by Tom Briglia
Round 4, 2018
Geelong Cats 4.3, 8.6, 13.8, 15.13 (103)
St Kilda 1.4, 3.7, 5.8, 7.14 (56)
Crowd: 27,338 at GMHBA Stadium, Sunday, April 16 at 4.40pm
Flu Royale 2018 came a little earlier than usual. The Geelong trip has never counted as the non-negotiable must-attend that all of St Kilda’s Melbourne games are considered, but either way I was shacked up at home in my oversized dressing gown watching on TV with two one-litre bottles of Gatorade, a lot of Nurofen and two bags of jalapeno-flavoured Farmhouse Culture sauerkraut chips in a bid to force some sort of head cold drainage ASAP.
Not all of the olive leaf extract, echinacea, and zinc + C capsules in the world were going to change anything on either side of the screen. Throw in the multitude of Nick Riewoldt groans and sighs from the Fox Footy box setting new standards for partisan commentating and we still would have come back down the highway with the same overall result, probably with the same scoreline, and certainly having earned it via the same bemusing method.
It should be noted straight up that Dylan Roberton’s collapse was a very scary moment and stripped away the more decadent of rages and depressions we allow (afford?) ourselves as St Kilda fans. As Gerard Whateley has said (and Bob Murphy reaffirmed the other week in Open Mike), sport is the “dessert tray of life”. The cut on the broadcast from pre-ball up to a quite visibly concerned Newnes, Gilbert and Carlisle running over to Roberton was a very abrupt, raw reminder of where our priorities really are, compounded when the footage showing players from both teams trying to grab the attention of staff on the bench and the umpire. That Roberton got up quickly and came off looking quite fine was as much of a relief as you could get in the moment, but quelled some of the emotional energy we would have repeatedly tried to summon as another long ball forward landed into the comfortable hands of Tom Stewart.
In more pragmatic terms for that moment, and the rest of the evening, it brought the viewing experience back to what it was – watching a poorly skilled and apparently poorly coached football team playing Australian Rules football against a much better team representing a much more competent club.
If you’d watched the first several minutes then you’d watched them all, and even Sandy Roberts calling Esava Ratugolea “Ratagalouie” came back later in the game. As a seasoned Saints fan, Sandy had probably given up on the whole thing like the rest of us early in the third, but Roo and to a lesser extent Nicky Dal took on a more flustered tone, although Nicky Dal saved some of his ammo for the Monday.
Billings collected what may have been the most meaningless 23 touches possible, as well as two behinds, but it was his first involvement that should have had any Saint watching turn off the TV or legging it out of the ground to South Geelong station to try and salvage what was left of the weekend. He tempered his attack on a low ball forward of centre as a Geelong opponent was coming the other way, and instead of picking up the ball and barging through, or bracing and freeing his arms, he leaned back awkwardly to avoid contact that wasn’t really coming, and dished out a handball along the ground between two Saints. Needless to say, the Cats were away, and went straight up the other end for their first goal.
The numbers didn’t reflect a “soft” game, but numbers don’t reflect that kind of stuff to begin with, and fair to say Geelong outworked us pretty comprehensively everywhere. Starting extra players back because – by Richo’s own admission – we weren’t overly confident in the midfield getting it done suggested we’re also not overly confident in the blue-collar, pressure-heavy style that supposedly defines our better footy. You also end up with Robbo saying right at your head on television the next night that you’re messing with young forwards because they’re left without the support they should otherwise get from players that are be closer to them, as long, useless ball after long, useless ball is driven forward like a post-apocalyptic Dead Hand system sending out missiles into a nuclear wasteland.
I don’t know how I felt on balance about the 360 grilling and the clear discomfort of the situation on the set and for Richo, but part of me secretly enjoyed it. It was embarrassing for the club, and I don’t know how much more money the club it on top of my Ultimate Social Club and Southern Saints memberships before really basic stuff is covered five seasons into a rebuild.
Simon Lethlean might come across as a no-bullshit sort of operator but during the week he’d tried slipping in the supposed deviation from the Road to 2018 plan as if we were stupid for having believed any of in the first place. If it was always going to be malleable then what’s the fucking point of having it? And making big deal of it? And producing these videos for it? And charging supporters $150 to give presentations about it? To shut the fans up through a darker period with an official, documented plan the club could refer us to. Selling St Kilda-style hope, but having dressed that hope in a suit and tie.
“Basic stuff” includes basic stuff like handling the old Australian Rules football. Just like the JLT games (except this was an actual game that counts for stuff), really simply skill and decision errors started popping up immediately. Gilbert dropped an easy mark, St Kilda Football Club Captain Jarryn Geary made his contribution with a small, pokey kick out of defence to flat footed Jake Carlisle that was quickly turned over, Gresham and Newnes royally messed a clean break from defence along the wing, Marshall was outmsucled in a one-on-one with Bews, and Gresham kicked off the back of the centre square to an outnumbered Tom Hickey instead of lowering the eyes.
All this to go with 1.4 for the quarter, with all four misses coming from set shots that were hung out to the right. Never mind that Dan Menzel in the next quarter slotted one from the boundary line. Our set shot kicking coach is better known for being a CentreBet spruiker and one of the many hosts on one of the more confusing footy shows on TV, and right now any images of him at a St Kilda training session will be looked at similarly to any image of Nathan Carroll.
Back to Gresham’s kick – I’m picking him out because it was one of the early occurrences of what would define the day. Regardless of a player’s talent, skill or composure, there was incessant kicking long to an outnumbered player with little to no support on the ground, and no real sign that there was an order for anyone to be doing anything else. Let’s hope the kick was at least to the player’s advantage to begin with (it wasn’t). I don’t know how many times I’m going to say this during the year, but I don’t know what else to say – it was so comprehensive and broadbrushed. That’s what happened. It was talked about non-stop in the commentary box, as I said, Nicky Dal ran with it afterwards, and it was broadcast nationally and is all available in excellent quality, right now, digitally.
No half-time spray or measured talking to or shake of the head – whatever the hell went on in those 20 minutes – made any change. Once they came back out, Paddy had either caught the bug or decided to dish out what he’d been receiving, and bombed one deep into attack himself. Blacres joined the sad party and undid some neat work from Long (that one went straight back up the other end for a goal), and by the time Steele kicked to a one on three Roo gave up on the commentary box diplomacy and let out a heavy-hearted “it’s becoming ridiculous now”.
Paddy toiled admirably, which I think comes across as a bit of a patronising cliche to use, but following a week that he came under the most intense scrutiny of his career, competed repeatedly in a way that was hard to ignore in the circumstances. Tell me it’s his fault his career’s this way after watching any of the last three games. And then he gets his car stolen and house broken into that night? You’ve got to be shitting me.
Moments of class are perhaps being misread or overrated by Saints fans at the moment, but there were a few hints of above-average competence. Among it all Ben Long, on his way to playing the best game of his short career, cleverly soccered his way past a Geelong player wide on the forward flank, but Lonie couldn’t read the second deft kick inboard. Instead, he’d run on as if Long had already picked up the ball and started the action of handpassing over the top of the Geelong player.
In the few minutes late in the second half that we threatened to be vaguely competitive, Rowan Marshall was at his busiest rucking and actually looking threatening in the forward line, and as much as it said about him it said about the mystery en masse ebbs and flows the team experiences throughout the game. A strong mark on the 50 metre line, and flushed the set shot right through the middle. We didn’t actually know until after half time that the goal would just about be it for him, because the only impact Billings had for the day was on his face.
Dunstan again played like one of the few guys who visibly cared,. Carlisle is our best backman, possibly our best forward if we actually played him there when the game was still up for grabs, and possibly our best ruckman too, but the Hickey and Marshall pairing seemed to work a lot more effectively across the ground in the half that it was operating. Marshall again showed what a dynamic player in a Saints jumper can look like, and Blacres had moments but for fuck’s sake, is that what we’re back to looking for now? Really? It’s nice that Clark and Coffield – who genuinely have shown class and composure beyond most in their short time at the club – have had their contracts extended, but the club is hitting the Poster Boy button on the pairing a little too early.
Long was probably the only real news out of the game. The game had been over for some time when he read the ball skipping over a pack in the forward pocked, turned his opponent inside-out near the point post and snapped a goal over his shoulder, but he also worked hard up the ground in what showed one of the first real expansions on the creative moments that have carried his reputation into the AFL system.
Right now, there is nothing apparent in our game plan that allows for Billings to do what he does best, or Gresham, or even Acres, which is what made Long’s game so noticeable. Our sharpest and most damaging players have looked blunted since Good Friday afternoon. Roo derided the “metres gained” stat at least twice, specifically after separate Shane Savage long kicks to not much in particular. Premiums are too high for too little, but probably on parity with what the Saints have worked with for too long.
A flustered Roo spoke for almost all Saints fans watching the tripe (and anyone who’d given up their Sunday evening for it) when he was finally given licence to really snap late in the game, teeing off on Newnes who sliced one from outside 50 when Paddy was one-out in the goal square. It was a rare occasion where there was a player not just one-out, but one-out close to the actual posts. Garry Lyon pressed him over whether it was personnel or system and his breathless response was emphatic – it was the system; as they had all day from the opening bounce when there were extra numbers camped in defence, and time after time after time after time players would look to kick long to a one-on-two if basic skill errors hadn’t stopped progress up the ground already. Maybe our structures are that flawed
Where a comment like that, or putting blame the structures and systems becomes really damning is that he had been there throughout Richo’s entire career to this point, and captain (officially and unofficially) during that time. He would have known every single move trying to pulled from the coaches box on the ground. Shortly afterwards, Geary kicked a short ball in the defensive 50 to Jordan Cunico, who went back and kicked a goal.
I’m in the very, very large camp-turned-metropolis that broadly dislikes Dwayne Russell as a football commentator (if he’s paired with someone for games he’s actually tempered and not too bad), but he wrote a suspiciously positive article about Saints fans for the Geelong Advertiser on Sunday. It closed with, “You might see a handful in Saints colours during the broadcast today. Don’t feel sorry for them. Salute them. As far as AFL fans go, these are the elite of the elite. The diamonds that can’t be crushed.”
Now, I’m not saying let’s go to the game this Saturday because it make us feel good about ourselves, and “Fortius Quo Fidelius” doesn’t mean “no matter what, this club is great”. This club is not successful on or off the field, not historically and certainly not now, and we might be seeing the 21st century equivalent of what those that endured the awful 1980s saw, and for fuck’s sake I’ll be sending another letter to the club if there’s music playing after the goals and ruining the moment again and The Fable Singers aren’t brought back because the club won’t shrug at anything the AFL tells them to do, even if it simply destroys the experience of being at the footy because someone who can afford to not worry about it gets the feedback on an easy-to-read one-pager later on, and they can use that for planning the night Grand Final. The club didn’t ask anyone about anything like that in the first place, and they certainly didn’t respond to the letter. I said last week that we as fans would be asking again “What do we get?” out of the relationship between this club and the supporters. Right now, I don’t know what realistically the best outcome of any of this is, or what that would actually look like on a day-to-day basis, but the longer it goes – whether it’s within a season or over years – I don’t know if I should bother waiting for a response.