Still looking back before we look forward

The clock is truly ticking on the Saints 2014 campaign now. And whilst, at this point, it’s felt on the surface like an almost pointless year – at least from a fans perspective – hopefully in retrospect it turns out to be somewhat of a stepping-stone. A significant building block and not just another 12 months spent by a last-minute coach weeding his way through auditioning players who he may well have not rated upon arrival or within a couple of weeks of being at Boulder Colorado.

I thought it’s been rather curious and perhaps telling that Richo has been a lot more forthright in the media in the last couple of weeks. For instance, he raised the idea that it was a bit ridiculous to hand out a priority pick to the Dees when the Saints are destined to finish lower than them on the ladder. Another example came in the post-match presser after last weeks dull loss to the Tigers in which he singled out Seb Ross and indirectly challenged him to take the bull by the horns in the Saints engine room.

It will have no doubt been a severely challenging year for the rook coach. Like I already touched on, he came in at the 11th hour (or even later), his coaching staff was mushed together between guys who were already locked-in for the season (Kingsley, Sexton et al) and then some others. Darren jolly’s contract allowed him to be on The Block during the season for crying out loud. So there’s that, and there’s also the fact that because of the late appointment he didn’t get the chance to have a serious say in the Club’s thoughts on potential recruits; hence, he may have ended up with guys he may not have been 100% crazy about. It’s like filling-in for someone else’s role at work and being at their desk with all their stuff stilling lying around – tissues, framed photos of loved ones, personalized sticky notes, social media sites still logged-in to their account.

Hence, this year at times has had a touch of 2012 about in some ways. Scott Watters was installed at the last minute in 2011 and it didn’t feel until 2013 that he had ‘his guys’ at his disposal both in terms of coaches and players.

And again, a parallel can be drawn with the administration too: we’ve seen terry Dillon moved on, a restructure and a couple of new appointments through the season.

I’m not saying these actions were unnecessary or not required, only that, it’s tough enough seeing your team plummet to the bottom let alone also seeing the foundations of the Club annually pulled apart, re-jigged and re-directed.

The mooted Junction Oval – and the subsequent scrapping of Linen House Center – only further adds to the situation. But that in itself deserves it’s own column.

With all that in mind, definitely looking forward to the day when we can actually start seriously thinking about re-scaling the footy mountain with everyone on board, rather than continually holding on and finding our feet and grip.

And with that, watching a football match through the lens of wanting your team to win. Because last week against the Tiges, as much as I got into the spirit of the game being sat next to a bunch of Tigers fans, in the back of my mind I was definitely wary of what actually winning the game would have done to where we’d sit in the National Draft. Thankfully, the Saints inadequacies meant that the winning bit was never a real problem.

And though stranger things may have happened, it would be daft of me to espouse the idea that the Saints could surrender the wooden spoon today. The Adelaide Crows have a lot, lot more to play for today. A birth in the finals for one. And competition for spots in said finals game for another.

But let’s not that forget that that’s viewed through the lens of winning the game. The Saints indeed do, in a completely different way have a fair bit to play for. James Gwilt comes back into the team and with that, I dare say it might be the last time we see him play in the red, white and black. Particularly, because Sam Fisher – another candidate to be chopped at years end – has shown some real Fisher form in the last couple of games. Dylan Roberton will also be under the microscope for the same reasons.

And they’re only the obvious ones. There are several players of ours that may be in the shop window come October, and this is (perhaps uknowingly) their final chance to display their skills and crafts. Rhys Stanley and David Armitage are the two that immediately spring to mind. Tom Lee might have been another were his shoulders not screwed up for the umpteenth time.

Spencer does some things; that’s pretty much it really

Round 22, 2014
Richmond 6.0, 8.3, 13.5, 15.8 (98)
St Kilda 2.2, 4.7, 5.9, 10.12 (72)
Crowd: 47,188 at the MCG, Sunday, 24th August ay 4.40pm

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As I left the MCG on Sunday night, I had a kind of junk food buzz from Spencer White’s three goals. Or perhaps the kind you get listening to Morrissey.

But the more I think about it the more clearly this was a stand-out element of the game. Partly because he finally played and actually kicked three goals, but also partly because come this point of the season – when all you’re playing for is to not get the number one pick – no one will remember much otherwise. I certainly can’t remember anything else.

Sunday evening, 4.40pm start, cool MCG, only a sprinkle of rain – not great circumstances for a match by any means, but it wasn’t overly bad and this one was only ever going to count for the Tigers. For me it was a chance to stamp my return to Melbourne life after three weeks visiting my parents in London. It wasn’t a long time but it was great to watch the Saints with Dad (albeit on my laptop screen); otherwise you really do feel a long way from the game when it’s summer over there (yes, they still have a summer of sorts) and the games are over by the time you’ve got your day up and going.

It was also a chance to use the MCC membership for the first time this season (the Hawks debacle fortunately one of the only Saints matches I’ve missed this year). Better late than never, although I do have nearly all of September to give it a run, too.

I sat with my brother goalside of the centre favouring the City End along with a few of his friends. It was an incredibly relaxed atmosphere (around us, anyway) and, as I’ve said before in this reviews, when the Saints are this bad the games still serve the purpose of a valued social outing with my brother. I really do get something even in sitting back and having a chat with him about the Saints and everything else (no beers this week though, being in the MCC – had to settle for the coffee).

A six-goal start to the Tigers meant yet another game this season which the Saints supporters would wait for all week, only to spend almost its entirety waiting for it to finish. Even when My Favourite Hair in the AFL kicked a lovely set shot goal from the boundary to bring us within seven points, and even though we ended up winning two out of the four quarters, I don’t think anyone at the ground felt the result was in doubt. Billy Longer’s reaction to Ben Griffiths’ early goal basically summed it up – a few minutes in and we’re already done.

It dare say it still feels strange at this time of year not going to the game with the idea that the team will be out there hunting for something serious. That the time just might be now. Instead, there were about 18 Saints supporters on hand to see not much at all.

The Lenny Hayes Farewell Tour entered its penultimate week to, I must say, what felt like little fanfare. He got a small cheer each time he received the ball, but overall it was a far cry from the Robert Harvey exit in front of 77,002 in a Preliminary Final. I know he had the home game devoted to him a few weeks ago but this was still the last time most of us would be able to see him live.

Honestly, it really did look like the players were playing for fark all. It wasn’t just a six goal start to the Tigers, but also that we didn’t look like scoring a goal.

You barely had time to sit down before Jack Riewoldt had begun resumption of regular proceedings and was on his way to taking his usual giant shit on St Kilda’s head. It was somewhere between “fitting” and “even more annoying” that half of his six goals came from arsey Geelong-style set-shot kicks from around the corner.

Armo inexplicably found the ball in traffic deep in defence and kicked it about 30 metres across goal, which my brother broke the bemused silence following with, “If you did that in the Under 12′s the coach would be pretty flat”.

This came after a Seb Ross nothing kick to Roo on a rare foray forward; a good Mav contest undone by his own poorly placed kick to Tom Curren, and then Newnes getting caught. There was a concerningly long list of “One of those days” moments.

Then the moment we’d all been waiting for – SPENCER WHITE DID A THING. A mark, and then – as often occurs – a kick, but the passage ended up with a Schneider (do we need him?) point.

It took a dubious but otherwise commendable Nathan Wright smother-tackle-handball effort to set up Shenton who atoned for his earlier miss (so he of all people ended up kicking both our first behind and goal). Strangely, it was the start of a chain of four goals which should have threatened to turn the match on its head, but when the aforementioned Favourite Hair brought us within seven points I don’t think anyone was seriously considering that some sort of highly competitive Australian Rules football match was about to unfold in front of them.

So it proved. The Tigers slowed it down, held possession and worked their way to Jack. It was a sign of the maturity of a Richmond team that were storming their way to eight wins in a row, after very nearly reaching the top four last season. A couple of steadying goals for the Tigers to round out the half and they were out to a 50-point lead deep into the third term (even the half-time scoreline of 8.3 to 4.7 showed an equal number of scoring shots). If it wasn’t for Richmond taking the foot off a little and three Spencer White goals  this could have been really ugly. When the final siren went, it hardly felt like the conclusion to a match decided by “only” 26 points.

Let’s get it out of the way. Spencer White. OK. Cool. How do we feel? We should be feeling half-decent I think. He didn’t get a whole lot of the footy but he clearly made the most of things when he did. His first goal came from some nice body work to get to the drop of the ball from My Favourite Hair pushing hard up the ground and giving off to Joey. It followed a Roo kick in which, after so many times of grilling teammates after poor delivery to him in recent years (and rightfully so, might I had), the skipper spotted the first-gamer on a hard lead and gave him an absolutely dog’s balls pass. But, as the captain should, he made up for it within minutes. Spencer reciprocated and calmly kicked the goal from 30 in front with his rather lackadaisical style.

Dare I say it, but combined with the manner in which he kicked his three goals off the left with the minimal follow-through of the boot, did it not recall the great G-Train? His second and third goals, wheeling onto his left foot, instantly reminded me of the G-Train’s specialty also. Likewise, his minimal celebrations capped off the quietly confident attitude he seems to have.

The second goal I really liked because he seemed to position himself for his teammates to do the right thing by their structural expectations. Once he got the footy his opponent was quickly on his hammer but he showed some real composure to turn around and kick the goal – also note that, again, despite the minimal follow-through the kick easily went about 50 metres. The third was lucky because Mav and TC were there to spill up the mark he should have taken in the first place, but again, he atoned for it by working himself into the space and finishing.

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Certainly from the reports of his VFL appearances his ability to get to the right position offensively and defensively have been key topics. There were a few occasions he did hang a bit off the packs, but given what else we saw of him you could easily put that down to a first gamer simply being unsure if that’s what he was meant to be doing – Roo was right next to him on a couple of occasions and I think that might have confused him a little. Because it wasn’t until Roo was pushed up the ground during the third quarter that Spencer all of sudden found himself confidently leading and putting himself in good spots in attack. Although he got caught his attempted burn along the boundary in the third was a good sign, too. He clearly needs a bit more muscle and to work on his tank, but he’s also 19 and has played one game.

I think the exciting thing about this is how much more promise he’s already shown than so many of the tried and failed tall(er) forwards this club has tried since the Gehrig/Riewoldt/Hamill/Koschitzke attack of a decade ago, when the club took the step up to being a consistently strong performer. The roll call is spectacular in its disappointment – Paul Cahill, Matthew Ferguson, Tom Lynch, Fergus Watts, Beau Maister, Tommy Walsh, Justin Sweeney, Ryan Gamble, Charlie Gardiner, Will Johnson, Daniel Archer. And that’s not to mention Tom Lee, My Favourite Player Arryn Siposs, Sam Dunell and even Josh Bruce and Tom Simpkin, who we’re all still waiting on. That’s without including all the briefly-tried-and-failed experiments of Barry Brooks, James Gwilt, Zac Dawson and Sam Gilbert, and the unfortunate Jarryd Allen.

Which, of course, brings us to the Big Rhys Bandwagon, which has clearly been lost in the Spencer White Roadshow’s rearview mirror. Unfortunately, but rather predictably, apart from the obvious this game will simply fall into the unconscious regions of our St Kilda supporting lives, and Rhys was no exception. He suffered the ignominy of being subbed out of the game with fark all impact, and in all honesty I only remember two things that he did, and one didn’t even happen during the game. That was to be the last Saints player off the ground, shaking hands with the Tigers players as they broke from their guard of honour. Which I thought was strange because it appeared as though Rhys of all people was representing the club in thanking the Tigers after their admirable show of respect to Lenny.

The other was actually a positive – Billy Longer, still quite fresh from his slightly overhyped and ultimately unsatisfying Schneiderman appearance, put in a softish effort going back with the footy just forward of centre wing, and Rhys came in with a big tackle on Billy’s opponent and then went in for a bit of push and shove immediately after. So, you ask, where the hell is that throughout the rest of the game? After the Fremantle game we were all jumping around celebrating the official arrival of Big Rhys, and after some of his form earlier this year you might have been forgiven for thinking that he’d played enough games to know how to recapture and then maintain that form. But this club doesn’t forgive, and it will let us down some way, somehow. For now, we’re just left with another question mark.

Question marks aplenty, really. Writing a report at this time of year is hard to morph into simply a season review for whoever I mention. I was just about to bring up Cam Shenton but what am I going to say that’s any different to what I’m going to say about him next week? Or in the season wrap faff we’ll no doubt produce throughout September? Well, he kicked our first goal and first behind through some hard running, and also took a nice contested mark on the wing which led to Roo’s goal from the boundary.

Nathan Wright’s game has similarities but I think Wright has a better head on his shoulders. He hits the contest harder and he’s probably more reliable structurally and with the ball in hand. Who comes out for Savage? What about Webster? Has Brodie Murdoch shown enough? Is Farren Ray still playing regularly when that time comes? Again, all questions on a more macro level, relevant to 2015 and beyond rather than next week.

It meant nothing really but it was at least nice to see the players gave enough of a shit – even if only for their own careers – to kick five goals to two in the final term. The Tigers fans had been singing their song for nearly 20 minutes by the time the final siren sounded.

It had also been some time since the throng of supporters around the St Kilda race had begun growing so fans could get their last glimpse in the flesh of Lenny in his St Kilda jumper. Like his most famous moment and most famous performance, it was in the St Kilda clash jumper – albeit a slightly different version – on the MCG. But Lenny was clearly embarrassed by the attention. He’ll never walk off the MCG a St Kilda premiership player. Indeed, he walked off the MCG on Sunday with St Kilda staring at its 27th wooden spoon. Whatever the task, however, there was still some hard work ahead. And before the memories could come flooding back, he was gone.

Spencer Spencer Spencer Spencer Spencer Spencer Spencer

Aaand here we go.

Spencer White will make his debut. A guy most people thought was a myth will hog most of the pre-match spotlight, rather than a legend who is playing his final game in the club’s home state.

It wasn’t the case until yesterday’s naming of the final team. Until, the week (from a St Kilda perspective, remember) had been all about Jason Holmes starring in the club’s entry into this year’s Virgin Australia Film Contest, which seems to be some vague annual competition open to about four AFL teams.

The most striking thing about this year was that it was a dramatic shift in tone to last year’s, which was so ridiculous it had claimed the St Kilda careers of Scott Watters, Jordan Staley, Jay Lever, Ahmed Saad, Ben McEvoy and Jackson Ferguson within weeks.

It was full of bad acting, but they weren’t given much choice with the script. This year, Jason Holmes somehow demonstrates that it’s possible for an AFL footballer to put in a convincing performance in the voiceover booth, as well as on camera. As melodramatic as it is, I actually like the last blurred shot of him in the background walking out onto Corporate Stadium in a St Kilda uniform – something we actually haven’t seen before.

Likewise Spencer White. For all the hype Saints fans have built up around him – and even members of the wider footy public – the only highlights and imagery we have of him so far are in the black and gold stripes and blue collar and cuffs of Sandringham (and occasionally the sky-bordering-on-highlighter blue clash, or the unnecessarily mostly-white clash).

What are we expecting from Spencer this Sunday? Last week aside, we’ve recently gone in with the attack set-up of the My Favourite-Bandwagon Alliance complimented by Josh Bruce hanging around doing stuff. Spencer in his first game probably won’t have the physical presence Bruce would and you’d expect his natural game ideally to be somewhere between Roo’s and and Rhys’s games – quicker than Roo and can play deep, press up or run back into open space. Dare I say it…like Buddy? I think the problem with that comparison is more to do with people’s reaction to it – they think he’s actually going to be as good as Buddy. Rather, it’s more his style is like Franklin’s, although at pick 25 and with some of the bits and pieces we’ve seen we realise he could be anything (for better or worse). Also, he’s 19 FFS.

The knock’s been on his defensive work so as anyone from the club who’s commented on him this week has said, Sunday will be all about providing a contest, whether it be at the ball or off the ball. Simple, I guess.

Unfortunately Shane Savage fractured his arm in TWO places at TRAINING on Friday. Fark knows how that happens, but it means Brodie Murdoch comes in. Fine by me in the sense that it’s a great chance for Brodie (who kicked his goal with a banana set-shot kick at the MCG against Richmond in a 4.40pm Sunday game last year), but geez that’s tough for Sav. Over the past eight games he’s almost been in our best in seven of those, and regardless of Friday’s mishap all of a sudden we feel like we have a long-term option off half-back.

Also into the side, perhaps bemusingly, is CJ. In a week in which Richo talked about really changing up the list after the season, surely a 30 year-old who has trouble kicking an Australian Rules football is being brought in for his last chance?

Jimmy Gwilt wasn’t so fortunate. If you’re in his position and you’re getting dropped for Round 22 when your side is on the bottom of the ladder, I think it says a lot about the club’s plans for him. I think we’ve all got a soft spot for Jimmy too – he was one of the few guys to really step up in 2010 and improve on the previous year when for so many that season seemed to be simply about doing just enough.

And uh, yeah, let’s not forget the opposition, considering that’s who we’re playing against and so on. The Tigers are roaring (and so on) and fark, they may well be in the eight by the end of the round. Dusty’s out with a hamstring though, and whilst that’s a huge blow overall I don’t think it will make or break them this Sunday night. They’re looking every bit of the team that was finished just outside the four last season, and rather strangely, if they do sneak in and lose the first week then they’ll have finished exactly where they did last year.

Look, unless the entire Richmond team broke out in awful acne and were put on Minocycline and they all came down with unpredictable but violent diarrhea (just a hypothetical scenario I thought up), no selection decisions are really going to influence this one. Barring a Bizarro game echoing the Freo day out (yes, that actually happened), you’d expect Cotchin to have another day out against the Saints and Deledio and Ellis to use a lot of footy to good effect. Look out for Jack Riewoldt trying to get St Kilda back to personal bunny status too.

Ultimately, for St Kilda fans this match will be about a chance to see one of the greatest Saints in person for the final time. The hype around Spencer from some may suggest we may also be witnessing the dawn of a juggernaut, but we won’t know that for a long time. What we do know is this is the last time we go to the ground to see Lenny play, so soak that up if nothing else.

The 2014 Schneiderman rankings preview

Now, I’ve been doing some thinking of late. Regarding, this year’s list of Schneiderman episodes that is and more specifically which of them have been the best.

I’ll get this out of the way right now: this isn’t the official top rankings. No, no, that’s going to have to involve some re-watches of various contenders and some scribbling on whiteboards and what not. This merely is me thinking aloud and getting down on the screen (?) what are potentially the real contenders for taking out the #1 ranking.

Without further ado…

  • Tom “Gettin’ Hickey With It” Hickey
  • Clinton “Brad” Jones
  • Jimmy “Chimbley” Webster
  • Tom “Head” Simpkin (RWB Favourite)
  • Eli “Dreads” Templeton

To just set up the atmosphere, the suspense and yada yada yada – just watch Lenny Hayes’ effort from 2013.

It’s a long (long, long) way to the top

It’s games like these where you just totally feel that the Saints are deeply rooted to square one, and that there’s not yet any real signs as to when we’ll move on from there.

Rich has mentioned a couple of times that we’ve had too many passengers; from an effort perspective and just a contribution one too. And Saturday was another one of those days where that really stood out.

For as much as it was The Buddy Show for a large portion of the day, the Swans really flexed their muscle in all facets of the game. It was a systematic decimation, in the words of former Saints coach Ken Sheldon.

As always it started out of the middle with Kennedy, Hannebery, and Bird amongst others jolting the Swans into gear after Nick Riewoldt put the saints up by a goal with our first foray forward. The ever reliable Richards and Grundy weren’t only resolute defensively, but acutely precise going forward. Soon to be All-Australian half-back Nick Macelski chipped in with a sublime left-footed snap from the pocket; even Canadian Mike Pike nearly hacked a goal out of mid-air.

You could only look on in awe of how strong and well drilled the Swans were, but the worst part was that the Saints pretty much fell into that trap too. Within about 5 minutes or so of the start it seemed like we were glorified training cones, not daring to getting in harms way and merely chasing and corralling shadows for the rest of the quarter.

With the 2013 draftees out (Dunstan, Billings injured and Acres still at Sandy), and a few other youngsters injured too, my most compelling reason for watching the game was Nathan Wright. He didn’t really disappoint either: he was one of our best, and despite coming off a 10-week layoff he was ridiculously hard at it. Newnes was the other youngster that really took the game to the Swans, racking up 26 touches.

I mentioned to @Tom_Briglia a couple of weeks back that we hand’t given @newnesy nearly enough column space this year even though he’s probably in the top 5 or so in the Best & Fairest at this point.

For all the @newnesy Fan Club members out there:

-       He’s one of only four Saints to have played all 20 games so far this year (Delaney, Dempster and Riewoldt being the other 3)

-       He’s one of only six St Kilda players to have averaged over 20 disposals this year (alongside Montagna, Hayes, Steven, Ray and Armitage)

-       Contrastingly, to most of our players, @newnesy is finishing the season off particularly strongly, averaging 23.75 disposals over his last 4 matches.

 

Everything about Newnes’ career so far has gone so smoothly, that he hasn’t really stood out from the pack. He’s just gone about his business, and all of a sudden he has 45 games to his name after not even three seasons worth.

That’s not to say his game at the minute is near perfect. He’s a really penetrating kick, but like another dashing Saints flanker before him (Jason Gram), he has the tendency to shank one every 5 kicks or so. Like Richo mentioned in the post-game though, one of the things that stands out about his game relative to our other players is that he consistent gets into space, gets past his man and drives us forward in doing so.

That might not sound like much, but it does stick out like a sore thumb when you see how much we handball sideways and backwards off the back of packs. Of course, that’s partly due to the Swans a-grade pressure, but also because of the lack of precision, work-rate and ingenuity to break the lines.

One thing about watching Buddy kick 8 is just wondering whether we’ll ever see a similarly type of majestic performance from Rhys Stanley – or the Saints very own Buddy, Spencer White. As much as Rhys had a pretty quiet day, he did kick a superb goal in the last quarter. He snaffled the ball at ground-level before turning and snapping a brilliant goal from about 45 meters out. This wasn’t too long after he kicked his first for the day, getting on the end of a sideways pass at 52 meters before banging it over the goal umpires hat off barely a step.

The bottom line of Rhys career thus far is that he has flattered to deceive, but those individual moments are hard to ignore. And in Rhys’ defence – a position I haven’t come from very often – the job that his midfielders and utilities did to help him get into the game on Saturday was pretty shocking. If you watch any Saints game (particularly on Channel 7) this year you get numerous comments about how hard Roo works yet gets putrid service. And whilst that may be true a lot of the time, you can’t then turn around and keep saying “it’s time for Rhys Stanley to get going in his career” – he’s on the same team, and he’s on the end of a lot of the same horrendous skill errors.

Jimmy Gwilt spent another week as the “third option” in the forward line. This week he only managed one major. He also provided an assist for David Armitage in the third term with a nice handpass. Gwilt probably shouldn’t be offered another contract, especially seeing as though Sean Dempster has already been re-signed for a year and Josh Bruce has shown some decent signs as a third forward himself.

But maybe the club should offer him a part-time role as a forwards coach. You only have to watch him for a game to realize his natural talent as a forward. In two weeks (Saturday and the second half against the Bulldogs) Gwilt has probably one more one-on-one, body to body contests in those 6 quarters than Rhys has all season long. And the easy rebuttal is to say that Gwilt is a much different player – and that’s true to a degree because he’s built so different to Rhys – but with Rhys’ size advantage over the vast majority of his match-ups, he’d only need to incorporate that element into his game 10% of the time in order to boost his overall output in a massive way.

As much as the side isn’t anywhere near prepared for life after Lenny, you can at least feel a degree of comfort in some of the players we’ve stocked up on through the midfield. On top of Newnes, guys like Dunstan, Ross, Billings, Acres, Curren, Webster, Weller and Wright will shoulder more and more of the load whether they’re ready or not next year. But like the commentary team on Saturday said, the same can’t be said of the Saints book-ends. Outside of Rhys, there isn’t yet a lot to build around. Spencer White is still a myth.

And with only two games to go now, I think there will be more food for thought dished up in terms of the elder players than the younger ones.