Some gains, but it was mostly just annoying

By Tom Briglia

Round 11, 2013
St Kilda 4.2, 6.7, 9.10, 11.14 (80)
West Coast Eagles 3.4, 5.7, 7.9, 12.12 (84)
Crowd: 23,795 at Etihad Stadium, Sunday, June 9th at 4.40pm

I think we’re going to have to get used to the 4.40pm timeslot for the foreseeable future.

That’s what happens when you don’t kick your goals on Grand Final Day. Success breeds success. Hawthorn are top of the table five years after they delivered, and the Cats might win their fourth premiership in seven years. Collingwood are still gearing towards their best this season. They all have great youth coming through and are the kinds of teams that players like Josh Caddy and Brian Lake want to go to.

Losses – whether they be deserved or undeserved – happen when you don’t kick your goals; when you don’t take your opportunities. It happened again tonight.

The obvious talking point, unfortunately, is the umpiring. I’ll what most people do and open up with, “I like to complain about the umpires, but…” but tonight I thought was one of those nights in which the umpiring should be complained about, and should be discussed during the week. I’m not sure what we’ll get out of that, other than some more severe fluctuations in umpiring standards and involvement in games throughout the year.

There is a difference between complaining or discussing (or however you want to dress it) the umpiring and outright “blaming” the result on the umpiring. Of course the umpiring made a difference in this game, notable a negative one on the Saint and a positive one for the Eagles. For every time you bring up the soft free to Dean Cox early in the fourth near the West Coast goals – only minutes after he’d had a whinge to the umpires before the quarter – then you must bring up Joey’s inexplicable miss from directly in front, which would have put the Saints up by more than a goal well into time on. Give Priddis the free for in the back in the last, too, but then note that the pressure really slipped late in the first and second quarters, and the Eagles kicked goals in each on the siren.

Of course, you could argue that they players weren’t properly rewarded by the umpires for their hard work and tackling, and I would certainly agree with you there. But if a team is good enough, umpiring standards should be a moot point when discussing the result. At the end of it, we’ve all cracked the Ahmed Saads.

The fact that the “obvious talking point” is the umpiring perhaps unfairly covers the really encouraging performances of guys like Newnes, Ross, Dunell and Saunders, 4.40pm timeslot or not.

As I’m becoming accustomed to, that’s what I was really looking forward to on the way to the ground on the Sunbury line. As expected, there no Saints supporters on the train until one family got on at North Melbourne station, but I had the feeling that there probably weren’t many St Kilda supporters on any trains anywhere.

I – and, I’m assuming, we – have joked about how small North Melbourne’s crowds are. I certainly did last week, when only 25,000 bothered turning up for two of their heroes’ respective milestone games. All of a sudden, we were the ones playing host in a tin can to 16 people in the vacuum timeslot. In fact, this week was worse, with only 23,000 turning up, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more West Coast supporters tonight than there were Saints supporters last week. Our patch on Level 2 around Aisle 32 felt pretty bare for what is close to the heart of the member’s section. Personally, I was starting to see some elements that would define this new era that began with at the beginning of 2012. I had a drink at LiveWire before the game with dear cousin Evan, who just turned 18 in the past couple of weeks, and we enjoyed unsurpassed views of a near-empty stadium. We then met my dad at our Aisle 32 seats, for what might be his last home game at Docklands for some time as he and my mum are moving to the UK over the next month or two. A new era indeed.

It’s no excuse, but the reality is tough times means you’re guaranteed only a certain percentage of your fans to actually show up each week. I don’t think many people were expecting the Eagles to put in two rubbish performances in a row, and judging by the teams on paper and St Kilda’s recent form it looked like the Eagles only needed to get the ball above head height to win this one. Cox, Nic Nat, Kennedy and Darling were to go up against a defence that’s had a questionable record against key forwards in recent times – see J. Riewoldt, Cloke, Black and Petrie – and one that was missing its general in Sam Fisher. As it turned out, Kennedy was a late withdrawal, so there were only three pillars of destruction to contend with. The Saints also had Big Tom Hickey as one of two Late Withdrawal Lotto Division 1 claimants, and so were one down in their developing Big Guys Dept.

Wright was the other out, which was a shame because he’s been one of the positives for this year. The Hardarse Triumvirate was thus down to Ross and Newnes, and both started particularly well. Seb laid some really hard tackles in the forward half and Newnes got a lot of the ball. I guess they finished with what you could modest stats but they showed the kind of intent that you’re after in guys that have only played several games each. Incredibly importantly, they’re in the leadership group that isn’t THE leadership group, and not the one that leads the leaders, but the other, other leadership group. So you know they’re quality.

It’s not all cheers and credit to thems in terms of output just yet. They’re still very raw. Newnes can commit really well to a contest and move the ball on nicely but he can easily fluff an uncontested mark straight after, which he did last night, but the poise will come with more game time and he’ll be able to hit those contests even harder after a couple more pre-seasons. Likewise Jobe’s cousin, who will develop into a tougher player over time that can do the dirty stuff. There might be a couple of knocks on his disposal for now but that too should settle with game time. Both have also shortened in the betting for 2017 (or ‘18 or ‘19) Premiership Captain, but they’re a long way off being favourites.

The whole side started with some real intent. They’d looked like they’d rightfully got a kick up the arse after last week, and straight away the ball movement was confident and the pressure up. The Tip Rat kicked the first two in a game that showed he’s still got something to offer the club on the field, and the Saints the had first four.

The forward line otherwise didn’t quite function to plan in terms of goal scoring. Roo kicked one and fluffed a huge chance in the last from two metres out, but was his usual hard-working self otherwise. It felt like he spent most of the game a bit further up from goal, with Wilkes and the smalls Milne, TDL and Saad working closer. Another Trevor Barker Award is on its way, dodgy knee permitting.

BIG RHYS BANDWAGON was parked in the forward line for a lot of the game, too, and looked a bit more at home rotating through attack and the ruck after finishing last week pretty well. He did only kick one goal, though, part of the opening blitz in which pure willpower forced the ball forward, hacked twice out of mid-air – CJ looked substandard even in this department – and Rhys finished it off. But he missed a couple of shots, too, including one in the final term. As for his rucking, the stats wouldn’t quite back-up Swat’s comments post-match about playing him forward of the ball, however. Big Cox and Nic Nat monstered Big Ben and Big Rhys in hitouts, with the final tally 57-23, and the one clear hit out Rhys got early went straight to Cox.

It also leaves a question about what role there is in the short-term for all of Big Ben, Rhys and Tom in the same side. Swat hinted that until the club trades for a key defender, the club won’t be able to have Rhys forward every week, and that the plan seems to be for a very raw Tom to get 12-15 games in this season. That suggests Tom will come in and Rhys will go to defence. If Ben is going to maintain this drop in form, then there’s going to be a lot of teething problems at 200cm and above for the remainder of this year.

Maister was the other goalscorer early on, finishing the good work Dunell had produced streaming forward and steadying in the pocket. It was one of Big Beau’s best games for the club – 11 marks around the ground reflected how hard he worked – but he still has his personal percentage of marks he’s allowed to take regardless of how difficult the chances are, and dropped a couple. But it was cruel – and maybe it’s cruel to say this was telling, but perhaps it was telling – that he missed the set shot late to put the game out of reach of the Eagles, and then was the one tracking Mackenzie on the way to the Eagle kicking the winner. Mackenzie was increasing the gap between them, but Beau managed to trip over himself and land on his face to make sure everyone knew he was in the vicinity of another crucial rubbish moment for the Saints.

With the Saints seemingly playing above and beyond what we were expecting early on, surely they were going to run out of petrol tickets by the time the second half came around. Mline missed a goal he should have kicked – to the reaction in the members of quiet disappointment and acceptance – and then intercepted the kick-in and goaled; Selwood handballed to an overlapping Saint, and there was also Dunell, Ross and Newnes hunting in a pack that forced the ball back from the Eagles’ forward line. But given the rubbish run from the umpires, the missed chances at goal and the Eagles kicking another major on the siren at half-time I still felt like things were set up for a West Coast win somehow, some way.

By the last quarter the players were tiring and the game opened up. The Saints had kept the Eagles to seven goals to the final change, but the Eagles had enough in their legs to add on five in the last. Yes, a couple of them were from questionable free kicks, but they were winning the clearances and good enough to keep it in their attack for threatening amounts of time – and then they took those chances when they came. Indeed, they won despite finishing with less scoring shots than the Saints.

One stat floating on Twitter has the Eagles at a +214 differential in the free kick count since the beginning of the 2011 season. That’s pretty damning, and the umpires were true to form last night. So what do you about it? What do Swat and the coaches go back and look at? They go and look at what’s actually in their control going forward. I think we all need to take a deep breath, curse the umpires bitterly and aggressively maybe seven or eight more times, and then focus on that.

Swat has proven himself as able to talk the talk, and he did well to talk to the positives of the way a side littered with youngsters went about playing against much more fancies opposition. Down back, they’re just going to have to bide their time until trade period; until then we’ll have Gwilt inappropriately playing on giants like Cox and Nic Nat. But again, taking opportunities going forward and in front of goal, as it has been a number of times since the start of last season, remains at the heart of why St Kilda hasn’t won more games under Swat.

TDL was well on his way My Whipping Boy status, but after I’d (mostly) stopped sulking about the world/being a Saints fan I feel that he competed well overall. There was a patch in the second and third quarters in which I thought we were again seeing yet another Saint join the Robert Eddy Club, as a player to dominate in the VFL but flounder at senior level. I’d totally written him off when he missed his set-shot shot in the second (I jumped the gun and said, “He’s kicking for his career”), and then there were a few instances in the third when I got really whingey about him: a ball to a pack twenty metres out in front of goal landed on the ground with him effectively stationary behind his man two metres away, rather than running past front and centre; he muffed a chance with Saad as the side was streaming towards a pretty open 50-metre arc, although the kick to him by Joey (correct me if I’m wrong) slowed him down a little; and then from outside the arc he went to a two-on-one in the pocket when My Favourite Hair in the AFL was one-out in the square with 30 metres directly in front to lead into. Roo had a real crack at him for it, too, so I felt like I got my point across to him.

But he took a couple of nice marks, kicked a good goal, and worked hard in attack and further up the ground to get his possessions, and was rewarded with being one of the post-match interview guys for the website, which he looks absolutely stoked with. He certainly earned his spot for the Melbourne game in a fortnight more so than Saad, who now has three kicks, seven handballs and one goal to his name over the past two matches. Ahmed’s goal in the third right before the siren – to get one back for the two the Eagles had kicked in the first half – was genuinely classy, but his highlights have simply been too rare in recent weeks.

Milne might do a 2012 and get going after a slow start (although it’s taken him half a season this time; last year it was a month); either way he’s going to be selected for the foreseeable future after five goals, and goals at important times too. The three small forwards thing hasn’t quite worked as well as it did last year, however, and with rumours running around forums that Terry wants to go home perhaps it’s time to try just the Tip Rat and TDL as the smalls, with Dunell and My Favourite Player Arryn Siposs spending more time in attack too. Siposs was pretty good Sandy on Saturday so might earn a recall. I could say, like others, that it might be time for Webster to have a rest but everyone is having the week off next week.

Dunell finished with 12 disposals but some of them were pretty good, and really should be retained in the side. Like Newnes, a couple of easy marks slipped through his hands but he seemed to recover well enough. After last year’s promising displays I think we were surprised it took him this long to get a game at senior level and he justified his recall. For now it looks like he’ll be a more versatile, half-decent version of Charlie Gardiner and Charlie Gardiner II, Ryan Gamble.

I hope Josh Saunders is kept in as well. He only played in the last quarter but he didn’t look out of place, and was more than happy to take the game on when it was at its most tense. He got things moving to set up Milne in a play that showed exactly what he was recruited for; the fact that he’s willing to put that on the line this early in his career can only be a good thing. Lenny just said on Fox Footy’s pre-match today that he’ll be back for the Melbourne game after the bye, and assuming that’s indeed the case that’s one automatic inclusion which will need an exclusion. I don’t think Saunders will be taken straight out after playing one quarter, and Ross and Newnes will have had a week off with the bye and their form warrants them being kept in the side. Perhaps it’s CJ to make away again? He really did scrap hard last night, but he again proved himself as a comical disposer of the ball. My favourite part was when he took the free kick for out on the full, and then kicked it out on the full.

Armo and Jack Steven both played pretty good games, and had 21 tackles between them. They probably dipped in and out of the game a little – Armo had nine tackles to half-time and finished with only three more – but it was certainly a step in the right direction for both of them. This is the age in which they should be nearing their peaks. I think they’ve shown us glimpses of their best, so the improvement will come in sustaining those periods. If they can do that, we can feel a lot more comfortable about the midfield going forward.

Joey’s night was ruined by his rubbish miss late in the game. Senior guys have a really important role to play at the club in this time and for someone like him to faff about when given that opportunity was really disappointing. We might not have been in that position if wasn’t for his hard work throughout the game, however. Likewise Dal, who played easily one of his best games of the year. I feel like talk about his contract and whether or not he’ll stay or go is a little overrated. The contract says if he’s fit, then 2014 at the Saints is on, pretty simply. There might be some weird clause as we saw with Ross the ex-Boss that no-one’s mentioned but last night becomes his average performance he’s more than worth having around at the club.

But the positives from this one will have to be the younger guys and the way they went about things. This four points lost isn’t going to earn us anything, really (well, if anything it means Pick #3 in the draft is looking good). They played a style of game that looks like a really solid, effective style to be brought up on. It didn’t stop me from hitting the chair next to me (fortunately empty) after the game as the West Coast song was blaring and the Saints fans were thinking about where the umpires’ cars were parked. As we saw last night, younger sides will wear as the quarters go and as the games go, and we’ll get teased a bit by their performances. You don’t get instant reward from gains like these, but we hope these times are justified over the coming years.