We need to talk irrationally about Holmes, Savage, et al.

By Tom Briglia

Round 21, 2015
St Kilda 5.4, 8.7, 11.9, 14.13 (97)
Geelong Cats 5.1, 9.2, 13.4, 15.7 (97)
Crowd: 25,245 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, August 22nd at 7.20pm

Any close game, and more so a draw, will inevitably have everyone taking out their science starter kit microscopes with the bacteria images already printed onto the slides and declaring how either side got dicked because of one or two easily digestible scapegoats.

So let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way, namely Shane Savage. In Lonie’s absence he did his best Schneider impression and frittered away a chance to put us up by 10 points well into time-on, and then put us in front by five points with 14 seconds left from close range – this depressingly St Kilda-like repeat offending, eerily similar to Schneider’s efforts late in Round 5 against the Bombers.

The difference was, it was Savage that was responsible for the already infamous Stevie J tackle as the latter was waltzing into an open goal, headchecked to the left but gave nothing to the right sideview. Was he changing to the left? He could afford himself a smile as he got up afterwards though, because he’s played in three premierships, and one of them was against us. And what did he do just a couple of minutes after that? He snapped a brilliant goal on his left from the pocket. (He also kicked a goal from the just on the goal line in the third quarter into the goal umpire’s face.)

The Cats I feel have flown under the radar as a difficult team for us historically (I’m talking beyond the last 10-15 years). Until perhaps the early 90s signalled the earliest of a changing club at Moorabbin, it was the VFL overall win-loss records we had against teams like Carlton, Collingwood and Essendon that demonstrated everyone liked to comprehensively beat up on us.

Even that 1991 tilt ended with a seven-point loss to the Cats, and in the 95th season marked just the second time we had ever played them in a final. Appropriately last night finished at 97-97. Thanks to Wayne Carey and Ken McIntyre’s final 8 system for clowns, it’s been lost to history that in 1997 it was only percentage that separated ourselves at the top of the ladder from Geelong, and they had beaten us comfortably at the Cattery during the year.

Not much needs to be said about the rivalry of the aughts between the two clubs, other than to say last night was the first St Kilda home match against the Cats at Etihad Stadium since Round 14, 2009, when the two teams ran out onto the ground each at 13-0. Scores were level until Michael Gardiner’s huge mark and goal with just over a minute left, but in the Grand Final it would be one goal the difference the other way when the siren sounded (and before Max Rooke added further icing). For a few minutes early in time-on in the second quarter last night the scoreboard showed 7.7 to 7.1, the half-time score of 2009 decider.

The Saints actually beat the Cats twice in 2010, and the Qualifying Final was the first time the Saints had beaten them in a final. Motlop’s disallowed goal was in a remarkably similar spot and at a crucial time compared with that of Ling’s in the final minute of that match, after Mooney had landed in Gwilt’s back. Which brings us into the umpiring decisions that both sides will feel cruelled them. Chris Scott was whinging about the Motlop decision but conveniently neglected to mention Gregson running a casual 100 metres over the mark when Mav had the ball just outside 50 in the last minute. Then you can say well, lucky the siren went with J Murdoch running towards goal to signal three-quarter time. But then, Sav should have kicked those goals late. But he did save that goal – one great moment in one his better games – as Stevie J was walking in. Although maybe Newnes and Ross didn’t kick their shots earlier whilst their defenders Taylor and Mackie did. And you could also talk about Jack Steven’s involvement in a couple of chains that led to Geelong kicking goals. Or Luke Dunstan just totally not kicking the ball on the goal line.

All of that in itself should show that this is the kind of game that rewards doing the rights things en masse throughout a match rather than an arsey moment or two. Whilst this game wasn’t the pick of the weekend there were so many remarkable moments to stew over, to rue, to – pun intended – draw on.

Undeniably the focus coming into the game was on Jason Holmes, or as too many people kept calling him last night, “Johnny” (yes, we get it). Jason has had plenty of media time over the past couple of years – let alone the huge attention on the college comps that he was a part of  – but you’ve come a long way when you’re the guy being interviewed by Cameron Ling post-match after two hours of BT yelling and Darc sort-of-but-not-really nailing the right tone of voice for a play-by-play commentator.

You’ve also come a long when you’re an ex-college basketballer with a brother playing in the NFL and you’re fronting a media conference in Seaford with whichever journos could be arsed making the trip. The fact that he said “I’d love to have a crack at that” suggests he’s embraced the experience, and the fact that he said he’s working on his “craft” suggests he’s coached by Alan Richardson.

At least it was beyond speculation this time. This time he knew it was real, that he’d be playing this weekend. That this wasn’t a windy oval next to the beach, this was the real deal, to be broadcast probably on ESPN17 along with competitions based entirely on the Dodgeball and Baseketball films, and perhaps some highlights this week on sports discussion shows with guys who have never heard of the sport.

It’s not quite the same level as Matthew Lappin playing for the Gold Coast reserves yesterday, but if you were told at the start of last year that he’d be playing AFL footy in 2015 then you’d surely have thought the season had turned to such shit any feel-good story was a non-negotiable.

Not long after Sanford Wheeler was toiling away in Sydney during the Swans’ darker years, the AFL produced this ad with international sporting identities talking up Aussie Rules (and the short, etc.). Holmes’ debut seems to have bridged that gap in a big way. The Irish influx has edged us towards the mentality that we’re after anyone and everyone now – although that standards for Australian athletes-before-footballers are now highly benchmarked by Mark Blicavs.

The support acts indeed were the return of opposing ruckman Nathan Vardy (and him working in tandem with Blicavs, with Stanley out for the season) and Geelong looking bolster their finals chances. In the end J Holmes and Stevie J, for obviously wildly different reasons, were amongst the bigger stories

Holmes looked like he’d aerobically blown up through the second quarter, after his second centre bounce leap particularly had everyone just about jumping out of their seats and rushing onto the ground to shake his hand. His lead on the wing and mark was greeted by something louder than if Savage had have kicked either of his shots in the last minutes, as was the resulting kick. His tackle on Guthrie was huge and it was his follow-up work in the centre bounce led to Hickey’s goal in the third quarter.

But he got caught out around the ground a number of times. Vardy ran him ragged off the ball and a couple of times got to a dangerous position near goal. At one point in the second quarter Holmes was left to pick up Stevie J at high half-forward – something which shouldn’t have happened and wasn’t his fault – and Stevie J was able to run forward by himself as the Cats went into attack but the ball didn’t fall his way. This was just after Holmes had gone the tap behind from a throw-in to Roo who didn’t break stride (but kicked it out on the full). But that short period alone would have been very instructive.

Richo said after the game that we’d kicked 9.2 to 2.1 from stoppages, alluding to Holmes’ presence being the reason why we were so dominant in the hit-outs and stoppages overall. Holmes finished with 34 hit-outs out of 54 for the Saints, with the Cats getting 32. Fair to say the quality of the some of the tap-outs was superior to those of Longer and Hickey. But whilst Longer has increased his presence across the ground through the year and Hickey has done some really good things up forward (including last night), Holmes for now has very little presence around the ground. Two things; neither did Billy most weeks until mid-season, and secondly Holmes was essentially learning the game itself from scratch at VFL level, with the step up essentially another short course in learning the game. Given he hadn’t played the sport two years ago it’s more than reasonable to back him to improve quite a lot from here.

We’re probably clearing out a whole bunch of S’s at year’s end – Spencer, Saad, Schneider, Siposs, Saunders, Smarkworth and Smurdoch – so it was good timing for Minchington who’s has been hovering around being condemned to a life of ex-AFL player playing VFL tease hell. I still don’t know how guys like TDL and Jones go playing VFL with guys their teammates still involved so closely with the club that turfed them so recently. But I’m also not a professional footballer. Minch kicked the first two goals and set the tone for a game of speed and space – two things we’ve certainly struggled with in the past several weeks in the forward half. He finished with a career-best three goals in just his ninth game, and a further drilling down into his career numbers would show he’s kicked a goal in every game he’s played. The knock on him is that he doesn’t have enough of an impact away from the scoreboard, and whilst he finished with “only” 10 touches he had five tackles too, which was a step towards having a heavier presence. Lonie and Sinclair are still ahead of him, but going on last night he might turn out to be very handy at least.

My 2nd Favourite Hair in the AFL was the other key forward on the night and by half-time had three goals. It looked like he’d finally come out of his sort-of-slump (goals on the board always mask that kind of thing for a bigger forward), although one of our better rebounds on the night saw him drop the easiest mark of all time. In front of the members he also had the dubious distinction of becoming The Man Who Spoiled Himself, in I assume anticipating an marking effort from his opponent over the top. As we came out of defence with a straightforward pass to him, he was well in the clear but he put a single hand up to ultimately stifle his own phantom marking attempt. His also missed a set shot in the third quarter that was replied to immediately sixfold (i.e. with a goal) by Gregson. Cheers.

It was up to Sam Gilbert of all Australian Rules footballers to pick up the slack in that passage and do what he couldn’t quite finish in the 2010 Grand Finals, and uh, I guess by that measurement didn’t quite finish last night either. But he was still good; probably his best game since that draw? His two goals were both monster set shot kicks that hit heights echoing Kosi’s long range efforts. He also found the ball 21 times and managed to shank only a couple, as well as laying a game-high nine tackles. A bit of time through the middle too and perhaps he’s en route to a changing, more dynamic role. First things first though, he’s got to stay on the park.

Gilbert’s move forward was made possible by Bruce kicking goals (at least in the first half) and My Favourite Hair in the AFL playing across the ground, essentially as a wingman, to good effect. In a young side 22 touches and 10 marks was key in having a solid presence throughout the play, and his contests hard on the boundary to force the ball out twice displayed both his fitness and his nous. He was up forward for periods of course, and he pulled a Spencer White in running himself into the ground and resting by himself 40 metres out waiting for a Joe the Goose. The kick was the kind of flat punt shocker we’ve come accustomed to from him, but this one did vaguely enough.

It also helps when you’ve got Hugh Goddard getting invaluable experience at worst playing mostly on Hawkins. The Cats would have acknowledged him as susceptible, particularly one out when they were on the rebound, but he Hugh did well to keep his head up and keep playing his own game despite being beaten a few times. He was mature and smart enough to run off his man and take the mark in front of the members at a tense point in the game, and won a huge one-one-one in defence late in the game. Sam Fisher played one of his better games this year, too, allowing guys like Gilbert to move around and for the team to be that much more dynamic.

Membrey’s inconsistency continued, as he did what’s become a trademark which is a good start followed by not much else. A really nice set shot was our fourth straight goal to open the game, but shortly after he botched a forward 50 entry by not going to what was effectively a free Tom Hickey near goal; and this after weeks of looking for that kind of option. The pressure was up afterwards to sugarcoat it a little, but Steven got carried away at the next entry and kicked about four metres to Membrey instead of long to a couple of tall options close to goal. Whilst that one wasn’t Membrey’s fault it was mostly downhill for him from there. Paddy was pretty good in the VFL and with Roo maybe or maybe not finding touch up the ground there’s room for a swap there. But when you’re a team full of this kind of inexperience at the end of a long year everything is a maybe or maybe not at best.

Unfortunately Jack Steven decided to step down to that bracket on a couple of telling occasions. In these eras when it comes to close games you’re relying on younger guys who you simply can’t trust in these situations (Shenton, Saunders), because they’re simply not experienced enough (Shenton, Saunders) to understand the pressure (Shenton, Saunders) as well as execute in the circumstances (Shenton, Saunders). All those brackets are harsh on Shenton and Saunders but I don’t know what they were doing at all. Curiously, Shenton ended up in the forward line, and far less curiously Saunders was subbed out of the game after literally not getting a kick. Anyway, Steven’s kick into a Geelong player on the rebound went straight to Hawkins for a goal, and it was his lack of awareness that got him caught late in the game and the ball spilled out for Cockatoo’s goal that put them in front.

So we were still prone as a team to royally turning over opportunities, Steven or not. The scoreboard alone would reflect that, with our 14.13 far more wasteful than their 15.7, not to mention to the fact that at one stage they were 13.3 with all the more scoreboard pressure on us throughout the game.

After several years of being dominated by Geelong, complete with two years of being on the receiving end of smackings at the Cattery – of 101 and 96 points respectively, with nearly identical scorelines – this felt like the first time we’d come out of the shadow created by the lost opportunity on Grand Final Day in 2009. This was a result engineered by a young team showing development and playing an effective style of footy. That the Cats were playing merely for a finals berth also heightened that, as opposed to the top two and top three finishes of the last two years.

But through all of that Stevie J was smiling after being run down in the goal mouth because he could; Geelong so completely and crushingly won what over a decade ago promised to be the next great rivalry. Again, last night the Cats proved just too hard to move. This game was all about the future, but it also held a few reminders.

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  • Harry

    Agree that the war of words between Thommo and Bomber in those early 2000’s as to who had the best list unfortunately did not work out in the Saints favour. Unfortunately, Geelong got the monkey off their back in 2007 so from then on they could afford to be flexible and creative in managing their list. The situation may have changed for St K also had we been able to get rid of our monkey in 2009. But alas.

    What I am most interested in this week is to see if the Saints can follow up with another very good performance against better opposition. We were not able to do this in Round 15 against GWS after the Essendon win. A 10 goal loss to the Swans would be deflating.

    It would also be great to see a strong follow up performance from Seb Ross.