The bad new days

By Tom Briglia

Round 18, 2013
Geelong Cats 4.1, 12.5., 16.9, 21.11 (137)
St Kilda 4.1, 5.1, 5.5, 5.6 (36)
Crowd: 27,200 at Kardinia Park, Saturday, 27 July

As they say in the classics, eleven years is a long time in footy. The last time St Kilda lost by over 100 points I was just a pimply 13-going-on-14 year-old, and the Saints had only won one premiership. Now, I’m just a pimply 25 year-old, and the Saints have only won one premiership. Hmm.

How fitting it is that it’s the Cats – and at their fortress, no less – that bookended that run. They represent the other extreme of what could have been for what shaped up as the great rivalry of the aughts. They won three premierships, we finished with none. They transformed their home ground, we’ve moved to Seaford to train for some reason. They’re contending for another premiership this year, we’ve won three games.

Playing at Geelong in itself is a sign that you’re either an interstate club or a lowly Victorian club. “Lowly” in the sense of either on the field or off the field, and we’ve been decent enough and attracting big enough crowds for the best part of a decade to warrant the Cats playing their homes games against us in Melbourne. Not so anymore, and it certainly wasn’t a point of contention for anyone when the game was scheduled. We’re officially back in the lower bracket alongside Melbourne, North, and the Bulldogs.

Although the game was scheduled to be played underneath the new lights, and on a Saturday night to be drowned in BT’s spittle as the Channel 7 broadcast game, it really did feel like a mediocre Saints team was being shipped off down the Princes to be out of the way of everyone’s Saturday night.

As it turns out, so they freaking should have been. Watters described it as “a challenge that could define us” during the week, and he was right to be bullish about it after a really encouraging second half against Port the previous weekend. That said, I would have preferred a Freo-style burnout as opposed to a strong finish that was enabled by a rubbish, soft effort in the first half.

I guess we kind of got that, but it effectively only lasted one quarter and Geelong scored the last 15 goals. Maybe there’s something in the psychology of the side, or this is something to expect from the kids particularly anyway, but we also got belted the last time we went down by under a goal to an interstate club with a novelty song. Maybe they still had “TOP, TOP, TOP” ringing in their ears.

We all would have been feeling pretty keen about the news during the week that the club was looking to extend Swat’s contract by a year. I certainly was, and to be honest, I’m not sure if Saturday night changed my mind. I don’t think it should change anyone’s mind, either. Ideally, this won’t happen too many more times over the next year or two, but that’s footy sometimes. He’s been a dealt a list full of holes and we have to accept that much and look forward from it, no matter how close we came to a premiership. Bad luck for us.

Staying at home to watch the game now looks like a good move. I wasn’t expecting too much from the game (although I wasn’t expecting it to be that bad). I’d been out at the Gasometer all day for Sequence Festival, which was a really good way to not think about the game in the lead up to it, and came home in time for the pre-match with a single pack from Pappa’s Fish & Chips as pre-emptive comfort food.

A couple of friends were over for dinner and drinks but they stayed over at the kitchen table for most of the game. The game wasn’t very competitive (let alone heated) at any point so any yelling would have seemed gratuitous, not to mention freaking annoying for my friends who were chatting away. But once Pat and Jack came over at three-quarter time to watch the final quarter I’d well and truly cracked the Ahmed Saads and decided to let go a little. Bad luck for whoever was still in the kitchen.

It’s hard to give this game a “report” or “review” because all you need to know is that after quarter-time the Cats monstered the Saints. They played their narrow ground to perfection, using the corridor at will and making space in the forward line for the Tomahawk and J-Pod to lead into. When the Saints had the ball in defence they totally shut down any possible avenues of getting out, forcing a lot of long, low-percentage kicks wide to contests which were forced over the boundary or came back the other way.

We got to a couple of small leads in the first quarter on the back of some really good running and spreading, and having numbers around the ball and further afield in space so there weren’t any of those useless long bombs that became chic throughout the rest of the match.

Some good things happened involving the younger guys in the first quarter, although these were rightfully buried by the wreck of the last three quarters. Head put in a great effort going back with the ball with the J-Pod coming through the other way, Tom Lee kicked our first two goals, Webster was comfortable with the ball to a fault, Saunders took on his opponent coming off a busy centre half-back and Newnes had seven touches.

It was going to take a huge effort to win this game, because even with Joey kicking a great long-range goal, Jack Steven having 12 touches and CJ actually showing poise, there were already signs the Cats had answers ready if needed. The Tomahawk was looking ominous with no actual full-back to take him, and he ended up kicking three in the second quarter, and the typical class of the Cats meant there was plenty more from where whatever decent stuff came from. Vardy put on a wonderful hit out to Selwood from a centre bounce, who then pantsed Farren, and Mackie easily mopped up a poor Geary clearance from deep in defence and kicked a goal. It should be described as arrogance to do that, but that’s just the Cats doing what they usually do.

Things turned to absolute custard pretty quickly in the second quarter. At the time, My Favourite Hair in the AFL’s second goal looked like a legitimate spark to potentially get the Saints back in the game, but in hindsight it’s simply a thing that bemusingly went right. It turned out to be the last goal of the night for us – at the 16 minute-mark of the second quarter.

By then, the Cats had their press in place, and the Saints looked totally lost going forward. No numbers to run with or spread, so it was rubbish long balls to nothing for all. The margin started blowing out, so BT tried to get people excited when the Tomahawk got on to the end of one and described him as “STRONG, STIFF AND BIG”. It would have worked for Cats supporters given what they were seeing, but I wasn’t having any of it, instead taking a whingey sip of my white on the couch by myself.

Not even Motlop making a nuisance of himself could heat things up a little for the Saints. They probably had the warmth of the change room in mind already (one half too early) and of all people Head decided to be the peacemaker and offer Motlop a hand up after he and Geary went to ground and shortened the odds of a bit of biff.

Party tricks started early when the margin had crept out and J-Pod took possibly the mark of the year. Maybe we’d get a better idea of how high he actually got if Channel 7 stopped farking zooming in too much at every opportunity. Fox (2009, between Fox Footy incarnations) denied us a full vision of Brett Burton’s mark, which could be one of the best ever taken, but we’ll never know because they were too busy zooming in on his shoulder. He could have been anywhere, really.

All of a sudden it had turned into a repeat of last week’s first half, and I was finding myself involved in a reasonable conversation on Twitter about using BIG RHYS BANDWAGON as trade bait. He spent most of the game in defence and only finished with a few touches, and I’m not sure if he was floating around or what but he was on the J-Pod at one point, and clearly railing him to the ball on a couple of occasions, including to that mark.

Swat said post-match that Rhys would ideally be playing forward, and given he’s contracted for another two seasons he’s going nowhere anytime soon. Assuming a key defender is found in the trade period, it also means he’s got plenty of time to practice his wares in what’s considered his more natural position. Either way, he was lucky to be brought back into the side after being dropped and I don’t think at least a week or two at Sandy would do him harm at the moment. But even with Roberton coming back Gwilt might be out, so there might actually be a need for a bigger body down back.

My Favourite Player Arryn Siposs came in this week but finished with the same rather meagre stats as Big Rhys – four kicks, two handballs. Lamb kicked two behinds as well, playing off both attacking and defensive flanks, and if he’d kicked goals from both shots we’d say be saying it wasn’t a bad return overall. It was a hard night for everyone and I think we should keep him in, although like Big Rhys there’s every chance we’ll see him playing much of next week without a focused role. It looks like that’s just part of the plan for his development for the time being.

The new bandwagon that I’m shamelessly on is the TOM LEE BANDWAGON. He didn’t do too much after kicking those first two goals, but he was barely any opportunities from that point. If Roo doesn’t get up it will be interesting to see how goes again without him in the side; he kicked three against the Dockers the last time. I dare say he enjoyed the open spaces at Perth’s Corporate Name Stadium, but he really hits the contest hard and has a really nice kick on him, which can be really handy weapons, and kicked 3.3 at Melbourne’s Corporate Name Stadium the week after anyway.

One thing that a younger guy did in the last three quarters that I did like was Head’s reaction to Jimmy Webster giving away the 50-metre penalty to the Tomahawk in the centre square. Head was on that mark and when the umpire told him it was 50 he put his face in his hands and showed genuine disappointment and frustration. There was something comforting in that; I think there have been some wins and some losses this year particularly that have got some of the younger guys attached the club. I say I enjoyed this “comfort” as I sat on my arse doing nothing with another white in hand.

The 2018 (Or 2019) Premiership Captain favourite is firming as Jack Newnes. He continued his upward development curve, finishing with 24 touches and working hard off a half-back that was under enormous pressure. He’s still getting things together with his disposal and decision making but he’s only showing improvement. Can’t fault his attack on the ball and is the current leader of the Hardarse Triumvirate, although he’s got some really promising company in that.

Although they were a little quiet, Saunders did some good things, as I mentioned above, and Webster already looks happy to be in possession and not crapping his shorts when confronted with traffic, and I hope they’re kept for next week. Hickey likewise; he ended with 16 hit-outs although didn’t do much else.

Not sure about Curren though. He played more than a half of footy for one kick and a handball. He put in a couple of really good efforts low soon after he came on, but there’s guys like Ross and Ledger (and a smokey in Shenton) who have put together some good performances in the VFL and deserve a call-up – not to mention Adam Schneider. Lenny will probably be out too so there might be an opening for a couple.

Just on the topic of the younger guys, I was thinking during the week – has anyone heard the words “Youth Academy” mentioned in 2013 by any Saints coach? Or was that just a 2012 NEW ERA buzzword and nothing’s actually changed in the development ranks since last season? The development methods have obviously changed in Swat’s time, but is there officially a “Youth Academy” still?

Jack Steven was the best Saint on the night. I think it might have snuck up on us as well a little but it he really is up there nearly every week now. Even on a poor night for the side he racked up 36 touches, and he also recognised the need to get things moving and take the game and his opponent on so many times. This has become the year in which he becomes a genuinely effective, consistent player, but I’ll call it official once the season is over.

Some of the senior guys really gave him a chop out, too. Lenny (pre-injury), Joey particularly, and Dal all got plenty of the ball. Does anyone work as hard as CJ? I’m not sure about his prospects for 2014 and I know he’s only worth so much to the team given his age but I’ve changed my attitude towards him as the year’s gone on.

For those of us watching the game on 7, I think we only heard so much about Big Ben because BT likes saying BIG BOY MCEVOY so much. He did end up with 21 hit-outs but Vardy had a much bigger presence around the ground. Hopefully just another who was suffering a team-wide footy lethargy. You can afford young teams those once in a while, I guess? But only a few, and I think people need to start putting on hold their “Big Ben is the next captain” fantasies for the time being. He’s still probably clubhouse leader, but he’s not ready for 2014.

Just to really give us the arse, last night ran down through the lists of both clubs, too, with Sandy leading the Cats at quarter-time today before losing by 117 points. The Cats kicked 17.13 in the second half to 2.3. Strangely, there were probably more encouraging performances in that loss – Ross, Ledger, Shenton and Schneider, by all reports, got plenty of the ball and worked hard.

Joey said on 7 yesterday that this was the first 100-point loss he’d played in; he had only just come to the club for that last one in 2002, which was Dal’s first game. The second half was St Kilda’s first goalless half since Round 16 of 1996, on a Friday night at the MCG against premiers-to-be North Melbourne, which was the same night of the Opening Ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics. We’ve played in four Grand Finals since that night. Imagine telling a Saints fan leaving that game that statistic, and telling them that none of those would end in premierships. What if something similar applies to us, here in 2013?

It’s a slippery slope, that mindset. They are Geelong, the greatest team of all, and what are we? We’re still the club that has won one premiership. Being afforded the core of a great list for a decade couldn’t net that second premiership, and even managing the transition from that right era now looks like more of a cock-up than what others have done. Never mind, that cock-up is mostly the fault of the last guy in charge, and right now he’s looking a really good chance of winning a premiership with the competition’s novelty club.

Games like these are merely checkpoints for entering further into this new era. Ross the ex-Boss’s departure was the end, Swat’s appointment was the beginning, and these are just moments we will now need to go through given the situation he inherited. It’s not all bad – for all the pessimism we rightly hold this indeed might be the era that brings us that second premiership. But, perhaps in a case of bad timing, I’ve been reading through Strength Through Loyalty, which is littered with what could have beens. If only the club had more money; if only the administration had looked a little further down the track; if only the club had been more professional on the training track. For so many years in recent history I could read quotes and quips about the club like those, and then reasonably think and hope that a premiership, rectifying all those mistakes, might not be too far off.

For now, that’s not the case. The idea of feeling at ease feels very far off, to the point where thinking about a St Kilda premiership is irrelevant. It’s more a cause for pain of what has been and what could have been, rather than hope for what might be. I do still think these kids are worth persevering with, and I like to think Scott Watters is the man. In time.

  • Richard Lee

    Nice report, mate! Did a good job of rounding up such a load of slop.

    Sat night was stats heaven for any budding Saints historians.

    “We all would have been feeling pretty keen about the news during the week that the club was looking to extend Swat’s contract by a year.”
    – Rightly, or wrongly, or whateverly, some fans were actually a bit miffed at this decision to be honest. Smurf was already contracted for next year, and I doubt the GWS(AFL) or Suns were sniffing around ready to offer him bucketloads for some cushy job.

    “It’s a slippery slope, that mindset.”
    – I really wonder at the mindset of the group at the minute. Pre-game, Armo did a pre-game warm up interview (which is something iffy in itself?) with CH7 and he said something along the lines of “[like the Freo game] we are just going to go out and see how long we can compete for”. It was a very shrug-the-shoulders sort approach to the game, and it makes me iffy about what can be gotten out of the next few games before seasons end.

  • Tom Briglia

    Now, I must admit I actually saw that Armo interview over my fish & chips and totally forgot about it. I had the exact same reaction as you did – very underwhelming. I was going to say, where does that leave the guys in the middle bracket – in the sense that the senior guys have their role of leading the younger guys, and the youngers guys are playing for their development, but in a team that has won three games where does that leave Armo, Jack, Big Ben, Gwilt, etc.? Then I realised Jack was our best player and had 36 touches and Armo should just play like a Number 9 pick anyway. And who was responsible in the first place for bringing in that mindset? I know that’s going to make up at least part of the approach whilst this side as this make-up but surely there’s more to it than lasting for one quarter of footy?

    I think the club was looking more to have him in for another year to alleviate the pressure on him next in what shapes as a really important development for a lot players and the club itself. But I wonder if we’ll hear anything about it this week.

  • Richard Lee

    Unfortunately our most prominent leaders on sat night were down for the count, so that obviously makes things that bit tougher. But that said, I’ve been peeved at times this year that there’s been an air of ‘meh. We’re young.’ at times this year.

    And it’s hard not to take a close look at our attitude at the minute when you see how the Bullies have been hunting the opposition in the last month in particular. Wowee.

    Do you see Milne playing the rest of the season?

  • Harry

    A very enjoyable and on the mark review Tom. A few comments.

    While recognizing the fact that we are highly exposed down back due to a lack of height and the injuries during the game, it was still a very disappointing effort. Significantly added to in my view by some very ordinary coaching. First, its very hard to score if you don’t have a forward structure because everyone is down back. Geelong was gifted 2 to 3 spare men across half back who just gathered everything that came up and ran it back through the corridor at will. Time and again we saw Saint players take possession, look up and see no one there so they just had to double back or try to go sidewards. Second, with the Saints being badly beaten with everyone down back, why didn’t the Saints change to man on man. This would have at least given the younger players some development opportunities. I would like SWAT to tell us how the players got any development out of his game plan for the evening. Third, the Saints continue with a game play that they have had for most of the year; that is “hug-the-boundary”. It seems that the corridor is off-limits to the Saints. Of course hugging the boundary makes it much easier for opposition defenders and for the Saints forwards (when we have any).

    The four small forwards – Milne, Saad, Milera and D-Lane – very disappointing. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

    Isn’t great that footy is “one week at a time”.

  • Richard Lee

    @Harry

    The disappointing seasons of the small forwards has been one of the big drop-offs from last season. You can *excuse* Saad and Milera to a degree – second year blues. At this point in time, I don’t see any point in playing Milne. He had an assist on saturday night and that was his contribution for the evening. Of course, he deserves a send off game. But then so does Jason Blake.

    Granted, the forwards didn’t get much of a look in after quarter-time. Roo was floating down into the back 50 by midway through the 2nd quarter.

    I hope the forwards took in some of the Hawks/Bombers game on Friday night – Hawthorns ability to pressure Essendon in defence and get the ball back off of them was excellent.