty in the third quarter. That’s nothing terrible (easy to say when you scrape through with a one-point win) and if can shave off the pointier parts of that he’s going to be one of the better players to watch. Well, he still is anyway, but he would slightly less frustrating.

Moments

This game won’t be remembered for incredible performances, but rather a collection of moments that placed us in just front on the final siren. Parker’s performance was mostly confined to the first half, but he was still the one who delivered neatly to Kent for our solitary final quarter goal. Kent himself was mostly quiet but his second half included a perfectly weighted 45-metre pass to Gresham’s chest in the goal square, and then he drilled the tight-angle goal when no others were forthcoming.

D-Mac’s huge tackle on as the dangerous Sexton wheeled around to kick for his fifth goal; Callum Wilkie taking it one himself to pluck a rushed Suns entry; Bruce’s massive pack mark, drifting back to the top of the defensive square having kicked three goals; Darragh’s one-on-one contest with Peter Wright in the final moments; Dunstan taking the body hit in the final seconds. That was all within the last three minutes of play.

Appropriately, the siren sounded with the ball in the hands of Jack Newnes from winning point-shanker Jack Lonie’s kick. Last year, Newnes made the short journey from whipping boy, AKA Four Tackles, to a Diet Caffeine-Free Jordan De Goey. Numbers weren’t huge for many on Sunday, but he topped everyone with eight inside 50s and five rebound 50s, to go with 23 touches and five tackles.

21 to go

Four medicals for Hannebery might actually be weirder than none at all. Fans were slamming Richo for being honest about Hannebery needing to be “rebuilt”, but we’d otherwise be rightfully accusing the club of covering something up if they just kept rolling out “he’s stepping up his workload and is a couple of weeks away” for months on end. Are you worried that people will know we’re associated with a not great situation, or that we might have made a mistake? Bad luck for all of us, what he’s said is the truth. Tom Scully might be playing in Round 2. You could say he wouldn’t have wanted to come to St Kilda even if we tried to get him instead of Hannebery; why would anyone come here after a five year rebuild that took us on the Road to Nowhere?

Where did Sunday take us? Where did it leave us? Relieved? Sedated? Exhausted?

I don’t miss the thrill

by Tom Briglia

JLT 2, 2019
Western Bulldogs 2.2, 5.4, 10.6, 12.7 (79)
St Kilda 4.3, 7.5, 10.6, 14.9 (93)
Crowd: 4,384 at Mars Stadium, Sunday, March 12th at 4.10pm

Above anything else, what you want from a pre-season is no injuries. Very quickly, the club has been presented three serious cases in which footy itself is outweighed by more important things. The causes read “concussion”, “heart” and “mental health”.

There was a feel-good element around the club after what happened in Werribee following the news around Jack Steven, Jake Carlisle and Dan Hannebery in the days prior. It wasn’t until much later on Sunday – after that Stuv made a very nice public return to the club, and the team had worked hard to wrestle a tough win – did it become apparent that Paddy and Dylan Roberton were again facing issues of a heavy magnitude.

Paddy had kicked his usual two early goals and showed off an enhanced motor across the ground and threatening to tear a game apart before chalking up what has become an almost expected concussion in a marking contest. More innocuously, Robbo has his own scare after feeling “wonky” on the siren, and both of them ended up in hospital overnight. No news is sometimes good news, but with these things there simply can’t be any news yet. The club – i.e. Richo and Ratten – played both down the cases within reason shortly after the events, but the club statement that came out on Monday afternoon was concerningly (but not inappropriately) vague. The statement had merit if only to keep the club lines open to the supporters, but also reaffirmed there is no quick or watertight prevention or safeguard for either issue. Stuv is no lock for anything right now, but even then it’s been publicly acknowledged this was something that had been present for some time, whether or not he was playing senior footy.

Hall of Famer and Premiership Assistant Coach

I’m sure there are logistics I’m not aware of (you’re not to know this, but I’m totally not an events manager at the St Kilda Football Club) but it felt strange having the Hall of Fame event during the week. Perhaps there was an element of getting the club and the players together ahead of the season to give them an understanding and appreciation of guys that came before them. Given Bassat’s comments about where that culture had ended up once by Lenny’s exit at the end of 2014, the club’s chance to harness whatever is left from it – the lessons passed down to the current leaders who played with those guys – has dwindled, and these are rare chances to bring these people together in the same room.

As always, it’s an occasion for the club tinged with sadness. We’re hitting a point now where enough distance is between us in and the careers of Lenny, Max, et al in which they really are a part of the past, and long enough ago to be acknowledged in this kind of way. The careers of Burke, Hudghton and Everitt span from the ill-fated 1997 push (Max even referred to Everitt’s injury in his speech) and through to Hayes, Milne and the left-out Hudghton in 2009. Max went on to be one of the assistant coaches of the Collingwood team – featuring Luke Ball – that we faced off in the Big Dance (s) of 2010. How much intel would they have taken directly to the club that we drew the following year’s Grand Final with? That kind of pain is always there as a St Kilda supporter, but it’s heightened when it comes time to publicly honour yet another generation of players that did so much for the club but weren’t able to deliver that second premiership. March is hardly the time for footy reflection whichever way you look at it.

The Barry Hall Project

In the confirmed long-term absence of Carlisle, Sunday was Take #2 to see what our defence might look like. Brown played in JLT 1, and given his suspension for Round 1, JLT 1 was therefore a rehearsal for the season proper (you could just about consider Brown a lock for the year). He didn’t play on Sunday, so JLT 2 became more of a practice for Round 1.

Carlisle’s absence alone has spilled right across to selection and position across the ground, being cause for shuffle in defence, up forward and in the ruck, and that’s before concerns over Roberton and Paddy. Last week forced some an in-game change when Pierce was concussed and Bruce was moved into the ruck, assisted by New Jason Blake Callum Wilkie pinch hitting in a position he would never have been near before.

Darragh Joyce just about locked himself in for Round 1 by taking on the ridiculous challenge of standing under the ball in the final minutes of a pre-season as half the field was bearing down on him to hit the drop of the ball. He’d done a lot more through that through the day, his defensive positioning and his disposal have clearly improved, and he’s quickly progressed beyond the Zac Dawson-style get-the-ball-and-handball-type full back (which certainly worked well for us then, mind you) that we might have expected from a project player.

The pre-season closed out with Josh Battle entrenched in defence. I’m still indifferent about the move, which appears to have been engineered more out of necessity with the coaches and medical staff clearly expecting for some time that Carlisle’s season was in trouble. A potential absence of Roberton, who was arguably the best player on the ground in the first half before he was rested for part of the third quarter, opens another spot for a taller player in defence. But it feels a bit aloof to be considering that right now.

Of course the move could help Battle’s game – Roo and Kosi both benefited from it, to take easy reference points – and hopefully he’s here for the long haul given that he’s shown so much up forward. Maybe he’s simply that much of a lock as a good forward that we can throw him around the ground and have him up our sleeve as someone to throw into the forward half when required? A string of early possessions outside of the defensive 50 across Mars® Stadium showed again that he’s most valuable when the ball is in his hands. Where’s the best place for that to happen? What if Paddy’s out for a while? (Again, I don’t feel comfortable pondering that.) I have a sneaking suspicion that over time the Josh Battle Project will end the same way as Malcolm Blight’s Barry Hall project of 2001, and to a lesser extent, Fraser Gehrig’s time spent in defence that same year, although that was a little more organic.

I got the impression Richo didn’t seem overly committed to Rowan Marshall playing in Round 1 but I’d suggest most Saints fans would have been pretty happy with his presence right across the ground. A look at any of the SuperCoach articles are making up the bulk of the Herald Sun’s general news section would show he had a good game, but that needs to fuck off a little bit as a metric. He still has more ability up forward than Pierce and Paddy’s availability might have a big say. Bruce was looking more comfortable around the ground and seems slightly wiser (because he’s a dad? but was still winding up for uncontested dropped marks and part of him may forever remain the unassuming futsal ring-in (see his snap goal in the last quarter from the pocket in which he didn’t actually look at the posts, but rather the ball the entire time he was stepping away from the goal).

February and Early-to-Mid March Heroes

Do Matt Parker and This Week’s Club Spokesperson Dean Kent join the pantheon of pre-season heroes that include Jason Traianidis, Sam Cranage, Dean Matthews, Brent Guerra and Eli Templeton? Guys whose highlights packages will heavily feature pre-season venues, pre-season jumpers and an obvious humidity in the air? Or will they go on to elevate themselves beyond the February and March heroics like Joel Smith, Peter Everitt and Aussie Jones?

Parker picked himself for Round 1 in the first minute, marking on the wing and kicking long to to Roma before taking the highest St Kilda mark since Josh Bruce in 2015 (if not, it was, uh, probably Callum Wilkie’s eight days earlier). He slammed it into the post and from that point slowly worked his way out of the team. Then he decided to rough up a few Bulldogs and with Ben Long in an effectively foul mood it’s hard to look past both of them for Round 1. We’re trying to move away from the painfully St Kilda-esque season of last year, and these un-St Kilda types of players are exactly what we need.

Kent is a lock, effectively a smaller, pacier Membrey given the way he leads up and covers so much ground, and both he and Membrey importantly popped up at key moments in the last quarter when goals were required. Of course it’s only the JLT, but it’s also the only real chance the players get to practice wrestling back a match and close it out when challenged.

One of the problems this club has had is no apparent Plan B other than “we are more manic than usual for the next several minutes”. The orders from the top have filtered through, but they’re made a whole lot more workable by the introduction of guys like Hind, Parker and Kent.

Footballers Get Paid Lots but Still Get Bored

Some occasional moments of waywardness – to go with the crowd of barely more than 4,000 at a venue located in Ballarat – suggested this was a cagey countdown until the real season more so than an accumulation of minutes before the real stuff starts.

I think the players were getting bored and restless as the time ticked down to the end of the pre-season, and it was deemed by many that spending those remaining minutes pushing and shoving were a safer option than hard, less-controlled collisions (unfortunately Paddy offered an immediate example).

That feeling had filtered through to the lounge room of RWB’s Elsternwick outpost. Roberton had vaguely attempted mark of the week in the second quarter and Lachie Hunter took the advantage from the spillage and breezed through an easy goal for the Dogs as they inched their way back into the contest. Matt and I were on the couch consuming wasabi-infused cheese courtesy of the good humans at ALDI, and as he eloquently put it; “I don’t mind that in the JLT because I can’t be fucked watching him line up”.

The slick movement across the ground, with an emphasis on tempo and control and movement by foot had started to break down in the third quarter. It was about the time that Gresham kicked several blades of grass further than ball and Lloyd wheeled around for a second goal in a few minutes that the Bulldogs looked far more interested in being there. Gresham was phoning this one again (and still managed to kick an incredibly classy goal on the run in the opening term). Dunstan was getting shitty with the umpires and looking frustrated with his own game in general. He finally got a free kick in the third quarter – taking the tally to 27 to the Dogs and 8 for the Saints – and promptly put the short pass over Gresham’s head and the ball bumbled its way over the line.

Irritable and possibly bored, Newnes dumped Ed Richards over the boundary and into a water bottle, and then Sav put a bit of body work into Richards himself. Parker went the late hit on Bailey Williams and then copped one off the ball; and Morris got smacked by a wayward Bruce leap up the other end, and then Parker got a little bit embarrassed being turned inside out by Caleb Daniel.

Animosity continued into the final term as the overcast conditions and lack of the Disney light show that we’ll be getting in Round 1 made this look like it was being played at an actual footy ground in a traditional afternoon time slot that people still actually quite like. A wayward ball in the St Kilda’s attack early in the last found Williams, and Sinclair jumped on him and tried toppling him over. The ball spilled out to Lonie as the free was paid and Caleb Daniel shoved Lonie into the turf; Bruce pushed Williams who had just got back up; Libba pushed Bruce from behind and Bruce reactively pushed Daniel, who was next to him.

Soon after, Sav tackled Dunkley with an errant open hand shaving his face on the way in and, as they say in the patriarchal classics, it was on. After all of that, Lonie managed to find himself in space running into attack with the footy but, instead of hitting up a subsequently visibly annoyed Bruce, blazed away and possibly gave up his own Round 1 spot.

The Guys We Usually look To (???)

We’re in the frustrating position of The Guys We Usually Talking About being our best performers, but not necessarily guys that actually impact the result or style of a game. That certainly had a lot to do with the way we actually played last year, and one JLT Series Match does not a season make, (although two JLT Series Matches does make a pre-season). The Bont loomed ominously next to Billings in the Foxtel graphic; a perennial benchmark for 2014 number 3 pick and someone who, along with Christian Petracca, might come to represent both the fortunes and foibles of the St Kilda Football Club in future years.

Billings backed up 20 touches and two goals with 25 touches and nine marks, and has also shown continued improvement in his media appearances since being the First Co-Poster Boy for the AFLX last year (before wisely not bothering to play, but the $ on offer from Paddy’s Bolts was too much to ignore in 2019). I’m feeling pretty good about his season at the moment, the obvious game plan changes and the injection of guys like Parker, Kent and Hind alone have already shown some benefit to him.

Newnes has been a quiet achiever as he takes the scenic route to being 2020-2022 Premiership Captain material. Ross had moments that looked more like Sam Mitchell and Robert Harvey, pivoting in space and giving off well-weighted short passes across the ground, Steele is angrier than his mostly kind face suggests, and Dunstan looks genuinely frustrated.

Still not sure who we’re looking to yet, and I hope the coaching changes and changes on the field give us something to care about in 2019 and beyond. Alienating moves in 2018 by the club without fan and member consultation, and rich guys at the executive level at AFL House assuming ownership of a game that means more than they could ever comprehend to people that aren’t millionaires have, for the first time, given an expiration date to my genuine emotional investment in the game.

Real

History will show that it was a dour St Kilda and Bulldogs match in the heat at Princes Park at the end of the pre-season 10 years ago in which the connection between Ross Lyon’s game plan and the players was solidified. And in a year in which we might be having to scrap for positives, the optimistic elements of a pre-season that indeed delivered on the pressing need for good results were joined by sickly negatives that shunt footy to the side. Footy’s about to get real, but it doesn’t take Round 1 for things to get a bit too real very quickly.