And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad

By Tom Briglia

Round 3, 2014
West Coast Eagles 3.2, 5.4, 8.8, 12.11 (83)
St Kilda 1.5, 6.6, 7.8, 8.10 (58)
Crowd: 36,448 at Patersons Stadium, Saturday, April 5th at 4.40pm WST

Basically I feel like the mood is as if we’ve all taken some Lovan.

Actually, in my case I’ve taken some Oxynorm due to some follow-up surgery stitches, but I think I’d be feeling the same anyway after Saturday night’s positivity-laden loss.

Indeed it had plenty – Luke Dunstan was there doing Luke Dunstan stuff, Eli too, Jack Newnes – and it’s left us with an optimistic spin on things, but it’s also just brought us back to earth gently. The dizzying heights of two wins to open the season have given way to humbler ambitions for now, but as supporters they’re ambitions we feel we can take on with optimism.

In all honesty I went into the weekend expecting to have the floor mopped with us. Yes, we’d won two games from two, but they were against the two teams that finished below us on the ladder last year. West Coast had won two, yes, and against two sides that not many people rated, But they’d smacked them both, including Melbourne, who they beat by 76 points more than we’d beaten them one week previous.

The “House of Pain” is also a thing again, and the punters wielded their ridiculously bloated influence on how people perceive upcoming sports events and had the Saints beyond $13 for the win.

They were right in the end, but as Rich said shortly after the game, this was arguably St Kilda’s best performance of the year. For most of the game they were able to harass, break down and take on an opponent all of a sudden rated in the top handful of the competition.

It started slowly. In fact, I barely got to Rich’s Richmond RWB Headquarters for the bounce, fresh from the night before’s surgery and undersetimating the length from Bridge Road to his apartment. But that was ok, he and Tamar were to welcome me and pizza was there shortly after. It was the kind of game I thought I’d need several-plus beers for, but I had to settle for Coke.

Shuey quickly had two shots at goal against Tom Curren though, and the Coke was seeming a little weak. But slowly they turned the screws around the ground even on the vast expanses of Subiaco/Corporate Name Stadium space was becoming a premium. Geary’s chase on Le Cras was a feature, reprising the pressure he put on Coniglio late in the previous week’s match near goal.

It was apparent pretty quickly that the execution of the footy wasn’t up to scratch, and it was a theme that would run throughout the match and prove costly later on. CJ battled wilfully yet again, but twice going forward in the first quarter butchered good chances.

Two early subs threatened to throw things around for both sides – the luckless pair in Glibert and Le Cras – but as expected the Eagles’ big mean were the most threatening. The Saints couldn’t close the deal going forward and in very St Kilda-playing-interstate fashion the Eagles managed to work their way to Kennedy up the other end. Soon after some more hard work to get things forward came undone, and Darling was allowed to get around two Saints, hoisting it high for Savage to harmlessly float past the contest with his arms vaguely in the air and Sinclair taking the mark in front of goal.

I didn’t even see Gilbert before the shot of him injured on the bench came up. The club’s come out and said it’s severe bruising and soreness, so crucially nothing structural, but then crucially he’s out for 4-6 weeks anyway.

I have reservations about using words like “phenomenal” to describe Dunstan’s game. Of course he played a great game, and in context you could deservedly throw in a whole bunch of stronger adjectives – after all this is this the best start to a young Saint’s career since…Dean Greig? Brett Knowles? Although those were probably limited to debut games. But “phenomenal” is when a Jimmy Bartel or Steve Johnson kicks three or four goals to with 20-plus possessions in a game in a premiership year. The good news is, Dunstan can’t have done too much more at this point in his career to demonstrate he’ll be as valuable to us as guys like that in the future.

The thing I took most out of the quarter time break, aside from more pizza, was that John Worsfold’s daughter has one of the fantastic modern “yellow peril” replicas. Surely West Coast have the biggest waste of potential when it comes to footy jumper designs. They’ve had great designs in the past which they’ve improved on now, such as the “traditional” away jumper, (notwithstanding the sidepanel details), but their home jumper is absolute custard. One half of the jumper is navy (dark), the other half is yellow/white (light). The useless panels on the back, the inexplicable presence of the white panel on the front…awful. Their training jumpers have long been much worthier of being the clash jumper as opposed to the token white effort.

So it’s hard to outright classify the game as “frustrating” given the context, but there were a number of frustrating moments even through the second quarter, which is where the Saints took some control of the game. BIG RHYS BANDWAGON actually wasn’t too bad, but he undid a lot of good work to slow the Eagles right down and have them static behind the centre circle. A wayward kick went straight to him but he dropped the simple mark, and the Eagles were lucky enough to take it away and end up with a shot at goal.

It took a really good Jimmy Webster effort to foil Kennedy but then once the Saints actually got things forward themselves Curren missed Eli, and whilst Rhys put in two good efforts to lead and mark Maister couldn’t get into the right position closer to goal and there was no one down to help out. Soon after Geary took the intercept mark that Rhys should have taken several minutes before and set up Roo, but Roo’s walk-in was poor and he shanked it. Maister followed it up by again not being able to get into position close to goal to be on the end of a good Savage entry. But things changed soon after that.

Regardless, I think Maister’s had enough chances at AFL level this season in which no one would entirely begrudge the coaching staff for dropping him for at least a week. He’s only kicked one goal from three games, although his primary role is to mostly lead further up from goal, and create either a link or goal kicking option that way. I think the conundrum here (already well acknowledged) is that he works admirably hard to provide that option and get to contests, but he simply won’t mark what he needs to. If anything it feels like the percentage quota he comes into the games with has decreased since last year. Given I don’t think there’s too much improvement left in him, ultimately the selectors will have to say to themselves – ok, do we want someone who we know will get to these contests and provide these options, but won’t take many marks is running at one goal every three games; or, after the weekend, do we give BIG TOMMY LEE a crack? (And the have to say “Big Tommy Lee” in capitals.)

Tom Lee has been given the excuse by the coaches for his quiet VFL form  in the past few weeks that he was behind in the pre-season, and he delivered on the promise that better was coming. Four goals in the VFL isn’t anything to sneeze at, despite some people talking it down in some unnamed forums. I’m not sure what else you want him to do? Ok, you know what? We’re taking the four goals off him. They’re gone. Now what do you want?

It was overshadowed only by Jack Billings’ last quarter theatrics and Jason Holmes’ comical attempt at a kick. I think for the first time since he joined the club CJ isn’t the most unreliable disposer of the ball. There’s a big chance Big Tommy isn’t even physically ready yet, but if he is then it’s worth finding out right now just how much he has in his tank (which has its own questions), how many marks he can hold, and how damaging he can be in front of goal.

There may or may not be an extra dimension to this. It’s BIG RHYS BANDWAGON, and in the last couple of weeks he’s started taking a few more stronger marks around the flanks and providing a valuable link. Without trying to complicate things even more for a hypothetical, even his role is linked somewhat to the ruck stocks of the day, but if he’s able to provide that link more often and more reliably – particularly if you can back in more contested situations – on top of Hickey more effectively floating floating, then Tommy Lee’s underdone tank for now might not be such an issue. He might also be able to impact on the scoreboard a little more.

Naturally, it was My Favourite Hair in the AFL that really sparked St Kilda’s move. Two goals in succession from a really strong mark and then to finish a nice passage featuring Rhys presenting high, and some great delivery from Eli. We’re all getting our rocks off with Eli’s actions in and around goal but his delivery to Roo several times this season has been great, and certain improvement on what he’s been used to for probably most of two of the past three seasons.

Eli was involved in the handball string with CJ that saw Dunstan creeping out the back, which was pleasing because in just his third game he knew exactly where to run probably when Eli got the ball, because by the time CJ found him he was well and truly on his way to goal.

Roo then began a counterattack that finished with Rhys making us all work harder as supporters than necessary and giving to Joey, who finished calmly from the pocket. My Favourite Hair had pushed well up the ground and drifted into the wide shot as the Eagles tried being patient, but he was in the right spot in the right time when they turned it over and he got things moving the other way.

The Eagles replied with Darling taking a huge mark at the top of the square. It became more noticeable as the second half wore on, but the Eagles’ talls allowed them to kick long and high into space or even to a contest in a dangerous spot and there would be Kennedy on the lead or Darling taking a grab. The Saints had to be incredibly precise if there were numbers back, and with Mackenzie wearing Roo like a glove guys like Joey and Dunstan were required to step up and take responsibility for hitting the scoreboard also. The great thing was that they did – Joey’s goal late in the second ensured we would go into the main break in front and that West Coast would lose their first quarter for the season – but more guys were needed to do the same and we only ended up with eight goals by the final siren.

Cruelly, it was Eli who gave us all the biggest hope of all of winning the game, before stalling the momentum by missing an easy goal just 15 metres out to widen the gap to three goals. His goal, however, was a set shot in the pocket and was quality.

Strangely, the goals effectively dried up from that point, just a few minutes into the second half. Dunstan (probably going early but I’m already tempted to add a, “Who else?”) was able to settle and kick an important set shot in the final quarter, but Eli’s miss was followed immediately by an arsey Priddis snap and it was the beginning of the end. I’m certainly not blaming Eli for throwing away potentially match-winning momentum, but if anything I’m highlighting because there simply weren’t enough petrol tickets to begin with. The GWS game a week earlier was a pretty tough affair, and the trip to Perth with a lot of inexperienced guys was going to be a heavy load to carry. And so it was.

The last quarter was rather joyless. The pressure was still there but had dropped, Jamie Cripps was kicking goals FFS, and things almost seemed to reach a point of damage control after having gone into the quarter only a goal down. It wasn’t a true highlight but the fact that the tired Saints kept the Eagles to “only” four goals in the quarter was encouraging in itself.

There are a few things to take out of this game. The loss itself wasn’t overly surprising given the context of where the teams were at heading into the weekend, but certainly for me the positives were much more pronounced than I thought they’d be.

Losing by 25 points was a head start; as I mentioned I gave us no chance whatsoever in the lead up. I’m certainly a cynic, but I’ve enjoyed getting on board the Richo/Eli/Dunstan bandwagon like nothing else in the past few weeks. And what the hell, throw Jack Newnes into there as well for some reason.

But it was the way they went about things, and it went right across the team. As Richo and anyone given media duties has said over the summer and the past couple of months, the focus was to be a competitive team that was tough to play against. And that’s exactly what they’ve done in the past few weeks. Obviously the skill set isn’t there yet and simply won’t be for another year or two at least, but we’ve now seen them bring a really strong style of play and mindset to a game against a more widely fancies side and it’s held up much better nearly everyone thought it would. Watters spoke a lot of big, positive words and I really liked that. I really do think that’s what he wanted this club to become (I’m referring to his “juggernaut” comment) and he wanted to do all the right things to make it happen. But come 2013 there was a disconnect between his words and what the team did on the field and what the team were gearing up to do that season. Yes, he came at an awkward time in terms of scheduling a plan for the short-to-medium term, but Richo is completely on message and has the players doing likewise both on and off the field.

The personnel having an effect is the obvious next point to mention. My Favourite Hair in the AFL is doing all sorts of great things, Armo looks like he’s taken at least half a step up so far this year, Joey’s been really solid, Farren’s close to his great 2009 form. and CJ, for all his faults, is one of the best examples in application on the field and on the training track. Dunstan, Saunders, Newnes, Hickey, Eli, Wright and others are all having varied effects on the game itself but it feels now that there presence has been positive for the team and themselves.

A quick mention to old mate Jamie Cripps: it increasingly looks like he won’t develop into too much more than a quick crumbing forward. Pick 24 in the draft – seriously, what the fark were they thinking? Throw Sam Crocker (such a failed project he doesn’t have his own Wikipedia page) and Tom Ledger on top of that from the 2010 draft. It really is amazing how bad the Ross Lyon-era draft recruiting was – as a supporter it genuinely upsets me how pathetic indeed the recruiters were in that time. As for Cripps, I’m not sure if the Eagles thought they’d get the speedy running back-flanker that we thought, but they certainly didn’t give up pick 24 for him, and that’s after he’d had two years of development. It does say a lot about what a traditionally strong team thought about our first round pick in a Grand Final year – a bit-player worth effectively a third-rounder.

As mentioned before, the weekend’s result was buoyed by the VFL performances of Billings and Lee, with a number of other guys across the ground putting in strong performances. Bruce, Simpkin, Ross, Milera (yes, he still exists); hell, even Jason Holmes looked good in the ruck and finished with 32 hit-outs. All of a sudden, there’s a little more structure to the place.

St Kilda won’t go in as favourites on Sunday, even though after two wins and a promising, honourable loss (there, I said it), they face an Adelaide Crows outfit that hasn’t won a game from three starts. I don’t think it’s just yet time to start declaring us certainties and looking down on the Crows as easybeats/also-rans/etc. Once everyone’s form settles we’re more than likely still going to be at the wrong end of the ladder (that’s ok, drafts are exciting in these eras). But this week I’m trying to make the most of being having reason look forward with some enthusiasm.

  • Richard Lee

    I’m surprised you were so generous in your categorisation of Jamie Cripps – “quick crumbing forward”. He’s a guy who when he says “he was just lucky to get on the end of a few” should actually have his words taken literally. He’s very good at running forward at the right time and getting meaningless Fox Sports highlights time.

    Tom…you know who we could’ve got at the 2010 draft instead of Jamie Cripps? Jack Darling! He was taken at pick #26. Boy, was he good on the weekend again.

    Granted, it’s unfair to pick apart drafts in hindsight but it does really make you think of what the hell was happening recruiting wise at the club for a number of years – even pre-Ross Lyon era.

    Another thing that has really stood out compared to last year is how much the younger guys seemed to have settled into roles/positions. At times last year it just felt like guys were thrown forward/back/left/right/ruck and weren’t given much of a chance to settle.

    Saunders has settled into that Mini McQualter role; Webster and Wright are making the half-back line their own; Newnes is stepping into the midfield nicely. The most obvious example though is Big Rhys. He’s seemingly on the up, albeit at a slowish pace and just seems to know what he’s got to do out there for once – he’s getting to the right spots.