by Tom Briglia
Round 17, 2017
St Kilda 0.2, 2.6, 4.11, 7.15 (57)
Essendon 2.5, 6.10, 13.12, 17.16 (118)
Crowd: 47,156 at Etihad Stadium, Friday, July 14th at 7.50pm
Ever since I had this platform I’ve whinged about the mere prospect of playing the Bombers, and after Friday night I’ll continue to do so. They’ve always presented a challenge for us. Even when we were challenging in the mid-aughts and they were suffering a sustained struggle they still gave us all sorts of problems. It was a loss to them in mid-2005 that was the catalyst for our stirring run in the second half of the season; we squeaked past them by three points in 2006 at a sodden MCG; they knocked us off with some arsey specials in 2007. Never mind the incredible last match the of 2008 home-and-away season that saw us smash through by 108 points to finish fourth on percentage. Of course, of course, of course it was the mid-table Bombers that would hand us our first defeat in 2009 following My Favourite Hair in the AFL’s post-siren miss, and then they knocked us off twice in 2010, before a thumping early in 2011 that really signalled our post-Gand Finals comedown.
I remember leaving the ground after that 2009 loss thinking that despite the loss, we finally looked like a club that might shirk those moments. That “it won’t matter so much in six weeks”. I remember those specific words running through my head. But here we are.
Sure, we’d accounted for them over the past three years in varying degrees, but the Bombers are now back to playing the fast footy that has troubled us regardless of ladder positions for…ever. It could be this week, it could be last decade, or it could be the league’s maiden season of 1897. Zero prizes for guessing who the premiers and wooden spooners were that year. Their culture of arrogance, aggression and success is entirely at odds with our own. “The past never dies”.
That’s not to say that’s what last night was all about. The Bombers have knocked off some quality teams – Port and West Coast comprehensively, and the Cats. They’ve come close to GWS and Richmond, and had the Swans and Lions fall through their fingers in recent weeks.
Because of that – as well as the aforementioned historical aspect – I hadn’t been this fucking nervous going to game for a long time. Arguably the most even season in VFL/AFL history and the essential cliche of “one week at a time” be damned. The media is growing tired of talking teams up or down, but after four wins the interrobang of Richmond game a few sneaky hopes for 2017 might have crept into the periphery of our minds. We were due a close game at the Corporate Dome television set too.
On the Friday morning Billings had the feature article in The Age, which is probably not a good thing. I remember Robert Walls’ write up of Brent Guerra in the same paper after he’d kicked seven in our Round 9 thumping of West Coast in 2004. We were 9-0 and looked to have the perfect compliment to Milne mopping up after the G-Train, My Favourite Hair in the AFL, Hamill and Kosi, not to mention being raging flag favourites. Guerra was never the same again (but of course played in a premiership…with another club. Twice.). On the same day, in the same paper, Jake Carlisle got a write up too ahead of his 100th game his old club, so it promised to be a big day for him, just like it was for author Wayne Carey with the announcement of Simon Lethlean and Richard Simkiss being forced to resign etc. etc. etc. See how easy that shit is? I’m sure a few St Kilda schoolgirl jokes got a run this week with the selection of St Kilda schoolboy Josh Battle.
So we opened with our first goalless quarter of the year. The opening few minutes gave me the same impression those of our first Sydney game did this year – we’re not switched on. It was last week inverted – the Bombers had more numbers at each contest and running for each other. They set up quickly enough to at least worry us out of the kick into the middle from half-back to open up the game, and when they had the ball off half-back they pulled players wide and kept space open in the middle for that kick that opens the game up. The quality of disposal was on display, too.
There were a few things in those early moments that we could worry about in isolation. Are we missing the option of Membrey going forward? Are we missing Webster’s disposal off half-back? Will we be able to catch them coming off two six-day breaks if this keeps going? And, miraculously, are we missing Billy Longer?
The bluntness of Richo in the post-match press conference was itself an accurate reflection of the performance. None of the above mattered. No intent, no DARE® Iced Coffee with ball. Despite finding himself again in the stepladder role, Carlisle was the only one who looked like he was on a mission. He actually had a few kicked on him by Daniher, but I’m not going to blame him too much for that. It wasn’t just that we were beaten so badly across the ground that the delivery to Joe was of decent quality, it’s also that Joe’s becoming so good now he’s the type of player you almost just concede will kick a few when they run out.
But no one else turned up. Carlisle’s good-time media buddy Billings was missing, Ross was quiet, Steele was a no-show and Steven was vaguely present as Merrett and Zaharakis went bananas in the head-to-head, again, an inversion on the previous week, this time of the Cotchin and Martin match-ups. Jobe’s absence was negligible.
Essendon’s poor kicking at goal kept us in it for a time, but through the second term the gulf in intent and class widened. They hit harder and got lower and it took Carlisle’s presence in the air out of the contest. Brilliant passes to Joe and a slick finish from Zaharakis at the St Kilda cheer squad end were damning, as up the other the Essendon fans ensured the dynamic of the Corporate Dome-style faux sell-out was based around the Bombers. When Newnes missed an easy set shot at their end it became an Essendon home match. When St Kilda showed they’d decided to keep going with the post-match interview with a player on the stadium screen even after a loss, and specifically after the other team’s song had played, and then had the ground announcer say “Go Saints!” before Essendon’s song started again, we looked stupid.
We’d prided ourselves in recent weeks on keeping North to 2.6 at half-time and then Richmond to 1.4. On Friday night we were 2.6 at the main break ourselves. We were up 92 to 10 against the Tigers at half-time and didn’t even end up doubling their score. Essendon were 3.9 during the second quarter but took themselves to 6.10 by the siren and more than doubled ours by the end.
Where was…anyone? I had to ask myself again standing around in the members’ section on level 2, which was flat as fuck compared to six nights earlier. Bruce had marked and turned on the 50-metre arc for a great G-Train goal but that was where it began and ended. There wasn’t even any vaguely interesting inane chat from coming through in the direct audio feed from the broadcaster’s ad breaks, which we’re privy to in toilets of The Doorman. It’s the kind of useless garbage you don’t think about during the week until you actually hear it.
Hickey’s hit-out straight to Green in the last few seconds of the half for an easy Bombers goal was probably where the whole thing was at. It’s hard to say “Longer has finally won”, because Hickey was coming back into the team after three months, including a knee injury, and in a week where no one else decided to run out either. I genuinely felt bad for Trickey running around out there, though. Kind of bemused and infuriated, sure. Peak Longer was something we’d never thought we’d see but if Billy doesn’t come back in next week then I hope they give Trickey another shot. Watching him get shoved around in the ruck, miss an easy shot at goal and walk into the path of Carlisle’s lead, and be outmarked by Bellchambers in the goal square in front of Essendon’s cheer squad felt like we might have been watching someone’s career be extinguished in two hours of footy. I really, really, hope it’s not the case. Holmes has registered 62 hit-outs and 57 in recent weeks but we’d be looking at a Longer-style ruck purposes-only player.
Meanwhile, up the other end Josh Battle was heading towards a Will Johnson-type debut (sans concussion), or perhaps even Jackson Ferguson given he’d been called up in the same week as a pantsing. I’d duly melted on Wednesday night when a tweet with some inside info came through saying the other, other JB – My New Favourite Player – would be making his debut this week. Just minutes later, the club confirmed as much on the site. His first goal showed he could at least kick straight when just about no-one else could. I wouldn’t be totally down on him coming out this week – given he’s still finishing school this was one more game than I expected him to play. Brett Thomas pointed out during the week that he was the first school student debutant for the club since John Georgiou, which is great historically, but also very not great historically. However, Georgiou’s time with the Saints did give us some quintessential 1990s Australian television feature journalism.
Bringing in Marshall surely has to be on the cards this week. Even if Hickey plays again, he can bring in support for the forwards and as well relief ruck duties, and keeping in mind Richo noted he was elevated to the senior list during the week more so to cover for height in the backline. Carlisle ended up going forward as it was and didn’t look out of place, but that’s more of a contingency place.
I use the term “My New Favourite Player” for Josh Battle with trepidation. “My Favourite Player” was Arryn Siposs, but unfathomably my support alone was unable to take him to the heights I was hoping he’d reach as a roaming half-forward. He and his family were massive Saints supporters, too. It seemed to fit. For a time he was genuinely a bright spot in the cold, dark fall-out following the 2009 and 2010 Grand Finals. Instead, names like Siposs, as well as Simpkin, Murdoch and Curren have joined those of Murray, Wulf, Beetham and Moyle from that last generation; those that gave some moments of genuine optimism for the years ahead, but were never quite a part of the serious challenges. Hopefully my ill-structured, convoluted ramblings can make Josh Battle the superstar cult hero his name alone suggests he could be.
Before the game it was nice to think Mav, Membrey, Webster, Armitage, Longer (?), Dunstan, Acres, Goddard, McCartin and to a lesser extent Minchington and Wright weren’t out there. The depth is building slowly, but it’s the trend line you need to look at. If the team isn’t psychologically switched on and isn’t working to provide a weight of numbers across the ground, or take the game on with the ball in hand, I don’t think Richo himself can do much more until we trade for or draft in some more class and quality. Otherwise, we’re hoping for some Seb Ross-style development from a bunch of guys. We’ve seen it happen in a few guys this season already, namely Billings, Sinclair and Roberton, but we’ll need more of it before we can slice our way across the ground, peak-Hawthorn style.
Given the type of season it is, of course it’s easy to get carried away with the next 11 weeks and feel like might be a chance of snatching premiership if we could only just scrape into the eight. That might be true, The list of guys playing for Sandy and the type of performance we turned in was a reminder that this group is still developing, let alone incomplete given our strong hand going into the trade and draft periods this year.
That didn’t change the sting of the loss immediately afterwards. We would have been sitting in the top four at the end of the night – as we should have been the previous Saturday night – had we won. Instead we were reminded what it was like to lose a game that genuinely meant something in the context of the season. It had been a long time. Welcome back to that disappointment.