*Heaps of symbolism*

By Tom Briglia

Round 1, 2017
St Kilda 6.2, 7.8, 9.9, 13.12 (90)
Melbourne 2.3, 9.4, 15.7, 18.12 (120)
Crowd: 36,249 at Etihad Stadium, Saturday, March 25th at 4.35pm

In short: it’s one game and there are other rounds and seasons. In long: Here is way too much ranting, featuring probably way too much symbolism.

Ok, so.

How did you feel late on the Saturday night of Round 1, 2004?

If you’re a St Kilda supporter and old enough to have been aware of what was going on, then the answer was probably “pretty fucking great”.

The Saints had trounced the Cats in the far more valuable sequel to the Wizard Cup Final a fortnight earlier, and had stamped themselves as the most fashionable new team with the brightest future in the league. After a few lean development years – with the 1997 Grand Final ensuring the hallmarks of the Saints were retained going into the new millennium – the St Kilda Football Club looked set to be transformed by one of the most exciting and damaging collection of players in the league. The future looked good, and it looked endless.

We look back now and note (and feel, of course) that the Cats added three premierships to their cabinet since and have only dipped out of the top eight twice. Meanwhile, we continue to build the mythology around 1966, and theoretically the club is only now barely coming out of the rebuild following the heartbreaks of the GT and Ross Lyon eras.

It’s worth noting that the idea of the Geelong-St Kilda rivalry seems to have been mostly shed by Geelong and its fans. They moved onto bigger and better things. The notion still exists for us, but mostly as a representation of what never was. The 2004 meetings in particular between the teams promised both a long-term rivalry between two burgeoning juggernauts, and the likely ending of two long premiership droughts. The 2009 Grand Final appeared written to deliver both the epic showdown that had been promised for so many years – it certainly did, and was a fitting end to the decade – and given what had transpired during the season, that second element also: a premiership for St Kilda to go with Geelong’s own drought-breaker two years before.

When the Saints turned the 2010 finals series on its head over Geelong in the 2nd Qualifying Final, it put the Cats on a collision course with the Magpies in a Preliminary Final. Their comprehensive loss and the departure of Mark Thompson looked certain to bring what was already an incredible era for their club to a close. Somehow, they backed the whole thing up and won a third premiership in five years, as we endured a painful, cold come down from coming so close over a long time – don’t discount the added wear and tear of 2004, 2005 and 2008 (not to mention the 2006 ride and its fallout). It was apparent that everyone from the fans through to the players had been heavily scarred.

Geelong’s story was ultimately written with a key but much reduced role from St Kilda compared to what was in the initial drafts of the script. Sydney ended their 72-year drought as the rivalry built; for the young St Kilda team that has been put together over the past several years the Bulldogs have delivered in similar time after 62 years (both the longest droughts in the game at the time). Melbourne has emerged as the Geelong rival equivalent to the team put together featuring Riewoldt, Hayes, Ball, Dal Santo, Koschitzke, et al. Again, two founding teams with similar premiership droughts, except the pairing of 1963 and 1966 is now 1964 and 1966.

In the time since that opening round of 2004, those Melbourne and St Kilda waits have become the longest in the game. Sydney, the Cats and the Bulldogs all had longer droughts at that point; all have saluted since. It’s worth mentioning alone for anyone who cares about historical coincidences and miscellany, but this is all an important reminder for the fall-out of Saturday evening.

I’m sitting here running through this shoddy exercise because we now know that we will see My Favourite Hair in the AFL take the field again. It wasn’t until after we’d left our new seats on Level 2 well after the siren that I checked Twitter for any updates that I found the first pieces of positive news starting to filter out of the club. Until that point we’d sweated in the humidity, been wowed briefly before being systematically overwhelmed, and then finally crushed when Riewoldt went down. Otherwise this would be mostly be a hastily cobbled requiem for not just the career of arguably the best Saint, but an era in itself.

Instead, it’s firmly about the future. The Geelong comparison matters when trying to process what the hell happened after quarter time on Saturday. I’m not saying there will be a period of time in the near future in which we’ll win three premierships in five years and watch Melbourne flounder. Likewise, I’m not saying Melbourne will miss out in the way we did over the last 13 seasons.

Of course, there was a huge build-up to this one, an opening match between the two most fashionable new kids with the brightest futures with what appeared to be clear demarcation points in their narratives – Melbourne with a new coach and about to step into the finals; St Kilda improving with a coach that had grown with them and about to step in the finals.

The fact that we hadn’t lost to Melbourne since the 2006 2nd Elimination Final – a very dirty night for us for a lot of reasons – is only an anomaly and one that will be quickly forgotten. It didn’t mean we won a premiership in that time, nor was it the reason Melbourne and its fans suffered so much in that decade. Their win right now symbolically says plenty and at this point in time might enhance a pending rivalry, but it isn’t what it will be ultimately remembered for (should that rivalry indeed emerge). What does Round 1, 2004 mean for Geelong fans? They wouldn’t particularly remember it, nor care for it if they did.

If we’re good enough then the players will learn from it and be better for it, and it will be a small step in much, much bigger journey. I joke that I have Melbourne and us pencilled in for the 2019 Grand Final, but for now that’s all it amounts to. There are no facts in the future.

***

What caused the turnaround after the first break? I was sweating profusely from the comfort of our level two seats; I have no idea how the players were feeling. But Melbourne ran out the three quarters incredibly well, all the more considering Joel Smith (as far as I know, no relation to Joel Smith) had his game ended in the first quarter, leaving the Dees a player short for the bulk of the match. To put it succinctly, it seemed there was simply little movement from our players after quarter time both with and without the ball; Richo’s post-match description of the players as “reactionary” is probably a more accurate way of putting it. But why did it happen? Surely you don’t train all pre-season and give the JLT a good shake to just run out of gas 40 minutes into Round 1? We were underdone for Round 1 last year and still managed to play 85 minutes of good footy interstate.

The midfield was smashed – Max had it all over Man’s Best Friend host Tom Hickey at the throw-ups courtesy of Adele, and Melbourne’s mids racked up ridiculous numbers as they worked in numbers together around just about every contest. Even when Hickey won a hit-out the Melbourne mids were first at the fall. In fact it took the otherwise-unseen Seb Ross in the final quarter to actually win a decent hit-out against Max from a stoppage, and from there the Dees still ran away with it and kicked a goal. Their pressure was good when we had the ball, their run and spread was good when they had it, at stoppages and in open play.

Hickey was a shadow of the player that found the ball 29 times in the final practice match, and a shadow of the ruckman that had been one of the few to handle Max decently in the past couple of years. Hickey wasn’t the only one in that category, and Max just might have taken another massive step in his career, but you can only write that kind of thing off so many times.

Melbourne’s approach in expanding their midfield numbers with their high draft picks is looking like it will pay off handsomely. Never mind Viney and Stretch being handy father-son picks; the input of Oliver, Lewis, Vince, Brayshaw, Petracca, Neal-Bullen, Jetta and Salem reflected shrewd drafting and recruiting. Steven needs someone else to breakaway from traffic, Steele had a good debut, Armitage might have peaked, Ross was nowhere, Dunstan likewise. It would have been nice to see Billings and Gresham at more stoppages, but Billings’ game in particular suffered once we were shut down in close.

Petracca got to enjoy a couple of goals (including one immediately after Riewoldt was taken off) and found the ball 23 touches, and his celebration in the third quarter of his goal was the first roar in this conflict proper. The comparisons between him and Paddy will be endless – do 21-possession, three-goal games from Hogan influence the debate at all? For all the rumours Petracca’s character issues had him fall behind Paddy, we might be waiting a longer to be feeling OK about our Billings/Bont and and Paddy/Petracca draft choices in successive years. The 2001 selection in hindsight is enough to make any Saint go the big vom, and not enough people are aware we chose McEvoy at number nine with Dangerfield going 10 in 2007.

Paddy was a late out this time; rumoured to be a hamstring. Richo described it as hamstring “awareness”, and introduced the “fit to play”/”fit to perform” debate into more public footy lexicon. Last year Paddy was a late withdrawal for our first game against the Dees as well all felt spooked by the debut of Petracca, and the inclusion Membrey kicked five. Acres won a Rising Star nomination with 28 touches and two goals, but Membrey’s disappeared since the first few minutes of the JLT series and Blacres apparently can’t hit targets and so suited up in the black, yellow and blue alongside Paddy yesterday. Lonie was the in for Paddy; obviously they wanted some pressure but Jesus Christ I don’t know if Lonie realistically passes the disposal accuracy test. He’s still somewhere between Milne and the worst of Schneider – tries to do a lot, has a wayward left foot when the goals beckon. He needs to spend more time with Gresham, who with three goals was one of our best. His solo effort from the Gresham pocket (with a cameo from Membrey) was all class and composure, something that was severely lacking for the balance of the match.

As for the draft concern in Billings, his race with the Bont is over. Marcus has already won a best and fairest in a premiership season. The external pressure and comparisons are over. Billings is now left to do what he was drafted to do and in the Corporate Name Community Series appeared to have stepped up, and he kicked a brilliant long-range goal to open our game and season’s account. As I said before, his game appeared to be reliant on the rest of the team’s, and he was drafted specifically because he is creative, not to compliment our inside mids in the event that they’re winning their battle against the opposition’s. Until Melbourne turned things around, he was very busy across the ground, but that’s not enough. Hindsight is the proverbial USC eyesight reference value, but we could have had Bontempelli and Petracca. If I’m going to listen to myself though, Billings hasn’t turned 22 and Paddy hasn’t turned 21.

Richo will be facing his own tests in the coming weeks, probably for the first time in his career. A trip to Perth will quickly shift the players’ focus over to rectifying whatever the hell it was that went on after they got on a plane last year. No Riewoldt for a week or two (after all that – lol), Paddy should come in after three goals in the first half as the Zebras coasted through a practice match against Port Melbourne; Rowan Marshall kicked five and My Future Favourite Player Josh Battle four but for varying reasons don’t expect to see them any time soon. Sinclair found the ball 27 times in three quarters and looks an obvious replacement for one of Wright or Lonie, although Lonie led our tackle count with six. Wright is more hardened than the other smaller forward-half players but did fark all and I feel as though the others (Lonie included) have a higher ceiling than he does.

Carlisle and Brown look cute wearing 2 and 22 respectively and watching them work together to cover off players when Melbourne’s mids charged forward again showed they’re already building an understanding. There’s obviously work to be done individually and from the perspective of settling into the team, and Dempster might well be required given the task at hand against the Eagles, but just give them a second. I’d also hope we’re in a position to not have to select players based on the likelihood of our mids getting towelled again. Both Brown and Wright had knocks to the head so there might be an easy reasoning to take them out for next week.

We got a small taste of games actually meaning something in the back half of last year, but this time we’re starting fresh and (almost) anything can happen. To strip away the symbolism this result may well bode as very important come the end of season, with both us and the Dees expected to be jostling for a top eight spot. The build-up to the game certainly was a welcome reminder of what it means to partake in a relevant game of Australian Rules football. Riewoldt’s four goals in the absence of Paddy and effective games from Bruce and Membrey was a stark reminder of how important he still is for us. We really felt we had to confront a post-Nick Riewoldt world for a time on Saturday, and I don’t think we were quite ready. Certainly not at the moment. Geary opened his captaincy by dropping a clean mark on his own. He got a bit of the ball but I’m not sure exactly what he did; although I’m not sure what anyone did really apart from a few.

Assuming we are actually stepping up from last year, I didn’t know if I was ready for us to be good again. But I won’t hold my breath. The 2010 Replay was seven years ago now, which is the same distance that 2004 is from 1997. But I really don’t think anyone was or should have been expecting a 2004 leap, despite us finishing on top of the JLT series ladder and going in against our up and coming rivals in Round 1 (to throw in a final 2004 comparison). It was an incredibly deflating experience being at the game, but now that Riewoldt is OK how do we feel? A lot happens in footy, and we can always read too much into it.

  • Harry

    Hi Tom. Thanks for the hugely entertaining and insightful match report; I love the nostalgia and symbolism and it is all there for all to see.

    I did not get to see the game, but the performance was very deflating. Not so much that the Saints were beaten, but the apparent one-sidedness of the contest. What is puzzling is how did we only manage to lose by 30 points. The Champion data said it all, 11 Demons scored 90 points or above against only 2 Saints (one of whom was the great man himself – Saint Nick). It is fairly clear that the Demons best 22 is much more talented than that of the Saints, so StK has to make up the difference is other areas and this appears to have let them down on Saturday.

    So a character building Round 2 in WA lies ahead. It may be too much to expect a victory, but a confidence building performance is a must to lead the team into Round 3 and the Lions.

  • Campbell

    Incredibly frustrating.

    For all the conjecture regarding our performance and lack of effort, I’m most annoyed at our inability to convert in the second. They were always going to come hard in the second, had we kicked straight, we’d have lead by a few goals going into half time imo.

    Our lack of polish and class is accentuated against more skilful teams. It’s a grave concern and will need to be addressed by the recruitment team if we’re going to do damage in September.

    I’m concerned about Brown. Lacked intensity and commitment in a number of aerial contests. Goddard’s development is paramount going forward