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.
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.