by Tom Briglia
Round 23, 2017
Richmond 4.1, 11.5, 12.7, 19.8 (122)
St Kilda 1.2, 4.3, 9.9, 12.9 (81)
Crowd: 69,104 at the MCG, Sunday, August 27th at 3.20pm
I’ve been putting off writing this. It can’t possibly be a game review as it usually would be. Inevitably it would be all about Nick. Writing about his last match would also make the fact that he is now retired more real.
Thinking about his final game is to think about his career and be moving in and out of moments of hope and heartbreak, and very little in between. I began shedding a few tears when the scoreboard flashed up his career statistics in the minutes after the final siren; the first time I would see any final reference to his playing career. 336 Games, 718 Goals. That’s how it will remain.
For all intents and purposes, Nick Riewoldt was the one who would lead the St Kilda Football Club to its second premiership. I don’t know how many times I’ve written that on this thing, let alone just thought it. The thought of him holding the premiership cup made sense. Who else would it be?
To believe in Nick Riewoldt playing in our next premiership challenge was to believe that we might be able to find redemption for anything that happened throughout all the extremes since the 2000 and 2014 wooden spoons, and what we seem to refer to now as “the Grand Finals”. Nick was someone that had been there with you for that journey. It made sense that he was the number one pick at the end of the year 2000, at a(nother) ground zero for the club that he would lead with his good mate picked at number two to the promised land. He won the 2002 best and fairest, a season that returned just five wins and a draw. He was a key part of the 2004 and 2005 teams. He was the one who led the team out on the Grand Final Days of 2009 and 2010. It’s worth noting that he was at the front of the “St Kilda schoolgirl” bullshit in the months following the Replay, that marked the beginning of the end. His faux-knee in Round 1 apparently heralded the handover to the players who we hope are part of our next premiership challenge. To watch the end of his career is let all of that go, to let it all become part of history.
In lieu of vast quantities of team success over 144 seasons, it is individuals that have had to celebrate more so about this club. Nick was a beating heart in a human body that represented the club. Right now we can only hope that this club is better for having had him. Hell, even our premiership has solitary elements to it. We remain with the failed St Kilda identity in tact. One Darrel Baldock. One Ian Stewart. One Tony Lockett. One Robert Harvey. Still, somehow, One premiership, by one point. One Nick Riewoldt.
I shed more than a few tears as he was carried off by The Most Inaccurate Man in the AFL and, wonderfully, his cousin. I’d taken both my Maddie’s Match and membership scarves to the game and wrapped the former around my face. I stood outside the MCG after the game for a bit but they weren’t really going to stop, so I walked to the city with it over my face the entire time and caught the 58 tram home, sitting in the corner facing backwards and out the window.
Until I’d come home and watched Richo’s post-match press conference and the highlights I could stay in that moment in which we were all experiencing Nick Riewoldt’s last match. He wasn’t quite retired, not just yet. For just those few moments. But watching back his final post-match interview on the ground, his final moments in a St Kilda jumper on a footy field – one based on the jumper he wore in his first game, no less – Richo talking about the day in the past-tense, and then an interview in the rooms with Nick himself made it very real. I ended up pulling my dressing gown over my head, lest an individual look up to my bedroom window overlooking Brunswick West and see my oddly lamplit face crying at my desk over the computer. On behalf of whoever might stumble across that: no thanks.
What to say about the game itself? By quarter-time the season was officially over as the Dockers’ late push against the Bombers fell short. Our effort ended up being a disappointing replica of the Melbourne match just a fortnight earlier; in fact, all three results on the Sunday were the opposite of what was required for us to make the finals.
If we shat ourselves under the pressure of the occasion and the gaze of 53,000 people against the Demons, then the 69,000-plus fans might have amounted to the most people Billings, Gresham, et al might had ever seen in one place and the effect was the same. Never in it as Richmond looked like the top four team they’ve become, getting first use and breaking down any move we made coming the other way, and getting an even contribution across the ground.
Flipping the Port Adelaide result would have only meant missing out on finals by percentage for the second consecutive season, and we were rightly left lamenting inherent aspects of our game plan rather than just thinking “what if” about a few moments and ignoring the constant inaccurate kicking and useless delivery going forward.
The final few minutes were almost – almost – enjoyable. The stress of this season, the stress of having a countdown clock on Roo’s career, they were coming to a close, and it should be pointed out the Richmond fans and players were excellent in their reception of him after the game. His first mark on the wing in the final minutes was met with a huge cheer, as we sought to soak up what he brought the field for perhaps the final time. The umpire decided to step in and pay a free kick to his cousin Jack, which was a little bit funny to begin with, and was made funnier when the smiles on the ground brought everyone in on the joke. Shortly afterwards he took another contested mark in the same spot, and still managed to break the emotion of the moment by kicking a torp. I don’t think he particularly tried kicking it any further than he usually would have; he carefully put it onto his boot to make sure he kicked it correctly, and it took me a couple of days to realise it wasn’t a barrel at all – it was an NFL-style punt; a nod to a sport he loves and the country that is now an integral part of his life.
It would prove to be his last contribution. He would be on the goal-line for the kick after the siren. The final play of his final game. As Josh Bruce moved to wrap his arms around him, Jade Gresham kicked his fifth goal.
It would be remiss of me to not mention Joey after today’s announcement. He never got rid of the loopy kicks and he was probably the most unfashionable of a core midfield brigade with Lenny, Dal and, for a period, Harvey, Thompson and Powell. He was capable of long running goals too but also handy for some clever moves. His great goal late in the third quarter of the 2009 Grand Final has been pushed to the darker corners of our memories. It would prove to be our last goal of the 2009 season.
He was overlooked over the past few years as a leader around the club. It’s hard to compete with Riewoldt’s blonde hair alone on the field, and it’s more of a shame that his exit would be pushed so far into the background. Leigh Montagna’s 2010 season is second in St Kilda history for most disposals with 745, 10 ahead of Robert Harvey’s 1998 season and 11 behind his 1997. Joey’s 2009 is seventh on that list. Of the 1,589 people to have played for St Kilda, he has played the seventh most games.
“Be proud that you’re a St Kilda person.”
In the frenzied off-season following 2010, Nick made an impassioned speech at the club’s annual general meeting. He closed with these words, which were so simply against the tide of the time. In front of the board, the entire playing list, and members, he took a swipe at the media and at anyone looking to “denigrate us”. As fans of course we were all feeling it, and the 2011 season would prove the players were too. The introduction of the black collar and cuffs on the jumper felt like a mark of disgrace emanating from the failed premiership bid over so many seasons, and after so much promise.
It was left to him to guide the club out of the black hole it was swallowed by. Even in the 2010 Draw, it was Roo who wouldn’t let us go down, who took what remains an overlooked mark across half-back to shift the play to our front half for the final score and final moments. In a club that has only existed in extremes, seven days later he would be on the wrong side of the moment that represented the gulf between the teams. Dodgy knee and frustration aside, he took on the figurehead role through another wooden spoon, and the early, unrewarding stages of a rebuild. Of course, he suffered extreme personal duress in that period, also.
For the first time this club will be without a clear leader, or clear heart and soul. Barker’s career overlapped with Frawley and Lockett, which were given over to Harvey, Burke and Loewe. Harvey remained, and Lenny and Riewoldt were there to take on what had been built from 2009.
That lineage is done now appears done now. It really began with the 1991 and 1992 finals appearances, took in 1997 and the failed 1998, the rebuild to 2004 and 2005 and then 2009 and 2010. History will tell us if it represented the closest to a golden era the Saints can get after the period overseen by Allan Jeans. That era succumbed to a long winter, and after this season we’re painfully unsure that this rebuild will take us close.
That Nick Riewoldt would ever retire seemed something bordering on unfathomable for so long. I remember early in 2004 thinking how bright and how endless the club’s future looked. Nick embodied the notion that GT instilled in him – that footy is a reflection of the person. Nick was the embodiment of St Kilda in a number of ways, and therefore he represented something so dear to us for so long.
Nick’s retirement is sad perhaps because felt as if it came at the right moment. That, definitively, it would ever be a reality. It is a reminder that time doesn’t wait for anything or anyone. Not even Saint Nick.