by Tom Briglia
Round 13, 2019
Gold Coast Suns 3.5, 5.6, 8.9, 11.10 (76)
St Kilda 0.2, 2.5, 7.8, 11.14 (80)
Crowd: 7,243 at Riverway Stadium, Saturday, June 15th at 1.45pm
In an era of many and considerably terrible decisions, the AFL rightfully recognised this a high-risk shocker and strategically buried it far from where anyone would expect such an awful event to take place. Maybe no-one would ever notice it was happening at all: dumped in the Fox Footy-designated Saturday afternoon timeslot that Brenton Speed is wasted in far too often (suspiciously both he and Jason Bennett are kept away from the limelight by their respective networks); and wedged in one of the three bye weekends (It remains a mystery why they aren’t put together over one split round. Adding to the excess is the fact that the AFL still runs with the extra round number, so Round 23 is in the uncanny valley in the run home when calculating what’s what and knowing that teams play 22 games).
Just like we’d been shipped off in China, we were booked in to disappoint another potential growth market with a no-star line up having trouble stringing together consecutive clean and effective possessions of an Australian Rules football. How many more times does Richo have to talk about butchering the footy in the post-match press conference before something happens? This wasn’t a team getting outbodied or getting undone by brash youthfulness and trying things that make perfect sense but just don’t come off because this whole AFL system and is new. Yet again, a slow start interstate, and the same weird, ineffective footy that have transcended different iterations of teams in different seasons and circumstances under this coach. The 2018-style hurried, anxious ball movement across all parts of the ground was peppered with an occasional break forward that makes it look like it’s worth sticking with, before being emphatically undone by Newnes slicing an easy kick forward to Bruce that all but would have completed one of our better end-to -nd transitions for the season, and Gresham’s set-shot kick from close range taken around the corner comprehensively hit the post.
Adding to the list of Richo’s Classic Hits was the slow start interstate. At quarter-time we’d become just the third team ever to have been kept goalless by the Gold Coast in the first term (their first quarter and first half against us in Round 9 of 2014 remain their best ever). We showed a specific disinterest in scoring. When we did look dangerous, please refer to the above paragraph.
It wasn’t the reason for the slow start, but seven changes – we’re running out of players to be injured, but not all of them were forced – meant novelty line-ups. You’d better believe Richo can still get his mate Dave down for a game. Brandon White? The coaches always had faith in him, send him in. Nick Hind? Of course he’s being rushed into the team after his excellent pre-season in which he effectively used specific skills that we as a team have really specifically lacked. At quarter time, Dave, Hind and Clark had one touch each. Clark was caught tracking the ball from the opening bounce of the second quarter next to Ross and a moment of hesitation from both – the captain and the 20 year-old – had the ball snatched by the Suns, and Clark was easily dismissed from an attempted tackle.
In the same way that last year’s Round 13 fixture between these sides marked the depths of the 2018 season for us, so did this. Guys who haven’t been infected by the 2018 Virus were responsible for the better moments: Wilkie running off the 50-metre penalty to hit up Bruce on the lead, duly dropped. Hind with the long set shot goal, and the speed and then balance to weight his kick to Membrey on his own, dropped again. Walking in to goal, Gresham ran out from his line and then sprayed it. Newnes kicked a banana on the run across the face that rivalled his pre-season, post-match miss in the Werribee pocket against North.
Hard work doesn’t make things easier, but it can make things better. It can also make things more fucking tedious to watch when they’re not working. We’d had plenty of the play either side of half-time but we’d only kicked two goals until there was 12 minutes left in the third quarter. Membrey should have taken a shot on goal but gave off a weird pass to Newnes, Newnes put in a weird forward 50 entry of his own and the Suns took it up the other end. The lead had stretched out to the auspicious margin of 31 points. The fanfare of Fox Footy showing Dal trying get something, anything out of media-indifferent Gresh about his winner 364 days earlier only served to show how far we might not have come in that time after all.
Somehow we again scraped enough competency together to fashion a crappy win, while keeping the opposition to an inoffensive enough score and living up to Seb’s early season warning that there would be close games throughout this year. Never mind that for the freewheeling identity the Gold Coast tried building on and off the field in their early years, they were basically us in our opening five weeks in the first five-eighths of the game: Completely deconstructing the opposition while shanking opportunities on goal across all levels of simplicity and intricacy. Dunstan and Battle’s goals, and any time Nick Hind touched the ball and a couple of tackles in particular were all acts that simply needed to be manifested by the player in those moments. They allowed Membrey’s three goals that emerged out of a game that was threatening to anchor the rest of the team in Trash Bay, as well as Dean Kent to remind us why he’s been selected every week.
The work of Billings, Gresham and Marshall was likewise given a chance to impact the game. In all honesty I didn’t quite think Billings was as busy as he was until the third quarter, perhaps because he’s aesthetically more laconic than Gresh (somewhere between Jack Steven Whirring and Blake Acres Floating). Their weapons hit when the rest of the team decides to make space in parts of the ground that aren’t exclusively further down the line, and players with ball consider kicking shorter and at different angles. Billings’ two goals in the final quarter – one of more than 50 metres off a couple of steps, and another that was earned by White, but Billings was smart enough to run on and present a set shot option closer to goal – put him in matchwinner territory.
One who appears to be consistently immune to a bad team day or a wayward system is Rowan Marshall. He’s at the neutral start of every passage of play. His ruckwork is clearly developing but against a very big body in Witts we saw that it is heading very much in the right direction, and in a team with a B-grade midfield he actually adds a point of difference. Two marks in defence in the final minutes showed the value of him above any other ruckman we’ve had for nearly a decade. He often sets up very deep in general play but he’s not always stationed there just for the long kick in. He’ll come up and meet the ball, too.
At the other end of several plays was Brandon White, who had been left out of the team all year (Richo said on SEN it was because of Wilkie’s form) and was rewarded with being injured and sent to full-forward. Set shot kicking aside, he genuinely looked more comfortable than most there. It’s not just my like for Novelty Bags.
We should be so lucky. We were treated to a ghastly fusing of our Saturday matches against the Gold Coast in Round 16, 2016 and last year’s Round 13. Echoing the former, we were playing to keep our finals chances alive against a team that hadn’t won a game in months (10 weeks in 2016, eight weeks this time), getting off to a slow start and kicking ourselves out of it (and eventually missing the eight on percentage); and last year’s having had a lean run, playing an anxious and/or bored style of football to little effect in the preceding weeks, and having our coach’s future questioned.
The numbers stacked up too. Round 13, the Suns’ biggest lead was 31 points and they had led by 31 points at the final change last year (it had been more during the third quarter); and the final score was almost identical: 11.14 (80) to 11.12 (78) last year; 11.14 (80) to 11.10 (76) this year.
(It also continued our run in which every game we kick more than 10 goals, we win…which is a royal total of three times this year, and we remain the only team to have not kicked 100 points in a game in 2019).
One thing I love about this game is that it’s the actual matches which determine our fate. The sound of the siren. The club song. It’s why finals matter; it’s why Grand Final Day being the final act of the season matters. Major leagues around the world are dominated by mega-celebrity trade reveals via social media posts, and leagues determined by results on TV broadcasts of other team’s matches. This year, we’ve had that metallic taste of sport as some 24-hour distraction vehicle constantly on our tonges. We’ve learned more about this club’s fate in 2019 through social media posts or Alan Richardson’s press conferences or Paddy McCartin’s Triple M interview. Geary twice, Lonie, Jack Steele dislocating his knee cap, Jimmy Webster quietly having a chunk of metal shoved in his hand. On Saturday morning it was Robbo’s article in the Herald Sun. Did that mean Richo was in trouble? Was he ever in trouble? A few weeks ago Jake Niall’s wording in The Age suggested that the board would be looking at whether Richo is the right person for the job in the future rather than if he just does well enough this year (assuming we don’t win a final), given he has a legitimate claim to make of extenuating circumstances. Richo had spent 10 minutes in the third quarter on the bench in China with the luxury of trying to think of what to say to our captain who’s just broken his leg after returning from emergency compartment syndrome surgery because we were losing so comprehensively, which is the St Kilda Football Club’s version of Mark Thompson eating a sandwich because he’s watching a team that will win three premierships in five years on their way to winning in Perth by 135 points.
On Sunday, it was back to living our lives through Twitter and BigFooty forum page refreshes. No sooner had I texted Matt about Hannebery to King from a centre bounce and a long set shot goal, I was frantically shitting out texts about King going down with a knee injury and how many people were or were not thinking it was a corkie. I thought I was being funny when I tweeted this after Jack Steele was hurt on Thursday, now I’m just the latest moron tempting the Footy Gods to fuck with the Saints.
As soon as the words “good news” and “Saints” were linked in a headline, not unlike The Age’s load-blowing “story of the year” in May, things went to shit. With that, the early week AFL.com.au article, “Changes are coming as the good news marches in for the Saints” now links to “Huge blow for Saints as gun mid dislocates kneecap at training”, and late on Saturday afternoon Hunter looked like he’d done something awful and Brandon White was our full-forward. We’re closing in on Brenton Speed calling Alabakis to Mayo.
That might have been the least nervous I’ve been for a close game. There’s been a lot of talk about “emotionally checking out” on certain bigger footy-related forums, and yet again I’m fully conscious of the existential crisis I have about why it is I pay several hundred dollars every year for a membership and write long-winded emails to the club asking why they changed the club song and didn’t ask or tell anyone, and why I write this stupid fucking blog. Last year’s inflection point had led us to a situation beckoning similarly dire consequences one year later, whether we’d done everything we could or not.
There was also the “everyone’s coming back” line about Carlisle, Hannebery, et al that is now being lived, rather than a singular gateway moment vaguely in the near future up our sleeve. As you get nearer the logistics of the week to week and day to day come into play and Webster’s gonna have to wait another week and Lonie’s still longer than we might have thought and Steele dislocated his knee at training and Geary now has a broken other leg.
This is the absolute depths of the season, the furthest from the start of the year and everything it represents, and the furthest from the end of the year and everything that represents. Josh Bruce said we had a “decent stretch” after the Collingwood game; it’s given us a 13-point win against Carlton, a 70-point loss to Port and a lucky four-point win against the Suns. Like in 2016 and to a lesser extent 2017 (but also very much 2007 and 2012 – we’re building a history here), percentage might again sap the viability of the season early, as well as any urgency that might have otherwise counted for something when it really counts.
This was a different kind of relief on the siren. Certainly something a bit quieter as opposed to last year’s temporary arrest of a club plummeting towards crisis and/or Tasmania. I don’t think we actually found out anything new about this team, other than that at the completion Round 13, the 2019 season isn’t mathematically over. Given the names to come back, it might not have really even started; maybe it never will get started.