Penultimate Candy Stripe Jumper #2 Match Review

By Tom Briglia

Round 20, 2016
Carlton 1.2, 3.5, 6.7, 7.9 (51)
St Kilda 4.3, 10.5, 14.6, 19.8 (122)  
Crowd: 37,797 at the MCG, Sunday, August 7th at 1.10pm

Welcome to the final period of the home and away season, in which the sun begins to shine with a little more purpose, the conversation and daydreaming during the week starts to drift away from your own team a little and your best chances for anything happening at a meaningful time from well into September is “mathematical”.

Whilst the Kangaroos lost the previous night the Bulldogs, the realistic damage had been done the previous weekend, and perhaps more pointedly, the first time we met them in letting them get out to a comfortable lead, leaving too much to do in the final charge.

There’s nothing quite like a sunny afternoon at the MCG with two Victorian sides playing (and it’s perfect example of why there shouldn’t be a roof at any footy ground). Whereas our first date there this year was a brilliant early season win with a lot of exciting input from Billings, Dunstan, Steven, et al. this time was more about the season itself moving to its natural end around us; the sun shines a little more brightly but ultimately it’s for others. We begin to be reflective of our own side’s season, perhaps with a glimmer of an eye to the future, but as we also begin to look forward to finals time. It’s not our time just yet, rather we sit back and take in the history made by others.

On Sunday the pressure was mostly off. Everything was nice and relaxed, perhaps more social outing than attendance-at-a-footy-match-that-means-something vibe, but when it happens at this stage of the season you’re watching the ghosts of the hopes we had for the year, and it’s more of a celebratory tour for what has been a largely positive season that, to date, bodes well for the future.

Incredibly, it was my first time at the footy with my uncle, dad’s brother Simon, who represents the Carlton sliver of our family tree. Like so many Italian migrants a century ago, the Briglias settled in Carlton and the Blues became my ancestors’ club of choice. It was my grandpa, living near the Junction Oval as a small boy, who began the St Kilda chapter of the family’s history, with Simon only one of his six children to follow the Blues. Despite my grandfather’s brother being the Carlton club chaplain for a long period and his uncle Bill being the Carlton club doctor, and the consistent access to the Carlton clubrooms that my aunts and uncles had, it was just Simon that stayed with them.

He’s the kind of opposition supporter that you can easily watch your teams play against each other with. I’ve always found it a good character guide – objectivity, humour, and reasonableness will rise above boorish, boring, overgrown-boy tendencies. Simon is laid-back, has a great sense of humour and overall has the better qualities of people in spades so having him there made the day very enjoyable.

But more important than family, than heritage, than humanity: it was our penultimate match in the Candy Stripe #2. The King is (almost) dead, long live the King – no doubt a hot-cross bun style jumper that will either look like two different jumpers on the front and the back or have just a bit too much going on will be introduced next year in its place. I’ll reserve my whinge for this for a different, even less-read post than this, but watching it in the sunshine at the MCG…shit, it’s a great fuckin’ jumper.

The day before had seen Paddy kick five as he settled back into match fitness at VFL level and Shenton kick six. Yes, that’s correct. Shenton kicked six. Goals. Even when he was playing ok footy in the seniors for a wooden spoon team two years ago Matt Finnis’s comment on SEN about “unearthing a Shenton” still seemed overs. He’s kicked multiple goals a few times this year as he’s spent more time in the forward half – including one of the best VFL goals you’ll see out at Casey the week – and has also kicked Alex Kidd-style small bags of behinds to go with it all. Finally, it all clicked and he’s kicked six. Expect Paddy to come straight back in next week, to be reunited with Bruce, Membrey and My Favourite Hair in the AFL in a line-up we didn’t think would work together earlier this year but quickly found out was much more beneficial than we thought. In the distance, in the way you see the planes lining up to come into a land, another set of lights has appeared and it’s either cheeky trade bait or a reprisal of the problem we thought we had earlier this year.

Well, he was named as an emergency this week and surely deserves a call up alongside Paddy. There’s been a few question marks over Josh Bruce, and I know Richo said it’s great how he competes until the end but I don’t know how much merit there is in scoring cheap goals in junk time of games that were lost long ago; perhaps like Armo in recent weeks the coach is simply going into bat after their players. However, after today you might have to be shuffling the dynamic of the team a little – Dunstan will have to go out with a shoulder and Eminem slightly hurt his back (Minchington had little of the ball but laid 10 tackles) – and how do you keep out a guy who’s been consistently impressive in the VFL and then kicks six goals? The only template for that so far is Eli, but Shenton offers a little more versatility. Bruce certainly won’t be going out – it was about time he beat up on weaker opposition and he did that, with the trademark late goals included, but it’s the spark in whatever form it took that he’s (we’ve) been waiting for.

This game was probably the most relaxed of the season from a St Kilda point of view, and that’s taking into the account the unabashed talk of a finals appearance being nearly muted over the past eight days or so. Really, it was just a nice day out with my dad, my brother, my uncle and Rich, although easier to say that for us St Kilda supporters.

Things started as you’d expect a dead rubber between vaguely competent but ultimately developing teams would – free-flowing but with more than enough errors to abuse to the privilege of having a kind amount of time and space to do whatever the hell it is you want to do with the footy.

About halfway through the quarter though the St Kilda pressure machine was switched on after a week AWOL. In a solid team performance seventeen smothers was probably my favourite stat to come out of it. They’re the kind of thing that can be camouflaged by traffic around rushed kicks but so many of these were clearly the result of aggressive harassment by guys taking responsibility on themselves to quell the opposition, even in one-on-one situations and without the weight of numbers that makes that thing far easier.

Indeed, there were a number of individuals who returned stand-out numbers that bode well for our future – Newnes had 32 touches and nine marks; Membrey five goals; Josh Bruce four and nine marks; Billings two goals, 19 touches and nine marks despite disappearing for a lot of the game; Acres likewise for 23 touches and a goal; Ross found the footy 27 times, and to a lesser extent Roberton 28 to go with a goal, his Mattingley-style haircut having had a Samson-esque effect. But between all of them and Minchington and Eminem – both who got some acclaim from Richo in the post-match – there was no deadwood.

But the best individual stats probably belonged wholly to Jade Gresham – 25 possessions, 6 clearances in the second quarter, 13 contested possessions. Matt was going off early about how this would be Junior Burger’s break-out game, but for all the highlights Gresh has given us so far this year this was his most complete offering.

It also adds something to a the prospects of a midfield that at the start of the year were looking significantly leaner. Seb Ross and was still just some guy, and Gresham hadn’t played a game; Ross is now one of our top few best and most consistent players, and rather than a creative forward-half player Gresham is quickly showing signs of his worth as a midfielder. It’s not a like-for-like but with Dunstan out for the last three matches that would open things up a little for Gresh to spend more time in the middle and closer in at stoppages. His deft movement and balance, on top of his slick decision making and execution (we’ve all seen and talked about that) has given him the X-factor that we’re still waiting to completely emerge from Billings, and perhaps we’ve got that now in the midfield as well as near goal.

You could perhaps add Acres to that, who moved very well through traffic a number of times and has the larger midfield body size we crave after going Junior Burger instead of Bont. He’s not a genuine mid; I see parts of Brendon Goddard and parts of Gary Rohan in his game – decent size, can play anywhere across the ground and can move forward and play as a tall or lead-up option.

That’s all probably a little hard on Billings; he spent a middle stretch of the year injured and his numbers yesterday weren’t bad at all – if you’re going raw data he was probably only a few possessions short of the what we drafted him to deliver week in, week out. He’s started games well since returning, pushing high up the ground to offer avenues forward – something we need from him given his disposal – so perhaps it’s partially an experience and partially a tank issue. Both of those can be rectified.

Jack Steven was tagged out of the game but some further analysis showed it wasn’t all bad, but we were up against a pretty flat team. Gresham is showing a more genuine and damaging midfield pedigree than anyone else on our list this early in their career, but he probably won’t be doing that every week just yet and the guys I just mentioned simply aren’t  midfielders that can turn the game and step up their involvement in the way Stuv can at will. Armo’s almost certainly past his brief peak, Ross just isn’t that kind of player and it’s a 16-gamer who looks most likely to get things moving when someone needs to step up in the engine room.

The classic, arrogant Blues supporter behind us couldn’t stand Matt’s very facetious banter (most of it shared with Simon to begin with) and began having regular cracks at Jack Steven, telling him to get his own ball. Ok, look. Sure, you’re getting hammered by historically the worst team in this game’s history, but out of all the players that have represented the club that has won just one premiership in 143 years, you choose that guy to pick on? Him? Jack Steven? He’s the one?

Yes, it’s definitely a huge tick to the coaching staff that this playing style is a weight-of-numbers, all-in style that doesn’t rely on individual brilliance as the GT era mostly did. But we still to find need that bona fide, A-grade-at-worst, specialist midfielder to help out Jack, Gresh, Seb, et al over the coming years. The jockeying for Hurley’s signature might turn into jockeying for Caleb Marchbank’s if that midfielder presents themselves sometime this year, but we might be happy to hold off and go for the former Saints supporter if that key mid isn’t available just yet.

It’s easy to see a lot of positives – particularly in the forward line – when you win by 71 points but the Blues were clearly cooked after three really good weeks against strong opposition. So let’s run with it anyway because this week against the Swans will probably be a lot different. I’ve gone over Josh Bruce a little already but it’s worth highlighting his nine marks to go with the four sausages. You can look silly if you keep committing yourself to contest after contest in all parts of the ground and don’t hold your marks, and he’s been borderline Maister over the last few weeks but finally things stuck on Sunday and he got some reward on the scoreboard too. There’s no use in that happening at VFL level at this stage – he, his teammates and the coaches just had to make sure it happened in a red, white and black jumper and hopefully he can finish the year with a little uptick in form.

Talking about Tim Membrey is easy enough now because I’m essentially copy-and-pasting the same paragraph – he’s not the tallest player, he’s not the most powerful, and he’s not the quickest, but fuck a duck he’s a smart footballer. He hasn’t been quite as damaging against top sides but that’s literally a part of a lower team on the ladder typically kicking less goals overall against higher-placed teams. Saturday night presents him with a chance to further enhance his credentials, and to redeem himself a little after his quiet performance in the crunch match against North – should the Kangaroos lose on Saturday afternoon then the Swans present that challenge to him. Perhaps Paddy might make his job easier; I hope he does because Roo will probably need to be up the ground taking another 16 marks for us.

We’re gonna need it all firing again on Saturday night either way. We’re playing merely for the chance to sneak into the eight, but the Swans will be playing for top spot, and at the very least a top-two spot with just seven percentage points separating them in second from Geelong in fifth.

Another drink in the Bull Ring post-match with everyone before it was time to walk back to the city on a beautiful Sunday afternoon for a relaxed tram ride home. Should North salute this coming Saturday afternoon expect plenty of Shenton and Holmes action that night, or whoever else might have been named as emergency on the Thursday night. It all counts, bit by bit, towards the future. This year or not, slowly, things are starting to really matter again. The sunshine over the MCG on Sunday represented the better days of looking ahead. 2016 Best Player Votes – Round 20
Tim Membrey – 3
Jack Newnes – 2
Seb Ross – 2
Blake Acres – 1
Leigh Montagna – 1
Dylan Roberton – 1

Jack Steven – 32
Nick Riewoldt – 22
Seb Ross – 21
Tim Membrey – 18
Tom Hickey – 14
Leigh Montagna – 10
Blake Acres – 8
David Armitage – 8
Jack Newnes – 8
Mav Weller – 7
Jade Gresham – 6
Jack Billings – 5
Sam Fisher – 5
Jarryn Geary – 5
Josh Bruce – 4
Sam Gilbert – 4
Dylan Roberton – 4
Shane Savage – 4
Sean Dempster – 2
Paddy McCartin – 2
Luke Delaney – 1
Luke Dunstan – 1
Jack Sinclair – 1