Succumb to the grind

By Richard Lee

To date, the most positive thing about the St Kilda Football Club’s 2017 has been that Hawthorn has yet to register a win. (If the National Draft were to be held tomorrow we would have the first pick). Fair to say that when the final siren rung throughout Corporate Stadium, that the overriding emotion was one of relief.

If I had succumbed to my rational self, I would have realised that the season is a marathon. 0-2? No problem. Premierships aren’t won in March/April. And so on, and so forth.

And yet, the prevailing feeling as I swanned down the damp Southern Cross station / Etihad / End of Bourke St bridge and witnessed the masses, was that this game was do-or-die as far as finals aspirations were concerned.

Lose, against the lowly Lions, and a 0-3 ledger suddenly opens the floodgates for supporters’ frustration to drench the airwaves and for the media’s cross hairs to lineup Richo – as well as the wider football department at the Club. Further, I genuinely believe that a lot of this angst had seeped into the psyche of the playing group too, particularly after they laid an egg in front of goal in Perth with the Eagles on the ropes.

Early doors on Sunday and it seemed like that inefficiency in front of the big sticks was again going to be a big factor. We had a monopoly on possession and field position; pinning the Lions in their back 60m for several minutes at a time, but time and again there was a lack of confidence and precision in the final kick.

This got to a tipping point midway through the second term, when Dunstan and Membrey both missed from 20 meters or so out – Skunk missed another from point-blank in the third too. The sighs through the stadium were palpable, and predictably, the Lions found some life on the back of this and had the momentum going into the main change.

Membrey actually still had a good game, as he did last week in Perth, but when you don’t get it done on the scoreboard everything falls by the way side. With the game being so physically demanding, so relentless, it’s near impossible to dominate a game from go to woe. And this makes those misses when you’re on top more deflating than ever.

Defensively everything was humming along nicely. Roberton, Carlisle, and Webster were busting a gut stiffen up the side’s last lines of defence, and Nathan Brown is still doing a good Sam Fisher impersonation. The midfield was working hard, and driving us forward at a constant rate – even if their disposal was sloppy. In short, the cogs in Richo’s machine were ticking over but on the scoreboard the door was well and truly still ajar.

So much of the hot air coming out of Richo’s mouth pre-Round 1 was about the team having double-down on it’s team defense. And when you see us control the territorial battle like we did for the first quarter; and when Tom Hickey is sticking tackles like there’s no tomorrow, you can’t help but rally behind it. Newcomer Jack Steele has really bought into that too – he had 9 tackles, to go with 18 disposals and a goal.

It’s the ball use and the poise; the polish and the nous around 50, the line-breaking from tight congested areas, which is what separates the good teams from the great ones though. Kicking 23 behinds isn’t going to cut the mustard against most teams.

From the small sample size of 2017 though, the idea that this is our bag is gaining traction in my mind. Sadly.

(Arguably) our best two players on the weekend were 34 and 33 years of age respectively. One running at half rat-power, one consistently trying to hit the Etihad roof with his kicking. (More on them later). Gilbert and Geary seem like cemented fixtures in the line up – neither gives the team anything with the ball in hand. Ross and Dunstan seem like the only two left footers on earth to not be able to hit the side of a barn with a drop punt. Even our 3-time B&F winner is a reasonable kick, at best.

There’s an overdose on grit, grind and blue-collar workmanship.

And while this sort of lineup continues to be selected, maybe Saints fans just have to embrace the grind. Maybe the coaching staff already have.

***

As much as round 3 is a time to be philosophical ahead of making bold statements about our season, there are some harsh realities that are becoming too prominent to let slide.

Like I already mentioned, Montagna were named as our best two players. Roo was great – more on that later – but, the fact these two are often in our best, even at 50-something years old, is more an indictment on the rest of the crop than it is an underscore of how good they themselves are, even in their twilight. Too much is still left to them, and it’s damn worrisome.

Another sore point at the moment, is where the The New Breed is at right now. None of them have been convincing. Billings has almost established himself as a Mr February guy – this being when his form peaks. Dunstan just doesn’t show enough or do enough for a guy who now has 56 games under his belt. To be generous his ceiling is that of a run-of-the-mill, blue collar midfielder. Acres is a Jekyll and hyde proposition right now; his highs are high but his clangers and timidity still are a fixture.

To be completely fair, Acres and McCartin have delivering more than enough flashes of brilliance to keep the wolves at bay. And when you’ve only chalked up less than 30 games in your career (19 in Paddy’s case), it’s mainly about than it is about iron-clad four quarter performances. Blacres has 28 to his name and nearly half of those would have been as a sub. On Sunday, his first quarter goal helped get us going, and he had at least two assists aside from that. Watch that space.

We’ve all seen how the likes of Ross (who was again omnipresent on Sunday), Hickey, and Bruce have come to the fore over the last year – those three have all just gone past the 60 game mark individually. With 45 games under his belt now, people are going to expect Hotline Billings to start to heat up and turn that corner. What Richo does with Billings through the course of this year is going to be a really intriguing subplot, because clearly Jack’s confidence is at a new low.

Like I told my Dad in the aftermath of the game: wins at this point in the year are almost worth 8 points. The fact that we now have our first win under the belt means we can at least shake that monkey off of our back. They say that good teams need to be able to win when they don’t play very well. The problem is that we can’t be sure we’re actually a good team, but we’ve still shown that we can take it up to teams – even if it is in a more gritty style than maybe everyone was hoping for.

Bits & Bobs

– Carlisle has quietly improved with every game so far this year.
– One of Dunstan’s faux trademarks in his relatively young career to date has been to snag a goal even if the rest of his game is off. He failed on that front on Sunday when he missed a gimee in the second term.
– Tom Hickey has to be the teams most efficient tackler right now. When he tackles they stayed tackled.
– Lonie followed up his solid showing in Perth, with a typically ineffective outing. The Dome should suit him, but he doesn’t seem to play that well there.

  • Campbell

    Nice one Richard.

    We’re a better team with Minchington as the pressing forward, he’s quicker, a better tackler and clean in front of goal. As you’ve mentioned, Lonie’s inherited Schnieders inability to convert.

    Hopefully we see Long soon for an injection of genuine leg speed and I think I’d like to see Brandon White or Bailey Rice for Gilbert…. We need some better ball users through the back half.

  • http://www.redwhiteandblack.com.au Richard Lee

    Thanks Campbell.

    Yeah, we’re pretty flush for options when it comes to flankers. Rice seemed pretty prominent last weekend.

    Aside from Savage (who has never fully convinced) we’ve not put a big emphasis on foot skills in the back half.

    What makes it a bit more confounding is how fast we played in the first JLT. That was Dare to the nth degree.