by Tom Briglia
Round 9, 2019
Collingwood 3.1, 6.2, 11.4, 17.10 (112)
St Kilda 1.3, 4.9, 9.11, 10.11 (71)
Crowd: 60,702 at the MCG, Saturday, May 18th at 1.45pm
I hadn’t watched Luke Beveridge’s press conference following the announcement of the Tom Boyd’s retirement until I was on the train to the game. I am unapologetic about my feelings towards the exceptionalism of Australian Rules, in how its history is respected, kept and acknowledged, and the magnificence of how it is played, and how that is far more conducive to a range of emotions and reflection. One my favourite things in life is a Saturday afternoon at the MCG. There wasn’t quite anything like stepping off the train and taking that walk from Jolimont Station to the ground in the natural air and the natural light. Not purely for how pleasant it was – I’d only just taken out my headphones and put my phone in my pocket after watching Luke Beveridge in tears talking about a 23 year old’s life being upended by mental illness – but for how human it was.
It’s why a day Grand Final makes everything feel that much more exposed. It’s a life event that takes place in natural light, at the mercy of the weather. Every Grand Final is literally viewed through the conditions it is played in. For St Kilda fans, the 1997 Grand Final isn’t as eerie without the context of it being so dark in the afternoon. The 2009 Grand Final isn’t the same game without the wild and harsh fluctuations in light and rain throughout the battle. The 2010 Grand Final and the Replay are distinguishable by the slightly-too-hot sun in the latter (as well as Collingwood playing us off the park for four quarters, as opposed to just two). It’s all real. The alternative is the Concrete Disney Dome; an office building and multinational corporation’s retail outlet nestled among other office buildings, where on winter weekends you say goodbye to the day (and perhaps the weekend) anywhere between 1.30pm and 3pm because for some reason you’re about to head inside to a glorified TV set to watch the footy, largely because people with hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal managed to botch one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the state’s history.
Well done to any of the players for not shitting directly into their pants because that was the biggest crowd I think anyone associated with the St Kilda football club would have seen since Nick Riewoldt’s last game. Quite literally more people turned up than could ever fit in our Concrete Dome home ground, and the stadium was still 40% empty (Was any official reason ever given as to why Docklands was built to a circa 55,000 capacity?). That doesn’t necessitate that a high-quality event will take place, but it’s strange and wonderful how 60,702 people will still congregate for something that really did threaten to be unmemorable given our recent form (and with no need for questionable crowd figures – the match day attendance against West Coast was given at barely one-third of that, at just over 20,000, but is listed as more than 24,000 on the AFL site).
While we might be feeling a little better about the broader direction of the club, there are moments when it’s hard to not take notice of Geelong, Hawthorn and Sydney’s sustained success having won premierships themselves during the GT and Ross eras. Right now, the Cats and Collingwood are now a decent chance of reprising the 2011 The Joke’s On St Kilda Grand Final match-up, and we’re still trying find salvation in individual VFL performances. It’s a little bit harder to not take notice of those narratives still when you’re sitting around at the MCG in 2019 before a match, minding your own business, and The Final Draw starts playing on the big screen.
The club as receded from “Story of the Year” back to the periphery of the competition. Where has the noise gone? I would have asked “Where has Lethlean gone?”, but he popped up on Saturday to tell everyone that we’re a destination club now with the best facilities in the league. Well, something has gotta start happening, as in, literally this week, because Hawthorn’s future home at Dingley is as commendable as it is suspiciously (threateningly?) located close to Moorabbin. Where is Slater? Was the opening period of the season just a freak prolonged event that coincided with some good early-season PR? Aren’t we the fittest team of the comp? Where was Parker or Steele or Gresham or Billings roughing up Varcoe after he smacked Ed Phillips in the head? Where did the goal celebrations go? We need to get hungry and and get angry. Tell the fans about it. Tell the opposition it’s not appreciated. We haven’t said much for over a month now. We’re squabbling with ourselves and our own 2018-echo game plan. The anxiety with the footy’s back, and it’s taken Jade Gresham and Jack Newnes and Blake Acres with it.
Not much movement around the ground in first quarter meant we were wheeling out the 2018 Special of long kicks down the line to nothing in particular. Rarely was a contest in the air being halved – certainly not won – so there weren’t even stoppages to reset for. Some of the more considered ball use we’ve seen in our better periods this year eventually returned, and some of the full ground defence was back, but something stinks with our forward line, and something stinks with how we move the ball. It’s hard to tell what or who or which is at fault when everything is slightly broken. Maybe it’s slightly everything. A ridiculous stretch of 15 consecutive inside 50s during the second quarter yielded fuck all; no other team could pull that kind of thing off. We added only three goals and six behinds for the entire quarter. Young deserved a goal (he at least created an opportunity out of nothing with relentless pace and chasing), and another week saw Seb Ross miss yet another chance for a captain’s goal. Collingwood couldn’t get the ball into their front half but we had no clue going forward how to provide nor find a decent target in a dangerous spot. Just because Marshall belted through a shot from 50 doesn’t mean the plan is working; it reflects on how he’s a lot better than a lot of our guys but that’s it. Otherwise it was too many shots were under pressure or from difficult positions.
Membrey kicked four goals straight but Bruce again got lost in the fog of confused Australian Rules football. His excellent marking display one week earlier needed to be a new normal, not a once-every-two-months event. When he led up and kicked the first goal it appeared as though Josh Bruce was back, but in actuality Josh Bruce was back, and by Josh Bruce I mean the Josh Bruce of vaguely recently; the futsal ring-in who we still haven’t really known what to make of since the start of 2015.
Robbie Young was one of the few things in attack that did work and marked yet another bizarre pick-up by our recruiters purely for the reason that they’re interesting to watch. His stats with the ball were pretty lean, but he kicked two goals, including an excellent raking left-foot goal from near the 50-metre arc, and set up Membrey for another all in the third quarter as we looked to make a move when the game opened up. His first kick that set up Bruce for the opening goal of the game might have been our best forward 50 entry of the day. Like Parker, he is never out of the play. Always hunting. Un-St Kilda like. His chase-down tackle in the second quarter deserved a goal, but he more than made up for it in the third.
Dean Kent played another curio game, not quite enough to have nailed his magnet to the coaches’ board and perhaps leaving himself at the mercy of Ben Long and Bailey Rice’s performances for Sandy. Matt Parker had a second quieter week with the ball but he’s still too dangerous when he’s in the general area. All we got from the final quarter was a Josh Battle mark with 90 seconds left. Josh Battle is quickly turning into this year’s Jake Carlisle – not only has he effectively taken his place in defence, but Richo and the coaches are also using him as the default “we tried something different” move, three goals to the opposition in the game too late. Battle will almost certainly return to the forward line (RIGHT?!) after his Riewoldt-style education is done, but why not give him the responsibility of needing to make an impact up forward while the game is still alive? He arguably showed more promise as a forward than anyone else did last year; do it for the team’s sake, as well as his own.
The Magpies got the inevitable easy goal before the final change as we placed our face firmly in the path of the psychological blow of having done all the hard work to not even have the lead. Through the third quarter we were hitting eerie 2009 Grand Final scoreline areas, and a scoreline at the final change of 9.11 to 11.4 would tell you that we’d blown it. There is plausible theory that the MCG brings out the best of this team. Two of our better performances last year – against Richmond, including Gresham kicking six, and a win against Melbourne – followed by a match last year that some of us dared believe was a landmark event for this team. The last quarter only confirmed what most suspected with a bigger 2019 sample size at our disposal; that for all the work St Kilda did in breaking down the opposition it didn’t actually know what to do with the game when it had it in its hands. Collingwood were never far away from lifting a small gear that would create a broad, ugly gulf between the two teams. This game was set up at the final change as a perfect test to see where our supposedly new system and being the fittest team in the comp would get us. It just showed us up for having a midfield that is severely beneath the better brigades in the competition. Dunstan was great for another week but neither him nor Seb Ross can be the headline act of a successful team’s midfield, and Blake Acres isn’t quite what we thought he would be this year.
There was some comfort in being prepared for a 0-3 result from the past three weeks. A string of three premiership fancies was itself a constant low-pressure release valve. Let’s see what we’ve got. The answer was not much. We didn’t have many players left. But things matter now. No more burners. This was a difficult period we just had to get through, and then the rest of the draw won’t be so tough. Right? Josh Bruce danced with the idea during the week, in the way Jack Steele danced with the idea of finals after Round 5. One month after that evening at the MCG, we left the same ground having not won since. Jack Billings’ post-siren goal seemed a long time ago; as if it was part of a different world line. Now we’re just ticking down to a vague time in the near future in which Carlisle, Steven, Hannebery, Webster, Geary and Lonie are all in the team. On Sunday, away from any cameras or Dwayne Russell’s yelling, Max King added his name to that list.